Daisy’s Dilemma (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG  (Please note some adult themes, strong language and violence.)
Word Count:   35,185


 

Jess Harper was in love. His deep blue eyes sparkled as he looked at her moving so gracefully, her eyes alight with mischief as she tossed her head, casting a glance at the dark-haired cowboy as he leaned against the corral fence unable to take his eyes off her.

After a while, Slim Sherman, the tall blond rancher and Jess’s best buddy and partner in the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, wandered over and leaned on the fence beside his friend. “She’s way out of your league, buddy,” he said with a small grin, enjoying watching his friend’s enthusiasm but knowing it could come to nothing.

Jess ignored the comment and with his eyes still glued to his object of desire he gave a low whistle. “Just look at her go, Slim. Did you ever see such a great mover? Ain’t she the prettiest little thing you ever saw,” he asked now, tearing his eyes away and smiling up at his buddy.

“That’s as may be, Jess, but you still can’t afford her.”

“Well, we don’t know that do we? Hell, the auction ain’t even started yet, Slim.” He turned his eyes back to Snow Bird, the silver grey brood mare, as she shimmied around the corral, all eyes on her. Then, as if aware of her admiring audience, she played to the gallery, tossing her mane and gambolling around, showing off her long legs and perfect gait.

The mare had been bred by Dave Roberts, a friend and neighbor of Slim and Jess. He was now moving back East, hence; the sale of his ranch and stock.

Earlier Dave had expressed a wish that Jess was successful in the bid for the mare. “I sure hope you get her, Jess; she’d be a real asset to your breeding stock, you know, and I really don’t want old man Benson getting her. He knows about as much about horseflesh as the cat.”

Jess grinned at this, and then tipping his head towards his partner, he said, “It ain’t me that needs convincing; it’s ol’ Slim here. He reckons we can’t afford it out of the ranch money and I’ve got to stump up for her myself. He reckons she’ll not bring a big enough return.”

“Sure she will,” said Roberts with enthusiasm. “You get her covered by the right stallion and you’ll get your stake back in no time,” he said, giving Slim a serious look.

Then their attention was taken by the auctioneer mounting the platform and the bidding began.

As the figures rose in tens, the bidding got more and more competitive but finally there was just Jess and Benson left in the race, and then the fatal step, the bid was suddenly beyond Jess’s means. Hell, even if he sold his saddle, he’d not have enough, and despondently, he cast his eyes down and shook his head as the auctioneer gave him a questioning look.

Then the bid was there, just waiting for a nod of the head from Benson, and as it came, Jess knew it was all over.

Then as the bid was raised one more time, a hand from the back of the crowd waved in acknowledgement and the auctioneer turned to Benson seeing if he would continue, but the elderly man merely shook his head. “No, I’m all done,” he said regretfully.

Then the gavel hit the desk loudly. “Sold to the tall gentleman at the back.” As Jess turned, his eyes suddenly widened in shock. The mystery bidder was none other than Slim Sherman!

Jess pushed his way through the crowd until he reached his buddy. “Slim?”

Slim grinned across at his friend and then put his hands up in a gesture of submission. “Hey, I haven’t bought her, Jess. Just put the last bid in for you. I reckon I’ll pay that last bid and if you’re good for the rest, she’s all yours.”

Jess beamed across at him. “You won’t regret it, Slim, I promise. She’ll breed the best quarter miler you’ve ever seen. Hell, I’ve watched her race and she’s the fastest I’ve ever watched. Given the right stallion, I reckon we could breed the best damn quarter horse in Wyoming.”

“Hum, maybe. Well, let’s go pay for her, buddy, and we’d better get home for that dry bread and water we’ll be having for supper.”

“Huh?”

“Well you’ve just spent all our money, haven’t you, Jess? Figure its starvation rations from now on.”

“Aw, Slim, don’t. And anyways, as long as my horse gets her feed, guess I don’t care,” said a totally besotted young cowboy as he went off happily to claim his prize.

*****

When they arrived back at the ranch sometime later, Daisy Cooper, their middle-aged motherly housekeeper, came running out, drying her hands on her apron, closely followed by an excited young blond haired boy.

Mike was the youngster the ranchers had adopted a few years back after his parents had been killed in an Indian raid and was loved deeply by all at the ranch and relay.

Now Mike was beside himself with excitement as he viewed the latest addition to the family. “You got her, Jess, you really got her!” he cried in glee, bouncing up and down.

“Hey steady, Tiger,” said Jess, beaming down at the boy. “Don’t get her all spooked; these high bred horses tend to get a bit skittish around too much noise you know.”

“Sorry,” said the youngster, and calming down, he approached the animal and cast a professional eye over her, just as he had seen Slim and Jess do with horses in the past. “She’s sure got good lines,” he said, grinning at Slim.

The two ranchers exchanged an amused look at the youngster’s obvious attempt to copy the men he idolized.

Then Daisy came forwards, and very gently stroked the mare’s nose. “Well, I don’t know much about horses, but this one is very pretty,” she said smiling up at Jess. “So you had enough money then, dear?”

“Just about, thanks to old Hard Rock here,” Jess said, nodding towards his partner and using his nickname. “He bailed me out; sorta joint venture.”

“Well I’m very pleased and I’m just sorry I had no savings to give you, dear. I just don’t seem to mange to save much these days.”

“Heck Daisy, I wouldn’t have taken your money,” said Jess quickly. “And besides, you’d be able to save if you didn’t spoil us all rotten treating us to stuff.”

They all knew Daisy’s weakness was buying things for her ‘boys’ as she thought of all three. Be it sweets or comics for Mike or a new shirt or belt for the others, she was forever treating them.

“Well that’s what I like to do,” Daisy said now defending herself. “And you wouldn’t want to spoil a poor old lady’s fun, would you, Jess?”

“Old you?” Jess said, jumping down from Traveler, his beloved mount, and hugging her tightly. “And no, I wouldn’t change a thing about you, Daisy.”

Later that day when they were all sitting round the table for supper, the two men started making plans for Snow Bird.

“I figure I’ll ride her in the Quarter races over on the Cheyenne road next week,” said an excited Jess. “That way everyone will be able to see exactly what she can do and we might even make a few bucks if I win,” he said turning sparkling eyes to his partner.

“Well, don’t you go wearing her out or injuring her racing about the place,” said the ever-practical Slim. “Don’t forget she’s supposed to be a brood mare.”

“Well sure, Slim, but she’s got to be proven first. Once everyone sees what she can do, well, I figure they’ll be queuing up for her first foal and we can charge top dollar.”

“And don’t you go falling off,” said Daisy casting him an anxious look. “You’ve only just recovered from that nasty spill you had when you were breaking that dreadful Devil’s Friend,” she said, referring to a big black wild mustang Jess had been tipped off while attempting to break.

“Heck Daisy, I just fell badly, is all. I don’t usually get hurt that bad from a fall.”

“I know, dear, but just take it easy, that’s all.”

Jess just sighed and said nothing, and didn’t think it worth the effort to explain that if he took it that easy, he wouldn’t have a hope in hell of winning the race.

Slim cast him a sympathetic look , knowing how Daisy’s occasional fussing drove his buddy crazy, and quickly changed the subject so the rest of the meal was spent in discussing Mike’s planned vacation with a school friend’s family over the summer.

So life went on at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station at its usual brisk pace.

Jess entered the new mare in the Quarter mile race the following Saturday afternoon, and to everyone’s delight, he won it by a good three lengths. As he had predicted, the locals were all clamoring for first refusal of her foal when it arrived.

Mike was practically hoarse from cheering Jess on, and Slim had to eat his words realizing what a good investment the horse was.

“So when’s the foal due?” asked Mike innocently at breakfast a few days later.

“Well she ain’t been covered yet,” said Jess, “and we ain’t even decided which stallion to use.”

Daisy coughed discretely. “Er, I don’t think this is really suitable table conversation, dear,” she said, raising an eyebrow at Jess and gesturing to Mike.

“Oh it’s OK, Daisy, he knows all about that kinda stuff,” said Jess quickly, and then intercepting a look from Slim, added quietly, “Yeah….sorry.” Casting his eyes down, he then turned back to Mike. “Er, we’ll discuss this later, Tiger; guess it’s more yard talk.”

“Like cussin’?” asked Mike, looking eagerly into his hero’s face. “You know, Jess, like when you get real mad when a bronc’s tipped you off and you say those real bad words and then you say that’s just yard talk not for in front of Aunt Daisy?”

“Umm… yeah, sorta like that, Tiger,” said Jess, flushing and quickly excusing himself, saying he’d heard the  early morning stage rolling in.

“Come on, Mike, get a wriggle on,” said Slim, smiling at the youngster. “Last week of school and you don’t want to be late for Miss Taylor.”

Mike adored his pretty young teacher and ran to grab his bag before catching the Stage.

Mose was just about to hustle the team out of the yard once the horses had been changed and the youngster on board, when he suddenly stopped and started patting his pockets before triumphantly producing a rather battered envelope from his vest pocked and leaning down he handed it to Jess. “I’ll forget my head next,” he laughed. “Give that to Miss Daisy, will you, Jess; address is Denver,” he said with a question mark in his voice.

“Thanks, Mose,” said Jess in a  deadpan way, knowing how nosy the old stage driver was and would be there another ten minutes interrogating the cowboys about  the possible source of the letter if he was encouraged.

Once Mose had given up, then left the yard in a swirl of dust, the Jess and Slim exchanged a grin and went back to the breakfast table for a final coffee before starting work.

“Letter for you, Daisy,” said Jess as they entered the ranch house and passed it across the table where she was sitting enjoying a last break before starting on washing day.

“Thank you, dear,” she replied, smiling up at the dark haired cowboy, before taking the letter and opening it.

Both men watched her face as it turned from being pleasantly interested to consternation, and then she quickly put it in her apron pocket and rose to start clearing the table.

Jess looked at Slim and then up at their beloved housekeeper. “Hey Daisy, you OK? Bad news?” he asked softly.

“No… no,” she answered quickly. “Nothing to worry about. Er, just a note from an old friend.” And with that, she bustled off into the kitchen and the men retired to the yard.

“What do you make of that?” asked Jess. “She looked kinda upset.”

Slim shook his head. “Yeah, but whatever it is, she doesn’t want us to know, buddy, and I guess we have to respect that.”

Jess just nodded and then they went about the jobs of the day and the morning’s little trauma was soon forgotten.

If Daisy had seemed a little withdrawn and quiet over the next week, neither rancher noticed as all their attention was focused on Snow Bird.

A neighbor’s prime stallion had been brought in  to cover the mare as she came into season and  both men spent all their time  checking on  the progress of the ‘romance of the century’, as Jess had dubbed it.

Then suddenly everything changed.

As far as they knew, Snow Bird would be looking forwards to a happy event the following May and then Mike was shipped off to the East Coast for the holiday of a lifetime with his best buddy and his parents.

The ranch suddenly seemed very quiet without his constant chatter and lively ways.

As the summer sun beat down, all at the ranch seemed slightly downcast and everything was suddenly very somnolent after the hustle and bustle of the previous weeks.

Then about a week after Mike had gone off on his trip, the men returned from checking the ranch fences to a deserted house.

They were hot, tired and hungry after working in the exhausting sun all day long.

After tending their mounts, they wandered over to the outdoor wash house. They had a good swill in cold water to remove the grime and freshen up some before entering the house expecting to smell the aroma of a tasty supper cooking.

However, both men stopped in their tracks as they entered and took in the silence and emptiness of the place.

“Daisy!” yelled Jess and then he went and tapped on her door, while Slim explored the kitchen.

Jess finding the room empty went into the kitchen and found Slim sitting at the table reading a note.

“What’s going on, pard?” asked Jess. “She gone shoppin’ in town…or no…don’t tell me — Ma Patterson is havin’ another and needs Daisy at the birth again?” he said with a grin.

But Slim didn’t return the smile, merely passed the note over and giving his friend a bleak look said, “She’s gone.”

“Huh?”

“Just read it, Jess.”

 

‘My Dear Boys,

By the time you read this, I will have left the ranch and Laramie for the foreseeable future, maybe forever. I cannot begin to tell you how distressed this makes me feel and if there were any other course of action, you know I would take it.

 Please explain to Mike for me and I hope you will find a suitable replacement before he returns home to help ease the blow…someone kind and motherly if possible.

I love all three of you like you were my own flesh and blood, but I think you know that already, and I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me for this desertion.

I am so sorry,

With all my love,

Daisy. 

 

Jess read it through twice and then turned anguished eyes on his buddy. “What’s she talkin’ about, Slim? Ain’t nothin’ so bad as we can’t work it out.”

Slim shook his head. “You know Daisy; she’s real smart, and if she couldn’t see a way out of this problem, whatever it is, then I guess there isn’t one.”

“So what’re you’re sayin’ we just let her waltz off and hire another housekeeper just like that? Hell Slim, she ain’t hired help; she’s family!” Jess exploded angrily.

“Don’t you think I know that, Jess? It isn’t just you that has got feelings for Daisy, you know,” Slim said, equally angrily. “But you read what she said; it looks like she doesn’t want us to follow her.”

“I don’t give a damn what she says,” said Jess aggressively. “I’m gonna find her and sort this out, even if you ain’t, Slim.”

“I didn’t say that. Just that it’s going to be kind of hard, is all,” said Slim patiently. “And we’re not going to get anywhere arguing this way. I figure Daisy wouldn’t want it either.”

Jess looked down and took several deep breaths before looking up at his buddy. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, Slim,” he said softly. “Let’s just figure out how we can best help her. “

They were still  sitting  discussing the matter later that evening out on the porch, with a glass of whiskey apiece when they were suddenly alerted to  someone riding in at a  real fast  pace and both tensed until they saw their old friend Mort Corey, the Laramie Sheriff.

Mort rode in briskly, and after a few minutes, tethered his buckskin to the corral fence and wandered over, accepting Jess’s seat on the porch and a welcome glass of whiskey.

“So what brings you by this time of night?”asked Jess, giving him a keen look from where he now stood relaxing against the porch railing.

Mort looked down, and it was plain that he didn’t want to enter into the easy-going banter he usually had with his friends. “Well I just thought you should know I met Miss Daisy in town today. Oh, she did her best to give me a wide berth, but a lady riding alone that way, and then with it being Daisy, well, sure, I was going to be asking questions.”

“And?” said Jess belligerently.

Mort cast him a look and knew he was hurting so ignored the brusque tone. “And… she was very upset, not like Miss Daisy at all, real upset she was, but point blank refused to talk about it. And then when I handed her up into the stage, she looked me in the eye and said, ‘Thank you, Mort’, and then, ‘Look after my boys’.”

Jess and Slim looked down at this, obviously moved.

“Well, I thought it was a kinda odd thing to say. Then after she’d gone, I checked her ticket with the stage office, and it was all the way to Denver, not Cheyenne to visit her sister like she’d told me. So I reckoned I’d check with you,” he finished quietly.

“And we really appreciate it, Mort,” said Slim, rallying first. “I guess we’ve been kind of busy lately and didn’t see she wasn’t herself.”

Jess just hung his head, obviously really upset, and he didn’t move until Mort got up to go. Then he said, “Thanks, Mort, I really appreciate you ridin’ over.”

The Sheriff turned back then. “I figure neither of you could have seen this coming. Guess it’s somethin’ real big to affect Miss Daisy this way.”

Slim nodded. “Guess you’re right, Mort, and I figure we’ll sort it out.” Then as Mort rode out, he turned back to Jess. “But how do we do it, buddy?” he asked, looking worried sick. “Where do we start?”

Jess slumped back down in his seat then after replenishing his glass and taking a sip he turned back to Slim and said, “Well, Denver, I guess.”

“That’s a big place, Jess, and I reckon if she doesn’t want to be found, well then, she won’t be.”

Jess tipped his hat back and considered this. “What do you think can be so darned important that she’d ship out this way Slim?”

“I don’t know; something to do with that letter she got from Denver, I guess.”

“Oh yeah.” Jess leapt up and disappeared into the house, returning five minutes later with the battered envelope.

Slim looked shocked. “Have you been in her room?” Then as Jess started opening the envelope, Slim cut in again. “Hell Jess, you can’t read her personal mail.”

Jess gave him a dark look. “Sure I can. How else am I gonna find out where she’s stayin’?”

Slim merely shook his head in bewilderment.

“Hey looky here, Slim, it’s addressed to Daisy Cooper, Sherman, near Laramie, Wyoming. Remember when Daisy landed here and she had those false deeds for a shop in Sherman and got real upset when we said Sherman wasn’t a town but a small Relay?”

Slim nodded. “So it’s someone who thinks she owns a business in Sherman.”

“Looks that way.” Jess opened the letter and started reading; he glanced down to the signature at the bottom of the page. “From someone called Flora McDonald, claiming to be Daisy’s Goddaughter.”

“Why claiming?”

“Well, stands to reason, Slim; if she was that close to Daisy, surely she’d know Daisy was housekeeper at a Relay, not livin’ somewhere called Sherman.”

Slim nodded and then in a resigned voice said, “Ok what does she say, buddy?”

Jess read on and then gave a low whistle. “Looks like she’s pregnant and askin’ Daisy to move out to Denver to care for her; says her health is real bad and she’s destitute. Can’t afford to see the doc, needs special medicines or she’ll lose the baby.” Then he passed the note over for Slim to read for himself.

After a while, Jess shook his head and said, “Why didn’t she just say somthin’, Slim? We’d have pitched in and helped. Why didn’t she say?”

Slim shook his head. “I don’t know — pride, I suspect. You know what a lady Daisy is, and to have this girl pregnant out of wedlock, well, I guess she’d feel real embarrassed.”

“Hell, she needn’t. We’re both men of the world; these things happen.”

“And maybe she thought we’d offer to help her out financially; we know she’s pretty much broke.”

Jess shook his head sadly. “So are we…and yeah, of course, it’s the first thing I’d have said. This girl must mean a hell of a lot to her for her to go waltzing off that way, without a backward glance, leavin’ Mike…”

“I think I remember Daisy talking about her once,” said Slim suddenly. “Little Flora was the daughter of her best friend, and when she died, Daisy looked after her when her Pa was real sick until he recovered. Then they moved away and lost touch. I know Daisy was real upset about it, tried to find the girl, but no luck.”

“I don’t remember any of that.”

“Well it all happened when you were on that cattle drive to Texas. She sent a letter to the old address and it was returned, and after that she drew a blank. She used to get so upset that she asked me not to mention it again. Guess I’d forgotten all about it until now.”

“Better late than never,” muttered Jess wryly. “I just wish we could help some way, but we ain’t got the cash unless…” Then he stood up and strode over to the corral and watched as Snow Bird stood taking her ease.

Slim came up behind him. “You’re not thinking of doing something crazy, are you, Jess?”

Jess continued to stare at his horse and then turning back to Slim. “She’s all I’ve got that’s worth anything. I’d get real good money for her Slim, especially now she’s in foal.”

“Buddy, you can’t; you love that horse.”

Jess just looked down and said quietly, “Yeah, but it’s for Daisy, Slim; I can’t let her down.”

“OK, but don’t go rushing into anything. We need to find out more, discuss it with Daisy first. Maybe she could bring the girl back here to live?”

Jess brightened considerably. “I’d better go find her then.”

*****

The following morning, Jess made plans to take the stage to Denver as soon as possible.

“Are you sure you’ll be OK?” he asked Slim that night as they were finishing supper, a very frugal meal and not at all up to Daisy’s standards.

“Well sure, buddy; at least I won’t have to put up with your cooking,” said Slim with a friendly grin. Then more seriously, he added, “And anyway, it’s a quiet time of year and I figure I can always get a neighbor to come in and lend a hand if I get stuck.”

“Yeah well, we did toss for it, and anyway, I guess I’m good at gettin’ round ol’ Daisy. Figure I can talk her out of stayin’ away; I’ll just put that wounded puppy dog look on — she can never resist that,” he said with a grin.

So a couple of days later, Jess, dressed in his Sunday best frock coat, dark britches,  highly polished boots and Sunday best Stetson set off  for the long journey to Denver.

The stage had swung into the yard and he was just about to climb on board when Slim had a quiet word with him. “You will be sensitive to the issues here, won’t you, buddy. Don’t go in all guns blazing, upsetting this Flora, huh? “

“What do you take me for, Slim? Sure, I know it’s a kinda delicate matter, but we’ve gotta do something to make Daisy see sense. She just needs talkin’ to — and this Flora too I guess.”

