Blackmail is a Dirty Word (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG  (Please be aware adult themes, strong language and violence.)
Word Count:  33,165


Jess Harper, the young, blue eyed, dark haired rancher, was feeling pleased with himself. He was returning from a very successful, early morning hunting trip over in ‘Paradise’, a far-flung corner of the Sherman Ranch and Relay station, where he was a partner in the business with his best buddy, the tall lanky,  blond Slim Sherman.

Although the two men were as different in character as they were in looks, they had a deep and abiding friendship but there had been many trials and tribulations along the way in the forging of the relationship.

Slim was a model upright citizen, the serious-minded one of the two, somewhat old beyond his years, having to bring up his kid brother Andy after their parents early demise. Along with taking all the responsibilities of running the family business, he took life far too seriously sometimes, and had a quiet calm nature.

 Jess was, on the other hand, far more volatile and unpredictable of the two. He had, had a very difficult start to life, having seen most of his family burn to death in a fire set by the Bannister gang at the tender age of just fifteen back on their Texas homestead. Afterwards, Jess had started on a life of drifting and petty crime, learning to live by his wits as he desperately sought the Bannisters for retribution. His lightning-fast reactions and accuracy with a gun had made him a legend, his reputation getting him into many scrapes, but held him in good stead later when he enlisted as a boy solder for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Then, after a spell in a prisoner of war camp, the conflict finally ended and Jess had drifted north before fetching up on the Sherman Ranch where he befriended the Sherman brothers. It took some time before the friendship with Slim was truly forged, as the young cowboy often challenged Slim’s beliefs and way of life. But if those first few years had sometimes been difficult with Jess hell-raising  or taking off on some mad rescue mission helping out old friends, his lively wit and  deep loyalty made up for the bad times, and then  some.

Now Jess was completely happy at the Ranch and Relay — couldn’t consider calling anywhere else home — and as he approached it now, he grinned to himself thinking how pleased the occupants would be with the good-sized deer he had shot.

Andy was now off at college back east, but his place had been filled, to some extent, by young Mike Williams, the little blond boy the friends had adopted after his kin were killed in an Indian raid a few years back.

Once they had Mike in their life, they were in need of a good housekeeper and had been lucky enough to find Mrs. Daisy Cooper, a middle-aged widow who fitted the bill perfectly, treating all three of her ‘young men’ exactly the same, perceptively aware that the two older males were sometimes in as great a need of her mothering and wise ways as the youngest member of the ‘family’.

Now Daisy rushed out of the ranch house, drying her hands on her apron as she came to greet Jess and admire his kill. “Oh my, what a magnificent creature,” she gasped, casting a slightly sad look at the stag.

“Don’t fret, Daisy; there’s plenty more like this old fella up on Paradise. Gee, the place is fair teeming with wildlife. Anyways, I’ll take him in the barn, butcher him for you after breakfast; figure you’ll forget how ‘magnificent’ he was once I’ve gotten him cut into nice oven-sized joints.”

“Oh I expect you’re right. Come along in; breakfast is all ready. You must be starving after such an early start.”

“Sure am,” grinned Jess, “just gotta tend Traveler. I’ll be right there.”

Daisy smiled to herself as she retraced her steps. That boy and his horse; he’d sooner starve  or go thirsty than to see that big old fella suffer, she thought to  herself, knowing that the dark-haired cowboy would thoroughly feed and water his mount before considering his own needs.

As Jess led Traveler to the barn, he met his buddy just coming out.

“Morning, Jess. Have a good time?” asked Slim, smiling indulgently at his friend.

“Sure did; looky here,” Jess replied, proudly displaying the large beast.

Slim gave a low whistle. “That sure is some critter; should see us through the winter once Daisy has salted him down.” He smiled happily.

“Hey, don’t know as how he’ll last that long, Slim; its only September now. Figure I’ll get us another one later in the year. We could fetch back a turkey for Thanksgiving too if we go later; saw loads of them up there today.”

“Good idea,” exclaimed the tall rancher slapping his buddy on the back. “Go get Traveler fixed up; figure breakfast is on,” and the two men went about their business.

Later Jess went about the job of butchering his kill watched by an impressed Mike.

“He sure is big, Jess. How old were you when you leant to shoot?”

Jess paused from his task, his eyes misty as he looked back in time, before turning to look down at the youngster. “I was young, real young…maybe not as old as you are now.”

“Gosh, that young?”

“Yeah, it was kinda a necessity in my household. Growin’ up out on the Panhandle, well, you were a good shot or you starved, least that’s the way it seemed to me.”

“Didn’t your Pa shoot stuff for the table then?”

“Nah,” replied Jess bitterly. “He was too busy workin’ the land on our share farm or spending the money he’d earned down at the saloon. My Ma would be desperate to find somethin’ to fill our bellies — there were five of us kids, you know, Mike. That takes some feeding. I was second oldest boy, so it were down to me an’ my brother to feed the family more times than not. Well, that kinda makes you a real good shot, in time, ‘cos you have t0 be…see?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I’m real lucky that you and Slim don’t spend all the money down at the Laramie Saloon, aren’t I?” Mike murmured earnestly.

“Yeah, that’s right, Tiger…least ways, not all of it.”

Mike looked anxious for a moment but then saw that his friend was joshing him. “Aw Jess.” Then, “Yuk, hey it sure is yucky butchering stuff, ain’t it, Jess,” as the cowboy was now gutting the stag.

“Well sure it is, Mike, but a good hunter always butchers his meat for the cook, just like a good fisherman cleans his fish.”

“Um, well, I’d sure sooner gut fish than deer,” answered the youngster with feeling before drifting off.

Jess smiled to himself; the boy was only eight years old — still a little kid really — so he figured he’d wait another few years before he insisted Mike learn the art of butchering.

After a while, Slim wandered in. “You nearly finished this, buddy? We’re going to have to work the north pasture fence before we can even think about bringing the stock down next month…oh and Jack Baily came by, said there’d been another sighting of those wild mustangs up beyond Jigger’s Point. Might be worth taking a look.”

“Hey hang on, Slim, I’m only one man…one pair of hands… I ain’t able to be in two places at once, you know.”

“I’m sorry, buddy, guess we are real pushed right now. Got all the repairs around this place after last week’s storm too.”

“Guess we could use some casual help for a couple of months if we can afford it.”

“Oh we can afford it alright. Just finding the right sort of man. We don’t want any old drifter, not with Daisy and Mike to think of.”

“Hey I was ‘any old drifter’ once,” protested Jess in mock outrage.

“Um I guess I tried real hard not to hire you too — and if it hadn’t been for Andy, I wouldn’t have done,” Slim asserted, grinning over at his friend.

“Yeah see all the fun you’d have missed,” quipped Jess. “You’d still never have chatted up a saloon girl, drunk Red Eye ‘till you spilled your guts up…or held down a reasonable game of poker.”

“Yeah, you’ve widened my education that’s for sure,” laughed Slim.

“So I guess we’d better find someone before we both go loco, what with all this work an’ all…..”

“Yeah, OK Jess, but like I say, it’s got to be the right kind of guy…you know?”

“Sure, sure, but the way I figure it, right now, we’re too darned busy doin’ all the work to have the time to find someone to help us.”

“Um, guess you’re right, buddy, so I’ll go to town sometime soon, see if any of our friends there can suggest anyone.”

*****

Then next time Slim went to town he put the word out that they were looking for some help at the ranch, but he didn’t expect his prayers to be answered as quickly as they were.

It was only a week later that the early morning stage swung into the yard. Old Mose, the driver, grinned down to where the two cowboys had run over to change the teams.

“Gotta passenger for you, Slim. Man says he’s looking for work so Tom from the saloon sent him out here.”

“Well great,” said Slim cheerfully going to open the stagecoach door while Jess set about unhitching the old team.

As Slim opened the door, a very personable young man leapt down, and beaming at Slim, offered his hand. “Mr. Sherman, Marty Jackson at your service. I believe you are looking for some help; I figure I may fit the bill.”

“Slim,” replied the tall rancher returning the smile and firm handshake. “Pleased to meet you, Marty,” then half turning to where Jess was standing with the fresh team, said, “This is my partner, Jess Harper.”

To his surprise, Jess threw the young man a hard look then growled, “Yeah, we’ve met.”

“Jess, Jess you old son of a… Hey, it’s great to see you. I’d heard you were in these parts. It would be just like old times working together if Mr. Sherman, er, Slim here offers me the job”, he added, casting Slim a deferential look, before beaming at his old friend.

“Ain’t no job,” growled Jess looking quite aggressive now, “so you may as well get back up on the stage, Marty.”

“Hang on, Jess, what are you talking about?” declared Slim quickly, casting his buddy a puzzled look.

Jess flushed a little and looked down, but said nothing.

Slim turned back to the sandy-haired young man who was now looking a little less sure of himself. “Why don’t you go on in the house, have a coffee, Marty, while I talk to my partner here,” so Mose and Marty disappeared in search of Miss Daisy’s coffee and pie.

Then Slim turned troubled eyes on his friend. “What are you talking about Jess? Of course there is a job; we’re real desperate, you know that, So what’s it all about? Sounds to me like the man’s an old friend of yours.”

“He ain’t no friend of mine and he ain’t called Jackson either. His names Marty Dakin and last I heard he was wanted for robbery in three states. What’s more, he’s a no good liar.”

“Well you sure think a lot of him,” Slim interjected sarcastically.

“Yeah, well maybe I’ve got good cause. Trust me, Slim, you don’t want any part of the guy.”

“Well let’s at least interview him. I can’t believe he’d fetch up here and stay, seeing that you were around if he’s still a wanted man. People can change you know, buddy,” Slim said pointedly, alluding to Jess’s less than squeaky clean past.

Jess just shook his head, but followed Slim back into the ranch.

 Leaving Mose to enjoy his pie with Daisy in  the kitchen, Slim asked Marty out to the privacy of the porch and  offered him a seat, taking the one beside it himself, while Jess lounged against the porch upright.

“So I’ll get right to the point,” said Slim. “My partner here seems to think your name is Dakin, not Jackson and you’re wanted for robbery. Is that true?”

The man looked from Slim to Jess and back, then. without missing a beat. “Yeah, well, I would have told you both that if I’d had a chance. I was wanted for robbery, but I gave myself up, served my time, got my papers here,” he added, taking them from his wallet and handing them to Slim. Slim checked them, signed by a circuit judge to say the man had served his time and was now a free man.

Then Marty turned to Jess. “Yes, I did change my name; guess there’s no law as says a man can’t do that. I figured that it would be easier to make a fresh start with a new name; you of all people should know how hard that is to do Jess, with your reputation.”

Jess flushed up looking angry. It’s you were talkin’ about, Marty, not me.”

“Well, sure, but after everything that went on in Texas… Well, I kinda figured you’d understand, Jess, all the trouble you’ve seen.”

“Like I said, we’re not talkin’ about me,” barked Jess, now looking really angry.

“So, what experience do you have of ranch work?” asked Slim, trying the clear the air a little.

“Oh plenty of experience. I can rope and round up steers, mend fences, break and shoe horses, some carpentry,  just about turn my hand to anything you need, Slim, be happy to do it. A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay is what I’m offering you. “

Slim turned to his partner. You’ve worked with Marty. Is all this true, Jess?”

The dark haired cowboy looked down then across at his buddy. “Yeah, I guess so,” he confirmed sulkily.

“Well if that’s right… You know we need the help, Jess; I figure we put him on for a week or so, see how it goes huh?” Slim said in a cajoling voice, throwing his friend a persuasive look.

“On your own head be it,” spat Jess before marching off to the barn, his back a study of resentment.

Slim smiled at the young man. “Don’t mind him,” he said kindly. “He’ll come round. Welcome aboard. Let’s go get another coffee and I’ll tell you what needs doing.”

**********

It was much later that evening, with Marty installed in the bunk house having an early night, that the two friends were free to talk the matter over.

They were sitting out on the porch, enjoying a last coffee before turning in when Slim turned to his buddy and asked gently, “So what’s this all about?”

“Huh?”

“Why are you so darn against having Marty here? He seems ideal; got stuck in right away mending the lean-to roof. Made a fine job of it too.”

“I didn’t say he wasn’t a good worker, when he can be bothered, that is,” said Jess sullenly.

“So…what is your problem with him?” asked Slim, beginning to feel impatient.

“I told you, he’s just no good, Slim; you’ll find out.”

“It’s something about your past isn’t it, buddy. He seems to know you real well…maybe a bit too well?”

“What’re you sayin’?”

“I don’t know; you tell me. But there sure is something about the man that’s got you all spooked up, Jess, and I think you’d feel better if you told me.”

“Nothin’ to tell,” said Jess looking furious. He leapt up from his seat and stormed off into the house, slamming the door behind him.

Jess made himself scarce for the rest of the week, taking himself off to work alone mending the fences up on the north pasture, often not returning until after supper, eating the heated-up meal by himself, before going straight to bed, in that way managing to avoid Marty’s company.

However, when Saturday rolled round, Jess got himself spruced up to go to town with Slim for their usual Saturday night out of chatting to the friendly saloon girls, a few drinks, maybe the odd round of poker. However, just before they were about to set off Slim dropped a bomb shell — he had invited Marty to join them.

“What the hell did you do that for?” yelled Jess furiously.

“Hey simmer down, buddy. He’s worked real hard all week; figure he deserves some down time. He doesn’t know anyone in town, so thought I’d introduce him around some.”

“Well you can do what you damn well like, but I don’t have to socialize with him,” and Jess marched off. Then a little later Slim heard Traveler leaving the yard at speed.

Daisy came out of the kitchen where she had been washing up, and turning concerned eyes on the tall rancher said, “What on earth has got into Jess? Why does he dislike Marty so much? He’s a really lovely boy, so well-mannered and thoughtful.”

“Search me, Daisy. It’s a long time since I’ve seen Jess this mad about anything. It’s almost like Marty’s got some kind of hold over him….something to do with his past, I guess, but Jess is refusing to tell me.”

“Oh he’ll come round in time, dear; it’s not like Jess to harbor a grudge. There is probably a girl at the bottom of it all. You know what Jess is like with his lady friends; he can get very jealous. Maybe Marty stole his girl?”

“Um, could be something like that, I suppose. Anyway he’d better snap out of it soon, Daisy, because my patience is getting kind of thin right now.” With that, Slim went in search of Marty, then a little while later the two men rode off companionably together.

Daisy heard Slim and Jess return a little after midnight and was disturbed to hear raised voices emanating from the room they shared. She was about to go and  remonstrate with them, warning that they would wake Mike, when  suddenly all was deathly silent, which she found even more disturbing than the argument.

The following morning, both Marty and Jess were absent for breakfast and Daisy asked Slim to give them a call.

“I figure we’ll just let Marty lie in this morning. There was a bit of a ruckus in the saloon last night between him and Jess…and well, Marty came off worst.”

Daisy looked quite shocked. “Oh dear, you mean they had a fight?”

“Sure did, Daisy; rearranged old Tom’s furniture some. It was touch and go as to whether Mort put them in the cooler for the night, but I managed to talk him out of it. It’s a good job the Sheriff is such a good friend to me …and Jess; anyone else would have had their collar felt for sure.”

“What on earth was it all about?”

“Millie.”

 “Jess’s friend Millie, from the saloon do you mean?”

Millie and Jess went way back; they had been friends for many years. Indeed, Jess often said she was the best female friend he had. The two often went out together if they weren’t dating anyone else. However, they had a very free and open relationship, and if Jess sometimes shared her bed, well, he figured that was nobody’s business but theirs and they were very happy in their relationship.

“Yes that’s right. Well, Marty and I went into the saloon. Jess was there with Millie; she was working   so Marty ordered a beer, got chatting to her, well flirting, I guess, then Jess just went ape, started a fight, threw the first punch,   then really laid into him. Can’t remember when I’ve seen him so mad, Daisy; really frightened me. Don’t know what he’d have done if I hadn’t hauled him off.”

Just then the bedroom door banged open and Jess lurched out looking pale and ill. He had a black-eye and nasty cut to his cheek, but it was the look of fury in his eyes that the other two noticed first.

Jess glared at Slim and said angrily, “You just couldn’t wait to bad mouth me to Daisy, could you, Slim. Tell her how poor innocent little Marty nearly got his lights punched out by that no good Jess Harper.”

“Now hang on a minute, Jess, you’re way out of order. Daisy was concerned about you…we both are”.

“Sure you are,” said Jess sullenly before slumping down in his seat and pouring a coffee.

“Would you like some breakfast dear?”

Jess shook his head then looking the elderly woman in the eye said very softly, “Sorry Daisy, didn’t mean to upset you.”

She reached across and squeezed his shoulder affectionately. “I know there must be something really bad troubling you for you to act this way, Jess, and we’re ready to help, whenever you feel you can tell us.” With that, she withdrew to the kitchen, leaving the two men together.

After a while, Jess looked over at his buddy. “I’m sorry, Slim…it’s just….”

“Just what, Jess?”

“Nothin’.” Jess lapsed into a moody silence, sipping his coffee and looking the picture of dejection.

As it was Sunday morning, the men had some free time after they had done their usual chores around the yard. Once Jess had completed his work, he saddled up Traveler and trotted out of the barn just as Marty was emerging from the bunkhouse.

 The sandy haired young man ran in front of Traveler then waved his arms to stop him. “Hey Jess, wait up”.

“What do you want now?” grunted Jess glaring down from the saddle.

“Just wanted to say sorry, you know…for chatting up your girl, Jess. I didn’t realize who she was.”

“Sure you didn’t,” said Jess in a voice loaded with sarcasm. “you never do, do you, Marty.”

Slim had come over and witnessed the exchange then threw his partner an irritated look. “Come on, Jess, the man’s apologized. You did nearly knock him into next week. Can’t you both forgive and forget?”

Jess looked down at his friend. “Forgive and forget. Why don’t you ask him all about forgivin’ and forgettin’?” he spat. Then shaking his head, he pulled his hat down hard and kicked Traveler out of the yard at a gallop.

After he had gone Slim turned to Marty with a shrewd look in his eyes, “Why am I getting the feeling he’s not talking about last night?” he asked.

Marty just shrugged, staring off at where Jess was fast disappearing in a cloud of dust as Jess kicked his mount on up the rise.

Slim cast his new hired hand another look. “He sure did make a mess of you. Come on in; Miss Daisy will fix you up,” and the two men turned and entered the ranch together.

When Daisy saw the state of the personable young man, she was horror stricken. “Jess really did this to you, just because you were sweet talking little Millie?” she cried in amazement.

“I’m afraid so, Ma’am, but ol’ Jess has always had a kinda fast temper you know. Why back on the panhandle, it got him into one heck of a lot of trouble, it sure did.” Then he seemed to remember who he was talking to and reined back. “Of course that was a long time ago. I’m sure he’s changed now. I imagine he didn’t really mean me any harm.”

“Well I sure wouldn’t like to see the state of you if he had,” muttered Slim darkly, leaving Marty to Daisy’s tender ministrations as she gently began to bathe, then dress his multiple cuts and bruises.

Meanwhile Jess was walking into the Laramie saloon, and as it was still early the place was practically deserted, save for old Tom the barkeep polishing glasses.

Tom raised an eyebrow as his friend marched in declaring firmly, “I hope you haven’t come to create more mayhem, Jess, because I’m not having it. Don’t know what got into you last night, that’s for sure.”

“I’ve come to apologize, Tom, to Millie too…and pay for the damage.”

The older man gave the dark haired rancher a slow smile. “Well, I reckon there wasn’t too much damage, Jess. Sure I forgive you…so long as you don’t make too much of a habit of it. But as to Miss Millie, well I don’t know as how she’s speaking to you right now son.”

