Blood Brothers (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG  (Some Adult themes, strong language and violence)
Word Count:  54,800


 

It was a bright sunny summer morning on the Sherman Ranch and Relay station, and as the early morning stage made its way out of the yard and up the rise to the Laramie road, Jess Harper, the dark haired, blue eyed cowboy, let out a contented sigh as he thought of the day ahead.

His partner in the ranch and best buddy, the tall lanky blond Slim Sherman, had agreed that they should both take this Saturday off and do a spot of fishing, and now the stage was on its way, there was nothing stopping them.

Jess turned towards the barn and was almost trampled underfoot as Mike, his small blond haired ward, came tearing out at speed.

“Are you ready, Jess? I’ve got Traveler already saddled up for you, and Slim is just coming, so come on, Jess, let’s get to it; I can’t wait any longer,”  he finished, giving  his friend a pleading look and jumping up and down in his excitement.

“Well now Tiger, are you sure you’ve done all your chores?”

“Aw Jess, you know I have; finished ‘em all long since.”

Just then Mrs. Daisy Cooper, the elderly ranch housekeeper and surrogate Ma to them all, came out of the ranch carrying a bag and called Mike over.

“Here you are,” she said proffering the small gunny sack. “There are some cookies there for your lunch, just in case you don’t get lucky with the fishing.”

“Oh we will,” said the little boy, turning earnest eyes on the elderly woman. “Jess and Slim always catch something, but I guess we’ll have room for the cookies as well as the fish,” he said with a big grin.

Jess tipped his hat to the older woman. “See you later, Daisy, back for supper,” and with that, the three mounted up and rode briskly out of the yard.

They arrived at the river about an hour later and soon settled down to fish. It was a beautiful area of the ranch, nicknamed Paradise by the ranchers because of the abundance of wildlife available for hunting or fishing and the fantastic scenery. Tall pines fringing the river bank and a distant view of the mountains all made an ideal location in which to relax.

It was much later, after lunch, that Mike wondered off exploring and returned full of excitement.

“Hey Jess, look what I’ve found,” he said, bounding over and startling his friend, who was almost asleep resting by the river in the warm sunshine.

“What you got, Tiger?” he said good naturedly, rousing himself and sitting up.

“Look,” said the boy holding out a flint knife with a carved wooden handle. “Is it an Injun one, Jess, is it?” he asked in excitement.

Jess took the small weapon from the boy and studied it closely. “Sure is,” he said after a few minutes. “Be careful, Mike, that’s real sharp.”

Mike took it back, holding it very carefully. It’s quite small. Do you think it belonged to a little Indian boy?” he asked, looking delighted at the thought.

“I guess, could be,” said Jess, smiling indulgently at the youngster.

“How old were you, Jess, when you went and lived with the Indians?” asked the boy, sitting down beside the young cowboy.

Jess fixed his eyes on the distant horizon. “Twas just after the war, probably about nineteen…twenty,” he said softly. “Mad as hell and no common sense that was me in those days, Tiger. But I guess I changed quite a lot, those six months I was with the Arapaho; they taught me a lot.”

“They taught you horse whisperin’, didn’t they, Jess? That’s why you so good at horse breakin’, best in the country Slim says.”

Jess cast his partner a surprised look. You said that?”

Slim grinned back. “Yeah, must have been drinkin’ Red Eye at the time,” he said with a chuckle.

“Um, sounds like it.”

“So why did you leave the tribe if you loved the life so much?” asked Slim. “You’ve never told me about that.”

Jess looked out to the horizon, his eyes unfocused as he thought back over the years, and he gave a deep sigh, before saying, “Well, it’s kind of a long story, buddy.” Then glancing down at Mike, looked across to his friend. “Figure I will tell you….one day,” and then just looked off into the distance again as he remembered…

*****

Jess had just turned twenty, not that he had celebrated the fact; nobody knew about it, and there was no one left to care anyway. His kin all dead or dispersed after the war and it was just another day he figured.

He had had one hell of a war — been a prisoner and darned near died — so any day he was still actually alive was a bonus, as far as Jess was concerned.

 He was an angry young man, filled with the sort of rage that can only be generated by a harsh life, and thus far his life had been incredibly harsh. Not that Jess particularly realized the fact when he was a child or was troubled by it; he just accepted his lot.

He had been born into abject poverty, living a life on the Panhandle in Texas where his Pa was a share farmer and a drunkard. He spent all his money on drink and occasionally lashed out and beat his wife and five children when the life he led became unbearable, and Jess learnt from a young age how to try and protect himself and his poor mother.

He found a rusty old gun one day and hid it away from his father’s prying eyes, but every day he would sneak it out and practice firing it and quick drawing, and by the time he was a teenager, he had mastered it to perfection and living by the gun was to become his way of life over the ensuing years before he met Slim Sherman and finally put his gunslinger weapon away for good.

It had given him the confidence, at just fifteen years old, to go after the Banister gang when they had fired his home, killing his folks and all but two of his siblings, and he had searched high and low seeking retribution without success.

Then he had enlisted as a boy soldier with the Confederate army, and was finally taken prisoner after a long and hard war. After the war, the young Jess Harper had wiped the dirt of the prisoner of war camp from his hands, if not his heart, for the last time, and as a free man, he went on the drift, moving from town to town, relying on his wits and his gun to survive.

It was a summer’s morning and he had been riding through the Kansas countryside since dawn when he drew Traveler to a standstill and contemplated the trail he was on, as the road suddenly forked.

“Well boy, what’s it to be right or left?” he asked his mount.

He had half thought about turning west for Dodge City to see if it lived up to its reputation and he figured he’d have plenty of sport with his six shooter there; on the other hand, Wichita was probably a more sensible idea and so he looked down the road east, still undecided.

It was Traveler who finally took the decision; bored with just standing there, he could feel his master’s hesitancy and taking advantage of the slack reins, he promptly turned right and headed for Wichita. Jess often wondered later what would have happened to his life if he had taken the other road, or more importantly, what would have happened to Little Wolf’s life.

It must have been about an hour later when Jess heard a blood curdling scream, followed closely by another, the eerie sound sending shivers down his spine.

He kicked Traveler into a gallop, and rounding a bend in the trail, he saw something that made his blood boil. Two burly men had a half-naked young Indian boy tied to a stake and they were taunting him and then lashing him with a horsewhip, his young body already covered in bleeding wealds from the harsh beating.

Jess was incensed, and leaping from his mount, he laid into the man with the whip, grabbing it from his hands and throwing to the floor before smashing his fist into the ugly older man’s face. He sent him reeling and then turned his full attention to the other doing similar. The men soon rallied, however, and Jess had his work cut out fending off both of them as they pounded him with their fists and kicked him. Jess was nothing if not tenacious, though, and had youth on his side and finally floored both men.

Once they began to stir, he drew his gun and fixed them with an icy stare.

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get on your horses and ride like the Devil himself is on your tail, because I tell you if you ain’t out of here in ten seconds, I might just forget I don’t shoot people in cold blood,” he spat.

The men exchanged a look and ran for their horses, but once they were mounted, the one who had been wielding the whip spat, “No good Injun lover. You’ll get yours, mister; just watch your back.” and with that, he kicked his horse into a gallop, following his accomplice over the rise.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” muttered Jess before turning to the Indian boy and quickly cutting him down. “You OK, buddy?”

The young man fell to his knees. “Hohou,” he whispered.

“Huh,” said Jess looking down at him.

“Hohou, er, thank you, my friend.”

Jess grinned at him. “Hohou, I’ll remember that.” Fetching his canteen, he passed it across to the man. “Here, you look kinda parched. Did they have you strung up there long?”

He nodded. “Long enough.” Then he thanked Jess again and drank deeply from the canteen.

After he had finished, Jess set about cleaning his wounds and bound the worst with some clean rags from his saddlebag.

The Indian relaxed back when he had finished. “I am Little Wolf, son of Yellow Bear, chief of the Arapaho and who are you my friend? “

“Harper, Jess Harper,” he said, offering his hand, and the two young men shook warmly.

“So you’re a chief’s son then, so what are you doin’ out here all alone?”

“Well, I had a’ bust up’, as you say, with my father and went off alone. I was just thinking about returning to my people when those two attacked me.”

“I guess some folk are just plain ornery,” said Jess. There ain’t no war between the white man and your folk, as I know of anyways.”

“Yes, my friend, you are right we are at peace with the white man, but there are good and bad amongst us all. I just met two of the bad white men, that is all.”

“Guess you’re right there, buddy,” said Jess.

“Tell me what is this buddy?”

“Friend. I guess it means friend.”

“Well from now on you will be known as Dakota, ‘friend’ in the Arapaho language, and I will be known as Buddy, yes?”

“Yes, sure,” said Jess, throwing his new friend a grin. “Say, did you have a pony? Can’t see you getting too far on foot. I mean, you welcome to ride double, but my old horse will only put up with that for a few miles. Is your camp far?”

“Yes I have a pony, a little paint, went that a way,” Little Wolf said, gesturing behind him with his thumb. “And the camp is about a day’s ride over there.” He pointed down the trail in the direction Jess had been travelling.

Jess nodded. “Look if you feelin’ better. Why don’t we make camp here tonight; you could make us a fire while I go and find your pony, and then I’ll ride back with you, just in case those hombres show up again, OK?”

“Thank you, my friend; I am in your debt.”

Jess just grinned at him, and hopping up on Traveler, made off in  the direction the pony had gone and soon located him grazing about half a mile or so further on.

When he returned, his new friend had struck camp under some tall pines near a fast moving little stream and had got a good fire going.

As soon as Jess arrived, Little Wolf ran over and fussed his pony. “A man’s pony is his most important possession, is it not?” he said grinning over at Jess.

“Yeah, you’re not wrong there,” he agreed.

The boy looked thoughtful for a moment and then said, “Do you know the skill of horse whispering?”

Jess shook his head. “Can’t say as I do. I’ve heard of it, how you Indians can gentle wild mustangs and get ‘em broke quicker and easier than the white man. I sure would like to see that.”

Little Wolf grinned at him. “Then you shall, Dakota; I will teach you how to do it as repayment for my life.”

“Gee thanks, hohou,” said Jess cheerfully.

Little Wolf surveyed the scene before them. “We have fire and water,” he said, spreading his arms to encompass the stream and the crackling camp fire.

Jess turned to his saddle bag and produced a brace of rabbits. “Shot ‘em this morning, so guess we’ve got supper too.”

Little Wolf beamed at him. “We will do well together, my friend; we make a good team,” he said laughing.

The following morning Jess had his shirt off and was washing at the stream when Little Wolf came and joined him.

After he had washed, he sat back on his haunches and contemplated Jess naked back.

It was covered in fine silver scars where the cowboy had obviously received a severe lashing with a whip.

Jess saw him looking and felt embarrassed at the amount of scars on his young body, but Little Wolf just gave him a sad look. “I see you have suffered in the past, as I did yesterday,” he said quietly. “Why did you get your whipping, Dakota?”

Jess gave him a hard look as though he wouldn’t answer, and then after a deep sigh, he replied, “Twas in the war, prisoner of war camp, and my buddy was dying and he kept asking for water and the guard refused so… I stole some.”

Little Wolf looked furious. “To refuse water to a dying man, that is cruel; even the beasts of the field deserve water and food.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought, so I got him some.”

“And what happened, my friend?”

Jess, who was squatting down at the water’s edge, looked deep into the stream before looking over at his new friend. “ got twenty lashes, darned near killed me, and my buddy upped and died, so guess it was all for nothing,” he said with a note of harsh irony in  his voice.

Little Wolf shook his head. “No, you did what you could to help a friend; at least with the water, you eased his passing. That was not in vain my friend.”

Jess gave him the ghost of a smile. “Never looked at it that way,” he said softly.

“Did you holler?”

“Huh?”

“When they beat you in the camp, did you holler like I did?”

“Oh sure,” said Jess with a big grin. “Hell, I hollered louder than you did, Buddy.”

Little Wolf smiled and then looked worried. “Please do not tell my father I bawled. I should have remained silent when they tortured me; it is the Indian way.”

Jess looked over and shook his head gently. “He won’t hear it from me,” he promised.

The men rode into the Indian Camp later that day and Jess was surprised to see how big it was, with about twenty large buffalo hide tepees, spread in a circle around a great central camp fire. The camp was set in a sheltered hollow amongst the hills. With a sizable lake just beyond and a back drop of pine clad mountains, it was indeed a wonderful place to live.

As they arrived, a couple of scrawny looking hunting dogs ran over barking and that alerted the women folk and children working around the central fire. There were few men about — probably off hunting, Jess surmised — but after a moment, a tall man emerged from the nearest tepee and walked over. He was an older version of Little Wolf, wearing identical buckskin shirt and trousers with his long black hair braided and decorated with a single Eagle feather.

He ran to Little Wolf and embraced him joyfully.

“My son, my son, you have returned to us. And seen the error of your ways I hope,” he said with a sudden stern look in his eyes.

The boy nodded and looked contrite. “I have, father,” then turning said, “This is my friend Jess Harper; he saved my life back on the trail, father. We must make him an honored guest. Jess, this is my father Yellow Bear.”

Yellow Bear turned and looked at the young cowboy, liked what he saw and made the sign of peace. “Jess Harper, you are welcome in my village”, then turning he gestured to a pretty middle-aged woman and a young girl hovering behind him. “This is my wife Kusuma and my daughter Sky.”

 The women nodded shyly and Jess tipped his hat to them. “I’m pleased to meet you Ma’am, Chief,” he said politely.

Yellow Bear reckoned Jess to be a similar age to his son, guessing he had seen about twenty summers pass, but he seemed much more mature than his boy. Maybe Little Wolf will learn about life from this stranger, he thought, and looking into the cowboys deep blue eyes, he saw strength — born of suffering, he guessed — that had made the man seem older than his years.

Then Little Wolf went on to explain all about the men attacking him and Jess’s timely rescue. As the tale unfolded, Kusuma went and held her son, looking fearful, before turning and looking over at Jess. “We are deeply in your debt,” she said softly.

Jess just grinned at her. “I was glad to help, Ma’am.”

Little Wolf went on to say how he intended to teach Jess horse whispering while he stayed with them as a thank you.

His mother looked fondly at the two young men. “Not before you have sat and eaten; the meal is nearly ready. Look at you, Little Wolf; gone just a week and you have lost weight”

Jess hid a smile and figured mothers were the same the world over, no matter what their race or creed. And they all went off and settled to a good hot meal which was greatly appreciated, especially by Jess, who had forgotten what good home cooking was like.

All the way through the meal, Sky had stared at Jess, and by the end of it, he was beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable. After a while, Kusuma noticed and giving Jess a shy smile said softly, “You must forgive my daughter; she has only seen sixteen summers and has met very few white men. She is just curious.”

Jess grinned across at the remarkably beautiful young girl and tried to put her at her ease. “Well, I ain’t met very many Indian girls,” he said smiling into her eyes, “and certainly none as beautiful as you.”

The young girl blushed deeply and looked down. “Hohou,” she whispered.

“You’re welcome,” said Jess, smiling at her.

Then she looked up again. “You understand our tongue?” she asked in surprise.

“Some,” smiled Jess. “Well, that’s all really,” he said honestly.

She smiled properly at him now and Jess’s heart skipped a beat. She sure was a looker, with those huge brown eyes and long braided black hair, enough to turn a man’s head he thought to himself.

Then she broke into his thoughts. “Then I shall teach you more,” she said. “If Little Wolf teaches you the horse whispering, I shall teach you our language and the art of Indian medicine, so that you will always be able to look after yourself if you ever get sick.”

Little Wolf beamed across at his friend. “See, Dakota, we will make a true Arapaho brave of you, when my sister and I have finished!”

And so Jess settled into life with the Arapaho tribe, and for the first time since the war, he started to put down roots and feel he really belonged somewhere. He had found it difficult at first to make true friends with the welcoming people because he had lost so many friends during the war and he found it hard to commit himself to others, fearing that the bond would be broken by death or desertion as it so often had been. However, his attitude slowly changed and he found himself part of a family again and the feeling was good, very good.

Little Wolf became as close as a brother to him and they laughed and roughhoused just as he had done as a child with his own brothers. It was something Jess had missed sorely, but he hadn’t realized how much until Little Wolf came into his life.

Little Wolf was like his brother, and Kusuma and Yellow Bear felt more and more like kindly parents to the young cowboy, but he couldn’t think of Sky as a little sister. His feelings for her grew day by day as she spent time with him teaching him the basics of their language and also about all the different herbs and plants used in the ancient medicines favored by the tribe. He would often accompany her on her walks seeking out the herbs she needed, and it was on one of these, as they walked along the lake shore, that he professed his true feelings for her.

Although she was four years his junior, she often seemed more mature than her older brother and Jess was amazed and impressed by her knowledge, particularly about medicine and the flora and fauna of the locality.

“My grandfather was a medicine man and I learnt at his feet,” she said simply, when Jess questioned her about it.

They were sitting on a log by the edge of the lake chatting when Jess suddenly took her hand in his, and holding it, looked deeply into her eyes and said softly, “Sky, I love bein’ with you; you’ve gotton to be real important to me…you know what I’m sayin’?”

She looked down shyly. “I feel the same,” she whispered. “I think of you all the time, Jess, and when I see you, my heart beats so fast and… I feel like there are butterflies in here,” she said gesturing to her belly. “What is it? Is it love, do you think? I’ve never felt like this before.”

He smiled at her innocence. “I think it could be,” he whispered and then he leant forwards and cupping her face between his hands he kissed her very gently, before drawing back and looking deep into her eyes.

“Yeah,” he said, softly, “Sure feels like love to me.”

*****

Little Wolf was delighted when he realized the relationship between his sister and Jess had deepened, but the couple swore him to secrecy.

“Don’t say anything just yet,” Jess pleaded. “I’ve a feeling your Pa might not be quite as happy about it as you are, Buddy.”

“Why?” asked Little Wolf raising innocent eyes to his friend. “You are like a son to him? Why would he not be overjoyed?”

“Because I’m a different race,” said Jess quietly. “Any children we had would be mixed race and that ain’t an easy life, not bein’ accepted by either whites or the Indians. I don’t know as if I could be responsible for that.” But then he turned anguished eyes on his friend. “But how can I not, Buddy? I love her something fierce, and maybe if we stayed with the tribe, the young‘uns would be accepted.”

“All my people accept you, Dakota. You ride with us, hunt with us; you are truly one of us now. Why would they shun your children? No, it makes no sense to me.” Then Little Wolf’s face lit up. “I will prove my commitment to you. We shall become blood brothers; then nobody in the tribe will ever dare to go against the brother of a chief’s son.” With that, he took a small sharp flint knife from his belt and held it up, a questioning look on his face. “Yes?”

Jess nodded. “Yes.”

Little Wolf took the knife and cut deeply into the palm of his, and then passing the knife over, gestured for Jess to do the same.

Jess took the razor sharp knife and paused for a brief minute before cutting his palm deeply too, and then the two men put their hands together, the blood from the white man and the red mingling.

“I swear undying loyalty to you,” said Little Wolf gravely.

“And I to you,” responded Jess equally solemnly.

“We are bonded as true brothers now,” said Little Wolf, “and no man will break that friendship, I swear.”

Jess nodded and said very softly, “I swear.”

*****

The days turned into weeks and the weeks to months, and Jess became loved and respected by all the tribe members, accepted and treated as one of their own.

Little Wolf had kept his promise of sharing his skill at horse whispering. And when the late summer came round and the men went out mustanging, Little Wolf showed Jess the ropes; after a few lessons, he proclaimed Jess to be a natural. The young cowboy had always had an affinity with horses and these new skills were a natural progression to the way he liked to work with the beasts, showing care and understanding and treating the animals with respect and kindness.

Yellow Bear had noticed how Jess always put his horse’s needs above his own, feeding — watering and grooming him at the end of a day’s hunting without any thought to his own comfort — and he admired Jess for it. He also noticed how Jess’s simple honesty and strong work ethic had rubbed off onto his son and was pleased with the positive influence the white man was having on Little Wolf. Yes, he was happy enough with his son, who he was grooming to become chief one day, and life in the valley was good save for one fly in the ointment — Chief Silver Fox of the Cheyenne tribe.

The two tribes had been neighbors and friends for many years, but recently the odd squabble had broken out between the young braves of both tribes, and Chief Silver Fox had called a meeting with his old friend Yellow Bear to try and pour oil on the troubled waters. They met and Yellow Bear returned the following day looking tired and worried, but refused to share the details with anyone, until he had discussed it with the Great Spirit in much prayer, he had said quietly.

Meanwhile Jess’s romance with Sky was continuing and she was never far from his side. However, he never kissed her or even held her hand in public, and to all the world, they were merely as close as brother and sister.

In private, though, things had moved on a pace and Jess courted her relentlessly, whispering sweet words of love in her ear and kissing and caressing her, until he thought he would go crazy if he didn’t take their relationship to the next stage. When they were alone together, it was getting more and more difficult for him to control his feelings. One evening sitting down by the lake, he kissed her passionately and Sky responded, running a hand through his black unruly hair and giving a little shudder of pleasure as he kissed her face, her hair and then down to the base of her throat.

Then he gave a little groan and pulled back.

“What’s the matter?” asked Sky, frowning up into his deep blue eyes. “Did I do something wrong, Jess? Do you not want me to kiss you that way?”

He looked at her with sad eyes, and said, “Sure I do, sweetheart; I want it so darn much, but well, I want more than that and it’s wrong. You’re a young girl, pure and innocent…”

“And is that wrong? I cannot help being young.”

He looked down embarrassed. “No, of course not. It’s just that, well, I want… the kinda relationship that…well…you just ain’t ready for yet.”

“But it is what I want too, Jess. I want you to make love to me, to give myself to you completely. I love you…so much,” she whispered, looking up at him with adoring eyes.

Jess just sat back staring across the lake and shook his head. “No,” he whispered, “not until we’re married.”

“Married?”

“Yeah, married.”

“Are you asking me to marry you?” she asked a look of amazement in her eyes.

He smiled back. Yeah, I guess I am,” he said sounding almost as surprised himself, his heart pounding and he held his breath waiting to see what she would say, or do.

“Oh, yes, yes,” she squealed throwing her arms around him, and then looking deep into his amazing blue eyes she kissed him again long and slow. “Really Jess, we could get married….but when?”

“I dunno,” he said softly, “soon I guess, but we’ll not say anything to your Pa just yet. I figure he’s kinda worried about these spats with the Cheyenne renegades. We’ll ask him in a few weeks when things have quieted down some, OK?”

She nodded and then put her head on his shoulder. “Anything you say,” she said obediently and Jess gave a little smile. Life just couldn’t get any better he thought.

Meanwhile he tried not to spend too much time alone with Sky as he was finding it more and more difficult to resist her, and he knew he must wait and respect her youth and inexperience.

That was why he went out with a hunting party the following week. There was a small group of braves going, including Little Wolf, and they set off at dawn, heading east on the trail of some elk.

They had only been riding for an hour or so when Jess felt Traveler favoring his front nearside leg, and hopping down, he saw the bay had thrown a shoe and swore quietly under his breath.

Little Wolf rode back and reined his pony in, looking concerned. “What is the problem, my friend?”

“Trav’s thrown a shoe. Figure I’d better walk him back to the camp; don’t want him going lame on me.”

“You want I should come with you, Dakota?”

“Nah, I’ll be fine no point in spoilin’ your day too. I’ll see you at supper, yeah?”

“OK, and at least you will be able to spend the day with my sister,” he said with a wicked wink before kicking his pony off at a gallop to catch up with the other braves.

Jess must have been walking in the hot sun for nearly an hour when he stopped to take a drink from his canteen and that’s when they struck. A small gang of Cheyenne braves seemed to appear from nowhere, and before he could react, he was thrown to the ground and there was an Indian on top of him. He wrestled himself free and kicked the brave hard in the belly, sending him sprawling, but he was replaced by two others and then a third and the men rained punches down on Jess until he was rendered unconscious. Then leaving him for dead, they inspected his horse, but seeing he was limping, they left him and rode off in a cloud of dust.

Jess lay in the hot noonday sun until Traveler came over and blew gently in his upturned face and he finally came round and attempted to sit up, before falling back down, retching at the pain in his guts where the braves had kicked him savagely. He must have laid there for another hour or so before he finally managed to struggle to his feet; staggering over to Traveler, he reached up for his canteen, and after drinking deeply, upturned it over his head, the cool water soothing his hot painful face.

Then he patted his horse. “Good boy.” he said softly, “At least they didn’t take you. Reckon they figured you were too beat up. Well, guess that’s you and me both, buddy,” and with that he grabbed hold of the reins and led Traveler on back to the camp.

When he finally trudged in, it was nearly supper time. The hunting party where still not back, but Kusuma and Sky were at the cook pot by the fire and rushed over to him as he walked in.

“Whatever has happened to you, my son?” said Kusuma, looking shocked to the core at the state of the young cowboy. “Come, sit,” she said assisting him to a large log near the fire, where Jess slumped down holding  his ribs, his breath coming in rapid gasps and his face a deathly white. He felt sick to his stomach, the waves of nausea making him feel dizzy and hot, and he lay back against the log, closing his eyes for a moment and swallowing deeply.

Meanwhile Sky was pale and shaking with shock. “Jess, my love,” she whispered, a tear rolling down her cheek as she ran and squatted beside him, one hand on his knee and looking deeply into his eyes. “Who did this?”

“A band of Cheyenne, five of ‘em jumped me. Didn’t have much of a chance,” he said with a lopsided grin, trying to make light of it.

Then Kusuma ran off for medicine and clean water and bandages and returned a few minutes later with Yellow Bear, who knelt down by the dark haired cowboy looking concerned.

“You are sure they were Cheyenne?” Yellow Bear asked, looking very worried.

Jess just nodded. “Oh yeah, they were Cheyenne alright. I figure they were after Traveler, but with him coming up lame, they didn’t take him.” Then he half rose before collapsing back and grabbing his ribs, cussing quietly. “Trav — I need to see to him. He’s thrown a shoe.”

”It is alright; I will get one of my brothers to tend your horse at once, Jess. Do not worry,” said the older man kindly.

Just then, the victorious hunting party returned with two large elk, but as soon as Little Wolf saw what the Cheyenne had done to Jess, he was all for riding out and hunting down the perpetrators at once.

“No my son, I forbid it,” said Yellow Bear. “Two bad deeds do not make one good one. You retaliate and the next thing there will be a full blown uprising between us and the Cheyenne. Old Silver Fox is having difficulty controlling his son, Crazy Horse, as it is. No, we must mend the rift and then Silver Fox will deal with the men who did this to your brother, I will make sure of that.”

“Enough of this talk of fighting,” said Kusuma, being unusually assertive. “This boy is very sick; he has broken ribs and terrible bruising and cuts. Sky and I must minister onto him and then he must sleep. Take your talk of wars away,” she said giving them all a fierce look, and the braves and chief drifted off.

After they had gone, Jess cast Kusuma an anxious look. “Don’t let Little Wolf fight them,” he said quietly, “not on my account. Don’t want…any more bloodshed for my sake,” and then he passed out.

Kusuma and her daughter exchanged concerned looks. “He is worse than I thought,” said the older woman. “We will get the men to carry him to Little Wolf’s tepee and you and I will stay and nurse him through the night.”

“I will do it, mother,” said the young girl, “please let me.”

Kusuma gave her a searching look. “This man is special to you, is he not, my beloved daughter?”

The young girl smiled into her mother’s eyes. “I love him,” she said simply.

“As a sister, yes I know.”

“No mother, not as a sister; as a wife…”

Kusuma looked deeply troubled, and then Jess groaned and she rushed off to get some help with moving him and they did not speak of the matter again for some time.

That night he drifted in and out of consciousness and Little Wolf and Sky kept a constant vigil over him, wiping his brow and offering cool water. But by dawn he was worse, with a high fever and quite delirious, thrashing about on his bedroll and cussing in a way he would never have done in front of Sky, had he been in his right mind.

Sky was very tearful and beside herself with worry when even her tried and trusted herbal remedies ceased to lower the fever and instead seemed to be making him worse.

Kusuma came in soon after dawn, and after taking one look at the sick cowboy, ushered her daughter out before getting her son to strip Jess down to his under shorts. Then she patiently bathed his body in icy cold water from the lake and eventually the fever lessened and Jess awoke and smiled up into the older woman’s concerned eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, “makin’ all this work for you an’ all…”

“You are no trouble, my son; now just rest and I will make you some broth,” she said relief in her eyes.

It was Sky that returned with the broth though, and gently helped him to eat.

After he finished he lay back and took her hand. “Thank you,” he said softly.

Again her eyes welled up with tears. “I hate to see you this way,” she said.

“I’m Ok,” he said weakly, a hand resting on his belly, but in truth he couldn’t decide which was worse, that pain or the dreadful one in his ribs every time he took a deep breath; he just wanted to sleep and for everything to be blotted out.

She just shook her head. “No, my love you are not OK…but you will be soon. I will look after you, now and always,” she said taking his hand and looking into his eyes, before leaning down and kissing him gently on the lips.

Then she offered him some of her herbal medicine, and although Jess thought it tasted unbelievable evil, he drank it down for her sake, and was soon drifting into oblivion, the pain blessedly ebbing away.

Sky nursed and cared for him day and night for the next three days and her true feelings for the young cowboy soon became obvious to all as she looked after him with such loving devotion.

Kusuma and Yellow Bear discussed it long into the night.

“I wish so much that they could be together,” whispered Kusuma, in the privacy of their tepee, “but I know it cannot be.”

Yellow Bear looked deeply saddened. “I know, my wife. I would go a long way to find a husband as good for Sky, even with the problems that mixed race marriages can bring. I don’t doubt they would have managed…but now, with this latest issue, it can never be. Sky’s fate is sealed and we can never change that. We must accept that, my wife, and Jess and Sky must too, for we have no other choice than to keep them apart now and forever,” he finished sighing deeply.

By the fourth day, the fever had completely gone, and although the badly smashed ribs would stop Jess from doing anything other than light work for the next few weeks, he was at least feeling a little better, and able to take his place around the camp fire for the evening meal.

Once supper was over and the other members of the tribe had drifted away to their tepees or to tended to their animals and children, Yellow Bear, Kusuma and their family sat on round the fire chatting, until Yellow Bear suddenly announced he had important news and there was to be a family powwow.

Jess immediately started to rise to his feet and leave them but Yellow Bear put out a hand to stop him. “Stay, my son. You are a member of this family now, and anyway, this news concerns you too.”

Jess looked puzzled, but sank back down to where he had been seated, his back to the large log and fixed his gaze on the older man.

It seemed to take some considerable time for Yellow Bear to collect his thoughts but finally he stood and addressed the collected company.

“I have had meetings with Silver Fox, as you all know,” he said gravely,” and things between our two tribes are worse than we both thought. At one time, Crazy Horse was ready to put on the war paint…”

There was a gasp of shock from Little Wolf. “I knew we had our differences, father, but I thought they had been dealt with.”

