Home for Christmas (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG   Please be aware some adult themes, violence and strong language.
Word Count:  38,000


 

It was fall at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station and Slim Sherman, the tall blond-haired owner, had spent the whole day bringing steers down from the high ground to the lower pastures for the winter and had sorely missed the presence of his best friend and partner in the Ranch and Relay Station, Jess Harper.

Now he rode into the yard, hot tired and irritable, he jumped down from his mount Alamo, and after tethering him to the hitching rail, marched purposefully into the ranch, throwing his hat on the peg by the door before calling out for Daisy, his elderly housekeeper and general surrogate Ma to all at the ranch. “Daisy, Daisy is he back yet?”

The grey haired, but sprightly, little lady stuck her head round from the kitchen.

“No need to shout dear, I’m not deaf and no Jess isn’t back yet and the stage is late in too, so Mike isn’t home from school yet either,” she said, referring to the ranchers young ward, Mike Williams.

Slim tutted looking far from happy, “Heck, Daisy, he knows how dang busy we are right now. How come he had to ride into town so urgently anyway? What can be more important than getting the stock down safely?”

Daisy appeared again, this time returning with a coffee cup which she proffered to the young man she always thought of as her eldest ‘son,’ in the Sherman Ranch ‘family’.

Then she said pacifyingly, “Well, I’m sure it’s something important. Jess doesn’t take his responsibilities around here lightly, you know that, but Mose gave him a note when he drove the early stage in and Jess went off looking concerned, and said to say he’d be back as soon as he could. It must have been something urgent.”

Slim sank down into the rocker by the fire before taking a welcome sip of the hot drink. “Yeah, I know that, Daisy; that’s what’s worrying me,” he said throwing her a faint smile.

Then she cast him an anxious glance. “Oh Slim, you don’t think he’s in some sort of trouble do you?”

He shook his head and ran a hand through his blond hair, and shook his head. “I sure hope not, Daisy, but you know Jess; he’s like a magnet as far as trouble’s concerned.”

It was just five minutes later when Slim heard his buddy riding fast into the yard. “About time,” he muttered as his long legs took him out onto the porch in just a few quick strides. He watched as his friend tethered his horse, Traveler.

Then with a worried look in his arresting dark blue eyes, Jess took off his hat as he advanced on his buddy and ran a hand through his wavy black hair before jamming it down on his head again, his eyes narrowing slightly as he received the full force of his partners angry glare.

“So where in hell have you been?” asked Slim.

“To town, of course. I told Daisy to tell you this mornin’,” was the gruff reply.

“Yes, but you didn’t say why and you sure as hell never said you’d be gone all day!”

“Look, Slim, just leave it will you? I figure we’ve got more to worry about than me takin’ off for a few hours.”

“Why, what do you mean?”

“Come inside, Daisy needs to hear this too.” Jess marched into the house. “Daisy!”

Daisy came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, and sighed. “I do wish you boys wouldn’t yell so,” she said quietly, casting Jess a fond look, which quickly turned to alarm when she saw the look in his eye. “Why, Jess dear, whatever is the matter?” she asked.

“Sit down, Daisy.”

“What… I’m just staring supper… I…”

“Daisy, will you just sit down and listen to me,” Jess said sharply.

“Alright, dear,” she said, subsiding meekly in the rocker by the fire, surprised by his unusually terse tone. He often had words with Slim, and occasionally hollered at Mike, but he was always extremely polite and kind to Daisy and now she feared he must be badly troubled about something.

“What’s all this about Jess?” asked Slim looking equally concerned.

Jess walked over to the chimney breast and leant over with his head down, just staring into the fire for a moment before turning to look at his friends. “There ain’t no easy way to say this…but I ran into Doc Sam in town,” he said, referring to Doctor Sam Baker, their family physician and good friend.

“Oh?” asked Daisy turning kindly grey eyes on the young man she thought of as her favorite ‘son’, albeit her most difficult one at times.

 He sighed deeply before carrying on, his voice now strained. “Yeah, it seems there is diphtheria in town… “

Daisy’s hand shot to her mouth and she gave a little cry of alarm.

Slim’s head shot up. “What, are you sure Jess?”

“Oh I’m sure all right. Young Tommy Barns has died…and his little sister’s real sick with it.”

“Oh… not Tommy. He’s a really good friend of Mike’s,” said Daisy in shocked tones.

Then Slim looked out to the yard. “And where is Mike? The afternoon stage is really late.”

“The driver was taken sick on the trip over from Cheyenne; they’d only just found a replacement as I rode out of town. I offered to drive it but the superintendent was in the office and said the driver would have to do the full run out and back tomorrow, well, I didn’t want to be away from home, in case…”

“What, dear?”

“Well, just in case Mike gets sick,” Jess said softly, casting his eyes down.

Daisy looked terrified. “Oh no! So are they closing the school?”

Jess nodded. “And Sam was taking a quick look at the kids just now. I saw Mike and he seemed fine, said he was starving and to be sure to keep his supper hot if he was late.”

Slim and Daisy exchanged a smile. “Well, that sounds hopeful. But poor little Tommy and Mrs. Barns, bless her…that poor woman,” said Daisy, shaking her head and wiping a tear away.

Just then they heard the Stage rattling down the hill and into the yard.