Jess looked pained. “Can I go up?”

“Sure, go ahead. It’s her day off, but I’ve heard her moving about so I figure she’s up.”

Jess ran lightly up the stairs and knocked at Millie’s door. Then after a moment, she answered it.

She was dressed in a low cut black negligee, her dark hair was down around her shoulders and Jess thought how desirable she looked.

However the sentiment wasn’t shared by his old friend and she gave him a hard look. “What do you want, Jess? Come for another rant?”

He bowed his head and said softly. “Guess I asked for that.” Then, “Can I come in, Mill? We need to talk.”

She pulled the door open and walked back into the room, leaving him to close it behind him.

He looked around the oh so familiar room with the fire crackling in the grate, a sofa pulled up to it and all Millie’s fripperies dotted about the place, giving it a wonderfully feminine atmosphere. Her huge bed in the corner was covered with a colorful patchwork quilt, adding to the homely feel to her little domain.

He took his hat off and stood looking contrite. “I sure am sorry, Millie. I really didn’t mean to sound off that way. I just saw red when that bastard started pawing you and making suggestive remarks.”

“Oh come on, Jess, you know that’s all part of the job. I’m paid to put up with that sort of rubbish, and anyways it’s never bothered you before, me flirting with the customers.”

“That customer ain’t never been Marty Dakin before,” said Jess heavily.

“Well what does it matter who it is? You don’t own me, you know, Jess. We may go way back, be real close friends — and more, I guess — but you’ve never made me any promises and I guess that’s the way we both want it. So I figure I’m a free agent.”

“You mean you want to see him?” asked Jess. looking aghast.

“No I don’t want to see him. I just want to have the choice,” she finished quietly. Then she looked at the expression in Jess’s eyes and suddenly felt a wave of compassion towards him. “Hey Jess honey, don’t take on so. What is it about this guy that’s got you so worked up?”

Jess just shook his head. “He’s no good, Millie; I just don’t want you getting hurt.”

“From where I’m standing, the only one hurting is you, Jess. Come here,” she finished, her voice suddenly soft and seductive.

He took a pace forwards then tentatively circled her waist with his arms pulling her in towards him.

She looked deeply into his blue eyes, then whispered, “I never could resist that wounded puppy look”, before reaching up and kissing him tenderly.

He kissed her back deeply, pulling her in closer, the kissing getting more passionate before he pulled back a little and  gave  a soft groan,  then kissing her neck, he whispered,” Millie, oh sweetheart, I really am sorry.”

“Hush, it’s Ok.” Then taking his hand, she led him to her big, comfortable bed, and sinking down on it, gently pulled him down beside her.

*****

It was late afternoon when he awoke, the golden rays of late sunlight filtering in through the window. Millie’s head resting on his shoulder as she slept in his warm embrace.

He lay there relaxed and somnolent, feeling a rush of gratitude towards the beautiful woman in his arms for her enduring deep friendship born of understanding and mutual affection, or maybe even love. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing that, of all she meant to him, and somehow he needed to tell her, but knew he would never find the right words to convey the depth of his feelings.

Then she was suddenly awake, looking deeply into his eyes. “Are you OK, honey?” she whispered, with a concerned glance.

“Yeah, I am now…thanks, Millie. You’re so good to me; I guess I don’t deserve you. Don’t know how I’d manage without you, that’s for sure.”

She reached up and put a finger to his lips. Hey it’s OK. This is me you’re talkin’ to Jess. I know how you feel…and its fine really. But Jess…”

“Yeah?”

“You trust me don’t you?”

“Sure you know I do”.

“Well, tell me then, tell me what this Marty is to you, why he’s got you running scared, Jess…because you are, aren’t you?”

He said nothing for several minutes, before leaning up on his elbow so that he could look deep into her eyes. “I can’t tell you, Mill, I really can’t. I feel so darn ashamed and guilty. He’s got stuff on me — real bad stuff I don’t want anyone to know. That’s why he’s here; he wants to wreck my life…again.”

“Again?”

“Sure, he’s done it numerous times. Waits until I’m settled, made friends, maybe got a good job or a girl I care about… Oh yeah, always a girl. Then he moseys into town and just blows my whole life apart, turns everyone against me, until I just have to move on.”

“But, Jess, why? Why would he do that?”

Jess closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “I can’t tell you, Mill, I’m sorry –and don’t tell anyone, please. Just leave it, sweetheart. It’ll be OK; this time I’ll get rid of him. I have to.”

“Jess be careful, you wouldn’t do anything….well anything silly?”

“What like kill him?”

“Maybe…”

Jess looked sickened. Oh no, I won’t be killin’ him. Guess there is enough blood on my hands as far as his family is concerned.”

“Whatever happens, promise me, Jess, promise me you won’t let him win. Don’t ride away; I couldn’t stand to lose you….you know?”

“Come here.” he whispered, and taking her in his arms, started kissing her all over again.

*****

When Jess got back to the ranch, it was late.

 He went into the barn and started tending Traveler then after a few minutes the door opened quietly and Marty sidled in.

“Well, so the wanderer returns,” Marty muttered, with a sarcastic sneer on his face.

Jess turned to face him and sighed deeply. “Look I’m kinda beat, Marty; just leave it, will you?”

The young man looked over. “Yeah, you look sorta worn out boy.” Then he sniffed. “I recognize that perfume. Been with that cute little brunette, keepin’ her bed warm all afternoon have you? Well I guess I’ll be getting a taste of her lovin’ myself before too long; reckon she fancies me.”

Jess spun round and glared furiously at him. “Didn’t I make it clear last night?” he spat, “Or do I have to do it all over again? I told you, leave Millie alone, or I won’t be responsible…..”

“You owe me big time, Jess, don’t you forget it — and if you don’t want me to enlighten your dear friends about what you’re really like, well, I should just pipe down, behave huh?. Oh, I do hope you’re not thinking of giving me another beating, because that sweet old lady in there already thinks you’ve turned into a monster, hitting poor innocent little me, and as for your partner, well, he’s getting real sick of your antics, Jess. I figure it wouldn’t take much for him to give you your marching orders, then good old reliable Marty will be delighted to take your place.”

“Why you…” spat Jess, grabbing hold of Marty’s shirt front, the other fist balled ready to hit home.

“Jess! What in tarnation are you doing?” Slim yelled as he marched into the barn.

“What does it look like I’m doin’? Giving this bastard what he darn well deserves.”

“Not on my ranch you’re not; now just simmer down.”

Jess let go of Marty’s shirt, pushing him roughly away, his head swinging round to stare at his buddy, shock written across his face. “What do you mean your ranch? We’re partners. I own half …or had you forgotten?”

“No I haven’t forgotten, Jess, but as part owner, you should know how important it is for us to make use of Marty right now. We need his help, so can’t we just settle down and work together without all this fretting and fussing?”

“Sure we can,” said Marty, giving Jess a warm smile, the complete reverse to his behavior just minutes before. “I’m willing to do that, hey Jess?”

Jess just shook his head, turned his back on Marty then went back to grooming Traveler.

Slim exchanged a hopeless glance with Marty then said quietly, “Figure it’s time to turn in, lot to get through tomorrow”, before making his way back to the ranch.

Marty lingered in the barn for a moment, giving Jess’s back an infuriated look. “See you tomorrow Jess…er…I wouldn’t go making any long term plans…figure you’ll be moving on soon.”

Jess swung around to face his adversary. “For God’s sake, Marty, I’m sorry for what happened. How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t you think I’ve been tortured with guilt all these years…… and I’d turn the clock back if I could?” His face was suddenly despairing a look of bleak hopelessness in his deep blue eyes. “Please”, he whispered, “let it be over Marty.”

“Oh, it’s never going to be over, not for you, Jess, not for me or Ma and Pa either. But I’ll tell you, I kinda like it round here but I’d like a few more er …shall we say perks — more money, a good saddle horse. Not much, buddy….and in exchange, well your little secret is safe with me. How about it?”

Jess stared at him, his expression turning from hopelessness to anger. “Blackmail’s a dirty word, Marty.”

“Um, maybe you’re right so let’s just call it a little sweetener. All you have to do is keep me happy.”

“You talkin’ extortion. I could have the law on you.”

“Yes except the law around here happens to be a good friend of yours, so I hear. I guess you wouldn’t want Sheriff Mort Corey looking too deeply into your murky past either. What about young Mike too? Wonder what he’d make of his hero if he knew the truth?”

“Shut your mouth, Marty,” Jess spat heatedly, then he went very  quiet, and still, running a hand across the slick of sweat that had suddenly formed on  his face, then looking over at the hatred in the  other man’s  eyes, finally said, ”OK, OK whatever you want, just leave the boy out of it.”

“Well that depends on you don’t it, Jessie boy” and with that Marty left for the bunk house.

*****

The following morning Jess was quiet over breakfast, but Marty was very friendly, seemingly oblivious to Jess’s refusal to engage in conversation or even look at him.

Towards the end of the meal, Marty looked across at where Jess was staring into his coffee cup and said cheerfully, “So you’re sure it’s OK, I have that big Buckskin stallion to use for work, Jess; sure is a fine horse.”

Jess looked puzzled for a minute and then intercepted the steely glance Marty threw him. “Oh, yeah, sure,” he drawled,” help yourself.”

Slim’s head shot up. “Thought you’d just finished schooling that big fellah to use when Traveler was resting,” he said a look of surprise on his face.

Jess just looked down before swigging the last of his coffee and wiping his mouth on his napkin. “Nah, it’s OK; Marty can have him. I’ll use that grey mare, figure she’s real fast now.” Then with that he got up and left the room quickly.

“Well I’ll be…” muttered Slim almost to himself. Then turning to grin at Marty, “Figure he’s buried the hatchet with you, buddy, letting you have old Jody. he’d got a real liking for that horse, worked his butt off schooling him too; guess you’re real honored.”

Marty grinned back. “Yes, I guess I am. I’ll go saddle him up now, make a start on the east pasture fencing if that suits you, boss?”

“Suits me just fine, Marty, see you later.”

When he had gone, Slim poured another coffee for himself and Daisy before asking, “Well, what do you make of that? Think Jess is coming round?”

Daisy threw him a concerned look. “No I don’t, Slim. I think there is more to this vendetta they seem to have going than we first thought. Keep a close eye on Jess dear, I’m worried about him.”

So the next few days continued without any major incidents; in fact, as far as everyone at the ranch was concerned, the two men seemed to have settled down and be working well together.

One day, about a week after their set to in the barn, when Marty first hinted at blackmail, he came back from a trip to town where he had gone with Jess with a brand new saddle.

When they rode into the yard, Slim was there to greet them and gave a low whistle when he saw the beautifully tooled leather saddle. “Gee that must have set you back some,” he observed, giving Marty a quizzical look, secretly wondering how the young cowboy could afford it on the wages he was paying him.

Marty jumped down from the saddle and turning, caressed the polished leather lovingly. “Ain’t it smart!” Then tipping his hat towards Jess, who was still sitting Traveler, watching the proceedings with a brooding expression, said, “Jess here subbed me on my wages,” before happily walking his mount over to the barn.

“He did, did he?” questioned Slim, addressing his remarks to Jess rather than Marty. Once the sandy haired man was out of earshot, he turned angry eyes on Jess. “So what the hell did you do that for? You know we never sub casual labor; he could be off into the blue yonder before he’s paid us back.”

“Paid me back,” said Jess equally angrily. “I gave it him out of my own wages, so you needn’t go frettin’ Mr. Sherman,” he finished sarcastically.

“So what would you do a darn fool thing like that for? You don’t even like the man< Jess.”

“That’s my business,” snapped his buddy, moodily, before kicking Traveler off towards the barn.

That was to be the start of the blackmailing, and although Jess tried to keep it a secret from his friends, Marty seemed to delight in flaunting his newly acquired possessions in front of everyone and watching Jess squirm as Marty lied through his teeth as to where the things had come from.

A new set of smart clothes had been the result of a good hand in a poker game, the new boots the result of meeting an old friend in town who repaid a debt and the shiny hunting rifle acquired as the result of a bet on an out of town horse race. But of course all were really provided by a now very much out of pocket Jess.

Mike was very impressed by all these new possessions, and chatting to Jess as they washed up after breakfast, together one day he said with his innocent blue eyes shining, “Marty sure is lucky, ain’t he, Jess.”

Jess looked somber. “Yeah real lucky,” he growled, “but I’ve gotta feelin’ his lucks just about to run out.”

“Oh, I hope not. He’s promised to buy a new rod for me next time he wins at poker,” said the youngster beaming up at his friend. “Then he said he’d take me fishin’ so we could get to know each other, share our secrets and stuff,” he said smiling up at Jess. “Wanted me to tell you he’d said that, to make sure it was OK he was my friend.” Then casting Jess a worried look, he murmured, “It is OK that he’s my friend, ain’t it, Jess?”

Jess was so angry he couldn’t speak, but after a moment he recovered and ignoring the child’s question, said gruffly, “You finish off here, Mike. I’ve somethin’ to do,” and marched out of the house, slamming the door behind him.

Jess entered the dimly lit barn and saw Marty squatting down mending a bridle.

Jess strode over and spat, “What the hell do you mean by involving the boy? You promised you wouldn’t say anything. Now he says you’re goin’ off together to ‘share secrets’. We made a deal, Marty. I figure you’ve had all you’re goin’ to off of me. Now I want you outer here and stay away from the boy!”

Marty stood up, giving Jess a speculative look, taking in the flushed angry face and the hand hovering above his gun and breathed a sigh of relief that he rarely carried a gun himself, knowing Jess could outdraw him with his eyes closed. Oh no he was way too smart to go down that route with ol’ Jess. “Well I’d like to oblige you, Jess, but I’ve got kinda attached to the old place and the folk here –almost as attached as you are. I don’t have to remind you how disappointed — no darn right disgusted — they’re all gonna be when I dish the dirt on you do I?” He swayed a little after he finished and Jess realized he’d been drinking even though it was still only early morning.

“You’re drunk,” Jess spat crossly.

“Oh now, Jess boy, if I use your er…donations to have the odd drink or three, well, I don’t see any harm.” Then pulling a hip flask from his pocket Marty said, “Here have a slug; might cheer you up some. You’re way too serious, you know that Jessie boy?”

“If Slim catches you this way, you’ll be outa here,” said Jess giving him a challenging look.

“Yeah, but he ain’t going to is, he Jess? Because you’re going to do my work for me later, while I sleep it off — or I might just have one drink  too  many  then spill the beans  after all.” Then not wanting to push his luck too far and sensing the dark cowboy’s patience was about to run out, he slurred, “It’s OK Jess; I was just joshing you about Mike. I figure I won’t be taking him fishing. That’s a promise, just as long as you keep the cash coming for the odd bottle of Red Eye…OK friend?”

Jess just shook his head and left the barn, completely at a loss as to what to do next.

He couldn’t risk it…he just couldn’t, and he figured if he gave the man enough rope he’d hang himself. Surely it wouldn’t be long before Slim woke up to the fact that he’d hired a lying no good drunkard.

As the days turned into weeks, nothing improved for Jess. He became more and more morose, avoiding Marty as much as he possibly could, but still supplying him with cash, which he now seemed to squander either in the saloon, or on bottles to bring home. Marty was, however, very careful never to be seen drunk and after his first ruckus with Jess, he had steered clear of Millie whilst she, in turn, just treated him with cool politeness if called to serve him.

Because Jess was giving a large percentage of his wages to feed Marty’s increasing alcohol problem, he rarely went to town himself, just making excuses when Slim invited him for their usual Saturday night foray. But one evening Slim lost his patience with his buddy. “Jess, will you snap out of it? Stop sulking. Hell, Marty doesn’t even drink at Tom’s place anymore; he prefers that low dive on the edge of town, says the beers cheaper and the girls more willing,” he chuckled, giving his friend a wink.

“Yeah, so I’ve heard,” remarked Jess with a dead pan expression.

“So, are you coming out tonight? Millie’s been asking after you; reckon she’s missing you something fierce partner. Come on, how about it? “

Jess just shook his head. “Sorry, Slim, I’m kinda beat guess I’ll have an early night,” then he wandered off towards the bedroom. At the door, he stopped before turning. “Tell her…..tell her I miss her too,” he mumbled before disappearing inside and closing the door firmly behind him.

Daisy and Slim exchanged a perplexed look. “What the heck has got into him lately?” asked Slim softly.

Daisy gestured with her head for Slim to join her in the kitchen out of earshot.

The tall rancher followed her in and slumped down at the table, looking up at the wise elderly lady.

“I’m really worried about him, Slim. I don’t like telling tales, but well I think you should know something,” she uttered pausing and casting him an uncomfortable look.

“What is it, Daisy?”

She took a deep breath and after a moment said. “I had call to go into the barn a few days ago. Jess had taken some sugar lumps out to Traveler and left my special jar out there. Anyway I looked high and low and then I tried that little cupboard, just near Traveler’s stall, well the jar was there alright, at the very front and then I noticed…. “

“Tell me, Daisy,” said Slim looking worried.

She swallowed hard, then gave Slim a tearful look. “Stuffed at the back, under some rags were half a dozen empty whiskey bottles.”

Slim’s head shot up. “What!”

She just nodded. “I thought at first that they were old ones; I know you boys enjoy the occasional drink, but they looked really new, not dusty or anything. And then I thought they were maybe Marty’s, but then I remembered he said he couldn’t stomach whiskey and only ever drank beer, and anyway we don’t pay him enough to buy that much whiskey…. “

“So what are you saying, Jess is drinking?”

She just shrugged. “Remember that time when Mike went missing for all those weeks, how we all thought he could be dead, or at least abducted…well Jess took to drink then, didn’t he.”

Slim had turned very pale. “I guess that would account for the fact that he never seems to have any money.”

“That’s right, in the store the other day he hardly had enough cash to buy Mike’s candy.”

Slim shook his head an anguished look in his eyes. “I haven’t smelt anything on him, or seen him drunk.”

“No, but he has been off the ranch a lot lately. I just thought he was avoiding Marty, but now I wonder? Oh Slim what shall we do? I’m sure it’s something to do with Marty; he hasn’t been himself since that man arrived.”

“Yeah I know. Jess was dead set against him being here…guess there is only one way to find out.”

“Yes you must talk to him, but away from the ranch, Slim. I don’t think he’ll open up to you here. you need to get away. Maybe if you spend some time together, he’ll tell you what it’s all about”.

“You’re right Daisy, as usual,” Slim sighed patting her arm. “I heard those mustangs were seen again last week. I know Jess is keen to catch a few and I figure Marty can cope here for a couple of days. I’ll take off mustanging with Jess and get it out of him in the end Daisy — I promise”. Then more quietly, “I sure hate to see him suffer this way, I figured he was just being ornery about Marty being around, because of a girl or something, like you said, but now…”he shook his head, “guess its way more serious than that Daisy.”

*****

The following morning at breakfast Slim suggested the mustanging trip, and to his delight, Jess seemed very enthusiastic. In fact, it was the first time Slim had seen him crack a smile in over a week.

“You think you can cope?” inquired Slim turning to where Marty was looking less than enthusiastic.

 “Sure, I guess,” Mary retorted frowning. “You won’t be gone too long, will you?”

“Nah,” said Slim grinning across at him. “Today is Sunday; couple of days out, couple back; if all goes to plan back for Thursday…say Friday afternoon at the latest.”

“Swell, yeah, that’s fine,” replied Marty. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep the place ticking over, won’t we Mike,” he said ruffling the youngster’s blond hair.