“Umm, that’s what’s worrying me,” said Slim. “Just don’t go losing your temper with the girl, OK? I figure she wouldn’t have begged Daisy to go all that way if she hadn’t been really desperate.”

“Sure, sure quit worrying.” With that, Jess threw his valise up on the top of the coach and swung up onto the box beside Mose. Then grinning over at the old-timer, he said, “One of the perks of being a Relay worker is free travel, you know, Mose? So I might as well have a good view too!”

“Umm,” said Mose. Then pushing a gun into his friend’s hands, he said, “Well, if you’re here for the ride, you might as well make yourself useful and ride shotgun, ‘cos there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, boy.”

Jess grinned and shook his head as he looked down at Slim. “Might have known there’d be a catch,” he said, laughing and resting the shotgun across his knees. “Come on then, Mose, let’s get goin’.” And with that, the Stage swung out of the yard, with Jess giving a little salute and a cheerful “See you, buddy,” as he left.

*****

When they finally arrived in Denver, Jess was pretty bushed and decided to book into the nearest hotel and start his search for Daisy the following morning. It was already late, and by the time he’d found the place, he figured she would have already turned in for the night. The address on the letter had been of a boarding house at the less salubrious end of town and Jess just hoped that Daisy was OK. With that worrying thought, he finally turned in himself.

Jess was up early the next day, and after a quick breakfast, made his way to the address on the letter Daisy had received from her Goddaughter. As he neared the place, leaving the bustle of the main town, he was aware of the acute poverty all around him; youngsters stopped in their play and watched him with huge sad eyes, their ragged clothes and dirty faces a testimony as to how they lived.

Watching them, Jess felt a stab of pity, being only too well aware of what it meant to have that kind of upbringing. Any one of those little urchins with the seat out of their pants and runny noses could have been Jess as a child growing up in the panhandle of Texas, and he understood their plight completely.

There were also many young men drifting about the streets in a vaguely menacing way, ready to chance their arm with any vulnerable stranger. However, Jess was street-wise and he met their belligerent stares with a scowl that made them at once drift back into the shadows, somehow knowing instinctively that this was not a man to be messed with.

Jess arrived at the boarding house and looked up at the weathered exterior and peeling paint on the front door. Taking a deep breath, he rapped loudly and waited…and waited.

He continued to bang on the door and yell up at the curtain-less blank widows until finally the door was reluctantly dragged open, revealing a fat unshaven man wearing denims and a grubby undershirt. He squinted at Jess through the smoke of a cigarette that hung from the corner of his slack mouth. “Well?” he asked irritably.

Jess fixed him with a jaundiced eye. “I wanna see a Miss Flora McDonald and her visitor, Mrs. Cooper,” he said gruffly.

The man made to shut the door. “Ain’t here,” he said morosely.

But Jess was too quick for him and placed his boot in the doorway, jamming it open. “Look Mister, I’ve come one hell of a way to see them, so where have they gone and when will they be back?”

The man just looked across at him and sniffed, “Couldn’t say.”

Jess’s temper was never at its best in the mornings. He felt himself getting well on the way to the jumping off place, and grabbing the obnoxious man’s filthy undershirt. He pulled him close and said in a menacingly low voice, “Well, friend, unless you’re wanting to see your head parting company from your shoulders, I reckon you’d better get thinkin’ real quick.”

The man looked somewhat shocked at the sudden turn of events and then said, “Well Miss Flora and Chas went out early last night, not long after the ruckus, and then the lady left.”

“What ruckus, what lady?”

“The one you were askin’ for, Mrs. Cooper. She came a visiting and then I heard Chas yellin’ at her and then she cried out. I figure he’d lashed out at her…”

“What!” yelled Jess, the grip on the landlord’s shirt getting tighter, as he gasped in anger. “He hit an old woman?”

The man just nodded. “Par for the course for ol’ Chas; knocks Miss Flora about all the time.”

“So where is this bastard?” growled Jess

“Dunno. The old dear coughed up with some cash, so he’ll be in the gambling hall, but couldn’t say which one, Mister. So many to choose from — just take your pick.”

“And Daisy — Mrs. Cooper — do you know where she went?”

“No.” The man shook his head. Then seeing the light of battle in Jess’s eyes said, “I swear, Mister, I really don’t know. She was up in their room after they left and then I figure she let herself out sometime later. I never saw her leave, but I heard the door bang.”

Jess gave him a hard look. “If I find out you’ve been lyin’, you’ll be real sorry,” he spat.

“OK Mister, I ain’t lyin’!”

Jess merely grunted. “If Mrs. Cooper comes back, you tell her Jess Harper is stayin’ at the Villa Park Hotel — and I ain’t goin’ nowhere until I’ve seen her. You got that?”

The man nodded. “Sure, sure, Mister Harper.”

Jess relinquished his hold on the shirt and pushed the man roughly away. “Good,” he said quietly before turning and marching away down the street, watched by the landlord who was rubbing his chest thoughtfully and looking far from happy.

Jess’s next port of call was the Denver Sheriff, as he figured if Daisy really had been assaulted then maybe she had reported the offense. He stood outside the Sheriff’s office, which was situated right opposite his hotel, and took a deep breath, not relishing the next few minutes, renewing his acquaintance with the elderly Sheriff.

The last time Jess had been to Denver, he had got himself into a spot of bother regarding a saloon girl and a fist fight that somewhat rearranged the furniture in the saloon down the street. He had spent some time in the Sheriff’s company on the wrong side of a cell door. However, that had been several years ago, and so hoping the incident had been forgiven and forgotten, he entered the office with a hesitant smile on his face.

As it happened he was pleasantly surprised to see a complete stranger wearing the Sheriff’s badge sitting at an old desk perusing wanted posters.

As Jess entered, the friendly looking middle-aged man looked up and said, “Howdy, Mister, can I help you?”

Jess returned the smile, “Well, I sure hope so. I’m lookin’ for an elderly lady, sort of so high,” he said gesturing. “Gray hair and eyes, real smart dressed and probably wearing a hat with loads of flowers…and…”

“Ah, Mrs. Cooper,” the Sheriff said at once. “And you must be Jess Harper?”

“Huh?”

“I got a wire from Mort Corey just this morning, saying as how you’d be coming this way looking for the good lady. Said you were a top man and as how I should help you all I can.”

“Well, thanks. So Daisy was here?”

The other suddenly sobered. “That she was and in a sorry state too. Been hit by that no good Chas Bennet — and when I catch up with him…” the Sheriff said, shaking his head and looking furious.

Jess sank down into the chair opposite, his legs suddenly collapsing beneath him. He had gone very pale and peering at the lawman said, “So she was hurt bad?”

“No, no not too badly, but I just hate to see and older woman hurt. Anyway she called in last night to report the assault and also to say her Goddaughter had been held against her wishes by this guy and forced to commit fraud. Well, I saw her to her hotel room and then went straight after the low life, but he’d gone to ground. Anyways, don’t you worry, Jess, I’ll have him sooner or later. And if you catch up with him first, you have my authority to arrest him, using whatever force is needed”, he said, giving Jess a sly wink. “I guess this is one time I will be turning a blind eye; that no-hoper deserves all he gets.”

“So where is Miss Daisy staying?” asked Jess after he had thanked the Sheriff for his understanding in the matter.

“Just across the street, Villa Park. You know it?”

Jess couldn’t believe his luck, and jumping up he said, “Thanks, Sheriff, I’ll be in touch.” At the door, he turned, “What happened to the other Sheriff, an old guy, kinda ornery?”

“Oh, he retired a few years back.”

Jess just nodded. Thanks,” he said and ran across the street.

Jess strode up to the reception desk and said, “Could you tell me what room Mrs. Daisy Cooper is in, please?”

The clerk gave him a small smile. “Certainly, sir — room 109.”

“Thanks,” and Jess turned on heel.

“Sir…?”

“Yeah?”

“She isn’t in, went out a little while ago.”

Jess turned back, his heart missing a beat. “You know where? “

“I’m sorry, sir; she didn’t say.”

Jess felt wretched, so darned near and now what…

He swung back and was just leaving to search the town when he bumped into someone pushing her way back in through the front door. Standing back, he stared, his face a mask of shock as he looked into the kind old face of Daisy Cooper, sporting a black eye and nasty bruise to her cheek. “Daisy,” he whispered gaping at her, “what in hell happened?”

Daisy stared back at him, like she couldn’t believe her eyes and then…. “Jess?” she whispered, “oh, Jess,” and throwing herself into his arms, she started weeping softly.

He held her close, and then after a minute, he helped her through into the hotel lounge. Sitting her down on a sofa, he sat next to her, a comforting arm around her shoulders, talking softly to calm her down; when a waiter, he appeared he ordered two brandies.

Once the drinks had arrived, Jess encouraged her to take a good sip, then sat back and studied her closely before running ran a finger gently down the bruised cheek.

“Tell me what happened,” Jess said, trying to keep his voice steady, although  he was feeling so mad he was having difficulty keeping control.

Daisy was only too aware of his feelings, how protective he was of her and young Mike, how upset he was now. She gave a deep sigh.

Jess had explained that he had read Flora’s letter, and looking sheepishly at the elderly woman, said, “I’m real sorry, Daisy, but we had to find out where you’d gone and why.”

She nodded. “I quite understand, and can you and Slim ever forgive me for taking off that way?”

“Sure. Guess you had good cause with Flora being…well in trouble.”

Now it was Daisy’s turn to look embarrassed. “That was all a tissue of lies,” she said quietly. “Chas forged her handwriting and wrote that letter, thinking I was a rich business woman. He thought he would be able to sponge off me once he got me here. Flora is absolutely terrified of him.” Then she put a hand to her cheek. “He hits her too, Jess; it’s dreadful and she looks so fragile and ill. She is hardly the same girl I knew back East.”

Jess tensed. “Do you know where he is?”

She shook her head. “He lost his temper when he discovered what little money I had. That’s when he lashed out at me; then he started laying into Flora. Well, I had already paid for my hotel room and I had a little money left, so I gave it to him, knowing that he would leave Flora alone. That did the trick; he took off for a gambling house, dragging the poor girl with him. I waited a while, and then once the coast was clear, I went and found that nice Sheriff Rogers, but he couldn’t find either of them. Oh Jess, I am so worried about her.”

“It’s OK, Daisy,” he said gently. “I’ll find the bast… I’ll find him and bring Flora back here. I want you to stay up in your room until I get back.”

“Oh Jess, will you be alright? He’s a dreadful man, so menacing. He terrified me.”

Jess shook his head and swallowed deeply, unable to answer for a minute and then he said gruffly, “Oh yeah, I’ll be just fine, Daisy. You don’t have to worry about me.”

“Jess, don’t go doing anything you’ll regret,” Daisy said suddenly getting his drift. It’s not worth getting yourself in trouble.”

“Hush,” he said gently. “It may take some time to find him. How long are you booked in for?”

“Another three days.”

“That should be long enough.” Then Jess took out his wallet and produced some notes and passed them across.

“Oh no, I couldn’t.”

“Daisy, take it, for meals and the like, but don’t go out. Stay here where it’s safe until I come for you, OK?”

She nodded and shortly afterwards he left.

Jess kept an eye on the boarding house and also did a tour of all the gambling establishments in town, but as the Sheriff had surmised, it really looked like the couple had gone to earth. It was late evening on the second day before Jess finally got his quarry in his sights.

He had again wandered round some of the low dives in the poorer end of town, and he finally got wind that the couple had been holed up at a friend’s place on the outskirts of town as the Sheriff was on the lookout for them. Jess had then merely posed as an old friend of Chas’ and was informed that the couple could be found back at the boarding house prior to leaving the area for good, if he went around later that night.

It had taken Jess nearly a bottle of Red Eye and plenty of patience to finally extract this information from some of Chas’s gambling buddies, but he was well able to look the part of a fellow gambler and knew his way around a gaming table; it was only a matter of time before he gained the other men’s confidence.

Jess waited until quite late and then rapped on the boarding house door, which was again opened by the rough-looking landlord.

“You again,” he spat, but Jess was in no mood for his lip. Drawing his Colt, he thrust it under the man’s jaw.

Then Jess said menacingly, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll just tell me the room number and let yourself quietly out the back door, because you don’t wanna be around right now, trust me on that.”

The man looked like he would object, and then as Jess thrust the gun harder into the delicate flesh under his chin, he had second thoughts. “Room five, top of the stairs,” he said before turning and leaving by the back as Jess had suggested.

Jess ran lightly up the stairs, the anger that he had been feeling since he saw Daisy’s poor bruised face suddenly boiling over as he kicked the door open, his gun drawn. Staring at the scene before him, he snarled, “So you’re the son of a bitch that enjoys beating up women. Well, let’s see as how you fair with me!”

Bennett was a big blond haired man with classic good looks, a head taller and maybe a couple of pounds heavier than Jess. But that didn’t deter the young cowboy any as he holstered his gun and glared at him.

Bennett was just in the process of removing his shirt before retiring and he stared in horror at this apparent mad man who had just barged his way in.

Jess glanced across to the dressing table where a very slim, dark haired, beautiful woman sat brushing her hair. But as Jess had slammed into the room, her hand and brush were suspended in mid-air and she now stared at him in the mirror with a look of shock.

“Who in hell…?” started Bennett.

“Harper, Jess Harper, and a very good friend of Mrs. Daisy Cooper, the elderly lady you slapped about.” And then without further ado, Jess advanced on him and landed a punch to the jaw which sent the taller man sprawling across the bed that dominated the untidy room.

Quick as a flash, Jess strode across to the big man, and grabbing him up by the shirt, he rained vicious blows to the man’s head and body. Although the man struggled to retaliate, the fight was over almost before it had begun, such was Jess’s fury.

Jess never knew just how far he would have gone if Flora hadn’t suddenly come to her senses and grabbed at him, screaming, “No please stop, you’ll kill him and it just isn’t worth it — please!”

Something in her desperate tone seemed to finally get through to the dark, dark place where Jess was, and he slowly relented. Giving his victim one last kick, he stood there shaking and sweating before finally turning to look at the young woman properly.

She was very slight and fragile looking, with long dark hair and huge, deep brown eyes giving her the look of a startled fawn. Jess was at once captivated.

“You Ok?” Jess asked softly, running a hand through his unruly hair before stooping to pick up his hat from the floor and replacing it firmly, casting her a questioning look.

“Yes… I think so. But Aunt Daisy…is she alright, Mr. Harper? I was so worried.”

 “Jess. And yeah, she’s fine now. Don’t worry; she’s holed up at my hotel. We’ll drop this low- life off at the Sheriff’s office and then go find her.” With that, he walked across to the nightstand, and lifting up a pitcher of cold water, threw it unceremoniously over his victim, who after a moment came to, coughing and spluttering.

“What the….?”

“Shut up, Bennett,” said Jess, dragging him to his feet, turning him around and pushing his gun hard into the small of the man’s back. “Just walk nice and easy over to the Sheriff’s office with me and I’ll try and remember this young lady has asked me not to kill you, OK?”

Bennett mumbled something incomprehensive and nodded, shuffling forwards as Jess gave him a rough push towards the door.

Once the prisoner was safely locked up, Jess and Flora made their way across the street. On entering the hotel lobby, they saw Daisy sitting in the lounge, her eyes glued to the front door; her eyes lit up as she saw the young couple walk in.

Running over, Daisy embraced them both. “Oh thank goodness you’re safe, dear,” she said hugging Flora to her. Then looking up at Jess, her old eyes filled with tears. “Thank you so much, Jess,” she whispered.

Once they were all sitting comfortably in the lounge with a coffee apiece, Jess turned to Flora and said, “Are you gonna tell us what all this is about, the bogus letter and all?” he asked, still somewhat aggrieved at the way Daisy had been duped.

“Oh Jess dear, don’t be too hard on the girl; I’m sure she didn’t mean any harm to come to me.”

Flora put a gentle hand on her aunt’s knee to silence her. “No, Aunt Daisy, Jess is quite right. I owe you both an explanation… and some of this sorry mess is all my fault. I have been awfully silly, I’m afraid.” Then taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders she started telling them the story.

“I am just so sorry we lost touch,” said the girl looking over at Daisy. “And if I’d had a good dose of your common sense, maybe this would never have happened,” she said sighing.

“Go on,” said Jess softly, giving her an encouraging look.

She gave him a small smile and then started again. “Well my dear Pa died about two years ago. We had a business back East, Daisy. but we’d moved from our hometown and that was when I lost your address, in Sherman.” Daisy and Jess exchanged a smile, but not wanting to halt the tale again said nothing.

“Anyway, Chas worked for Pa as a clerk, and as soon I saw him, I think I fell for him. He was so handsome…” She looked sadly down and then continued. “Pa was in the business of buying and selling stock abroad, back to the old country, as you know, Daisy, and before too long, Chas had made himself indispensable, taking on more and more of the work when Pa became sick.”

Then she turned despairing eyes on her Godmother. “After Pa died, I was inconsolable and so frightened, didn’t know where to turn, all my kin being back in Scotland. And so when Chas proposed, it seemed the sensible thing to do…and I thought I loved him, I really did.”

She swallowed hard before continuing. “As soon as we were married and he had control of the business, everything changed. He started taking large sums of money out of the business and gambling it away, often staying out all night and ignoring me. Well, the business was already failing and I didn’t know it then, but he was a professional forger and he had been writing bogus letters, pretending to be Pa, for months, removing vast sums of money from the business accounts.”

Then turning anxious eyes on Daisy, she said. “That was how he was able to dupe you. He forged that letter from me; the first I knew about it was when you arrived. It was just fate that I had met an old friend of yours and she said she believed you had moved to Sherman in Wyoming to set up a good size retail business similar to the one your husband ran back East. Well, Chas was with me and must have taken everything in and written the letter shortly afterwards.”

Daisy looked shocked, a hand shooting to her mouth. “Oh my,” she gasped.

“Well, as I say the business was failing and we were finally bankrupt, and all the time, things got worse and worse between us, and that was when he started hitting me,” Flora whispered, looking down embarrassed. “And some days refusing to let me eat too.”

“Hell,” said Jess flushing with anger, “why didn’t you just walk out?”

Flora shook her head. “I had no money, nowhere to go…and I loved him, Jess. At first I thought I could change him, make things better,” she whispered, her eyes suddenly filling with tears.

Daisy took her hand. “It’s alright, dear, I understand.” She threw Jess a look as though to say back off.

“I’m just mad on her behalf, is all,” Jess said quietly.

“Yes I know dear, but you’re not helping,” said Daisy, not unkindly.

Jess just nodded and said, “So what happened then?”

“Well, as you say, I did think of leaving; in fact, I did escape twice, but he caught me and the beating I got… Well, I was just terrified to try it again, and then when dear aunt Daisy arrived, I couldn’t believe it. At first, Chas went on with the act, saying I was sick, but I wouldn’t let him fool aunt Daisy that way and that’s when I defied him. He hit me, and then when Daisy came to help me, he struck her too.”

Jess just looked pale and very angry, but he controlled himself and said nothing more.

“Then he took the money out of her bag and frog- marched me out of the boarding house, leaving poor Daisy there. He said if I didn’t do exactly what he wanted, well, he’d go back and finish the job,” Flora whispered, the tears again coursing down her cheeks.

“Oh, Aunt,” Flora cried, “What is to become of me? I’m so scared…and once he gets out of jail, I just don’t know what he’ll do.”

This time Jess felt he had to say something and taking her hand to get her undivided attention, said quietly, “Me and Slim, my partner, have talked and we reckon we’d like you to come back home with Daisy — and you’re welcome to stay as long as you want, Flora,” he said, glancing over to included Daisy in his little speech.

This time it was the older woman’s turn to get emotional. Oh my dears, and after I left you that way… I don’t deserve you, boys, I really don’t.”

“Come on Daisy,” Jess said softly, “You didn’t really think we’d give up on you just like that, did you?”

She just shook her head unable to speak.

“Hell, you’ve never given up on me, have you? All the trouble I’ve brought home…”

She gave him a watery smile and patted his arm. “You and your troubles; you know I wouldn’t care what troubles you brought to my door. I care about you, with or without them, and I…I just don’t know how I managed to leave you, Slim and little Mike, but I was so scared for Flora,” she said, giving Jess an agonized look.

Then Daisy went on. “She was like a daughter to me when she was little. She needed me, you see.”