“Come on, Daisy,” said Jess softly, patting her arm. “Try and cheer up for the boy’s sake. I don’t reckon he knows about Tommy yet. Figure we’ll break it to him later tonight.” With that, he went off to meet the stage, grim-faced, leaving Slim and Daisy to come to terms with the horrific news.

Mike ran, in full of the events of the day and beside himself with excitement that school was out until further notice. Then he said, “Oh and aunt Daisy, my friend Tommy is sick. Figure I’ll make him a card tomorrow, saying get well soon.” Then he dashed off to his room to tidy up for supper.

Jess and Daisy exchanged a fleeting look. “Heck, Daisy, we can’t say anything yet; he’ll be shattered…” said Jess.

“Hush, he’s coming back,” she whispered, and once the boy arrived, they sat around the table for a somewhat subdued meal, the only lively chatter coming from Mike’s direction.

Later Slim said gently, “Time for bed, Mike; go and get started and one of us will come and tuck you up.”

“Aw, Slim, do I have to go so early? There’s no school tomorrow and I can lie in…”

“Get to it, Tiger, and don’t argue. Your teacher has set you plenty of homework to do and when that’s done you can help with the chores… understand?” said Jess firmly, throwing the boy a hard look.

“But…”

“Mike!”

“OK sir,” he whispered, giving Jess a hurt look before getting up and running to his room.

Jess looked down and cussed softly under his breath, then looking over at where Daisy was sitting next to him in front of the fire said, “Shucks, Daisy, I didn’t mean to bawl the kid out. I just…”

She leaned over and patted his hand. “You’re just worried about him, dear; we all are.”

“So what are we going to tell him?” asked Slim, bringing the pot over and replenishing their coffee cups.

Jess shook his head. “Can’t lie to the boy.”

Then Daisy, who had been gazing sadly into the fire, looked up at the two men. “I think we should just say nothing for a while. Once he knows Tommy is dead — and possibly little Jenny too — well, he’ll be devastated. But if he were to contract the disease himself, well, he’d be so frightened thinking he might die too. “

The last words hung in the air, the silence in the room palpable.

After what seemed like ages, Jess finally cleared his throat and said very softly, “And would he, Daisy? Would he die?”

Both men stood transfixed, staring at Daisy, who, with all her previous nursing experience, was as good an authority as their good friend Doc Sam.

She looked down for a long time before meeting their eyes squarely. “For any child or elderly person, the odds are stacked against them. But Mike is strong and healthy and he would have a fighting chance,” she finished, her old eyes suddenly brimming with tears.

Jess, who could never stand to see any female cry, was quickly at her side, hunkering down beside her and a comforting arm thrown around her shoulders. “Hey, maybe it won’t come to that, huh?”

“I hope not, dear, I really do…”

“I’ll go tuck him up,” said Jess after a moment. “Make my peace.” He wandered off to the boy’s room.

Jess tapped gently on the door before going in and closing it behind him.

The child was already in bed, the blanket pulled up to his chin and his  innocent blue eyes  looking huge and troubled as he  saw Jess come in and take a seat on the edge of his bed.

The dark-haired cowboy ducked his head and swallowed before looking the boy in the eyes. “Sorry about that, Tiger, I guess I’m kinda tense, got a lot on right now, you know?”

The boy sat up at once and beamed at his hero. “That’s OK, Jess. So I guess it’s kind  of neat that I’m off school right now, I can do all the chores around here while you and Slim finish bringing the stock down.”

Jess grinned back and ruffled the boy’s shaggy blond locks. “Spoken like a true rancher,” he said proudly.

“And I need to do my card for Tommy too,” he said thoughtfully.

Jess’s face fell; he didn’t want to scare the boy, but hell he couldn’t lie to him.

“I should leave that for a while, Tiger. See Tommy is sick — real sick. Guess he’s not well enough to read it right now.”

The boy looked concerned for a moment and then said, “OK Jess. I guess I can wait until I see him. I can say I’m glad he’s better.”

“So, you OK to milk the cow as well as collect the eggs tomorrow?” Jess asked changing the subject.

“Sure, Jess, you can rely on me,” said the boy smiling again.

*****

It was much later, when the two men were retiring for the night in their shared room, when Slim brought up the subject of Jess’s prolonged absence that day.

Jess was already lying on his bed, looking through a catalogue trying to think what Christmas presents to order and wondering if it would be less hassle to just go to the store in town. But he glanced up at where Slim was staring at him towel in hand at the washstand. “Huh?”

“I said, are we to have the pleasure of your company at the ranch tomorrow? I don’t relish spending another day herding those goddamn steers down on my own, Jess!”

“Oh, yeah, yeah… sorry about that buddy. I’ll be here.”

“So?”

“What?”

“So where did you get to today?”

“Oh that,” said Jess glancing back down at the catalogue. “I just had to see a lady.”

“A lady!” exploded Slim, throwing his towel to one side and marching across the room to stand at Jess’s bedside glaring down. “You mean to tell me you spent the whole day romancing some woman when you should have been out on the range?” he spat.

Jess turned hurt eyes on his buddy. “No, it weren’t like that Slim…honest.”