“You bet,” the child agreed, grinning across at him.

Slim noted Jess’s look of — what he wasn’t sure — fear…mistrust. Whatever it was, it was fleeting and the next thing the two men were up, preparing for their trip with their usual lively banter which Slim had missed so much over the last few weeks.

They rode out heading for Jiggers Point to the north of the Sherman ranch, then headed towards the distant foothills where the small group of mustangs had last been seen.

 As they rode along at a good pace, Slim stole the odd glance in Jess’s direction, looking at him with fresh eyes after Daisy’s revelations of the night before.

He sure didn’t look like he’d been drinking and God knows Jess always looked pretty rough when he’d been on the Red Eye, as Slim knew well, having dealt with the consequences of Jess’s over-indulgence on more than  one occasion.

 But hell, Slim thought to himself, that had been just the occasional binge which, to be honest, everyone was party to every now and then. But drinking, the way he had seen his partner do during those terrible dark days when they thought they had lost Mike… well if he’d been doing that again, surely I’d have noticed, thought Slim to himself.

“I said do you wanna stop, make camp around here? Hey buddy, you’re miles away,” chuckled Jess grinning over at his friend.

“Sorry, sorry Jess, yeah here looks fine. I figure we should be in sight of them tomorrow, get us a bit of riding and roping in,” he said with a cheerful grin, knowing that was meat and drink to his buddy.

They had just finished eating and were lounging around the camp fire, when Slim turned to his partner and said quietly, “I need to ask you something, buddy.”

Jess’s head shot up and he looked worried. “Yeah…what?” he asked cautiously.

“Well I hate to ask you Jess but are you drinking?”

“Huh?”

“Are you tipping the jug, Jess?”

“Well, hell no, what makes you think that?”

“Daisy found some empty bottles stashed in your cupboard in the barn, well she thought…”

“Yeah, she naturally thought I’d turned into a drunk overnight,” spat Jess sarcastically.

“Now take it easy, buddy; you can’t blame her for worrying. You know the way you were when Mike went missing that time.”

“That was different. Anyways, I learnt my lesson, you know that, Slim. Anyway if I’d been drinking that way, you’d know about it. You know I start chucking up all night if I drink a whole bottle, not to mention I look like I need shooting to put me outer my misery the next day.”

“That’s true alright!”

Slim smiled across at his friend feeling light headed with relief. “Remember how you were after old Joe Harrison’s funeral?”

Jess shook his head sadly. “I sure do,” then grinning at his partner, “that was really some wake, though, wasn’t it, Slim,” and the two men looked contemplatively into the fire remembering….

After a while, Slim threw another log on the camp fire as the evening had turned very chilly. It was now late October, the snows would be coming soon. There was already deep falls up on the mountains and he was glad all the stock were now safely down on the lower pastures. He settled down by the fire again then casting his partner a wary look said, “So where do you think they came from? I haven’t been drinking and you haven’t so that only leaves one person — Marty.”

At his adversary’s name, Jess’s head shot up and he threw Slim an anxious glance.

Then Slim gave his friend a considered look saying, almost apologetically, “Has he got some hold over you, Jess? Hell, is he blackmailing you? Because he couldn’t afford all that whiskey on what I’m paying him……or all the other stuff he’s been buying. He is; he’s blackmailing you, isn’t he?”

“No,” growled Jess harshly, flushing up. He felt his chest tighten and his heart suddenly pounding.

“Yes he is. What’s it all about, Jess? Come on, buddy, you can tell me. I’m your closest friend, aren’t I?”

Jess turned agonized eyes on him. “Don’t you see? It’s because you’re my best buddy that I can’t tell you. I don’t want you, or Daisy and Mike to know…stuff, stuff in the past that I’m not proud of.”

Oh God, Jess thought, this is it. He’s gonna wear me down until he finds out. That’s me gone; he won’t want me around anymore, none of them will.

“It can’t be that bad,” Slim whispered cajolingly.

“Bad enough to ruin my life.”

“How so?”

Jess took a deep breath then turning to his friend replied, “So have you ever wondered why I can’t commit to a woman?”

“But you have…twice,” said Slim looking puzzled. “you were engaged to Maria. Hell Jess, you upped and married Sky.”

“Yeah and they both died tragically, were brutally murdered in front of me Slim. I reckon it was all my fault,” he declared his voice cracking.

“How can you say that?”

“Because of what I did in the past, guess it was payback time.”

“You mean like karma? What goes around comes around? You get back what you deal out…sometimes anyway?”

“Yeah, somethin’ like that.”

“Well, I think that may be true if you do something evil…deliberately, but I don’t believe you are evil, Jess, or you would deliberately hurt another, unless your back was against the wall. I would guess that anything you did in the past that you figure is real bad….well maybe you’re being a mite hard on yourself. I would imagine you just weren’t equipped to cope. Hell, you were running wild from fifteen; you didn’t have the easiest of lives back then.”

Jess gave a cynical laugh. “Yeah right, and I do now?”

Slim shook his head looking down, then he looked across at his buddy and said sincerely, “Please tell me, Jess.”

Jess looked back, their eyes locked; he opened his mouth to reply…when suddenly a spine chilling howl shattered the night time silence, quickly followed by another and then another.

Traveler and Alamo were spooked, then started whinnying and stomping where they were line hitched a little way from the camp.

“I’ll get ‘em,” said Jess leaping up, then returning a few minutes later leading their mounts and ground hitching them just a few yards from the camp fire.

“I’ll fetch some more wood,” declared Slim and after a while he traipsed back, fully laden with an armful of huge logs. “Figure we’ll keep the fire banked up high,” he said, casting a glance at his buddy who was calming their mounts and feeding them sugar lumps from the small supply he always seemed to have in his shirt pocket.

“It’s kinda early in the season for wolves to be kicking off,” said Jess turning from where he was caressing Traveler’s ears.

“Guess they’ve had snow down for a while. Maybe they’re getting a mite hungry. Anyways I think we’d better take turns in keeping guard, just in case, yeah?”

“Sure, I’ll take first watch. You bed down, Slim, I’ll wake you in a few hours.”

So it was Slim lay down on his bedroll, cursing the circumstances that had called a halt to his talk with Jess, but as he fell into a restless sleep, he vowed he would get to the bottom of the problem before they returned to the ranch, come hell or high water.

***********

The following morning they were up at first light, found the group of mustangs quickly, just down by the river crossing where they had hoped they would be and it didn’t take Jess long to cut out half a dozen prime animals. Mostly mares, with the exception of a very lively black stallion.

 It was Slim’s first instinct to leave  the animal as he had trouble written all over him, but Jess being Jess found that made the critter all the more attractive, and roping him, managed to turn the small group of mares and the recalcitrant stallion back the way they had come.

They were heading for the old line cabin on the outskirts of the ranch where they had a small corral to hold the horses overnight. Then they planned to make the rest of the journey back the following day.

They made good time, both men being experienced mustangers, able to control the wild horses with precision and skill, but it still took them time and energy to complete their task.

By the time they arrived in was late afternoon,  and the sun was just setting as Slim kicked Alamo on to a fast gallop and went on ahead to open the corral gate.

Then Jess, drove the animals safely inside before leaping from Traveler and helping his buddy drag the gate closed behind the beasts. Then both men leaned on the gate, breathless but triumphant looking over their new stock.

“Sure got some beauties there, Slim,” grinned Jess, his blue eyes dancing in delight.

Slim grinned back, not being able to remember when he had seen his buddy so happy and animated; damn and blast that Marty for what he’s been doing to him, he thought, and renewed his promise to find out what the problem was and address it as soon as he could.

The men had turned away and were just leading their mounts over to the cabin’s lean to stable when it happened.

There was suddenly a shrill whinny from the black stallion, almost a cry of rage, as he tore around the corral before finally jumping the fence.

Jess had remounted within seconds had his lariat out and was thundering after the fast disappearing stallion before Slim could do anything.

“Let the bastard go,” yelled Slim, although he knew his cry would fall on deaf ears, so he reluctantly remounted Alamo and made to follow.

As he approached, he saw Jess lasso the magnificent beast, but as the rope caught then tightened, he was jerked from the saddle, before falling hard, still desperately hanging on to the rope.

Slim again yelled for his friend to let go as Jess was dragged unmercifully across the scrub land, his chest and legs taking the worst of the punishment as he crashed through the undergrowth, still stubbornly refusing to give in.

After a few yards, the stallion had had enough, and turning, it reared up screaming in anger as its heavy hooves crashed down on Jess as he lay cowering beneath the onslaught. Quick as a flash, Slim had his gun out  then fired off a volley of shots above the furious creatures head and with a final snort in Jess’s direction, its head flew up and shaking, its wild mane it turned and galloped away in a cloud of dust.

Slim threw himself from Alamo’s back and was at Jess’s side in seconds, looking down at his buddy’s bleeding bruised body.

At the height of the attack, Jess had rolled into a ball to try and protect himself but now he lay on his side panting and cussing, his knees pulled up, his arms clasped protectively around his chest and his head tucked in.

Slim squatted down, gently rolled his buddy over onto his back so that he could see the full extent of the damage and let out a low whistle. “Gee Jess, he sure worked you over pretty good.”

Jess, whose eyes had been tightly closed and his face set in a mask of pain, slowly opened them and squinted up at his partner. “You’re not wrong there,” he whispered, a wry grin forming on his filthy blood splattered face.

“Think you can stand if I help you?”

Jess took a deep breath , nodded and after a few minutes Slim was able to help him up onto Traveler’s back , then slowly walk the horse back the half mile or so to the line cabin.

When they arrived, Jess slid down but swayed and would have fallen if it had not been for Slim’s strong arms catching him then almost carrying him through into the shack.

Inside, Slim made for the old leather couch, pulled up in front of the empty fire place, then gently lowered Jess down onto it, where Jess stretched out and closed his eyes, his breathing harsh and labored.

Slim took a quick look around him and was pleasantly surprised at how good the old place was looking as he always was when he entered. It was little more than a shack which had been used by the ranchers as a place to lay their weary bones when working out at this part of the ranch, herding steers or mustanging. As such, it had been very basically furnished with just a couple of cots and an old cook stove.

However a few years earlier Jess had befriended a mountain family; in fact, he had delivered the wife’s baby as her husband had been struggling through a storm for help. Then when the family upped sticks, moved west with the wagon train the following year, they had given much of their furniture to Jess and Slim for the shack.

Now looking round, he saw the double bed in the corner with its patchwork quilt, a couple of cots on the other side, then along with the couch there was a rocker and finally a table and chairs — quite the little homestead. Also very useful for entertaining the ladies, as Jess would know slim thought wryly. Then remembering his buddy, he quickly went about setting the fire in the huge grate and fetching water and clean rags to bathe his wounds.

Slim gently started undressing his buddy, turning pale when he saw the extent of the damage. Jess had suffered horrendous friction burns to his legs, elbows and chest from being dragged along, which where red and bleeding. He also had what looked like several broken ribs where the horse’s hooves had caught him a glancing blow.

Thank God he hadn’t received the full weight of the stallion on his chest, or he’d be burying his buddy not tending him, thought Slim angrily.

Later he turned this anger on Jess, as the nursing was completed. Slim had cleaned all the wounds out with fresh water, using whiskey as an antiseptic and bound his chest firmly to support the crushed ribs, but now looking down at his white shaking buddy, he suddenly felt furious.

“Why did you do that?” Slim spat. “I told you to let him go… but oh no, Jess Harper knows best. Of all the ornery, stubborn, pig headed fools it’s been my lot to meet, well darn it, you are the worst!”

Jess’s eyes flickered open and he cast his buddy an amused look. “You finished rantin’?”

“No I haven’t, not by a long chalk. I….”

Then Slim caught the look in his friend’s eye and suddenly his anger melted like snow in the mid-day sun and he grinned down at Jess, giving his head a very gentle cuff. “You just shortened my life by another year, you know that?” he said softly.

“Sorry pard, he was just such a great beast. Couldn’t let him go…you know?”

“Yes, I know you and your horses. Now try to get some rest; then I’ll rustle up some beans and bacon…..OK?”

“And coffee,” said Jess sleepily.

Slim sighed looking down at his friend as his eye lids fluttered and closed. “Yeah…… and coffee.”

As Jess rested back listening to the comforting sounds of his buddy preparing the meal, he cast his mind back to the first time he had ever met Marty and tried to remember how it had all started, because he knew…he just knew that he had to finally tell Slim the whole sorry tale.

*****

Jess had just turned seventeen and he had spent the best part of the preceding years since the fire on the trail of the Bannister gang, seeking retribution, the deep hatred in his heart gnawing away at the usually carefree easy going young man. Sure, he had had a difficult upbringing, but Jess was able to deal with whatever life threw at him because of that, until that devastating night when he heard the screams of his mother and siblings dying in the fire — that changed his life forever.

He had ridden long and hard on the trail of the gang. He knew he had to find retribution or he would surely die of the pain. He also knew he had to have some money to feed himself and his horse so that is why he rode into Abilene that fateful night.

He had used the last of his money to pay for the stabling and feeding of his mount, so now he had but a few cents in his pocket to look after himself. As he wandered down Main Street, he thought that a beer and maybe a soft straw bed at the livery was all he had to look forward to.

That was when he fell over Marty Dakin, literally, who had just been thrown out of a local saloon.

Jess tripped up and fell over the other young man as he lay there in the dust.

Jess righted himself first, being the far more sober one of the couple — in fact, being the only sober one.

After a few moments, the two young men managed to extricate themselves then stood up, dusting themselves down and Marty looked over at Jess before casting him an engaging grin. “Guess I fell out with the management,” he snorted.

“Sure looks like you did,” Jess agreed.

“Well how’s about we find somewhere more accommodating, pal?” the sandy haired young man suggested, a youthful twinkle in his eye.

“I ain’t got much cash,” revealed Jess ruefully.

“That’s no problem; I’ve got plenty. Come on, buddy.” Throwing a less than sober arm around Jess’ shoulders, Marty waltzed him off down the street and into the next saloon they came to.

Several hours later, they emerged unsteadily and made their way back down towards the livery.

“Guess I’ll doss down at the livery with you, Jessie boy,” slurred Marty. “And tomorrow you can ride back with me if you like. I reckon my Pa could use another hand, if you’re looking for work, that is?” he said, swaying slightly and surveying his new friend with blood shot eyes.

“Sure am,” agreed Jess, who had just about caught up with Marty’s inebriated condition now, “that would be swell.”

“Come on then, buddy.” And the two young men made their way into the dimly lit stable and were soon bedded down in the hay of an empty stall.

Once they were settled, though, it became apparent that young Marty wanted to talk the night away so Jess indulged him and chatted to the personable youngster, who he had discovered was the same age as himself.

“So do you like girls, Jess?”

Jess grinned at him. “Like ‘em? I love ‘em — blond, brunette, red heads…yeah, love ‘em all.”

“Well, you should be well suited then. Got two of them back home — a big sister of twenty-one. She’s a pain in the butt…always right, you know?”

Jess just nodded, an involuntary stab of pain in his guts as he remembered the sisters he had lost.

“Then there is little Angela, cute as a button, blond and just turned sweet sixteen; you’ll surely love her, Jess.”

Jess smiled back. “I’m sure I will.”

“So have you ever…you know…… done it?” asked Marty smirking across at him.

Jess just nodded. “Oh yeah,” he said softly,” I sure have.”

“Really,” asked Marty looking impressed. “Go on, tell me about it, buddy.”

Jess just gave him a secret smile. “Oh no, a gentleman never tells,” he said tapping his nose, then after a while he stretched out and settled down to sleep as he remembered…remembered Ginny.

*****

It had been about six months ago when he rode into another Texas town. Jeez, was it a dump. Talk about one horse town. It was early evening as Jess had made his way down the street heading for the livery; he passed an old dog asleep in the middle of the road, and grinned to himself. Yep this sure was a lively old town.

Again he just had enough money to put up his horse for the night, and once this was done, he mooched off back down the street, wondering where he was going to find the money for a square meal. He peered into the saloon, hoping that they might take pity on  him,  maybe offer some bar work, but the landlord looked a miserable old sod to Jess’s eyes and so he took himself off round the back, thinking the kitchen staff might be  more approachable.

As he turned into the small yard behind the saloon, he saw her — one of the most beautiful women he had seen in his young life. She was sitting out on the back step smoking a cigarette, inhaling deeply, the smoke making a blue halo around her abundant rich auburn stresses that curled seductively around her shoulders, and then Jess’s eyes roamed down  to her ample cleavage, being shown off to great advantage by the low cut yellow dress she was wearing.

“You lookin’ or buyin’, honey?” she drawled.

Jess was suddenly startled out of his reverie and dragging his eyes up, he finally looked into amused violet eyes. “Huh?”

“I said are you…….oh never mind. What can I do for you, kid?”

“I ain’t a kid,” asserted Jess angrily, “I’m nearly seventeen!”

“Oh, that old,” she said with a little chuckle. Then straightening her face, she said, “Whoa, what can I do for you sir?” her amazing violet eyes laughing up at him.

Jess knew when he was having his leg pulled and he grinned back at the woman. “Jess,” he replied, “Jess Harper, Ma’am,” touching his hat to her.

“Well then Jess Harper, you may call me Ginny,” she said, taking a liking to this polite, if rather scrawny young man.

“Well, I was looking for some work……er Ginny, to pay for a meal and maybe a bed for the night.”

She looked at him speculatively. “So when did you last eat, Jess?” she asked her tone now soft, all the teasing gone.

Jess tried to think, but it was hard, he was feeling light headed with hunger and had a nagging pain in his empty belly. “Two…maybe three days ago. “

She stood up quickly stubbing out the cigarette, took a pace towards him and grabbed his arm as Jess swayed slightly. “You really are running on empty, ain’t you, honey,” she said in her Texan drawl. “Come along in, k…Jess and I’ll rustle you up some leftovers; won’t be in need of payment for that. “

“Thank you Ma’am,” said Jess sincerely and followed the woman inside.

She seated him at the kitchen table, then went about the business of dishing up a large plate of chicken and dumplings, followed by apple pie, the lot washed down with a tankard of strong cider.

“This sure is a good meal for leftovers,” Jess said grinning at her as he eventually cleared his plate.

“Well, truth be known, it was the boss’s supper, but he’s way too fat, so guess you’ve done him a favor.”

Then she noticed that Jess’s eyes were heavy, whether from fatigue or the strong drink she wasn’t sure, but she knew it wouldn’t be a good idea for the landlord to find him down there, and so she gently took his arm, “come on, Hon, I’ll show you where you can bed down.” 

Jess followed her up some steep steps, into a small attic room furnished with a large double bed and little else apart from a screen in the corner and a small chest of draws bearing a night light.

“You’ll be safe enough in here; just lie low and don’t answer the door to anyone,” then with that she was gone.

Jess surveyed the scene before him — the large bed with a lamp on the chest beside it dimly illuminating the shabby, but clean room. He stripped down to his undershorts, wondering vaguely where Ginny would sleep if this was her room, but suddenly exhaustion over took him.

He fell down on the comfortable soft bed and was asleep in seconds, soon snoring gently.

It was much later when something awoke him and he was aware that he was not alone.

He was just about to reach for his gun, the belt slung across the bed head, when he saw Ginny, dimly illuminated, just emerging from behind the screen, dressed in a flimsy, low cut black nightdress.

Jess stayed stock still, sucked in a deep breath and held it, could he be dreaming, but no, the soft body that had just slipped into the bed beside him was real enough.

He suddenly realized he was still holding his breath, gaping at her, and he let it go. “Ginny?” he whispered uncertainly.