 Then the two women exchanged a loving smile and looked like they would start crying again.

Jess had had about enough tears for one night, and getting up, said lightly, “Guess we all need an early night if we’re to head home tomorrow,” Shortly afterwards, the women retired for the  night, leaving Jess to enjoy a final glass of whiskey in the saloon down the street.

He was just sipping the last of his drink when a warm arm was slung around his shoulders.

“Howdy, Jess; just thought I’d buy you a drink to say thanks for bringing in that low-life Bennett for me,” said Sheriff Ben Smith, smiling down into Jess’s eyes.

Jess grinned back. “Well, I don’t mind if I do, thanks, Sheriff, and that was a real pleasure. Just hope you can keep him for a while, let his poor wife get out of town,” he said as the Sheriff gestured to the barkeep for two more whiskies.

“Oh yes, don’t you worry. With the statement Mrs. Cooper made, I reckon there is enough to keep him in jail for a good few weeks.”

“What about Flora?” asked Jess looking puzzled. “Hell, he’s done far worse to her since they were Wed.”

“Don’t I know it, but the woman just won’t testify against him. Says they married for better or worse.”

“And so that gives him free rein to use her as a punch bag?” spat Jess. “Hell, women, eh. Guess I’ll never understand ‘em.”

“You and me both, buddy and I’ve been married to one nigh on ten years,” The men chuckled and raised their glasses.

*****

The following morning, it was a rather subdued hung-over Jess who joined the two ladies at the breakfast table, and he just asked for a black coffee when the waitress arrived.

After a while, Daisy went off to pack, hiding a little smile knowing why Jess was so quiet — a mixture of a good night out with the Sheriff and his usual early morning demeanor, always  being rather  dour before he got outside a cup or two of strong coffee.

Flora, however, was not privy to these insights and she was feeling worried that maybe the young cowboy was regretting the offer of a home that he had made the previous evening. She lingered over her coffee, watching him as he looked down into his cup and finally she broke the silence. “I guess I didn’t thank you properly last night for all you’ve done for me, I do appreciate it you know.”

Jess at once raised his head and gave her his shy smile, realizing he had been less than friendly that morning. “Heck, you’re welcome,” he said.

“And Jess… about the offer for me to come back with Daisy, well, if you’ve had second thoughts,  I understand and I’ll be fine on my own,” she said, bracing her shoulders back and trying to look strong.

Jess hid a smile at this new assertiveness and guessed that when the woman wasn’t ground down by constant bullying, she was actually a very strong character. He instinctively felt he should treat her as such rather than molly-coddle her. “Well I’m sure you would be,” he said seriously, “but I guess Daisy would like to care for you for a while, and anyways, she’d be glad of the company. Can’t always be easy for her, stuck out on a ranch with just us three males for company and no other women folk to chat to.”

Flora knew he was just being kind, but then what other choice did she have? The thought of being out on a ranch far away from Chas and with a strong — and she admitted to herself — very charming cowboy was rather appealing.

“You’ll come then?” asked Jess almost shyly.

She nodded. “If you’re sure.”

“Sure I am; we’ll let Miss Daisy fatten you up some and then see how you feel in a couple of months.”

She nodded. “Yes, I think I’m in need of some of Daisy’s care,” she said, exchanging a smile.

“I’m just so darn glad I found her and she’s OK,” Jess said quietly with deep feeling.

“You’re every fond of Daisy, aren’t you?” Flora said with a questioning smile.

Jess’ face lit up at this. “I sure am. She’s like a Ma to me and Slim, Mike too. Don’t know what we’d have done if we’d lost her,” he said truthfully.

Flora took this in. “So tell me about the others — Slim and Mike.”

Jess sat back in his chair a grin on his face. “Well Slim inherited the Sherman Ranch and Relay when his folks upped and died some years back and left him and his brother Andy to run the place. Andy’s a great kid. He’s back East at college now, so it’s just me and Slim as runs  the business, since he made me an equal partner a few years back, that is,” he said proudly.

“So is Slim like you?”

Jess chuckled at the thought. “Nothin’ like me. He’s a great big tall lanky guy, blond hair, and likes his book readin’. He can be real serious and thinks everythin’ through about a hundred times, you know?” he said casting a glance at her. “Whereas I’m kinda impulsive and more your practical type. Maybe jump in with both feet and get myself into trouble — but guess I’m learnin’, with old Slim’s help.”

Then Jess turned honest clear blue eyes on her. “I reckon ol’ Slim there was my salvation. I’d been on the drift five years before I landed at the ranch and got taken on. Before that I’d… well, I’d had some real bad times,” he finished.

Flora felt fascinated by this colorful character and longed to know more, but there was suddenly a closed look about his face and she realized he was really a very private man and would be hard to get to know until he was ready to trust. So she changed tack. “I expect he’s equally glad of your friendship,” she said lightly.

“Oh yeah, we get along real fine, and I guess he’s lightened up some since I’ve been around. Heck he’d not even been with a…” He was going to say saloon girl, and how Jess had helped educate him about the fairer sex, but remembered just in time who he was talking to. He quickly said, “I mean, he’d not even been to town too much, so now we take in a dance on Saturday nights…things like that,” he finished lamely.

Then Jess changed the subject quickly. “And then there’s Mike. He’s a real cute kid; guess we all love him like he’s our own kin. He was orphaned after an Indian attack, and me and Slim took him on and that’s when Daisy stepped in and took us ALL on,” he said with a laugh.

“So what do you do around the ranch?” asked Flora, wanting to get back to Jess.

“Well like I say, I’m the more practical one and so Slim  deals with the business side usually — keeps the books and  strikes up the deals, sellin’ stock and the like — and we both do all the usual ranch duties. It’s my job to go mustanging and then break them and sell them on. We breed horses too; just bought a new brood mare,” he said his face lighting up as he thought of Snow Bird waiting for him back at the ranch. He looked off into the distance, wishing he was home and everything was back to normal.

She smiled across at him enchanted by his obvious passion. “You really love the horses, don’t you,” she said softly.

He came back from his reverie. “Sure do; guess they’re my life,” he said charming her again with his shy boyish smile.

*****

They set off back for Laramie that day and caught the early morning stage that stopped at Cheyenne and then went on through to Laramie. Jess felt bad that he couldn’t afford to take them on the railroad, but the truth was he just couldn’t afford the tickets. But as the journey drew on and Flora appeared tired and ill, he felt even worse.

Jess sat opposite Flora and Daisy, and the contrast between the two women was stark. Daisy, although having a trim figure for her age, was well rounded and had a sparkle to the eyes and a healthy pink complexion whereas Flora looked almost emaciated in comparison and she was very pale her eyes lackluster with blue shadows below. Jess thought to himself if ever anyone was in need of Daisy’s loving care and nursing skills, it was the young woman in front of him.

However, she was also very beautiful, Jess had to admit; her pale skin looking almost translucent and her eyes huge within her elfin features. He couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to kiss her, but as soon as the thought was there, he dismissed it, knowing that it was not appropriate under the current circumstances.

Hell, have some sense Harper, he admonished himself. The poor girl’s only just got rid of one man in her life; she’ll hardly be on the outlook for another. He contented himself with looking out of the stage window and thinking about Snow Bird and her foal.

After a while, he suddenly noticed that all was not well with Flora. She looked quite ill now and he was aware that the slight cough she had been suffering from all along seemed a little worse.

He glanced out of the window again and was relieved when he recognized the surrounding countryside and knew they would be landing in Cheyenne shortly; he looked over and cast Daisy a worried look, but said nothing.

Once the stage drew into Cheyenne, Jess knew there would be a short break while the team and driver were changed. As they stopped, he jumped down first, and then helped Daisy to alight, but as he took Flora’s hand, she suddenly seemed to stumble and the next thing he knew she was laying in his arms unconscious. “Daisy?” he gasped, scooping her up and looking concerned.

“It’s alright, Jess; she just seems to have fainted. She’s exhausted, poor girl. Can you carry her in here?” and she gestured to the nearby hotel.

The staff were very helpful and Flora was given a room in which to recuperate. A kindly maid brought a glass of water, and after a few minutes, she recovered and started apologizing profusely.

Jess sank down onto the edge of the bed and said gently, “If you’re not well, we can stay here over night and see the doc.”

She shook her head vigorously. “I’m fine, really. I’ve had this silly cough for weeks; it’s just a nuisance, nothing more, and I guess I’m just tired. As soon as I get a good night’s sleep, I’ll be alright, I promise.”

Jess turned to look at Daisy, who was hovering behind him and the look in her eyes shocked him. She looked very worried and her customary bustling, positive approach seemed to be sadly missing.

“Daisy?” Jess said softly.

Daisy glanced down at him and then back at Flora and seemed to gather herself together. After a moment, her usual good humor was back.

“ Yes dear, let’s just get her home and then  she can see Doc Sam later in  the week if she’s no better,” she said referring to Doc Sam Baker, their physician and close family friend.

When they went back out to the coach, Jess was relieved to see Mose driving, and after making the women comfortable, he opted to ride up on the box with the old timer and give the women folk room to spread out.

“Here put your feet up,” said Jess kindly to Flora, and he produced a travelling rug, making her snug before winking at Daisy and jumping up to join Mose.

Flora gave a little sigh and smiled long after Jess had left, Daisy noticed. She knew that look in her eye, the one so many women got around Jess Harper. She smiled indulgently over at her Goddaughter. “He’s a good man,” she said softly.

Flora looked back and smiled, “Yes,” she said, “I think he’s lovely”.

*****

“So who’s the young lady?” asked Mose conversationally as he hustled the team out of town.

“Miss Daisy’s Goddaughter,” said, not wanting to go into the whole rigmarole of filling Mose in as to why she was staying with them. Knowing what a nosey old tyke he could be, he said quickly, “Just visitin’ for a spell.”

“Umm,” said Mose, taking in this tidbit of information thoughtfully, “Looks more like she’s come for a spell of Miss Daisy’s nursing to me;  the girl don’t look at all well,” he said, casting a lugubrious look at his friend.

“Yeah, well that too,” said Jess succinctly, and casting his mind around to try and change the subject, he grinned over at Mose. “So how’s old Slim been then? Managed to keep the place runnin’ without me has he?”

To Jess’s surprise, Mose suddenly looked down and said nothing.

“Well, cat got your tongue?” asked Jess with a laugh. When he got no response, Jess continued, “So what’s the big galoot done then, Mose — slept in so you’ve had to change the team yourself?” he asked, his deep blue eyes twinkling in merriment.

This time his old friend looked him in the eye. “No, it ain’t nothin’ like that, boy. It’s that fancy grey quarter horse you bought. Well she’s been sick…”

Jess’s face changed in an instant and he looked horror stricken. “What!” he exploded. “She’s alright, though, Mose…she’s OK now…ain’t she?”

The old timer shook his head. “Couldn’t rightly say Jess. Slim had to have the horse doctor in to see her, I know that much.”

Jess looked bleakly off to the horizon, and then turning back to Mose. “Can’t you get these ornery no-good animals to go any faster, Mose?” before looking away again, obviously tremendously upset.

When Mose swept into the ranch yard a while later, he had barely brought the stage to a standstill before Jess leapt down, and then Slim was there running out to greet them.

Before they had even opened the door for the women folk to alight, or Slim had welcomed his buddy, Jess was in front of him, his eyes wide in shock. “Snow Bird…Slim, what in hell’s wrong?”

Slim reached out and squeezed his buddy’s shoulder fondly. “Hey Hot Shot, take it easy. She’s Ok now. Doc Peters has checked her over real good and she’s gonna be just fine.”

 Mose had jumped down from the box too and was now opening the door and helping Daisy out and giving her his best toothless grin. ”Sure is good to have you back home where you belong, Miss Daisy,” said Mose, who everyone knew was more than a little sweet on Daisy.

She beamed at him. “Well, it’s good to be home,” she said and then Slim was there holding her tightly.

“Welcome home,” Slim said softly and then the tears were threatening again and she turned quickly and introduced Flora.

Jess had sent a wire the previous day and so it wasn’t a complete surprise for Slim as he took it all in his stride, making this pale, slight, beautiful young woman, who was so obviously important to Daisy, very welcome.

Once the women where in the house and sorting out their unpacking and Mose had left, Jess and Slim strode over to the barn.

Jess went immediately to Traveler’s stall and made a fuss of his mount, talking softly to him and feeding him some sugar lumps before finally turning and making for Snow Bird’s stall. He approached quietly and stood watching her for a moment, and then she came over and put her head over the rails for Jess to fuss her giving a soft welcoming whinny.

A moment later, he was in the stall checking her over from head to foot, and then looking anxiously over at Slim said, “What did the Doc say… and why did you call him out?”

“She went off her feed, almost the day you left. She wasn’t eating, drinking little and I was worried; thought she was losing the foal.”

Jess closed his eyes and breathed deeply, feeling really upset. Then he looked over at Slim again. “And?”

Slim beamed at him. “He couldn’t find a thing wrong; he reckoned she was pining for you.”

“What!” said Jess, looking amazed.

“Looks like it, buddy. After all, you have spent a lot of time with her and then suddenly you’re gone.” Then Slim looked a bit sheepish. “And I guess I was so busy round here; I didn’t have time to give her too much attention.”

“Well I’ll be….” said Jess, shaking his head and finally grinning at his buddy. “ I’ve had girls pining for me, Slim, but never a darned horse.”

“Well she is a cut above the average nag, you know, Jess; guess she’s just temperamental.”

“Well she’d better get over it,” Jess said with a grin at his buddy. “Next thing we know, she’ll start sulking when I take a pretty girl out on Saturday night.”

Slim smiled at the joke and then said, “Talking of pretty girls, what’s the deal with this Flora? Is she pregnant? Because she looks real sick.”

“Nah, that was just a hoax, set up by her no-good husband,” said Jess conversationally and then proceeded to fill Slim in on all that had happened since he went to find Daisy.

Slim was as incensed as Jess had been when he told him how Bennett had lashed out at Daisy.

“Oh don’t worry buddy, I sorted him out real good,” said Jess with a mean look.

“I don’t doubt that,” said Slim, shaking his head, but looking at his friend in grudging admiration. Then he said thoughtfully, “So if Flora isn’t pregnant, then what’s wrong with her? Because she sure doesn’t look too well.”

“Dunno; Daisy’s gonna get Sam to see her next week, if she’s no better.”

Once Jess was satisfied Snowy, as she was affectionately called, was fine, the men returned to the house just in time to see Daisy entering the kitchen.

Slim rushed, and grabbing her gently by the elbow, guided her back into the main room and sat her down at the table already laid for supper. “Oh no you don’t Daisy,” he said beaming down at the elderly woman. “You are being waited on hand and foot… well for tonight anyways,” he said, nodding over to include Jess in this little plot.

“Yeah, he’s right Daisy,” agreed Jess. “old Hard Rock here has made us all some rabbit stew for supper,” and then walking towards the kitchen and pretending to sniff loudly, said, “and it don’t smell too bad either.”

Slim came up behind  his buddy and clipped him  round the ear and then  Daisy could hear shoving and pushing  and  some lively banter coming from  the  kitchen; she smiled to herself luxuriating in the relief of being home with’ her boys.’

They brought the meal in and placed a steaming plate in front of Daisy, and Jess offered to call Flora.

“No dear, leave her. She’s having an early night; said she was just too exhausted to eat and I imagine the sleep will do her more good.”

They settled down to eat and Jess turned an anxious glance to the closed bedroom door and then back to Daisy. “You’re real worried about her, ain’t you, Daisy?” he said softly.

She nodded. “She certainly isn’t the girl I remember and it’s just not right to have a cough like that for so long.”

“Umm,” said Jess remembering an old aunt of his back in Texas who had a cough just like that, and he shuddered at the memory, then pulling himself together, tried to be positive. “Oh well, I guess Sam will get to the bottom of it all,” he said smiling across at her.

As the meal progressed, it became obvious that Daisy was just playing with her food and Slim cast her a concerned look. “Is it awful, Daisy?”

Her head shot up and Daisy said quickly, “Oh no, dear. it’s really lovely. It’s just…” and she swallowed and looked down at her plate again.

Jess reached across the table and took her hand. “Just what?” he asked kindly.

She said nothing for a full minute and then looking across at both men with tears in her eyes, whispered, “How can you ever forgive me for walking out that way? And now you’re both being so kind to me and I really don’t deserve it.”

Both men exchanged a look and then Jess squeezed the hand he was still holding. Slim leapt up from his chair and went and threw a warm arm around her shoulders. “Sure we were upset when you lit out, Daisy,” he said sincerely, “but not for ourselves. We were worried about you, and we both knew it must have been something really important to make you act that way.”

“He’s right Daisy,” said Jess. “And being like that, running off to look after a friend, well, makes you who you are, why we care about you so much, and I guess we both know you’d have done exactly the same if one of us was in trouble too.”

Slim nodded in agreement. “And look at the times Jess has taken off without a backward glance, goin’ off to save some old buddy from his murky past. I guess we always manage to forgive him,” he said with a grin.

This elicited a genuine smile from Daisy. “Thank you, boys; I really appreciate that. I promise I will never leave like that again,” and the subject was finally dropped as the meal was enjoyed and they settled down to the usual light banter.

After Daisy had retired for the night, Slim professed to be bushed too and went to turn in.

“I’ll be in shortly,” said Jess, “just gonna check the stock.”

Slim turned at the bedroom door. “You and your darned horses,” he said chuckling and went off to bed.

Jess was feeling dog-tired but also restless, and he took his time checking on the horses again  before sitting out on the porch for a while, enjoying the summer night time sounds and  smells, before he finally decided to turn in.

He was in the main room, just turning the lamp down when he heard a commotion coming from Daisy’s room and then she called out, “Jess… Slim, can I have a hand, please?”

Jess ran into the room she was sharing with Flora and was shocked by what he saw.

The young woman was lying on the spare bed, lashing about and struggling to get her breath after a particularly bad coughing fit, and Daisy was trying to sit her up, but the girl was in a frenzy and was pushing Daisy away.

Jess immediately sized up the situation, and in a moment his strong arms were around her and he lifted her easily forwards so she sat upright. Daisy was then able to encourage her to breathe deeply and eventually she began to calm down.

 During the struggle though, her night gown had become twisted, exposing her chest and legs, and what Jess saw made him sick to his stomach.

Not only was the girl painfully thin but she was covered in bruising, some black and dark purple and others fading to a dull greenish yellow. He almost gagged at the thought of the vicious attacks the beautiful woman must have endured at the hands of Bennett. After a second, he dragged his eyes away and mumbled, “sorry,” and turned to leave, almost colliding with Slim as he ran in to see what all the fuss was about. Daisy had seen the horrendous sight too, and glancing towards Jess, their eyes had locked for a moment in shared shock, before Jess strode out of the room.

Then Daisy came to her senses and said, “It’s alright now, Slim; I’m sorry we disturbed you,” and he left Daisy to care for the sick girl.

 Slim had seen the painful abrasions too, but had quickly looked away, and saying his goodnights, left and went back into the big room. He was just about to return to bed when he saw Jess, dimly illuminated by the lamp, and standing with his back to him, his arm on the mantelpiece and his head leaning on it, his face hidden.

Slim advanced on him and said softly,” Jess… you OK?”

After a moment, Jess pulled his head up and glanced over at his buddy and the look in his eyes made Slim’s blood run cold. “Jess, what is it?” he whispered.

“Did you see…what that bastard did to her?” Jess spat.

Slim merely nodded. “Yeah.”

“I swear if I ever see that Bennett again I’ll kill him Slim,” Jess whispered menacingly.

“Hey, steady Jess; I know how you feel. I understand, but even so…”

“You don’t know,” Jess growled, now looking furious. “I lived with that day in day out, with Pa attacking my Ma. Me in the middle. Sure, you know what happened to me back then, but don’t ever say you understand how it is, ‘cos you don’t, Slim — not unless you’ve lived through it.”

There was a pregnant silence between them for a good minute before Slim finally replied. “I’m sorry Jess. I guess you’re right I can’t understand. But I do know you’d serve no purpose killing that low-life; it won’t change anything for Flora and you’d end up at the business end of a rope.”

“Yeah, well,” Jess muttered dourly, “maybe it’d be worth it.”

“Come on Jess, get some sleep. You look done in and things will look better in the morning, and any way…”

“What?” asked Jess giving him a questioning look.