“You and women… I don’t know how you do it, I really don’t. If you’re not in trouble of some sort, then you’re off romancing the women. Really Jess, I despair of you. I…”

“Slim, I said it weren’t like that. Mrs. Rose Adams is nigh on sixty years old and an old friend. She just needed some help is all, and I owe her…well, her dead husband anyways. Figured I should be there for her when she needed me.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so?” asked Slim, backtracking and looking more favorably at his buddy.

“Because I didn’t get a chance,” Jess replied, abandoning the catalogue to beneath his bed before stretching out and regarding his friend with a challenging look.

“Well, go on then. I’m all ears. So who is this Rose Adams and what do you owe her dear departed husband?”

“My life,” said Jess angrily, “and don’t be so darned disrespectful, Slim. Old Seth Adams was a good man and I’m real sad he’s passed over.”

Slim looked immediately contrite, and slumping down on his bed, he gazed over at his buddy. “Gee I’m sorry, Jess; I didn’t realize… So you want to tell me about it?”

“Not much to tell. Rose and Seth Adams where neighbors when I was growing up on the panhandle in Texas. They had two kids similar age to me, Davy and Gin…Ginny, that is,” he said softly, his eyes glazing over at the thought of the beautiful Ginny.

Slim sighed and rolled his eyes before saying, “Go on…”

“Oh yeah,  well, one day  when I was about 13 or so, I was mustanging with Seth and I caught me a real doozy , this real pretty Palomino filly. Geez she was perfection, Slim, but mean…real mean.” Jess sighed deeply at the memory before continuing. “Anyway, I got a rope around her and she pulled me from the saddle. Well, I was just a kid, didn’t have the strength, but I sure wasn’t gonna let her go either.”

Slim sniggered. “Now why doesn’t that surprise me?”

“Do you wanna hear this or not?”

“Sure, sorry, go on Jess.”

“So she pulled me outer the saddle and half way home before she stopped and turned on me. Well, way I was by then, I was more dead than alive and just my stubborn streak holdin’ on, and I could see her hooves thrashing down around me, so I curled up and figured that was the end. And then… “

“Go on,” said Slim enthralled.

“That was when Seth showed up, saw off the horse, patched me up and  took me home, where my Pa practically did for me by thrashing me for goin’ off mustangin’ in  the first place,” he said with a rueful smile.

“Um, that sounds like your Pa,” said Slim darkly, throwing his friend a sympathetic look.

“Yeah, anyway, old Seth laid into my Pa. Said he should be ashamed treating his kids that way and Pa actually backed down. I’ve never forgotten that, Slim. Old Seth always looked out for me after that, even took me in for a while when I was in a bad way after the war.”

Slim nodded. “Sound like a good man.”

“That he was, and so when I got a note from Mose this morning saying Ma Adams was stranded in Laramie, all her worldly goods around her and nobody to help her out, well, I just had to go. You can see that, can’t you, buddy?”

Slim reached over and squeezed his friend’s shoulder. “Yes, sure I can. So why was she stuck there?”

“Well it turns out that her husband died a few months back and so she decided to  up and leave Texas — too many memories — and claim an old ranch that belonged to her cousin left to her in his will. Homer Well’s place just outside Laramie. You know it?”

“Yes, but Homer’s been dead nigh on 12 months; the place is a mess.”

“Yeah, I know…and so does poor old Rose now. See I hired a buckboard and took all her stuff over, settled her in.”

“She’s going to stay there all alone?”

“No, apparently Ginny and her husband are joining her; they just got delayed some. They were supposed to be here already and she only got the message this morning saying they wouldn’t be meeting her and that’s how she ended up stranded.”

“So you decided to play the Good Samaritan,” said Slim with a smile.

“Yeah, well, like I said, I owe it to old Seth’s memory.” With that, Jess turned over and pulled the blanket up. “Night, Slim,” he said sleepily and fell into a deep slumber almost at once.

Slim shook his head, chuckling to himself, always amazed at how quickly his buddy could fall asleep and turning down the lamp he was soon asleep himself.

The next few days were very busy at the ranch, with Slim and Jess spending much of their time bringing the rest of the stock down, but they still managed to spend time with young Mike.

 All the adults watched him like a hawk, looking for any sign or symptom of the dreaded disease, but as the days wore on and he seemed fit and healthy, they relaxed a little.

It was about four days after the school had closed that Mike came to the breakfast table looking flushed and heavy eyed.

Jess was the first to notice as Slim was checking a feed bill while he dug into his bacon and Daisy was in the kitchen brewing more coffee.

Jess immediately put his knife and fork down and said, “Hey, Tiger, you feelin’ OK?”

The boy shook his head. “Nah. Been sneezing and my throat is sore, Jess, I reckon I’ve got a real bad cold like Tommy.”

At this, Slim’s head shot up and Daisy bustled into the room, her concerned eyes peering over at the youngster.

Jess reached across and ran a gentle hand over the boy’s forehead, and feeling it burning hot, he glanced up at Daisy and gave an imperceptible shake of the head. Then he turned to smile at Mike. “How’s about I come and tuck you up again, Mike. You can have breakfast in bed, huh?”

The boy rose from the table and started slowly making his way back to his room, before casting a quick glance back at Jess. “I ain’t hungry, thanks,” he said softly before going back to bed.

Jess ducked his head and closed his eyes tightly, before taking a deep breath and regaining his composure. “Reckon you’d better ride for the Doc, Slim,” he said huskily before rising to attend to the boy.