“That’s me, Honey”, she answered. “Did I wake you?”

“No…er yes, I mean, but that’s OK.”

“Well good. So seeing as how you’re awake now, how about a little cuddle?” she suggested running a finger seductively down his naked torso.

Jess trembled and felt a spasm of desire as his heart started hammering in his chest, but he just stared up at her, making no move.

“Hey, Hon, your shaking,” she said softly, and then a slow smile spread across her face. “you ain’t done it before have you?” she asked gently.

Jess continued to stare at her. What did he say? If he told the truth, he was in danger of being laughed at , but there again if he lied, well, he figured she’d find out what a novice he was before too long, so eventually he decided to err on the side of truth.

“Well, I’ve kissed a lot of girls, fooled about and stuff…but…well….all the way? No,” he finished lamely.

“Well that ain’t nothin’ to be embarrassed about,” she said smiling deep into his eyes. “You’re only a young pup yet.”

Jess felt a pang of anger again, but decided to let it go, and instead parried with,”Well, how old are you then?” 

She gave a little chuckle. “Rule number one, is a gentleman never asks a lady her age, but seein’ as how it’s you, I’ll tell you. I’ve just turned twenty-five.”

“Wow,” whistled Jess, his first time and with an older woman.

“Now I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” she said, not unkindly. “I’m going to teach you how to pleasure a woman. That way, well, I can guarantee you’ll never go without, because if there is one thing a woman likes it is a man who looks out for her, thinks of her pleasure as well as his own, you get my drift, Jessie?” she asked, cocking a perfectly arched eyebrow.

He just nodded, drinking in her every word, her perfume making him feel lightheaded and her closeness having a profound effect on his body.

“I’ll tell you, in my line of business I very rarely meet a man who knows what he’s doing, so I guess if I teach you everything I know, I’ll be doing a few women out there a good turn.”

“Line of business?” asked Jess looking mystified.

“Oh dear, you really are an innocent one, aren’t you? I’m a working girl, sweetheart.”

“What,” yelped Jess, shocked to the core, “You mean you’re a hooker?”

“Well, yes, if you like , but I prefer the term working girl — a bit more classy, you know? “

Jess suddenly shook his head sadly. “I can’t pay you, Ma’am. I’m sorry…I…”

“Hush,” she whispered, leaning in, so that her soft breath caressed his cheek. “I ain’t askin’ for payment, Honey; this is all on the house and it will be a pleasure”.

Then she leaned up on her elbow studying the youngster, again running a finger down his chest towards his flat belly. “You sure are fit Honey.”

 Then she gently brushed his black hair back from his forehead, “You’re cute, real cute, with those deep, deep blue eyes,” she said with a little sigh. And with that she leaned down and brushed her lips gently across his, her sweet tasting mouth sending shockwaves of desire through the young cowboy’s body.

“Come here, “she said seductively, I’ll show you how to pleasure a woman real good.

Jess took her in his arms then kissed her passionately, all fear and nervousness gone as he held her close before his instincts took over and they started to make sweet love.

Afterwards she had stretched like a languid cat. “Oh that was real good,” she drawled, “real good, but remember Jess, one rule: a gentleman never tells. You got that Honey? What goes on between a man and a woman stays there, you understand?”

“I understand,” he said softly. It was a rule he never forgot and never broke.

He had stayed with Ginny for a week, when she did indeed teach him everything she knew, every trick in the book she had said, laughing, and a few that weren’t in the book too.

Jess’s self-esteem had never been so high. He felt like a million dollars when he finally rode out of town continuing his quest for the Bannister gang. But he never forgot Ginny and what she had taught him and he never told another living soul about it either.

*****

Now lying back in the straw he smiled to himself, sorry Marty. He thought, you can ask all you like, but that’s one secret I ain’t sharing, and he finally drifted off to sleep.

The following morning, both men awoke with sore heads and it was a very downbeat couple that finally rode into the Dakin ranch later that morning.

Jess expected Mr. Dakin to chastise his son for staying out all night, getting drunk and sleeping in a stall, but to his surprise, the red haired cheerful rancher just laughed it off. “I don’t know,” he chuckled, as Marty slid down from his mount and grinning across at his foreman. The older man said, “Look what the cats dragged in, Lonnie.” Then he turned his attention to Jess. “And who do we have here?”

Jess jumped down from his horse and offered his hand. “Harper, sir, Jess Harper”.

“Well pleased to meet you, Jess; any friend of my boy is welcome.”

“Jess and I were wondering if there was some work, Pa; he needs to make some cash for a few weeks.”

“Oh right,” said Pete Dakin. “So what can you do, boy?”

“Pretty much turn my hand to anything that needs doing round a ranch, Mr. Dakin — roping, branding, shoeing and breakin’ horses, fence mendin’. You name it, I’ll have a go.”

“Good for you, son; I like your style. Sure, I think we can find a temporary job, can’t we, Lonnie?”

“Sure boss. Come with me, son; I’ll fix up a stall for your horse and show you what’s to be done.”

Jess worked hard all day long mending  fences a couple of miles from  the main ranch ,so it was later that evening that he caught up with Marty again and he was surprised and pleased to be invited in to supper where he was treated as one of the family. He had fully expected to be sent off to the bunk house with the other hired hands but Marty had greeted him and shown him up to his own room where there was a spare bed.

“You can bunk down in here,” Mary said, “and wash up before supper. Ma’s kind of particular about that.”

“Sure,” said Jess turning to the washstand, and then swinging impetuously back. “Thanks, Marty; I really appreciate all this.”

“That’s OK, buddy; besides if Pa’s got you doing that shit boring fencing, means I’m off the hook,” Marty said honestly.

At supper, Jess met the rest of the family and he delighted Mrs. Ann Dakin with his polite manners that his own Ma had beaten into him. However, Marjorie, the older sister, was less impressed and treated Jess with the distain she usually kept only for her young brother.

But it was little Angela that Jess loved almost at first sight, just as Marty had predicted.

Angela looked at the world through guileless baby blue eyes, was the picture of sweet innocence, with her long blond hair and shapely young figure, yes cute and innocent, or so Jess thought at their first meeting.

But what Jess didn’t know, and was to find out to his cost later, was that what Angela wanted, well, then Angela got.

 Right then what Angela wanted was Jess.

The moment she clapped eyes on that lean figure and those blue eyes that could twinkle like waves in the sunlight or turn as dark and hard as granite if angry, well, she was just completely lost. From his deep husky voice to his seeming sophistication, she was fascinated by every aspect of him. He had travelled, seen things, done things, stood on his own two feet, was absolutely alone in the world, making him seem years older than herself and her brother.

She lost no time in making her interest obvious.

As soon as supper was through that evening, Angela turned her lovely wide eyes on him and said, “Come on, Jess, I’ll show you around the place before dark”

Jess’s eyes swiveled to Mr. and Mrs. Dakin. “If that’s OK with your folks,” he said diplomatically.

“Sure it’s fine, son,” said Mr. Dakin smiling indulgently at his youngest daughter.

“Take your wrap, honey; it’s starting to get chilly in the evenings,” said Mrs. Dakin, casting her daughter a loving look.

They were no sooner out of view around the back of the barn than Angela smiled up at him and thrust her hand into Jess’, holding it tightly before beaming up into his eyes. “Gee it’s good to get away from the old folks; they drive you crazy don’t they,” she said cheerfully. “Are yours as bad as mine, always fussing?”

Jess felt the familiar pain of loss. “Couldn’t say,” he replied bleakly.

“What do you mean?” she asked turning her innocent, puzzled eyes on him.

“They’re dead,” replied Jess gruffly. “Whole family gone…so no they don’t fuss me anymore.”

Her jaw dropped open in amazement and then her eyes filled with unshed tears. “Oh,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry…I didn’t know.”

Jess recovered himself and gave her a tight smile. “It’s Ok. how could you?”

They continued on their walk in silence, before she stopped and leaned on the corral fence looking out to the distant hills.

“How long are you staying with us?” Angela asked softly after a little while.

“Dunno; a few weeks. Need some money see, gotta pay my way, look after my horse an’ all”.

“Where are you heading?”

Jess’s eyes looked troubled; he hadn’t heard word of the Bannisters in weeks now and was beginning to think he was on a wild goose chase. Maybe he should just cut his losses and sign up with the Confederate Army, what he had planned to do anyway at some stage. He took a deep breath and looked down into the beautiful upturned face. “Kinda depends,” he said softly.

“Oh, so maybe you’ll stay with us a while longer than you’d planned,” she said hopefully, then she reached up and  very gently kissed him, her sweet lips just brushing his, before withdrawing.

“Maybe I’ll be able to make you stay,” she said quietly, before lifting up her skirts and running lightly back to the house.

Jess felt a tremor of desire as he watched her go. “Figure you just might at that,” he said softly to himself, before returning to the house and the room he was sharing with Marty.

*****

It soon became blatantly obvious to Jess that all three children were spoilt rotten by their over-indulgent parents. At twenty one, Marjorie came and went on the arm of a different beau seemingly every day, and her parents just gave her money to buy whatever she needed to look her cool sophisticated best.

Jess never saw her do a hands turn around the place to help her Ma, and Angela was little better, being nurtured, her every want supplied by her adoring parents. Jess couldn’t understand how they could get away with it, on comparing with his own harsh upbringing where he had worked from a very early age.

As for Marty, he too was supplied with liberal amounts of money, which he allegedly worked for, although Jess was yet to see evidence of it. However, if Jess did the lion’s share of the work, he couldn’t fault his new friend’s generosity.

The two young men often went and kicked off the traces in town after a hard day’s work — or in Marty’s case after a day of larking about, doing as little as possible.

If Jess wasn’t out with Marty or working, he spent all his free time with Angela, and although he couldn’t approve of her rather indolent lifestyle. he still fell heavily for her. On looking back years later, he was never really sure if he had loved her or if his passion was merely born of lust, but whatever it was, the relationship had a profound effect on the young cowboy and he soon found himself making excuses to Marty so that he could spend all his time courting his sister.

Right from the beginning of their relationship Angela was very loving, always holding Jess’s hand and reaching up to kiss him, out of sight of her parents, but Jess figured she had no idea the effect she had on him.

One day, a few weeks after they had first met, they were sitting down by the stream a mile or so from the ranch, away from prying eyes. It was a gorgeous warm Indian Summers day and Angela was wearing a low cut, tightly fitting sun dress that left little to the imagination.

 She lay back on the blanket, thoughtfully provided by Jess, closed her eyes and relaxed, completely unaware of the effect she was having on Jess — that she was driving him crazy with desire. After a while, he lay down beside her and took her hand in his. He swallowed hard trying to control his breathing and thumping heart.

He had figured if he stopped looking at her it would be easier — he would somehow be able to pretend they were just friends…

Then she slipped her hand out of his and leaned up on her elbow, scrutinizing his face.

 Jess’s long lashes flickered open and he found himself staring straight into her baby blue eyes, just inches from his own. He licked his lips nervously and looked her in the eye, before glancing down at her mouth, the lips, so soft…enticing…

She leaned down and kissed him, her hair falling across his face, the gentle tickling sensation irresistible.

At first she kissed him very gently, then more firmly and Jess responded, tangling a hand in her long blond tresses, giving a little moan of desire as the kissing became hotter and hotter.

After a few minutes, he pushed her gently away and sat up, running a hand over his sweat streaked face, breathing deeply.

“What is it?”

You really don’t know, do you?”

“Know what? What are you talking about Jess?”

He stood up quickly, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his denims and strode over to the bank of the stream looking out the horizon, his expression unfathomable.

She leapt up and stood behind him, her arms snaking around his waist. “What is it?” she said again, a note of concern in her voice.

He spun around, facing her and he tipped her chin up with a finger so that she looked deeply into his eyes. “I want you,” he said gruffly. “Can’t you see what you’re doin’ to me?” he asked almost angrily. “Don’t you know what you do to a man with all your kissin’ and cuddling, you’re near driving me loco.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I thought you liked it, me kissing you and everything.”

Jess looked down, his anger suddenly spent. “Sure I do, sweetheart,” he said softly,” too dang much. It ain’t right, you’re an innocent young girl and I shouldn’t be thinking this way.”

“I’m only a few months younger than you…and anyway maybe I’m thinking that way too.”

Jess shook his head sadly. “Now don’t you go getting any ideas, for what I’ve got in mind. Someone like you would be lookin’ for a ring on her finger and I ain’t ready yet, Angela. I guess we’ve both got a mite more growing up to do before we decide to settle down.”

She looked deeply hurt. “Don’t you want to get married and have kids?” she asked, a catch in her voice.

“Sure I do, honey; I want kids sometime, but not yet awhile. We’re still almost kids ourselves.”

“You’re not. You’re grown up and sophisticated; you’ve been places done stuff. Are you really not ready?”

He sighed deeply. “Look, I want kids, more than you’ll ever know,” he said softly remembering his little brother and sister who he had helped raise, who had perished in the fire. “All I’m saying is not yet; I can’t settle down I’ve things I have to do…to deal with first.”

Now it was her turn to sigh deeply. “OK,” she said softly,” but I can’t promise to stop kissing you.”

He smiled deeply into her eyes. “Nor would I want you to; I guess we’ll just have to rein it in some, that’s all.”

But little did he know that there was a plan hatching in that pretty innocent little head, one that would cause death and disaster, would set in place the road to Jess’s future torment.

*****

After that day, Jess tried very hard to do as he had promised, to rein in his emotional and physical urges, to limit his spells alone with Angela, or at least to make them less intimate, trying to act as friends for most of the time.

He tried to spend more time with Marty, and when he did see Angela, he ensured others were present as he really didn’t trust himself with her alone, such was the intensity of his feelings.

It was a few weeks after their discussion by the stream that Jess and Angela had cause to review the situation again.

At Angela’s behest, they had met up when her parents were away visiting relatives in the next town.

Ann and Pete Dakin had taken off in good spirits that morning, full of the excitement of their niece’s wedding plans. Ann was particularly keen to offer her congratulations and advice, so the couple had left hurriedly without too much thought to their own offspring.

Ann had had a quick chat with Marjorie. “Watch out for your sister, dear, and try to keep Marty out of the saloon.” Then she had called as she left, “I will see you all in a few days,” and the couple drove off without a backwards glance.

That night Angela went to town on her preparations for supper. She had washed and styled her hair, then gone to great lengths to prepare herself, wearing a beautiful, closely fitting gossamer gown and she knew exactly what she had to do. When she walked into supper that evening, Jess could not keep his eyes off her.

Then when Marty retired early after an excess of drink, due to his parents absence, and Marjorie disappeared on yet another beau’s arm, Jess and Angela were left sitting over the dinner table together. After a little while she got up and went over to the fire place, pouring coffee for them both.

“Well,” she said stretching languidly once they had finished their drinks, “guess that’s it Jess; everyone in bed…except us…”

“Don’t,” Jess said angrily, “don’t joke about it, Angie. Have you any idea how difficult this is for me, seeing you every day looking so darn lovely, you always wantin’ to kiss me…an’ such, well it’s not easy for a man, you know.”

“It’s not easy for me either, Jess Harper,” Angela shouted. “Do you think I have no feelings? I’m not twisted in two every night with the wanting…and longing for you?” she retorted angrily. “I want you, Jess, and I want you tonight, Now are you coming up to my room…….or what?”

What could a young seventeen year old boy do, or say?

He took her in his arms, and pulling her close kissed her as he had never done before, like a man kisses a woman he knows he will make love to.

When it finally happened, he remembered everything Ginny had taught him and when the moment of pain came as she finally lost her innocence, it was quickly followed by a feeling of such intense pleasure, the other feeling was immediately forgotten.

“I love you, I love you so much,” she whispered before finally falling asleep in his arms, but Jess had a feeling of unrest. He’d made no promises, he knew that, so why did he suddenly feel so vulnerable, so trapped…

Over the following few weeks, Angela would not leave him alone, constantly wanting his attention.

Jess felt hounded.

Yes, he loved being with her, of course he did, but he had made her no promises, he kept telling himself, but now it was looking more and more like she expected him to commit.

He tried hard to cool things down between them a little, spending more time with Marty and trying to defuse the situation between them some.

However every time they were alone together, Angela was able to ignite the flame and Jess was helpless to resist her charm. She was too tempting to him, and although he tried to fight it, he found himself in her arms more and more, their passion growing hotter and more overwhelming.

Then one fateful day, she asked to meet him by their special place by the stream, said she had something important she had to discuss. She had sounded so serious, even formal and Jess was alarmed.

When he arrived and saw her standing looking pensively into the stream, he felt a shiver of apprehension run down his spine, instinctively knowing that all was not well.

“Angie?” he said softly, “What is it…what’s wrong? “

She turned, tears suddenly coursing down her cheeks. “I’m….. I’m pregnant, Jess. I am so sorry,” she cried before running to him and burying her head in his chest.

Jess stood there immobile, staring into space completely shocked, before looking down at the little blond head nestled on his chest.

“No,” he whispered,” it can’t be. We were careful….so careful.”

Then he grabbed hold of her upper arms and pulled her back. “Hell, look at me, Angela, tell me this ain’t true!”

“It’s true I tell you,” she shouted crying hysterically now. “It’s true!”

He pulled her in close, one hand caressing her hair. “It’s alright sweetheart, don’t cry,” he pleaded, “It’ll be alright.”

“How can it…how can it be alright?”

He sighed deeply a look of pain flitting across his handsome face,” guess we’ll have to get hitched after all,” he said quietly.

“You’d do that, for me?”

“For us, if we’re gonna be a family, well, I guess it’s just as much my responsibility as yours, I’ll speak to your Ma and Pa tonight.”

She jerked back out of his arms; “no,” she shouted,” you must not say anything to them.”

“Well they’ll have to know sooner or later sweetheart,” he said casting an anxious look at her currently flat belly.

“No, no I don’t want you to,” she said becoming almost hysterical, and started crying again.

Jess looked down aghast, “OK, OK we’ll not tell them you’re expecting, I’ll just ask for your hand.”

She shook her head. “They won’t consent; they say I’m too young. We have to elope, Jess; we have to.”

He shook his head firmly,” nope I can’t do that to your folks; they’ve been real good to me. It’s bad enough I’ve done this,” he shouted, “without deceiving them as well”.

“You don’t understand,” she yelled, “we have to elope, Jess there is no other way,” and she ran from him, crying once more.

He stood in consternation watching her go and knew what he had to do. Whether she liked it or not he just had to tell her folks the truth.

But doing that  proved difficult, Mrs. Dakin was completely taken up with her nieces wedding plans and was rarely at home .

Then Mr. Dakin took off on a mustanging trip with Lonnie his foreman leaving  the lion’s share of the work to Jess and he was kept busy all the day long, with Marty being little use.

Jess had become morose and short tempered, worried as he was by the recent turn of events, even the usual light hearted fun he shared with Marty could not pull him out of his mood.

Eventually Marty had had enough, after Jess had cussed him loudly for his lazy ways.

“What the hell’s gotten into you Jess you’re like a bear with a sore head, and that sister of mine ain’t much better….hey you two had a fall out?” he said as an afterthought.

“No we ain’t had a fall out and mind your own Goddamn business,” Jess spat as he marched off, to take his anger out on the woodpile.

Angela had been constantly badgering him to leave with her and the feelings of guilt where grinding him down. He didn’t know which way to turn, was practically sick with worry, his guts permanently knotted and he was unable to eat, or even think clearly.