The older man shook his head. “No…not until now, that is. Now Silver Fox and I have a pact — a solemn promise has been made which will seal our peace and safety for the future.”

Little Wolf suddenly looked anxious, almost as though he had guessed what was coming, and he glanced across at Jess and his sister before gazing back up at his father. “Go on,” he said softly.

Yellow Bear looked distinctly uncomfortable and taking a deep breath he looked across at Sky and said quietly. “Forgive me, my daughter, but I have pledged your hand to Crazy Horse.”

There was a stunned silence as the three younger members of the group took this in…and then after a moment, Sky gave a strangled cry, her hand dashing to her mouth, her eyes open wide in shock. Then she looked at an equally stunned Jess before turning on her father. “No!” she shouted, “You cannot do this to me, father, please… I beg of you.”

The older man just looked down and shook his head in deep sorrow. “The pact is made; it is impossible to break,” he said before turning his back to her, the look of anguish in her eyes too much for him to bear.

“Mother,” whispered the young girl, but Kusuma, merely shook her head, tears now streaming down her own face. “I am so sorry,” Kusuma whispered, and with that, the girl fled to her parent’s tepee, closely followed by her mother.

Jess was so shocked and angry that he could barely breathe; his heart was pounding and he was sweating when he leapt to his feet and confronted Yellow Bear. “How can you do this, to your own daughter?” he shouted, fixing the older man with furious eyes.

Yellow Bear merely sank back down to his seat by the fire before throwing Jess a wretched look. “Because I have to, my son. If there was any other way out, I would take it, but Silver Fox demanded the betrothal of Sky to Crazy Horse to seal our friendship and to form a truce between us. The Cheyenne braves outnumber us two to one and they would massacre us if I do not appease them. I have to do this to save my people, and you must see this.”

“I see you selling your own daughter down the river,” shouted Jess, his fury spilling over as he glared at the older man who he had come to honor and respect as a father, but now suddenly seemed like a stranger to him, and Jess could not understand a culture that could do this to one of their own, even if it was for the greater good. His hands were balled into fist and he just needed to hit out at someone, but knew he could not, and he stood there breathing deeply trying to calm himself. Gradually, his anger lessened and he almost keeled over and slumped down by the fire looking over at Yellow Bear before saying quietly, “I love your daughter, Yellow Bear; I was goin’ to ask for her hand…please don’t do this to us.”

Yellow Bear looked at the young man and his heart bled for him, but he knew he had to keep strong and carry through the deed for his peoples sake and so he gave Jess a hard look and said, “I know, and that is why you must not see her again, not be alone with her, you understand?” he said in icy tones, before getting up and marching off to his tepee without a backwards glance.

Jess turned tortured eyes on Little Wolf. “Did you know about this?” he asked.

“No, my friend, I swear I didn’t know.”

Jess looked bitter. “So what’s this Crazy Horse like?”

“Chief Silver Fox’s son, young, has seen only seventeen summers…and…”

“And… what?”

“Well, you could say he lives up to his name, my friend; he is hot headed, does crazy things sometimes, fights, gets into trouble. I think maybe the chief thinks Sky will tame him, calm him down,” he said sadly.

Jess turned his troubled blue eyes on his friend. “Hell, there must be something we can do. Can’t you talk to your Pa for me, explain how it is between me and Sky, make him see how much I really love her. I’d be good to her, do anything for her, you know that.”

But Little Wolf just shook his head sadly. “The elders have spoken. I cannot go against them, Jess. What they say is law, even if you feel I am letting you down. I am sorry.”

The two men had been deep in conversation and had not seen Yellow Bear, who had returned from checking on his daughter, and was now standing in the shadows just behind them.

Jess turned to his friend again. “Please, Buddy, you gotta help me.”

When his friend just hung his head, Jess saw red. “OK I’ll take her away, run off; we’ll elope, get hitched and then there will be nothin’ anyone can do about it.” Then he felt the firm hand on his shoulder and spinning round was looking directly into Yellow Bear’s sad old eyes.

Yellow Bear shook his head, his voice thick with emotion. “No you will not do that, Jess. I would have to follow you — and kill you. Do not make me do that. I am to lose a daughter. Do not make me lose one of my sons also.” And with that he walked slowly away, his whole demeanor registering hopelessness.

*****

Over the ensuing days as the wedding preparations began, Yellow Bear watched Jess like a hawk and had his brothers do likewise and Jess was unable to have anytime alone to talk to Sky. They just had to be content with staring into each other’s eyes across the fire at meal times, neither of them wanting to eat, before she was rushed off by her mother, leaving Jess feeling miserable and frustrated.

Sky looked pale and drawn and was losing weight. Jess was still suffering badly from the injuries he had received at the hands of the Cheyenne and was not healing as quickly as he should have done.

Kusuma had taken over caring for him, changing his bandages and checking on his broken ribs and was unhappy with what she saw, and one evening when she had been tending to his wounds in the privacy of Little Wolf’s tepee, she turned troubled eyes on the young cowboy.

“I am worried about you Jess, these wounds should have been healing by now, but you have a fresh infection, you’re not eating…you will make yourself really ill.”

Jess looked down,” well I guess it don’t matter now,” he said, gruffly.

“What do you mean my son?”

“You know dang well what I mean…” he said bitterly, and then he saw her shocked expression and apologized for his language. Jess had always treated Kusuma with the respect he would have done his own Ma, and now he blushed, in embarrassment.

“Heck, I’m sorry, Ma’am; I didn’t mean that. It’s just I’m kinda upset.”

Then turning his blue eyes on her he said softly, “How can you do this, go along with it all, let Yellow Bear do this to your own daughter, don’t you care about her happiness?”

Kusuma looked angry for a moment and then visibly controlled herself and took a deep breath before replying.

“You do not fully understand our ways, what the Elders decide is our law and once a pact is made between them, then nobody and nothing can change that. If you wish to stay in the tribe Jess, you must accept that, that is our way of life……there is nothing that can be done.”

Jess listened and then turned his troubled eyes on her and knew he had made his decision.

“I’d better be movin’ on then,” he said sadly.

That night when they were bedding down for the night in the tepee, Jess told Little Wolf of his decision and he was understandably very upset.

“Why,” he asked looking anguished,” because of Sky’s betrothal? Jess just nodded.

“I guess. And your Ma made me realize I don’t belong here anymore, Little Wolf; I can’t accept your ways. This thing with your sister, it makes no sense to me…and I don’t understand how your folks could do it to her.”

Little Wolf merely nodded. “It is the way of our people, not of the white man.”

 Then looking at his friend again “You have told my mother?”

He nodded.

“Was she very sad?”

Jess just nodded again. “Yeah I guess, but she’ll get over it,” he continued, sounding bitter even to his own ears, the pain of losing his new family raw and  making him want to lash out and hurt them as much as he was hurting.

Then he turned to Little Wolf. “I need you to do one last thing for me”.

“Of course.”

“I need to see Sky, tell her I’m goin’. Say goodbye.”

Little Wolf looked undecided and then saw the look in his friend’s eyes.

“Yes, I will help you Dakota,” he said softly.

It wasn’t until the eve of the proposed wedding that Jess got his chance to steal away and meet Sky.

He had plotted with Little Wolf that he would go down to the lakeside, to the young lover’s favorite spot, a secret area, set back from the lake and surrounded by brush and pine trees and await Sky’s arrival.

Jess would hide there while Little Wolf went for an innocent stroll with his sister. Then once out of sight of the elders in the village, Sky would run to Jess while her brother kept watch, ready to warn them if anyone approached.

There were already some prenuptial celebrations going on around the central fire in the village and so is was easy for the youngsters to wander off unnoticed, and soon Sky was in Jess’s arms for the last time, although she didn’t realize it.

They kissed passionately before pulling back and Jess whispered, “It’s so darn good to see you, Sky; I’ve missed you so much.”

“Me too,” she whispered.

Then she looked grave. “What are we going to do, Jess?”

He just looked totally defeated. “Ain’t nothin’ to be done,” he said softly. “If try and take you away, your Pa says he will kill me and I figure you’ll still end up wed to Crazy Horse…whether I’m dead or alive.”

She sucked in a shocked breath. “My father said that….how could he?”

“Same way as he could give you to that no good jumped up excuse for a brave,” he spat angrily. “Because it’s for the greater good of your people and guess that’s all that matters to him.”

She just nodded sagely and then said, “And if I was the daughter he deserved, then that should be what I want too.”

“But it ain’t right,” said Jess loudly. “Ain’t your happiness worth anything?”

She just shook her head and said quietly, “Don’t let’s quarrel, Jess, hold me…”

He held her close and kissed her deeply, before saying softly, “Guess this is goodbye.”

She just stared into his eyes in disbelief, “You’re…you’re leaving?”

He just nodded. “I have to, Sky. I can’t stay around here and see you two together, it would drive me loco. And anyways, maybe if you forget me, you’ll grow to love him…in time.”

“No…no, how can you even think that, my love? Please don’t abandon me, don’t go…”

Just then there was a loud owl call, which was their prearranged warning of someone approaching and Jess whispered urgently, “You must go; sounds like your Pa is around.”

She clung to him, now openly crying, and he held her close, feeling their hearts pounding in unison and he cupped her face between his hands and looked deeply into her eyes. “Remember I love you,” he whispered, before kissing her tenderly.

Then the owl call came again, closer this time, and Jess heard Little Wolf whisper for Sky to come quickly and with one last anguished look in his direction, she ran to her brother. Jess turned towards the lake, looking out to the distant horizon, knowing in his heart that this was the end.

The following day all was bustle and excitement with singing and chanting. The large Cheyenne party arrived with Silver Fox and Crazy Horse bearing gifts of horses and blankets, food and household goods for the new tepee, which had been erected just behind Yellow Bear’s.

Jess managed to keep  a low profile, just following what was going on, much of the ritual being totally unfamiliar to him, but he tried to look happy for everyone’s sake, even though inside he was feeling wretched.

He managed this act until near to the end of the proceedings when Crazy Horse escorted his new bride to their tepee. All the tribe were laughing and cheering as they the newly betrothed couple were ushered along.

Just for a moment, though, Sky scanned the crowds desperately seeking out Jess, and finally she saw him and their eyes locked across the crowd. She cast him a look of such longing that he felt weak, but he managed a small smile, before touching his hat in a little salute. Then he turned away, so that he would not see Crazy Horse pick up his new wife and carry her off. Instead, he strode over to where Traveler was tethered and waiting, and without a soul noticing, he hopped up into the saddle and rode off into the night, without looking back.

*****

“Jess…Jess!”

Jess’s head swiveled from where he had been looking across at the mountains, beyond the creek, and stared into the puzzled eyes of his partner, Slim Sherman.

“Hey Jess, are you OK? You’ve been miles away. Been sayin’ it’s time to pack up these last five minutes and you never heard me.”

Jess shook his head trying to cast his vivid memories to one side. “Sorry,” he muttered, “got thinkin’ about stuff, I guess.”

Then little Mike was staring curiously into his eyes. “About livin’ with the Indians, was it, Jess?”

The dark haired cowboy just nodded and looked down at the small knife still the boy’s hand. “Guess that old knife you found brought back a few memories,” he said with his shy smile.

“About your blood brother?” asked the boy, always ready to hear tales of Jess’s past.

“Yeah, that and other stuff,” he replied quietly.

“Can I see the scar, Jess, can I?” asked the boy excitedly.

Once, a while back, the boy had noticed the deep scar on Jess’s palm and he had explained all about the blood brothers ritual and the boy was fascinated by it.

Jess exchanged a smile with Slim and then presented his hand palm up so the boy could inspect it yet again.

“Gee, did it hurt? Sure was deep,” Mike said in awe.

“Some,” said Jess softly.

“Was it done with a knife like this?” asked Mike, looking at his new prized possession.

“Yeah, I guess it was,” agreed Jess.

The boy gave a deep sigh of satisfaction. “Do you think I could use this and me and Tommy Jones could be blood brothers?” asked the youngster, his big blue eyes glowing in anticipation.

“No!” said Slim and Jess in unison, before exchanging an amused look.

“Come on, Tiger, let’s get these fish home to Aunt Daisy and no more talk of cuttin’ yourself; she’d have a fit,” said Jess, and with that the happy trio made their way home to supper.

That evening after supper, the men took a glass of whiskey a piece out onto the porch and settled down to enjoy the cool breeze after the heat of the day.

After a few minutes, Slim cast a glance over at his buddy, who had been uncharacteristically quiet over supper, and after a moment said, “You OK, Jess?”

Jess looked back and nodded. “Sure, why do you ask?”

“Don’t know. You’ve been a mite quiet since we landed back home. Did finding that old knife spook you some?”

“Kinda, I suppose; brought back a lot of memories, some as I’d rather forget, I guess”.

They were silent for a while longer, just enjoying the peace and looking out to the distant hills as dusk fell, before Slim finally said, “Would it help to tell me about it…you know why you left?”

Jess gave a deep sigh and after a moment said, “Well, you see, Slim, there was this girl…”

Slim resisted the urge to say, ‘so why doesn’t that surprise me,’ but just listened intently as Jess’s tale unfolded.

When Jess got to the part where Yellow Bear had admitted that he had made a pact with the Cheyenne and promised his daughter to the Chief’s son, he looked shocked. “I figure you must have taken that kind of badly,” said Slim, glancing at his partner and seeing that he was obviously upset even now, years later as he retold the story.

Jess just nodded and looked out at the distant hills, fast disappearing as night fell, and said softly, “Yeah, real bad. I was young, you know, Slim, and never really been in love properly before….not like that anyways. Sure I’d had plenty of women, but not one as I wanted to marry.” He gave a little chuckle and looked over at his friend. “Didn’t even realize myself until I actually proposed. Don’t know as who was more surprised — me or Sky.”

Slim returned the smile. “She sure must have got you hog tired partner, knowing how darned scared of marriage you are now. So what was she like then?”

Jess looked off into the distance again, his eyes turning misty. “Oh she was a real looker, Slim; she had these big brown soulful eyes, like she could see right into your heart, and long black hair, shiny as a raven’s wing, real small and a cute little figure.” He gave a soft sigh. “And kissing…boy, could she kiss…” He was silent for a long time contemplating the past and then seemed to pull himself together. “Anyways her Pa, the Chief, did that deal and forbade me to see her alone, even said he’d kill me if I tried to elope…”

Slim gave a low whistle.

“So, I figured there wasn’t much I could do. I saw her one last time, night before the wedding and she begged me to stay, but…” Jess just shrugged his shoulders and was silent again. Then he took a deep breath and continued, “So the night of the wedding I just lit out…figured I couldn’t stay any longer and that it wasn’t fair to her anyway. Thought she might make a go of things if I wasn’t around….”

They sat on in silence for a while and then Slim said, “I know how happy you were there — you’ve told me before — the way they welcomed you as one of their own, taught you stuff…well, I guess what I’m trying to say is, do you regret it, giving all that up…do you ever think you might have been better off there…than here?” he finished softly, almost apologetically.

Jess’ head whipped round and he stared at his buddy in shocked surprise. “Hell no, Slim, you don’t think that, do you? Best thing I ever did was landing here, you know that surely. You and Andy and old Jonsey, and these last couple of years Daisy and Mike, have turned my life around; you’re all my kin now, Slim.”

Slim just nodded. “Yes, I know really; I just wondered. I mean they were real good to you, weren’t they?”

Jess nodded and looked down, suddenly really saddened. “Yeah there is one thing I regret,” he said quietly, his voice thick with emotion. “The way I lit out, without saying goodbye, without thanking them properly. I’ve always regretted that, Slim, and I should have done something to thank them. But you know how I used to be…so darn ornery, worse than I am now,” he said with a small grin. “And I was just so dang mad at her Pa for selling her off down the river that way and  at her Ma for not standing up for her…and even Buddy — that  is, Little Wolf — for not taking my side.“

Jess sighed deeply before continuing. “But now I figure they were just doing what they had to do and I had no right to judge them that way. Different cultures, you see, Slim. I thought I fitted in , was one of them , but when it came down  to it, well, I just couldn’t understand the way they were, how they could act that way, do that to their only daughter.” He sighed deeply. “Guess I never will really. But sometimes, I just wish there was some way I could make it up to them, you know, do something to thank them properly,” he finished sadly.

*****

It was the Fall before they had call to discuss anything to do with the Arapaho again.

The two men had been busy all day bringing the stock down from the high ground to the home pastures for the winter and it was exhausting work. They had just ridden into the yard and put their horses up for the night, and now Jess had his head under the pump near the front door, trying to wash off some of the trail dust, and cool down some. It was Fall alright but they were experiencing an Indian summer and both men were hot and sweating as well as beat.

Slim turned and surveyed the stock they had just brought down, grazing happily on the distant pasture and turning to his buddy, said, “Well I guess that’s a good job done. We can relax for a while now; just a bit of patching up of this place to do before the snows come.”

“Aw Slim, can’t we have us a break before we start mending the garldarn barn roof,” Jess muttered from the depths of the wash bowl.

Before Slim could answer, both men heard a rider coming in fast, and within a minute Mort Corey, their good friend and Laramie Sheriff, rode up and reined in his big buckskin. ‘Evening, boys,” he said grinning down at the two ranchers.

Jess emerged from the wash basin and shook his head like a dog to get rid of the water and grinned up at the older man and Slim said, “Hey Mort, what brings you over here at this time of day? Miss Daisy’s cooking?”

“Well that sure sounds good, but I can’t stay. I just came over to warn you we’ve had some problems with renegade Indian raiding parties.”

Jess immediately looked up taking notice. “Oh? he said. “Where Mort?”

“Ranch over the other side of town the Berkley place; stole some stock a few days back and then just today they stole food and blankets from  Wes Dawson’s place, and you know how anti anything Indian he is…well gotton himself in a real state,  goin’ off  half-cocked sayin’ he’ll kill ‘em all. Well, I reckon that’s just about the way to set off full blown hostilities”.

“Yeah, you could be right,” agreed Slim looking grave, “but I guess you can’t just let them get away with it either”.

“Well, that’s right and I’m organizing a posse to ride after them tomorrow and wondered if you two would ride with me,” he said glancing from one to the other. “Kinda voice of reason, you know, rein old Wes back if he gets a bit too…er…enthusiastic,” he concluded with a grim smile.

“Well, sure we can do that,” said Slim grinning up at his friend. “We’ve just finished bringing the stock down and we’ll ask young Pete Baxter from the ranch next door to do the stage. He’s always looking for a bit of extra cash,” said Slim referring to a neighbor’s son. Then turning to his buddy, said, “How about it, Jess?”

“Yeah, sure,” said Jess. “Er, do you know what tribe Mort?”

“Cheyenne, I think Wes said; looked to be anyways.”

Jess gave a faint sigh of relief. “Good.”

Mort looked puzzled for a moment and then remembered hearing all about Jess’s life with the Arapaho and grinned at him. “Don’t worry, Jess, none of your kin involved,” he said with a grin, alluding to Jess’s blood brother.

Jess grinned back. “Sure we can’t tempt you to super then, Mort?”

The Sheriff looked indecisive for a moment and then grinned down at his friends. “Well, you know I reckon a bit of Miss Daisy’s cooking would go down real well, and as long as you boys are OK for tomorrow, I guess I’m finished for the night.” He hopped down from his mount and joined the men washing up before the meal.

*****

The following morning, the men set off at first light and met the other members of the posse, just outside Laramie, before riding towards the mountains where the renegade band had been heading.

The group was made up of Wes Dawson and his foreman Charlie, both of whom had a reputation as trouble makers with volatile tempers, and incensed as they were by the recent raids, both men were out for blood.

There were a couple of pleasant enough town’s folk who could be relied upon in a tight spot,  and with Slim and Jess giving Mort the support he needed, they rode out  and  soon picked up the tracks of a group of Indian ponies.

Jess took the lead as the most experienced tracker, and before too long he had found where they had camped the previous night and figured they were not too far ahead. The men decided to take the track up a nearby hillside which would give them an excellent view of the plain stretching for miles out ahead of them, and Jess figured if they were not too far ahead, they should be able to see something.

As they crested the hill, Jess took out his binoculars and scanned the distant horizon, and then standing up in his stirrups, looked even more intently before passing the glasses over to Mort. “See out to the left, just beyond those standing pines,” he said quietly.

Mort looked and nodded before passing the glasses on to Slim while the other men looked on anxious to know what was afoot.

“It’s odd,” said Jess quietly to the assembled men. “Looks to be a smaller group than we thought, just three Indians, all leading what look like pack horses, and they are in no hurry. Sure don’t look like they’re runnin’ from a posse anyways. And they ain’t headin’ for the trail to the huntin’ grounds where the Cheyenne and Arapaho are setting up their winter camp either.” Then turning to Slim, he said looking worried, “Looks more like they’re headin’ back towards the Laramie road and our ranch, Slim.”

Meanwhile Mort had been studying the slow moving procession closely and finally said. Those aren’t pack horses, Jess. They’re Indian ponies sure enough, but the only thing they’re packing is bodies, dead bodies, looks to be at least five of ‘em.”

“Good,” said Wes Dawson speaking up for the first time, “the only good Indian is a dead one.”

Jess sucked in an angry breath, but after exchanging a sharp look with Slim said nothing.

“So what are we waitin’ for, come on,” spat Dawson and he kicked his horse on down the rise and in the direction of the Indians.

It only took Mort a few minutes to gallop alongside Dawson and call him to a halt. The other men reined in their horses as the Sheriff looked sternly around the small group and then began to speak. “I hope I don’t have to remind you this is a very sensitive situation. Our peace treaty with the Cheyenne is pretty fragile right now and the last thing we need is someone going off half-cocked and shootin’ first and asking questions second,” he said, casting Dawson and Charlie a meaningful look.

“Ain’t your stuff they stole, Sheriff,” said Dawson gruffly.

The Sheriff looked annoyed. “For goodness sake, man, we’re talking about a couple of blankets off the washing line and a pie, which hardly constitutes the crime of the century.”

“What about the two steers and mule they took from the Berkley place then?” said Charlie.

Slim sighed in exasperation. “Are we going to sort this out, or sit here jawing all day?” he said.

Mort nodded grimly. “Come on then, but follow me and let me and Jess do the talking. Guess we’ve had more dealing with the Indians than the rest of you.”

“Yeah, Harper the Injun lover,” muttered Dawson under his breath.

Jess stiffened in the saddle and was about to retaliate, but Slim rode up beside him and whispered, “Let it go, buddy; guess there is enough tension here without you kicking off.”

Jess took a deep breath and just nodded before riding off to join Mort.

As soon as the small band of Indians was aware of the posse’s approach, they reined in their mounts, and after a moment, one of the group rode out to meet them, his hand held up in the sign of peace.

“They don’t look too much of a threat to me,” said Mort, looking back at the others. “You stay here; me and Jess will go and parley.”

The posse watched as the two men advanced and then were surprised to see Jess suddenly leap from his mount, and running over to the Indian, embraced him in a warm hug as he slipped down from his pony.

“What in hell,” spat Dawson, “What’s that Injun lovin’ bastard partner of yours up to Sherman,” and with that, he kicked his horse into a gallop, the rest of the posse gathering their wits and following at a slower pace.

Jess looked up at Mort and grinning said, “I wanna introduce you to my ‘brother’, Mort; this is Little Wolf, son of Yellow Bear, Chief of the Arapaho.”

Mort swung down from his mount and gave the sign of peace, “I’m pleased to meet you. Little Wolf,” he said.

Just then Dawson, closely followed by Charlie. came tearing up, bringing their mounts to a standstill in a cloud of dust before they started remonstrating loudly with Mort and Jess. “What in hell is goin’ on here, Sheriff? Looks to me like a party rather than you arresting’ these no good murdering savages.”

“Watch your mouth,” spat Jess angrily, “and just listen to what he’s gotta say before you start soundin’ off, Dawson.”

The others had ridden up and all waited expectantly for Little Wolf to speak.

Little Wolf turned to Jess and said softly, “I had business with you, my brother. I was about to ride south to see you when news came that some of Silver Fox’s braves had gone on the rampage. Silver Wolf asked me to try and deal with them, one way or another. When he caught up with, they had already raided two of your ranches. We tried to stop them peaceably, but they refused to return the items, and in the end we had to kill them; they rose against us and we had no choice,” he said sadly. “The treaty with the white men is important to our tribes; we cannot have these few wicked men risk that peace…” He paused for breath looking anxiously from Jess to Mort and back.

Mort nodded. “I thank you, Little Wolf; I guess you have done what we set out to do.”

“What!” yelled Dawson suddenly furious, “are you gonna believe this savage? Hell, they’re probably all his friends,” he said, gesturing to the dead Cheyenne they were taking back to the burial site. “There could be countless white men lying back yonder dead at their hands, and what about the stuff they took, don’t that count for anything?”

Little Wolf turned troubled eyes up to the burley older man. “One of us returned the property that was stolen,” he said softly. “The steers and mule… and there were two blankets also; they are on the mule, and you will find then all tethered on the road, just outside of the town.”

“Satisfied, Dawson?” spat Jess. “Oh no, I forgot, they owe you for a pie,” and he flipped a coin up to the older man. “There you are; guess were all straight now,” he finished sarcastically.

Jess turned to his friend and was just about to mount up when he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and realized that Dawson was about to draw his gun and shoot Little Wolf. Jess’s lightning reactions kicked in and he fired on Dawson, wounding him in the arm. Dawson fell from his horse and lay there moaning as Charlie and another man quickly went to his aid. But a moment later he was up and remonstrating with the Sheriff. “Arrest that Injun lovin’ bastard, he spat. “He just shot me, Corey.”

The Sheriff gave him a hard look. “Shut you goddamn mouth, Dawson. You drew on an innocent unarmed man and if Jess hadn’t stopped you, I guess we’d be looking at a full blown Indian uprising by now, and I can’t say as how I’d blame them.” Then turning to Charlie, he said, “Get him off home before I decide to press charges.”

Jess turned to Little Wolf. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, “I apologize for my people; we ain’t all like that”.

“I know that my brother,” said Little Wolf patting his arm. “But Dakota, we need to talk urgently. You can come with me now?”

Jess glanced up at Slim. “Can you manage without me for a little, buddy?”

Slim nodded. “Sure take your time, Jess; we aren’t too busy right now, take care,” and after tipping his hat to the two young men, he turned and followed the rest of the posse back to town.

*****

It was late that night when Jess finally arrived back at the ranch and Slim, who was just turning in for the night, heard Traveler trotting into the yard. A few minutes later, the tall blond rancher wandered across to the barn to see his friend. He found him tending to Traveler, as he knew he would, and he went and leaned on the stall looking at his partner. “You were longer than I thought,” he said quietly. “Daisy kept you some supper in the oven.”

Jess just continued his task. “Not hungry,” he muttered.

“Jess?”

Jess finally looked up and what Slim saw in his eyes made him feel anxious. Jess looked exhausted and defeated, like something important, something really bad, had happened. “What’s wrong, buddy?”

Jess was silent for a long time before resting his arm on Traveler and patting his neck, not looking at Slim,  and then he finally replied, “I’m gonna have to go away for a while.”

“Oh?”

“Something’s come up…”

“Are you going to tell me then?”

Jess was silent again before turning to face his best buddy. “It’s Yellow Bear,” he said. “He’s dying, Slim,” his voice full of emotion and catching on that last word.

Slim stared at him for a moment and then reached over and squeezed his shoulder. “Heck, I’m sorry Jess; that’s real bad news.”

“Thing is,” continued Jess after taking a deep breath, “he’d been askin’ for me, and well, I may be away some time. Little Wolf wants me to be around for when he’s initiated as Chief…and then   there’s Kusuma…and Sky,” he finished very quietly.

Slim was silent for a moment. “Well I guess they’re going to need you, Jess, and I figure we can cope here for a while…until you get back.” Then very softly, “You will be coming back?”

Jess’s head shot up. “Sure, of course. This is my home, ain’t it?” he said with the ghost of a smile.

“Sure it is, buddy, always will be, you know that.”

*****

Jess rode out at first light the following day, but he left with a good breakfast in his belly as Daisy had insisted in getting up early and preparing it.

Slim had got up too, saying that he might as well get a head start on the chores, and the three of them sat companionably around the table, eating the good meal Daisy had provided.

Daisy sipped her coffee and looked over at the young cowboy, her favorite ‘son’, although she would never admit that to a living soul. “Kusuma and Sky will be glad of your support at this difficult time,” she said softly.

Slim glanced across at his buddy. “What about Crazy Horse? Will he accept you?” he asked quietly.

Jess just shook his head. “Dunno; all I know is all those years ago, I swore an allegiance to Little Wolf, said I’d be there if he ever needed me, and I guess now he does,” he said simply.

“Well just be careful,” warned Slim sagely, “and I’d take it real easy around Sky you don’t want to cause a ruckus.”

“I won’t, Slim; don’t worry. Guess we’ve both grown up some since then. Hell, we were just kids, and I figure I can be civilized around her husband.”

“You, civilized?” laughed Slim, reaching over and mussing his buddy’s hair, trying to lighten the atmosphere a little.

Daisy had looked a little tearful when she had seen Jess pack his warm winter coat and scarf, even though the weather was still quite mild for fall. “So have you any idea how long you’ll be away?” she asked casually now.

Jess looked over. “As long as it takes, I guess. I’ll try and get back as soon as I can, but it’s a good two days ride and if we get heavy snow…well.” Then turning to Slim, he said, “If I don’t make it back before the heavy weather, then employ young Baxter to help you, Slim. I won’t draw any wages while I’m gone; give them to the boy.”

“Jess, I can’t do that. You’re a partner in this business; of course you’ll get paid, if you’re here or not.”

Jess fixed him with a steely gaze. “I’ve told you, Slim; that’s the way I want it. I can’t go off and leave you to run this place single handed; get the boy in to help you…OK?”

Slim gave in; he knew that look in his friend’s eyes and knew it wasn’t worth arguing.

*****

The small party rode into the Arapaho camp just before supper on the second day of their journey, and as they jumped down from their mounts, Kusuma came running out of her tepee to greet them. She ran straight into Little Wolf’s arms. “My son, thank goodness you are back; he is worse…”

Then breaking off, she suddenly saw Jess. “You found him…” and looking overjoyed, she pulled free of her son and ran to Jess. “My dear lost son,” she whispered before also embracing him.

Jess felt a huge lump in his throat and was unable to speak for a moment, but Kusuma seemed to understand and made light talk until he was composed again. She pulled back and looked him up and down. “Such a strong, handsome young man you have become,” she said smiling fondly at him. “You were much too thin as a youngster; now you look like a real warrior.”

Jess was embarrassed by the scrutiny, but then asked softly, “How is Yellow Bear?”