Daisy got up to accompany him, but he gently put out a hand to prevent her. “What you said earlier, Daisy. This could be a killer for little ones and the older folk too. Forgive me, but we just can’t take the risk. I don’t want you nursing him.”

“But Jess dear, many people don’t even believe it to be contagious. I really think…..”

“No,” he said firmly, “do as I say, at least until Sam has been out.” Then, his eyes looking anguished, he added, “Please, Daisy, this is bad enough without you getting’ sick too.”

She sighed. “Alright dear, as you say.” Then she turned to Slim. “I think we need the Doctor out now, Slim.”

Slim jumped up and was out the door within seconds. Then she heard him ride out of the yard at a gallop, before turning back to the breakfast table where she sank down, feeling for once, every year of her age.

Jess sat by Mike all morning, bathing his hot little body in cool water and reading him stories, but after a while, the youngster complained of a headache and even the stories didn’t calm him, so Jess was more than relieved when he finally heard the Doctor’s buggy drive into the yard.

Within minutes, the tall dapper widower entered, but without his usual cheerful banter.

Jess gave a low whistle. “Gee you look rough, Sam.”

The doctor turned his handsome features to his good friend. “Well, I haven’t seen my bed for the last three nights,” he said succinctly.

“I’m sorry…things that bad in town?”

The doc just nodded and then became aware that Mike was looking up at him with teary eyes and he at once turned his attention to his patient.

After a thorough examination, he withdrew to the main room where Daisy and Slim were anxiously waiting.

“Well doc,” asked Jess, cutting straight to the point, “has he got it?”

The middle aged doc shook his head sadly, before collapsing down on the couch and accepting a coffee from Daisy. He nodded his thanks and then turned to address Jess’s question.

“It’s too early to say, buddy,” he said softly. “It could be in the early stages, or it could just be a really bad head cold, plenty doing the rounds right now…but he was one of Tommy’s friends you say?”

Slim nodded. “Yeah, real close.”

“Um, that’s what I was afraid of.”

Then turning to Daisy, Sam said, “I have been keeping abreast of the latest research back East and there are some schools of thought that this illness is caused by a bacterium that can be passed on and not by insanitary conditions as first thought. I guess we won’t know for a while, but I believe we should at least bear that in mind…and so, close contact could pass it on in theory.”

Jess looked worried. “And is it right that kids and older people are more likely to…catch it…and…well, not survive?” he finished very softly.

The doctor just nodded. “I personally believe so, yes. We have had three more fatalities in Laramie — the stage driver who was in his 60’s and two babies.”

Daisy put a hand to her mouth and gave a little cry at the news. “Oh the poor little souls,” she whispered.

Jess’s face looked grim. “So will you tell Daisy she’s not to nurse him then, Sam.”

The doctor turned sad eyes on his good friend. “I’m sorry Daisy, but Jess is talking sense here, especially after that dose of flu you had a couple of months back. You really mustn’t risk catching it. In fact…” Here he paused and looked concerned.

“Go on, doc,” said Slim gently.

“Well, if indeed it proves that Mike hasn’t got the illness, I think it would be a good idea for you and Mike to go and stay with your sister  back in St Louis, Daisy,” he said, giving her a kindly look. “You’d be much safer there for a while.”

“But what about my boys, Slim and Jess? What if they were to get sick and me not here?” she said sounding distraught.

“Hey, Daisy, we’ll be fine,” said Slim, putting a reassuring arm around her shoulders. “Tough as old boots, me and Jess; don’t worry about us.”

Then they heard Mike coughing and Jess excused himself and went off to care for the boy while the doc made to leave.

Out on the porch, Sam gave Slim a worried look. “Watch out for, Jess. I know you said he was strong, but knowing him, he’ll wear himself down caring for the boy, and anyone can catch it, you know, not just the young and elderly. One of the first victims in Cheyenne was the Deputy Sheriff, as fit a young man as you could find. So take care of yourselves, Slim…all of you, huh?”

Slim nodded. “I’ll watch him; we’ll be careful, Sam. So when will we know either way?”

The doctor looked deeply concerned. “Within about four days. If it’s just a severe cold, he’ll start to rally, be hungry. If it’s not… well then,” and he looked down unable to meet his friends worried gaze.

“If he has got it, what are his chances, Sam?”

The doctor looked at his friend and just shook his head. “Let’s just hope he hasn’t got it, because you could just lose him,” he said quietly patting Slim’s arm. Then he looked up to see Jess standing in the shadows, holding the doctors hat, which he had forgotten in his exhausted state.

Jess came forwards now and handed it to the older man. “That ain’t gonna happen, Sam,” he said very quietly, “not on my watch.” Turning he returned to the house, closing the door firmly behind him.

Sam merely shook his head sadly, and throwing Slim a troubled glance, called that he’d be back in a few days and drove off at speed to the next home visit on his seemingly endless list.

*****

Jess spent all the rest of the day with young Mike, and when the fever increased after the doctor had left, Jess was all for calling him back.

“Hey buddy, there is nothing he can tell us to do that you aren’t already — swabbing him down, giving him plenty of cold water. We’ll just have to wait and see how he is tomorrow,” said Slim.

“I guess you’re right. I just feel so helpless. Poor little tyke,” Jess said looking down at the child twisting and turning in the bed trying to get comfortable. Then glancing at his partner, he said, “Give us a hand getting the spare cot in here, will you, Slim? Figure I’ll sleep the night here.”