“Anyway, you need your rest because there’s lots to do tomorrow, or had you forgotten there is a corral full of ornery mustangs just waiting for you to land home and start breaking them?”

“Aw Slim, let a body wash the city dust off first, before you go nagging him about work,” said Jess with a faint grin.

“Oh don’t you worry about the city dust, buddy; we’ve got plenty of nice home-grown dust out there in the corral just waiting for you to fall in.” Slim laughed and the two men went to bed down, feeling distinctly more cheerful.

*****

The following day, Jess was up early, and after breakfast went straight out to the corral to choose which mustang to take on first and was well into the days’ work by the time Flora arrived on the scene.

Flora had not appeared at breakfast, and then once she was up, she had been helping Daisy with the chores, against the elderly ladies wishes for her young friend to rest.

“I’m really fine honestly, Aunt Daisy,” Flora said. “And just let me get settled before we go rushing off to the doctor. I’m sure all I need is fresh air and your wonderful cooking and care.”

“Um, we’ll see, young lady, but in the meantime there will be no more chores. You get out in the sunshine and cheer Jess on; he gets really worn out with the mustang breaking and a pretty young lady watching will doubtless cheer him no end,” Daisy said with a twinkle in her grey eyes.

Flora went out, and Slim welcomed her and they both leaned against the corral fence watching Jess as he ducked and dived trying hard to stay on the back of lively buckskin.

After a while, the prancing and dancing slowed down and the horse came to a gradual standstill, sweating and shaking eventually tamed.

Jess slid from the horse’s back and patted his beautifully arched neck and talked quietly to him before pulling off the saddle and bridle and releasing him into the paddock beyond the corral. Then turning to Slim to get the next beast ready, he suddenly saw Flora and his whole face lit up. He strode over and leaned on the corral fence looking into her deep brown eyes.

“Well, hi Flora, so how are you doin’ this morning?” Jess asked with an edge of anxiety.

“Oh I’m fine,” she reassured him quickly. “Just tired and sort of emotional last night, but I’m OK now really.”

Jess looked deeply into her wonderful eyes. “Guess you just have to convince Daisy of that,” he said with a cheeky grin.

Slim and Flora spent the rest of the morning on the sidelines cheering Jess  on, and for Slim’s part, picking Jess up and dusting him off on the one occasion he was thrown and fell, badly winding himself.

Flora had looked on anxiously but gave a sigh of relief when Jess turned to grin at her and hopped back up in the saddle again.

When Slim vaulted the fence and returned to her, she said, “He’s awfully brave, isn’t he?” turning her eyes from Slim back to where Jess was now beginning to win the battle with a recalcitrant palomino.

Slim hid a smile at the woman’s obvious infatuation and said, “Oh yeah, I guess old Jess is pretty brave, as far as the mustangs are concerned, that is.”

Flora turned puzzled eyes on him. Well, I think he’s brave generally. You should have seen him lay into Chas; I thought he would kill him,” she said softly. “He certainly wasn’t afraid.”

Then Slim looked serious. “Oh yes I’ve no doubt of that. One thing Jess gets mad as hell about is any sort of injustice, and to his mind hitting a woman comes pretty high on the scale,” he said shaking his head sadly. “And I guess that will get him in deep trouble one of these days if he doesn’t learn to rein his feelings in some.”

She looked thoughtful. “Well, I certainly wouldn’t want him to get into trouble on my behalf.”

Slim looked worried. “Well, let’s hope that no-good husband of yours keeps his distance then, because I really don’t think I could keep a hold of Jess if he comes anywhere near you right now.”

She again looked confused. “Why?”

Slim looked a little embarrassed, but knew she was waiting for an answer. He ducked his head and said quietly, “The bruising to your body;  he saw it last night when he was helping Daisy with you — we both did — and I can’t remember seeing him so mad for a long while.”

She too looked down now, unable to look the tall rancher in the eye. “I see,” she said softly.

They were silent for a long time just watching Jess starting to control the prancing wild horse, and then she turned back to Slim and with a small smile said, “So what does frighten him?”

“Oh that’s easy,” said Slim,” grinning down at her. “Being left afoot and the love of a decent woman.”

She flushed up at this response. “so he doesn’t like women then?”

Slim really laughed now. “Oh heck, he likes ‘em alright, a darn sight too much sometimes,” he muttered to himself. “Just scared of commitment I guess. He’s had…well, something of a difficult past, love wise. He doesn’t like to talk about it, so I guess I shouldn’t either. “

“I understand,” Flora said softly,” and thank you for telling me.”

Then the moment was interrupted by Jess being unceremoniously thrown hard against the corral fence, and completely forgetting Flora’s presence, let go a volley of expletives that would shame a sailor, but Flora just giggled and said quietly to Slim, “I think he’s good and mad now. I reckon I’d better go and help Daisy with the dinner; maybe some food will calm him down a little.”

Slim nodded. “Well you’ve got that right. Looks like you’re getting to know Jess real well already,” he laughed before going off to help his buddy.

And so it was that Flora settled well into the small family at the ranch. Daisy was unable to convince her to see the Doc, though, and that concerned the elderly lady, but as the days turned to weeks and the young woman appeared to be so much better, she relaxed a little.

Flora had put on weight, and the haunted fearful look had left her eyes; she even enjoyed having a laugh with Slim and flirting a little with Jess. She still had the troublesome cough, but even that seemed to be less than it had been, and generally she appeared fine.

What she hadn’t told anyone was the real reason she didn’t want to visit the doctor — the little matter of his fee. She knew that the men or Daisy would offer to pay, as she had practically no money of her own, but she also knew how tight the finances where at the ranch as well.

On one of her first nights, there she had unintentionally overheard the two men talking.

It had been a very hot night and the window of the room shared by Daisy and Flora was open wide. Daisy slept on the far side of the room and was fast asleep, when Flora heard a movement outside the window and realized the two men were sitting out on the porch just on the other side of the wall from her bed.

She moved to close the window, but then realized it would draw attention to her, so she just lay down again and tried not to listen in, but it was impossible not to hear them, even though they were talking in low voices.

“She’s looking better already,” said Jess in a relieved tone. “Ate all her feed and an apple as well. I reckon she’ll be fine now, Slim, and I’m just sorry you had to call out the horse doc. He don’t come cheap.”

“Yeah, I know but I was really worried buddy. Thought she was going to abort the foal.”

There was a deep intake of breath from Jess. “Hell, I dunno what we’d do if that happened. I’m really relying on this little one to offset some of the cost of her Ma.”

“Um I know, and the sooner you can get those mustangs broke and sell them on happier, I’ll be,” muttered Slim. It’s nearly the end of the month, you know, Jess, and we’ve got the feed bill coming up, plus old Doc Peter’s bill for Snow Bird.” There was a pause when he was obviously shaking his head. “Just hope I can balance those old books come the 31st.”

“Well if you can’t, it won’t be the first time, Slim, and I guess we’ll just not draw any wages until were back on track.”

“Yeah, I guess so, but hell I hate doing that to you, Jess — me too, if it comes to that,” he said with a grim chuckle.

“A man works as darned hard as we do, he should have enough money at the end of the week to take his best girl out and go dancin’,” agreed Jess morosely.

“So who was it going to be this week?” asked Slim with interest.

“Well not Rosie Jackson, that’s for sure; she’s way too expensive.”

“Mighty easy on the eye, though”.

“Oh yeah, that’s for  sure, but she expects way too much, you know, Slim, and then at the end  of the night, she thinks she’s doing you a favor if she lets you hold her hand. I mean…you know?” he finished lamely.

“So…who”?

“Oh, yeah, I’d asked Millie from the saloon, and she’ll be real mad at me when I don’t show up.”

Millie was probably Jess’s best female friend and they went way back and had a very loving and strong relationship. If neither of them was seeing anyone else, they were usually found in each other’s company, although neither wanted a serious relationship. And as Jess had once said to Slim, “If she decides to share her bed with me occasionally, well, I guess that’s nobody’s business but ours.”

Now Slim had shaken his head sadly. “Sorry buddy,” he said quietly, knowing it wasn’t only the dance that Jess would be missing out on, but the delectable company of Miss Millie later on.

However when the subject of the dance came up at supper later in the week, both men made light of the fact that they wouldn’t be attending.

Daisy had looked quite surprised. “That’s not like you two.”

“Yeah, well it’s been a kinda tough week,” said Jess. “Spent most of my time in the dust, you know, Daisy, bein’ thrown off of those ornery mustangs; got bruises in places I didn’t know I had places,” he said grinning across at her. “And I figure an early night’s just what I need come Saturday.”

Daisy didn’t believe that for a moment, but decided not to question them too closely in front of their guest. But she had her suspicions, which were confirmed later in the week, when Slim handed her the money for the marketing.

“I’m sorry, Daisy; figure we’ve got to cut down a mite this week, but Jess says he’ll go out first thing and fetch back some rabbits and  maybe even a small deer, so that should see us right as far as the meat is concerned.”

The elderly woman turned troubled eyes on the young rancher. “Is there anything I can do, dear?”

“No… no,” Slim said quickly. “Don’t worry; me and Jess have got everything in hand, and as soon as the army pays for those mounts he’s breaking, we should be back in the black.”

“It can’t be helping having Flora here; I could try and make alternative arrangements. Maybe my sister….?”

“Heck no, Daisy, you’ll do no such thing, and with Mike away for the summer, it doesn’t really make much difference. Please don’t say anything to her; she’s our guest and a very welcome one too.”

“Thank you, dear,” Daisy said softly. Taking his hand and squeezing it, she said, “I do appreciate it and I know Flora does too.”

Then the following week, Flora again took a turn for the worse and Daisy insisted on her seeing the doctor, even though the young woman said she was alright.

“No dear, you are not and I’m sure that cough is worse and you have lost weight again. Please see the doctor; he is a lovely man and a great friend of Jess and Slim.”

But Flora just shook her head stubbornly.

Then Daisy suddenly realized what the problem was. “It’s the money, isn’t it, dear; you think we can’t afford to pay Sam?”

Flora nodded shyly. “You’ve all done so much for me, aunt; I can’t expect anymore and I’m not stupid I know those boys can’t even afford a night out.”

“Now you listen to me, young lady. Doc Sam is a real good friend of this family and he will be happy to wait for his money, and more often than not takes it in a brace of rabbits or some trout from our lake, so stop being silly and we’ll go in tomorrow.”

Flora was finally convinced and went and had a consultation with Sam while Daisy did the marketing. When Daisy picked her up later, Sam had had to rush out on an emergency, but Flora seemed happy enough; she had a tonic and said the doc just said she was a wee bit rundown.

*****

So the long summer stretched on and the ranchers received several letters from young Mike, saying what a swell time he was having with his friend Bobby and his folks back in Boston and he would have lots to tell them on his return. He also asked politely after their health and, more normally, after his raccoon, Bandit and dog Buttons.

After the latest epistle was read out at the breakfast table, Jess went very quiet. He had missed the boy terribly, but would never admit it. The acknowledgement that he cared about and loved another soul deeply was still very hard for him to admit to, even amongst the folk around the table who he thought of as kin.

Daisy and Slim knew this and exchanged a glance but said nothing. Flora, of course, was oblivious to the emotion in the room, not knowing how things were within the heart of this complex man.

“He sounds a lovely little boy,” Flora said now beaming at her Aunt. “I can’t wait to meet him, but then maybe, I should move on before he gets home next month. I don’t want to outstay my welcome….” she finished thoughtfully.

“You could never do that,” said Jess quickly, “and there’s plenty of room, ain’t there, pard?”

“Sure is,” said Slim, smiling across at the young woman who had flushed up prettily at Jess’s kind words.

Later that day, Jess was out in the barn grooming Snow Bird when Flora wandered in and leaned on the stall watching him, a little smile playing around her lips. After a while, he became aware of her scrutiny and smiled across at her. “Ain’t she something?” he said softly, gesturing to the horse.

Flora smiled back indulgently. “She certainly is; you really love that animal, don’t you, Jess.”

He thought about that for some time, and then came and leaned over the stall beside her. “I’m real fond of her, yes, but love a horse… Well, I guess there’s only one horse I love and that’s old Trav — Traveler, the bay over there,” he said, gesturing to where his horse was standing patiently in his stall. “That ol’ horse has been with me through thick and thin. Would do anything for me. Yeah; I sure love that old fellah”.

Flora smiled at him again. “You’re really passionate about horses, aren’t you?” she said softly.

Jess just nodded. “Put more store in my horse than I do some people,” he said. “A horse don’t let a man down, ask for anything back, is faithful, and always there for you; more than you can say about a lot of folks.”

“You sound very bitter,” Flora said gently.

Jess looked up and beyond her, his eyes looking back into the past and a world she could not begin to understand. “Well maybe I’ve got cause,” he said quietly, before turning away and continuing to groom the grey mare.

After he’d finished, Jess let himself out of the stall and gave her a quizzical look. “What?” he asked as he saw her scrutinizing him.

“Just thinking what a difficult man you are to get to know,” Flora said softly.

Something in her voice and the way she looked at him made Jess stop in his tracks and his heart missed a beat as he looked into her beautiful dark eyes. “And you want to… get to know me better?” he asked very softly as he took a step towards her.

Flora looked down demurely. “Maybe,” she said.

It was when Jess leaned in and gently stroked a finger down her cheek that he became aware that he had feelings for her, but as he moved in for a kiss, she jumped away, as if she had been hit.

Jess drew back, equally quickly. “Hey, I don’t mean you know harm,” he said gently.

“I know, I know…” she said, casting him an anguished look. “ But after Chas… and the way he was…” She couldn’t continue.

Jess cursed himself for his thoughtlessness. “Look I figure it’s real early days yet,” he said quietly. “I can wait Flora.”

She said nothing, just gave him a sad smile before turning and walking back to the house, leaving Jess standing watching her with a look of concern in his deep blue eyes.

Flora avoided him for the rest of the day, saying she had a headache and retiring early before supper.

 Once they were sitting around the table, the conversation turned to their guest.

“Is Flora OK” asked Slim throwing Daisy a worried look. “She seems kind of spooked, not herself, anyway.”

Daisy shook her head. “Um, I thought so too.”

Then they both turned and looked at Jess.

“Jess?” asked Slim.

“Huh?” Jess said, looking sheepish and playing for time.

“Have you been upsetting Flora?”

“No … well, that is…I didn’t mean to.”

“Jess!”

“Oh come on, Slim. She said she wanted to get to know me better and I was just obligin’. I didn’t think she’s get so darned upset.”

“That’s your problem,” said Slim angrily, “you just don’t think.”

Jess looked down chastened. “I apologized; I’ll talk to her again tomorrow.”

Slim just sighed and didn’t answer.

Then Daisy took pity on the young cowboy. “I’m sure you didn’t mean to upset her, dear,” and the subject was changed.

Much later, after Slim had retired for the night and Jess and Daisy were enjoying a last coffee before turning in, she turned to him and said softly, “So do you care for Flora, Jess?”

He flushed a little and then looking the elderly woman in the eye, said, “Well, it’s early days, Daisy. I guess I don’t know her that well yet, but yeah, I guess I’d like to get to know her better, and I think she feels the same. I didn’t just hit on her out of the blue, you know; I thought she wanted me to…well to kiss her. She sure looked that way and then when I got up close, I guess she sorta panicked…but I backed off right away, I swear.”

Daisy smiled over at him. “I’ve no doubt about that dear and I’m sure your intentions were well meaning. I’ve been watching her around you and I’m sure she is very attracted to you, but she is bound to be reticent at first, after what happened to her. I think you just have to be patient; just make a friend of her first and see how things go?”

He smiled over at her, “Sure, Daisy, I can do that.”

Then Daisy looked deeply into the fire her eyes looking troubled.

“Daisy, what is it?”

She gave a little sigh and looked into his concerned face. “I don’t know; I’m just a little worried about her. She’s far from well, Jess, and that tonic doesn’t seem to have made any difference and the cough is worse.”

“Yeah, I’d noticed that. So what did Sam say?”

“I didn’t get to see him; he dashed off on a home visit. This chicken pox is really keeping him busy. He’s not been out fishing for over a month now, has he?

“Yeah, but he went on that conference back east too. Guess it’s time we caught up. So Flora… you don’t think it’s serious, do you, Daisy?”

“I don’t know, dear, but I think we must take care of her and I just wish she would rest more and relax.”

The following day after breakfast, Jess sought Flora out and found her feeding the chickens, as she had made it her duty to take on Mike’s chores while he was away and felt happier at accepting the hospitality she was offered if she could pay back in some small way.

He walked across and smiled, “Hey, Daisy will be real annoyed at you doin’ chores, you know,” he said. “Year supposed to be takin’ it easy.”

“I’m alright really.”

He nodded and then said gently. “Can I have a word with you, Flora?”

She looked a bit startled, but said, “Yes, of course,” and they walked over to the corral together and watched the horses milling around.

He looked down and then across at her and said, “I just wanted to apologize for yesterday; I guess I got the wrong idea and I’m real sorry if I upset you.”

She blushed deeply and then whispered, “No, I’m sorry, Jess. I did lead you on and I’m really sorry. I thought I could handle it, but I guess that husband of mine spooked me more than I thought and I don’t think I can trust a man again, even one as kind and caring as you obviously are. I’m sorry,” she said before turning and dashing back to the house.

Jess sighed in exasperation, and pulling his hat down hard ,went off to find a mustang that he could knock some sense into, figuring he could work out his frustration with some hard labor.

Slim joined him a while later and watched as Jess was thrown around on the back of a viscous looking black stallion that spent all his time trying to either hurl Jess off into oblivion or turning his head and trying to sneakily bite his leg.

After an hour or so of this, Jess needed a break. Jumping down from the saddle, he walked over to Slim and removing his hat, wiped his sleeve across his sweating face before putting his hat back on and pulling it down hard, a grim expression in his eyes. Then he let fire with several expletives casting aspersions on the animal’s parentage.

Slim grinned across at him. “Is that better? Got it off your chest now, have you?”

Jess gave him a rueful look and then brightened. “I’m just glad I’ve finished working on the ones for the army and I figure we should get the check any day now. What do you say we celebrate by going down to town on Saturday?”

Slim pretended to look thoughtful and then his face split into a huge grin. “Hell why not? I guess we’ve deserved it, pard; a few drinks and a dance or two and maybe a little romancing. Yeah, I reckon I could stand that.”

“Great! I just hope old Tom will give Millie the night off; it will sure be good to spend some time with her again,” he said looking off to the horizon, his eyes turning misty.

“Hey, I thought you’d got another love in your life,” said Slim, tipping his head towards the house where Flora was busy preparing the dinner with Daisy.

Jess shook his head. “Nah, she’s not up for it, not right now anyways. I guess that swine has really messed her life up, I tell you, Slim. hanging is too good for him.”

“Come on, Jess, let it go. He’s out of her life now and I guess she’ll get over it, but these things take time you know.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve talked to her and I figure we’re OK now and I’ll just stick to romancing the girls I know are happy about it,” Jess said with a chuckle.

“Like Millie, you mean?”

“Just like Millie,” Jess said with a happy smile. “Me and Millie understand each other. She’s happy with a nice uncomplicated relationship, never wanted anything more, and so I guess we’re both happy.”

“She’s forgiven you then, for not turning up that night?”

“Oh sure. Saw her last week, told her about the cash problems and she was real understanding, even bought me a drink on the house.”

Slim shook his head in mock despair. “How do you do it, buddy… it beats me?”

“I’ve told you before, Slim, it’s all in the kissin’ — that and the Harper charm.”

Slim guffawed and leaning over clipped his buddy around the ear. “Harper charm… I’ve yet to see it,” he laughed.

*****

The following Saturday night found both men in their Sunday best suits, looking smart as paint. Jess sporting a particularly fashionable black and silver brocade vest beneath his stylish frock coat and Slim was looking equally debonair with his new pale grey Stetson and highly polished boots.

As predicted, Jess used his charm on Tom to let Lily and Millie off early from where they worked at the saloon, and soon the men were escorting their dates to the romantic alfresco dance that was so popular during the summer months.

The dances were held in a little clearing at the edge of town and the dance floor itself was brightly lit with colorful lanterns; it was complete with a rousing band and small bar and tables, so that one could sit and have a drink and a chat between dances.

The venue was surrounded by tall pines, which made an ideal place to cool off or spend a few romantic, private moments with a loved one, away from the hustle and bustle of the dance floor, and for that reason alone, it was a very popular spot for young couples.