Kusuma’s face clouded. “He has not got long, my son. Come, he has been asking for you.” She led him into the dimly lit tepee and he walked over and knelt down by Yellow Bear, lying on his bed, but propped up and covered in a brightly colored blanket. He looked pale and drawn, but his eyes lit up when he saw Jess and he reached out a hand to the young cowboy “Dakota, is that really you?” he said weakly.

Jess nodded. “I’m sorry you’re sick, Yellow Bear,” he said softly.

The elderly man just shrugged the comment aside. “When a man’s time has come, that is it,” he said in a matter of fact way. “To everything there is a season, my son, a time to live and a time to die; it is the natural progression.”

Jess was deeply moved and as he looked at the older man he remembered his great kindness in the past and how he had just left, without so much as a goodbye and felt tears pricking behind his eyes. Now he knew he had to make amends and he said softly, “I have come to apologize to you, Yellow Bear.”

“For what?” asked the old man, looking astonished.

“The way I lit out without saying goodbye, hell, without ever thanking you for all you’d done for me. You were like a Pa to me, Yellow Bear, and I turned my back on you… and that wasn’t right.” The young man looked down and shrugged. “I was just so dang mad at you — all of you — over that business with Sky and Crazy Horse. I couldn’t forgive you for that…didn’t understand. But that shouldn’t have mattered; a man can still respect another’s way of life, even if he don’t agree with it, I know that now.”

Yellow Bear shook his head. “No, my son, it is I who should be apologizing to you. I should never have made that pact; I ruined my daughter’s life and maybe yours too. I doubt she can ever forgive me for what I put her through with that reckless boy.” He sighed deeply. “Anyway that is all in the past. He has gone and…”

“What,” said Jess looking puzzled. “Gone? “

“You do not know?”

“What?”

“He is dead, my son, these past two summers. He was far too reckless for his own good and he died as he lived, taking a risk, out hunting bear, alone, and the bear won. There was little left when we finally found him,” he finished quietly. Then he turned tired old eyes on Jess. “Do you not see, my son, that is why I have asked for you, so that I can make my peace with you and Sky and to offer my blessing for your marriage.”

Jess just stared at him his mouth open, his mind trying to process all this new information. “Dead,” he said softly, “you say he’s dead.”

Yellow Bear just nodded, giving Jess an assessing look.

Jess was silent for a long time before asking. “Does Sky know about all this, me coming here?”

“Oh no, of course not, I thought it should come from you, any plans you may have. You will need to get to know each other again; you are both fully grown now and people change. Maybe the feelings will not still be there, for you both…but I had to tell you, Dakota, offer my daughter to you, give you both the chance of happiness and then maybe I can rest in peace, have your forgiveness,” he finished sighing deeply, his eyes closing.

Jess sat there trying to gain control, and after a moment the older man opened his eyes again and looked expectantly at Jess.

Jess just nodded, and then said softly, “Sure you have my forgiveness. You did what you had to do at the time, Yellow Bear; you did your best…and I guess that’s all any of us can do.”

The sick man nodded his head almost imperceptibly. “Hohou, thank you, my son,” he whispered.

Jess could see the strain their conversation had had on the old man and leaning forwards he kissed him gently on the forehead. “Try and sleep,” he said, before getting up and walking quietly out.

As he left the tepee, Jess saw Sky standing just a few feet from him, on her way to visit her father.

She stopped dead in her tracks and just stared at him in complete shock. “Jess?” she whispered.

Jess came forwards and put a hand out to steady her as she looked like she might faint. “You OK?”

She nodded,” I think so…what are you doing here?”

“Your Pa sent for me, wanted to make his peace, I guess”.

“Make his peace?”

“Over you and me…”

“Oh, yes, I see, And did you….forgive him, that is?”

“Sure,” he nodded, “Have you?”

She looked surprised. “Of course; he just did what he had to. I always knew that.”

“I guess he doesn’t know how you feel,” said Jess softly. “Maybe you should tell him.”

“Yes…I will,” Sky went to pass him to enter the tepee…and then turned back. “Are you staying a while?”

“Yes, I’d like to talk to you…yeah? “

She looked down and blushed a little, before looking him in the eye. “Yes, I should like that,” she said softly. “We will walk together tomorrow,” and turning, disappeared into her father’s tepee.

Jess stood staring after her for a long time an unfathomable expression in his eyes.

She had changed some, sure; it must be nigh on eight years since he had seen he. Her slight little frame now had womanly curves that suited her.

 She had the same long black hair and beautiful soulful eyes, but they now held a deep sadness and something else — an awareness…a knowledge. Her innocence has gone, thought Jess sadly.

*****

The following morning, Jess was up early and was just coming back from tending Traveler when he saw Sky emerge from her tepee — the one he had been unable to watch her enter with Crazy Horse all those years ago after the wedding.

It was still very early and there was nobody else about yet, and he guessed that she had come to build the fire up for breakfast, her mother busy nursing her father.

She came slowly towards him and he felt his heart lurch and begin to beat with the same intensity of old, his breath coming in sharp gasps, as he desperately tried to control his emotions. Yesterday he had been so concerned for her, worried she was about to faint, that he had not reacted as strongly, but now, he suddenly felt a wave of dizziness as she came so close that he could almost feel her sweet breath on his face and she looked deeply into his eyes.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she said softly.

“Me neither.”

They just stared into each other’s eyes, no words necessary, and Jess was just about to lean in and kiss her when something took his attention, and glancing behind her, he saw a diminutive figure run out from the tepee and across to Sky where she attached herself firmly to her leg, peeping around at Jess shyly.

Jess looked down at the most beautiful little girl he had ever seen, clad in a buckskin dress similar to Sky’s; she had huge brown eyes that were now looking up at Jess,  surprise and question  registering in them.

Sky looked down and beamed at the child and then back at Jess. “Jess, this is my daughter Asha; she has just seen her third summer,” she said softly.

Jess felt like he’d been hit in the stomach, and it took him a moment to catch his breath , and then  he finally found his voice and squatting down so he was at eye level with the child said, “Tous (hello) Asha,” and grinned at her.

After a moment, the child grinned back. “Tous.”

Jess stood up and looked Sky in the eyes again. “You’re full of surprises. ain’t you,” he said with a hint of irony.

She just smiled back. “Well, it’s been a long time,” she said quietly. “If you had kept in touch, you would have known. “

Jess pulled his hat down hard. “Yes,” he said, “I guess I deserved that…sorry.”

The three of them set about building the fire up and then Jess entertained the small child whilst Sky made a start on the meal. Asha was fascinated by Jess and stared into his eyes as though she were almost mesmerized.

Jess grinned across at Sky. “She reminds me of the first time I met you,” he said with a chuckle. “You couldn’t keep your eyes off me either.”

Sky smiled back. “I had never seen eyes that deep a blue before,” she said. “I couldn’t help but stare.”

“You made me feel real uncomfortable,” he said now, knowing her well enough to be completely honest.

“You wouldn’t have known it,” she said. “The way you were with me, you seemed so confident, so grown up.”

“All an act,” said Jess grinning again. “I was just completely dumb struck by you, could hardly speak.”

She smiled back a little sadly. “It was all so long ago; we were little more than children….well, I was anyway. I guess you were older.”

He gave her a measured look, but she said no more and so he continued chatting with her little daughter, trying to remember the basics of the language.

Soon the rest of the tribe appeared in ones and twos, all of them absolutely delighted to see Jess back amongst them and there was much hand shaking and smiling from the kind, welcoming people.

After the meal, little Asha went off to play with her friends, another mother promising to watch out for her, and Sky and Jess went for their promised walk.

“So when did you move up from Kansas to Wyoming?” he asked after a while.

“About two summers ago after….after Crazy Horse’s death,” she said softly, avoiding Jess’s eye.

He stopped and turned her gently towards him. “I’m sorry,” he said, “Yellow Bear told me… it must have been real hard for you, especially with a young baby.”

“The tribe helped,” she said shrugging. “We all look out for each other, you know that.”

He nodded and they continued walking through the woods towards a small stream.

“We have moved because there have been talks of a reservation for us at Wind River. There will be more talks soon, but the Cheyenne will not compromise. they are making it difficult for us all,” she finished sadly.

“I reckon it would be good for you to have your own land again, without the fear of some hombres coming up and causing trouble,” he said, remembering the recent confrontation with Wes Dawson.

She nodded. “Little Wolf told me of your help with those men,” she said softly. “We are in your debt yet again I think, Dakota.”

He just shook his head. “Like you say, we all have to look out for each other,” he said softly.

She turned a quizzical eye on him. “That sounds like you are one of us again. Are you thinking of staying with us?” she asked, trying hard not to sound too eager.

He looked over at her and figured she was even more beautiful than he had remembered. “Yeah,” he said softly, “guess I’ll stay a while,” and gently taking her hand, they continued on their walk.

Once they reached the small stream, they sat down at its edge and watched the water drift by, taking in the lush countryside and the mountains just beyond. “Will you winter here?” he asked.

She nodded. “The mountains will help to shelter us from the worst of the storms as will the standing pines nearer the camp. I think we will be comfortable enough there until the spring, and then I don’t know what will happen to us.”

“Without the Chief?” he asked gently.

She looked down and sighed deeply. “Yes, he doesn’t have long now, Jess, and I will miss him so much.”

“He’s a good man and I’ll miss him too, something fierce.”

He looked across at her and was distressed to see tears rolling down her cheek and he immediately felt a wave of compassion towards her. “Hey, sweetheart,” he whispered putting a kindly arm around her, “it’s Ok, don’t get yourself upset.”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said quietly, and they sat on in the late fall sun, until finally it became chilly and they reluctantly returned to the village.

Just before they arrived, Jess, who had been holding her hand, stood still and pulled her gently towards him, behind one of the tall pines surrounding the camp. He held her close, looking into those wonderful brown eyes and tried to read her thoughts. Was he welcome back in her life he wondered. “I was thinking about the first time we kissed,” he said with a shy smile. “Do you want to try it again?”

She stared at him for a long time and then leaned in and brushed his lips very tenderly with her own, before kissing him more deeply.

Jess’s heart was hammering in his chest, all his senses racing as he remembered her kisses. Now the old familiar feelings came flooding back, the kissing the same…and yet subtly different. There was that loss of innocence again. Hell, he suddenly thought, I’m not kissin’ a girl anymore; this is a woman and a very passionate one, and his pulses raced even more. He was lost after just one kiss, irretrievably in love again.

They walked back into the village hand in hand, not caring if the tribe gossiped or judged them; they were happy and this time Jess decided nothing would harm them, or keep them apart. Even so, he was aware of the atmosphere in the camp as Yellow Bear’s life slowly ebbed away and he was careful not to flaunt their fragile renewed relationship and merely showed his devotion by deeds.

He sat with her father and talked to him when the chief felt strong enough, and he helped in other subtle ways like caring for little Asha and a strong bond was quickly forged between the pair. He spent what time he could with Sky, just talking and renewing their friendship, but he slept in Little Wolf’s tepee, not wanting to cause any friction in the family at this difficult time.

It was late on the third night of his visit that he was awoken by the unearthly sound of a woman wailing in torment and distress and he knew that Yellow Bear had finally passed. His first instinct was to rush to the tepee and comfort Kusuma and Sky, who he rightly guessed were now lamenting the death, but Little Wolf gently restrained him. “Time enough in the morning, my friend; they must be alone with him now.” And after a while, he left Jess alone with his thoughts as he went off to tend to his father’s body.

The following day, the whole tribe was in mourning, and as though the world was in agreement, rain fell from a leaden sky, matching the people’s mood.

As was their custom, the funeral was held that very day and Yellow Bear’s body was lovingly placed on a travois, pulled by his hunting horse, and led by Little Wolf. The old chief was dressed in his best ceremonial clothes and some of his beloved possession’s laid next to him; his body wrapped securely in a Buffalo hide as the sad procession made its way to their burial ground on the top of a hill overlooking the village.

It was their tradition that only the closest family members made this last journey with their loved one and Jess had stood to one side, his head bowed, and joined the rest of the tribe to watch the family leave. However, as the small group came alongside him, Kusuma broke ranks, and walking over to Jess, took his hand and  led him to the prized place behind the travois, and looking deeply into his eyes said softly, “It is what he asked for, my son — that you should joins us today.”

Jess just nodded, unable to speak, but squeezed the elderly woman’s hand and they moved slowly forwards again, up the hill.

When they reached the top, Yellow Bear’s remains were interred in a deep grave and then covered with stones, much to Jess’s relief as he had dreaded the thought of the old Chief being hoisted onto a scaffold and left for the buzzards, which was the way of many tribes he knew. Then the family members spoke of their love and memories before Sky and Kusuma prostrated themselves in grief, lying beside the grave, crying and lamenting in the unmistakable sound of a mourning song.

It sent shivers down Jess’s neck, and his heart bled for the two women so stricken by their grief. But there was worse to come. Finally Little Wolf led Yellow Bear’s faithful mount to the graveside and after patting the animal to calm him, he took his rifle and shot him cleanly through the head, the magnificent creature falling dead instantly.

Jess reeled back in shock, and made a tremendous effort not to say or do anything to show his true feelings, although in reality he was completely stunned by this latest turn of events.

Then it was all over and they made their sad way back down the hill to the village where the women folk took over, bearing Sky and her mother away to comfort them, while the men folk set about igniting Yellow Bear’s tepee, containing all his worldly goods, save a few precious items that he had gifted to close family.

Again Jess had been included, and he was presented with Yellow Bear’s prized buffalo bone hunting knife with a leather beaded scabbard, and after thanking Little Wolf, he immediately placed it proudly on his belt, much to the approval of the tribe elders.

Then a torch was set to the tepee and the flames shot up illuminating the dusk surrounding the camp, and apart from the crackling flames, all that could be heard were the distant mourning chant of the women folk as night slowly fell.

*****

That night Sky, Asha and Kusuma slept in her widowed sister’s tepee, that of Dancing Flower, and as was their way, the bereaved women kept away from the rest of the tribe, even though Jess longed to hold Sky in his arms and try and comfort her.

At dawn the following morning, he was awoken from a restless sleep by the distant sound of more wailing and lamenting and the now familiar sound of the mourning chant, as Kusuma and her close female relatives gathered near the grave.

Jess looked over to the other side of the tepee, where Little Wolf had just awoken, and seeing he was stirring, said, “Your Ma and sister sure are taking this badly.”

Little Wolf nodded. “It is our tradition that the wife and daughter of the chief will offer their prayers and display their sorrow for many days after the death. It sounds sad, I know, my friend, but it is their way of healing.”

Jess nodded. “So what was all that about shootin’ Yellow Bear’s mount?” he asked as he sat up and ran a hand through his tousled black hair.

“Again, it is our way to send the warrior’s horse with him as he travels home to meet with the Great Spirit.

Jess personally thought it to be a waste of a good horse, but kept his thoughts to himself. He figured he’d learnt one hell of a lot more about Little Wolf’s people over the last few days and he had learnt his lesson as to not judge them, merely accept and celebrate their differences from the white man.

Little Wolf seemed to pick up on his friends thoughts. “I think we do things differently to you, Dakota, but that is our way. The woman will proclaim their loss for several weeks and then life will gradually return to normal. Then I think my sister will be able to spend more time with you, if that is your wish.”

“I guess it is yes, Little Wolf; it’s like nothing has changed between us, as far as I’m concerned anyways. I wanna spend time with her, be sure we both feel the same and then…”

“And then you wish to become betrothed?” asked Little Wolf eagerly.

Jess shook his head slightly in disbelief. “Well, I guess I’d never thought I’d hear myself say it… but yeah, I do. I want to marry your sister, Little Wolf….if she’ll have me.”

Little Wolf grinned. “Oh I think she will, my friend.” Then his face clouded. “We will just have to be careful…watch out for White Hawk.”

“White Hawk?”

“Yes, he is brother to Crazy Horse and thinks he has some claim on my sister as such. He has tried to court her over these last few months — well, since Crazy Horse died really — but Sky will have nothing to do with him.”

Jess looked worried. “Hell, don’t tell me you were gonna arrange another marriage for her.”

The new young Chief smiled across at his friend. “Oh no Dakota, my father arranged her marriage once before, and I think he regretted it. I will not force my sister into another one, trust me.”

“Oh I do,” said Jess grinning across at him. “We’re brothers after all, ain’t we”

Little Wolf smiled back. “We are and as such I want to help you my friend. There are two main ways of betrothal in our tribal law; either the elders arrange a marriage, or the couple marry by choice. But first they will often elope and live together for a while, and once they are satisfied it will be a good union, well then they return to the tribe and take their place as husband and wife.”

Jess’s head swiveled as he stared at his friend in shocked surprise. “Elope eh?” He said with a mischievous grin.

“Yes, but in this case, I think under the circumstances, my mother would be upset if you both left anytime soon.”

Jess nodded. “Well I can understand that and I wouldn’t do anything to upset your Ma, you know that.”

“Then I think when the time is right, for you both, you should be quietly married and start your life together, then when the complete period of mourning is over and my mother is feeling better, then you can decide on where you will live.”

Jess didn’t know what to say. It was what he wanted, just to be with Sky, and he thought she felt the same, but it was still early days. “OK,” he said,” I guess we’ll do some courtin’ once things settle down some and take it from there”. Then he cast Little Wolf an anxious look. “There is one thing though, Buddy. I guess I’d want to take her and Asha home with me to the ranch, to live there, at some stage; my life and family are there and I can’t turn my back on them. Do you understand?”

Little Wolf nodded. “That is between you and Sky and you must live your life the way you think is right for you both,” he said, showing a wisdom beyond his years.

“Guess there’s a lot of your Pa in you,” said Jess softly, giving his friend a smile. “He’d be real proud of you.”

And so it was that, very gradually, Jess began spending more time in the company of Sky and little Asha, helping them and supporting them when needed. He simply offered kindness and took on one or two chores for her, but never once courted her as such, until the initial mourning period had nearly run its course.

Then he began to accompany Sky on her many walks as she began to collect her herbs and plants for medicine making, just as he had done in the past, and it was on one of these walks that Jess encountered White Hawk for the first time.

The couple was sitting holding hands near the stream when the young warrior rode up on a spirited paint pony and shouted something at Sky, whilst glowering at Jess.

Jess looked at Sky, who had turned ashen. “What’d he say?” he asked standing up quickly and taking a protective stance in front of her.

“He wants to know who you are and what you are doing with me.”

Jess glared at the newcomer. “You speak English?” he growled.

The other looked uncomprehending and then shook his head.

Jess glanced down at Sky. “Tell him,” he said angrily. “Tell him we are together.”

Sky repeated what he had asked her to say, peering fearfully up at White Hawk, as Jess’s hand hovered above his gun, staring icily into the others eyes.

As he comprehended what Sky had said, Jess saw the light of fury in the other man’s eyes and then he spat another comment at Sky before riding off in a cloud of dust.

“What did he say?” asked Jess again.

She just shook her head and refused to reply.

“Sky, tell me,” said Jess looking anguished. “I have to know”.

She looked down and then whispered very softly. “He cursed me, said if he couldn’t have me, then I should die.”

Jess looked shocked and then leapt up and made to go back to camp and his horse as Sky ran after him.

“Jess, where are you going?” she cried as she caught his arm and pulled him back.

“To sort him out,” said Jess, frighteningly quietly.

“No, no,” she cried,” you must not. It will cause too much trouble between our tribes, please Jess if you care for me… for my people, please just leave it.”

He looked down at her and was torn between taking vengeance on the brave and his allegiance to her and the tribe.

“You really think it would cause that much of a ruckus?” he asked.

“I do, just leave it Jess, he was just trying to save face, he didn’t mean it, he is rough and ready, but he would never hurt me.”

And so Jess was finally convinced that he should leave the matter alone, but later Sky’s words would come back to haunt him, ‘he would never hurt me’.

 On the way back to camp Sky suddenly stopped and said, “is it true?”

“Huh?”

“Is it true that we are together?” she asked a smile playing around her lips.

He smiled down at her,” I guess so,” he said, before leaning down and kissing her tenderly.

*****

It was about that time that Jess and Sky really started to get together again. The terrible days of mourning, when the distressing wailing and lamenting of Yellow Bear’s close female relatives could be heard on a daily basis, slowly drew to a close. Sky and her mother were still feeling the loss acutely, but Kusuma encouraged Sky to go out and about with Jess, just wanting her daughter to be happy again and if anyone could help her to do that, she knew it was it was Jess.

So gradually they became closer and closer and the tribe were relieved to see that not only did the blue eyed white man cherish Sky, but he also obviously adored little Asha and took time to get to know her and gain her confidence.

Jess himself was going through a whole spectrum of feelings and emotions. He too was grieving for the loss of Yellow Bear and felt Kusuma and Sky’s pain, but he was also in love and found it hard to contain the strong feelings he had for Sky. That first kiss he had experienced had rekindled all his love for her and he longed to be able to show her how he felt, but it was difficult to find the privacy he craved, until one evening about a month after Yellow Bear’s demise.

The young couple had gone for a walk together after supper, but the nights were now drawing in and getting chilly, so they knew they couldn’t stray from the warmth of the fireside for long.

They sat on a fallen log, in their favorite spot, down near the little stream, in a hollow surrounded by pines and Jess took her hand and smiled into her eyes, before leaning forwards and kissing her very gently.

Tonight though the kissing was different, Jess had tried very hard to hold back and not move things forward more quickly than was appropriate, even though every fiber of his being was crying out to hold her and make sweet love. Tonight though, it was Sky who was making the running, kissing him passionately and running a hand through his black hair, whispering his name softly in his ear. He felt her warm breath on his cheek and gave an involuntary shudder of desire, before pulling away a little so that he could look her in the eye.

“Hey, take it easy,” he said with a little grin. “You’ll have me forgettin’ we ain’t hitched yet.”

“That’s what I want.”

“Huh?”

“That’s what I want, Jess. The time is right, come back with me now,” and she kissed him again, leaving him as to no doubt as to her intentions.

“What about Asha, your Ma?” he whispered softly, caressing her hair and looking searchingly into her eyes.

“My mother said she would have Asha to sleep with her for a while; she is lonely, wants the company of the little one.”

Jess shook his head slowly, a smile touching his eyes. “She knows, don’t she; she’s givin’ us some space?”

Sky gave him a secretive little smile and just nodded before taking him by the hand and they made their silent way back to camp.

Later that evening when everyone had retired for the night, Jess made his way quietly to Sky’s tepee, his pulses racing in anticipation of finally consummating their relationship.

He was still worried that he was rushing her, but as soon as he entered the tepee, his fears were allayed as she stepped forwards and putting her hands behind his head drew him too her and whispered,” I have waited so long for this by love.”

The tepee was dimly lit by the central small fire and there was a bed pulled up near to it covered in brightly colored blankets and a buffalo hide, the whole appearance being sumptuous, with the soft glow from the fire and delightful smell of fresh herbs and spices in the air, the whole ambiance was warm and romantic and excitingly different to Jess.

He looked down into her glowing eyes and leaning in kissed her deeply before gently carrying her over to the bed and placing her down almost reverently, before stretching out beside her and taking her in his arms.

*****

The young couple were quietly married two weeks later and settled down to married life, with Jess taking an active role in the camp and also taking responsibility for little Asha once more. It was now the beginning of November and he was feeling more and more guilty at having left the ranch for so long and also marrying without even telling his adopted family. However, he knew he must honor his promise made to Little Wolf that after marriage he would wait until Kusuma was feeling better before he broached the subject of Sky and Asha returning to the ranch with him.

A few weeks previously, whilst out hunting, he had come across a couple of prospectors on their way across the Arapaho hunting grounds and they had been more than a little fearful to encounter the hunting party. However, Jess had managed to convince the pair that the tribe was at peace with the white man and they had nothing to fear, and he even escorted them back onto the trail they had lost a few miles back. In return, they had promised to send a wire to Slim and Daisy, saying all was well.

Luckily it was a very mild winter, by Wyoming standards, with little snow on the ground and Jess secretly hoped that he would be able to take his new bride home by Christmas time as he was missing his family something  fierce by now and knew that they would doubtless have begun fretting too, and he just hoped his message had got through.

However instead of wallowing in home sickness, he put all his thoughts and energy into his new role as husband and father and could not remember being more content and had he had his friends  around him life would have been perfect.

He also threw himself into life in the tribe, taking his place hunting with the other young braves and got himself quite a reputation as a tracker and marksman. Little Wolf had taught him the skill of tracking when he had first joined the tribe all those years ago and he lost no time in using his talents and was soon proclaimed a worthy member of the hierarchy and as such was awarded an Eagle’s feather by the new Chief, Little Wolf, and he wore it proudly in his hat band.

Sky was absolutely besotted with her new husband and spent her every waking hour trying to find new ways to please him, either by cooking him perfect meals, or caring  for his clothes and  possessions , to making their nights together exciting and romantic.

After her years with Crazy Horse, who was a very young and a selfish lover, Jess was a revelation to her and she wondered how she could have put up with Crazy Horse for so long. He had been the absolute antithesis of Jess, caring little for her thoughts and feelings and just using her for sex before going off on the rampage with all the other young bucks. Now she luxuriated in Jess’s warmth and kindness. He was a sensitive but passionate lover, making her feel special and needed for the first time in her life. He was also immensely caring and thoughtful, always looking out for herself and Asha, keeping them safe and happy and never had she felt to completely loved and cherished.

 She knew that Jess was secretly missing his family back at the ranch though and although she would find it a huge wrench leaving her mother and the safety of the tribe, she was prepared to go to the ends of the earth with Jess and had told him as such early in their relationship. Now she had started preparing for their eventual move and decided to sound out her mother shortly, knowing Jess would like to return home before the winter weather got too bad.

*****

Slim rode into Laramie and hitching up Alamo outside Mort Corey’s office strode inside, a concerned look on his face.

“Got your message, Mort. Something to do with Jess, Mose said. Have you heard anything? He’s not in trouble is he?” he asked anxiously.

Mort smiled up at the tall blond rancher from where he was sitting at his desk, surveying a recent batch of wanted posters.

“Well, good morning to you too Slim. Come in… have a coffee,” he said a hint of sarcasm in his voice, but his eyes twinkling.

Slim wandered over to the ever hot coffee pot, and after helping himself, sank down on the chair opposite his old friend. “Sorry, Mort; it’s just that I’m getting a tad worried about him is all.” Then casting his buddy an anxious look, “You don’t suppose he’s decided to stay there with the Arapaho, do you Mort? Is that what this is all about? Have you heard something?”

The wiry older man shook his head gently. “No I haven’t heard anything at all. There is no trouble with the Arapaho, all peaceful, so I guess you could say no news is good news as far as old Jess is concerned. If he was in some bother, I guess we’d have heard by now.”

Slim sipped his coffee and nodded in agreement. “So what’s it all about then Mort?”

The older man leaned back in his chair, stretching his legs out and gave his friend a speculative look. “I wondered if you could help me out. I’ve had a wire from some Government agents back east, wanting to meet up with the Arapaho regarding this idea of a reservation out at Wind River. Seems old Yellow Bear was very keen , but well, now he’s passed on, they need talks with the new Chief…er, Little Wolf?”

Slim nodded. “Yeah, he’s Jess’s blood brother, the one we met after all that ruckus with Wes Dawson.”

Mort nodded sagely. “Yeah I thought he was our man. Anyways, these officials are due out next week and are in need of a guide — couple of days out, couple there and then back, a week or so — and I wondered if you could spare the time?” he said with a broad grin.

Slim leapt up from his seat nearly spilling his coffee in his excitement. “Well sure, just tell me when. I can get the Relay covered and be ready to go just as soon as they arrive.”

“You know where to find them then?” asked Mort.

“Oh sure, well, the rough area, and I reckon once I hit their neck of the woods they’ll find me.” Then more quietly, “Hell, Mort, it will be so dang good to see him again. Maybe he’ll even ride back with me.”

“Um, said Mort, “don’t go getting’ yourself too wound up there, Slim. I’ve no doubt that he’s been missin’ you folks as much as you have him. But, well, he’s been gone a real long time and as I recall there was a woman involved and well…you know Jess…” he finished with a faint grin.

Slim just nodded. “Oh yeah, I know him alright, but figure I’ve got to see him, find out for myself and the others; we need to know what’s going on.”

“You’ve heard nothing since he rode out then?”

Slim gave his friend a shrug. “Oh yeah, we had a wire, few weeks back, saying ‘All well, Stop, expect me when you see me Stop, missing you all Stop, Jess’.”

“Well he never was one to waste words,” said Mort grinning broadly now.

Slim grinned back. “Yeah, suppose you’re right there, Mort. Anyway, let the agents know I’m fine to guide them,” and with that he made his way back to the ranch to tell Daisy and Mike the good news.

*****

And so it was, Slim found himself with the two genial Government agents riding out towards the mountain range just to the west of Casper on the route to Riverton.

They made good time arriving in the late afternoon of the second day and made camp on some high ground overlooking the valley and distant mountains beyond.

As dusk fell, Slim was just able to see some smoke rising a few miles distant in the valley below them and figured that would be the camp. It looked to be reasonably sizable, with several plumes of smoke rising into the clear evening sky, and was situated in the area Jess had described to him before he rode out with Little Wolf all those weeks ago.

Slim reckoned it would be safer to ride in at first light, rather than risk disturbing them at dusk when they might be mistaken for members of a hostile tribe. As far as he knew, the Arapaho were at peace with most of the nearby tribes, but he didn’t want to take any chances, so he suggested he ride in alone at dawn, establish contact, and then the two agents would join him for their proposed talks with Little Wolf and the tribe elders.

He was up before first light and they were on the trail down to the camp just as dawn was breaking. It was a bright chilly morning, with just a powdering of snow on the ground and Slim was excited and light hearted at the thought of seeing his best buddy once more.

As arranged, the agents hung back as Slim entered the seemingly deserted early morning camp site. Then as he dismounted, he saw a movement and a man ducked out of a nearby tepee.

He was dressed from head to foot in buckskin, was deeply tanned, sported a dark beard and held a small girl casually on his hip. Then he looked up and saw the newcomer and there was a flash of white teeth in the tanned face as the man suddenly grinned broadly and Slim saw those unmistakable, deep blue, twinkling eyes. “Jess,” he whispered. “Jess…that you?”

The man put the little girl gently down, and in two strides was at Slim’s side and embracing him in a strong bear hug, before pulling back and grinning from ear to ear. “Well sure it’s me, pard. Who did you think it was?”

Slim pushed his hat back and studied his buddy from head to toe again. “’Well it’s kinda hard to tell, Buddy. seems to me you’ve gone native. What’s with the buckskins…and the beard?”

Jess put a hand to his face like he’d completely forgotten about the luxurious growth, and threw his partner a faintly embarrassed look. “Guess I lost my razor somewhere along the way… and the buckskins, well, Sky made those for me. Makes sense, you know; gets kinda chilly around here this time of year.”

“Sky?” asked Slim giving his friend a speculative look. “So you’ve got back together?”