Slim opened his mouth to argue, and then realizing it was pointless, just nodded and went to do as he was bid.

Jess spent the next three days at Mike’s bedside, only leaving to wash and grab a quick coffee, and by the evening of the third day, he was really strung out. Slim insisted he come and relax by the fire for a little while as Mike was finally sleeping after some of Daisy’s chamomile tea, which Jess had practically forced down him, knowing that sleep was the best medicine.

Now as he accepted a coffee from Slim, his buddy noticed how Jess’s hands were shaking and figured it was hardly surprising, living on a diet of fresh air and gut rot coffee over the last few days. “Daisy’s turned in, but she left some pie out for you, Jess.”

The dark haired rancher merely stared into the crackling fire and shook his head. “Not hungry.”

“Jess, you have to eat.”

“I said no, didn’t I?” Jess shouted, before ducking his head. “Sorry… sorry Slim. I’m just kinda edgy I guess…”

“Well it’s hardly surprising, trying to exist on coffee and no sleep. Why don’t you let me take over tonight Jess; get your head down for a few hours huh?”

Jess just shook his head stubbornly,”I ain’t leaving him.”

“For goodness sake, Jess, I can care for him as well as you can and you’re going to get sick if you carry on this way. What’ll we do if you catch it, like the Deputy over in Cheyenne did, eh? “

Jess gave him a hard look. “We ain’t sure he’s definitely got it yet. Could still be a real bad cold, and anyway, I’ve thought on that and I figure if either of us is to get sick, it would be better it was me, because you’d be harder to replace.”

“What are you talking about now?”

“Well you have the business head out of the two of us, Slim; your name on all the paperwork, got all the contacts and such, I reckon you could hire someone in to do what I do easy. But you, well, you’re needed here, buddy, to keep everything up and running.”

Slim looked astounded. “You really think that, that I’m more important?”

Jess looked at him and gave a faint smile. “Well I didn’t say that; just harder to replace. “

Slim shook his head. “Oh buddy, you’re wrong so, so wrong. Hell, our whole reputation as horse suppliers is based on your skills. People come from miles around to get critters broke by you, not to mention all the other skills you’ve got. No siree, you’re an equal partner in this ranch in every way, not just on that bit of paper you signed, and don’t you forget it.”

Jess gave him a weak grin. “Thanks, buddy.”

Then Mike called out and Jess got up and left the room quickly, Slim shaking his head and wondering how much longer the living hell they were all going through would last. They needed to know what was wrong with the boy, one way or the other, and with these sad thoughts, he made his way to bed, where he tossed and turned all night long.

He didn’t have too much longer to wait; however, as Jess came and shook him awake early the following morning.

His face looked white against the dark stubble of several days beard growth and his eyes were red with exhaustion. “He’s worse, Slim. Temperature’s sky high and he’s crying with pain when he tries to swallow water. We really need Sam back, pronto.”

Slim sat up and threw his legs over the side of the bed. “I’m on my way; just try and keep him calm and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Later that morning, Sam bustled into the room and, as Jess stood up, he took his place on the edge of the bed and ran a cool hand across the boy’s burning forehead.

“How long’s he been this way, Jess?”

“A couple of hours, maybe more. Can’t even drink now, Sam,” Jess said, his voice thick with emotion.

Sam nodded and felt around the boy’s neck and then told him to open wide and he peered inside his throat. “Hold the lamp real close, will you, Jess?”

Jess did as he was bid and then the doctor said softly, “Um…can you get Slim in? I need his help too.”

Once Slim was there, the doctor again shone the light above the boy’s mouth. “I need you to hold him firmly, Jess, while Slim holds the light steady. I need to take a swab from the back of his throat here.”

The child struggled beneath Jess’s firm grip and retched, but eventually the procedure was completed. After one more look into the mouth, Sam sat back and sighed with relief, a huge grin on his tired face.

Jess held the boy close, patting his back gently to calm him down.

“Well?” said the two ranchers in unison.

Sam looked from Slim to Jess and back. “It’s definitely not diphtheria!”

“But… but he’s so sick Sam? Are you sure?” asked Jess, still looking extremely anxious.

“Positive. What this youngster has is acute tonsillitis.”

“Tonsillitis,” said Slim. “What…you mean he’s got a sore throat?”

“Well, a bit more than that. The lad has a very severe case, but that’s it in a nut shell. Should be on the mend in another few days. You see, you don’t get this very high fever with diphtheria, and see those little white spots on his tonsils at the back?” he said, again getting the child to open wide.

The men peered in and agreed they could.

“Well, in diphtheria, the spots would be larger and yellow, and there would be a grey membrane covering the tonsil and all the palate too. That is what grows across, hinders the breathing. Also, if I swabbed the spots they would be bleeding and raw beneath, but these are just fine.” Then Sam pulled back. “Nope just good old tonsillitis and I’ve some medicine that will help you, son,” he said, grinning at Mike before he got up to leave.

“Back in a minute, Tiger,” said Jess, smiling down at him as Slim ruffled the boy’s hair, before both men left with the doctor.

Once outside, the full implications hit both men and Slim ran to Daisy, taking her in his arms and spinning her around. “It’s OK, Daisy; he’s going to be OK,” he said joyfully and then they all glanced over to where Jess was standing by the fire.