Just that morning he had stood outside the outhouse listening to her chuck up her breakfast and his guts churned in misery knowing this was all his fault. He should never have seduced her, never have made sweet love under the stars all those times, but Hell she was just so irresistible, so beautiful.

Then there was a part of him that just couldn’t believe it. He remembered the week of passion with his first love  Ginny and how she had taught him real good, not just about love making, put also of how to avoid the unthinkable, a baby  at the wrong time.

He’d listened and learned, had been oh so careful…. How could this have happened, was the thought constantly running around his brain, like a rat in a trap.

Maybe he should just do it, what she wanted run away and marry…

He felt sick to his stomach with anxiety as he turned back to the logs he was chopping.

Again Mrs. Dakin was away from the ranch and it was just the youngsters around. Now Angela walked out of the house towards Jess and stood idly watching him at the wood block for a few minutes before coming closer.

“Keep back,” he said irritably, “don’t want you getting hurt.”

“It’s a bit late for that isn’t it?” she said tartly.

He turned anguished eyes on her. “I’m so, so sorry, you know that.”

“But being sorry won’t turn the clock back will it, Jess,” she said. “Please when are we going…we have to, we just have to.” Then she burst into tears and ran back towards the ranch, bumping into her big sister as she did so.

Marjorie gave her a puzzled look as she ran past, tears streaming down her face and then she marched over to where Jess was watching his girl disappear into the house.

Marjorie stared at him hard. “Have you been upsetting my kid sister?” she asked.

Jess just looked down, but the guilt was written all over his face.

“Well?”

He nodded,  then looked deep into Marjorie’s cool grey eyes and she reminded him so much of one of his own sisters that suddenly he could bear it no longer , he had to unburden himself. “I’ve gotten her pregnant,” he whispered.

Marjorie’s jaw dropped in shock for a moment, then she threw her head back and laughed long and loud.

Jess gave her a bitter look. “Well I’m glad you’ve taken it so well; let’s just hope your folks find it hilarious too.”

By this time Marjorie was desperately trying to control her laughter and after a moment she spluttered into silence. “I’m sorry,” she said her eyes twinkling and looking anything but apologetic, “but that’s the oldest trick in the book. She’s no more pregnant than I am Jess — or even you.”

His jaw dropped open and he just stared at her. “Sure she is, she told me; she was sick this morning and all.”

“We were all sick this morning, Jess; something I cooked, I’m afraid. But as to pregnant… She’s a lying little tart. Trust me, Jess, I know for a fact that she is definitely 100% not pregnant; we share a room. I just know OK?”

He nodded and was suddenly aware of the heady relief flooding through his body, fast being replaced by anger. “How could she?” he whispered, looking at Marjorie with hurt eyes. “How could she put me through all that? I’ve been going mad with the worry, the guilt — how could she?”

“She’s desperate, Jess; she wants you and I’ll tell you now, what Angela wants she gets. Ma and Pa have always made sure of that.”

He looked pale and shaken. “Well, not this time,” he spat as he marched off towards the house.

Jess tore up the stairs and burst into the room he shared with Marty, then started throwing things in his saddlebags and a few minutes later strode off towards the barn.

Angela had heard him leave the house and now came running after him. “Jess, Jess hold up, where are you going?” she called as she caught up with him, grabbing hold of his arm and pulling him round towards her.

Jess roughly dragged himself free and continued towards the barn without replying. He went straight over to his horse and throwing his saddle on preceded to tie on the saddle bags.

“Jess, what’s got into you?” Angela said, staring at him with wide frightened eyes. “Where are you going?”

Then he turned and stared at her his eyes blazing with fury. “Anywhere — as far away from here as possible,” he spat, feeling anger, humiliation and hurt in equal proportions.

“What about us?” she screamed back. “What about the baby!”

“What baby?” barked Jess looking even more angry. “There ain’t no baby, is there, Angie?”

She stared at him, pale and shaking obviously trying to decide what to say, then almost in a whisper, “No…I’m sorry.”  Then lifting her innocent blue eyes to him, she came forward and grabbed hold of his arm again. “I only said that because I love you…I want us to be together.”

“Oh yes you WANT,” spat Jess sarcastically. “What Angela wants she always gets. Well, not this time — and you don’t love me.” Then his voice broke, his eyes were full of pain as he said, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t have put me through all that. I’ve been to hell and back worrying about you, and you just let me, You saw how I was sufferin’ and you said nothing. How could you do that to me?”

“I said I was sorry; I’m so, so sorry. Please Jess, don’t go.”

Again Jess pulled himself from her grasp, and leading his horse out, he jumped lightly up into the saddle in one fluid movement.

“Please…we can make a go of things,” Angela said imploringly.

He shook his head sadly. “You can’t build a relationship on deceit and lies. Like I said, you need to grow up some, think of someone other than yourself. Guess we both need to grow up some,” he said harshly.

“You are grown up,” she said. “You’re a man…a real man.”

Jess shook his head. “You need to learn you can’t always have your own way, Angela — and I guess I need to learn when to keep my pants buttoned up.”

She looked shocked to the core. “Are you saying it was wrong for you to love me? All those times we were together, it was wrong?” she asked her eyes filling with unshed tears.

“That’s exactly what I’m sayin’. All this is my fault; I should have been stronger. You’re not ready for an adult relationship yet.”

With that he sat up in the saddle and made to kick his horse off, but she grabbed the reins. “Tell me where are you going….please?”

“Goin’ to fight a war; I’m off to enlist,” and with that, Jess kicked his horse into a gallop, leaving the yard in a cloud of dust as she stared after him in disbelief, the tears streaming down her face.

He went straight into Abilene and signed up with the Confederate Army.

He told himself that he had been going to do it anyway and his confrontation with Angela had just brought the date forwards, but then he got to feeling guilty as to how he had treated her — kept seeing her staring at him with those innocent childish eyes. Hell, he should never have seduced her; she was way too young to cope with a serious relationship.

The day before he was due to ride out with his unit, he had a four hour pass, and he made straight for the Dakin ranch.

As he rode in, Marty came to greet him. “Hey, look what the cat’s dragged in,” he said, grinning at his friend, then tipping his hat back he looked at the pale grey uniform Jess now sported. “Well, don’t you look pretty,” he said laughing. “Come to make it up with my sis?”

“I guess,” said Jess sliding down from his horse. “She around?”

“Yeah, she went off down to the creek a while back, but she ain’t too happy with you, Jessie boy; done nothing but snivel and sob since you rode out.”

“I figured that,” said Jess sighing deeply. “Better give it a try, though; can’t leave things this way,” and with that he strode off in the direction of their secret place by the stream.

Jess stood watching her for several minutes, her back to him, staring off across the water to the distant mountains. After a while she seemed to sense his presence and half turning gasped as she took in the soldier’s uniform. “You did it then, you joined the Rebels.”

He nodded.

She just stared back her face a mask of despair.

Their eyes locked and he opened his arms then; after a second’s hesitation, she ran into them and he enveloped her, holding her close, stroking her hair and whispering softly. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, ‘so sorry; I didn’t mean any of that stuff.”

“Me too. I’m sorry I lied. I know now why you were so mad at me, but this, Jess…” she said gesturing to the uniform, “why did you have to do this?”

He shook his head sadly, “this ain’t about you…us; it’s something I have to do, was something I was always gonna do, sooner or later. Guess I’m just going a mite sooner is all.”

“But you’re too young, you’re only just seventeen; You have to be at least eighteen, don’t you?”

He gave her his cheeky grin. “You ain’t the only one as can lie. Got a man in the saloon to say he was my Pa, sign for me.”

“When… do you go?”

“Got a couple of hours left, then I have to go back to my unit; we ride out at dawn”.

She shot a hand to her mouth, “So soon…oh why did you do it?” she cried again.

“Have you any idea what those bastard Yankees have done to our troops? I can’t just stand back and pretend it ain’t happenin’.”

“I suppose not, although I guess Marty won’t fight, not unless he’s conscripted; too busy drinking and enjoying himself,” she said bitterly.

“Yeah, well that’s just Marty ain’t it? Now quit your frettin’. Come here,” he said softly. Then he encircled her waist with his strong arms before pulling her close and leaning down he kissed her passionately.

When the time finally came for him to leave, she went completely hysterical, sobbing and screaming for him to stay with her.

 Eventually Marty had to restrain her or she would have run in front of his horse to stop him.

Jess exchanged anguished looks with his friend. “Look after her, buddy. I’ll have to go or I’ll be court marshaled before I start my army career,” he said bleakly and throwing Angela a wretched look he kicked his horse off into the setting sun.

Jess reined in as he reached the ranch gate, then looked back and what he saw would return to haunt him in the years to come. She was weeping uncontrollably and just stared at him a look of abject misery in her eyes as he turned and rode away, his heart breaking.

It was six long months before he returned. His unit was camped just outside town and he was given a twenty four hour pass.

It was early spring and his spirits where high as he rode along in the soft early morning sunlight, looking forwards to seeing Angela again, exchanging banter and stories with Marty.

As he rode into the ranch yard, it seemed strangely deserted.

Jess tethered his mount and knocked at the door. After a while Lonnie finally answered; he looked ill and drawn and hardly seemed to recognize Jess.

“Howdy Lonnie,” said Jess cheerfully. “Come visitin’. Is the family about?”

The older man made to close the door. “No …now isn’t a good time boy,” he said harshly.

“Lonnie?”

“I’m sorry, Jess. Like I say, things ain’t so good right now, the mistress is real sick, then…well, what with everything else…I’m sorry,” and he closed the door in Jess’s face.

Jess turned away feeling crestfallen and almost bumped into Marty. From a few feet away, Jess could smell the whiskey on his breath which was a shock at that early hour, but even more worrying was the look on the other man’s face — a look that made Jess’s blood run cold.

There was no welcoming smile, no gesture of friendliness; in fact, as he looked at the sandy haired boy, he saw pure hatred in his eyes.

“Marty,” Jess said uncertainly, “what’s goin’ on around here. You OK?”

Marty merely shook his head. “What do you want, Jess?” he slurred.

“Well I just came to see you, to visit with Angela a while.”

“Well you sure took your time. Where the hell have you been?” Marty spat furiously.

Now it was Jess’s turn to be angry. “You know damn well where I’ve been — out fightin’ a war and it sorta concentrates the mind tryin’ to keep from bein’ shot, you know,” he growled. “I couldn’t get back any sooner because I guess the CO needed us troops around for the odd battle and visitin’ girlfriends is kinda low on his list of priorities,” he continued sarcastically.

Marty said nothing just looked down frowning.

“Well can I see her or not?” asked Jess irritably.

Marty nodded. “Oh yes, you can see her, alright,” and he gestured for Jess to follow him.

They rounded the barn and started walking up a track that wound around a hill at the rear of the property. As they climbed up the steep bank, Jess turned puzzled eyes on his old friend. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

After a little while, they crested the hill and there before them, neatly fenced was the family graveyard.

Jess turned questioning eyes on Marty.

“You wanted to see my sister, well there, take a good look,” Marty said gesturing to a freshly dug grave, with a basic wooden cross.

 Jess walked over and looked down. Angela Dakin; Fell asleep, April 8th 1862 RIP.

Jess started shaking uncontrollably and fell to his knees.

Marty came and stood beside him, looking down scornfully at the young soldier, as the tears ran freely down his face.

After a while Jess brushed them angrily away with his shirt sleeve, and looking up to Marty said, “How?”

Marty gave him a look of such deep loathing it fair rocked Jess’s soul. “She died of a broken heart,” he replied. “She never got over you leaving that way, didn’t eat, didn’t sleep cried day in day out. Then when she caught the fever, she had nothing left to fight with. It took her in just two days — and it’s all your fault Jess.”

Jess bowed his head. “I didn’t know,” he said softly. “I didn’t know she’d feel that bad.”

“She was calling for you. Jess, before she died calling out, and you weren’t here.”

Jess felt a knife like pain twisting in his guts and a wave of nausea and closing his eyes swallowed hard, before looking up at Marty from where he was still kneeling by the grave. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” he said yet again shaking his head desolately.

Marty suddenly lost his temper completely and grabbing hold of Jess he pulled him up, then started marching him back down the hill, the way they had come. “I want you off Dakin land,” he spat. “Go and fight your war and I hope you get your goddamn head blown off.”

Jess said nothing still in deep shock, but when he reached his horse he tried to say he was sorry again, but Marty merely brushed his words aside.

Then Marty leaned in close, his face ugly, contorted in rage, the smell of the stale whiskey making Jess want to gag. “If you do make it through the war, well I’m coming to find you and I’m gonna make you pay for what you did to my little sister. I’m gonna make sure everyone knows what a prize bastard you are. I’m gonna turn your friends against you. I’m gonna take your girlfriends off of you and I’m gonna make your life such a goddamn nightmare you’ll surely wish you had been killed in the war,” he snarled.

*****

Jess was being shaken gently awake.

“Hey come on, sleepy head, I thought you wanted supper and strong coffee.”

Jess’s eyes flickered open and he found himself looking into the warm friendly eyes of his best buddy. He glanced around him, saw the shabby familiarity of the old line shack and drew a deep sigh of relief. For a while there, he had been back in those dark days, following Angela’s death, but now he tried to shake off the enduring feeling of deep guilt and self-loathing that thoughts of her always generated in him.

Jess thought it was all buried deep until Marty had shown up again and now here he was in the same old dilemma — where he had to try and face it out with those he had come to care for, or just head off, knowing that Marty would destroy any relationships he had managed to build.

That was why it had taken him so long to form his strong bond with Slim and later the others; so hard to learn to trust, love them all because he knew how fragile these relationships could be. He knew how easy it was for Marty to ride in and turn his life upside down again.

But this time, he had been taken completely unawares. He had been lulled into a false sense of security, thinking Marty was either being hunted by the law or rotting in a jail somewhere and he had figured he was off the hook. So Jess had relaxed, put down firm roots, made a life for himself and learnt to love again in the belief that he was safe.

Slim wandered over with the plate of bacon and beans, then helped haul his buddy up into an upright comfortable position on the couch before passing him the plate. Then he watched him with concern as Jess started eating slowly. “You OK? Can you manage?”

The simple kindness brought tears to Jess’s eyes and he blinked quickly, answering gruffly, “Sure, I’m not an invalid, Slim; just got knocked about some is all.”

Slim had noticed the sudden brightness in his buddies eyes and knew the brusque tone was hiding raw emotion, very near the surface, so he let it go, just grinning across. “I know that.”

After supper, they settled down in front of the blazing fire with coffee liberally laced with whiskey, then after a while Jess turned to Slim and said softly, “Thanks, buddy.”

Slim turned quizzical eyes on his friend. “Well, it was only bacon and beans, but you’re welcome.”

There was a pause and then Jess said, “I didn’t mean for the meal — and you know it.”

Slim turned to look at his partner saying nothing, holding his breath. This was what he had been waiting for; Jess was finally going to open up and tell him everything.

“I mean, thank you for your friendship, for always being there for me, for digging me out of the garbage when I needed it and for just…well puttin’ up with me I guess.”

“Why does that sound to me like the kind of speech a man makes when he’s thinking of riding off,” asked Slim anxiously.

“Because maybe that’s exactly what I am thinkin’.”

“No…oh no, you’re not running away, Jess, I won’t let you. Whatever this Marty character has got on you, well we’ll sort it out — together.”

“Well maybe you won’t wanna do that…won’t wanna even be my friend anymore when I tell you,” said Jess quietly.

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”

Jess just nodded and then very quietly began to relay the whole story from the very beginning.

Slim just sat there an unfathomable expression in his eyes as he listened to how Marty and Jess hooked up in the first place, also about his wild ways. That pretty much confirming Slim’s view that it had been Marty stashing the empty whiskey bottles in Jess’s cupboard.

Then as the story progressed, Slim’s heart bled for his buddy as Jess related his passion for the beautiful young girl and subsequent guilt when he thought Angela was pregnant. Then how he had gone off half-cocked when he found out the truth, and signed up to the Confederacy, giving Slim a wry grin. “See the Harper temper’s always gotten me in hot water”.

“Ain’t that a fact,” said Slim smiling back.

But then Jess told of his return visit six months later and the trip up the hillside. When he told Slim how Angela died and that it was all his fault, Jess finally broke down, his head in his hands unable to speak, the guilt and pain he had suffered over the years completely enveloping him.

Slim looked shocked to the core, but rallied quickly and slung an arm around his buddy’s shoulders. “Jess, you can’t be made responsible for her death; the fever is a killer, everyone knows that. She was a young impressionable girl, sure, but I don’t really believe she would have half-starved herself the way Marty said, her parents would never have allowed it. Hell, if she was as precious to them as you say, they wouldn’t have let her suffer that way.” He paused for a while and then said thoughtfully, “Did you not see her parents at all.”

Jess merely shook his head.

“So you’ve only got Marty’s word for what happened then?”

“Yeah, I suppose, but why would he lie?”

“Why do people lie? Guilt, fear….I don’t know, but we’re sure going to find out when we go home.”

“You’re gonna stand by me then?” asked Jess his tone one of incredulity.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t?”

Jess sighed deeply, “I dunno; not many have. He can be real convincing; he darn near turned Daisy against me when I beat him up.”

“No…no he didn’t, Jess. Sure she was just shocked at your attitude, couldn’t figure it, and you did make a real mess of him,” Slim said with a wry smile.

Jess nodded. “You know that’s the first time Daisy hasn’t fixed me up after a fight,” he said softly, “too busy lookin’ after old Marty.”

“Yeah, well, he did come off worst.”

Jess gave him the ghost of a smile. “Yeah, he did, didn’t he?”

“That was why you laid into him so fierce — because you thought he would try and turn Millie against you?”

“Yeah, and it wouldn’t have been the first time either. He’s real cunning, you know, Slim. Starts off pretending he’s my friend…and then he’ll drop things into the conversation, like I drink, or I’m violent, then pretend he didn’t mean to say it — tries to cover it up because he’s my friend.”

Slim nodded. He’d caught Marty doing that once or twice too, the way he’d alluded to Jess’s temper when Daisy was tending him and  a few throw-away comments he’d made to Slim about Jess’s questionable past.

“Until in the end, people get wary of me and then he feels it’s his ‘duty’ to tell them the truth. Hell you should hear the ‘truth’ he’s told about me,” Jess said his eyes black with anger. “Way he tells it, I walked out on his sister when she was pregnant, she was so devastated she up and killed herself. Then there is the one that I am so violent that I knocked her about and when she said she was pregnant I hit her so hard she lost the baby,” he said his voice finally cracking, his eyes bright with unshed tears.

“Oh buddy,” said Slim reaching over and squeezing his shoulder affectionately, “I’m so sorry you’ve been through all this; you really should have told me sooner.”

Jess shook his head. “Couldn’t risk it, Slim; couldn’t risk him poisoning your mind against me. He’s powerful convincing. I couldn’t bear to lose you, Daisy and Mike…” He gave a deep shuddering sigh and was silent.

“You ain’t going to lose us, Jess. What we’re going to do is ride home tomorrow, and the first thing we’ll do is chuck that no good excuse for a human being off of the ranch. Then if there is any comeback, I’ll get the family solicitor on to him and sue for defamation of character.”

Jess cast him a wary look. “That sure sounds impressive.”

“Yeah, well it might be cheaper to just let you punch his lights out, but either way we’re getting rid, pard. I promise you that,” finished Slim with an encouraging smile. “Now come on let’s turn in and get off early. I’ll tell you what, seeing as how you’re a mite, ‘knocked about’, I’ll let you have the comfy bed without having to toss up for it.”

Jess smiled across. “Thanks buddy,” and shortly afterwards they turned in.