Just then,  as if on cue ,Sky emerged from the same tepee as Jess , but before Slim could give him a mischievous look, Jess turned and throwing a possessive arm around her said softly,” Slim meet Sky…my wife.”

Slim’s jaw dropped in amazement and it was a few minutes before he could gather his wits together. “Real pleased to meet you, Sky,” he said giving her a warm look. Then turning back to his friend, said, with a hint of sarcasm, “So been busy then I see, buddy. Anything else you’ve got to tell me?” he asked, looking behind Jess, to where little Asha was clutching Jess’s leg and peeping shyly round at the strange tall blond man who was obviously a friend of her new Pa.

“Oh yeah,” said Jess with another big grin, ignoring the sarcasm. “This here is my step-daughter, Asha,” and he reached round behind him and picked her up, throwing her in the air to screams of delight from the youngster. The he placed her down in front of Slim and said softly, Say hi, honey.”

Slim had never seen such a beautiful little child, from her long black tresses to her huge innocent brown eyes. She was obviously her mother’s daughter, and he shook hands and exchanged greetings with the little one before looking back at Sky, thinking she was the most beautiful woman he had clapped eyes on in one hell of a while. “Well you’ve sure fallen on your feet. buddy,” he said with a huge grin.

Sky gave Jess a look of askance, and he threw her a loving smile.

“Guess my buddy approves,” Jess said in Arapaho, and she smiled sweetly at Slim and gesturing towards the large central fire said softly, “We are about to eat. Please come.”

It was then that Slim suddenly realized that far from the camp being deserted, it had been full of unseen braves, who had merely melted away once they saw Slim was a friend of the great white man, brother to Little Wolf. But now they returned escorting the Government agents, who were looking pale and anxious. However, as soon as their presence was explained, they were welcomed by Little Wolf and invited to eat before the proposed talks.

It was much later in the day before Slim and Jess finally had some time alone together in which to talk properly. They had wandered off to the stream and now sat on the old log by the bank, staring up at the majestic mountains beyond and breathing in the cool fresh mountain air.

After a while Slim looked over at his friend and broached the subject he had been dreading. “So what are your plans Jess? Are you going to be staying up here with the tribe, move onto the Reservation when the time comes?”

Jess’s head swiveled and his eyebrows shot up in question. “Huh?”

“Well, you’ve got a new family now, Jess. I assumed you’d be staying her with them, make a go of things with Sky this time round?”

Jess just shook his head sadly. “How could you think that, buddy?”

Now it was Slim’s turn to look surprised. “Well you’ve married her, haven’t you? I guess that just about says it all. This is where you’ll he living…won’t it?” he said with a faint light of hope in his eyes.

Jess just shook his head again and repeated himself. “How could you think that, Slim? That I’d turn my back on you…or Daisy and Mike. What did you think I‘d do? Just ride off into the sunset without a backwards glance, without a second thought?” Then he turned anguished eyes on his buddy. “Hell, you and Daisy and Mike are my family Slim, I thought you knew that, I’d never leave…never.” Then he turned away, overcome with emotion.

Slim looked at his friend and felt a mounting joy. “You’ll be coming home sometime then?” he said softly.

Jess swallowed hard before looking over at his friend. “Sure,” he said with a shy smile, “if you all still want me. I figured we could build out on the North pasture, same as we always planned when one of us married, and guess we’d be happy enough in the old bunk house in the meantime…”

Slim jumped up and slapped his buddy on the back. “Gee, that’s swell, really swell. Daisy will be so pleased. She’ll love Sky and the little one.” Then grinning at his friend, “Well, who wouldn’t!”

Jess looked his friend in the eye,” thanks Slim,” he said sincerely, “that means a lot to me buddy.”

And shortly afterwards the two friends went back to the camp in a much more cheerful mood.

So it was decided that Jess and his family would move to the ranch in the next few weeks, once they had, had a chance to discuss it properly with Kusuma and make all their preparations.

“I’d like to be home for Thanksgiving,” Jess had said softly to Slim, out of the hearing of the others, “but I guess I’ll have to see how Kusuma takes it. I don’t wanna hurt her. She’s been real good to me. I’ve promised Sky we’ll visit up on the Reservation once a year, so I guess that will help some. Anyways, tell Daisy I’ll definitely be home for Christmas. Wouldn’t miss her plum puddin’ for the world!”

When it was time to ride out, Sky and Asha appeared laden with gifts.

“For Jess’s family from mine,” Sky said simply and gave Slim her beautiful smile.

There was a carefully worked knife scabbard for Mike — made of leather and beadwork like the one Jess had inherited from Yellow Bear — a beautifully tooled leather belt for Slim, and some pretty soft, beaded moccasins for Daisy, all wrapped in a brightly colored blanket.

Slim was deeply touched. “You made all these yourself?” he asked in awe.

Sky nodded. “And I am teaching Asha now. She helped with the beading.”

Slim glanced across at his buddy. “May I?”

Jess just tipped his head back and nodded and then watched with a big grin on his face as Slim kissed Sky and Asha gently on the cheek.

“Thank you so much,” Slim said. “These mean a lot to me.” Then very quietly in an aside to Sky, “And thanks for making my buddy so happy. You will be welcome to share my home as soon as the time is right.”

She nodded and smiled kindly at him. “Thank you, Slim; I am sure we will become good friends.”

*****

Jess was sorry to see his buddy go, but he knew he would see him and all his family before too long and so life settled back down to the usual slow pace of the village as winter gradually set in.

Jess and Sky took Kusuma to one side one evening and explained their plans and Jess was incredibly relieved to see that the older woman accepted their ideas, if not joyously at least stoically, and when Jess went on to say he would bring the family to visit regularly, she looked almost happy.

Later alone with Sky, Kusuma finally opened up her heart. “I cannot pretend I will not miss you, daughter, especially after the loss of Yellow Bear, but all I want for you is your happiness.”

Sky clung to her mother then and wept. “I do not know how I can leave you, mother, but I must please my husband; his family, home and work all lie in Laramie. it is only right I should follow him. I belong to him now,” she said in a shuddering breath.

“And you do not regret marrying so quickly, child?”

Sky shook her head fervently. “I lost him once before; I could not bear for it to happen again.”

“Then if you are happy, that is all I wish for, and I know Jess is a good man who will love and care for you all his days. There is nothing more a mother could wish for. You will leave with my blessing, my child.”

Word soon got around that the young couple were off to make a new life in Laramie and everyone wished them well. Sky was particularly touched when her brother returned from a hunting trip bearing gifts from Silver Fox, the Cheyenne Chief and father of her first husband Crazy Horse and his brother White Hawk.

She gave a sigh of relief as she admired the colorful blankets that Silver Fox had sent along with a spirited pony, as farewell gifts.

“He would have come himself,” said Little Wolf, “but he has been sick — a hunting accident. He sends his best wishes to you both.”

“So he is no longer saying I should be betrothed to White Hawk?” she said giving her brother an anxious look.

He just shook his head. “I know that is common place in many tribes to marry the brother if a husband dies, but I guess he realizes you know your own mind. You would never have consented to marry him anyway. You are older, stronger now, and besides you have found Jess again,” he said, giving her a brotherly peck on the cheek and winking at his friend.

All the time they had been talking, Jess had been listening with a concerned look on his face. He had shared the episode of White Hawk threatening Sky with Little Wolf, and he too was of the opinion that the brave was just sounding off in anger and posed no real threat. However, Jess had one of his gut feelings, and since that time by the stream, he had been increasingly vigilant, watching out for the return of the hot headed young brave. “So was White Hawk there?” he asked now, his eyebrows drawn together and casting a worried glance at Little Wolf.

“Yes he was, Dakota, but he said nothing and did not offer to accompany me back with the gifts. He was with a young squaw and I believe he has lost interest in my little sister,” he said with a laugh, playfully ruffling her hair.

Sky took the teasing in good spirits though. “Well I just hope he will be as happy as I am,” she said sincerely, reaching out for Jess’s hand and smiling up into the deep blue eyes that she had loved since she was a mere girl of sixteen. She gave a little sigh of relief, her legs suddenly feeling weak and she experienced a wave of happiness and deep gratitude that everything was going to be alright at last.

*****

It was to be their last day in the camp, and the morning had been spent packing and tying up loose ends and now it was early afternoon and the couple needed some space to themselves. Both of them were feeling the emotional reactions of their leaving, on their friends in the tribe, but particularly from Kusuma and Little Wolf, who had been quiet and watchful all day.

Jess, especially, was feeling guilty and wanted to avoid everyone for a while, unable to bear seeing the naked pain of loss in Kusuma’s eyes. And although he felt he was doing the right thing by Sky and Asha, he still felt bad at taking her only daughter away.

The young couple had wandered off to their secret place down by the stream, and as they stood looking over to the distant mountains, Sky glanced up at Jess and took his hand. “Don’t feel bad,” she whispered, picking up on his moods as she always did. “My mother will mourn our going for a while, but she will rejoice in our return in the spring and she has all her family and friends around her. She is a survivor, Jess.”

He looked down into her beautiful face. “What about you?” he said softly. “Are you sure you want to make this move with me?”

She smiled up into his eyes, now completely confident. “I would go to the very ends of the earth with you; I love you,” she said simply.

He pulled her close, and took a deep breath, “and I love you, more than you’ll ever know.” He leaned down to kiss her, looking deep into her eyes, which were gazing lovingly up into his ….

And then……there was a sudden swishing noise and a dull thud and Sky was thrown forwards into his arms, her eyes, still staring into his, opened wide in shock, her mouth fell open and she gasped, and then went limp and at that exact moment an arrow struck Jess in the left arm.

Within a split second, Jess’ gun was in his hand and he emptied the chamber through the heart of White Hawk, as he stood a few feet away, a third arrow already in his bow and he fell jerking and bucking, dead almost before he reached the ground.

Jess knelt by Sky’s prone body, staring in shocked disbelief at the arrow sticking from her back and then almost before he had time to register she was dead, Little Wolf was upon him. He grabbed Jess’s arm and viciously yanked at the protruding arrow, before digging his knife deep into the wound.

Jess’s head spun round and he fell back in shock at this unwarranted attack, but before he could move or remonstrate, Little Wolf unceremoniously dragged him up and hauled him the few feet to the stream, where he pushed Jess down, following him in. The two men now struggling in the icy shallows as Jess tried to fight him off. But again Little Wolf took his knife to Jess’s arm and cut deeply, his life blood darkening the crystal clear water, as the  brave held him down in a vice like grip.

“What the hell…” spluttered Jess.

Finally Little Bear relinquished his hold, and then grabbing his friend hauled, the now sick and dizzy Jess to the bank.

Jess was weak through shock and loss of blood and he just lay on the bank panting and retching, before Little Wolf sat him up, a protective arm around him.

“You OK, Dakota? “

Jess coughed again and then gave his friend a wary look. “Yeah… no thanks to you. What are you playin’ at Buddy, tryin’ to kill me?”

Little wolf shook his head. “No, my friend, the arrow tips are poisoned; I had to make you bleed to release the drug before it killed you.”

Both men were shaking and a member of the tribe, who had all been alerted by the gunfire, came over and put blankets around their shoulders.

Jess got shakily to his feet and walked over to where a blanket had been thrown over Sky. He squatted down, and then steeling himself, pulled the blanket gently back and staring down gasped, a hand flying to his chest. He looked up as Little Wolf walked over and stood staring down at his sister, tears streaming down his face.

Jess looked back down shaking his head in disbelief and muttering softly to himself. “No… dear God no…..this can’t be happenin’.” His voice choked with unshed tears and he started shaking uncontrollably, just staring at Sky’s deathly still form. Then he felt the compassionate arms of two of the tribe elders lift him gently and they escorted him back to the camp, where he was laid in Little Wolf’s tepee and his wound attended to by two of the older women.

The last thing he remembered was their soft anxious voices as they bound the deep cuts to his arm. He felt the blood pounding in his ears and then the welcome velvet cloak of oblivion enveloped him and he passed out.

When he came round, it was dark outside and the tepee was illuminated by the flames from the central fire and Jess lay for a split second, wondering what he was doing there, before memory kicked in and he felt the dead weight of misery crushing him as the dreadful events of the afternoon were played out in his mind again.

He gave a low groan and then there was somebody near him and looking up he saw Little Wolf squatting beside him peering down in concern.

“Jess, my brother,” Little Wolf whispered. “I am so sorry.”

Jess’s mouth was dry and he licked his lips and tried to speak, but when he did it, was a mere croak and Little Wolf brought a canteen and raising his head helped him to drink, before resting his head back.

Jess raised his hand weakly, and placed it on the young Brave’s chest. “No,” he whispered, “it’s me that is sorry. It’s all my fault, Buddy; I should have kept her safe,” he said before his head rolled away and he gave a muffled sob…

But Little Wolf merely shook his head. “It is nobody’s fault, Jess. It was White Hawk’s mission to kill and I think now, nothing could have stopped him. It was her time,” he finished with a hopeless shrug.

Jess just lay still for a while staring up at the tepee ceiling, his eyes glassy and unfocused but at these words he finally struggled to sit up. “How can you say that,” he said angrily. “It weren’t her time. It was too soon…way to soon… I have to go to her,” he finished his voice cracking.

“You are sick, Dakota; you must rest.”

“No! Where is she, Little Wolf?”

The young brave sighed deeply. “I will take you,” and he reached down and hauled the dark haired cowboy up and supported him as they made their way across the camp and to the tepee he had shared with Sky and Asha these past weeks.

On entering, he was aware of the sweet smell of the Bayberry bush candles that had been lit and were now surrounding and dimly illuminating the still, pale form of Sky, as she lay in state. She was dressed in her best gown, flowers, herbs and spices strewn around her, along with her most prized possessions ready for her last journey in the morning.

As Jess’s eyes gradually became used to the dim light, he saw a movement and was suddenly aware that Kusuma was sitting bolt upright to the side of the body, watching her daughter, but her head had shot up at Jess’s arrival and now she stood up stiffly and made her way towards him, her wet eyes dull and lifeless.

He looked down an expression of deep sympathy in his eyes, and leaning forwards gently, stroked her arm and wished with all his heart he could spare her this intense pain once more.

As though understanding his silent thoughts, she nodded and then looking to her son said softly in their language, “Come, son, leave Jess to grieve for his cherished wife in privacy,” and taking his arm, the couple left him alone.

Jess stared down at the body of his wife, still hardly believing what he saw. Then he backed away, shaking his head, the sight of her just too much for him to bear and he turned from her, head bowed and his arms crossing his chest as though to ward off everything he was seeing and feeling.

His mouth was dry and he felt the familiar sting of tears behind his eyes and suddenly experienced a feeling of overwhelming anger and turning back to his wife shouted furiously, “Why…why did you have to go…why did you leave me?” And then he sank to his knees beside her, sobbing uncontrollably.

The following morning, at dawn, Kusuma and her sister entered the tepee and saw Jess lying beside his wife in a deep but troubled sleep, one arm flung across his eyes. She gently shook him awake and explained that they were there to prepare her daughter for the funeral and that perhaps he should go and see Asha who had been crying for him.

He just nodded, and felt a spasm of guilt for not visiting the child earlier.

Again Kusuma seemed to read his mind. “She is too young to understand properly, son. She is just anxious as she feels there is something wrong without fully accepting.”

“Have you told her? Is she askin’ for her Ma? “

“I have tried to explain and she will journey with us to the burial grounds, but she cannot understand that this is for all time. She thinks her mother will be returning; it will take time for her to fully understand. “

“Poor little thing,” muttered Jess almost to himself. Then looking at the old woman said softly, “Does she have to come with us Kusuma? Ain’t that a bit tough for a little ‘un? “

“It is our way,” said Kusuma firmly and Jess knew that look in the eye and that she was not to be persuaded, so he merely turned to go.

However, Kusuma called him back, and bending over the body, she very gently removed the turquoise stone that Sky always wore on a leather thong around her neck, and gesturing to Jess to come to her, reached up and put it around his neck. “This was her most valued possession. it symbolizes friendship and love. My father, her grandfather, gave this to my daughter when she was born, and I know she would want you to have it.”

Jess fingered the jewelry reverently. “Thank you,” he whispered before throwing Sky one last heartfelt look and turning, left the tepee.

Jess had a strange feeling of life repeating itself as he took his place in a funeral procession yet again. This time, though he felt even more desolate and was in a state of mental numbness, retreating within himself and just staring at the proceedings as though watching some sort of ritual of which he played no part.

It wasn’t until the body had been interred and Kusuma and her sister where once more prostrating themselves at the graveside, weeping, that little Asha reacted.

All the way through the ritual she had stood obediently beside Jess, her hand in his, but showing no emotion, the chanting and mourning songs being unfamiliar and therefore irrelevant in her short life. However when she saw her grandmother and aunt so deeply distressed, she suddenly became frightened and although still not fully understanding the situation, her bottom lip trembled and she too started to whimper.

Jess quickly picked her up and held her close, whispering words of comfort, until the small child relaxed again, her little arms round his neck giving him some comfort too.

And then they were finally on their way back down the mountain. Several times during the day, Asha had asked Jess anxiously about her pony and Jess had taken her to see the small palomino grazing happily in the meadow, but the child had not been satisfied.

 Now she again said she wanted her pony.

Jess threw her a quizzical look, thinking maybe she thought the animal would be slaughtered like her grandfather’s hunting pony had been sacrificed at the graveside.

“It’s OK, honey,” he said softly. “Old Snowy is fine; ain’t nothin’ goin’ to happen to him I promise you,” but still she looked worried and ill at ease.

When they returned to the camp, it was time for Jess and Sky’s tepee to be fired. Jess still thought this a crazy custom, and although he understood it was something to do with the Arapaho belief that it helped the dead spirit to move on to the afterlife and not return home, he still hated the idea.

Now he stood in front of his home, all the tribe around him waiting for the ritual to be completed, but there was one thing he had to do first, and excusing himself, he entered the tepee for the last time.

Stacked up in the centre were all Sky’s worldly goods and he stood for a moment looking at the few dresses with their bright beadwork, her jewelry and all the tepee cooking pots and odds and ends.

Then he suddenly made a decision and he stripped off the buckskins Sky had sewn him, and digging about in the pile of clothes, found his old denims, blue shirt, black vest, sheepskin jacked and black leather boots and quickly dressed in his own clothes and pulling down his Stetson hard he turned to leave their marital home for the last time.

 But just as he was leaving, something caught his eye. Lying on the dusty floor was little Asha’s favorite toy, a small pony that Jess had carved for her and which she took to bed with her and  always kept  near her. At last the penny dropped; it was the little carved horse she was so anxious about and not her own real live pony. Jess smiled to himself, and scooping it up, walked out to the waiting crowd.

He walked over to Asha immediately and presented her with the pony and her little face lit up with joy.

“Oh thank you, Papa Jess; you have found him. I knew you would.” She threw herself at him, embracing him ecstatically.

Then it was time, and Jess motioned for Little Wolf to ignite the tepee with a large torch, passed over from the central camp fire.

Suddenly there was a loud whoosh as the Buffalo hide started to burn furiously, sparks flying up into the night air.

Seeing her home in flames little Asha’s eyes opened wide in horror and she stared up at Jess crying loudly in her native tongue, “Our home, our home Papa Jess!”

Jess quickly picked the child up and held her head against his chest, shielding her from the horrifying sight, and turned to take her away, but before he could leave, Little Wolf was there blocking his way.

“She should stay and see this, Jess. She has to know her mother’s life is over, the old life is gone. She must see this; it is our way.”

This was all suddenly too much for Jess and he had a flash back to standing outside his own home, watching it burning to the ground after the Bannisters had fired it, the screams of his mother and siblings inside.

Now he turned furious eyes on his blood brother. “Well it ain’t my way. No child should have to see their home burn,” he shouted and with that turned on heel and headed off, with a tearful Asha clinging to him as though to life itself.

*****

The following day, he sat by the campfire long after breakfast was finished and most of the rest of the tribe had dispersed to do their chores. Asha was very clingy and just sat on his knee, the small carved horse firmly attached to her tunic belt, her eyes sad and red from crying most of the night.

After a while, though, one of her little friends came over and asked her to play, and the small girl reluctantly slipped from Jess’s lap and wandered off with the other child.

Jess watched her retreating back fondly, his heart aching for the little girl he had come to love as his own.

Then Kusuma’s voice broke into his thought as she came and sat next to him. She followed Jess’s gaze and said gently, “She will be alright you know; she will get over this.”

Jess turned and nodded. “What is it folk always say, children are so resilient….” Then he gave her a sad look. “They ain’t though, you know — not always”.

The old woman felt a lurch of pity for her surrogate son. “You are talking of yourself, as a child, aren’t you, my son?”

Jess just grunted. “Maybe”.

There was a long silence before she said in a trembling voice. “Are you taking her with you when you leave?”

Jess’s head spun round to face her. “Who said I was leavin’?”

“Well you are aren’t you?”

Jess just shook his head sadly, but didn’t reply.

“You made your decision when you put on your western clothes,” Kusuma said softly, “whether you knew it or not.”

Jess thought about this for a while and suddenly realized she was right.

That very morning he had been woken by the sound of the women singing the mourning chant again and he felt he could stand to be confined to the camp no moment longer. Every fiber of his being was screaming out to go home and to rid himself of the terrible memories that were all around him.

He still felt dreadfully guilty and spent hours sitting at the spot where Sky had died, playing the scene over and over in his mind. What if they hadn’t visited that spot that day, what if he hadn’t married her, what if he had just stayed one night when he brought Little Wolf back and not renewed their friendship, what…for God’s sake, what if Traveler had taken the road to Dodge all those years ago and he had never met Sky and fallen in love?

Then he figured a man could go crazy thinkin’ that way and knew he had to go, to get away from the memories, and the folks he had come to love as family. But what about Asha? That was what Kusuma was waiting with bated breath to hear now. What would he do about his daughter Asha?

Jess looked deeply into the camp fire before finally tearing his eyes away to look into those of Kusuma, alight with hope, but secretly fearing the worst; then he looked down again. “She would be alright with me,” he said softly. “I’d look out for her and there is Daisy to care for her too. She’d love her so much,” he said glancing across at the old woman. “Lust the way I do,” he said his voice catching. He couldn’t carry on for a minute, but rallied. “She’d go to school along with Mike. Gee, he’d love a little sister,” he said, almost to himself. “Then old Slim there, well, he thinks she’s as cute as I do, so you see, she would be really fine with us.”

All the time he’d been talking he had been trying to convince himself. But how could he uproot this small child from all she had ever known. She had lost her grandfather and now her mother. How could he ask her to accompany him home, leaving her grandmother and uncle and all the rest of her family and friends.

Jess took a deep breath knowing what he had to do. “I guess, she’d be better off with you, though,” he said softly, “until she’s old enough to decide for herself, that is. But if she’s ever a mind to come to me….well, there will always be a home for her,” he said gruffly, finding it hard to keep his raw emotions at bay.

Kusuma let out the breath she had been holding, tears now freely coursing down her cheeks. “Thank you , oh thank you,” she whispered, reaching out a hand to Jess, but he could bear it no longer and leaping up he strode off in the direction of the stream, and Kusuma watched him go, deep sympathy mixed  with gratitude  in her tired old eyes.

Later that night after supper, he sat around the fire with his friends, and when he said he would be riding out the following day, there was consternation from both Kusuma and also Little Wolf.

“But you are far from well, my son. That wound needs dressing daily and you are still very weak from the blood loss.”

“That’s right,” agreed Little Wolf. “Stay a little longer, Dakota.”

Jess merely shook his head. “Got a feelin’ the weather will be  closin’ in soon and it’ll be Spring before I could make the journey. Can’t do that….can’t stay any longer,” he said his voice breaking.

They  were all silent for a while as Jess struggled to get control again, and then turning to Little Wolf he said, “Guess I didn’t thank you properly for what you did, cuttin’ that poison out and all; figure I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”

“We are brothers,” Little Wolf said simply. “We look out for each other.”

“Sure,” agreed Jess giving him the ghost of a smile.

Shortly afterwards, the men retired for the night,  Jess once more sharing Little Wolf’s tepee while Asha stayed with her grandmother and aunt. Jess had tried to explain to the child that he was going home, and promised to return in the Spring, but he knew she had no real concept of time yet and Spring could well mean next day or next week as far as the child was concerned.

Now as he lay on his bedroll by the small tepee fire, he looked over at Little Wolf who was still awake too and said softly, “You’ll look out for Asha won’t you, Buddy?”

“But of course.”

Then taking a deep breath, Jess said, “I just don’t want her frettin’, you know. I feel real bad at not takin’ her with me, but I figure stayin’ with her kin is more important than what I want.”

Little Wolf nodded sagely. “Tribe is important, but you will visit again, Dakota, and I will explain to her, keep your memory alive, as I will for Sky and Yellow Bear”.

Jess nodded. “Thanks, Buddy.”

As he lay there, sleep evaded him and all he could think of was the throbbing pain in his injured arm. He was also feeling sick and light-headed, but he was determined to keep this from his friends as he knew they would insist in him delaying his return home if they knew he was suffering.

But now the decision had been made, he felt he couldn’t remain here a second longer than necessary, the horrifying memories flooding through his mind at every turn, the camp site and its environs being so full of them, both good and bad…but now even the good memories were causing him acute pain. Yes, he would ride out in the morning come hell or high water, and with that thought, he finally fell into a restless sleep.

The following morning he was up and ready to go at first light, but then Kusuma insisted that he have a hot meal before riding out and Jess hid a smile, thinking how much like Daisy she was in many respects.

When the time came for him to go, he had held Asha close, kissing her and telling her to be a good girl in her own language and the small child looked solemnly up at him, eyes huge before dissolving into tears. Jess was uncertain as what to do and threw Kusuma a pleading glance and she came to the rescue at once, gently taking the child from his arms and whispering calmly to her. After a few minutes the tears dried up and she gave Jess a watery smile.

“What did you say?”

“Just that you loved her very much and would visit when the snows had gone.”

Jess nodded and hopping up on Traveler, pulled his hat down hard, and touching it to the older woman, he gave Asha a wink and Little Wolf a faint grin. “See you,” he said softly and kicked his mount into a brisk trot.

Later when he thought back to that day, he figured he was still in shock from all that had happened to him, or he would never have ridden out feeling as bad as he did, plus the snow had started falling in earnest that morning and Little Wolf had pleaded with him to reconsider…but Jess’s stubborn streak kicked in.

**********

As he rode away, he felt like his heart had been ripped out and stomped on, the sudden, shocking death of his new wife leaving him desolate. And now leaving Asha, tears drying on her face, as he rode on down the trail, he couldn’t remember when he had felt so bad.

He reined Traveler, in just before he took the trail off through the forest, and looking back, saw Kusuma still cradling Asha, Little Wolf an arm protectively round his mother’s shoulders, and all still watching him go, the small group a picture of desolation.

He raised a hand in final salute, which was returned by his blood brother and then he kicked Traveler on into the deep forest, towards home.

As he rode through the woodland, the snow was not too bad but once he cleared the area and was back on the open plain, the snow lashed into his face stinging as the harsh wind got behind it. He pulled his hat down further and gave Traveler an encouraging pat on the neck and set off at a steady trot intent on reaching the half-way point before night fall.

As he rode, his thoughts got darker and darker as he continually replayed the events of the last few days. The more he thought about his situation, the worse he felt and he finally took a deep breath. “Get a grip Harper,” he said out loud to himself, “just get home and things will seem better.”

Traveler twitched his ears at his master’s voice and Jess gave him a grim smile. “Don’t worry, buddy; your boss has just gone a tad loco,” he said softly, but later he was to remember this conversation and wonder about the truth of it.

The storm looked like it had set in for the rest of the day, with no sign of abating, and much as Jess needed to get home, he knew he couldn’t push his faithful old horse too far in these conditions, so by late afternoon he found a reasonably sheltered spot to camp and stopped for the night.

The wind had dropped and the bitter cold that he had struggled with all day lowered a little, but as the feeling returned to his leaden limbs, he was suddenly aware of the severe pain and throbbing in  his injured arm. Cursing softly under his breath, he went about tending to Traveler and setting a fire in the lee of a rocky outcrop, before finally stripping off his coat and shirt to check out the arrow wound.

What he saw made his heart race and his mouth grow dry as he looked at the inflamed gaping wound. Sweat had broken out on his forehead in spite of the freezing conditions, and as he got up to fetch the whiskey and clean bandages from his saddle bag, he swayed a little, grabbing a nearby tree for support.

Once he had gone through the painful procedure of washing the septic wound with the whiskey and re-bandaging it, he was too done in to cook, or even make a coffee, and he just lay back on his bedroll, and turning on his side by the fire, fell into a restless sleep.

The following morning dawn broke and then the sun finally broke through the cloud cover, but still Jess remained unmoving by the fast dying fire. When it got to mid-morning and his master had still not come to feed and water him, Traveler became restive and lumbered over to the camp fire and nuzzled gently at Jess’s hair.

The young cowboy had been slipping in and out of consciousness since dawn and now he finally managed to rouse himself and putting a weak hand up stroked the horse’s velvety nose. “Sorry fellah,” he whispered, “guess I ain’t feelin’ too good right now.”

Traveler blew down his nostrils and gave a low whinny in answer and then a few minutes later Jess managed to pull himself up and feed and water his mount before gazing vaguely around him.

The effort of just tending to the horse had practically made him pass out again and he knew he was in no fit state to ride and so he collapsed back by the now cold ashes of the fire, to consider his options.

He knew if he was going to stay alive he had to keep warm, drink plenty of fluids and just rest up until the infection in his arm ran its course and he was strong enough to continue his journey, and so after a few minutes, he steeled himself to get up and fetch a large pile of wood for the fire.

Then he filled his canteen from the nearby stream and finally loosed off Traveler so that he could at least get fresh water from the little brook and maybe even forage in the undergrowth for some greenery to keep him going. Jess had a gunny sack full of feed for him, but he knew he couldn’t just leave that out as the horse would doubtless gorge on it and make himself ill. Then he hunkered down by the fire again, exhausted by his efforts, and once the fire was going well again, he stretched out on his bedroll once more although it was only lunchtime.

“Wake me up when you get hungry boy,” he said with a faint smile, looking over to where Traveler was standing quietly nearby and with that he fell into a restless sleep again.

He slept all through the afternoon and  the following night, but the fever got worse and he spent most of his time restlessly crying out and sweating and then shaking with chills. By the time the following morning came round, the fire had died to grey ash. It started snowing again and then the wind got up sending its icy blast across the plain and directly to where Jess lay unconscious.

Traveler whinnied gently and came and stood by his master, his rump to the weather, but even the big horse could not rouse the deeply unconscious man and as the day wore on the snow drifted across his unmoving form almost covering him.

Jess was dreaming he was lying in a dark cold place and although he could faintly hear Traveler whickering in the distance, he didn’t know where he was, but he knew he had to get up and tend to him.