Jess was leaning with his arm on the mantelpiece, his head dropped down onto his arm, and he stood deathly still and silent as though praying.

Sam nodded across and gestured for the others to follow him out to the porch.

Once outside, he closed the door gently behind him. “Figure we’ll give Jess a minute,” he said softly.

Daisy’s old eyes were brimming with tears. “The poor boy, he’s taken the brunt of it all, not letting me or Slim help. He must be exhausted.”

Sam nodded. “I know how he feels.”

“Oh Sam, I’m sorry we had to call you again,” said Daisy full of contrition.

“Well heck, Daisy, I didn’t mind coming out, you know that. I’m just glad it was good news.”

Then his smile died on his face. “Not so good for many people in town, though, I’m afraid. Another couple of fatalities and I can’t see things improving for another few weeks.”

Slim cast him a worried look. “Gee that’s too bad, Sam. Anything we can do to help?”

The older man just shook his head. “Nope, just keep out of town as much as you can, keep an eye on neighbors, especially the elderly on their own.”

“Sure, sure we can do that. Now we’ve brought all the stock safely down, got plenty of time.”

Then Sam turned worried eyes on Daisy. “Still stands what I said, Daisy; you and young Mike would be much safer over with your sister. The boy’s especially vulnerable after this latest bout of tonsillitis will have weakened him some. Seriously consider it, I beg you.”

Daisy patted his hand. “I will, Sam; I promise.” Then the Doctor bid his fond farewells and took off at speed.

Daisy and Slim returned to the ranch house, and on entering, saw Jess slumped down in his rocker opposite the fire.

Slim wandered over and, after casting Daisy a quick glance, sat down on the other chair beside him. “You OK, buddy?”

After a few minutes, Jess turned to look at him. “Yeah, sure I am …now. It was just….. “

“Go on… “

“Just kinda hard, you know… the thought of losing him….”

“Yeah, it’s OK, I know, buddy. But listen Jess, you’ve to let go now; let me and Daisy take over, OK?”

Jess relaxed back. “Sure. Now I know she can’t catch it, I guess I can let her take over… like she wants to,” he said, giving a little chuckle.

Slim slapped him on the back. “You’ll never know how hard it’s been for her having to sit back… “

Then Daisy was there, bustling out of the kitchen with fresh coffee for them all.

She went and checked on Mike and said he was sleeping soundly. Then looking over at her two dear boys, she said softly, “You want me to go and stay with Lily, don’t you?”

Slim nodded and Jess gave her a small smile. “I’m just glad I don’t have to go too,” he said, Lily not being his favorite person.

She gave him a rueful look. “I think she’s mellowed some since you stood up to her that time. Once her husband saw you wouldn’t take any messing from her, well, he was a changed man and now I think she is much more biddable.”

“Um,” said Jess, “well, I guess there was sure room for improvement.”

“Oh, you Jess!” laughed Daisy, remembering Jess’s first meeting with Lily and  his astonished, “is she really your sister, Daisy?”

Then she sobered. “I really don’t want to leave you boys, but I think maybe I should go for Mike’s sake. I couldn’t bear to go through all this uncertainty again should he become sick.”

“You and me both,” said Jess decisively.

“He won’t like it either,” said Slim thoughtfully. “I reckon Lily scares him something fierce.”

“Yeah, well he won’t have no choice,” said Jess firmly. “I’ll speak to him soon as he’s better.”

*****

It was over a week later before Mike was well enough to be out and about again and Jess decided to take the boy off fishing to break the news of the forthcoming trip to him.

Mike went off in high spirits and it was a warm sunny Indian summer day and Jess figured it would be one of the last they would enjoy before the cold winters days arrived.

They spent a happy afternoon together and it was approaching the time for them to leave when Jess dropped the bomb shell of the proposed visit to St Louis.

“What? Stay with that ol’ Lily? But she’s a pickle, Jess, always hollerin’ and wantin you to wash up and be quiet.”

“Well aunt Daisy reckons she’s simmered down some since we last saw her.”

“Aw Jess, I don’t wanna go… …”

Then he turned to his friend, his eyes lighting up,” hey Jess can’t we stay with aunt Daisy’s nice sister, the one as lives in Cheyenne, I really like her.”

“Nope, I’m sorry Tiger, but this sickness is in Cheyenne too, the Stage driver was from there, the one that got real ill.”

Then Jess had an inspired thought. “Well you see it’s this way, Tiger; you know that real bad illness we thought you had?”

“Yeah, dipp…dipth… “

“That’s it Diphtheria, well it can be real serious for youngsters like you and older folk like aunt Daisy, and me and Slim don’t want either of you to get sick and so that’s why you need to go to St Louis, just for a while and I need you to be real brave and look out for aunt Daisy see?”

“I guess, but I still don’t reckon we need go. My friend Tommy had that diphtheria, didn’t he…and he’s OK, ain’t he?” he said, turning innocent wide eyes on Jess.

The young cowboy ducked his head and after a moment pulled the boy close and looking deep into his eyes shook his head,” no Tiger…. No   he ain’t. I’m sorry to tell you, but he died buddy.”

Mike’s eyes opened even wider and his mouth dropped open. “No…no he ain’t,” he shouted. “He’s my friend; he can’t be dead!”