“So how’s Daisy’s Goddaughter?” asked Millie as they sat out getting their breath back from the last dance.

“She ain’t too well. Been to see Sam and he’s given her a tonic, but I figure Daisy’s real worried about her.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. It would have been nice to meet her.”

Jess shook his head. “Slim offered to bring her, but she just ain’t up to it right now.”

After a while, Lily and Slim joined them and Jess noted with amusement that Slim appeared quite merry. “Hey pard, you been tipping the jug a mite too much?” he said with a chuckle.

Slim just beamed back and said, “I guess; just glad we’re out of that spot of trouble, you know, Jess. Worth celebrating having a nice healthy bank account again.”

“Well I dunno about healthy, but it sure ain’t terminal anymore,” replied Jess with a laugh.

“Yeah, reckon we need another drink to celebrate,” slurred Slim, uncharacteristically.

Jess turned to the girls and chuckling said, “And he was such a sober, clean livin’ boy before he hooked up with me, you know,” and they all laughed.

Much later they wandered back to the saloon and made their way up the outside staircase to the rear of the building which led up to the girls’ rooms over the bar. When they reached the corridor where their rooms were, the two couples parted and as Slim staggered off, supported by a giggling Lily. Jess called after them, “see you at Miss Molly’s café for breakfast, buddy?”

Slim merely raised a hand in acknowledgement and then disappeared inside Lily’s room, both laughing at a private joke.

Then turning back to Millie, Jess said, “If he’s up for breakfast, that is. But I gotta a feelin’ old Slim’s going to have a kind of sore head come the morning.”

Millie chuckled and reached up and took her door key from its hiding place above the door frame, and unlocking, let Jess in. She went to adjust the lamp, bathing her homely domain in a soft romantic light.

Jess closed the door quietly behind him and locked it before taking off his gun belt, coat and boots and leaving them by the door.

Meanwhile, Millie had fetched them a nightcap and she relaxed back on the huge shabby old couch in front of the fire. Cuddling down next to Jess, who put a welcoming arm around her, she tucked her feet up underneath her as she turned and smiled into his eyes. “This is nice,” she whispered, “just the two of us.”

Jess smiled back and stretched his legs out in front of him, a contented look in his eyes as he surveyed the place he knew so well.

Millie had worked for Tom for several years now, and he always said he had given her the best room in the house in return for her loyal service. It was indeed quite spacious, nicely decorated and furnished and with big windows looking out onto Main Street.

Inside, it was warm and cozy and very comfortable with all her ornaments and bits and bobs about the place. The large double bed by the window was covered in a beautiful brightly colored patchwork quilt, giving the room a relaxed and informal feel.

After a few minutes, Millie said, “You never really told me what happened when you went to Denver. I know there was something real bad happened, with Flora’s husband was it?”

Jess nodded, sighing at the thought, and repeated what had happened out there — how he had found Daisy and the bastard Chas Bennett and what he had done to Daisy.

At this Millie gave a little whistle. “Well I guess he paid for that.”

“Oh yes,” said Jess very quietly, “he paid alright.”

“So did he hurt Flora too?”

Jess had a sudden vision of seeing her poor emaciated body and the vicious bruising when she had been so restless on her first troubled night at the ranch. He nodded. “Yeah he did. He was a totally bad lot, Mill,” he said darkly, “and if I ever clap eyes on him again, I swear I’ll kill him.”

She felt chilled by his tone and turning frightened eyes on him said   softly, “Don’t, Jess…don’t talk that way.”

Jess turned tortured eyes on her then. “You know how it was for me at home, with my Pa, how Ma suffered. No man has the right to do that to a woman and live,” he said quietly.

“Sure I know,” she whispered, taking his hand, “but that was then> you’ve moved on, Jess, just let it lie. You scare me when you get like this talking about killing folk.”

He turned and looked at her like he had never seen her before, a faraway look in  his eyes and then he seemed to come back to her and shaking his head he finally gave her a small smile. “I’m sorry, sweetheart; I’m just soundin’ off. You know the way I get. I guess I don’t mean it and I doubt I’ll ever see him again.”

“Well I hope not. Now just forget him, Jess,” she said softly, one finger tracing gently down his cheek as she smiled deeply into his eyes.

“Sure; guess I’ve gotten far more interestin’ things on my mind right now,” Jess said with a twinkle in his eye before cupping her face in his hands and kissing her very tenderly and  then more firmly as he felt her respond eagerly beneath his touch. “Mill,” he whispered as he continued kissing her face, her hair and then down to the base of her throat. “Hell, I’ve missed you, you know that?”

“I’ve missed you too,” she breathed as she ran a hand through his black unruly hair and then pulled him down to her as she kissed him passionately on the lips.

He gave a little groan, and after a while picked her up and carried her over to the big comfortable bed where he laid her gently before lying down beside her and taking her in his arms.

*****

When they awoke, the morning light was flooding into the room and there was a hammering at the door.

Jess quickly looked around the floor for his abandoned undershorts, and pulling them on went over and unlocked the door to see Slim standing there looking shaken and very pale.

Jess grinned at him and opened the door wider for him to come in, running a hand through his hair said,” what time is it Slim, where’s the goddamn fire? Thought you’d be sleepin’ in until noon way you were last night?” He had turned his back on his buddy and made his way back to the bed and so he didn’t see the distressed look in his friend’s eyes.

Jess crashed back down on the bed where Millie had quickly covered herself with the sheet and leaning back on the pillows said, “So what is it buddy?”

Slim threw Millie a sheepish look. “Sorry to barge in on you, Millie.”

She just gave him a little smile. “That’s OK.”

Then turning to look down at Jess, Slim said,” I figure we need to head home right away; I’ve just seen Tom and he said there was a guy asking questions about us and the ranch late last night, and also about a guest we have. Sounded a lot like Flora’s husband, Jess,” he said looking worried sick.

Jess sat bolt upright immediately. “What!” he yelled and was up and dressing in the blink of an eye.

When he was ready, Jess leaned down and kissed Millie gently. “I’m sorry, sweetheart; I have to go.”

“Of course you do,” she said, and then urgently, “Jess, don’t do anything stupid, will you?”

He looked at her and just said, “See you next week, huh?” and then he turned and left.

Slim hung back for a second and she appealed to him. “Please, Slim, keep him away from that man. He’s so mad with him…”

“Yeah,” Slim said and patted her hand gently. “It’s OK, I know. I’ll watch out for him,” and with that he ran out after his partner, leaving Millie looking after them, her pretty face a mask of concern for her good friends.

*****

They rode hell for leather back to the ranch and by the time they arrived, Traveler and Alamo were sweating and shaking. However, for once in their lives, the ranchers left them hitched up and tore into the house just as Daisy was coming out to meet them.

They could see at once that she was terribly distressed and then they saw the shotgun in her hands and knew that she must sorely tried to have picked the hated weapon up.

Slim and Jess had patiently shown her how to use it years ago in case of Indian trouble or similar, but to see her actually holding it was shocking to both men.

Jess advanced on her and gently took the weapon away and put it back in the corner where it was usually kept before turning wary eyes on her. “He’s been here, hasn’t he, Daisy, that no good scum Bennett?”

She just nodded, so emotional that she couldn’t speak, her eyes welling up with unshed tears.

Then Slim asked, “Flora?”

“It’s alright, dear, she’s lying down. But she is terrified. He said he was coming back as soon as he’s completed some business. I was so scared when I heard you ride in I thought it was him come back to take her.”

Jess came forwards and put a protective arm around her. “It’s OK, Daisy; we’re here now. You’re quite safe.”

They helped the woman to a chair and Slim fetched her a medicinal whiskey which she sipped gratefully her color improving as she started to recover a little.

“So what sort of business?” asked Slim.

She looked down, and then back up at Slim and then glanced over to Jess, “I’m sorry,” she whispered. ”He’s taken your horse, Jess; he’s stolen Snow Bird.”

Jess leapt up from where he’s been squatting down beside her. “What,” he yelled, “he’s got Snowy?”

She nodded. “He said he was going to hide her until he could get a buyer lined up, and as soon as he’d hidden her, he’d be right back for Flora. Told her to pack her stuff up and he wouldn’t be long. I tried to tell him you’d be back last night, but he said he’d done his research real well and that you wouldn’t be home before noon at the earliest. Then he said the state of Slim, it would be more like supper time.”

Slim’s head shot up and he looked very embarrassed.

Then Jess said, “That no-hoper must have been watching us at the dance, Slim, waited for us to go back to the saloon and turn in, and then checked with old Tom that Flora was at the ranch.”

Slim cast his buddy a hard look which Daisy intercepted and she put a gentle hand on his arm. “It’s alright, dear. Do you really think I don’t know what you boys get up to on a Saturday night? I did have a son, you know, and am well versed in the ways of young men,” she said with a small smile.

However, Slim was saved from further embarrassment as just then the bedroom door opened and a very pale tearful Flora came out. “I just woke up and heard you. Thank God you’re back,” she said running into Jess’s arms where she stood shaking and crying.

Jess tenderly kissed the top of her head before saying softly, “It’s OK now; me and Slim will sort it out,” and then he gently handed her back to Daisy. “Go with Daisy and get back to bed and rest up some and everythin’ will be just fine,” he said softly, and a moment later, Daisy led her from the room.

Slim shook his head. “She looks awful, so darn pale; it’s bad enough she’s sick without this too.”

Jess said nothing, just picked up his hat from where he had slung it on the couch, and pulling it down hard, he marched out of the front door.

Slim ran and followed him, and as Jess went to mount up, he grabbed his arm. “Where in hell are you going, Jess?”

“Where do you damn well think? To get that bastard.”

Slim shook his head continuing to hold his arm. “Oh no you’re not, not like this, Jess. I’ll go.”

Jess shook his head. “One of us has to stay here in case he comes back. And anyway it’s my horse he’s got and I’m the best tracker out of the two of us.”

Slim just stared at him, knowing the truth of it.

“We can’t lose him, Slim; that horse means everything to us and not just ‘cos we think a lot of her. She’s worth one hell of a lot of money too, Slim, money we just can’t afford to lose right now.”

Slim reluctantly loosened his hold on his buddy’s arm. “You behave, alright Jess?”

“Sure I will,” and with that, Jess hopped up on Traveler. and after a few minutes, disappeared down the track in a haze of dust.

Jess rode off at a good pace, but once he reached the road, he slowed to pick up the tracks of the two horses. He was quick to spot those of Snow Bird as he had recently shod her himself and recognized a bent nail on the front nearside, and followed them across the road and down the track heading for the lake and foothills of the distant mountains.

Jess acknowledged that the area would be a good one to hide a horse as there were several caves and box canyons where an animal could easily be corralled and he made directly for that area, just slowing every now and then to double check he was still on the right track.

According to Daisy, Bennett only had an hour or so head start. Jess knew if he could just keep going in the right general direction, he would be able to make up the time and catch up with him while he was still in possession of Snow Bird. ‘Otherwise I’ll just have to beat it out of you as to where you’ve stashed her,’ he thought bitterly. ‘And if anything has happened to her…’

Jess heard Snow Bird before he actually saw her. She was whinnying shrilly in pain or anger or possibly both, Jess thought, as he heard the distressing sound.

He kneed Traveler on over the rise, and there down below him in the gully he saw Bennett off his horse with a rope around the grey mare’s neck, viciously whipping her and trying to get her to go through a narrow rocky pass that led to a box canyon.

The horse was rearing up and protesting long and loud. and Jess felt his temper rising as he galloped down the hill towards the man and horse as they continued their skirmish completely oblivious to his presence. He leapt from Traveler as he was still moving and hit the ground running and was upon the rangy blond man in seconds, grabbing his shoulder and pulling him around to face him and landing a blow to the chin which sent him reeling backwards, staring in profound shock at this unexpected attack.

Bennett fell back, hitting the ground hard and losing his hold on the rope and Snow Bird cantered off a little distance before dropping her head to graze. Jess ran across to where his quarry had landed, and dragging him up, he lashed out again with a right and left blow to the head, followed by a body punch so vicious that Bennett fell to his knees gasping and retching.

Jess was incandescent with rage and bawled at the man. “You just don’t care who you beat up, do you — defenseless women, dumb beasts… Well, let’s see how you can cope with an equal. Come on, you low life,” he growled squaring up to the tall blond man.

Jess was sweating profusely and his eyes were narrowed and almost black with rage. “Come on, Bennett, what you waiting for?” he spat.

The man had been on his knees getting his second wind and he reached down into his boot for his hunting knife. Then he suddenly lunged at Jess and the cowboy felt a white hot pain searing through his arm. Looking down in surprise, he saw a small knife sticking out of the fleshy part of the top his arm, the blood already staining his shirt, the pain excruciating.

Jess used all his strength to push the man away; Bennett fell back again and Jess took a second to pull the knife out. Then Bennett was there punching and biting fighting in a frenzy of fear and anger.

 Jess took several hard blows to the face and body, causing him to fall back, all the wind forced from him as he lay for a moment panting and cussing. Then the searing pain in his upper arm made him feel sick to his stomach as he felt his shirt getting wetter from the blood pumping out of the deep wound.

However Jess was no quitter, and was aware he had to finish the fight quickly as his life blood was slowly dripping down his arm. He took a deep breath and then rallied and sent the taller man crashing to the ground with another vicious punch to the head and Bennett finally lay there unmoving.

Jess fell to his knees beside him, grasping his arm, the blood oozing out between his fingers; he was almost overwhelmed by a wave of nausea and dizziness. He took several deep breaths and then pulled his bandana from around his neck and made a makeshift bandage to stem the blood flow.

After a few minutes, Jess wandered over to Traveler, and fetching his water canteen, poured some over his head and shoulders and then shook his head like a dog, the effect reviving him a little. Then he took some lengths of rawhide from  his saddle bag, and returning to his captive, who was still out cold, turned him over on  his side and tied his hands together tightly  behind his back and left him  to go and check on Snow Bird.

As he walked over towards where she was still grazing placidly, Jess saw her head suddenly shoot up and she whinnied in terror, staring at fixed spot just feet from her.

Jess’s reactions were lightning fast, and he had drawn his colt and shot the rattler dead in the blink of an eye.

The mare reared and was obviously spooked, but Jess walked slowly over to her and after a minute, caught hold of the rope and finally managed to calm her down and lead her over to Traveler and tied the rope to his saddle horn.

He stood there leaning against his horse for a full minute, his heart pounding and the anger welling up inside him to fever pitch. He had a sudden vision of the bruising he had seen on Flora’s body and Daisy’s cut cheek and black eye, and finally the way Bennett had lashed out at Jess’s prized horse. With his colt.45 still in his hand, Jess staggered back over to the prone unconscious body and stood staring down at him, a look of spine-chilling fury in his deep blue eyes.

Then there was the sound of five shots echoing throughout the ravine, before he holstered his gun and walked away.

*****

Sometime later, Jess eventually mounted Traveler, and leading Snow Bird, he started to make his way slowly to town, knowing he must go and tell Mort what he had done, but he never made it.

A combination of the vicious beating he had taken at the hands of Bennett, plus the blood loss from the knife wound finally took their toll, and after he had been riding for a while, he suddenly felt an all pervading darkness enveloping. As if in slow motion, he slid gracefully from the saddle, crashing to the ground where he lay motionless as the blood continued to seep from his arm as the sun rose higher in the sky and beat down on his exhausted, weakened body.

He lay there, slipping in and out of consciousness for several hours, and then Traveler, who had been grazing contentedly nearby along with Snow Bird, suddenly had a desire for his stable and breakfast. He had been ridden hard from Laramie at dawn that day, and then uncharacteristically, his beloved owner had not even fed him or rubbed him down, but again ridden he hard and Traveler had had enough. He wanted home and he wanted it now, but he refused to leave the man he adored, and so he wandered over and nudged the recumbent body with his head and then blew through his nostrils into Jess pale face and whickered softly.

Somewhere deep in the nightmare world where Jess was currently dwelling, there was a stirring of memory and a need — a need to pull himself out of this living hell where some vicious animal seemed to be gnawing at his arm and all he could see was blood and all he felt was pain and anger. Slowly, slowly, he rose up to the surface of consciousness and then he was fully awake , his arm throbbing like hell, the noon day sun beating down  on him and his beloved horse chewing gently on his hair.

“Hey Trav, quit it,” Jess said softly, before pulling himself up and painfully slowly managing to get back in the saddle.

 He had long since lost his grasp on Snow Bird’s rope, but she followed Traveler along none the less, just happy to be in the company of the big horse and the rider she loved and to be heading for home.

Although Jess had originally been heading for the Sheriff’s office, now Traveler was in control and made purposefully for the Laramie road and home to the Relay.

So it was that old Mose saw the man and horses a little while later as he left the ranch heading on for Laramie.

As the stage hurtled past, Mose raised a hand in welcome and was surprised when Jess appeared to not even see him as he made his way down the road heading for home.

Then the old timer chuckled to himself. “Gee, you look rougher than your partner,” Mose said to himself. “I guess you both tied one on last night.” And with the thought of a welcome beer for himself when he hit town, he clicked the team on to a steady gallop, all thought of the young ranchers forgotten.

*****

Jess had been gone several hours and Slim was beside himself with worry. Then when it was nearly noon, Daisy and Slim heard hoof beats and someone was riding hard down the rise and into the yard. They leapt up from the table where they had been drinking coffee and headed for the door, feeling light headed with relief; Jess was back.

However, as they threw the door open, they saw a grim faced Mort riding into the yard.

He dismounted and walked over to greet the couple who ushered him inside where he refused coffee and sat down at the table looking very serious. “Is Jess about?” he asked.

Slim shook his head. “No and I’m getting kind of worried about him, Mort. That low life Bennett landed here last night, upset Daisy and Flora something fierce and then stole Jess’s mare Snow Bird. Well, he took off after him a good four hours ago and he hasn’t come back yet.”

Mort’s expression turned even graver. “Yes I know all about Bennett landing in town; Tom filled me in. Said how you two took off after him first thing?”

“Yeah, but Jess went because Bennett had threatened to come back for Flora and so I stayed here just in case.”

“Where is she?”

“In bed. Daisy gave her some of her special cocoa with a drop of whiskey and she’s out like a light. She was just so darned upset we thought it was the best thing to do.”

“Um…yes, I can see that. So Jess… Was he real mad when he left?”

Slim eyed the grey haired Sheriff warily. “II guess so, yeah. You know Jess…”

Then Mort sighed deeply, and looking from Daisy to Slim and back said, “Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you this but Bennett’s horse was found just outside town an hour or so ago, with his dead body lashed to it, and he’d been shot in the back multiple times, like someone was way beyond furious, out of control I guess,” he faltered.

Slim’s head shot up and he stared at the Sheriff in consternation. You’re not saying that was Jess. Hell, he’d never shoot anyone in the back, no matter what. You know that, Mort.”

The older man shook his head sadly. ”Yes I know, under  normal circumstances, but I’ve been making enquiries and more than  one person has told me they’ve heard tell Jess saying he’s ‘going kill the bastard if he ever clapped eyes on  him again’ unquote.

Slim looked angry now. “Sure, I guess he might. in a fair fight. Hell Mort, you know Jess; he would give the Devil himself a fair chance…but shooting in the back?”

Mort again looked grim. “It gets worse,” he said. “Seems the guy was bound at the time, had no chance and whoever it was used these very distinctive rawhide strips.” Pulling them from his vest pocket, he threw them on the table for Slim to examine. “Doc says the thongs were on a while before the man was killed and he was definitely tied when he was shot.”

But Slim was no longer listening; he was just staring in horror at the paint-splattered thongs, the ones young Mike has spilt paint on a few months back and the ones that had been in Jess’s saddle bag, where he had been using some of them the day before to secure some saplings to stakes out on the west pasture.

“Slim?”

Slim said nothing, just continued to stare as his heart started beating ten to the dozen and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead.

Daisy leaned forwards and said softly, “Slim, whatever is it?”

Slim turned agonized eyes on her and then back to Mort. “They were in Jess’s saddle bag,” he whispered.

Slim leapt up and left the room, suddenly needing some fresh air. He stood out on the porch, struggling to get his breath feeling as though he had been kneed in the belly. ‘No,’ his whole mind screamed, ‘I don’t believe it. He wouldn’t…. he couldn’t,’ but the indisputable evidence lay on the kitchen table and Slim swallowed hard thinking he was about to lose his breakfast. He stood there swaying slightly, his face ashen and taking deep breaths.