He desperately tried to pull himself out of the cold dark place, but time after time he fell back exhausted, tears of frustration welling in his eyes. Finally he admitted defeat. This was it then ; this is where he would end his days in some goddamn winter storm in the middle of  nowhere…no help within miles and his last thought was of Traveler and he desperately tried to yell out, “home, boy…go home.”

Then he felt a presence, someone was leaning over him, and he felt a gentle hand on his forehead and struggling to open his eyes he looked into the face of,\… his dearly loved Sky.

He stared in disbelieve and then terror, even in his dream he knew this wasn’t right…

“You’re dead,” he whispered, his whole body tensing, the sound of his heartbeat deafening in his ears.

“Do I look dead?” she said with her beautiful smile, and then running a gentle finger down his cheek, she leaned forwards and kissed him very tenderly on the lips.

“Do I feel dead?” she whispered, sitting back, a teasing look in her eyes.

Then the fear left him as quickly as it had come. “I guess not.”

His brain was in turmoil. He just couldn’t fathom what was happening, but then he felt so beat he ceased trying and just accepted that his darling wife was back.

Then she turned, and looking up at someone just out of Jess’s range of vision, she said, “We need to make up the fire, get him warm and change the bandages, father.”

Jess pulled himself up. Father — Yellow Bear — now he knew he was definitely dreaming, but what the hell, if Yellow Bear was gonna fix up the fire then that sounded good to him. If I’m gonna die, I might as well do it in comfort, he thought.

Sky tended to his wound, and gently washed his hot aching body with cool water from the stream and then Yellow Bear came back and built up the fire to a good blaze.

“I will look after your horse now, my son, and then you must sleep; the Great Spirit will heal you,” and then he faded away.

Jess turned to Sky and anxiously grabbed hold of her hand. “Don’t leave me,” he whispered. Sure he knew this was all a dream, but even so he wanted her to stay with him so goddamn much.

She looked down at him with her beautiful brown eyes and said softly, “I will never leave you; I am always in  your heart,” and then she lay beside him and he took her in his arms, feeling safe and whole again for the first time since her death, and finally he fell into a deep healing sleep.

When he awoke, the snow had stopped falling and the sun was out. He rubbed his eyes and looked around him at the sparkling countryside and then he remembered the dream.

 God, it had been so darn real he thought to himself and he felt shattered as he realized that, that was all it had been, a dream and indeed Sky was dead and gone.

Then he looked around him and was amazed to see that the fire was burning brightly, like it had just been tended, and yet when he briefly awoke in the early hours, he could have sworn it was out.

Then he looked at his wound, knowing he must change the dressing, as it was still bleeding, and yet again he was shocked to see that the dressing was clean and fresh.

He shook his head in disbelief. Then he remembered hearing Traveler stomping about and pawing the ground in frustration because he was so hungry and how he had tried in vain to get up and feed him.

Figure I must have got myself up in the night, tended the horse and then fixed up my arm and the fire, he thought to himself. Hell, he had been  almost completely out of it for the last few days, didn’t know what he was doing half the time, that was for sure. That’s what must have happened, he convinced himself, I got up and sorted everything in a daze and forgot about it. “Makes perfect sense,” he said out loud, trying to persuade himself.

He shook his head as if trying to shake some sense into it, but just couldn’t think properly. Whatever had happened last night he might never know, but what he did know was that he was feeling one hell of a lot better and he was determined to get home that very day.

He saddled Traveler up and they made a good start, but by mid-morning, the weather closed in again, huge grey snow clouds billowing up from nowhere obscuring the sun and then the snow started falling again. At first just gentle teasing flakes skittering about the horse and rider, and then the bitter wind got up again, and Jess pulled up his jacket collar, his eyes mere slits as the vicious flakes stung his face. By noon, he was exhausted and his arm was again throbbing, the pain making him feel nauseous, so he didn’t bother to make a fire or cook anything, just rested his horse in the lee of some standing pines for a little while before remounting and continuing on his weary journey.

It was almost dusk as he finally rode into the Relay Station yard, and for the last couple of miles. he had kept drifting off to sleep, Traveler’s gentle gait and homing instinct bringing him safely back to the ranch.

As he entered the yard, Slim emerged from the barn where he had been settling the horses down for the night and stood stock still in amazement for a moment, before running to his partner’s side, beaming up at him.

“Hey there, buddy, I wasn’t expecting you for a week or two, sure is good to have you home,” but  he stopped speaking as he saw the despairing look in his exhausted friends eyes, then he took in his sagging posture, and the way he was clutching at his left arm. “You hurt Jess?” he said gently.

Jess just nodded. “Some”, and as he slid down from Traveler he almost fell, grabbing hold of the saddle for support.

Slim quickly ran to his side, and catching hold of him, supported his weight and helped him into the house.

When Jess entered, he stopped for a moment, taking in the old familiar sights and smells. There was a tempting aroma of roasting chicken emanating from the kitchen and the grate in the main room was stacked with logs, a huge fire blazing away, warming the whole house.

Slim studied his partner, seeing him properly in the light of the sitting room  lamps and his head jerked back in shock at the deathly pale face with dark rings round the eyes, and he was shaking, whether from fatigue or cold Slim couldn’t tell, but he figured his friend was in a pretty bad way. “Here,” Slim said gently, “Give me your coat, Jess; go and get warm.”

Jess obediently did as he was bid, and when he removed the jacket, Slim saw the blood stained sleeve of his shirt and turned questioning eyes on his partner. “Want me to look at that for you, buddy? Been in trouble have you?” he continued with a faint smile. “And here was me thinking Sky was gonna keep you out of all the fights and chaos that seem to follow you around.” Then looking puzzled, he said, “Say where is she anyway, and why hasn’t she tended to this arm for you?”

When Jess didn’t answer immediately, Slim peered across at his friend and the look of abject misery in his eyes sent shivers down his spine. “Where is she, buddy?” he said again, softly.

Instead of answering the question, Jess looked around him. “Where are Daisy and Mike?”

“Well, school’s out and they’ve gone over to Cheyenne for a few days to stay with Daisy’s sister and do some Christmas shopping.”

Jess gave a huge sigh of relief.

“What’s this all about, Jess? Have you two fallen out? No, don’t tell me Little Wolf has betrothed her to someone else?”

Jess shook his head and staggered over to his rocker by the fire and slumping down on it and put his head in his hands.

“Jess?”

After a minute the dark haired cowboy looked up at his friend. “She’s dead, Slim. White Hawk put an arrow in her back, and another here,” he said gesturing to his injured arm.

Slim reeled back in shock, his eyes opened wide, his mouth slack and he was totally at a loss for a full minute, before striding over and squeezing Jess’s shoulder. “Oh, buddy,” he whispered, “I’m so damn sorry.”

Jess just nodded, then said softly, “I guess I’m kinda glad Daisy and Mike aren’t here right now; couldn’t stand all Mike’s questions and Daisy’s sympathy…you know?”

Slim nodded. “Sure, I understand and I’ll break it to them when they get home. Say you don’t wanna talk about it yet. Would that help?”

“Sure, Slim…. And thanks,” Jess said with a tired smile.

“That’s OK, buddy. Now let’s get this arm cleaned up and then you can see if your feeling fit enough for some of my cooking,” Slim said with the ghost of a smile.

Jess merely pushed his food around his plate even though he said Slim’s cooking had improved some over the years. After a while he stopped pretending to eat and shoving the plate away said, “Sorry, Slim, I just can’t; guess I’m too beat to eat right now.”

“That’s OK. How about a nightcap before turning in, help you sleep?” he suggested reaching over and grabbing a bottle of whiskey from a side table.

Jess just nodded and the two men went and made themselves comfortable over by the fire with the bottle and a glass apiece and settled into a companionable silence, staring into the flames each with his own thoughts.

After a while, Slim stole a glance at his buddy and seeing the look of defeat in Jess’ eyes, said softly, “You can tell me about it, if you think it would help”.

Jess was silent for so long that Slim thought he was going to ignore the offer, but then he started talking very quietly, his voice thick with emotion as he related the sorry tale.

When he told of the way Sky had met her end. Slim gave a low whistle, and shook his head looking grave. He had become very fond of the beautiful young woman during their short acquaintance and to think of her dying that way and in his friends arms sent shockwaves through his body and he feeling physically sick at the thought, and he couldn’t begin to understand how bad Jess must be feeling right now.

Then Jess went on to talk about the weird dream and the strange things that had happened the previous night.

Slim figured his buddy was still in shock and, as he had surmised himself, had probably tended the fire and dressed his arm in a state of such distress that he was unaware as to what he was doing. He shook his head now and looked over at Jess. “I guess the human brain is a strange thing; can make dreams seem real, particularly when you’re sick with a fever like you were.” And out of your mind with grief too he thought, but did not voice that last thought. “I figure that you did all those things when you were half asleep, and just forgot,” he said, trying to comfort his buddy who seemed to get more and more agitated as he retold this part of the story.

Jess looked over at his partner now and said very quietly, “Yeah, I figured the same….until I found this.”

He went across to his hat which he had put on the usual hook by the door, and bringing it over chucked it to Slim. “Look at that,” he said.

The hat brim had two feathers stuck in it. One was a pure white Eagle’s feather and the other a brown and white Eagle’s feather with very distinctive markings to it and some red marks at its base.

Slim looked at his friend questioningly. “Yeah? “

“The Eagles feathers are held as sacred by the Arapaho, real special, you know. The white one I earned from the tribe,” he said a faint grin on his face. “Bagged a huge grizzly; they thought that was kinda brave and so I was awarded that feather as the mark of a valiant hunter.”

Slim grinned at him. “Pretty good. And the other one?”

Jess’s face clouded. “That’s the funny part of it,” he said quietly. “See the distinctive marks and the red stain? Well, that is war paint and it’s there to remind the wearer the folly of war… and those dark markings are on the sort of eagle feather that is only ever worn by a Chief. See, last time I saw that feather, Slim, was when we buried it with Yellow Bear; it was the one he wore in his hair…always had as long as I’d known him.”

“It was buried with him,” said Slim, a puzzled expression on his face. “So how come it’s here?”

“That’s the funny part. I found it this morning. When I came to saddle up Traveler, it was there under my saddle. I’d been using it as a pillow as I always do; so no way could it have got under there unless someone had put it there…and how could anyone? It was buried with Yellow Bear.”

Slim gaped in disbelief. “Maybe it’s a different one?”

Jess shook his head. “I’d know it anywhere, that specific pattern and the red war paint; there just couldn’t be another one the same, Slim. “

Both men stared at each other and weighed up the significance of this latest turn of events.

Then Jess yawned. “You know what, Slim? I just ain’t gonna think about this anymore, because if I do, I figure I’m gonna go completely loco. I’m turnin’ in.” and with that he marched off to bed.

**********

Over the following days and weeks, Jess mourned the loss of his young wife bitterly. Always a very private person, he refused to share his feelings with anyone at the ranch and merely went about the day to day tasks as usual, putting on a brave face, but both Daisy and Slim could see how much he was suffering and they felt for him.

When Daisy and Mike had returned from their trip to Cheyenne, Slim had caught them before they saw Jess, who was spending the day out mending fences, and filled them in on the tragic events back at the Indian camp.

Slim had spared Mike the details and just said that Sky had passed away, and as Jess was really upset, Mike wasn’t to talk about it. The youngster was more understanding than most children of his years, having experienced bereavement at a young age. He kept his promise not to mention Sky, but was extra thoughtful, helping Jess with his chores and keeping him company if he thought he looked sad, showing wisdom and empathy beyond his tender years.

When Daisy first saw him on her return home that first night, she couldn’t stop herself from giving him a big hug and whispering,” I’m so sorry, dear; I’m here if you need me.”

Jess had given her an appreciative smile, but simply said, “I’m OK. Daisy, really.”

But she could see he was far from OK. He had lost a tremendous amount of weight, making his usually wiry, lean form almost gaunt. He was barely eating, working around the clock and suffering horrendous nightmares, where he relived the whistle of the arrow, that sickening dull thud and then the split second of shock in those beautiful brown eyes before she slumped forwards into his arms, dead.

During those dark times, Slim was there for him when he awoke screaming and sweating, and would sit and talk gently to him or offer a cool drink, before his buddy finally collapsed back into a restless sleep again.

Christmas came and was a slightly more lower key event than usual, even though Jess made a valiant attempt at normality for little Mike’s sake, and the boy had as exciting and happy day as usual, with just the adults being a little subdued.

They had all exchanged their presents and Jess had made even more of an effort than usual, spoiling his family in an attempt to make up for his difficult and sometimes irrational behavior of late.

That evening, after the fine Christmas dinner had been enjoyed and Daisy duly toasted, and all the presents opened and admired, Daisy and Slim exchanged a secret look. They had discussed a certain matter long and hard and had come to a decision and now Slim left the room, returning with some more gifts, prettily packed in bright paper. He looked over at Jess and said softly, “I don’t want to upset you, buddy….but well, Daisy and I figured that we should do this. I hope you’ll be OK about it,” and then he dispensed the last of the presents.

 Daisy opened hers first, the beautifully beaded moccasins that Sky had made especially for her. She admired them in wonder and then stole a glance at Jess. His jaw had dropped open, and his eyebrows shot up in surprise and he looked moved, but not unduly distressed. Then Slim opened the exquisitely made belt and finally Mike open the beaded knife sheath and whooped with joy and ran  off straight away to fetch the little Indian knife they had found by the river last summer, the one that that had sparked off all Jess’s memories.

Finally Slim passed a little parcel over to his friend. “You OK with this?” he asked softly. “Only when she gave them to me,  she asked that we save ‘em for Christmas when she expected to be here with you, wanted to be part of all the celebrations…and I guess she still is,” he said softly.

Jess sat very still, looking down at the parcel in his hands.

“Are you going to open it?” asked Daisy.

Jess gave her his shy smile and then tore the paper off, revealing a beautifully decorated medicine pouch complete with medicinal herbs.

“She told me she wanted you to be able to look after yourself if you ever got sick,” said Slim softly, scanning his buddy’s face for distress.

Jess had an unfathomable look in his eyes and then after a moment he stood up and muttering, “Excuse me,” went out of the front door.

Daisy and Slim exchanged a worried look and she half rose to follow him, but Slim put out a gentle restraining hand. “Leave him, Daisy; I’ll give him a minute and then I’ll go see to him.”

Then Mike came back in, full of how perfectly the knife fitted the sheath and wanted to go and show Jess.

“Leave it for now, buddy. Jess is just getting some fresh air, and anyway I figure it was your bed time a good hour ago.”

“Aw Slim…”

“Never mind ‘aw Slim’; off you go, Tiger, and you can show your knife to Jess tomorrow, OK?”

“OK Slim, and thanks for all the presents,” Mike said cheerfully as he went off to bed, yawning fit to crack his jaw.

“He won’t take much rocking tonight.”

“You neither, Daisy. Why don’t you get off; me and Jess will tidy up in a minute.”

“Well if you’re sure, dear. I am rather tired… But Jess, is he alright? Do you think, maybe we shouldn’t have had the presents today?”

“He’ll be fine, and it was what Sky would have wanted, I’m sure. And he has to face it sometime, Daisy; he can’t keep going on like nothing has happened.”

She nodded sadly. “I know you are right. I just hate to see him hurting this way. He’s so fragile right now. He’s worn down by his grief and yet he refuses any help or sympathy. It’s so hard for me…”

“It’s just his way, Daisy; he has to deal with things on his own terms, always has…and you know how dang stubborn he is.”

She nodded. “Stubborn enough to catch his death if he stays out on that porch without a coat much longer. Do go and talk to him, dear.”

Slim gave her a grin and kissed her gently on the cheek. “Sure. You get off to bed now; ‘night Daisy.”

“Goodnight, dear,” she said softly before wandering off to her room, looking very tired, and for once her age. The worry about Jess taking its toll on her, Slim thought sadly.

Outside Jess looked down at the medicine pouch still in his hand, a myriad of emotions rushing through his mind from anger to anguish and then finally to a deep sadness. How could his friends suddenly drop this on him after him making such an effort all day to keep it together, he thought angrily. Didn’t they care about his feelings? He banged the porch rail hard with his fist, not feeling the pain as he stared out across the yard, his blue eyes flinty and cold. Didn’t they know that the last thing he wanted to think about today was his loss?

 Then the anger turned to anguish as he paced up and down the porch, sweating, and his hands clenched into fists. He felt sick and dizzy, God he missed her so much.

She should be here with him now, not in a cold grave miles away. He should be standing out here holding her hand, feeling her warm breath on his cheek as she leaned in for a kiss…

 He groaned at the thought and felt the physical pain of loss, almost like a knife in his chest, and gave a stifled sob, before staggering over to the porch support and leaning against it, his head bowed in the crook of his arm and he started to weep uncontrollably. “Why?” he yelled in torment.

On the other side of the ranch door, Slim heard his buddy’s anguished weeping as he was about to come out to him, and he stopped in his tracks, knowing Jess wouldn’t want him to see him that way, so he hung back, the sound of his best friends distress haunting him.

After a long time Jess fell silent and Slim let himself quietly out of the house and coming up behind his friend rested a hand on his shoulder and said very softly. “You all done now, buddy?”

Jess gave a deep shuddering sigh. “Yeah, I guess,” he said after a minute and then casting his friend an embarrassed look he dragged his shirt sleeve across his eyes and said, “Sorry Slim.”

Slim squeezed his shoulder affectionately. “No, it’s me as should be sorry. It was a darn fool thing I just did, giving out those presents today. It’s just, well, I thought it would be what Sky would have wanted. And maybe, well, maybe you need to try and face it all, Jess…you know?”

Jess was silent for a long time, still looking down before saying sadly, “Yeah, I guess you’re right, Slim; I’ve been kidding myself, trying to pretend she’s still back at the camp with the others. Kinda easier that way, I guess….but you’re right I have to come to terms with it all someday, and I guess today is as good as any other,” he said with the ghost of a smile. Then he sobered again and looking out to the horizon, illuminated by the cool light of the wintery moon, he said, “Why Slim…it’s so damn unfair. She was so dang young…and beautiful….her whole life ahead of her,” he finished his voice catching as he shook his head gently, his eyes misting again.

“Dunno, Jess, beats me.”

“Yellow Bear reckoned that all people have their allotted time span, you know — some short, some long. He said somethin’ like everyone has their special time and when it’s up…well that’s it. There is a time to live and a time to die he told me, before he passed away, like he sorta just accepted it.”

“Like in Ecclesiastes, ‘to everything there is a season…’”

“Huh?”

“The Bible, Jess; it’s some verses in the Bible, says something like that.”

“Oh yeah, right, probably,” said Jess vaguely.

Then Slim noticed his buddy was shivering. “Come on, partner, let’s go in before you freeze to death,” and clapping him on the back the two men entered the ranch house, and once they’d tidied around, went to turn in.

Slim was in bed, tired after the long day, but Jess was still banging about looking for something. Eventually he found what he was seeking, a battered old Bible, in the bottom draw of his dresser where he kept the very few personal items that were important to him.

The Bible was very well thumbed, but not by Jess. It had belonged to Maria, his fiancée, who had died tragically a few years ago and as Jess picked it up he felt a pang of paranoia. Being Jess, he didn’t know that was the word for it, but he sure knew the feeling.

He turned, the Bible in his hands, and looked over at Slim. “Do you reckon I’m cursed, Slim — first Maria and now Sky. Do you reckon someone up there’s got it in for me?” he asked casting his eyes Heavenwards.

Slim gave him the ghost of a smile. “Nah, figure you’ve just been unlucky, buddy. These things happen, you know.”

“Um, they sure seem to happen to me,” Jess muttered before stripping off to his undershorts. He had a quick wash and then climbed into bed, still holding the Bible.

After a while, Jess smiled over at Slim, “yeah, it’s all here, listen to this partner….

To Everything There is a Season

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

See, it’s all here Slim in black and white — a time to be born and a time to die. Maybe old Yellow Bear had something after all.”

“Yeah, could be.”

Jess continued reading. “You know what, Slim? I figure I’ve had enough of the killin’ and weepin’ and mournin’ side of things. Guess I’ll be ready for a bit of healin’ and laughin’ and dancin’ — maybe not right now, but sometime soon. I reckon Sky wouldn’t want me carryin’ on this way,” he mused to himself.

“Guess you’re right there, buddy,” said Slim sleepily and a few minutes he was snoring gently.

But Jess carried on reading the Bible until he finally fell asleep over it, and for the first time in weeks he had a deep dreamless sleep and woke feeling refreshed and a little better. The healing process had begun at last.

*****

And so the winter wore on with the usual snow and storms and the men were confined to the ranch and surrounding land for several weeks, just caring for the stock and attending to the stages on the odd occasion they managed to get through the snow.

They had gone a period of nearly three weeks without seeing another living soul — Mike unable to get to school or Daisy to town for the weekly shop and  the men were also pretty much confined to the immediate ranch because of the deep snow drifts — when finally the thaw set in one bright spring like morning.

Slim knew the Wyoming weather of old and didn’t set much store by the milder temperature and glowing sun in the sky. He looked over at his buddy and said, “Now don’t you go getting any ideas of riding off thinking spring is here because it’s not yet, buddy, OK”.

“Slim, you’re such a garldarn worrier. The suns out, the snows almost gone and the stock are all getting mighty frisky. Sure it’s spring”.

“Um, I seem to remember you saying that a few years back and taking off on a hunting trip. Now just remind me, Jess; that was the time you were caught in a blizzard and near froze to death, wasn’t it?”

“Aw Slim, that was ages ago and anyway I wasn’t thinkin’ of goin’ huntin’. I was kinda hoping to go to town, have a few drinks and maybe keep Millie from the saloon company for a while.”

“Um,” said Slim casting his buddy an amused look, “guess it ain’t just the stock that are feelin’ a mite frisky”.

But secretly he was glad that Jess was sitting up and taking notice again and the fact that he wanted the company of his good friend Millie could only be a good thing and a sign that his partner was feeling better.

“How about we leave it another week, then we could ride in together next Saturday. I seem to remember that the first spring dance should be around then.”

“Deal,” said Jess grinning across at his buddy from where they had been grooming their horses. “And how’s about I just ride over to the woods and see if I can scare up a rabbit or two for supper….?”

“Jess!”

*****

And so it was that the two friends rode into town the following week, dressed for  dancing in their Sunday best and were soon propping up the bar in the local saloon, chatting to a couple of the girls.

Jess was talking quietly to Millie and they sure were pleased to see each other again after the long dark days of winter.

Jess and Millie went way back to his Texas days and he always said she was the best darn female friend he had in the world. They were best friends and sometimes lovers too, and if Jess shared her bed on the odd occasion, well, he figured it was nobody’s business but theirs. They tended to see each other when they weren’t dating anyone else, but their relationship was very open and honest and Jess knew all about the odd beau Millie had entertained in the past and she knew all about Jess’s romances too. In fact, it had been Millie who had been there for him after Sky’s death, listening to him when he felt he wanted to talk, and strangely it was Millie he needed to turn to more than his adopted family on that occasion.

Now they were chatting away nineteen to the dozen, before she excused herself to get her wrap for the walk down the street to the town hall dance.

Slim had been deep in conversation with his date Jeanie, but now he turned to Jess and said, “Hey Hot Shot, it’s your round.”

Jess gave him a grin, and leaning over the bar, signaled old Tom the barkeep to set ‘em up again.

Before too long, Millie was back and they enjoyed a couple more drinks before the four of them made their way off to the local dance.

It was hot and noisy in the dance hall with all the locals having a real celebration after the dark dismal days of winter. The day had been bright and warm and now it looked to Jess like spring was really here, no matter what his skeptical partner had to say on the subject.

Spring, he thought to himself. The snow would be starting to melt in the distant mountains surrounding the Arapaho camp, and I must go back, he thought fleetingly. Asha will be waiting, looking out for me… I have to go back and see her.

Then Millie turned to him. “Well, do you want to?”

“Huh?”

“Jess, you were miles away. I said do you want to go up on the dance floor again?”

“Sure, Honey.” And they went off hand in hand and were soon cavorting about the floor with the best of them.

Slim, sitting holding Jeanie’s hand, looked over at his buddy and saw him throw his head back and laugh at something Millie had said and he smiled to himself, remembering their conversation on Christmas night, all those weeks ago.

Jess had been reading from Ecclesiastes, ‘to everything there is a season’….and he had said, how he was ready for some healin’ laughin’ and dancin’ and how he figured that was what Sky would have wanted for him too. Looks like you’ve got your wish, thought Slim happily to himself smiling indulgently at his partner’s antics on the dance floor.

“Penny for them,” said Jeanie looking into the tall ranchers eyes.

“Just thinking how Jess seems to be bouncing back after…after his bereavement,” he said softly. “It’s good to see him looking more himself again.”

“So what was she like this Sky? You met her, didn’t you?”

“Sure; she was lovely, really beautiful, bright and funny and real gentle too,” he said looking off into space. “The nicest girl you’d hope to find and she really loved ol’ Jess there too; they were a perfect match.”

“It’s so sad, and so romantic too, the way they got together again after all those years… and then for that tragedy to happen,” said the little redhead with a sigh, looking over at where Millie and Jess were now dancing to a slow number together. Jess holding Millie close, her head resting on his chest.

“Yeah, but don’t you go saying anything to him, Jeanie. Looks like he’s beginning to get over it some, and I don’t want him upsetting again.”

“Heck, Slim, you know I wouldn’t do that. I’ve never even mentioned it to him. He just talks to Millie sometimes, that’s all.” Then she looked at the tall rancher thoughtfully. “I think there is something you should know, though. Wes Dawson is due to get out of jail soon and I believe Jess isn’t his favorite person right now.”

“Oh, why so?”

“Well you remember that time last year when those Cheyenne raided his place, took a couple of old blankets off the line or something crazy like that?”

“Yeah,” said Slim nodding, a smile on his face at the memory. “And a pie apparently, but Jess paid him for that,” he said in a voice loaded with irony.

Jeanie grinned at him. “I heard that story. Anyways, seems that Wes got real drunk and was bad mouthing Jess all over town after that and Mort Corey told him to stop his jawing and stay out of the saloon until he could keep a civil tongue in his head.”

“Good for Mort,” smiled Slim.

“Anyway, just a couple of weeks ago, he was back doing the same and then got in a fight and caused a heck of a lot of damage. Tom, my boss was furious, said he’d bar him for life if he wasn’t glad of all the money he spent in there. Well, Sheriff Corey hauled him off and sent him over to the jail in Cheyenne to cool off and he’s due out anytime now. Maybe you should warn Jess to keep out of his way?”

Slim looked down at the cute redhead. “You really don’t know Jess too well, do you?” he said with a broad grin.

“What do you mean?”

“That Jess doesn’t stay out of people’s way, especially not a low life like Wes Dawson. I’ll tell him OK, but I’m afraid if he goes back into the saloon and riles Jess, well, ol’ Tom’ll be having his furniture rearranged again.”

As it turned out, Slim never got a chance to warn Jess about Wes Dawson, because just then Mort Corey burst into the dance  hall, and after looking around for a moment, strode over directly to where Slim and Jeanie were sitting near the little makeshift bar. “Slim, gee I’m glad I’ve caught you. I’m after a really big favor; something important had come up and I need you in my office.” Then turning to Jeanie he said, “I’m real sorry to break up the party, Miss, but I wouldn’t do it if I had a choice.”

She smiled at the older man. “That’s OK, Sheriff. Sorry Jeanie,” Slim said softly.” I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” Then turning to Mort, “Be right with you; just need to speak to Jess”. He dodged through the dancers and then it took him a minute to make Jess hear over the music.

“Mort’s got himself in a lather over something, Jess, needs my help. Can you see Jeanie home for me… and guess I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll get Mort to tell you if I’m going out of town,” and then he was gone before Jess could ask any questions.

Much later that night, Jess saw the girls safely back to the saloon and Jeanie, not wanting to be in the way, went straight off to her room, leaving the young couple to say their goodnights in the now deserted bar.

It was in darkness save for one single low lit lamp above the bar and they stood below it, the light casting shadows around them and illuminating Millie’s sweep of shining black hair, and the figure-hugging red dress she was wearing to great advantage.

Jess stood encircling her with his arms, and looking deep into the dark brown eyes he knew so well. “You OK, sweetheart?” he whispered.

“Sure and you?”

“I guess,” he said and then very gently tipped her chin with a finger and glanced down at her generous mouth, the lips parted and curved in a slightly questioning smile. He glanced back into her eyes and what he saw seemed to confirm something, and he leaned in and kissed her very gently.

She gave a little moan and kissed him back, more firmly, one hand running through his black hair, pulling him closer. After a moment, she looked up at him and said very softly, “You staying then, cowboy?”

Jess looked down, a troubled expression in his eyes, like he didn’t know what to do or say.

“Jess?”

He still didn’t look at her, but she could see a muscle ticking in his cheek and knew he was having a tough time right then.

“Hey, this is me,” she said softly. It ain’t like it’s the first time you’ve shared my bed, honey.”

Then Jess finally dragged his eyes up from the floor to look at her. “First time since Sky,” he said very quietly with an uneasy look.

“Jess, it’s nearly six months. Do you think she’d want you to be alone forever? Don’t you think she’d want you to have some loving and comfort, someone to look out for you now and then, like a real good friend?”

“I guess.”

“Do you want me…right now?”

He just nodded and whispered. “Yeah, you know I do…something fierce,” before leaning down and taking her in his arms and kissing her very hard.

After a few minutes she pulled back and then taking his hand led him up the stairs to her warm and welcoming room, closing the door quietly behind them.

*****

Mort Corey happened to glance out of his office window the following morning as he was sipping the first coffee of the day, and saw Jess emerge from the saloon opposite and make his way purposely across the street and a minute later he entered the office.

Mort gestured to the coffee pot on the stove. “Help yourself Jess, only just brewed it. Say, you’re up and about early this morning,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Not been home then?”

Jess started blushing and turning his back on his friend went and helped himself to the coffee and took a couple of sips before turning back to face his good friend. “Nah, had a few drinks, thought I’d sleep it off, go back this morning,” he said with an air of innocence.

“So did Miss Millie tell you about the ruckus in the bar the other night?” asked Mort, grinning across at him.

“Miss Millie?”

“Yeah, cute little brunette you just spent the night with, know who I mean?” said Mort sarcastically, knowing Millie was one of Jess’s closest friends.

“Oh, right yeah, that Millie,” said Jess now looking acutely embarrassed, rubbing the back of his neck and swallowing hard.

Then Mort remembered about Sky and stopped teasing his friend at once, realizing how sensitive he must be feeling right now. “Sorry Jess, just teasin’ you. I didn’t mean anything.”

Jess gave him a sad smile. “I know, Mort; just feel kinda funny about it, you know.”

“Sure, sure.”

“So what have you done with my partner then. All seemed a bit cloak and dagger last night.”

“Ah yes, of course, you don’t know do you?”