Jess just nodded and after a moment the boy started crying uncontrollably and Jess held him close, gently rubbing his back and talking softly to try and calm him.

After a long time the boy’s weeping finally came to a shuddering halt.

“So do you see now,” he said very softly to the child, “why you have to go away for a while — to keep you safe. Do you see that, Mike?”

“I guess…”

“We really don’t want you to go Tiger, but it’s for the best and you’ll be back for Christmas.”

“Christmas… what about Thanksgiving Jess?”

“Nope, sorry Tiger, that’s in only a couple of weeks; figure you’ll be celebratin’ that in St Louis.”

“W……what about you and Slim?” whispered the youngster, his eyes brimming with tears again.

“Oh heck, me an’ old Hardrock will be just fine, don’t you fret, and  you’ll have  a real swell time in  the big  city and  you can tell us  all about it  when you get back… yeah?” he said trying hard to control his own feelings.

“Come on buddy, I figure aunt Daisy will have supper ready soon and let’s try and be real grown  up about this so we don’t upset her OK?”

“OK Jess… I’ll try,” said the youngster giving his hero a watery smile.

And so it was just a week later Daisy and Mike boarded the stagecoach as a beaming Mose looked on.

“It’s real good to have you on board Miss Daisy”, he said offering her his toothless grin.

Slim and Jess exchanged as glance, knowing how sweet Mose was on their housekeeper, but the usual joke didn’t bring a smile to their faces this time, as they prepared to say their goodbyes.

“You will look after Buttons and Bandit, won’t you?” asked Mike for the hundredth time.

“Sure, sure,” said Jess absently fondling the little dog, Button’s ears.

“I reckon you should be takin’ ol’ Bandit with you for the trip though,” he said grinning up at the boy, now seated in the Stage.

“Oh Jess really, don’t give the child ideas. Can you imagine Lily’s face if we turned up with a raccoon in tow?”

“No, but I reckon it would be kinda interestin’ to see,” he said laughing.

“Oh, go on with you!”

Then Mose was up on the box and Daisy and Mike waving out of the window and moments later the Stage disappeared down the track, leaving the two men looking sadly after it.

“Well I guess that’s it,” said Jess quietly, turning back towards the barn.

Slim followed him over and saw him beginning to tack up Traveler,” so where are you off to… not town Jess you heard what Sam said, it would be a good idea to stay out for a while.”

“Yeah, he also said to keep a look out for elderly folk on their own, so I figured I’d ride over and check out ol’ Ma Adams, make sure she’s OK. I reckon her kin should have landed by now… but even so I’d like to be sure she’s alright.”

“Sure, so I guess it’s down to me to sort out supper then?”

Jess sighed deeply,” yeah……… unless Ma Adams invites me to stay,” he said brightening, before jumping up on his mount and heading off with a final cheeky grin for his buddy.

*****

As soon as he rode into the yard of the Adams ranch he knew all was not well.

There was no sign of life and everywhere was tightly locked up, not even one of the straggly hens she had inherited scratching around the yard.

Jess dismounted and walked purposefully towards the porch, knocked loudly and stood waiting, cocking his head to one side and listening intently to any sounds from within.

When he heard no answer, he became anxious and on trying the door was surprised when it creaked open.

He called out and then entered, but was greeted by silence, and the late afternoon sun shone in through the door showing floating dust motes and a room that had obviously not been occupied recently.

“Mrs. Adams…. Rose……..you about, it’s Jess Harper Ma’am.”

He again listened intently and was finally rewarded by a faint groan coming from the room beyond a partially open door.

He strode over and tapped on the bedroom door tentatively, before opening it a little and peering into the murky darkness within.

“Rose…. You OK?”

“Is that little Jesse Harper come callin’?” asked a weak voice from within.

“Yes Ma’am, can I come in?”

“Yes, come on in child…. I’m sick honey, real sick….”

Jess entered and first went over to the drapes and  pulled them back,  letting  light flood into the dark little room and turning, he took a sharp intake of breath at what he saw, Rose Adams lying in bed as white as a sheet, her breathing coming in rough gasps.

He went over and stooped down beside her. “Hey how long have you been this way Rose?”

“I don’t know, two maybe three days, Jesse. Can you see to the fowl, boy? I haven’t been able to feed them.”

“Sure, sure I will, but let’s get you fixed up first,” and he went and filled a pitcher with water and brought it back to the bed along with a tumbler and helped the elderly lady to sit up and drink.

“Can I fetch you something to eat?”

She just shook her old head,” no boy… I’m not hungry.”

Then staring up at him her old eyes filled with pain,” I think this is it for me Jesse, I’m not going to make it.”

He sat down on the edge of the bed and took her skinny old hand,” hush, sure you are Rose, I’ll ride for the doc. Get one of the ladies from the Church to come by and sit  with you, you’ll be fine you’ll see.”

She shook her old head, “no Jess, a body knows when her time has come… but I need you… to… “

And then she started coughing and it was a while before she could continue.

He gave her some more water and then said, Go on, Rose, what do you want me to do?”

She gestured to the nightstand. “See the letter from my Ginny. Jess she needs help. Can you go to her…. please boy. I wouldn’t ask but…”

“Hey, it’s OK, I’ll ride for the doc and then I’ll go find your Ginny, bring her back with me yeah?”