However the following morning, it was obvious Jess was going nowhere. The broken ribs were giving him a lot of pain and he was having difficulty breathing, plus some of the abrasions to his chest and upper legs looked in danger of being infected.

Slim went through the painful process of cleaning all the wounds with neat whiskey again and bandaging them, but as to the ribs, he knew they just had to wait for them to begin to heal.

Jess spent the day drifting in and out of consciousness, but by supper time he rallied and halfway through the meal he suddenly said, “What day is it, Slim?”

“Saturday by my reckoning; guess we’re a day behind schedule, but can’t be helped. Figure there was no way you could have sat a horse today buddy.”

Jess had turned white. “Oh no…we have to get back Slim, tomorrow for sure.”

“Why what’s your hurry? Marty may be a no good liar and a drunkard, but I figure even he can’t wreck the business in just a week.”

“That’s the point, Slim, he is a drunkard. I mean really addicted to the grog, and if he don’t get my money…well God knows what he’ll do. I figure he will have run out by now, and a Marty who ain’t got cash for a Saturday night out is not a happy boy.”

Slim now looked equally agitated. “You don’t think he’d hurt Daisy or Mike, do you?”

Jess shook his head. “No, he’d never hurt a woman or a child, but that’s not to say he wouldn’t raid Daisy’s housekeepin’ or Mike’s piggy bank if he gets the craving for the drink.”

“Yeah well, he’ll be lucky to get anything. Daisy will have done the marketing on Friday — she’ll spent most of the money in  the pot — and as to Mike…well last time I looked, there was exactly two cents and a button in that old piggy bank.”

But Jess didn’t raise a smile at Slim’s joke. “Well, they’d better watch out then, ‘cos he can get in a real bad way if he don’t get his fix — no knowing what he’ll do. Up and sell something more as like.” Then with the light of battle in his eyes, “and it better hadn’t be that big Buckskin he’s pinched off of me neither.”

Slim grinned across at his buddy pleased to see his old fighting spirit back. “Figure we’ll find out tomorrow, pard; maybe he’ll just have some cocoa and an early night if he’s run out of cash.”

Jess shook his head and gave him an incredulous look. “Yeah, sure,” he said lightly. “Sure.”

*****

They set off early herding the mustangs, which was hard work at the best of times, but with Jess hurting the way he was, it was really difficult.

Jess tried hard not to show how bad he was feeling and  carried on riding at a fast pace, but Slim could see how much it  was taking out of him so he insisted they pause and rest a while halfway home.

The weather had turned cold and there was the smell of snow in the air so Slim set a small fire and they brewed some coffee, although neither man had the stomach for anything more.

After a while Jess cast his buddy an anxious look. “You don’t think he’d have taken advantage of us bein’ away and talked to Daisy, do you?”

Slim shook his head. “I doubt; it; he knows when he’s onto a good thing. Why would he rock the boat if he knows you’re good for regular hand-outs?” Then casting him a quizzical look asked, “Exactly how much have you been giving him, Jess?”

The dark haired cowboy looked down, embarrassed, from where he was squatting by the fire, sipping his coffee. “Most of my wages.”

Slim gave a low whistle. “No wonder you didn’t want to come out on a Saturday night; you couldn’t afford it, could you?” Then more reflectively, “Gee Jess, that’s a powerful lot of whiskey.”

“Like I said, he needs it now; it’s a sickness.” Then Jess swigged the remainder of his coffee. “Come on, Slim, let’s get these beasts home.”

When they arrived back at the ranch dusk was just falling and the lights were shining out of the house windows. Slim had galloped in ahead and opened the corral gate, as Jess herded the half dozen horses in. Then the ranch door burst open and Mike ran over and helped Slim close the gate behind the beasts, his eyes dancing in delight at the sight of both the horses and his two friends.

“Gee Slim, they’re a swell bunch of critters,” Mike said appreciatively. Then his head swiveled as he grinned at Jess, who had just slipped down from the saddle, and running over, he hurled himself at the young rancher. “I’ve so missed you, Jess,” then turning to Slim, “you too. Slim.” As he turned to include the blond haired man, he didn’t see Jess stifle a moan as the youngster held him tightly banging his ribs painfully.

After a moment Jess disengaged himself and peering down at the youngster, said “Has everything been OK while we’ve been away, Tiger?”

“Yeah sure, except Marty started acting real strange; he rode out yesterday and ain’t back yet”.

“Don’t tell me — he took the Buckskin, didn’t he?” said Jess.

“Yeah.”

“I knew it Slim, I just knew it. If he’s sold him on, so help me I’ll…”

“Jess…. later,” admonished Slim glancing down towards the young boy.

“Oh, yeah, right.”

Then Daisy came running out and stopped in her tracks when she saw Jess, a guarded expression on her face for a split second before she welcomed both men. “Come away in, suppers almost ready.”

They sat down to the meal and Slim caught Daisy casting Jess one or two worried glances, something in her eyes he had never seen before — wariness, uncertainty, he couldn’t tell — but his heart beat faster as he dreaded what had possibly happened. Had Marty started trying to turn Daisy against his buddy?

Jess seemed to be unaware of the tense atmosphere, just slowly eating his meal without the usual hearty appetite he normally displayed, but then Slim figured he was in a lot of pain and was concentrating on hiding his injuries from Daisy, knowing all the fussing he would receive if she saw how badly hurt he was.

It was after the meal, when Mike had reluctantly gone off to bed, that Daisy first noticed that Jess seemed to be finding  it hard to breathe, and then he staggered slightly as he got up from  the table, reaching down  to steady himself as the room started spinning.

“Hey buddy, you OK?” asked Slim jumping up and taking his arm, he supported him over to the old leather couch. He sat him down, squatting down beside Jess, looking up at his friend’s ashen face. “Is the pain real bad?” he asked softly.

Jess just nodded.

Daisy had hung back and not heard their conversation, but now she came over looking down at the young man in concern.

Slim looked up. “Can you fetch the medicinal whiskey, Daisy? Figure Jess here could do with a drop.”

But Daisy looked suddenly angry and pursing her lips said, “Don’t you think he’s had enough already?”

“Huh?”

“He’s obviously drunk, Slim. Now why don’t you take him to his room to sleep it off?”

“Daisy! He’s not drunk, he’s hurt. Now are you going to get him something or shall I get it?”

Daisy hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my…why didn’t he say he was hurt?”

“He didn’t want you fussing; you know what he’s like Daisy. Now will you….”

“Oh yes, of course.”

She disappeared into the kitchen before returning with the bottle and a tumbler. She poured out a good measure and passed it to Jess, who was now lying back on the couch looking pale and trembling.

“Here you are, dear,” she said gently, but seeing how he was shaking she put the tumbler to his lips and helped him sip some of the fiery liquid.

“Thanks Daisy. Sorry about that; just went kinda dizzy.”

Daisy looked mortified. “Where are you hurt dear?”

“I’m OK,” Jess whispered. “Just got knocked about some. Had a bit of a ruckus with an ornery mustang, decided he didn’t want any part of bein’ caught, didn’t have no sense.”

“Well I imagine that makes two of you,” Daisy said with an attempt at humor to try and lighten the atmosphere.

Jess’s head rolled back and he closed his eyes for a moment before looking up into Daisy’s kind wise face. “He’s been bad mouthing me to you, ain’t he Daisy. Marty…what did he say? I was a drunk, or a woman beater, or his favorite –a violent thug, who killed his own baby?”

Daisy reeled back in shock, at the bitterness in Jess’s tone. Then she looked ashamed. “Yes, he did say you were drinking heavily,” she said. “He said he was so worried about you, that you needed help… had been taking money from him to buy the drink and if I didn’t believe him I’d find the evidence stashed in your cupboard. I even found some more bottles under your bed.”

Jess just groaned and exchanged a look with Slim. “See, I told you.”

“Then he said one of your tricks was to pretend to be hurt so you’d get whiskey or laudanum for the pain. He said Slim was in league with you…felt sorry for you, would cover up and help you get the drink you needed. I’m sorry; it all seemed to make such good sense the way he told it.”

Jess shook his head. “Well, do you believe me or Marty, Daisy?” he said with a sudden flash of anger, “‘Cos he’s spot on, ain’t he. Here’s me sayin’ I’m in pain an’ askin’ for whiskey and ol’ Slim here is backin’ me up…just like Marty said he would. Guess you’ve gotten all the evidence you need.”

Daisy’s jaw dropped and she stared hard at the young man she had come to love as a son. “If there is a problem, there is nothing to be ashamed of,” she said softly,” I’ll help you through it; we can face this together”.

Then Jess lost his temper. “There ain’t nothin’ to get me through; I ain’t tippin’ the jug…look.” He unbuttoned his shirt showing her the closely bandaged ribs and the raw painful abrasions to his torso and arms. “I told you, Daisy, I was hurt on the mustanging trip. I wouldn’t lie to you… and neither would Slim.”

Then her face crumpled and she started shaking. “Oh Jess, my dear, I am so sorry for doubting you. I should have known better, I really should.”

Jess sighed deeply and his anger melted away. “I guess you’re not alone, Daisy; he’s mighty convincing, turned one hell of a lot of folks against me over the years.”

“But why dear, why would he do that?”

Then Slim stepped in. “It’s kind of a long story, Daisy; I reckon ol’ Jess here needs his shut eye,” and with that he helped his buddy up and off to bed.

Much later, Slim sat by the embers of the fire drinking coffee and finally finished telling her Jess’s sad story.

Daisy had alternately been shocked, amazed and finally felt deeply ashamed that she could have been duped into believing the worst of her boy.

“So you see, Daisy, that’s why he finds it so hard to settle down, commit to anyone. He’s just plain scared that Marty will turn up and blow everything apart again.”

Daisy shook her head sadly. “What can we do?”

“I really don’t know, but maybe he’s lit out… for good I mean, Jess thinks he may sell the Buckskin and then move on. So what happened yesterday? Mike said he was acting strange?”

“Yes, he was like a cat on hot bricks all day Friday looking out for you coming back, even rode down the trail a way. Then on Saturday he was worse, couldn’t keep still. He said you hadn’t paid him and could he have a sub, but well I had nothing, just what I had in my purse, some lose change, I gave him that, enough for a couple of beers; he said that’s all he wanted.”

“Oh really,” said Slim sardonically.

“Well then he rode out to town, but the funny thing was, he was wearing a gun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him wear one before…and he’s been gone all day today too. He should be back by now even if…”

“What?”

Daisy looked embarrassed. “Well you know…he’s stayed over with a friend.”

“Oh yeah,” said Slim getting her drift and wondering where Marty had found the money to pay for a hooker. “Well if he isn’t back tomorrow, I figure I’ll ride into town and have a look see for him. Jess is worried he’s taken off with that Buckskin and he’ll be real mad if he has.”

*****

They were just finishing breakfast the following morning when they heard a rider galloping into the yard.

“Someone’s in a hurry,” said Jess glancing across at his partner.

The blond rancher slipped from his seat and went to investigate, returning a few minutes later with their good friend Sheriff Mort Corey in tow. “Sorry to disturb you good folks so early,” Mort said casting them an apologetic look.

“Well it’s lovely to see you, Sheriff,” said Daisy leaping up from her seat. “Can I get you a coffee?”

“Thank you, Miss Daisy,” replied the grey haired wiry man, removing his hat and taking a place at the table. “Got some news,” he said looking at Jess and then tipping his head meaningfully to where Mike was finishing off his biscuits.

“Can you go and make a start on the chores, Tiger?” asked Jess kindly.

“Aw Jess, I ain’t finished yet an’ I wanna hear what the sheriff is going to say.”

“Aren’t finished,” corrected Slim, “and you can take your biscuits with you. Now scoot.”

The child got up and left the room obediently, if a tad slowly.

Jess and Slim exchanged a grin before turning back to Mort. “So what’s this all about?” asked Slim, as Daisy returned with the Sheriff’s coffee and passing it over took her seat again.

“Well it’s about that Marty Dakin. He was working here, wasn’t he?”

“Sure, well, still is as far as we’re concerned,” said Slim frowning.

“Um well not for much longer, I’m afraid; he stopped a bullet last night. He’s over at Doc Sam Baker’s place. But he ain’t going to last. “

“What, he dying?” asked Jess, looking shocked.

“Afraid so. He went into the saloon on Saturday night asked for a bottle, said you were due in  shortly and would be paying,” Mort said looking at Slim. “Well, old Tom knows you’re good for the money, so he let him have the drink, but then he asked for more and as it was near closin’ with no sign of you, Tom refused, so Marty  staggered of to sleep it off at the livery.”

“Sounds about right,” muttered Jess grimly.

Mort raised an eyebrow at the dark haired cowboy. “Of course you two don’t see eye to eye, as I remember,” he said with an ironic smile.

“You could say that.”

“Um…anyway come Sunday afternoon, he’s there propping up the bar again, askin’ for hand-outs and that was when old Tom decided to show him the door. Next thing he knew the bastard had drawn on him and said he should pass him a couple of bottles over or he’d wreck the place.”

“So what happened?” asked Slim looking worried now.

“Well, old Tom was a mite tardy on deciding what to do, so Marty shot the mirror behind the bar and that was when…” Here he stopped for a moment casting an anxious glance at Jess. “Well, that was when Millie was hurt.”

Jess’s head shot up. “What! Hell, is she hurt bad Mort?”

“Now simmer down, son; she’s gonna be OK. More shocked than anything, but well a shard of glass caught her…in the face.”

“What!”

“It’s OK Jess; the doc’s seen her, says she shouldn’t have any permanent scarring and she’ll be just fine in a week or two.”

“That bastard!” yelled Jess thoroughly rattled now; he leapt up from his seat and started to make for the door.

Mort put out a restraining hand and pulled his friend back. “Will you settle down, Jess? He ain’t gonna make it anyway, so stop wasting your energy on fussin’ and frettin’ “

“He’s really that bad then?” Slim asked.

“Yeah. See, Lon, my deputy, came in, saw what was going on, told him to drop his weapon and Marty fired on him. Well, it went a mile wide, so Lon shot back and caught him in the shoulder. We got him over to Sam and I thought he’d be able to patch him up, but he’s lost way too much blood; the doc says got complications too, something to do with all the drinking, the doc figures.”

Jess looked down shaking his head, a mixture of emotions rushing through him, relief, he was free at last…but somewhere deep down sorrow, sorrow for the loss of the boy who had been the carefree buddy he had known before Angela’s death blew their friendship apart for ever.

“Jess?”

“Huh?”

“I said…he’s asking for you, begging you to visit.”

Jess dragged himself back from his reverie. “Really,” he asked giving Mort a deadpan look, “so what makes him think I’d wanna do that?”

Mort stared back looking quite shocked. “Well, I know you two have had your differences, but ain’t that a bit harsh Jess? After all, he is dying.”

Jess stood up pushing his hands deep into his pockets and strode over to the window, looking out onto the yard.

Daisy glanced from Mort to Slim and then standing up she went to stand beside Jess, placing a motherly hand on his arm.” Jess?”

Jess half turned to look down at her and she was shocked to see his deep blue eyes so full of pain. “I just can’t,” he whispered.

“I think you should go,” Daisy said softly. “You need to have an end to it all. You have to say what you need to him — and he obviously wishes to see you…to say he’s sorry, maybe?”

“Oh yeah, and so that will make it alright?” Jess said bitterly.

She shook her head. “No dear but it may start to make it alright, help you to move on?”

Jess took a deep breath and let it out slowly. ”OK.” Then turning to the Sheriff, “Come on then, Mort, let’s get this over with.”

*****

When they arrived in town they made straight for Doc Baker’s office.

The kindly middle aged man smiled in welcome when he saw Jess as the two men were old friends, the Doc always joking that Jess kept him in business the amount of times he got beat up or shot.

Now the Doc ushered him in and said, “The patients been asking for you again Jess; you’d better go straight in. I don’t think he’ll make it through the night”.

Jess gave him a wary look and then taking a deep breath opened the door to the small hospital room at the rear of the office, closing it softly behind him. He advanced on the bed then stood looking down at its occupant and what he saw made his blood run cold.

Never had he seen someone look so white, yet still be alive; in fact, for a moment, Jess thought he had gone, but then he saw the chest rising and falling almost imperceptibly.

After a minute Marty’s eyes flickered open to slits and he squinted up at Jess, then opened his eyes fully. “You came,” he whispered.

Jess just nodded. “What do you want, Marty?” he asked.

There was a pause as the sandy haired young man tried to find the strength to speak again. “I needed to see you, tell you stuff… stuff you need to know… and there’s something else Jess, something I want you to do for me.” He paused, licking his lips before closing his eyes.

“You OK?” asked Jess gruffly.

“Water?”

Jess poured him a glass from the jug on the night stand before helping him to take a couple of sips.

“Thanks…”

“So?”

“I wanted to ask you to go and see my folks… tell them I’m sorry it ended this way…sorry I’ve not been the son they wanted.”

Jess just stared down at him, unable to respond, feeling so dang mad that he should be asked this. Hell, he didn’t owe him any favors, dying or not.

Marty must have picked up on the cowboy’s dark thoughts. “I guess I don’t deserve you helping me… but if you can’t do it for me, do it for Angie’s memory. The news would be better coming from you, Jess, than some ol’ Sheriff… you could break it kinda gentle…yeah?” he asked looking up pleadingly.

At the mention of Angela, Jess’s heart lurched. “That’s kind of below the belt, ain’t it,” he said quietly. “Not content with emptying my bank account with your blackmailing now you’re tryin’ to blackmail my heart…that’s real low even for you, Marty.”

“I’m sorry, right…so sorry for everything I’ve done, what I’ve put you through…. But hell I’m desperate here, buddy…”

“Buddy?”

“We were once, weren’t we?”

“I guess.”

“Well do this last thing for me, will you? Please Jess, I’m beggin’ you here.”

Jess couldn’t speak, such were his conflicting emotions. Then after a few minutes he looked down into the other man’s eyes and just nodded.

Marty closed his eyes tight and swallowed before looking back up at Jess. “Thank you.” Then he started coughing and Jess again helped him to a sip of water before resting his head back on the pillow.

“Shall I get the doc?” Jess asked.

Now Marty’s breath was coming in rasping gasps. “No…no listen to me Jess,” he said so quietly that the cowboy had to sit down on the bed and lean close to hear him.

Marty grabbed hold of his arm. “Listen…listen to me buddy, I have to tell you…. “

“Tell me what Marty?”

“None of it was your fault — Angie dying…it wasn’t your fault buddy… it was mine…”

“Huh?”

“It was me, Jess; I let her down real bad. I guess I just couldn’t face it, so when you happened along, I decided to throw all my guilt at you.”

Jess just stared at him, not understanding what was happening.

Marty’s head rolled on the pillow. “I got to blaming you for everything… and then once the drink took over my life…well then I guess I got to believe it myself.”

“What are you sayin’, Marty?”

“It was all my fault Jess… and I’m sorry, so sorry.” Then Marty took one last trembling breath and closed his eyes for the last time.

Jess stared down and felt Marty’s grasp on his arm finally lessen, then his head rolled back as the life force left him.

Jess stayed with him for a good five minutes, just staring down at the ravaged face and watched as it gently relaxed so that he almost looked like that seventeen year old boy he had met so many years before. “Oh why did it all go wrong for you buddy?” he said softly, as he finally stood up and walked slowly out of the room.

Mort and Doc Sam were sitting drinking coffee in the outer office when Jess came in looking dazed. “He’s gone,” he said quietly.

Mort looked at his friend. “You look a mite upset, boy. Did you make up your differences then?”