“That’s why I’m askin’ Mort,” said Jess showing infinite patience, for him anyway.

“Well, remember that bank robbery a while back?”

“Yeah, you nailed most of the gang, but there’s a couple still walkin’ free, ain’t there?”

“That’s right. The trial is set in Cheyenne this week, and last night my key witness got a death threat from the other gang members, gonna kill him if he testifies. So I figured I’d get him escorted out of town last night, right away, before they had a chance to strike.”

“And that was what you needed Slim for?”

“Yeah, it turns out the witness was an old friend of Slim’s Pa and he was the only person Matt Jackson would trust to take him over there.”

“Looks like I’d better be getting’ back to the ranch then,” said Jess rising from his seat. “Guess I’ve got all Slim’s chores as well as mine.”

“Yeah and for the rest of the week too, I’m afraid, Jess. Slim promised to stay as a security guard during the trial.”

“Figures,” said Jess giving his friend an ironic look, “and just when we’ve got to take the herd up to the high pasture too.”

“Sorry, Jess.”

“No matter; you can buy me a drink later in the week. Slim had a meeting with the stage boss at the office, so that’ll be down to me now, I guess. Reckon I’ll need a pint or two after that,” and he went to leave.

“You’re on; see you soon, Jess.” And it wasn’t until he heard Traveler cantering out of town that he remembered he hadn’t warned Jess about Wes Dawson. ‘Oh well, I’ll tell him when I buy him that drink’, he thought and went off to replenish his coffee cup.

As Jess rode back to the ranch, he reflected on the night before. It sure had been good to be with ol’ Millie again, he thought with a broad grin on his face; that girl sure was good at romancin’, but even more than that, she was a real good friend, kind and understanding, always there for him.

Slim had often said he didn’t know why Jess and Millie didn’t get together properly, instead of the very casual relationship they had, but Jess figured they were too alike to ever make a go of things and he was loath to try it, because if it didn’t work out, then he might lose one of the best friends he had forever. As it was, they were real close and loved each other in their own way and right now Jess was real grateful for that; he’d sure needed a friend lately.

The following morning, after they had made love again, she had lain in his arms and they had chatted quietly. Then raised up on one elbow, she had looked down at the polished turquoise stone Jess was wearing on a leather thong round his neck. It was shining in the dawn light coming through her bedroom window and looked stunning. She fingered it gently. “That’s beautiful, Jess. I haven’t seen it before have I?”

He looked sad for a moment and then glancing up at her said quietly, “Gift from my Ma-in-law; it was Sky’s.”

“Oh I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

“You ain’t, it’s OK.”

“Is it special in some way? I know the Indians give symbolic meaning to things like jewelry.”

“Yeah, guess it was kinda special to Sky. Her Grandpappy, who was the tribe’s Medicine Man, gave it her when she was born. the Indians call turquoise the Sky Stone, so I figure it was appropriate, and turquoise is supposed to help with healin’ an’ keep you safe…not that it helped Sky none,” he said with a hint of irony. “Anyways, the story goes that when the rains came, the Indians would dance and rejoice after a drought an’ they’d cry tears of joy and those mixed with the rain and seeped into Mother Earth an’ that made the turquoise stone.”

Tears welled in Millie’s eyes for a moment. “You know, you’re getting real romantic in your old age, Jess Harper. “

Jess blushed a little. “Just tellin’ you the tale Kusuma told me about it.” Then he held it up to the light. “See that little Eagle carved on this side?”

She nodded.

“The Eagle is special to the people it symbolizes honor, bravery, love and friendship, according’ to Kusuma, and it is supposed to be sacred, because it flies real high; it’s nearer the Great Spirit and carries prayers up to Him,” he finished with his shy smile.

“You’re really interested in all this Indian stuff, ain’t you?” she said with a little smile.

“I guess. It was part of Sky…who she was, you know?”

Millie had smiled warmly into his eyes. “Yes, I get it… and I’m glad you’re finding it easier to talk about it all now, Jess. Figure you’re feeling a mite better, aren’t you?”

He had looked up into her caring brown eyes and suddenly realized that he was. “Yeah, I guess,” he said thoughtfully, and pulling her gently towards him, had kissed her tenderly. “Guess that’s partly down to you; thanks, Mill.”

**********

Jess had his work cut out for the rest of the week, changing the stage teams and tending all the animals as well as taking some of the herd up to the higher pasture where the grass was lush and plentiful.

Mike had been a big help and Daisy had fussed around cooking his favorite meals and making sure he got his rest, but he was still pretty bushed by the time Friday rolled round.

He spent the morning herding the rest of the steers up to the North pasture before returning to the ranch for a quick meal and setting off almost immediately for his meeting with Mr. Johnson, the area supervisor of the Overland Central Stage line.

He had had a quick wash before leaving, but was still in his work clothes, a blue shirt and denims that had seen better days.

“Oh Jess, shouldn’t you put on your suit, dear? After all, he is the regional supervisor.”

Jess was hot and tired, the day having been unusually warm for April, and he was in no mood to be fussed. “Reckon he’ll have to take me as he finds me, Daisy,” he said briskly. “Been doin’ the work of two all week and I ain’t got time to start prettying up, just for some ol’ meeting.”

“Whatever you think, dear, and I’ll expect you when I see you then?”

Jess remembered he was having a nice cool beer or two with Mort after his meeting…and then well, Millie might just be around too. “Yeah, well these meetings kinda go on sometimes, you know, Daisy; could be I have to stay over.”

Daisy gave him an old fashioned look, but said nothing, just waved him off with a cheerful, “Good luck!”

Horace Johnson was a good businessman — brisk and efficient — and he was somewhat put out when he discovered Slim Sherman was not available, and he had to put up with, his younger partner. However, after a little while he was pleasantly surprised. The young man had obviously done his homework, had all the accounts up to date and also had some very good forward thinking ideas about the advancement of the line.

At the end of the meeting he looked the young cowboy up and down and said with a grin, “Well I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover, Harper. You sure know your stuff and what’s more, you’re not afraid to work hard and get your hands dirty. I was having a word with old Mose before you arrived and he said as how you’d been running the stage stop on your own all week and attended to the ranch too. Well, I really admire a man that gets stuck in; well done, Harper, keep up the good work!”

Jess grinned from ear to ear and was soon waving the Superintendent off on the afternoon stage, and relishing the freedom of the evening stretching ahead.

As soon as the stage disappeared out of town, Jess crossed the road and entered the Sheriff’s office.

Lon, Mort’s deputy, sat up smartly, from where he had been lounging with his feet on the desk, Stetson tipped over his face having forty winks. When he saw Jess, he relaxed back. “Oh it’s you Jess. How’re you doing?”

“Not too bad thanks, Lon. Is Mort around?”

“Nope, business out of town, expecting him back later. You want him?”

“Yeah,” said Jess grinning down at his friend, “he said he’d buy me a beer, kinda compensation for takin my partner off an’ leavin’ me with all the work to do this week.”

“Well I’ll sure tell him the minute he lands back, Jess. I’d come over myself but I’ve gotta mind the shop.”

Jess grinned at him. “Yeah, thought that was what you were up to when I came in.”

“Get outta here,” laughed Lon. “Maybe catch you later.”

“Ok, buddy.”

Jess sauntered over to the saloon and found it almost deserted the hour still quite early. “Evenin’ Tom, can I get a cold beer?”

“Coming up, Jess. You look kinda hot and beat.”

Jess took off his bandana and wiped his face and then unbutton his shirt a little and rubbed it around his neck, before shoving it in his back pocket and taking a pull of the beer Tom had just placed before him. “Well I’ll tell you, Tom, I’m real warm. Been chasin’ steers all mornin’ and crunchin’ numbers with ol’ Johnson from  the stage line for the last couple of hours, so yeah, I guess I’m kinda beat too.” Then after another pull at his beer, “Millie about?”

“Ah, so not that beat then,” said Tom with a wicked wink. “Yeah, she’ll be down in a minute.”

Jess was on his second beer and propping up the bar, deep in conversation with Millie when Wes Dawson and his ramrod Charlie walked in the bar. Wes was staggering a little and looked like he’d had a few already, although it was still early evening. As soon as he came in, he ordered a bottle and poured himself a whiskey, knocking it back in one. Tom cast him a worried look and said firmly, “I don’t want any trouble from you tonight, Dawson, or you’re barred….for good.”

The middle aged man looked at him with bloodshot, rheumy eyes and nodded, but didn’t reply. Then he cast a glance around the saloon and saw Jess and Millie at the far end chatting across the bar to each other and his face was suddenly a mask of pure hatred.

Turning back to Tom, who was watching the proceedings anxiously, Dawson snarled loudly, “Can’t say as how I want to frequent your place anyway, barkeep, not iffen you’ve taken to servin’ Indjun lovers.”

Jess’s head shot up and he glanced down the bar, his breathing suddenly fast and his eyes wary.

Millie reached across the bar and took one of his hands in hers. “No, Jess,” she whispered urgently, “leave it; he’s just tryin’ to rile you.”

“Well, he’s sure succeeding,” said Jess bitterly turning back to his girl, but doing as he was bid and ignoring the comments and loud guffaws coming from Wes and Charlie at the other end of the bar.

After a while seeing that he couldn’t get a rise out of Jess, and fuelled by several more whiskies, Wes lurched down the bar and stood near to the dark haired cowboy. Now he had everyone’s attention in the saloon, he started playing to his audience and peering over at Jess said, “Didn’t you hear me, Harper?”

Jess still ignored the man and just looked into Millie’s eyes which were pleading him to stay calm.

Then Dawson got hold of Jess’s arm and pulled him around, but Jess angrily pulled himself free. Feeling his resolve weakening and knowing he would lash out any minute, he breathed deeply trying to calm himself, for Millie’s sake, turning with his back to his tormentor. But not before Dawson had caught a glimpse of Sky’s necklace that could now be seen as Jess had removed his bandana and opened his shirt earlier.

“Well, looky at that,” Dawson said to the bar at large, “the man’s even dressin’ like one of those savages, wearin’ their tribal jewelry. So what are you then, Harper, an honorary chief or somethin’?”

Jess was just about at the jumping off place now, and he turned furious eyes on the older man. “I’m warnin’ you, Dawson,” he growled “don’t push it.” Then turning to Charlie, he said, “take your boss home; the man’s drunk,” before turning away and continuing to chat to Millie.

Dawson, now incensed at being disregarded this way, played his trump card.

Having been confined to his ranch during the bad winter weather and more recently the Cheyenne jail, Dawson hadn’t heard about Sky’s sad demise and assumed that Jess’s new wife had come home with him. Now he turned back to Jess and with an evil look in his eyes said, “So, I hear you married a squaw, Harper. Guess she’s back at the ranch washin’ your clothes or somethin’, figure she doesn’t know you’re out romancin’ Miss Millie here, but guess those savages don’t know no better anyways. I….”

Every onlooker had taken a deep shocked breath at the mention of Sky, most of them knowing about her tragic demise and all sympathizing with the popular young cowboy.

Now all eyes were on Jess to see what he would do, and there was the noise of chairs scraping back as everyone moved away, knowing Jess’s temper would explode any moment now.

At the word ‘squaw’, Jess turned, his fists and jaw clenched, and Dawson never even finished his sentence before a vicious right from Jess floored him.

Jess strode over and dragged the older man up by his shirt front, landed another couple of blows, crashing into his face, blacking an eye and splitting his lip, blood pouring down his chin as he fell like a stone. Jess stood over him menacingly and said, “Get up you, low life; I ain’t finished with you yet.”

After a moment, Dawson shook his head to clear it, and staggering to his feet, charged at Jess, head butting him in the belly and sending him flying backwards, but Jess recovered quickly and after   exchanging another couple of blows with the bigger man, he soon had the advantage again and floored him with a blow to the belly.

Then Jess seemed to lose all reason. Beside himself with rage; he was raining blows down on the older man who was now cowering whimpering and pleading for mercy whilst looking around for his foreman. However old Charlie had high tailed it at the first sign of trouble and it was finally Mort Corey who came to the rancher’s aid.

Mort dragged Jess unceremoniously away from the fight, but it took a couple of the bystanders to finally help the Sheriff to restrain his friend, who, was at this stage, way beyond reasoning.

“Jess, will you get hold,” said Mort loudly. “I dunno what he’s done, but it ain’t worth a murder charge buddy, and that’s what it’ll be if you don’t simmer down.”

Finally Jess backed off, looking like a man who wanted revenge at any price, but was willing to wait a while. He shook his head and ran a hand through his tousled black hair, before stooping to pick up his hat and ramming it firmly on his head, spat. “Just keep him away from me Mort, or so help me…”

“OK, OK.” Then dragging Dawson up, Mort said, “Come on, Dawson; figure you can have a cell for the night and maybe when you sober up, we’ll get to the bottom of this.” Turning to Jess, he gave him a hard look and said, “and I’ll see you first thing too. Jess.” Then as an afterthought, “Slim will be on the early stage; maybe he can knock some sense into you.” And with that he escorted his prisoner away.

Once  Mort had left, Jess gave old Tom a hand straightening the furniture and then went over to Millie, and rubbing a hand up and down her arm said softly, “I’m real sorry about that, sweetheart; I tried but…” and he looked down shaking his head and pulling his hat down hard, obviously upset.

“That’s OK,” she said quickly. “Who could blame you after what he said.”

He looked down at her to see tears in her eyes.

“That was so out of order, Jess.”

“Well, the man’s a crazy idiot, ain’t he; no wonder we have hostilities with the Indians with people like Dawson and his crew around.” Then looking at Millie sadly, Jess said, “It ain’t just Wes and Charlie; he’s poisoned all his drovers’ minds against the Arapaho too. I could swing for what he’s done, you know that,” he said suddenly angry again.

She patted his arm trying to pacify him. “Let it go now, Jess, take it easy,” she said softly.

He took a deep breath. “Yeah…”

“Look, if you’ve to stay in town to see Mort first thing…well why don’t you stay over with me again?”

Jess smiled into her lovely brown eyes. “You sure?”

“Wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t mean it, you know that.”

“Thanks Millie. Look, I’ll take Traveler over to the livery, get a quick bite at Miss Molly’s café and be back for last orders, OK?”

“Fine see you later, honey,” and she swung off to serve a customer.

It was late by the time Jess had stabled Traveler and eaten and he crossed the deserted street, heading purposefully for the still busy saloon, but he never made it.

Just as he crossed the road, someone called out to him urgently, “Hey Harper over here, your friend’s been hurt.”

Jess ran across the street and down the alley at the back of the saloon, to where the call had come from, suddenly fearful. Had Slim returned early and got into some trouble or.…

But before he had a chance to formulate any more thoughts on the matter, he was suddenly jumped by a burly man who punched him hard in the belly, following through with a vicious chop to the back of the neck and he fell hard.

After a moment, Jess staggered to his feet only to be punched hard again, but this time he was ready and parried the next punch and slammed one hard at his attacker’s jaw, felling him. But then another man came out of the shadows and then another and another, until there were half a dozen big rough drovers laying into him hard, their fists finding every inch of his body, sending him reeling, falling to his knees and retching as they beat him mercilessly.

Once he was down and lying still, unconscious, Charlie, Wes Dawson’s foreman, smiled cruelly down at his quarry. “Thanks, boys,” he said to his men. “Figure we’ve sorted out that bastard Injun lover real good; the boss will be mighty pleased,” and they melted into the shadows, departing as quietly as they had arrived, leaving nobody to witness the appalling attack.

*****

Millie and Jeanie were on their break, having a cigarette and good gossip, seated on the little bench at the back of the saloon that looked out onto the back alley.

“So, was Jess alright after that ruckus tonight?” asked Jeanie, raising an enquiring eyebrow at her friend.

Millie shook her head. “No, not really… can’t remember when I’ve seen him so mad.”

“Can’t blame him. The things that awful man Dawson said…”

Millie inhaled deeply, her cigarette tip glowing red in the dark. “If I were a man I swear, I’d have laid into that Dawson myself,” she said darkly.

Her friend grinned across at her. “Didn’t look like Jess needed any help from where I was standing; he’s real fit isn’t he?”

“Oh yes, he’s fit alright,” said Millie swiveling her eyes to meet her friends, the girls both suddenly giggling at the hidden implication.

“So is he staying again tonight?” said Jeanie wistfully, her train of thought following logically on.

“Um…he sure is…”

The two girls exchanged a knowing look, and then Millie said, “In fact, I think I’ll just pop up and change the bed. Will you keep Tom sweet for me? I’ll only be a few minutes.”

She rose to go, stubbing her cigarette out and then suddenly stopped in her tracks as she heard a low moan. “What was that, Jeanie?”

The other girl had heard it too. “Could be one of our customers had too much. Let’s go in, Mill; it’s getting cold out here and last thing I want is a drunk chucking up all over me.”

Then Millie heard it again and the voice was stronger,” Millie…that you?”

The girls ran over to where the voice was coming from and Jeanie pulled back some old crates revealing Jess lying on his side in a pool of blood.

Millie was on her knees beside him in seconds and glancing up at her friend, who had a hand to her mouth and was staring in horror, said,” quick Jeanie, get Tom.”

Jeanie ran off, and Millie looked down at the bruised battered body of her dear friend. “Oh Jess, who did this to you?”

“Too dark to see,” he gasped, “but one of them said ‘come on Charlie’. Figure it was Wes’s ramrod and drovers out for revenge…ain’t got no proof, though.”

Then he tried to sit up and fell back in agony, clutching his ribs, and swearing under his breath.

“Don’t move, Jess. Tom will get you upstairs and then I’ll run for Doc Baker. You’re hurt real bad, honey, just lay still.”

Doc Sam Baker was a good friend of all at the Sherman Ranch and Relay station, often popping over for a spot of fishing or some of Miss Daisy’s good cooking. The middle-aged widower was very fond of Slim and Jess, referring to the latter jokingly as his ‘bread and butter money’ because of the regular intervals in which he had to patch him up.

Now looking down at his good friend as he lay looking grey and sick in Millie’s big comfortable bed, he felt like doing anything other than joking.

“They sure worked you over real good,” Sam said as he gently bathed Jess’s bleeding painful face. Then he unbuttoned the blood-stained denim shirt and cast a professional eye over the bruised torso He gently pushed and probed, noticing the sharp intake of breath made by his friend, but that being the only sign that he was in agony. “You know it would be a darn site easier for me if you just told me how bad it was, Jess, instead of keep saying you are alright,” he said casting his friend an exasperated look.

“Guess I’ll go and give you some space,” said Millie softly from where she had been sitting at the foot of the bed, ready to help in any way she could. “Maybe he’ll be less courageous if I’m not around watching,” she said with a little smile, trying to lift her friend’s sprits.

“Doesn’t make any difference,” said Sam, grinning across at her. “He’s just plain ornery, whether there is an audience or not. You could maybe fetch him a medicinal whisky up though,” he said with a cheeky grin.

She nodded. “Coming up…and one for the doctor?”

Sam grinned at her. “Well, if you insist.”

She gave her light pretty laugh and disappeared to fetch the drinks.

Sam turned his attention back to his patient, suddenly serious again. “Come on, Jess boy, let’s check out the rest of you now the lady’s left,” and he gently unbuttoned his denims and ran a gentle hand over his lower belly.

Jess was sweating profusely and had turned even paler.

“Hurts some huh?”

Jess nodded. “To be honest, Sam I guess it’d been kinda hard to find a place that don’t hurt right now.”

“Um,” Sam fastened up Jess’s pants and shirt, after bathing his chest and applying a tight bandage around his ribs and the sat back giving his patient a speculative look.

“So what’s the damage Sam?”

The older man shook his head. “Cuts and abrasions to the face, two, maybe three busted ribs and severe bruising to the lower abdomen…possibly internal damage…can’t be sure yet, but you certainly got a good kicking down there.”

Jess heaved a big sigh. “So guess I’m pretty busted up then Sam.”

“Pretty good yeah. Why? Got some bronc bustin to do, because I’m telling you now Jess…”

“No…not bronc bustin’…well not for a month or so. No, I aim to head up to the Arapaho camp over on the Riverton road….”

“Not with those injuries you’re not, Jess, not for several weeks anyway.”

“But I’ve got to, Sam… see I made a promise to Asha. Told her I’d be back as soon as the snow melted. And I guess that will be anytime now up in the foothills,” he said turning anguished eyes on his friend.

“Asha, your little girl?” said Sam quietly, knowing all about the tragic events of the last few months and how important this visit would be to Jess. He gave his friend a compassionate look. “Well, I sure don’t advise it…but…”

“But?” Said Jess the light of hope in his eyes.

“Well if you were to take it real slow and easy and maybe take someone with you to look out for you…then maybe I’d think about it.”

“Gee thanks, Sam!” said Jess beaming at him.

The older man shook his head. “But listen Jess, it’s too soon to decide yet. I need to know there is nothing nasty happening down here,” he said nodding to Jess’s belly. “No internal bleeding. Give it a week and we’ll see then OK?”

“Ok, thanks Sam.” and then Millie was back with the drinks.

Unfortunately for Jess, as the Doc was worried about internal bleeding he rescinded his offer of whisky and Jess had to be content with some of Millie’s broth, but even that couldn’t dampen his spirits at the thought that he might see his beloved little step-daughter again soon.

Millie stayed close to him that night and he slept in her arms, safe in the knowledge that she was there for him no matter what happened.

During the night, he awoke and was aware of her closeness. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“There is nothing to be sorry for,” she said gently. “Just get well. Jess, see your little girl…and then we can get back together, once you’re healed. I can wait, you know that.”

Jess pulled her closer, his eyes closed, almost too exhausted to speak. “You’re good to me, you know that,” he said softly, “real good.”

The following morning he was not at all well and Sam came back to look after him while Millie took Jess’s place down at the Sheriff’s office.

It was still quite early when she marched in and Mort was surprised to see her. “Hi there Millie,” he said, pleased to see the pretty young woman, “you brought a message from Jess?”

Millie pulled herself up to her full 5 fee and looking up at the Sheriff with a steely expression in her eye, said, “No Sheriff, I’ve come to represent him, as he’s too sick to come himself”.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, Millie. What’s up? He was Ok last night. I figure old Dawson came off worst   in that ruckus…so what do you wanna say on Jess’s behalf then?”

“Just this — he was jumped in the alley behind the saloon, last night, by Charlie from the Dawson spread and I can tell you Sheriff they’ve done him over real good.”

Mort looked shocked. Well why didn’t you say so? I’m sorry. I guess I’ll come and see him real soon.”

“Well don’t bother Sheriff, if you’re goin’ to start having a go at him. Jess was jumped by Wes Dawson’s men, as I say and they nearly killed him, reckon that’s who you should be hounding, not Jess.”

“Well, sure Miss, I’m with you there, but is there any concrete evidence, I mean did anyone else witness it?”

She shook her head and then gave the Sheriff a thoughtful look, “Maybe you should see him,” she said,” then you’d know what these men have done”.

Mort pushed his hat back. “So were you there, in the bar last night, see it all kick off?”

“I was and I heard everything that low life Dawson said. it was me that persuaded Jess not to go off half cocked, but the man just asked for it Sheriff, the things he said about Jess…and Sky.”

“Sky, he was bad mouthing Sky? Gee, that’s pretty damn bad even for Dawson.” Mort looked really angry now and went and fetched the prisoner, who looked surly and very hung over.

“Got a witness here Dawson,” said Mort gruffly. “Go on, Miss Millie, tell us what happened again?”

As Millie repeated what had happened and recited what the big man had said word for word, Dawson looked more and more embarrassed. “Well how was I to know she was dead?” he shouted blushing furiously. “I didn’t mean no harm, really.”

“Well you sure caused it,” spat Mort. “Because of that ruckus, it sounds like Charlie and your crew worked Jess over last night and he’s hurt real bad.”

“Well that ain’t down to me…can’t lay that at my door, Sheriff.”

“Maybe not, but I can sure have you for disturbance of the peace, causing an affray, not to mention damage to the saloon…yet again.”

The older man looked down. “I’m sorry for what happened to Harper,” he said quietly. “Guess he didn’t deserve that.”

“Yeah, well I guess it’s a bit late to be sorry, Dawson. I warned you before as to what would happen if you spread anymore of your filthy propaganda against the Indians. You’ve gone just too far this time. Jess Harper is a good friend of mine and a good man and if he chooses to have friends from the Arapaho people, well I guess they are all good people too. As for you, you’re officially banned from every saloon in town from now on.”

“Sheriff please no, you can’t do that…”

“And what’s more, if there is any more trouble between you and Harper, or any hint of gossip that you’ve   been bad mouthing the Indians, then I’ll ban you from town as well and you’ll have to go all the way to Cheyenne for supplies. Now get back in the cell; you can stay there until I’ve seen your men.”

“You ain’t got no evidence it was my men,” Dawson said clutching at straws.

“Oh, I have ways of finding these things out, and if Jess is right and it was Charlie and the drovers, well, they’re all banned from town for the foreseeable future.”

“You can’t do that, Corey! They won’t stay with me; they’ll all move on iffen they can’t go to the saloon come Saturday night.”

“Well guess they should have thought about that before they beat an innocent man half to death. Now get out of my sight.”

The big man turned and went back to his cell, just as the street door opened and Slim walked in, grinning over at the Sheriff and then Millie. “Heck Mort what’s got you so riled first thing in the morning, could hear you yelling halfway down the street.”

Mort gave his friend a tired smile. “Come in, Slim, sit down…got something to tell you. And you ain’t gonna like it. “

*****

Slim entered Millie’s room softly, strode over to the bed and looked down at his best buddy, and took a sharp intake of breath at what he saw.

The black fringed eyes were closed and his face was bruised and cut and the black stubble on his chin made him look deathly pale. He was breathing shallowly and there was a slick of sweat across his forehead.

Slim sat down  gently on the edge of the big double bed and waited, and  after a few minutes, Jess’ eyes flickered and opened and he looked up at the ceiling like he was unsure as to where he was. Then he looked down and saw Slim sitting there and his face was suddenly wreathed in smiles. “Hey buddy, when did you get in?”

“‘Bout an hour ago. Been over with Mort, and he’s been filling me in on what you’ve been up to.”

“Look Slim, it weren’t my fault,” said Jess looking anxious and trying to sit up, before falling back again with a gasp of pain.

“Sure, I know that. Now just take it easy will you, Jess; doc says you’re in a real bad way. You’ve got to rest up…you hear me?”

“Aw, I’m OK, Slim, quit your fussin’.”

“Um, well, just do as you’re told for once, will you?” Then a thought occurred to the tall rancher. “Did you make that meeting with Johnson from the stage line? it was real important you know, Jess.”

“Sure I did,” said Jess looking irritated now. “And what’s more he said I was doin’ a real good job, keepin’ everythin’ goin’ so well with you off gallivanting and all.”

“You can hardly call being deputy at a trial gallivanting Jess.”

“Um…”

“Oh no… please tell me he didn’t catch you brawling with Dawson,” said Slim suddenly looking worried.

“No he didn’t,” said Jess angrily. “Anyways he said he liked a man that got stuck in way I do.”

“I think he was probably referring to work, Jess, not saloon fights.” Then he grinned broadly at his buddy. “I think you’re feeling a mite better, Jess; your ornery side is showing.”

“So it is…guess I’ll be up and around in no time partner,” Jess said grinning back at his friend.

*****

It was actually another two weeks before Jess was well enough to tackle the proposed visit out to the Arapaho village.

Sam had spoken to Slim about it out of Jess’s hearing one day when he was over fishing, and Jess had wandered off downstream with Mike.

“He’s made a good recovery, don’t you think, Sam?” said Slim, tipping his hat towards his buddy, as he walked off with the youngster.

“Yes, real good, considering, but he really isn’t well enough for this trip he’s proposing to take next week, you know Slim. The least little thing, like a fall, or even sitting in the saddle too long, is going to really set him back.”

Slim looked worried. “Figure it would take a herd of wild horses to hold him back now, Sam; you know what he’s like once he sets his heart on something — and he sure has set his heart on seeing that little girl again. He can’t let her down, you see, Sam.”

“Yeah, I know. Then do you think you could go along with him, kinda keep him on a tight rein?”

“Well, sure, I can try least ways. We aren’t real busy at present and I can get my neighbor’s sons to take care of the stage business. Sure why not…and anyway I’d like to see little Asha again; that’s one cute kid, you know, Sam! “

And so it was one fine spring morning the two friends set off for the Arapaho village. They made good time, but Slim insisted they stop and rest regularly and then make camp by late afternoon. They were sitting by the campfire on the first night listening to a couple of owls calling to each other and the other soporific night time sounds when Jess turned to his buddy ad said softly, “I’m OK, you know Slim.”

Slim pretended to look surprised. “What do you mean? “

“I mean you don’t have to wrap me in cotton wool. I’ve seen you watchin’ me all day, fussin about me restin’ and all; gee Slim. you’re getting worse than Daisy. I’m OK…really.”

Slim looked down into the fire and then back at his buddy. “I guess you are at that, but the fact is, Sam wouldn’t have let you out of his sight if it wasn’t for me and my fussing, so guess you’re  just stuck with it partner.”

Jess flushed a little. “That so…about Sam?”

“Um.”

Jess thought about this for a while and then turning his shy smile on his partner, said, “Sorry Slim, and I appreciate you coming along, really I do.”

“I know, Jess. Come on, let’s turn in; long ride tomorrow, if you want to try and make it in another day.”

“You bet. Night Slim…and thanks.”

As it was, Jess was obviously finding it hard going during the second day and even he had to admit reluctantly that he was fair beat and couldn’t do the whole journey in a day. So they camped a second night and finally rode into the village early the following morning.

As they arrived, Jess was surprised to see no guards on duty; in fact, no reception committee of any sort. They were able to ride straight into the heart of the village without being stopped, and reining in their mounts, they jumped down and made their way over to the central fire in the middle of the encampment. As they approached, there was at last some sign of life as several of the elders and one or two older women were sitting round the fire.

As the two cowboys walked over, the small group rose and then Kusuma was there, running into his arms crying. “Oh my dear son, thank goodness you are here,” she said in her own tongue.

Then seeing Slim behind him, she said in English, “Mr. Sherman too, how good it is to see you both.”

Jess could see at once that all was not well. “Hey Kusuma, what’s the matter?” he said softly, as she tried to wipe away the tears now flowing freely down her papery old cheeks.

“It is Asha. She is missing Jess, since last night. She kept asking for you, saying the snow had melted and you would be on your way. She asked Little Wolf to take her up the mountain so that she could watch for you, but he had work to do and promised they would go later…and that was the last he saw of her. They are all out searching, but there are signs of mountain lion all around the camp. We are fearing the worst….she has been gone too long,” and she finally collapsed in his arms crying in earnest now.

Jess had turned deathly pale and now he ran a comforting hand up and down the old woman’s arm, holding her in a warm embrace until the crying fit abated.