 Five minutes later, Slim still stood out on the porch, feeling sick to his stomach and dreading facing the Sheriff and the truth waiting for him within. He sighed deeply and was just about to turn and face the music when he heard a familiar steady hoof beat, and a moment later, Traveler, followed by Snow Bird, walked at a sedate pace into the yard, coming to a halt just feet  from Slim.

The tall rancher looked on in horror at the beaten and bleeding body of his buddy slumped in the saddle. He walked over and put a hand up onto Jess’s thigh, and Jess seemed to rouse himself and sat up in the saddle, looking blearily around him , before glancing down at Slim, and giving him a tired smile said, “Sure is good to see you, buddy.”

Slim looked up, hardly recognizing this man as his best friend, as the thought of the brutal murder he had just committed caused another wave of nausea to course through the blond rancher’s body almost making him gag. He swallowed hard and then finally met his eye. “You’re back then,” he said coldly.

Jess glanced down taking in his partner’s less than friendly welcome and the hostile look in his eyes and he felt a shiver of fear run down his spine. He slipped from the saddle and looked Slim in the eyes. “What is it?” he whispered. “What have I done, pard?”

“You tell me,” said Slim very quietly.

Before Jess could answer, the door flew open and Mort was standing there casting him a wary look.

“Hey, Mort I was just comin’ to town to see you; got somethin’ I need to tell you.”

Mort gave him a hard look. “I think I already know,” he said bitterly. “Come on in, son; we need to talk.”

Jess again felt puzzled at his friend’s attitude but followed him in and stood on the threshold swaying a little, another wave of dizziness threatening to floor him as he lurched slightly and grabbed hold of the door for support.

Daisy was on her feet in a moment and by his side, casting him an anguished look and then turning to the other men said firmly. “No matter what he’s done, he needs help now. He’s badly hurt, can’t you see that?” She led Jess to the couch and helped him lie back, before bustling off for water and bandages to dress his wounds.

Sometime later, when he had been tended, Jess lay back and looked speculatively from Slim to Mort and back. “Well what is it?” he asked. “Neither of you seem particularly pleased to see me. What’s the problem?”

Mort ignored the question and said, “Can I see your gun please, Jess?”

Jess looked even more surprised, but took it from his holster and handed it to the Sheriff. “Sure.”

Mort opened it and spun the chamber and then bent his head to smell it. “Empty,” he said very quietly,” and recently been discharged” Then he stuck the gun into the front of his belt, and said sadly, “Jess Harper, I’m arresting you on suspicion of the brutal murder of Charles Bennett. Put your hands out, son,” and as Jess did so, he clapped the handcuffs on.

Jess appeared to be in a state of shock, his mouth and eyes open wide and then he managed to pull himself together and shouted angrily, “Hell Mort, what are you playin’ at? He ain’t dead. I roughed him up some, sure, but I reckon I came off worst… and that’s what I was comin’ to tell you. He’s trussed up like a turkey on the lakeside track. I couldn’t bring him in single- handed, not with this knife wound, so I headed for town to tell you. Then I guess I fainted, managed to get back on Trav after a while and he brought me home.”

“So you just laid into him,” said the Sheriff a slight note of sarcasm in his voice. “Well, he’s dead, Jess, very dead and it’s down to you.”

Jess fell back on the couch and closed his eyes. How could he be in this situation, he thought. Had he died and gone to Hell, a place where suddenly his best buddies turned against him.

Then Slim’s accusing eyes were upon him. “For God’s sake, Jess, you did it; we all know that. Have the guts to admit it at least.”

Jess just shook his head sadly. “I didn’t mean it,” he whispered,” I really didn’t mean for him to die that way.”

“Come on, son,” said Mort sadly, “I’m gonna have to take you in.”

“Oh no,” said Daisy looking heartsick. “The boy is hurt badly, Sheriff. You can’t, please.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Daisy; I’m just doing my job.” Then leaning across, Mort patted the elderly woman on the arm. “Don’t fret; I’ll get doc Sam to look him over.”

She just nodded, turning a tear stained face towards the young man she thought of as a son. How could he have done that? She really couldn’t believe it of him, no matter how uncompromising the evidence. But goodness, he seemed to have almost admitted it, she suddenly thought, shaking at the memory of what he had just said.

As though he was reading her mind, Jess stood to go, and then turned back and looked deeply into her kindly grey eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, and then glancing at Flora’s door, said “Tell her… tell her, I’m so damn sorry.” Without casting a glance at Slim, he walked out to the waiting horses.

Mort held back and again gave the older woman a pitying look. “Shall I send Sam over to have a look at the young woman? I guess this will be difficult for her especially with her bein’ sick and all.”

Daisy nodded. “Yes, would you Mort? Thank you.” And then as he turned to leave she grabbed hold of his sleeve.

He stopped and gave her an enquiring look. “Yes Ma’am?”

“Tell me, honestly, Mort. What will happen to him…if he’s found guilty?”

Mort looked down and swallowed hard, knowing that he couldn’t lie to this astute, strong woman. He said very quietly, “Then he’ll hang.” Patting her arm again, he pulled his hat down and went out to where Jess was sitting on a ranch horse waiting for him.

Mort mounted and was about to ride out when Slim came to the door and just stood staring at his partner a mixture of emotions  flitting across his face from agony, to pity and finally despair.

Jess looked down at him. “Slim?”

“Yeah?” Slim whispered.

“Will you take care of Traveler for me? None of this was his fault; I don’t want him to suffer any on my behalf. I’ve ridden him real hard today. Can you care for him?”

“You know I will,” said Slim very softly, before turning away, unable to watch his partner leave the ranch, for the last time, this way.

There was no doubt in Slim’s mind that Jess would be found guilty and he would hang and the thought was so terrible he tried to blot it out. He marched over to the barn to get stuck into the chores, hoping that the back-breaking work would ward of the dreadful thoughts racing through his brain, for a little while at least.

*****

Mort kept his promise to send Doc Sam over, and he arrived just after breakfast the following day.

Slim greeted him at the door and Sam cast him a sympathetic look. “It’s bad news about Jess,” he said softly.

Jess and Sam were real good buddies and could often be found down  at the lake together, enjoying their passion for fishing and the doctor was really upset at this recent turn of events.

Slim nodded. “I still can’t believe it,” he said.

The doctor shook his head. “I know all about Jess’s past with his violent Pa and everything, and I can understand as to how he would be with this man Bennett, especially with Miss Daisy and Flora being involved.” Then he shook his head grimly. “But to back shoot…well, it just isn’t Jess’s way.”

Slim shook his head sadly. “The evidence is overwhelming. Hell Sam, he’s even admitted it, said he didn’t mean for him to die that way, said he was sorry for God’s sake. How much more do they need to hang him?” he finished his voice thick with emotion.

Sam patted his arm gently. “I’m so sorry, buddy,” he said and then went in search of Daisy and his patient. Then he turned back looking concerned. “So how has Flora taken Bennett’s death?”

“Surprisingly well, to be honest; she was so dang scared of him, I figure it came as something of a relief in a way. She’s real upset that Jess got involved on her behalf, feeling really guilty and she’s not well at all Sam. Still got that cough.”

“Sure, I’ll go and check on her,” Sam said quickly.

Sam had gone into Flora’s room to examine her, and when they both emerged a little while later, Daisy gave them an enquiring look. “How are you dear?” she asked. Then before the girl could answer, Daisy turned to Sam and said, “I really don’t mean any disrespect, doctor, but Flora is still far from well. The tonic hasn’t helped the cough at all. Are you sure she is just run down?”

Sam stared in surprise and looked from Flora to Daisy and back. Is that what you have told them?” he asked in amazement.

Flora looked down flushing deeply. “I didn’t want to be a burden; I knew they would be upset and I just hoped the fresh air and good food would cure me.”

The doctor gave her a compassionate look and took her hand. “Oh my dear, we both know it will take more than that at this late stage in the disease.”

“What, what are you talking about?” asked Daisy suddenly looking fearful.

Sam turned to Flora and said quietly, “You know I am constrained by patient confidentiality, but in view of the recent research I have just shared with you, I really feel we are honor bound to share the information with your friends here too, Flora.”

The girl suddenly looked tearful. “Yes, yes, of course; I have been so selfish. They should know.”

Sam went and called Slim in and they all sat around the table together.

Sam laced his fingers together looking grimly down, before addressing Slim and Daisy. “I’m saddened to tell you that Flora is in the advanced stage of Consumption — and at this late phase of the illness, I’m afraid there is little we can do to…well, to cure her.”

Daisy and Slim turned shocked faces to the doctor and then Flora. Daisy immediately leapt up from her seat and went and threw a loving arm around the girl. “Oh I knew it,” she cried, “I knew there was something badly wrong; you should have told me.”

Flora said nothing, but the tears began to flow again and Daisy patted her shoulder gently, before sinking down in a chair beside her.

Sam cleared his throat and continued, “The reason we have to disclose it now is because I have recently been made aware of new medical research going on in England and France, and there is quite a case for believing that this disease can possibly be communicable between people, to some degree. The research is in its infancy, but well if there is a grain of truth in it, I feel you should be very careful about nursing Flora. “

At this Flora leapt up. “No, if there is any risk to them, I must go away — a home or hospital somewhere?” she asked giving Sam a questioning look.

Slim butted in here. “Hang on; let’s find out what the real risk is here, before we all go off half cocked.”

“Absolutely,” said Sam. “In real terms, I think it just means keeping everything clean and shipshape, as Miss Daisy always does, and making sure that Flora doesn’t cough directly near anyone, and maybe she shouldn’t prepare food — that sort of thing.”

“So there is a risk,” said Flora. “I can’t do that to these kind people and the little boy is due home next week too.”

Daisy felt overwhelmed; never had she been faced with such a dilemma. She was torn between her love for her best friend’s daughter and that which she had for Slim and Mike. Would they be at risk? And then she thought of her dear Jess, never far from her mind. If things ended as Slim and Mort feared, in a hanging, then Mike and Slim would be devastated and in need of her loving care. She really couldn’t desert them again and go away with her Goddaughter. But what was the alternative?

Slim had been mostly silent throughout this terrible news, but now he looked over at Daisy and could see the awful turmoil she was suffering and then he had an idea.

“The bunkhouse!”

“What dear?” Daisy asked looking perplexed.

“The bunkhouse. We could make it into a really bright room for Flora, do it up really nicely and then she can be separated from Mike, who I guess could be vulnerable being so young, but the rest of us could go in and visit and well… care for her when, when she is in need of it,” Slim finished quietly, knowing how the disease ran its horrendous course, having had an uncle who was similarly afflicted.

Sam beamed at them all. “That’s the problem solved and I will be around to help with the care, if… when the need arises.”

So it was settled, Slim and Sam left the womenfolk making plans as Slim walked outside with his friend.

Once they were on the porch, Slim turned troubled eyes on the doctor. “So have you visited Jess yet? “

He nodded. “Yes, I looked in on him last night; he’s real sick Slim — lost a lot of blood from that knife wound. And sick at heart too. I guess he could use a friend right now.”

Slim put his head down and whispered, “I can’t, Sam; I just can’t see him after what he’s done. I feel like he’s a stranger, like I really don’t know him anymore.”

Sam shook his head sadly,” Jess has been through some real tough times in his life as you know and he’s turned things around amazingly. So well in fact that I think we sometimes forget where he’s come from, what he’s suffered.”

“I guess this latest chain of events, with Daisy being hurt especially, just reached that dark place that still exists way down inside him, and he lost control — just for a second. That’s all it would take, Slim. Don’t condemn him out of hand.” Sam sighed, looking sadly at his friend. “If he really is your best buddy, try and forgive him. He really needs you right now, Slim. He wouldn’t admit it in a million years, but I saw the pain in his eyes yesterday and so much of that is how bad he feels about letting you down as well as himself.”

After a long time, Slim finally looked Sam in the eye. “You make me feel real ashamed and you’re right. I guess I do forget how far he’s come — and how hard it’s been for him — and I reckon if this is the end of the road, well I’ll be there for him, for as long as he needs me.”

Then Slim offered his hand and the two men shook. “Thank you, Sam; I needed that little homily I guess,” he said with a rueful smile.

*****

Slim rode out to town early the next day and made his way to the Sheriff’s office.

Mort’s head shot up as he entered. “I thought you’d be the last person I’d be seeing,” he said and gesturing to the coffee pot. “Want one?”

Slim helped himself and slid down on the chair opposite Mort. “So why do you say that?”

“I dunno; you seemed real mad at him. I figured he’d taken a step too far even for you to forgive him.”

“And you?”

Mort shrugged his shoulders. “I just can’t believe it of him. Something ain’t right, Slim. All the evidence is stacked against him — hell he’s even said he’s sorry — but something just don’t fit right.”

Slim just nodded in agreement. “How is he?”

“Sick, real sick. he was chucking up yesterday and unconscious most of the rest of the time. Sam came over again last night, gave him something to calm him down some, but reckon he’s feeling real bad. Well who wouldn’t be, with the thought of a noose awaitin’ you?”

“Don’t,” said Slim shuddering slightly. “Can I see him then?”

“Nope.”

“What!”

“He expressly said he didn’t want any visitors.”

“Come on, Mort, he’ll see me.”

The Sheriff gave him an exasperated look. “Well, be it on your own head,” he said fetching his keys and leading the way to the cells. He opened the door and said, “visitor for you,” before backing out quickly and leaving Slim standing in the cell looking down at his buddy and what he saw made his blood run cold.

Jess was stretched out on the bunk, his naked chest covered in bruises and there was still dirt and blood on his denims, but it was the look in his friend’s eyes that sent a shiver down Slim’s spine. A look of such pain and abject hopelessness that he felt a surge of pity for him.

 Then as he focused properly on Slim, Jess turned away with his back to him. “Go away, Slim; I don’t wanna see you.”

Slim sank down onto the other bunk and took a deep breath. “Well tough. I’m here now so guess you’ll have to deal with it.”

Jess spun around to face his friend at that, an angry glint in his eye. “I don’t have to to do anything,” he growled, “and I don’t know what you doin’ here anyway, Slim. We’re through; just go away and get on with the rest of your life. I ain’t worth the bother.”

“Well I think you are,” said Slim quietly. “Now are you going to simmer down and talk to me?”

“No,” Jess replied sulkily.

Slim sighed deeply, his patience being sorely tried.

Then after a moment Jess had another emotional outburst and said, “I just don’t get it Slim; I just don’t understand how he could have died.”

Slim turned shocked eyes on his buddy and then replied with some irony. “Maybe it was the little matter of him having five of your bullets in his back had something to do with it, Jess?”

Jess was motionless for a good ten seconds, his eyes opening wide in horror before he sat bolt upright from where he had been reclining on the bunk. “What!” he hollered, his face a picture of incredulity. “What bullets?”

Now it was Slim’s turn to look amazed. “The bullets in his back, Jess…the way he died. Remember, you said you didn’t mean for him to die that way, you said you were sorry. Hell buddy, you’ve already admitted to it — to murdering him, Jess.”

“I never…” Jess stammered. “I wouldn’t. Slim, you have to believe me I didn’t. I wanted to, sure I did. but I stopped myself… in time. I stopped,” he whispered and his voice came to a shuddering halt unable to go on.

“Hasn’t Mort told you how he died? Hell, hasn’t he even taken a statement?”

Jess shook his head. “N, Sam said I was too sick yesterday; I was kinda outer my head,” he said looking down embarrassed, “so Mort said he’d talk to me later today.”

Slim sprang up, and marched to the cell door. “Mort! Mort, get in here,” he yelled angrily.

A few minutes later the Sheriff arrived. “Keep your hair on, Slim. Where’s the fire?,” and then looking over to where both men looked far from happy, he said, “I told you he didn’t want visitors, Slim.”

Slim ignored this. “You’re keeping him here under false pretences, Mort; you haven’t told him exactly what he’s accused of and you haven’t taken a statement.”

Mort came over and looked a little sheepish. “Well. like I said he was sick yesterday and Sam said he was in no fit state.”

“Well he is now, so can we get on with it?” said Slim giving Mort a hard look.

“Sure, sure,” and Mort wandered off for his note book and pencil and on returning sat down on the other bunk next to Slim. “OK Jess, fire away; give us your version of events.”

Jess sighed and then collected his thoughts. He told them how he had come across Bennett whipping his horse and how he had waded in and attacked him and then how Bennett had pulled a knife on him and lacerated his arm.

“Well it was hurtin’ somethin’ fierce and I could feel the blood comin’ out real fast,  knew I didn’t have long if I was to finish it before I passed out from the bleedin’, so I slammed him real good, knocked him into next week, I guess. He was out cold and that’s when I got the rawhide and tied him.” Then Jess looked away into the distance his expression suddenly heartbreakingly vulnerable.

“Go on,” said Slim softly.

Jess looked at him and then taking a deep breath said, “I went to fetch Snow Bird, but a rattler spooked her. Thank God I was there in time, dispatched the snake,” then turning to Mort. “That was my first bullet,” and the Sheriff just nodded and made a note.

“I tied Snowy up to Traveler…and then….”

“Go on,” said Slim again, urging his partner to say the right thing, to finally vindicate himself.

“I got to thinkin’ about what that goddamn swine had done to Flora and Daisy and then to Snowy, hittin’ her that way. I thought she might lose the foal and I was so goddamn mad I went over an’ he was still lyin’ on his front, still unconscious.” Then Jess looked at Slim, his eyes suddenly welling up with tears. “And I… I wanted to finish him so much. I didn’t care, Slim, for a moment there, I just didn’t care.”

Slim looked horrified. “So you back shot him? “

“No… no I keep tellin’ you I didn’t, Slim. I fired the gun into the big old pine tree just behind him, and if you go up you’ll see ‘em there, all five bullets.”

Slim suddenly realized he’d been holding his breath and he let it go in a massive sigh of relief. “So why did you do that, pard?” he asked softly.

Jess looked anguished. “Because I couldn’t trust myself with the gun loaded, Slim; part of me wanted to pour water over him and drag him up, give him a gun and make him draw on me, but it wouldn’t have been fair; he was way too far gone. So I shot into the tree and I knew by the time I loaded up again, the moment would have gone and I’d have come back to my senses.”

“And did you?” asked Mort smiling over at him and speaking for the first time.

Jess nodded. “Oh yeah, I didn’t even bother loading up again. I untied him, went and got my canteen, cleaned him up some and when  he came around, I tied his hands at the front so he could use the canteen and left him tied to the tree, but on a long rope so he could lay down and sleep. Told him I’d send you to fetch him Mort.”

“Did he say anything?” asked the Sheriff.

“Told me to go rot in Hell, so I left him the canteen and came on home,” Jess finished sadly.

“So why did you confess to it all, say you were sorry he died that way?” asked Slim looking mystified .

“Well I guess I didn’t know what I was confessing to. I didn’t know he’d been shot. I just  figured he’d died from me beatin’ him up — I dunno, head injuries or something — but I swear he was alive when I left him and I never  shot him. Go check please Mort you’ll see all my bullets in the tree.”

Mort nodded. “Sure I will, son, but you’re not out of trouble yet. A good lawyer could make a case of it, especially the way you bad mouthed Bennett all around town. Now what we’ve got to do now is find out who really did back shoot him and it isn’t going to be easy”.

“But you’ll do it, Mort, you’ll try?”

He nodded. “Sure. It didn’t sit well with me that you shot a man in the back; well, I just couldn’t believe it of you and neither could Slim.”

Jess turned to Slim, a disbelieving look in his eyes. “Is that so?”

Slim looked very embarrassed. “Yeah, well, I sure didn’t want to believe it, Jess, but when you seemed to confess, well what was I supposed to think?”

Jess just hung his head and said nothing and after a while Mort got up and left them together.

Then Jess took a deep breath, as if trying to put the recent conversation behind him and said, “So how did Flora take it? Am I public enemy number one with her too?”

“Jess… don’t, please!”

“Well… am I?”

Slim shook his head. “No, truth is, I figure she was kind of relieved. Sure she was upset — after all they had been close once — but I reckon the man she had loved had ‘died’ in her mind way back. No… in fact she was more upset about you, how you’d done what you did. That is what we thought you did it for her. She was so sorry you’d got mixed up in it all Jess.”