Had they? Jess really didn’t know; it sure as hell was too soon to forgive him… but maybe one day. He just shook his head. “Not really.”

“I’d better send a wire to his kin. You know where they live, Jess?” asked Mort.

“Yeah, they’ve moved up from Texas, he told me, got a spread just south of Cheyenne.”

“Right, I’ll attend to it, get the Cheyenne Sheriff to go and tell them.”

“No.”

“Huh?”

“No Mort, it’s OK; I’ll ride over and tell them myself.”

Mort took his hat off and scratched his head. “Well I thought you two had got some sorta vendetta goin’ on, so why would you want to go to all that trouble?” he asked looking surprised.

“Because I told him I would; let’s just say it’s for old time’s sake,” Jess said gruffly and with that he walked out of the office.

Jess stood outside on the sidewalk, leaning on the hitching  rail, feeling  slightly dizzy and sick, then took a couple of deep breaths to steady himself before pulling his hat down hard and marching across the road to the Saloon.

It was still quite early and the only person there was Tom polishing glasses behind the bar.

“Mornin’, Tom.”

“Howdy Jess,” grunted the older man looking wary. “So how’s your friend?”

Jess shook his head. “He ain’t no friend…not now anyways, and he’s dead, Tom.”

Tom looked somewhat abashed at the news. Oh…well…um,” and started polishing his glasses with renewed vigor.

“I’m sorry for your trouble Tom and I’d like to pay for the damage.”

“Well it isn’t your fault, Jess boy.”

“Yeah, well I’d like to pay anyways,” and he threw several coins down on the bar. “That cover it?”

“Yeah, more than, thanks Jess.”

“Is Millie about?”

Tom shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, Jess; she’s given me strict orders she don’t want to see anyone, not the way she’s fixed right now.”

“She’ll see me Tom.”

“Well go on up then, but don’t blame me if she bawls you out.”

Jess ran lightly up the stairs and knocked on Millie’s door.

There was no reply, so he knocked again louder, and this time he provoked a response. “Go away I’m busy.”

“Millie, it’s me Jess, open the door honey.”

“Go away,” she shouted harshly.

“Can’t do that, Mill; I ain’t goin’ nowhere until I’ve seen you.”

After a few more minutes, the door was wrenched open and she shouted, “You want to see me, then take a good look, then go.”

Jess stared at her in shock, the livid red gash down the side of her face looking angry and painful.

Unable to bear his scrutiny, a hand flew to her face and she turned from him.

Jess took his opportunity to slip inside the room and close the door quietly behind him. “You’re mad at me and I guess you’ve every right to be. I’m so sorry Millie, just yell at me if you want to, hit me.”

She turned surprised eyes on him. “I don’t blame you,” she said. “Why ever would I? I just don’t want anyone seeing me this way…especially you…..”

“Why?”

“Because I care about what you think of me of course you idiot, and I look so …so……”

Then her face crumpled and she began to sob.

He took two paces forwards and took her in his arms. “Oh Mill, do you really think it matters to me what you look like on the outside? You’re still my sweet, funny, kind…beautiful… and darn right exasperating, girl. Do really think a little thing like that is gonna change how I feel about you?” he asked tipping her chin up with a finger, so she had to look into his eyes.

The sobs lessened. “I guess not.”

“Sam says it’s only a matter of weeks before you’re completely healed and back to flirtin’ with all the customers, making me mad jealous.”

“Do I?” she asked, opening her eyes wide in surprise.

He looked down at her his blue eyes twinkling, “Sometimes…although I’d never let on.”

“Oh you,” she smiled giving him a gentle cuff.

*****

Later when Jess rode back into the yard at the ranch, leading the big Buckskin, Slim ran out of the barn to greet him and beaming at the horse said, “See you got the big fellah back then”.

Jess tipped his hat back, looking down from the saddle, “And a hefty livery bill,” he said.

“Maybe Marty will pick it up?”

“Hardly likely…he died a couple of hours since.”

Slim gave a low whistle. “How do you feel about that?”

“Dunno…relieved I guess.” jess slid down from Traveler, and hitching him to the corral fence he opened the gate then loosed the Buckskin, before turning back to face Slim. “Kinda sad too, if I’m honest. It was the drink did for him, you know, Slim — tainted his life. I figure it had already started when I first met him. Hell I fell over him when he’d been kicked outer a saloon; guess that says it all.”

“Yeah, the amount of bottles I’ve found stashed around the place since we got back…well he sure had a problem.”

“I think it really got a hold after Angie passed away; he said something to me about feeling guilty…..and it was all his fault or somethin’. I couldn’t follow what he meant, but I remember smellin’ the drink on him that day I rode back in during the war. I reckon he’d been tippin’ the jug since daybreak by the looks of him.”

“Yeah, I guess he was just real sick… but even so, it doesn’t make it right what he did to you Jess. Did he find the words to apologize before he croaked?”

Jess just nodded.

“Well guess that’s an end to it all then.”

“Not quite, I promised him I’d ride out and tell his folks.”

“Are you crazy, Jess? You’re done in now, just riding to town and back. You shouldn’t be sitting a horse with those busted ribs and you know it.”

“Well it won’t wait, will it, Slim. I gotta tell ‘em before they read it in that Cheyenne rag,” and with that he jerked Traveler’s reins free and marched off to the barn.

Over supper both Slim and Daisy tried to talk him out of the proposed journey, but Jess was his usual stubborn self saying he was absolutely fine.

“Yeah, so fine I had to help you unsaddle Traveler just now,” said Slim dryly.

“Look, OK I’ll break my journey at Cheyenne, let the livery sort out Trav, then stay in a hotel and do the other ten miles or so the following day, happy?”

“Not really dear, but I expect it’s the best we can hope for,” said Daisy, giving him an indulgent smile, before turning her gaze on the youngest member of the family.

“Why Mike, you’ve hardly touched your food are you feeling alright?”

“I guess.”

Jess leaned over and felt his forehead. “Yep, cool as Button’s nose,” he said referring to the child’s dog, but he didn’t get a responding smile for his trouble. “Why don’t you get an early night, Tiger, and I’ll come an’ tuck you up in a minute?”

“OK Jess, ‘night all,” and the youngster, wandered off.

“What’s gotten into him; he never goes to bed that easily.”

“It beats me Slim, but I aim to find out.”

“I think I may know, dear”.

“Oh?”

“Well he got really close to Marty when you two were away. I think he may be very upset about his sudden death, but he doesn’t want to show it out of loyalty to you, Jess. He has heard you and Slim discussing things, he knows…well that Marty wasn’t your favorite person, so I think he’s feeling kind of mixed up right now.”

Jess looked instantly distressed. “Poor little tyke. This whole thing is way too complicated for him to figure. I guess he doesn’t even understand the idea of blackmail… thank goodness,” he said as an afterthought. Then getting up and wiping his mouth on his napkin, he said, “I’ll go and talk to him.”

Jess knocked lightly on the boy’s door and went in closing it behind him, then saw the child was already in bed, the covers drawn up, looking suspiciously bright eyed.

Jess sat down on the edge of the bed. “Wanna story?”

“Yeah,” said the boy brightening visibly “But one of yours, Jess, not a book one.”

“Well, OK…. Let me see now. There was once this young boy who was a drifter. Well one day he met another young lad, who’s’ life was real different. He was real rich; he had a Ma an’ a Pa, two pretty sisters and a real nice home. Anyways he befriended the drifter, invited him to his home, got his Pa to find him a job and even shared his room with the stranger.”

Here Jess paused and gathered his thoughts, before continuing.

“Well the drifter was mighty pleased ‘cos he had nothin’, no home, no Ma or Pa , no brothers or sisters so he thought it was real swell living on the ranch and all. He was so happy, Mike; had food in his belly, a good job and lots of fun too going around with the other boy and his sisters.”

Mike grinned. “You’ve always liked girls too, haven’t you Jess?”

Jess blushed a little. “Well yeah, I guess. Anyways, later on some bad stuff happened between the drifter and the rich boy. They fell out somethin’ fierce. Then — this is the sad part — the rich boy’s sister died. Then many years later he died too. Well when that happened, the drifter felt kinda bad… because they had had this big fall out and he really didn’t know what he should do …or how he should feel. “

“Go on, Jess…so what happened?”

“Well, he thought about it a while, then he figured the best thing was to try an’ forget all the bad stuff, just remember how good his buddy had been to him when they were youngsters together.”

Suddenly the light of understanding dawned in the child’s eyes, and they welled up with tears. “You’re talkin’ about you an’ Marty, ain’t you?” Mike said softly.

Jess just nodded, a huge lump suddenly in his throat.

“So if you’ve sorta forgiven him. Is it OK for me to be sad?” asked Mike.

“Sure it is, Tiger, guess we can both be sad. Come here,” and Jess held the young boy close as he sobbed.

After a while the sobs finally slowed and then came to a shuddering halt as Mike gave one last huge sigh.

“Better now?”

“Yeah, I guess I do feel a little better thanks, Jess,” Mike said, looking surprised. “I’m glad you’ve forgiven him and I guess he can kinda rest in peace now, can’t he. He won’t be fretting none in Heaven”.

Jess wondered if Marty had made it to Heaven, then kinda hoped he had. After all he’d been sick and you can’t go on blaming a sick man for what he’d done, he figured. “Well, do you feel better enough for a piece of apple pie before you turn in then?”

“You bet, Jess,” and then leaning up he hugged him tight, “You’re the best.”

“So are you, Tiger,” and the two went off to find Daisy, plus some pie.

They made their way back into the big room and Mike was given some pie, just as a special treat as he was usually  not allowed dessert if he  hadn’t eaten his main meal, but Jess had cast Daisy a meaningful look and  she had relented this once, noting  the youngsters red swollen eyes.

After a while, the child went off to bed again looking much less troubled and the adults sat around the fire for a final coffee before retiring.

Slim cast his buddy a searching look. “You OK?”

Jess just nodded.

“So what did you say to Mike? He looks much more cheerful now.”

Jess paused for a moment, then said softly, “Just told him a story about a drifter and a rich kid and how the drifter was taken into the rich kids home and treated like one of the family, and then later how they had a big bust up and when the rich kid died…well the drifter didn’t know as how he should feel.” He stopped casting Slim a bleak look.

“Go on,” Slim said kindly.

“Well I told him that the drifter figured the best way to cope was to try and remember those good times when they were crazy kids together and kinda forget the rest of it.”

“And can you do that do you think, dear?” asked Daisy, giving him an encouraging smile.

Jess stared into the fire, before turning to her. “Guess I can sure try, Daisy,” he said softly.

*****

When Jess was ready to ride out at first light, Slim got up with him and helped saddle up Traveler as he could see his buddy was still hurting some.

“You sure about this Jess? I could ride over and tell them for you, explain you’ve been sick.”

Jess shook his head. “No, this is something I have to do Slim….and maybe we can talk about the other business too. I never did get to see them after Angela died. At least I can say I’m real sorry… even if it is a mite late.”

“Guess it’s never too late to show people you care, buddy, good luck.” And with that, Slim patted Traveler’s rump as he trotted out of the yard, Jess tipping his hat in farewell.

*****

Jess didn’t push Traveler, keeping a steady pace, but still made Cheyenne by late afternoon as he only took a short break at lunchtime, having no appetite with the thought of the ordeal ahead.

However by the time he reached the town, Jess was quite tired and more than a little dry so he decided to call for a quick beer, check the directions for the Dakin spread and then put Traveler in the livery before booking a room.

Jess entered the quiet saloon, approached the bar, tipping his hat back and wiping his sweaty face with his sleeve. It had been one of those rare late fall days when the sun seemed to be coming out for a last farewell tour and the trail had been both hot and dusty.

Jess ordered a beer and after a good pull asked the barkeep for directions to Pete and Ann Dakin’s place.

“Not too far, mister. You take the road out of town, continue for about half a mile until the road bends, then head off to your left, go up a steep hill, then once you crest it, you’ll see the Dakin place in the valley below. You can cut across the pasture land, make it from there in no time.”

“Well thank for your help,” and swigging back the rest of his beer, Jess threw a coin on the bar. He stood on the sidewalk suddenly undecided and then moseyed over to Traveler. “How about it big fellah, shall we go now…get it over with eh?” Then with that he hopped back up into the, saddle and set off at a brisk trot taking the road out of town.

As he turned off the road at the bend and started climbing up the hill he thought, Jess smelt wood smoke, and then wondered idly if someone was camping nearby, and if so, maybe they’d have some coffee on the go that he could scrounge.

When he final crested the hill and looking down into the valley below, where the Dakin place was situated, Jess stared in horror as a cloud of dark smoke rose into the air wafting away towards the town, blown by the sharp little wind that had suddenly got up.

“Oh God,” Jess whispered as it became obvious that the barn was well alight and there looked to be nobody around doing anything about it either. He guided Traveler on down the hill, and once they reached level ground, he kicked him into a fast gallop until they arrived at the ranch. He tore into the yard and leapt down from his horse, leaving him to move away from the danger as he dashed towards the conflagration.

 As he rushed over, Jess nearly bumped into Ann Dakin, toting a heavy bucket of water, her eyes wild with fear, looking disheveled, and when she saw Jess she sounded almost hysterical with relief.

 “Oh Jess … thank the Lord, help us please…please. Marjorie went in after her pony and hasn’t come out. Pete and Lonnie are out hunting.”

Jess immediately reassured the elderly lady.

Untying his bandana, Jess soaked it and then tied it around his face before dashing into the burning building through a sheet of flames.

 It was pitch black inside and full of acrid smoke, but he edged his way towards the frenzied whinnying of what sounded like Marjorie’s Paint pony. After a moment, he was right next to the terrified creature, and hoping Marjorie was close by he screamed her name, but getting no response, he tried to calm the creature and started to lead it out of the barn.

However once they reached the flames surrounding the door, the animal refused to move until Jess pulled off his jacket and covered the horse’s head and eyes and then he eventually allowed Jess to lead him out.

Jess burst back out into the fresh air, coughing and choking; he bent double, trying to get his second wind, the pain in his damaged ribs agonizing every time he gasped for breath.

The pony galloped off to join the other livestock at the far end of the corral and Jess glanced up and was relieved to see Traveler had joined them.

Then Mrs. Dakin was at his side again. “Oh Jess, where is she?”

“There was no sign, Ma’am. Are you sure she went in?” he gasped.

“Yes, I’m positive…oh no, I can’t bear it,” and she collapsed to her knees, sobbing uncontrollably and wringing her hands.

Jess looked down at her and knew what he had to do, although every fiber of his being was shouting ‘Nooo!’

But he knew he had to go back into the barn.

He suddenly had a flashback to another fire, the screams of his family renting the night air as a fifteen year old Jess was restrained by two neighbors from going back in to try and save his kin.

Now there was nobody there to restrain him so he staggered forwards ,then righting himself, dashed back into the inferno, hearing timbers crack and fall as he went , the heat almost driving him back, but he knew what he had to do, as he again  ran through the flames to the deep black Hell within.

Jess yelled Marjorie’s name again and again….. to no avail. He finally fell to his knees and crawled slowly forwards feeling the ground in the pitch dark.

When Jess felt he could stand the heat no longer and his lungs were choking with the foul smoke, his hand finally touched something soft, an arm…a dress…hair…..It was Marjorie, lying unconscious on the barn floor. He somehow managed to pick her up on the third attempt, and with his knees threatening to buckle he half ran, half staggered from the burning building.

When he got out, Jess suddenly felt strong arms around him, holding him up, his precious burden  gently removed and someone kept saying, “Jess… oh Jess boy thank you…” before a black velvet cloak of oblivion finally enfolded him.

When Jess woke up, he was lying on a leather couch in the ranch’s huge living room, propped up with pillows and covered by a colorful blanket. His eyes flickered open and after a moment he focused on his surroundings, then felt a light hand on his arm.

“Welcome back. son. How are you feeling?” and he found himself looking into the eyes of Ann Dakin.

Jess tried to speak, but his throat was way too dry and the effort brought on a spasm of violent coughing making him feel as though he would pass out again, such was the pain in his broken ribs. Then he looked past Ann to a bespectacled stranger.

“Hello young man, my name is Doctor Berry and I’m afraid you are suffering from the after effects of breathing in smoke, not to mention the added problem of those broken ribs you seem to have. Tell me when did you sustain the injury?”

Jess stared blankly at him for a moment and then said, “When did I get busted up? Er, a few days ago…why?”

“Well if I was your physician, I certainly wouldn’t have let you sit a horse — folly, young man…complete folly.”

“Now hang on a moment, Doc. Don’t you go giving this boy a hard time; he may have been a bit fool hardy in riding out in his condition, but knowing Jess I’m sure there was a good reason for it… and to be honest. I’d be mourning the death of another daughter if he hadn’t happened along when he did,” said Pete Dakin, who Jess now saw moving into view.

“Quite so,” said the medic. “I was merely trying to ascertain the seriousness and history of the damage.”

“Huh?” said Jess looking dazed.

“He wants to know when and how you busted your ribs Jess,” said Pete Dakin kindly.

“Well, why didn’t he say so? Like I said, a few days since and I got stomped on by an ornery mustang that didn’t wanna make friends… OK?” he finished sarcastically, before dissolving into another coughing fit.

“Quite so,” said the Doctor again. “Well, keep him quiet, just sips of water, some of my cough syrup a little later and I’ll leave you something for the pain.”

Jess suddenly remembered why he was laying there. “Marjorie?” he asked weakly.

“She will make a speedy and full recovery, thanks to you young man,” said the doctor, smiling at last. “I think this family is in your debt,” then he said his farewells before leaving.

After he had gone, Mrs. Dakin went off to attend to her daughter while Pete came and sat with Jess. He looked over at the young cowboy where he lay exhausted on the couch, and said gently, “The Doc never said a truer word, Jess; this family owes you a huge debt for all you did this evening. I know exactly what that cost you — after what happened to you as a kid — that was way beyond brave Jess, what you’ve just done…”

Jess looked puzzled.

“Oh yes, I know all about the Bannister gang burning out your folks place; you see you confided in Marty and he told me…”

“Oh?”

“Yes, he wasn’t being disloyal; it’s just that you had a terrible nightmare once when you were living with us. You woke the whole house up… but I guess you forgot about it the next day?”

Jess had no recollection, but then he often had these terrible dreams about the fire or the prison camp and then fell asleep again, remembering little or nothing.

“Anyway I was worried about you and so Marty told me about the fire…” Then Pete’s voice was suddenly choked with emotion. “So to do what you did just now well…”

Jess squirmed with embarrassment, looking down, not really knowing what to say.

“I was sorry when you rode out,” continued the older man gathering himself and realizing Jess was feeling uncomfortable. “Real sorry; I had hoped that your influence would help Marty to turn around his life some.”

Jess again looked puzzled.

Pete Dakin continued, almost to himself, “I guess maybe it was all my fault spoiling those kids.”

“Help him some way?” asked Jess looking mystified.

Then coming out  of his reverie, Pete replied, “Yes sure; you see the way you worked so darned hard, the way you were so respectful to me and Ann, well I guess he kind of admired you for that, looked up to you. Yes, believe it or not, Jess, he actually did more work and cut back on the drinking while you were around,” He paused looking deep into the fire, before continuing. “Then you had that bust up with…with Angie…”

“You knew about that?”

“Oh yes, Marjorie told me all about how Angie tried to con you into marriage by pretending to be pregnant.”

Jess blushed to the roots of his hair. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I mean for the fact that…well that she could have been I guess.”