Jess himself was shaking and he felt nauseous and dizzy, like he’d just been kicked in the guts. ‘Please God don’t let anything have happened to my little girl.’ he prayed fervently.

 “I am sorry,” Kusuma said, pulling back. “I am a silly old woman. Please, Jess, can you help…do you know where she might hide if the big cat had frightened her?”

Jess was suddenly as sure that he knew where she was as if he had actually just spied her. “Yes,” he said, and he grabbed at Slim’s arm and then was running back over to Traveler. “I’ve an idea. I’ll be back soon, Kusuma. It’ll be OK, I promise,” he threw over his shoulder, before he sprang up onto the saddle and kicked the horse off at a gallop, closely followed by Slim.

Jess kept the hard pace up even when they started climbing the steep and dangerous foothills and Slim called out to him to stop.

Jess reined Traveler in and cast his friend a questioning look. “What’s the matter?”

“Will you slow down, Jess. You’re going to break your neck at this pace, or Traveler leg. just take it easy….”

“Take it easy,” spat Jess. “This is all my goddamn fault, Slim. If I’d have been here when I said, she wouldn’t have been frettin’ and going lookin’ for me.”

Slim shook his head. “You can’t think that way, buddy. You’ve done your best; now let’s just take it real slow and easy. We want to be in one piece when we find her…yeah?”

“Yeah, I guess,” and Jess continued at a more sedate pace.

After they had been riding for another ten minutes, Jess reined his mount in. and jumping down, squatted, looking at a set of tracks in the damp ground and his head suddenly jerked up and he went even paler than he had previously when Kusuma broke the news.

“What?” whispered Slim looking at his buddy’s anguished face with concern.

“It’s mountain lion tracks, and real fresh too. Figure he passed this way within the last day or so.” And with that he leapt back up on Traveler and moved on apace.

It must have been about half an hour later when they finally arrived at the place he had been seeking. It was a small cave etched into the mountainside and the low entrance was almost hidden from view.

Jess turned to Slim. “I came up here with Sky and Asha once for a picnic and Asha was playing hide go seek and she found this place and we said at the time it would be a real good place to hide if she was scared of anything. There had been prospectors up here a few weeks before and they were real spooked by the Indians, until I said they were peaceful. Anyway Sky said if Asha was unsure of anyone, she should just hide until they had passed, in a place like the cave.”

“And you think she may have come here to hide from the big cat?”

“I sure hope not, Slim, because if he was trailing her, well, it’d take more than hiding in a cave to put him off finding her.” He gave a deep sigh and hopped down.

“I’d better check it out,” Jess said, dreading what he might find, knowing the cat’s tacks were all around, his heart beating so fast he could hardly breathe.

Slim looked down at his friend from where he still sat on Alamo. “Want me to go look for you, Jess?”

Jess shook his head. “No, I guess this is down to me,” and he pulled his hat down hard, before striding over to the cave entrance and ducking down inside.

When he entered, it was pitch dark and it took a few minutes for his eyes to get used to it.

He called out Asha’s name and it echoed around the cave, but there was no response.

His eyes gradually adapted to the darkness and he could just make out a bundle of leaves and an old blanket in the corner, which he figured had been left after their visit there, but there was no sign of the child.

Jess’s heart plummeted and he turned to go — and then he heard it, the tiniest of sounds, like a faint whimper. He stopped in his tracks and listened hard — and there it was again, a little louder this time, and he turned and walked back into the centre of the cave scanning the area desperately seeking the child and then the blanket moved and a small hand waved about.

Jess was there in a split second and looking down saw his beloved daughter, obviously just waking up, a look of fear on her little face.

Jess fell to his knees and held her close. “It’s Ok. sweetheart,” he whispered. “It’s Papa Jess. I’m back…everything’s gonna be OK.”

The child threw her arms round his neck and cried with a mixture of shock and joy.

Jess picked her up, holding her close, his eyes tightly shut, her head nestled on his chest, and he stood breathing in her sweet childish aroma, his whole frame weak with relief.

“Is that really you Papa?” she said in her own language

“Yes, honey, come on. Uncle Slim’s here too; let’s get you back to camp. Everyone’s real worried for you.”

When he emerged from the cave, he practically fell into Slim’s arms as he was just about to check on his friend. The two men went and sat down on some rocks by the entrance, and cradling Asha in his arms, Jess was able to see her properly for the first time and he stared down in dismay at a nasty gash to her temple.

He exchanged an anxious look with Slim who got up at once and went and fetched some clean cloths and his canteen and Jess set about cleaning the wound.

She sat patiently as Jess tended her.

“Does this hurt, honey?”

“No, Papa, not now. Grandfather put some medicine on it and then I slept and the pain went.”

“Huh, your grandfather?”

“Sure, Yellow Bear; you remember him, don’t you Papa Jess? He had to go up to the Great Spirit, but he came back yesterday when the big cat came and scared me.”

Jess and Slim exchanged another look, but said nothing to each other.

Jess looked down at the child and wondered if the bang on the head she had sustained had harmed her mind. “You mean you had a dream about Yellow Bear?” he said giving her an encouraging look.

“Oh no, he was here, Papa. I was walking up the rise to see if I could see you coming. I asked Little Wolf and he was too busy, so I came on my own. I’m a big girl now, Papa Jess; I will see my fifth summer this year you know.”

Jess grinned down at the little one. “Well sure, you’re a real big girl, but even so you should still stay with the tribe, you know. Anyway, what happened?”

“I was just coming  home because I could not see you and then I heard this big growly noise and it was a great big cat and I was so scared…and I tried to run and that’s when I fell and banged my head. Then I saw grandfather and he had a sling shot and he fired a rock at the cat and it ran off.”

Jess looked on in amazement. “Then what?” he said softly.

“Grandfather took me by the hand and led me to the cave here, and cleaned my head and then he made a little bed for me and said I must sleep and when I awoke, my Papa Jess would come and find me…and you did,” she said with a huge grin.

Jess looked down shaking his head slowly, before looking across at his partner. “Well then do you still think I was dreamin’ when I said Yellow Bear and Sky tended me when I was out of it in that snow storm?” he asked.

“I don’t know what to think, Jess.”

“You and me both, buddy, but there sure as hell is somethin’ strange goin’ on around here, but I’ve got a feelin’ we’re never gonna find out what.”

Shortly afterwards, they remounted and with Jess supporting the child in front of him, they rode on down the mountain and into the camp.

On their arrival, Kusuma was practically beside herself with joy and relief and wept as she thanked Jess and Slim over and over.

Then one of the elders sounded a ceremonial horn and shortly afterwards, the tribe started returning to the camp in ones and twos and small groups at the sign that Asha had been found.

When Little wolf clapped eyes on Jess, he vaulted from his pony and was upon him in two great bounds, holding him in a loving bear hug, grinning and jabbering ten to the dozen, in  his own language. Then reaching out to include Asha in his embrace, thanking Jess and Slim over and over for finding her.

“Hey Buddy, slowdown,” said Jess grinning. It’s been a while since I spoke your tongue, you know.”

“I am sorry, Dakota. I am just so pleased to have my brother safely home again, and little Asha!” and then he turned and slapped Slim on the back, “and the Tall Blond Warrior too. It is good to see you, Slim.”

All the time this was going on, Asha pulled back watching the proceedings, but once Jess disentangled himself from Little Wolf’s warm embrace, she took Jess’s hand and didn’t leave his side all evening.

Sitting by the fire, Slim watched as she sat on Jess’s knee, an arm slung possessively around his neck, hanging on  his every word, a look of such adoration in  her beautiful little face, it near brought tears to his eyes. His partner seemed equally enraptured by the diminutive creature, giving her his undivided attention and holding her close, like he was afraid she would be spirited away again if he let her go.

There was much rejoicing around the camp fire that night, not just because of the safe return of little Asha, but also of the return  of Dakota, brother to Little Wolf, son of Yellow Bear and Kusuma, as the tribe elders described him.

Much later that night, Slim and Jess were stretched out by a fire in the small guest tepee, chatting quietly.

“They sure think a lot of you here, buddy,” said Slim smiling across at his friend, “what was that — brother of, son, of… Looks like they really think of you as one of their own.”

“I guess,” said Jess sleepily staring into the embers of the fire.

“And that little girl surely adores you.”

Jess looked over a big grin on his face. “Ain’t she cute,” he said. “And smart too. Gee Slim, I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d lost her,” he said sobering suddenly.

“Yeah, well you didn’t, thanks to the ghost of old Yellow Bear…and….”

“Slim hush,” said Jess urgently, “don’t talk that way; someone might hear you.”

“So, why should that matter?”

“I dunno, just sounded like you were joshing some. they take their religion — spirituality — real serious, you know, Slim. You can’t mess with them.”

“I’m sorry,” Slim said softly, “I didn’t mean anything by it. Heck, I don’t want to upset them Jess.”

“Yeah, I know that. You’ve just got to be kinda understanding of their ways. They can take offense.”

“Guess I’ve got a lot to learn about being an Arapaho,” Slim said smiling at his buddy.

“Yeah, I’ll teach you…in the morning. I’m kinda beat right now.” And in a moment Slim heard his friend’s gentle rhythmic breathing signaling he was asleep and marveled again how he managed to be talking one minute and out for the count the next, but that was old Jess for you, he thought as he settled down to sleep himself.

The following day they were up early and Slim started his induction into the Arapaho tribe.

Slim began to learn a few basic words and phrases and found the people both charming and patient with him.

Jess wanted to spend much of his time with little Asha and Kusuma, and Slim was amazed at the way his buddy seemed to integrate back into the tribe so easily, accepted and loved by them all. He watched as Jess talked to the small girl with kindness and understanding, much the way he did with Mike, and he began to wonder as to how difficult it was going to be for his buddy to leave at the end of their stay.

Slim also realized that Jess was spending all his time in the camp with the women and children as he just wasn’t up to the lively hunting trips so loved by Little Wolf and the braves, and usually by Jess too, and he figured that he was still feeling the effects of the battering he had received at the hands of Dawson’s men.

Jess’s unusual behavior had not gone unnoticed by Little Wolf either, but when he broached the subject with Jess, Jess merely said he was OK as usual.

It was when Jess had refused yet another hunting trip that Little Wolf became anxious. He had watched his brother closely and seen him run a hand across his ribs or belly as if in pain, and one day when Asha had jumped up on his lap unexpectedly, he had winced and turned pale.

Now Little Wolf sought  out Slim, who had taken a rod  down  to the stream and  was enjoying a little fishing, leaving Jess to spend time teaching Asha more English, which she loved, having 100% of her Papa’s attention.

Little Wolf approached Slim silently and slid down beside him on the rock where he was reclining, waiting for a bite and he jumped slightly when Little Wolf suddenly materialized from nowhere.

“I am sorry my friend I did not mean to startle you. It is the Indian way to walk silently and I didn’t want to spook your fish either,” Little Wolf said with a grin.

Slim returned the grin. “Don’t think there is much danger of that; figure they went way down stream when they saw me coming.”

The two men watched the water in companionable silence for a while, before Little Wolf turned to the tall rancher and said, “Can I ask you something…about Jess?”

“Sure,” said Slim giving the young brave an encouraging look.

“I am worried about him. He does not seem himself. It’s not like him to refuse a hunting trip…and yet he has done so several times. Is he sick, Slim?”

“No…well, not the way you mean anyways. The thing is Little Wolf he got into a bit of a fracas in the saloon and…”

Little Wolf looked puzzled “What is this fracas?”

“Oh, sorry a fight, bar brawl, you know?”

“Oh yes this I know; it is one of the things my brother is very good at, I think.”

 Slim chuckled. “Yeah, you’ve got that right. Anyway he had this fight with a local rancher and then later that night, his men jumped Jess on his way back to the saloon and worked him over real good. There were seven of them, guess he didn’t stand much of a chance.”

Little Wolf shook his head sadly. “And he was hurt badly?”

“Yeah, real bad, busted ribs, bruising like you’ve never seen; they beat him black and blue…well that’s why we were a tad late getting here. The Doc refused to let him ride. He’s still far from well, but don’t tell him I said so — you know what he’s like”.

“No I won’t say you have told me. Dakota is a proud man and stubborn too; he doesn’t like people…er how you say…fussing him.”

“You’ve got it.”

“So why did he fight this man? Was it over a woman?” he said smiling slightly.

Slim thought deeply for a moment and figured Little Wolf would find out the truth at some stage, so he replied, “Yeah…in a way it was kind of about your sister…well, all of you really. You see it was that man that you met when you dealt with those renegade Cheyenne last year.”

“I remember, yes the big ugly rancher. Dawson was his name.”

“Yeah, that’s him. Anyways, he was taunting Jess, calling him an Indian lover, then he saw Sky’s necklace that Jess wears and  he insulted that…and then….”

“Yes?”

“And then he insulted Sky, and Jess just lost it, beat the man up and can’t say as there was anyone there that didn’t support him. Everyone thought Dawson was way out of order.”

Little Wolf had fallen silent and was looking deeply distressed. “I never realized,” he said softly. “I never realized that Jess would be shunned for his friendship with us.” He took a deep breath before continuing, obviously upset. “Yes I know the white man is often wary of us, some even hate us …and for good reason. This I accept. But to think my brother was attacked because of his friendship with us cuts deep, my friend. I am so sorry.”

“Yeah, well, Jess isn’t bothered. He stuck up for you like he would for any of his friends or family. It’s the way he is….and Little Wolf, I figure maybe he’d think I’d spoken out of turn telling you but I reckon you’d have  found out some time.”

He nodded. “Yes I would have done. And these men they have been punished?”

“Oh yeah, Sheriff Corey rode out the next day and got a confession out of them eventually”.

“Sheriff Corey…your town’s White Chief?”

Slim chuckled again, and thought he must share this with Mort some time. “Yeah, that’s him. So the men confessed and Mort banned them all from town, I believe most of them have ridden out now, moved on. And then Wes Dawson paid us a visit just before we left to come out here and apologized to Jess personally, from himself and his men.”

“Words are easy, my friend.”

“Yeah, I guess so, but I figure it’s a start and Dawson certainly won’t be bad mouthing your people again; that’s got to be a good thing”.

“Indeed it is. We owe Dakota more than he will ever know, my friend,” Little Wolf said earnestly. Then seeming to cheer up he leapt from his seat beside Slim and said, “Come, I will show you where the fish are biting,” and the two men strolled off together a warm friendship beginning to be forged.

*****

It was much later in the day when Little Wolf caught up with Jess on his own. Jess was grooming Traveler down where all the horses were tethered behind the tepees and it was a quiet private place away from the hustle and bustle of the camp.

Little Wolf walked over silently, just as he had with Slim that morning and saw Jess pull back from  brushing his horse and run a weary hand across his ribs, taking  a deep breath and  closing his eyes, obviously in pain. Little Wolf was immediately by his side as if materializing from thin air and he put a gentle hand on his friends arm.

Jess’s eyes flew open and he looked surprised to see the brave so close.

“You are hurt, Jess. Please tell me about it and do not say you are OK when I can see with my own eyes that you are not.”

Jess gave a deep sigh. “OK Buddy, I guess I am kinda sick right now. Got myself into a spot of trouble and came off worst. Got beat up some, but I’ll be OK in another few days and then I’ll come and show you how to really hunt elk,” he said with grin.

They continued chatting and Little Wolf finally got the truth out of Jess about the cause of the fight and then he was able to say how sorry he was about it all.

“Hell, it ain’t your fault, Little Wolf; it was that low life Dawson.”

“Yes brother, but he attacked you just because of your friendship with the Arapaho; that seems so unfair, and I feel somehow responsible.”

“Well it was a bit more than a friendship; I was married to one of your people, weren’t I. That’s what he couldn’t stomach, what riled him so much I guess — the mixed race marriage. Figure a lot of folks feel that way, from both sides.”

“Not from this tribe,” Little Wolf said firmly. “You are family Jess and always will be.”

“Thanks Buddy, that means a lot.”

“In fact, well, I have spoken with Kusuma and the elders, and we do not want you to return home at the end of your visit, Jess. We want you to stay…all of us. We need you here. Please, will you stay…say yes, for little Asha’s sake. Please say yes….and it will be like the old times, when we were boys together,” he said eagerly.

Slim had been padding across to where he could see Jess and Little Wolf deep in conversation and they didn’t hear or see him. He abruptly turn away and retrace his steps, his face a picture of shock and dismay at the thought that Jess might very well seriously consider Little Wolf’s invitation. He surely hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, and he wished to God he hadn’t heard the conversation, and now all he could do was wait and see what Jess would decide.

That night round the central camp fire, Jess was very quiet and Slim noticed that Little Wolf kept throwing him anxious glances, but Slim couldn’t tell what had gone on between the two friends after he had left, and what answer Jess had given him, if indeed he had given him any.

Slim figured he knew Jess well enough to know that he certainly wouldn’t make any snap decisions, and a week ago he would have staked his life on Jess choosing the ranch and his family back in Laramie over his good Arapaho friends, but that was before he had seen the way he was with Asha, and now he really didn’t know what his partner would decide to do.

Now watching his best friend, he felt sick with worry, he sure didn’t want to lose him and he couldn’t imagine how Daisy and Mike would take it if he returned home alone. But if that was what Jess wanted, then who was he to stand in his way? He was a free spirit, always had been, and that’s part of his charm, thought Slim sadly.

Jess was sitting watching Asha, who had fallen asleep on his lap, and as he looked into the fire, Slim saw a myriad of emotions flitting across his buddy’s face and he knew he was desperately battling with the decision he would have to make sooner or later. Jess closed his eyes and bowed his head so that his chin rested on Asha’s glossy black hair and he pulled her into a closer embrace as the child slept on, unaware of her step Papa’s inner turmoil.

Later that night when they had turned in, Slim tried to broach the subject. “That sure is a lovely little girl you’ve got,” he said reflectively. You’re going to miss her when we ride out, aren’t you pard?”

“I guess,” said Jess, looking away quickly, suddenly ill at ease.

“I figure it suits you…the life here, I mean. All the big open to explore, hunting and fishing; reckon you’re in paradise huh?”

“What are you tryin’ to say Slim?” asked Jess giving him a hard look and sitting up, from  where he had been  lounging  on  his bed roll by the tepee fire.

“Nothing…”

The fire crackled in the silence and sent shadows flitting around the tepee walls.

“Slim?”

“Well you know all the stuff you were telling me about  the Arapaho, the spiritual side, how they believe we are all connected, the tribe, the animals the land with mountains lakes and even rocks all having a place, all things being equally  important ?”

“Yeah, I told you  about that, and the way they all look out for each other, believe that man and the land and  the animals that support them all have a part to play in the great scheme of things. Well, that’s that way I understand it from Little Wolf. And yeah I think all that makes a lot of sense to care for the land and the beasts. Well why wouldn’t you, Slim? But some white folk just don’t see it that way; they don’t appreciate what there is out here. They slaughter animals for sport, not to survive the way the Indians do, just leavin’ the carcasses to rot; don’t respect the creatures. I guess they just can’t see how darn good it is here and I figure it should be kept this way, protected, you know?” he finished earnestly.

Slim sat back in amazement listening to his friend and never thought he had expressed himself so eloquently, or so passionately about anything before. “Like I say, it suits you here, this life,” he said softly. “I guess the Arapaho have a lot to offer a man like you.”

Jess grinned across at his buddy now,” Oh I dunno, Slim; it’s dang cold out here in the winter you know. No saloons….hell no saloon girls,” he said in consternation, throwing his buddy a mock horrified look.

But Slim wouldn’t be thrown off course by the banter; suddenly he had to know what Jess was thinking. “No…but there is Asha isn’t there?” he said giving his buddy an appraising look.

“You know, don’t you Slim?”

Slim said nothing just looked down embarrassed.

“You heard me an’ Little Wolf talkin’; you know he’s asked me to stay.”

Slim’s head flew up his chin out. Suddenly he didn’t care what Jess thought about him; he just had to know, one way or the other. “So what are you going to do?”

Jess went very quiet for a long time before turning pleading eyes on his buddy. “This is so damn hard for me. Slim. you have to understand. Asha…well she’s all I’ve got left of Sky and I guess it’s gonna darn near break my heart to leave her again. I just don’t know. Don’t ask me, buddy, not right now,” and with that he lay down on his bed roll and turned away, after a while feigning sleep.

But Slim knew from his breathing and his ridged posture that Jess was far from asleep and the two men lay there in silence the gap of a few feet between them suddenly becoming a gigantic chasm, and neither could find the words to bridge it and talk the matter through rationally, their feelings running too high as the end of their deep friendship looked to be in sight.

*****

The following morning, Jess left the camp at first light, saying he was going up the mountain as he wanted some space to think things through.

Little Wolf had watched him go and turning to Slim said, “Our friend is going up to Sky’s last resting place; he thinks he will find the answers he is seeking there.” Then he turned to face Slim and said softly, “But he will not. The answers are here,” and he pointed to his heart. “That is where my brother must look to make his decision, his heart,” and he turned sadly away.

Jess paused by Sky’s last resting place, and looked down at the grave, still appearing fresh, although it was now over six months since he had buried his wife.

He longed to be able to talk to her, to ask her advice about Asha.

As he stared down at the small mound, covered with rocks, a little bead necklace made by Asha its only adornment, he wondered what he had expected to find here. Did he think Sky would suddenly appear to him, like she had done when he was lying in the snow, sick with the fever. To calmly take his hand and sit awhile discussing his problems…making everything better?

Whatever he expected, nothing happened and he felt that somehow she just wasn’t here anymore and gazing down he felt suddenly abandoned again. He remembered that fateful night when he turned on her still form in their tepee, ranting angrily at her for dying, for leaving him, and now he felt she had left him all over again, in his hour of need, the pain of loss biting deeply again.

“No Harper,  this is down to you,” he said to himself firmly, and pulling his hat down hard he gave the grave one last sad look before turning and scrambling further up the mountainside.

The going was rough and the mountain very steep in places and he was glad he had left Traveler at the camp and decided to make his way on foot. After another ten minutes, he reached the summit and almost fell as he slumped down on a rock, gasping for breath and realized how out of condition he had become after the beating he had received.

Since his arrival at the camp, he had done little physical work and now he unbuttoned his blue shirt a little and ran a hand inside rubbing his painful ribs absently as he looked down the mountain to the camp below, appearing tiny in the distance. He could just about make out wisps of smoke from the central fire , the tepees and one or two members of the tribe going about their business, but he was too far away to identify them.

His heart lurched as he thought of Slim down there, and what he was putting him through and wondered what his friend would do and say if Jess indeed decided to stay. How could he even consider it, he thought, leaving Slim, not to mention Mike and Daisy. They needed him. Hell he needed them too.

But there again, so does Asha, said a small voice in his head.

He thought how ironic it was that after all those years on the drift with nobody to love him, or even care if he lived or died; now here he had two families wanting him to share his life with them.

He thought back to the pleading look in Little Wolf’s eyes as he begged him to stay, reminding him of their close friendship as boys, blood brothers; you couldn’t get much closer than that, Jess reflected. But that had been then; he’d grown, changed since those days.

As Slim so often said he was a free spirit, his own man……liking his own way. Whereas, Little Wolf had not matured, grown that much over the years. He had always mindlessly obeyed his father as Chief and now he was Chief, he relied very heavily on the advice and guidance of the elders and was completely ruled by their laws and traditions….ever obedient to the ‘ways’ of his people.

Could Jess do that, be part of a community where the elders must be blindly followed?

Was he obedient enough? Hell, was he obedient at all?

Looking down the mountain at the camp, now partly obscured by mist, he thought back over the years. He knew he had made some tough choices in the past, but none as tough as this one, but at least he had a choice, the power to make his own decisions…for now at least. If he remained, he knew that it would be the elders who made all the decisions, from when to move the camp, where to go on their hunting trips to larger more important matters, all decided by the hierarchy and bound by tradition and the way of the tribe.

As he stared down unseeingly, he remembered a day one hot summer a few years back, lying beneath some shady trees with Slim, both of then having skived off because Daisy had wanted them to paint the barn.

Slim had said indignantly. “Heck I don’t mind the work, Jess, but a man should decide when to paint his own barn,” and Jess’s rejoinder, “if a man starts letting the women make all the decisions, he gets so he can’t think for himself.” Slim had agreed fervently. “Sure, it ain’t the work I mind…” before both men had laid down again in the shade, hats over their eyes to doze away the sunny afternoon.

Jess gave a sad smile at the memory and wondered if he’d end up not being able to think for himself if he stayed around the tribe for good, with all the decisions made for him.

Then there was the future to consider. Slim had made the life seem idyllic drifting along hunting and fishing at their leisure, but Jess knew that before too long the tribe would be confined to a Reservation, with other tribes. How would that work for him? Would the other Indians accept him as the Arapaho had done? He doubted it, and what would the other children say to Asha about her white father?

He shook his head wearily, exhausted by the continual thoughts buzzing around his mind. Then he knew what he had to do. Even though all the logical arguments were against it, he felt he had to try one more time to make a go of things with the tribe, for Asha’s sake. I owe that to Sky’s memory, he thought sadly. If only he knew the child would be looked after for all her childhood, but he had grave worries about Kusuma. She had aged significantly in just these short few months. If she dies, what would become of the child, he thought fretfully.

Slowly he made his way back down the mountain, feeling deeply saddened by his decision. He wanted to be with Asha, sure he did, but it was one hell of a price to pay, leaving his partnership in  the ranch, and all his family and friends, his security, the only secure thing he had known since he was a child — hell, ever really he admitted — but what could he do?

He knew he had to tell Slim first, before he said anything to Little Wolf or the others, and he was determined to do it as painlessly as possible, or at least in privacy so that they could talk things through together, without being disturbed.

There had been talk of elk being sighted the day before and Jess decided he would suggest he and Slim went and bagged one to take back to the ranch…well, for Slim to take back anyways, and he figured he would break the news on the trail.

So it was the following day the two friends set off alone for this final adventure together and although Slim didn’t realize the significance, Jess did, and his heart was heavy as they rode off, skirting the mountain and lake and heading due west.

When Jess had come back down from the mountain the previous day, there had been a commotion in the camp as two bears had been sighted nearby and everyone had gone off tracking the animals, until poor light forced them to return to the camp. The following morning the search had continued, but it appeared that the critters were long gone and so Slim and Jess had ridden off knowing that the tribe was at no risk.

“Shame those old grizzlies went back up the mountain,” said Jess grinning across at his friend. “You could have bagged one and you’d be dubbed a heroic warrior too, just like yours truly.”

Slim gave an evil guffaw. “Heroic warrior eh, well, let’s see who gets the first elk. Reckon they taste a mite better than bear,” and the two had ridden on through the woodland in search of their quarry.

They hunted throughout the whole of the perfect spring day but were rewarded by neither sight nor sign of the elk for their trouble, and as the afternoon came to an end the men made camp beside a fast flowing stream in the lee of some standing pines.

They had spent a companionable time together, enjoying each other’s company as usual, but Slim had cast his buddy the odd anxious glance as the day wore on, fully aware that he must have come to some decision up on the mountain the previous day. The night before after the prolonged bear hunt, the two men had retired for the night absolutely exhausted and had no time to discuss the matter, but Slim knew it was something they had to do that night.

All his instincts were telling him that Jess had decided to stay with the Arapaho when Slim returned home in a few days. And that was why he had suggested the hunting trip, not wanting to break the news in front of the others, knowing how distressed they would both be feeling.

Now he was so close to hearing the news, he decided he didn’t want to. Didn’t want Jess to make that irrevocable step, because he knew that once his buddy’s mind had been made up, there sure wouldn’t be any changing it. In fact, Slim had promised to himself that he wouldn’t try to change his friend’s plans. He knew what a hard decision it would have been for him, and once made…well he would support him anyway he could, but that didn’t mean he wanted to hear it, not just yet anyways.

They had made the camp and were sitting by the fire waiting for the coffee to brew when Jess gave his partner a searching look and said softly, “Guess we need to talk, Slim.”

The blond rancher’s head shot up and the men exchanged a look of understanding.

Then Slim looked into the flames and said equally quietly. “Leave it Jess. After supper yeah, figure we may need to crack open that bottle of Red Eye I know is in your saddle bag…and I figure that would sit a mite better after some grub.”

Jess threw him the ghost of a smile. “Guess maybe you’re right, pard.”

All day Jess’s stomach had been knotted, his mouth dry and he felt sick to his stomach every time he thought about what he had to say to his best friend, and indeed even now he wasn’t sure he had made the right decision.

As he had left the camp that morning, his resolve was fading fast. How could he leave all he loved and held dear? It wasn’t just his adopted family at the ranch, it was all his other friends too — Mose, Lon, Mort…Millie…oh hell…Millie….

Then Asha had run up throwing her arms round his legs, and looking up at him with her huge watermelon grin, wished him luck for his hunting trip and handed him a little blue flower she had picked as a good luck charm.

Now he removed his hat and looked at the faded flower still stuck in his hat band and sighed deeply, before looking back at his partner. “Yeah, sure,” he said wearily, “later.”

The sun was just setting after they had drunk their coffee and Slim opted to go down to the stream to fill up the canteens while Jess made a start on cooking the bacon and beans.

The water was a tad muddy near the camp so Slim wandered a few yards further downstream where there were some huge boulders near the edge and he was able to lean over and replenish the canteens from the deeper, clear water found there.

After he had finished, he slung the canteens over his shoulder and  stood up stretching, one hand rubbing a stiff muscle in his back, and  he stared across the stream to the distant mountains blushing a  deep red in the setting sun, before turning to retrace his steps back to the camp.

That was when he saw it — a mere 30 feet away — a huge ugly grizzly bear. He was raised up on his back legs and was easily well over six foot tall, standing stock still, radiating tension and just staring at Slim.

Slim’s jaw dropped open and his heart started to hammer as the adrenaline flushed through his whole body, causing him to sway slightly as a wave of dizziness hit him.

He had removed his gun belt when they made camp, leaving it with his saddle and he realized he was completely unarmed and with little hope of out-running the creature.

As if he could read the tall rancher’s thoughts, the bear suddenly came to life and lurching forwards onto all fours, started bounding towards the hapless cowboy.

As it came nearer, Slim could see it was badly injured with a bleeding gash across its chest and he imagined it was in incredible pain and then everything seemed to be happening in slow motion.

Just before it struck him, he saw a terrible cold fury in its eyes, and he screamed and tried to turn and run, but he had no chance as the huge animal was upon him in a matter of seconds and sent him flying into the rocks with one sweep of its huge clawed paw.

The it bounded after its quarry and leapt on Slim, its massive jaws closing around his upper arm — and then there was the crack of a rifle, quickly followed by another shot and then another, but the first one had hit its mark right between the eyes, and the bear fell away from Slim even as the following shots penetrated the already dead carcass.

Throwing the rifle down, Jess ran to his buddy where he lay against the rocks, his body crumpled and bleeding.

Slim was white as a sheet and shaking violently.