A small smile played around Jess’s lips for the first time that day. “She’s kinda sweet, ain’t she, Slim?” he said softly.

Slim replied without thinking. “She sure is; it’s such a crying shame about her.”

“What … what do you mean?” asked Jess giving his buddy a baffled look.

Slim sighed deeply, remembering Jess hadn’t been privy to the meeting with Sam when he had warned the family about Flora’s terminal illness.

He looked over at his friend and wondered how much more he could stand — all the problems with Daisy going, then Mike away — who he knew Jess was missing badly. Then the threat of a noose around his neck and now, the real possibility that little Flora, who Jess had taken a shine to, would probably not see another birthday. Daisy had referred to their recent run of bad luck as a year of dilemmas and he was beginning to agree with her.

Now Slim threw his buddy a compassionate glance before saying quietly, “Well, you know how she’s been sick, Jess?”

“Sure but it ain’t serious is it? I mean she’s seen Sam and he’s sorted her out hasn’t he?”

Slim began to feel terrible and he just shook his head unable to look his friend in the eyes.

 But Jess suddenly sensed there was something very wrong. “Hell, what is it Slim? Just tell me, will you?” he almost shouted.

Slim gave him an anguished look. “She’s got Consumption buddy, the late stages, and Sam doesn’t think he can save her.”

Jess just stared at him for a moment and then fell back on the bunk, staring up at the ceiling. “No,” he whispered, “there was a lot of that back on the Panhandle, Slim. It’s bad, real bad….”

“I know, buddy I had a relative die that way…”

Both men were alone with their thoughts for a while and then something suddenly occurred to Slim. “Oh no,” he whispered to himself.

But Jess heard him. “What else?” he asked, looking stony faced.

Slim remembered the conversation they had had with Sam about the possibility of cross infection and the private conversation they had afterwards, where Sam told him something else… and told the blond rancher to tell Jess.

“Go on,” said Jess impatiently “tell me.”

So Slim explained what Sam had said about the new research going on abroad and how there was a possibility that the others could catch it.

“That’s crazy,” said Jess at once. “I had an old aunt with it, ended her days with us, and nobody caught it.”

Slim gave him a small smile. “Well, they bred you Harpers pretty tough, didn’t they, Jess.”

Jess gave a nod of acknowledgement, but Slim continued with what he knew he had to say. “Anyways Sam is pretty sure about this and you know he’s really on the ball as far as medical advances are concerned.”

Jess conceded this and then Slim explained about the idea of her being nursed in the bunkhouse.

At this Jess’s face relaxed. “Well, that sounds OK; I sure wouldn’t want to abandon her with her being sick and all, and Daisy so fond of her.”

There was a pause and then Slim said, “And you? “

Jess looked down. “I guess.”

“Then there is something else I have to ask you. Have you kissed her Jess…. or anything?”

Suddenly this inquisition was all too much for Jess. He had the anxiety of the murder charge to worry about, then Slim had sent him flying with this latest piece of heart-breaking news and now he wanted to know about his sex life. “Mind your own goddamn business,” he spat, giving Slim a hard look.

Slim looked down and fought to control his own temper. “Look Jess, I’m not being nosey. It was Sam. He warned me, said that if either of us had any ideas regarding…well, a relationship with her, we should forget it. According to him that would really be signing a death sentence; you’d be very likely to catch it if there was any kissing, or other intimacy, you know?”

“Oh yes I know,” said Jess quietly, all his anger suddenly drained away. “And no I ain’t kissed her, nearly did… but she backed off.”

“Well I guess that’s the way it has to stay, Jess, and I’m sorry.”

Jess was still staring up at the ceiling and now he rolled his head on the pillow to face his buddy. “No, I’m sorry, Slim; I’ve been a complete and utter bastard and all you’re trying to do is help me.”

 “Well I wouldn’t say quite that bad, buddy.”

Their eyes locked and suddenly they smiled the hatchet well and truly buried.

“Get out of here, Hardrock, go and check out what I told Mort and then find that low life that really murdered  Bennett, ‘cos I’m gettin’ real tired of it in here already.”

Slim leaned over and clipped him  gently around the head, and getting up, pulled his hat down and hollered for Mort, before turning and  winking at his partner. “Don’t worry, buddy; I’m on the case. We’ll have you out of here in no time.”

*****

Later that evening over supper, Slim filled Daisy and Flora in on everything that had happened and both women were tremendously relieved by the news that Jess was no longer admitting to murder and that he was in good spirits, knowing Slim was trying to solve the case.

“Then Mort and I rode over to the place he’d described and sure enough that big old pine was full of bullets,” he finished.

“So now we’ve just got to try and find out who really killed my husband,” said Flora.

“Did you see anything else there,” asked Daisy, “signs of another person?”

“Oh sure there had been another rider there a different set of tracks. A real big horse, trailed him down to the road, but then, well, couldn’t make ‘em out; looked to be going towards Laramie, but I guess he could have back tracked, turned off anywhere. So did Chas have any enemies, Flora?” Slim asked.

She gave him a grim smile. “Where do I start? He was a gambler and a cheat, Slim; the number of times we were run out of a town because of his lying cheating ways… Um, it might be worth getting in touch with Sheriff Rogers over in Denver, see if he knew of anyone he’d crossed lately.”

Then the subject was changed and they discussed the work needed to change the bunkhouse into a suitable domain for Flora, and then Slim mentioned Mike’s homecoming.

Daisy’s face fell. “Oh dear, I haven’t had a chance to tell you I got a letter this morning  and  they are staying one more week, something to do with problems with the travel arrangements.”

Slim looked upset. “Shucks, I was really looking forwards to seeing the little fellah”.

“We all were, Slim, but it’s not too long to wait. I imagine Jess will be upset too; he’s missed him dreadfully, although he’d never admit it,” Daisy said with a small smile.

“Yeah, he sure will, but there again, he’ll probably be glad the boy won’t see him holed up in jail. I just hope he’s out soon.”

“Oh of course. How is he coping, Slim? You told me he was feeling better, but he hates to be confined that way.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Slim shaking his head sadly. “Getting stir crazy already and relying on me to get him sprung. Heck I just hope we can find this hombre, Daisy, or else Jess is in real trouble.”

 The following day he rode into town with a fresh set of clothes for Jess, and on entering the Sheriff’s office he immediately got in a huddle with Mort. “So you’ll send a wire to Sheriff Rogers and see if he can identify our possible killer?”

“Sure, I’ll go over now if you mind the shop.”

Slim sat back in Mort’s chair and for the next half hour was totally inundated with women wanting to either see Jess or at least leave him some food. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, I afraid he’s sleeping right now,” he said to a respectable married lady who wanted to leave a Damson pie and looked heartily disappointed at not having an audience with the young cowboy.

Slim was still shaking his head and smiling to himself when the door went again and Widow Johnson was standing there with a bottle of medicine in her hand.

She marched in and plonked the bottle on Mort’s desk and then said hurriedly, “I can’t stop dear, but this is for that nice young man in here. Sheriff Corey said he had a dreadful cough and my husband used to swear by this; just see he rubs it on his chest,” and with that she was away down the street about her business before Slim could respond.

He suddenly felt a cold hand clasping his heart. Jess… Jess had a cough; oh God no… He leapt up from Mort’s chair and went over to look in the cell, but his buddy was still sleeping soundly.

Slim stared at him in disbelief. He was still without a shirt as it was very warm in the cells and to Slim’s eye he was sure his pard had lost weight. He wandered back into the office and slumped down in Mort’s seat again, feeling numb with this latest revelation.

Then Mort was back whistling merrily.

“You never said Jess had a bad cough,” said Slim accusingly as soon as he walked in.

Mort looked baffled. “Well, that’s because he ain’t “.

“But Ma Johnson just brought in this rub for the ‘nice young man’ in here and I guess that lets you out, Mort, not being in the flush of youth anymore.”

 Mort raised an eyebrow at this but didn’t retaliate, then he picked up the bottle and the light of understanding dawned. “Hell, this isn’t for Jess; it’s for Lon my Deputy; he’s been coughing and sneezing all the week long. I sent him home yesterday; he’s got a shocking head cold.”

Slim sighed with relief, and then Jess, who had been awoken by the men’s talk, yelled through, “Hey, you got any coffee goin’, Mort?”

The two men exchanged a grin. “There isn’t much wrong with your partner,” said Mort. “He’s drunk the pot dry every day he’s been here.” Then casting an eye at the latest offerings from the good women of Laramie, he said, “And I guess he’ll have put on a good twenty pounds by the end of the week if this carries on.”

Slim and Jess were sitting eating cake and drinking coffee when there was a ruckus in the outer office and Tom, from the saloon, ran in. “Can you come quickly Mort? Been a shooting at the saloon.”

Mort leapt up and going to the cell door threw the keys to Slim. “Just let yourself out when you’re ready, Slim. I’ve got some business to attend to,” and with that he ran out after Tom.

It was little more than ten minutes later when Mort returned with a big florid man in tow, handcuffed and cussing loudly.

However when he was pushed unceremoniously towards the cells, he stopped in his tracks when he saw Jess, a wary look in his eyes.

Jess shot up, scattering coffee and cake as he did so, ran over to the bars and addressing the man said in a low growl. “Vince from Denver, ain’t it?” and then turning a triumphant look on Mort, said, “This is one of Chas Bennett’s gambling buddies, Vince Carson.”

The Sheriff turned to the man looking irritated and said, “Well isn’t that interesting. This gentleman reckons his name is Ben Brown.” Then he took the keys back from Slim and unlocked the next cell and after pushing the man in said, “Right, empty your pockets Brown… Carson or whoever you are.”

It was quickly established that he was indeed Vince Carson as he had several letters addressed to the same in Denver and several other items with his name on and then when Mort inspected his wallet he found over $500. “Well,” said the lawman,” either you’re a very good poker player or you’ve maybe just come into a legacy from a dead friend?”

“I dunno what you mean,” said Carson sulkily.

“Hum, guess I’ll leave you to think on it then,” said Mort.

Then turning to Slim said, “I’ve got a bit of business down the town and could use your help, Slim. I also need to pop over to Doc Sam’s place see if the guy this man was cheating at cards is going to live or not after this no-hoper gunned him down.” As he left the cells, he winked at Jess and gave him a slight nod towards the other prisoner.

Jess just smiled back. “See you. Sheriff, “and nodded to Slim.

The two men left, leaving the door between the cells and the office open a little and then the prisoners heard them walk out banging the door behind them.

What they didn’t hear, though, was the door opening again and the two men creeping softly back to the adjoining door where they stood silently listening to the conversation within the cells.

Jess knew what was going on. Hell, he’d pulled that scam with Mort a few times himself and now all he needed to do was to get Carson to talk. He waited a good few minutes to be sure his buddies were in place and then he said aggressively, “So why did you kill him then, Carson?”

The big man had been sitting on his bunk with his head in his hands and now it shot up as he gave Jess an angry look. “Like you care. You said you were an old friend when you were looking for him in Denver, but the way you were laying into him out there by the lake, well, sure didn’t look like you were any too friendly from where I was standing.”

“No,” said Jess quietly, “I’m a friend of his wife… and I guess you can’t be both. So you were standing watching and you didn’t pitch in to help him?”

The older man laughed harshly. “Well, why should I? You were doing the job for me. I wanted him killed and you looked like you were going to do just that, until you chickened and shot into the tree.”

Jess looked down and said nothing determined not to get riled, not until he’d nailed him anyways. “So why did you want him dead?” asked Jess again.

“He owed me big time, about $500 of gambling debts. I trailed him to the Relay, was gonna take him there, but too many witnesses, and whatever you think about me, I don’t hurt women folk.”

“Unlike your buddy,” said Jess bitterly.

“Yeah, that’s right, another good reason for me to kill him.”

“So you admit it then,” said Jess loudly, “It was you that back shot him?”

“Oh sure, it was me alright, but I figured you’d take the rap for it… and guess you still will; they can’t prove a thing. All I did was get into a ruckus in the saloon, and that no good bum that reckoned I was cheating him won’t die. Guess that Sheriff just fusses too darn much.”

“So why did you stay in Laramie, why not getaway?”

“Oh I just wanted the pleasure of watching you hang for something I did,” Carson said loudly. “I’ll find that kinda satisfying”.

Jess got up and moved towards the adjoining bars and stared down at the ugly man. “You’re really not very bright, are you, Carson?” he said with a grin on his face.

And then Slim and Mort were there. “I’m arresting you for the murder of Charles Bennett,” he said grimly looking down at where Carson still sitting on his bunk a look of horror forming on his ugly features as the truth finally dawned. He jumped up and ran over to the adjoining cell and yelled at Jess, “You…you set me up. I swear I’ll have you, Harper; you’ll rot in hell. If I go down, I’m takin’ you with me.”

“Right,” said the Sheriff, “guess I’ll get my notepad and as soon as you’ve signed the confession, I reckon Jess here will be walking free and you Carson will be going nowhere, so keep your idle threats to yourself.”

*****

Jess and Slim were sitting in the office with the Sheriff, the signed statement on his desk, and as Slim drained his coffee cup, he turned to his buddy and said, “Come on, Jess; let’s get you home. Daisy’s been fretting something fierce about you, goodness knows why,” he finished, casting an eye on the abundance of pies and cakes that adorned Mort’s office.

“I can’t wait,” smiled Jess, “nice comfy bed and Daisy’s cookin’. No disrespect, Mort, but you kinda lack the home comforts around here.

The Sheriff grinned good naturedly. “Well, I’ll sure miss all the female company I always get when you’re around. I don’t know how he does it,” he said grinning at Slim. “He even had Madge Benson in here makin’ eyes at him and she must be goin’ on 70 if she’s a day.”

“Umm,” said Jess dreamily, “she was the ginger cake, right? “

Mort said nothing just looked over at Slim and raised his eyes to heaven. “Get outta here, you gigolo; go and do some work.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind that, Jess, come on. Miss Daisy’s got plans for the bunkhouse we’ve got a whole lot of painting to do buddy.”

Jess looked scandalized. “Aw Slim!” Then turning back to Mort, he said, “It’s getting’ kinda appealin’ here after all, Mort; reckon I could do with another couple of days rest in the cells, with the female visitors and plenty of pie and coffee.”

“Oh no you don’t. Take him home, Slim, before I lock him up and throw the key away.”

Laughing, the two ranchers left for home.

*****

The weeks after Jess came home from jail were filled with happiness, sadness and darned hard work.

The happiness was due to the arrival home of young Mike. He had enjoyed a wonderful time with his friend back east, but declared that home was the best and could he stay away from school because he’d missed Bandit and Buttons so much and needed to catch up with them.

“No way, Tiger. Now if you’d said you’d missed Hardrock, or me, or even Aunt Daisy, you might have been in with a chance, but heck, you only missed a raccoon and a dog. Well no guess its school for you,” Jess said with a grin.

“Aw Jess, sure I missed you all, you know that.”

“Come on Mike, you know you’ve got to go back to school today. It’ll only be a few short weeks before the snows come and then you’ll be at home all the time and darned bored you’ll be too. I reckon it’s your friends you need to catch up with and tell ‘me all about your trip,” said the ever sensible Slim.

Suddenly Mike’s eyes widened in excitement. “Oh sure, wait till I tell ‘me everything I’ve seen; guess they won’t believe it!” and he ran off happily to fetch his school bag, leaving the two ranchers exchanging a grin.

They in turn were not particularly relishing the day ahead as it was yet another of hard grind as they spent hours riding and rounding up all the stock to bring them down to the lower ground before the winter really set in. As they knew from bitter experience the snows occasionally came early to this mountainous area of Wyoming and to have stock stranded up in the high ground would mean almost certain death to the beasts and financial hardship for the ranchers, so they labored long and hard until the task was completed.

However exhausted Jess was, though, he would always pay a visit to Flora, who was now confined to the bunkhouse and growing weaker as the days shortened. Daisy and Slim also spent time with her too, but it was Jess who seemed to have formed a special bond with the young woman and to whom she would open up to and talk for hours.

One night he returned to the house just as Daisy was heading for bed. Slim already snoring away, and he slumped down in his rocker by the fire, looking exhausted.

Daisy took one look at him and felt a wave of pity for the young man and also great gratitude for the way he had been supporting Flora through her last illness. She slipped into the kitchen and returned a minute later, holding a tumbler of whiskey and passed it over to where Jess was almost asleep.

Jess noticeably perked up at the sight of the drink however and said, “Hey thanks, Daisy. So what’s the occasion?”

She sat down on the other chair and said, “You just looked like you needed it dear. “

He took a grateful sip and sighed happily, “You’re not wrong there, Daisy.”

“I do appreciate it, you know,” she said softly, “all the time you spend with Flora and I know she does too, but you look really worn out, dear. It’s too much, expecting you to sit up with her until all hours after the hard day you’ve had.”

“Hell… er, I mean heck, Daisy, I don’t mind, really I don’t. We’ve been talking about her home country, Scotland; she was just twelve when she left, but she’s missing it something fierce.” Then turning sad eyes on the elderly housekeeper said, “Do you think she could go back, Daisy? All her kin are there and she wants it so darned much.”

“I don’t know, dear. It would be dreadfully expensive and you know how things stand for us all at the moment.”

Jess looked into the fire and took another sip of his drink and then taking a deep breath as if he had suddenly made a decision, turned to Daisy ad said, “I guess I could sell Snow Bird. With her bein’ in foal and all I would get a real good price for her.”

She just stared at him, her kind old eyes suddenly welling up with tears. “You’d do that,” she whispered, “you really would, wouldn’t you, Jess.”

“Well sure,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it, you know that, Daisy.” Then looking thoughtful he said, “So when is Sam due to visit her again then?”

“At the end of the week.”

“Good, I’ll ask him about it then.” Jess tossed back the rest of his drink and then got up. “Thanks, Daisy,” he said softly and leaning over he kissed her tenderly on the forehead. ‘’Night,” and left for his room.

“Good night, dear,” she replied, but sat on, looking into the fire and shaking her old head. He really had no idea what an amazing thing he had just done, she thought to herself, or what an amazingly kind person he was, but she decided then and there to make it her mission to make him understand that. And exactly what his totally selfless gesture would mean to her beloved goddaughter.

Unfortunately, though, Jess’s thoughtful gesture was not to come to fruition.

Jess met up with Sam as arranged at the end of the week, catching him as he left the bunkhouse and the two men went and sat out on the porch to chat.

“So how is she?” asked Jess, a concerned arch to his eyebrows.

Sam drew a deep breath. “Not too good, Jess. she’s been coughing up one hell of a lot of blood this week; I don’t think she’s got too much longer to go.”

Jess’s head shot up and he stared at the doctor in dismay. “That bad. I’d no idea. Does Daisy know?”

“Not yet; I’ll go in and see her in a moment. Flora’s been trying to hide it from you all, as she doesn’t want you to be upset.”

“Kinda hard not to be,” said Jess looking devastated.

“I’m sorry, Jess; got to tell you how it is. though.”

“Sure, sure and I appreciate that, Sam.”

“So what did you want to ask me?”

Jess looked down shaking his head. “Well, I wanted to pay for her to go home to Scotland, but…?”

Sam shook his head. “No way; she’d just not make it now buddy.”

Jess hung his head. “That’s a real shame.”

“Yes, and had she been better, I reckon it would have helped her some; the clear mountain air is thought to be a way to cure this illness, if it’s caught soon enough, or at least make the last days easier. But as I say it’s just too far for her to go now, I’m afraid; we’re talking weeks here, Jess. She won’t see Thanksgiving I guess,” he said shaking his head sadly and going off to deliver his sad news to Daisy.

*****

It was one night the following week when Jess and Flora talked about Scotland again. Jess figured that she really knew that she wouldn’t make the journey, but she seemed to get pleasure from reminiscing about the old country and Jess reckoned if that helped her well fine, he was happy to listen.

This particular night was very mild for late fall and they were sitting on the bench outside the bunkhouse bathed in moonlight and  it was very late, but Flora couldn’t sleep and Jess recognized a deep unrest in her and a need for human company and was happy to oblige, even though he was pretty whacked. “So tell me about the countryside again,” he said softly, knowing that was what she wanted to do.

She suddenly looked animated and had a pretty flush to her cheeks. “Oh it’s so magnificent, Jess — the tall snow-capped mountains and the lochs teeming with fish the best trout you’ve ever tasted. You’d surely love the fishing there.”