Pete looked over at Jess. “Well I’m a man of the world; these things happen and you were both over the age of consent. I can’t pretend I was happy when I found out what my little girl had been up to… but well if she was going to experiment, I figure I’m glad it was someone I could trust like you.” The he grinned over at Jess. “The silly thing was, that if she’d come to me and said she wanted to wed you, well I’d have been delighted…but I guess you felt you were too young?”

“We both were, Mr. Dakin, way too young.”

“Yes I guess maybe you’re right.”

Jess was exhausted, his chest aching, his throat raw, his eyes red rimmed and painful. All he wanted to do was to sleep, but he knew he had to say something, to tell this big kindly bear of a man how very sorry he was about Angela’s death and his part in it.

 Then there was Marty’s death; he still hadn’t broken that news to the family.

Jess took a deep breath, then said, “I have to tell you… well…..I’m real sorry about …about Angela. It was all my fault I guess and well…I’ll never forgive myself. “

“What do you mean?”

“For well, the way she went, grievin’ for me an’ all, not eating… then getting’ sick. I’m damn sorry, Mr. Dakin. you’ll never know…….how sorry…” then he stopped unable to continue.

There was a long pause, then Pete Dakin said, “I don’t understand you, boy; you say it was somehow your fault?”

“Sure, Marty told me the day I came callin’ to see her, just after… after she’d passed away.”

“Oh yes, I seem to recall that. I was dang mad at Lonnie when  he said he’d sent you away; I would have got some comfort from seeing you, boy, and Ann would have done too.”

Jess just stared at him uncomprehendingly but then Mr. Dakin continued. “So what did Marty actually tell you?”

“That Angela grieved something fierce for me after I left, was cryin’ all of the time, wouldn’t eat or sleep, lost so much  weight …then when she caught the fever, well it took her in two days. Marty put all the blame at my door; he’s never let me forget it since,” Jess finished a hint of bitterness in his tone, although he tried to hide it.

Pete Dakin looked furious. “He’s let you believe that…all these years?”

“Sure, he could never forgive me… and I can understand that… an’ I’m truly sorry, Mr. Dakin.”

“Sorry?” the man yelled. “You’re sorry. Hell you’ve nothing to be sorry for, boy; it’s that wastrel of a son of mine that should be sorry.”

 Jess partly sat up, his expression incredulous. “How so?”

“Let me tell you the truth of it all Jess,” Pete said with a deep sigh. “My daughter was lovely, God rest her soul, but she was spoilt and she was fickle,” he said pausing to look into the fire before he continued. “Just three months after you rode out, she was making sheep’s eyes at young Jamie Jackson, our neighbor’s son, and was engaged to him two months later. Not eating, starved? Hell Jess, she’d never been fitter.” He paused shaking his head sadly, once again remembering his lovely daughter as she had been back then.

“Then the two of them went to a dance in town and some folk from the wagon train drifted in. Well one of them had this here fever, passed it on to the townsfolk and that was the beginning of the end for my little girl.” Pete sighed deeply. “Jamie caught it first, got real sick and then Angela… well that ol’ sickness is a killer, Jess, wiped out half the town. Jamie, then Angela. They died and then Ann caught it too, but survived, thank God,” he said, taking a relieved breath.

“Anyways, when Angela was real sick, I sent Marty to town for the Doc, but he never came that night, and the next day I rode in myself for him, but it was too late.” Pete gave a shuddering sigh and looked down before continuing the narrative. “Apparently the doc had just got some new medicine that was working real well; he figured if he’d got here in time he could have saved her,” he said, with another shuddering sigh, his eyes bitter. “Anyways he was in time to save my Ann, gave her the new drug and she started to improve the next day. If only Marty had got the doc to us sooner, well we wouldn’t have lost little Angie, and I believe that’s a fact — and what’s more so does Marty.”

“So what happened? Couldn’t Marty find him?”

The older man shook his head. “He was out on a call and so Marty had to go back… but he went into the saloon, got totally pie eyed, then woke up in the livery at noon the next day. By then, Angela was dead.”

It all suddenly began to make sense to Jess, what Marty had said on his death bed — ‘it wasn’t your fault, Jess. it was mine’, how he’d let her down real bad, how he’d felt so guilty. Hell, it all suddenly added up. “It wasn’t my fault — it was Marty all along,” he whispered almost to himself.

“That’s right Jess, and I can’t believe that my boy could do that to you. I just guess he felt so damn guilty that he couldn’t cope so he passed it all onto you.”

Jess nodded. “And over the years I figure he actually began to really believe that was the way it all happened”.

“Yes, you could be right; it was the drink that changed him. I figure he just couldn’t tell reality from lies last time I saw him anyway. I’ve just had enough of him to be honest, Jess, I threw him out some three months back, thought it might bring him to his senses, but I’ve not heard anything since  then. Just you wait until I catch up with the young scoundrel though…hurtin’ you that way,” and Pete shook his head in anger.

Jess heart started pounding and he broke out into a cold sweat, running his sleeve across his face before giving the older man an anxious look, knowing what he must do.

Pete Dakin glanced across from where he was sitting by the fire. “Hey Jess boy, you’ve gone white as a sheet. You’re not going to chuck up are you? I’ll fetch the Mrs.,” he said quickly, hating any form of illness.

“No,” said Jess loudly, then more quietly. “No, it’s OK, Mr. Dakin. I ain’t feelin’ sick…it’s just… well I figure I need to tell you what brought me out here.”

“Well don’t get to frettin’, boy; it will do in the morning. You look beat… and if it’s a job you’re after, I can tell you right now, you’d be more than welcome to stay as long as you want, more than welcome.”

Jess sighed deeply and then turned troubled blue eyes on the old rancher. “No. It’s not that. It’s about Marty…I have news of Marty.”

Pete Dakin’s expression hardened. “Go on then, son, what’s he been up to now?”

Jess just stared for a full minute before swallowing deeply and saying, “There ain’t no easy way of sayin’ this, Mr. Dakin. But Marty… he’s dead.”

The older man’s head shot up and he stared at Jess in horror. “He’s dead?”

“Yes sir, shot two days ago in Laramie. There was some ruckus in the saloon; Marty pulled a gun, threatened the barkeep and then shot at the Deputy…then…well the deputy shot him.”

Pete jumped up and stared at Jess. “No… oh no,” he gasped in anguish and then turning his back on the young cowboy went and leaned on the mantle above the fire, resting his head on his arm, and stood there silently, his large frame shaking.

After a few minutes, which felt like a lifetime to Jess, Pete finally pulled himself together and taking a large kerchief from his pocket he blew his nose noisily, before turning back to Jess. “I’m sorry about that, young man; it’s just kind of a shock. I always knew the boy would come to a sticky end…… but not yet…not yet awhile…”

*****

The following day, back in Laramie Slim was wandering down the side walk when he bumped into Mort.

“Hey there Slim, what are you doing in town in the week?” asked the Sheriff, tipping his hat back and beaming at the blond rancher.

“Howdy Mort, just banked a check for several head of steers and feeling like a small celebration coming on.” Then squinting up at the sun, said, “Guess it’s gone noon. Fancy a nice cold one?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” grinned the Sheriff and the two men entered the cool dark Saloon.

“Can’t get over how mild it is for late fall,” said Slim taking a pull at his beer. “Last week I could have sworn we’d get snow and now look at it.”

Mort nodded. “So Jess get off to the Dakin place OK?”

“Yeah, darn fool. Doc Sam said he was crazy to go riding all that way, mess his ribs were in, but you know Jess — stubborn is his middle name.”

Mort smiled down into his beer. “Ain’t that right.”

Then a moment later old Mose, the stage driver wandered over. “Did I hear you say Jess was visiting the Dakin place?” asked the old timer looking troubled.

“Yeah, sure, Mose…what about it? He didn’t take the stage though, rode over, so he wouldn’t be coming back with you today if that is what you thinking.”

“Nah, it’s not that Slim; it’s just, well I’ve just driven the early morning stage over from Cheyenne and the word on the street is that there was a big fire over at the Dakin place last night.”

Slim put his beer down; looking shocked. “Go on… “

Mose cast an agitated look at Mort, then back to Slim. “Well it’s only hearsay — I don’t know the truth of it — but I overheard someone tellin’ as how a young cowboy just rode in, was visitin’. Saw the fire and went into the blazing barn after the young daughter of the house and well… neither of them got out.”

Slim turned a deathly white. “What? Who said that? Mose? You sure?” he gasped, starting to shake his heart crashing in his chest.

“I can’t rightly say, Slim. You know how folks talk after an accident, might not have even been Jess that they were talkin’ about.”

Slim said nothing, just picked his hat up from the bar and turned to go, but Mort restrained him.

“Hey Slim don’t go riding over there half cocked like this. You know the way rumors start; those folk never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Jess is probably safe and sound, the young lady too. I’ll wire the Sheriff over in Cheyenne, find out for sure.”

Slim merely shook his head. “Sorry Mort, I can’t wait that long.” Then turning to Mose, said gruffly, “Don’t you dare say anything about this at the ranch, not until we’re sure. Just tell Daisy I’ve had to head out on business, be back as soon as I can. OK?”

The older man just stared at the blond rancher, feeling heart sick at the possible truth of the rumor.

“I said OK, Mose?” yelled Slim angrily.

 “OK, OK you got it, I’ll say nothing,”

 Slim strode out of the bar, unhitched Alamo and jumping up into the saddle kicked him into a furious gallop, down main street and out of town.

*****

Slim made good time and was probably only a couple of hours out of Cheyenne when Alamo came up lame. Slim never knew if he’d pushed him too hard, or he’d been hit by a loose stone, but the result was the same — his faithful old horse was obviously finding the going hard  so Slim knew he had to dismount and walk him.

After an hour or so, it was beginning to get dark so Slim realized he had to cut his losses and camp for the night. So he settled down, just hoping and praying that Alamo would benefit from the rest and be OK in the morning. As he went about making camp and gathering some wood, he cussed as he never had done before, such was the depth of his feelings.

Mostly Slim cussed Jess. “Dang crazy idiot, heading off on a fool’s errand. That no-hoper was dead… he didn’t need to go. But oh no he had to do it….sick as he was. I said I’d go, but no, too damn stubborn….. never listens to me.” Then after a while his ranting slowed down and finally stopped as he sank down beside the campfire, his head in his hands. “Oh buddy…don’t do this to me,” he whispered.

After a while, Slim lay down on his bedroll by the fire, his saddle for a pillow and looked up at the myriad of stars remembering the last time he was in a camp like this with Jess, just a short time ago.

He thought back to how his buddy had finally confessed to the way he was being blackmailed and also to his terrible feelings of guilt for his alleged part in the death of Angela. Slim shook his head at the memory; if only they had been able to quiz Marty properly, Slim was sure he would have total exonerated his friend… but even though Marty had said it wasn’t Jess’s fault, he knew his buddy hadn’t believed him.

He knew Jess was still filled with the guilty feeling that just maybe the young girl had died indirectly because he had ridden out and left her grieving for him.

Then Slim made himself think about the fire and suddenly knew that Jess’s warped sense of justice would have come into play. He knew exactly how his friend’s mind worked, how he would have deliberately sacrificed his life, trying to save Marjorie… to somehow make up for his part in Angela’s death. Crazy though the logic was, Slim smiled grimly. Yeah, that’s the way his buddy would have been thinking — if indeed he had stopped to think before tearing into the blazing building.

Slim turned on his side, his arms across his stomach in a protective huddle, his belly churning as he tried desperately not to think of the worst case scenario… to think of what he might have to face the next day.

The following morning after a bad night’s sleep, Slim was still up at dawn, relieved to see Alamo seemed fit and raring to go. They headed off after first light and entered the Dakin yard just as Lonnie was setting about the early morning chores.

Slim rode in, stopping at the hitching rail and cast a glance at the still smoking ruins of the large barn, feeling sick to his stomach, as he slid down from the saddle.

“Howdy, can I help you, stranger?” asked Lonnie wandering over, a speculative look in his eye, pondering if Slim had just come to gawp, after the recent traumatic events.

Slim gave the man a hard look, barely daring to ask the question, he knew he must. He tried to speak, but couldn’t and cleared his throat, before trying again. “I’m a friend of Jess… Jess Harper. Slim Sherman. He was supposed to be visiting here. I just wondered if he was around.”

The older man came forwards, now deep concern registering in his eyes. “You ain’t heard then … about the fire?”

Slim swallowed, and closed his eyes for a moment willing himself to keep it all together. “Yeah, I heard about the fire.” Then gruffly, “Well, is he here?” — his voice faltered — “or not?”

Lonnie grinned at the stranger, having convinced himself that the young blond cowboy was genuine. “Sure he’s here,” he said. “Ain’t none too well right now, had to fetch the Doc back to him this morning, but I reckon he’ll be pleased to see a friendly face. Come on in, Mister Sherman.”

Slim just stared at him for a full minute feeling dizzy with relief. “Thank you,” he finally whispered before he followed the tall man into the house.

Slim entered the dimly lit room, then stood for a moment getting his bearings…and then he saw his buddy lying on the narrow bed, a sheet pulled up to his neck, his face looking a similar color, the dark stubble making him look even paler.

Slim went and sat on the chair beside the bed then after a little while said, “Gee buddy, what have you got into now? “

Jess just lay there for a moment then finally his eyes flickered open and he focused on Slim. ”Hey there, pard.” he said weakly. “You OK?”

Slim snorted in disbelief. “Hell, I’m OK…so how about you?”

“Guess I’ll live,” Jess whispered. “Kinda think I want to now.”

Slim got up from the chair and sat down on the edge of the bed, so that he could see his buddy better. He surveyed him, noting the red rimmed eyes, intense pallor and the way he was having a real bad problem breathing…almost as though he was unable to take in enough air, his frame shuddering — then the coughing started.

Slim looked on in anguish as his friend desperately gasped for breath, his hands grabbing his ribs, as the agonizing pain ripped through him every time he coughed.

Jess was propped up on several pillows and Slim supported him so that he sat upright, one arm around his shoulder, gently patting his back.

Then after a while the coughing finally stopped and Jess ran a sleeve across his face wiping the tears away that had been streaming down as a result of the coughing fit.

Once he had finished, Slim offered him a drink from the tumbler on the nightstand and eventually Jess lay back on the pillows looking exhausted.

“Gee, you’re in a real bad way aren’t you, Jess?”

“Been better… but I’m OK,” Jess whispered in true Harper style.

“So what did the doc say this morning?” asked Slim his face full of concern.

“That I’m in a real bad way,” said Jess, repeating what his buddy had just said, with the hint of a twinkle in his deep blue eyes.

Slim cast him a rueful smile, shaking his head. “Don’t joke about it, buddy; I hate seeing you like this.” Then more thoughtfully, “So what did you mean, before, about wanting to live…now?”

Jess looked up at Slim for a few minutes considering his reply. “Well, I guess I was feelin’ real bad about what I’d done to Angela…then when I was in the barn tryin’ to locate Marjorie, well I couldn’t find her anywhere, Slim,” he said turning anguished eyes on  his friend. “I knew I couldn’t last in there, but knew I couldn’t go and leave her either, then I kinda got to thinking…well maybe in was payback time…for what I’d done to Angela…you know?”

Slim looked shocked and just shook his head sadly, “You can’t think that way.”

“Yeah, well I did. Then last night I talked to Mr. Dakin. He told me that what Marty had been tellin’ me, well it was all a pack of lies. Angie wasn’t grievin’ for me; she had a new beau and was real happy before she was struck down with the fever,” Jess said the look of relief on his face immense, but also tinged with sadness.

“Well I figured that no good bum was lying all along,” said Slim, relief making his voice quaver.

Jess immediately picked up on the raw emotion and looking deep into his friends eyes said softly, “I’m sorry, Slim, for dragging you into all this mess with Marty an’ all…. “

Slim looked down and swallowed hard. “It wasn’t that, Jess. You see, I met up with Mose yesterday and he told me….well he’d heard some gossip in Cheyenne…about you.”

“Oh?”

Slim took a deep breath. “Yeah, they were saying you and Marjorie had…had perished in the fire.”

Jess’s head swiveled and his eyes opened wide in shock, before he gave a low whistle. “Hell…you thought I was dead?”

Slim just nodded.

“Gee, I’m sorry, Slim; I would have wired you, just as soon as I could, you know that.”

Slim nodded again. “Yeah, I know,” then gathering himself, he gave his buddy a tremulous smile. “How about you get some shut eye. Need you well again, Jess, need to take you home.”

Epilogue

It was the week before Thanksgiving and the friends had just returned back from the hunting trip Jess had suggested way back in September, the day he rode in with the fine deer that had been much admired by the Sherman Household.

Slim had said the meat would last through the winter, but Jess had other ideas and proposed he revisit ‘Paradise’ for more venison. Also to get the turkey that usually graced their table come Thanksgiving.

The two men had spent a very satisfying morning hunting and had returned to the ranch full of good spirits, their happy banter bringing Daisy and Mike out of the ranch house as they entered the yard.

The provender had been duly admired and Jess had gone off to the barn leading the two horses, helped by Mike.

The young cowboy’s eyes dancing in merriment as he filled the youngster in on the hunting trip, his breath making misty clouds in the icy air, as Slim and Daisy watched him disappear into the barn   laughing with the boy.

Slim remembered those dark days of just a few weeks ago, at the Dakin place, when his buddy could hardly breathe, his slender body wracked with the coughing spasms that were so agonizing, and knew there had been a time when the good doctor thought his buddy wouldn’t make it.

However, Doc Berry wasn’t acquainted with Jess’s stubborn streak.

Slowly but surely, with the loving care he received from both Slim together with the Dakin family, Jess’ strength and health had gradually returned. Now he was as fit as ever as he joshed with young Mike, their laughter emanating from the barn.

“I guess we’ve got our boy back,” said Daisy looking up at the tall rancher, a relieved smile on her face, as they stood on the porch together.

Slim nodded. “I really don’t want to go through anything like that again Daisy,” he said with feeling… “when old Mose said… “

“Shush…it’s all over and we must look to the future, now all that dreadful business with Marty is over.”

“Yeah, you’re right we need to forget about all that,” and then casting a last look towards the barn before heading in, he whispered, “I just hope Jess can.”

It was the evening of Thanksgiving, the household had feasted well on wild turkey and the atmosphere had been one of true thanks giving. Not only for the fact that Jess had been spared, but also that the family unit were once more united and maybe even stronger and wiser after their recent ordeals.

Now Daisy and Mike had retired for the night, Jess and Slim sat on in front of the blazing fire a whiskey a piece, feeling replete and mellow.

After a while Jess turned to his partner and said, “Life’s good, ain’t it. Slim.”

The tall rancher stretched his long legs out luxuriously and with a smile full of satisfaction said, “It sure is.” Then more quietly, “So you’re over it all now, then Jess?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I got to thinkin’, well, feeling guilty about all that stuff…it’s pretty useless really. Likewise holdin’ a grudge over what Marty did to me…well that don’t change nothin’.” He stopped and turned to look intently at his friend. “See if you can’t change things — make amends — then guess it’s just a waste of time fussin’ and frettin’.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right there, buddy.”

“So, yeah, I’ve put it all behind me…moved on. I guess all a man can do is learn from his mistakes…and make tomorrow a new day… like a fresh start…you know?”

Slim smiled across at him, “so when did you get to be so darn philosophical?”

“Huh?”

“When did you get to be so wise, Jess?”

His partner grinned across, a twinkle in his deep blue eyes. “About the same the time as I moved in here, with you, I guess.”

Slim chuckled and leaning across gave his friend a gentle cuff. “Let’s turn in, pard. Like you say, tomorrow’s a new day, and lots to do.”

***End***

Thank you for reading!

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