Jess pulled him gently to a sitting position, one arm supporting him as he surveyed his buddy’s mangled left arm. “It’s Ok…it’s Ok,” he said trying to calm his friend down some.

Jess hurriedly undid his bandana and tied it tightly around the profusely bleeding arm, but as he did so he moved the limb and Slim yelped in pain. “Think the darn thing’s broken,” Slim whispered. He threw me against the rocks and I fell real hard.” By now his breathing was labored and he was deathly pale.

“Come on buddy,” said Jess hauling him up, “Let’s get you beside the fire and some red eye down you.”

Back at the camp, Jess lay his friend down, propped against his saddle, and finding the whiskey, put a good measure in one of the cups and gently helped Slim to drink before resting him back down on his bedroll, using the saddle as a pillow.

Then Jess tended the arm, cleaning the open wound where the bear had mauled him and bandaging it carefully with some strips of cloth from his saddle bag, which he always carried, bearing in mind the scrapes he or Slim frequently found themselves in. But now the really hard part came.

“Gonna have to set that arm tonight, Slim. Looks real bad, needs straightening out an’ splinting and it ain’t gonna be pleasant.”

“Quit talking and just do it, Jess,” said the tall rancher, the light of resignation in his eyes.

Jess did as he was asked, taking the arm firmly and quickly trying to get the agonizing procedure over with as soon as possible.

Slim cussed loudly and then thankfully passed out, making Jess’s job of putting the injured arm in a sling easier. Then he sat looking after his buddy as night fell, and Slim slipped in and out of consciousness. After a couple of hours, Slim came round though and was able to eat some of the meal Jess had started cooking previously. Both men washed it down with cups of coffee liberally laced with slugs of the strong  whiskey and by the time they turned in neither was feeling much pain — in fact they were almost cheerful.

The next morning Jess had a herd of buffalo stampeding through his head and Slim was similarly afflicted with the added pain from his injured arm

Jess made them a coffee, but neither could face breakfast, so after Jess had checked his buddy’s wound, they broke up the camp and got ready to ride back to the Arapaho village.

“You gonna be OK sitting a horse?” asked Jess a concerned look in his deep blue eyes.

“Sure; if you can give me a leg up, reckon I’ll make it back.”

The two men rode out slowly and they were about halfway back to the camp when they saw a small Arapaho hunting party approaching.

As they drew near, Little Wolf, who was leading the group, slipped down from his pony and ran over to the two riders looking up at Slim’s ashen face and injuries in consternation. “What happened?” he said turning shocked eyes from Slim to Jess and back.

“Bear,” said Jess succinctly, “and a badly injured one at that. Say you wouldn’t have anything to do with that would you?” he asked turning accusing eyes on his blood brother.

Little Wolf hung his head and then nodded. “Yes one of the braves attacked her with a spear, but then she escaped.”

“Hell, Little Wolf, your men know better than to let a wounded critter run around the place. No wonder he attacked Slim, and anyways it’s darned well cruel to let an animal suffer that way,” he finished angrily.

“I know,” said Little Wolf bitterly. “It’s just that we were protecting the women and children. There were two bears that attacked the camp yesterday, after you had left, they were starving, a mother and near fully grown cub. we hit the mother and then the cub attacked and we were busy dealing with him, by the time he was dead, the mother had disappeared. We tried to follow, but it was too late in the day and so we decided to try and track her this morning.”

Jess had turned pale. “Asha, she OK?” he asked in a harsh whisper.

“Very scared, especially for you and Slim, but no, my friend, she was not hurt.”

Jess breathed a sigh of relief, then stabbing his thumb to the way he and Slim had come from. “You’ll find your bear about a mile back,” he said, “by the stream.”

The rest of the party continued on their way, but little Wolf remounted and went slowly back to the camp with the two cowboys.

On their arrival, Slim slid down from Alamo, but could barely stand and Jess ran to his side at once and helped him walk into the camp. Then Little Wolf took over, escorting the injured man to the ancient Shaman’s tepee.

When Jess saw where they were heading, he stopped in his tracks. “It’s OK, Little Wolf, I’ll care for Slim.”

But Little Wolf was adamant. “No, my friend, it is our fault your friend is hurt, so we must make amends, and any man who is injured in the tribe must be treated by our Shaman because…”

“Don’t tell me,” said Jess butting in, a note of irony in his voice, “because it is your way.”

Little Wolf looked puzzled at his friend’s tone for a moment and then recovered. Yes, it is the Arapaho way.” he said firmly before ushering Slim into the medicine man’s tepee.

“I’m just out here if you need me, Slim”, Jess called, but got no response from his now semi-conscious partner.

Knowing he could do nothing more for his friend right then, he turned his attention to checking on Asha, but as he went to seek her out, she was suddenly there running into his arms shouting with joy as seeing her Papa again, unharmed and well.

She was accompanied by Natane, who had been Sky’s best friend and was known to Jess since his first visit all those years ago. Then she was just fifteen and spent all her time with Sky and her brother, and later Jess and they were good friends.

Now she smiled in welcome. “Thank goodness you are back, Jess; this little one has been so worried about you.”

Jess scooped the small child up into his arms, holding her close and whispered something in her ear that made her giggle and soon she was relaxed and happy again. Jess put her gently down and then wandered over to the fire seeking out a coffee. Since the arrival of the two cowboys, the women had made certain that some of the supply they had brought was brewed up for them every day and he wasn’t disappointed as Natane bustled forwards and quickly poured him a welcome cup of the strong brew.

Jess slumped down on a log beside the fire, exhausted after the events of the last few hours and nodding his thanks took a sip, and closed his eyes savoring the dark liquid.

Natane came and sat down beside him after a moment and he smiled across at her. “Little Wolf said Asha was real spooked about the bear,” he said looking concerned and then casting a glance at his little step daughter who had run off to play tag with a friend across the camp. “She seems fine now,” he added tipping his hat towards her and grinning at the pretty young Squaw sitting close to him.

“She was just worried for you Jess, and then with Kusuma being sick, she got frightened.”

“Kusuma’s sick?” said Jess looking anxious.

“Yes, she has not been well for a while and then I think all the trouble with the bears in camp has upset her. She has taken to her bed again, but do not worry, Jess; I will look after Asha tonight, as I often do.”

“Well thanks, I really appreciate that.”

Then Little Wolf came over and looking at Natane said rather brusquely, “I think you need to go and tend to the children now.”

Natane jumped up at once and blushing slightly said, “of course,” and went quickly away.

Jess threw his buddy a questioning glance, but Little Wolf ignored it and said instead, “Your friend is resting; you must let the Shaman do his work now Jess and not interfere.”

Again Jess cast him an uneasy look, but Little Wolf seemed preoccupied and was still staring across at where Natane had disappeared from view, so Jess swallowed his words and just vowed to be patient for a while longer.

Much later that night after most of the camp had retired, Jess sat on by the central camp fire. He had brought his bedroll out of the tepee he had been sharing with Slim and had laid it close to the fire, intending to sleep the night there within earshot of the Shaman’s tepee and Slim.

He had tried to go and see his friend earlier but a brave at the entrance to the tepee had barred his way. “I am sorry; only Elders can enter the sacred place of our priest,” he said almost apologetically, and not wanting to make a fuss and possibly upset his friend within, Jess had let it go…for now.

He was sitting listening to the monotonous chanting of the old medicine man and staring into the fire, his back against the big log, when he saw someone approaching. Then a second later he was looking up into the friendly eyes of Natane. He half rose and said, “Asha, she OK?”

Natane smiled at him and putting a restraining hand on his shoulder pushed him down again, before sliding down beside him. “The child is fast asleep and my sister is watching her do not worry”.

Jess sank back, and gave a sigh of relief, then turning a quizzical look on the pretty young squaw, he said softly, “You OK?”

She smiled warmly at him and ventured a little closer. “Oh yes, but I could not sleep. I was worried about your friend…and you,” she said turning a suddenly intimate gaze on him. “You are very anxious I think?”

Jess looked into the flames before looking back at Natane, noticing for the first time how dang pretty she had grown. “Well, yeah, sure he’s my best friend and I’d kinda like to be lookin’ after him myself…ain’t gotta lot of faith in ol’ Running Deer in there,” he said tipping his hat towards the tepee, where the medicine man’s chanting had taken on a new fervor.

Natane, moved in closer and taking his hand said. You must not worry, I am sure your friend is being well cared for. It is you I fear for.”

Jess looked down to where she was holding his hand, unsure of the way things were suddenly going. Hell he had known Natane since they were all young and she was just Sky’s best friend, surely she wasn’t flirting with him…or was she?

His mouth was suddenly dry and his heart started beating a tad faster. He cleared his throat, and licking his lips nervously he said, “Er, what do you mean?”

She gave him a suggestive look, before coming in closer and glancing down at his lips she looked back up into his eyes. Well, you must be missing having a woman in your life,” she said softly, her hand suddenly caressing his knee gently, the look in her eyes unmistakable.

Jess knew enough about the tribe’s culture and ‘ways’ to know this was not acceptable behavior and although he longed to kiss those sweet lips, he knew it wasn’t right and he was just regretfully pulling away when Little Wolf was suddenly standing before them, looking angrier than Jess had ever seen him before.

He seemed to have materialized from nowhere, and now he stood in the light of the crackling fire, his arms folded across his chest and his jaw clenched, as he glared down at Jess and then across at Natane, who had just jumped guiltily away from Jess.

“What are you thinking of woman?” Little Wolf snarled, in his own tongue. “Get back to your tepee at once!”

She turned fearful eyes on the young chief and then fled the scene, a hand to her mouth stifling a sob.

Jess jumped up, his hands balled into fists, his face suddenly flushed. There was no call to be so hard on her,” he said crossly. “We were only talkin’. What got into you, Buddy?”

“Talking,” spat Little Wolf. “I saw what you were doing, my friend; you were about to kiss her.”

“I wasn’t, honestly” said Jess turning sincere eyes on his friend. “I guess she was just feelin’ kinda lonely, wanted some company.”

Little Wolf made a derogatory sound, still glaring angrily at the young cowboy.

“Hey what’s gotten into you, Little Wolf?” Jess said again. “You were real harsh with Natane and there was no cause for that.”

“You were leading her on — or are you in the market for another wife already?” Little Wolf asked, casting a sarcastic glance in Jess’s direction.

“No, I ain’t in the market for another wife,” said Jess cuttingly.

“I saw what went on…it is plain to see Natane wants a relationship with you, but our women do not give their favors as freely as the white woman. They will not merely satisfy your needs; they expect a promise of marriage before they will enter into the relationship you want, my friend,” the last words sounding anything but friendly.

“Now hang on a minute, Little Wolf,” said Jess feeling really angry now. “I never suggested anything like that, or expected it, I know your women wouldn’t act that way,” although secretly he wasn’t too sure, the way Natane had just come on to him.

“You forget I know you of old, Jess. It is quite a while since we lost my sister, and you have your needs I know this, but…”

“Will you behave!” yelled Jess, thoroughly rattled now. “I wasn’t tryin’ it on with the woman’ if anything, it was the other way round,” he muttered under his breath.

Little Wolf looked away, now really upset rather than angry.

“I just don’t understand why you’re makin’ such a big deal about…oh…hang on,” said Jess, the light of understanding suddenly dawning in his eyes. “I get it now. You’re jealous ain’t you? You want Natane for yourself!”

Little Wolf looked defeated and sank down on the log by the fire, his whole posture that of hopelessness, his head bowed and hands clasped loosely in front of him, the fire of anger suddenly extinguished.

Jess slumped down beside him. “Wanna tell me about it, Buddy?”

Then the young Chief started talking haltingly, about how he had overheard the women talking about Jess and several of them were interested in him. Then he went on to say that he had always just assumed that he and Natane would be betrothed when the time was right. “But now it seems she prefers you Jess,” the young Indian said sadly.

“Hey, whoa there, Buddy. have you actually told Natane how you feel?”

“Well, no. I thought she knew. We have been friends since childhood…it is obvious.”

“Well it may be to you, but it don’t look like it is to her. Have you never courted her?”

“What?”

“Courted; you know, Little Wolf. Come on now, I don’t have to tell you what to do…do I?” he asked in pure amazement.

Little Wolf still looked at a loss.

“You know,” said Jess sighing deeply, “you have to sweet-talk her, tell her how good she looks, listen to everythin’ she says, like you real interested…even if you ain’t. Then there’s all the other stuff.”

Little Wolf frowned. “Other stuff?”

“Gee, didn’t your Pa tell you anything?” Jess asked in exasperation.

“I know the way of it…well you know. I have been with a woman once, many moons ago. But what is this ‘other stuff’?”

“Well you have to romance them right, holding hands and kissin’ and that sorta thing…hell, when you really love someone, Buddy…well, it just comes natural like.” Jess said coming to a floundering halt.

“And you think that Natane would like all this romancing?”

“Pretty darn sure she would,” said Jess, wondering for a moment if the woman had deliberately come on to him to make Little Wolf jealous, and knowing how devious some women could be, he thought it to be quite possible.

“Look Buddy, come tomorrow, you take her on a nice long walk down by the stream where there is nobody else around and  just tell her how you’re feelin’ ….see what she says, yeah?”

“If you think so my friend, I will do as you say — and Jess, I am truly sorry.”

*****

Jess forgave his friend willingly and shortly afterwards they both retired, Little Wolf to the comfort of his tepee. But Jess insisted on sleeping out by the camp fire and his last thoughts as he drifted off was of the silence now emanating  from  the Shaman’s tepee, and  he wondered if this were a good or bad sign.

He awoke at dawn to a silent camp, everyone still asleep, and on looking over at the Shaman’s tepee he saw the guard who had refused him admittance the day before, was missing.

Jess rose stealthily and made his way over to the tepee and stood listening for a moment before taking a deep breath and pulling the entrance flap back, silently making his way inside.

It was quite dark, the only illumination coming from a sulky fire set in the centre of the tepee, but the first thing that struck Jess was the overwhelming smell of herbs, particularly sage…and something else — the unmistakable sickly sweet smell of decay, the smell that would emanate from a badly infected wound.

He was across the tepee in two strides and knelt down by his partner, who was lying on a rough cot, pulled up near to the fire.

It took Jess a few minutes for his eyes to adjust to the dim light, but when they did, the sight of his buddy made his blood run cold. He was lying deathly still; a slick of sweat on his grey face and the bandage on his arm was dirty and wet with fresh blood.

Jess’s head swiveled, looking to remonstrate with Running Deer for the sorry state of his patient and he finally saw the elder fast asleep on a cot in the far corner, snoring gently.

Jess rushed over and tried to shake him awake. But after several minutes, it was obvious the old man was completely out of it, whether because of the herbs he had been smoking or from exhaustion or caring from his patient, it was difficult to say, but Jess could not rouse the old man.

Jess turned back to his buddy and this time as he looked down, Slim groaned and opened his eyes to thin slits.

“Jess, is that you?”

“Sure, how are you feelin’?”

“Bad…real bad, say Jess I need some water; the ol’ man there he wouldn’t give me water,” he croaked.

“What! Yeah, sure buddy, you’re gonna get all the water you want, and anything else you need. Think you can walk if I help you?”

Slim gave a deep sigh, “I guess ….anything to get away from this crazy old man.”

Jess hauled him up and they left the Shaman’s tepee quietly and made their way back to the one they had been sharing since their arrival.

As soon as they got in Jess made his buddy comfortable and then started to address his wounded arm. As he untied the bindings, it was obvious it had not been tended since Jess had originally cleaned it out, the night the bear had attacked.

“What the hell,” Jess muttered under his breath as he removed the bandages and started to tend the infected wound. He cleaned it out thoroughly with the whiskey, scouring deep into the wound, the procedure incredibly painful. “Gee I’m sorry, Slim, but I gotta do this. It’s a real mess an’ you’re gonna be real sick if I don’t fix it up right,” he finished casting an apologetic look at his friend.

“It’s OK,” muttered Slim weakly, “just do what you’ve got to. At least you can see and hear me,” he said with a tiny smile.

Jess nodded. “That old goat was passed it last time I lived with the tribe; should have been retired long since.”

Once the wound was dressed again and Slim had, had his fill of cool water he fell into a fitful sleep.

Jess stood up, and stretching looked down at the sick man, suddenly feeling a spurt of anger at the way he had been treated and also guilt for allowing it to happen. “Goddamn the ‘way’ of the people,” he said under his breath, before turning from his friend and going to seek some fresh air.

As he emerged into the bright morning, Jess stood for a moment breathing deeply and rubbing his aching back.

There was some activity in the camp now, and after a few minutes, Little Wolf marched over closely followed by the aged Shaman jabbering away angrily, in his own tongue.

“What have you done with Running Deer’s patient?” asked Little Wolf looking annoyed.

“He ain’t Running Deer’s patient anymore. He’s my friend…and I’m lookin’ after him,” said Jess stoutly, sticking his chin out, the light of battle in his eyes.

“But you cannot do this; it is not our way. It is the work of our Shaman to heal your friend.”

“Heal him? He darn near killed him, Little Wolf. the old man’s deaf, can hardly see and don’t know the first thing about cleaning out a wound. Hell, he didn’t even try… “

“You must not talk this way. He is old, certainly, and maybe he did not remember to clean the wound as he normally would, but show some respect for our priest. He was working to save your friend by calling on the spirits he was talking to the spirits to help your friend’s affliction.”

“Well if he’d spent a mite less time talkin’ to the spirits and more time talkin’ to Slim, he’d have known he was desperate for water and his arm was bleedin’ and needed fresh dressings.”

“Jess, you must respect our ways…this is the way of the Arapaho people. Now you must bring Slim back for Running Deer to care for,” he said firmly.

Jess’s hand was now hovering over his gun, his blue eyes narrow slits. “Over my dead body,” he growled.

Little Wolf immediately backed off and after  saying something in his own tongue to Running Deer, the old man turned angrily away, muttering under his breath.

“As you will, Jess….but you must try to understand that you have to accept the way of our people.”

Jess gave him a hard look and then shook his head sadly. “No I don’t,” he said after a minute, “because I’m not staying, Buddy. As soon as my partner can ride, we’re going home.”

Little Wolf looked thunderstruck. “No, no,” he said. “It has not come to this. You said this when father betrothed Sky to Crazy Horse. You said you could not accept the ways of the Arapaho, but you came back,”

“Yeah,” snarled Jess, “and nothing’s changed and so I’m goin’. I meant it then and I mean it now. I’m sorry. Little Wolf, but that’s the way it is.” And turning he retired to the tepee to check on his partner.

Jess marched into the tepee his breathing harsh and an angry flush to his face. “Garldarn it,” he spat, “I’ve just ‘bout had it with the ways of the tribe. They ain’t my ways and never will be.”  Then he looked over to Slim and was surprised to find his wise blue eyes opened wide and studying him. “I’m sorry Slim, didn’t mean to disturb you. I just had a kinda run in with Little Wolf.”

“Do you mean it Jess?” whispered Slim, looking up at his friend, the light of hope in his eyes.

“Huh?”

“Do you mean it about coming home?”

Jess strode over to his buddy and squatted down beside him, then looking deep into his eyes, he said. Sure, sure I mean it. And I’m just sorry I thought any different. It was just….well I felt I had to try for the sake of Sky…for Asha…you know?”

“And now?”

“I dunno, Slim. I know I can’t stay, but as to Asha, maybe I should take her home with me, what with Kusuma getting older, bein’ sick…I just dunno.” Then smiling at his partner, Jess said “Anyways guess there’s no rush; it’ll be a while before you’re well enough to ride. I’ll just have to think on it some.”

*****

And so it was the pace in the camp settled down to normal again. The rift between Jess and Little Wolf was eventually healed and the chief just had to accept that whereas the two men would always be friends, close as brothers, they were fundamentally different and Jess would never be able to relinquish his freedom and follow the way of the people blindly and obediently.

On Jess’s part, he apologized to Running Deer, and later talking to Little Wolf said, “I’m real sorry about what happened and I wasn’t disrespectin’ your ways, or the way the Shaman works — and I guess maybe the power of the spirits he was callin’ may have cured Slim, I dunno. I do know that I just don’t have your faith, your beliefs and I couldn’t risk it…not when Slim’s life was at stake.”

“I understand Jess and I think maybe we have to just accept our differences and still be able to stay good friends,” and the two men shook hands and then hugged warmly.

On the positive side, Little Wolf had taken his friends advice and had started courting Natane fervently, and the couple where getting along well. He had been somewhat hesitant at first but things were soon progressing, albeit slowly, and Natane seemed happy. Or so Jess thought.

Very late one night, Jess awoke with one of the terrible nightmares about his prisoner of war camp days that he had occasionally. He sat up shaking and sweating and had to get out of the tepee for some fresh air. He left the tent quietly, so as not to disturb Slim, who was sleeping deeply, and he wandered out into the cold predawn light.

Shivering a little, he made his way over to the central camp fire and was just about to go and hunker down and get warm when he saw a movement and realized that he was not the only one abroad at this early hour.

He wandered over and saw Natane and her sister along with several other young women busily tending a pot over the fire. As he approached, however, the women all made an excuse to go, leaving just Natane stirring the rich brew in the cooking pot.

Jess grinned across at her and sat on the log watching her work for a moment. “Was it something I said?” he remarked tipping his head to where the giggling bunch of squaws were fast disappearing.

She beamed up at him from where she squatted by the fire. “Oh no, they have gone to collect mushrooms for breakfast; it is the best time to gather them.”

After a while she finished her cooking and came over to sit beside Jess and as she sidled up to him he had a slight feeling of Déjà vu.

Now she looked deep into his eyes,” I want to apologize,” she said softly.

“Oh…for what?”

“I think you know.”

He smiled and looked down before grinning across at her. “So you did use me….to make Little Wolf jealous.”

She nodded. “Not at first. I just wanted to see what it would be like …with a white man.”

Jess looked shocked to the core. “Er…be like?” he asked, trying to sound innocent.

She turned candid eyes upon him. Yes…kissing what kissing would be like. Sky used to tell us about you, how good you were at that…and other things…. “

“Other things?” Jess squeaked, feeling way beyond uncomfortable now.

She looked at him and then blushed a little. Oh not that, she never told us anything of your intimacy; she wouldn’t betray you that way,” she said, and now it was her turn to look shocked. “Anyway all of us girls were interested and then when you came back on the visit we wanted to discover more and….well I was elected to find out, what it was like, to kiss you that is.”

Jess shook his head in amazement. “Well, I’ll be…” Then quickly recovering he said, “Anyway, I guess Little Wolf is fixin’ you up as regards that  kinda thing now.”

Natane looked thoughtful for a while and then said softly, “He is very good at the courting since you spoke to him, he is kind and attentive but…. “

“But?”

“The kissing, Jess, I think he needs lessons in the kissing.”

“Whoa there,” exploded Jess, “We maybe blood brothers and real close an’ all, but Hell there is a limit…”

“Oh no… you miss understand me,” she said coming closer still and looking him in the eyes. “I thought maybe you could show me and then I could teach him.”

“Now hang on a minute, I don’t think…”

Natane licked her lips enticingly and looked down at Jess’s lips before glancing back up at him a look of naked desire in her eyes, and then she leaned forwards and gently brushed her lips against his.

The feeling was electric and Jess responded completely automatically, tenderly returning the kiss before taking her in his arms and kissing her more deeply and passionately.

After several minutes, he reluctantly withdrew, his heart pounding and pulses racing at the sensual exchange.

He looked down. “’m sorry,” he muttered. “I guess I’m outer order here.”

Natane was breathless and flushed her eyes glowing. “That was wonderful,” she whispered in her own tongue.

Jess wasn’t too sure what she had said, but from the look of her he figured she wasn’t about to slap his face anytime soon. He sat back throwing her a quizzical look. “You OK?”

She nodded. “oh yes…very OK,” then recovering her composure. “Thank you Jess; I think I will be able to show Little Wolf how it should be done now.”

Just then a faint giggle emanated from the nearby bushes and he was shocked to see a young woman hiding there, peeping out obviously watching the proceedings avidly, her friends keeping out of sight.

“What the…”said Jess looking profoundly embarrassed.

Natane turned twinkling eyes on the young cowboy. The others want to learn how to kiss that way too, Jess,” she said with her charming giggle.

Jess was totally lost for words for a moment, before leaping up from the log. “Hell, I ain’t kissin’ all that lot,” he said in horror and turning, hightailed it back to the safety of the tepee.

Years later when he recounted this tale to various friends, they were always amazed that Jess hadn’t taken the women up on their offer — Jess being Jess and not averse to a bit of lovin’.

But he always just shook his head and said. “You had to be there. There is somethin’ real worrin’ about a bunch of females gigglin’ and wantin’ you to kiss ‘em… somethin’ real worryin’.”

*****

Over the next few days, Jess avidly avoided Natane and the other young woman of the camp, although he caught one or two giving him a speculative look when he went and sat by the central fire for the main meal of the day, none of them approached him, much to his relief.

About a week after his encounter with Natane, he was sitting in the tepee with Slim enjoying a final coffee, before turning in, when Little Wolf called out to him.

Jess told him to come in, and a moment later Little Wolf appeared, holding Natane’s hand, both of them looking very pleased with themselves.

Little Wolf was flushed, his dark eyes sparkling, and Natane had a glow about her turning her from a very pretty young woman, to a beautiful one.

“I am sorry to disturb you so late, but I wanted you to be the first to hear brother. Natane and I are betrothed; we will be married at the end of the summer.”

Jess had sprung up to welcome them and now he reached across and pumped Little Wolf hand and slapped his back, before turning to Natane and kissing her in a brotherly way on  the cheek.

“Thank you,” she whispered undercover of the embrace. Taking advantage of Slim offering his congratulations to Little Wolf, she exchanged an intimate look with Jess,  “for everything.”

Jess flushed up, but just nodded and then the moment passed as the young couple left to tell Kusuma the happy news.

The following day after breakfast when the tribe went about their business Jess was just about to leave the camp fire when Natane put out a restraining hand. “Don’t go, Jess, I need to speak to you.”

Jess looked very uncomfortable. “Natane, I don’t think…”

“It’s alright, Jess; it’s not about that. It’s Asha.”

Jess’s head whipped up and he threw the squaw a concerned look. “She’s OK, ain’t she? She ate her breakfast…seemed fine to me.”

“She is fine, don’t worry. It’s just that Kusuma is worried that you will take Asha home with you leave and she didn’t want to say anything, to influence you, but she is so upset at the thought.”

Jess turned honest eyes on the young woman. “I’d thought about it yes….can’t see any other way. I figure Kusuma ain’t up to carin’ for her right now. I know the tribe will all look out for her, but it ain’t the same as havin’ your own Ma and Pa … and I guess I’m the closest thing to a Pa she’s got.”

“Yes you are, and she loves you very deeply…but she also loves her grandmother and her uncle and the freedom here. I think it would be very hard for her to try and adapt to the white man’s way of life. And she might be picked on because of her race, and so might you. I have not forgotten the beating you took standing up for the Arapaho people and neither has Little Wolf.”

Jess looked down, thinking hard. “But what else can I do Natane? I surely can’t stay here; it just wouldn’t work. I guess I’m too old and set in my ways to change now…”

“You do not have to, that is what I am trying to say. Little Wolf and I will adopt her, bring her up as our own; she would be treated with all the care and respect befitting a Chief’s daughter.” Then she turned beseeching eyes on the young cowboy. “Please let us do this for you, Jess…for Asha and for my dear friend’s memory. I think it is what Sky would have wanted. As long as you stay in her life, Jess, visit her and maybe she could visit with you too?”

“I dunno what to say,” said Jess breathing a deep sigh of relief and then grinning across at the earnest young woman. “Yes, yes thank you.”

And so it was decided. Asha was consulted and was delighted by the idea, especially if she could visit her dear Papa Jess regularly too, well, she thought she would have the best of both worlds and couldn’t contain her excitement. Especially when she was invited to stay at the ranch during the long school holidays, so that she could get to play with Mike as well as see her Papa.

And so it was arranged that Little Wolf would ride over with her in the summer and Jess would bring her home in time for Little Wolf and Natane’s wedding day.

Now it was the last day of their stay in the camp. Once Jess had started to care for Slim, he improved rapidly and although the broken arm would have to be splinted for another few weeks, he was feeling much better in himself and able to ride.

They were sitting around the camp fire after breakfast, Asha on Jess’s knee; now his departure was imminent, she had grown clingy and tearful.

Jess held the small girl close, her head resting on his chest as he gently rubbed her back, looking deep into the fire a bleak expression in his eyes.

Kusuma came and sat beside him and he looked up at her. “This is real hard for me,” he whispered.

Kusuma nodded and then said equally quietly. “Thank you for letting her stay with us, son; she will be well loved and looked after you know that.”

Jess nodded, but was unable to speak, a lump the size of Texas suddenly in his throat.

Slim looked across from where he was leading the horses over and immediately took in the situation and looking around, he saw Natane approaching him, Little Wolf behind her, coming to say their goodbyes.

Slim tipped his hat over to where his buddy still sat holding the child. “II think Jess could do with a hand,” he said.

Natane realized the predicament at once and breezing over leaned down to the little girl and said softly, “Papa Jess has to go now, Asha. Will you come up the mountain with Little Wolf and I so that we can look down on the plain and wave him off?”

The child hugged Jess tightly, before reluctantly sliding down from his lap and went off obediently, with Natane and Little Wolf both holding a hand.

As they went, Natane glance back and Jess mouthed ‘thank you’, and she nodded and bustled the little one off up the trail to the mountain.

Jess gave Kusuma a final hug before giving Slim a hand mounting and then sprang up on Traveler, and with one last smile at the elderly woman, he had come to think of as another Ma, he touched his hat and kicked Traveler off down the trail towards home.

About ten minutes later, the two cowboys found themselves down on the plain, the mountain and camp behind them, and reining in their mounts they were just able to make out the tiny figures of Little Wolf and Natane, with Asha standing between them, all waving madly. Jess took off his hat and waved back and then replacing it, he pulled it down hard and a look of determination in his deep blue eyes as he kicked Traveler on down the track.

They had been riding in silence for an hour when Slim looked over at his buddy. “You OK, Jess?”

“No… but I guess I will be, in time.”

“Sure and it’s not long to the school holidays.”

“Yeah, guess you’re right,” said Jess absently.

Then Slim looked over with a twinkle in his eye. “You know, I reckon you should have fitted in there real well.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, sure. Well you know what you were telling me about how the tribe treated everything with equal importance — the tribe, the animals, even the mountain and the rocks?”

“Sure, I said that”.

“Well there you are then. With all those rocks in your head, you should have fitted in real good.”

Jess considered this statement for a moment before the significance hit home, “Why you….” he yelled, and as Slim spurred Alamo off at speed, laughing, Jess kicked Traveler after him. “Just wait till I catch you,” he yelled….grinning as he planned his revenge on his best buddy.

***End***

Thanks for reading!

One thought on “Blood Brothers (by Patty W.)

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