“I’m sure I would,” Jess said softly, thinking how beautiful she looked bathed in the moonlight, her eyes sparkling and that becoming flush to her cheeks. “You look better just talkin’ about it.”

She clasped her hands together. “I feel better,” she said, looking him in the eye. Then her face fell. “Oh Jess, if I could just see the snow, stand on a mountain again one last time,” she said looking off at the distant range.

Jess turned to look. “Well, I guess we’ve got pretty good mountains here too,” he said with a grin. “So how about it? Are you feeling well enough for you and me to go on a trip up the mountain?”

She turned to stare at him her eyes suddenly opening wide in wonder. “Could we… oh could we Jess?” she whispered.

**********

The following day Jess had ridden into town to bank a check for the sale of the reminder of the mustangs, and afterwards he called in on Sam.

Carrie, his pretty daughter and nurse, showed him in and leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “It’s lovely to see you, Jess. I don’t think Pa and I have clapped eyes on you for nearly a month; that must be a record,” she giggled. Then remembering to be professional, she looked more business-like and said, “So you are hurt somewhere now? “

Jess smiled back knowing she was alluding to the amount of times he had to seek Sam’s help as he had been beat up or shot. “No, not for me this time, sweetheart; I’m here to talk to him about Flora”.

Her face immediately looked concerned. “Oh how is she, Jess? I was so upset when Pa told me about her illness. She’s so young and beautiful; I can’t believe it.”

Jess looked down feeling a stab of pain in his guts at the thought of the suffering Flora was enduring and he really didn’t feel up to discussing it right then.

As if tuning into his feelings, Carrie reached across and squeezed his arm. “I’m sorry; here’s me chatting on. I’ll fetch Pa.”

Jess sat in front of Sam’s huge desk and put his proposition to him. “You should see her when she talks about Scotland and the mountains and snow and such like. She’s like a different person, Sam; she comes alive again, almost like there ain’t anything wrong with her… and she desperately wants to go up the mountains one last time. Well I figured if we couldn’t take her to Scotland, well then maybe I could take her up our ol’ mountain?” After he had finished his impassioned speech he sat back looking intently at the doctor.

Sam looked down at his clasped hands before replying quietly. “Well Jess, I reckon that it would be good for her, in the short term, and she really hasn’t anything to lose. She’s going to die pretty soon anyway, as you know — weeks, maybe even days, rather than months now… and I imagine if one is going to die, well, I personally would rather have the incredible views from our mountain in my last moments rather than a bunkhouse wall. But I have to tell you it wouldn’t be easy; you’d have to nurse her, do everything Daisy has done for her… and be with her as she dies. And that’s a tall order to ask of anyone.”

Jess looked down and said nothing for a long time, then he looked across at his buddy and said softly, “I’ll take her next week,” and standing up he put his hat back on and pulling it down hard, reached over and shook the doctor’s hand, “Thanks, Sam,” and with that he departed.

If he thought talking Sam into letting him take Flora on the trip would be difficult, he hadn’t bargained for Daisy’s reaction.

“Jess, you just can’t. I know what you are trying to do, but it’s just impossible, dear. Think how hard it would be for you…and there is the matter of nursing her, the intimacy, well it’s just not… not right,” she finished lamely.

Suddenly Jess saw red. “And do you think it’s right that a beautiful young woman in the prime of her life to be struck down with this god awful disease?” he shouted. “Or that her last days should be dictated by whether it is right or not I should tend to her needs. Hell Daisy, if it’s right for me and Flora well, then I guess that’s all that counts.” He sank down onto his rocker, from where he had leapt up and had been pacing in front of the fire watched by an increasingly distressed Slim and Daisy.

“He’s got a point, Daisy,” Slim said quietly.

After a moment, she looked across at Jess and said, “Yes, you are right and I am wrong. I’m so sorry, my dear. I think maybe old fashioned propriety has no place here.”

Jess just nodded. “And I’m sorry for yellin’ at you, Daisy. I’m so darned upset about the whole business and I just wanna do my best by her… you know?”

She reached over and took his hand. “Yes I know, dear, and I bless you for it.”

*****

And so it was that the couple set off on their journey the following week.

Mike had been adamant that Flora should ride his mount Sunny, a very biddable easy ride palomino.

Jess was really pleased as he had broken the pony himself and given him to Mike for his birthday the previous year and he knew that he was 100% safe and gentle and ideal for a sick person to ride.

Jess had taken Mike to one side before he left for school that day and thanked him. “I really appreciate you letting Flora ride ol’ Sunny; it’ll make all the difference to her, buddy.”

“Yeah I know, Jess, and I really like Flora. Guess I just wanna help her some like you are.”

Jess leaned over and ruffled the youngster’s hair. “Thanks, Tiger.”

Then they were finally off.

It was a difficult leaving, as everyone knew that the likelihood of Flora returning was low, if not unlikely.

However, Flora and Daisy took it in their stride, pretending it was just a routine trip until their leave was imminent and then they became very tearful, knowing that this was probably goodbye, forever. “Thank you for everything,” whispered Flora, and was acknowledged by a tearful Daisy.

Once they were well on their way, Jess reined Traveler in and said. “Are you sure this is what you want Flora? We can turn back.”

She sat on the palomino looking out to the snow-capped mountains. Then turning to Jess with resolve in her eyes, said, “No, this is what I want,” and kneed Sunny on towards the distant peaks.

It was a long, painfully slow journey, with Flora often becoming breathless from the tormenting cough, and as they made camp that first night, Jess looked across at where she lay huddled in her blanket and wondered, not for the first time, if he had done the right thing in bringing her on this long arduous journey.

The following day it was painfully obvious that she was too weak to ride Sunny and so Jess transferred their gunny sacks with their provisions over to the tough little pony and took Flora up on Traveler where she rode in front of him. As he had lifted her up, he was shocked at how light she was, with almost no substance to her at all and then when he supported her with a firm arm around her waist he could feel her ribs sticking out and could have wept for her. But Jess being Jess just pulled his hat down firmly and clicked Traveler on up the mountainside, Sunny following on behind. Jess’s mouth set in a grim line as he kept his emotions in check.

They arrived at the line cabin on the mountain side just as the sun was setting, and as Jess helped her down, he saw the look of complete happiness and awe on her face as it was suffused by the red setting sun.

She stared down the mountain and across as the orange ball finally sank in the west and turning her face up to Jess said, “This is so, so beautiful; I can never thank you enough for bringing me.”

When she saw inside the line cabin, she was enchanted. “This is lovely,” she said turning to smile at him. “I had expected a rough and ready men’s place but this is so comfortable,” she smiled as she took in the couch and cheerful rug in front of the neatly swept fireplace and the dining table and chairs in the window. There was also a large double bed over to the left covered by a patchwork quilt and two further cots stacked against the far wall. Along with a proper cook stove and selection of pots and pans it was a real little home from home.

Jess explained how a local mountain family had given them all the stuff before they moved west with the wagon train.

“Well that was very generous of them,” she said with her pretty smile.

“They couldn’t carry the big stuff,” Jess said shrugging, “And anyways, I helped ‘em out once and I figure they sorta wanted to thank me.”

“Oh?”

Jess turned away and started emptying the gunny sack in the little kitchen area.

“Jess… so what did you do?”

He stopped what he was doing and sighed, then turned to face her and looking slightly embarrassed said, “I delivered their baby; the wife was caught out in a storm and landed here. Her husband had gone for Sam, but it turned out they were too late.”

Her eyes opened wide in shock. “So you did that for her? You actually delivered a baby, cut the cord and everything?”

He nodded. “Oh yeah….everything. I figured it would be like birthin’ a mare.”

“And was it?” she asked with a tiny smile.

He grinned back at her. “Hell no, absolutely nothin’ like,” and they both laughed.

Then she came over and hugged him. “Oh it’s so good to be here,” and he held her tightly and gently stroked her hair, at last knowing in his heart that he had done the right thing.

That night, although it was cold, she insisted in sitting out for a while and it was past midnight when Jess suggested they should turn in.

But she pleaded for a little while longer.

Jess figured that she was thinking as her days were numbered, she wanted to get the most out of every last second, and although he was exhausted after the long ride, and knew that she must be too, he smiled indulgently at her. She seemed better already, he thought; the clear mountain air having an almost miraculous effect, her coughing having eased and her eyes bright and clear. “Sure a while longer. You warm enough?” He had placed a blanket around her shoulders and now she smiled at him as he sat next to her on the bench by the cabin door and nodded.

Then she stared up into the myriad of stars and said softly, “So many stars. I understand what you talked about now, Jess, why you love the Big Open. I feel I could stay here forever just looking up at those stars and the moon is huge. You feel like you could just reach up and grab it, don’t you.”

“It’s the place I feel real comfortable… at home, you know. Guess the Big Open is the one thing I miss from the days when I was on the drift. “

Flora nodded. “I can understand that.” Then she looked down from the stars and said very quietly, “Do you believe in Heaven, Jess?”

He pondered on this a while and then said, “Yeah, I guess I do.”

“I’m glad,” she whispered,” so maybe we’ll meet again someday.”

He nodded, and then said quietly, “I ain’t brought you up here to die, Flora; I’ve brought you here to live…every last goddamn second you have,” he finished his voice suddenly thick with emotion.

She looked at him in wonder. “Of course; you are so right. Thank you, Jess. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Can we make this time the happiest days of our life?”

“We can sure try,” he said with a grin, “And if we’re to have a real good day tomorrow, I figure its time you turned in young lady.” Standing up, he leaned over and picking her up carried her off into the cabin to delighted laughter.

And that set the pattern for the rest of that week — Flora’s laughter and happy smile belying the fact that she was slowly dying before his eyes and Jess found the whole experience bittersweet and one that he would never forget.

He took her out first thing, their feet leaving tracks in the early morning dew as he stalked a small herd of deer and they watched as the animals gamboled and played in the early morning sunlight, unaware of their audience.

Another time, the weather had turned warm and  it was one of those rare fall days ,sent straight from Heaven, when the sun shone out warm and pleasant from dawn to dusk, the air  crystal clear and the views of open county side from the mountainside breath taking.

They had sat by the stream, and then went paddling and had a water fight ending with them both soaking wet and laughing until they cried.

Then they lay down on the springy turf in the sunshine to dry off.

As they lay there side by side, Jess reached over and gently took her hand and held it, then looking up into the sky said very softly. “You know what I’d like to do now, don’t you, Flora?”

There was a long silence and she continued looking skywards too, but then there was a gentle squeeze of his hand and she whispered, “Yes… but we can’t, Jess.”

“I know,” he said with a sigh.

“That’s what I meant the other night about Heaven. Maybe we’ll meet again and things will be different.”

At this, he leaned up on his elbow and traced a finger lovingly down her cheek. “I hope so,” he whispered and then a little later they returned to the cabin hand in hand with an even deeper understanding and closeness between them.

And so the days passed, but the brief honeymoon period, when she seemed to rally and Jess could pretend there was nothing wrong with her, was over by the end of the week and she was unable to walk more than a few yards without getting breathless and the cough returned with a vengeance, bright red blood staining her dainty handkerchiefs. Watching her, Jess felt his heart would break.

But he soon pulled himself together, knowing it was down to him to keep her cheerful during these last difficult days.

By the Saturday morning, it had turned bitterly cold with the threat of snow and Jess seriously wondered if they should return home, but one look at Flora as she lay in bed was enough to make him realize it was impossible. She was still sleeping, but her breathing was labored, even in sleep, and he knew her time was near.

With a heavy heart, Jess turned away and went to brew some fresh coffee, the only sustenance she could now take. When he returned, she was just waking up and he sat down on the edge of the bed, smiling down at her. “Hey sleepy head, you want some coffee?”

She gave him a drowsy smile and nodded, and he hauled her up, propping the pillows behind her before handing her the cup.

“Thanks,” she whispered.

When she’d finished her drink he painstakingly washed her face  and brushed her hair, before sitting back and regarding her, “Yep, as I thought — beautiful.”

She smiled up at him. “You are such a charmer,” she said softly. “Don’t you ever stop flirting?”

“Nope, not with a real pretty girl like you. So what do you wanna do today? It’s awful cold out.”

“Do you think it will snow?” she asked hopefully. “I should so like to see snow.”

 The, ‘one last time,’ was left unsaid, but it hung in the air between them.

“Yeah, I guess it might later,” Jess said lightly after a moment.

After a while, he threw some more logs on the fire and carried her over to the couch where he sat next to her, chatting and keeping her spirits up with jokes and anecdotes from his past. Then he took out a pack of cards and showed her how to deal from the bottom of the pack and a variety of other shameless scams and she laughed, “Oh Jess, you are thoroughly corrupting me.”

It was late afternoon when the first downy flakes of snow started drifting down out of a leaden sky.

Jess had just gone out to settle the horses for the night, and when he came back he had a light dusting on his hat and shoulders.

“Oh Jess, I must go out, I must see it please!” Flora begged.

His initial thought was hell no you’ll catch your death, but he clamped his mouth shut before he uttered the words, realizing how crass they would be.

“Sure sweetheart, but you’re gonna have to wrap up warm. It’s real cold out there.”

Five minutes later they were out in a winter wonderland as the flakes swirled around them now driven by a sneaky little wind that had got up, and Flora squealed with delight as the flakes covered her. She put her face up to them, throwing her head back and laughing, her eyes sparkling as happy and carefree as a child. She spun around her arms open wide, until she was dizzy and collapsed into Jess’s waiting arms.

“Hey steady,” he laughed.

He walked with her to the bench, and putting a blanket down first, sat her down and held her close, a protective arm around her shoulders and she rested her head on his shoulder, suddenly exhausted.

“You OK?” he asked glancing down, concern in his eyes.

She nodded.“Oh yes. Can we stay out a little while longer, Jess? It is so beautiful.”

He noticed how breathless she was and she had an unnatural flush to her cheeks, but now he could deny her nothing and just held her close, knowing that their time together was growing short.

They sat like that for a long time in companionable silence drinking in the beauty of the woodland scene as the trees became etched out in white against the darkening backdrop and then finally night was upon them and Jess knew they must go back inside as the temperature suddenly plummeted.

 In the cabin, he stoked up the fire and brewed some more coffee and this time he laced it with some whiskey to warm them up.

Flora took a little sip and smiled over at him. “You really are trying to corrupt me, Jess Harper,” she said with a little giggle.

But then the laugh turned into a coughing fit and he was at once beside her holding her until the spasm subsided. She was panting and desperately trying to catch her breath, but he rubbed her back and talked softly to her until she was at last better and  able to speak.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“Hush,” Jess said gently, “there ain’t nothin’ to be sorry for, but I figure we need to get you to bed. You’ve tired yourself dancin’ about in the snow.”

She smiled at him. “It was wonderful, though, wasn’t it? That was my last wish come true.”

“Come on,” he said, picking her up and making for the big bed.

“Just one last look… please, Jess.”

He carried her over to the door and they stood staring out. The storm clouds had rolled away and the snow was now illuminated by the moonlight, transforming the whole area into a magical, enchanted place. She drank in the scene one last time and said, “Thank you, Jess; I can sleep happy now, and tomorrow we’ll build a snowman.”

He took her over to the big bed and prepared her for sleep, the intimacy now second nature between them and causing no embarrassment.

Once she was in her nightdress, he puffed up her pillows and laid her down, pulling the covers up, before kissing her forehead tenderly and turning to go over to his bed on the other side of the room.

But she grabbed hold of his hand and pulled him back, her eyes suddenly huge and fearful. “Jess, I’m frightened,” she whispered. “I don’t want to be alone tonight.”

Jess looked down a sudden wave of love and pity wrenching his guts, almost felling him. “OK,” he whispered and after removing his boots he climbed in beside her and taking her in his arms held her close, and after a moment, he felt the front of his shirt wet with her tears. “Don’t, Flora, please don’t,” he said softly, feeling tears pricking behind his own eyes.

After a while she calmed down and then he whispered words of comfort until she finally fell asleep.

The last thing she said was, “Tomorrow, we’ll build that snowman, OK, Jess?”

 “Sure we will. Now go to sleep sweetheart,” he replied softly. See you in the morning,” but she didn’t reply.

When he awoke the following day, the first thing he heard was the rain drumming down on the roof and then he turned to look at Flora.

She was as white as marble and as cold, as she lay dead in his arms.

Then the rain stopped.

The whole room was filled with a resonating emptiness and a deep silence, and he could hear his own breathing and feel his heart beating as he lay there just staring at her face, so beautiful and youthful in repose. All the pain and sorrow of the preceding weeks drained away, and he just knew she was gone from him to a better place.

After a while, he got out of the bed and poured himself  a neat whiskey and then he went outside and  started digging the grave in  the place she had chosen overlooking the valley below, beneath a huge old pine tree.

He ignored the rain, which had started again, beating relentlessly down on him and spent the best part of the morning digging in the cold hard ground.

Then he finally fetched her and laid her in her last resting place.

When the job was complete, Jess stuck a roughly hewn cross above, promising to come back in the spring with a properly carved one. Then he knelt by the grave and finally gave in to his emotions and wept, all the pain and suffering of the last few weeks pouring out of him and mingling with the rain as it cascaded down his cheeks.

When he was finally spent, Jess pulled his hat down hard and going to saddle Traveler he rode off down the mountain, the little palomino pony following on.

He finally arrived home at sunset the following day, and as he rode into the yard, Slim Daisy and Mike tumbled out of the ranch to meet him, the light of welcome and happiness slowly dying in their eyes as they saw the little palomino enter the yard without a rider and they at once knew the terrible truth — Flora was gone from them.

Jess was soaking wet and exhausted and as he slipped down from the saddle he staggered a little and Slim ran forwards to steady him.

Mike with ever hopeful youth on his side came towards Jess and turning innocent eyes on him said, “Flora… Jess, where is Flora?”

Jess looked down into his gentle blue eyes and then back up to Daisy, who was standing behind him, and just shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Daisy gave him a look of deep sympathy and understanding and pulling Mike to her. She ushered him back into the house, sparing Jess the task of explaining to the boy.

Slim said nothing just slung an arm around his buddy’s shoulders and the two men led the mounts over to the barn and started rubbing them down and feeding them.

After a while, Slim looked over at his friend, taking in the soaking denims, the two days growth of beard and the deep sadness in his eyes. “You want to talk about it, pard?” he said softly.

Jess looked down and then over at his best friend and after a moment shook his head. When he spoke, his voice was thick with emotion. “Can’t, Slim, not yet anyways.”

Slim reached over and squeezed his shoulder. “That’s Ok, buddy, but I’m here for you…. when you’re ready.”

Jess just nodded thanks and went back to grooming Traveler.

*****

It was over a week since Flora had died and Jess had finally unburdened himself talking long into the night with Slim and Daisy telling of Flora’s last days on earth. He was sometimes emotional, and  other times laughing as he told of all they had got up to. When he had finished, Slim was silent, looking at his buddy in awe and Daisy had tears pouring down her papery old cheeks.

“Hey, Daisy, don’t,” said Jess at once, always hating to see women cry.

She quickly took control of herself and apologized. “I’m sorry. my dear. Poor Flora was my dilemma and one that nearly cost me everything,” she said softly. “Leaving here to care for her was the hardest thing I have ever done. But then you came and took over for me and I will never forget your kindness, Jess, and what you did for her at the end of her life.” She walked over to where he sat on his rocker, looking decidedly embarrassed, and kissed him tenderly on his forehead. “Thank you, dear,” she whispered.

That had been the day before and now Jess was returning from putting the horses up for the night accompanied by Mike.

It had been snowing hard all day, and as they ran across from the barn to the sanctuary of the porch, they stopped and surveyed the wintery scene, Mike as excited as Flora had been on that last evening of her life.

Now as Jess stared out at the snowy moonlit yard, he looked down at Mike and smiling sadly said, “Tomorrow we’ll build a snowman…for Flora.”

The boy smiled back. “Swell”, and turned to go indoors.

 But Jess stood on for a while looking up as the snowflakes drifted endlessly down and remembered a fragile beautiful girl dancing in the snow, her eyes alight with joy and laughter and he looked up to the sky and whispered, “‘Night, sweetheart”, before turning and walking into the warm, familiar place that was home.

***End***

Thank you for reading!

Return to Patty W.’s home page

One thought on “Daisy’s Dilemma (by Patty W.)

  1. I was so filled with emotion that I didn’t think I was going to make it to the end of this book. Wonderfully written! Beautiful story!

    Like

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