“No…. not the doc Jess… no…. no point….” Then she eyes opened wide. “Seth… Seth?”

“Rose…. You OK?”

But her eyes had closed and the harsh breaths were becoming less and less frequently, until they came to a shuddering halt…..

“Rose!” he shouted grabbing hold of her shoulders, but he knew even before he saw her head roll back, that she was gone.

He gently laid her back on the pillow, closing his eyes tightly, remembering her past kindness when he was a youngster back on the Panhandle. “Oh Rose,” he whispered quietly, before pulling the sheet up over her face and standing up he picked up the letter from the night stand and walked out into the chill late afternoon air of the yard and shoving the letter into his back pocket went off to tend to the chickens.

Then he rode the half mile into town and made the funeral arrangements and for the body to be picked up and tended to, paying old Charlie the funeral director.

“She a friend of yours then Jess?”

He nodded as he threw some coins down to cover the costs. “Yeah, she was good to me back in Texas. Charlie, look after her for me, real good, will you? “

“Sure I will, boy. What about the funeral? Will there be kin folk? “

“Dunno; I’ll try and tell ‘em in time, not too sure.”

It was late when he finally rode back into the ranch yard and put Traveler up for the night, and when he entered the house he wasn’t surprised to see Slim sitting by the fire sipping a post supper coffee.

He looked up when his buddy entered and grinned at him,” she feed you then?”

Jess just shook his head and slumped down in his rocker and stared into the glowing embers of the fire.

“Sorry Jess I didn’t make you anything, when you didn’t show back I figured she was giving you supper.”

He just shook his head. “It’s OK; I ain’t hungry.”

 Slim looked surprised at this. ”So how was she? Her kin arrived yet?”

Jess just shook his head.

“Jess?”

He gave a deep sigh, “she’s dead Slim.”

“What?”

“Dead, she was able to speak when I went in and then… well she just upped and died on me.”

“Gee, I’m sorry buddy,” he said leaning over and patting his friends arm.

“Was it… you know, the diphtheria?”

“Dunno, I guess so… “

Slim just shook his head sadly.

Then Jess took a deep breath. “Slim, we’re pretty quiet right now, aren’t we? “

“Well yes I guess so; brought all the stock down, just one or two repairs to do. Why do you ask?”

“I need to go away for a while, do one last thing for Rose.”

“Go on.”

“Well you know she had a daughter… Ginny? “

“Yes….. you told me that.”

“According to Rose she’s in trouble and she wants me to go find her, I need to tell her about her Ma too now.”

“So… you and this Ginny… is there a story? “

Jess looked down for a long time before replying, “Yeah, there was something between us…once.”

“And now she’s a respectable married lady right? “

“I guess…”

Slim rolled his eyes. “Why do I get the feeling this is all going to end in tears?”

“Slim, I said there used to be something between us…. one hell of a long time ago, and like I said, she’s married and…”

“So why can’t her husband bail her out then Jess?” asked Slim harshly.

He ducked his head again. “Dunno.”

Then he fished about in his back pocket and brought the letter out waving it triumphantly in front of his buddy’s eyes. “I reckon this should tell us though”.

He opened the envelope and pulling out the creased letter scanned the contents before starting to read to Slim.

Dear Ma,

 I am really sorry but Ben and I won’t be there to meet you in Laramie as promised. I know this will upset you Ma, but Ben is back in prison.

Jess glanced up at his buddy at this, before continuing to read.

As you know, Ben has tried so hard to change his life around since we got together and with my help he had really succeeded and put his old gunslinger ways behind him. But then just last week he visited the bank and was caught up in a raid. The teller was wounded and the robber escaped, rushed past Ben just as he entered… then Ben said suddenly the Bank was full and he was standing there over the teller and everyone assumed he was responsible.

Jess looked up again,” figures,” he said succinctly.

“Go on… “

He is in jail here in Rawlins and he will be staying there until I can somehow find the real culprit. I do believe him Ma; he’s changed so much since you saw him last I promise you.

As soon as we can sort out this sorry mess we will join you as planned.

I’m really sorry Ma and hope you can manage and I will be with you as soon as I am able.

Your loving daughter,

Ginny X

Jess gave a deep sigh,” looks like she’s in more trouble than I thought.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, the guy she married I’ve just realized who it is…… Ben Reeves, one of the most notorious gun fighters in Texas and if he’s reformed, well I’m a Dutchman, Slim,” he said shaking his head sadly.

“So what’re you going to do then Jess?”

“What can I do? I’ve gotta go and sort it out, promised Rose, didn’t I.”

Slim just shook his head. “How in hell do you manage to get yourself in these scrapes Jess?”

He shrugged good-naturedly. “Dunno, buddy, but I’m gonna have to go…. Ride out tomorrow, if that’s OK with you.”

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with a beautiful girl being involved would it Jess?” asked Slim, a twinkle in his eyes.

“So how do you know she’s beautiful?”

He shook his head,” just a random guess,” he said chuckling.

***** 

Jess rode out the following day saying he would be back home as soon as he could.

Slim was leaning on the stall watching his buddy saddle up Traveler,” but not for Thanksgiving I guess,” he said quietly.

Jess glanced up from his task,” no I reckon not, sorry about that Slim, but I figure it wouldn’t be the same without Daisy and Mike anyway.”

“Guess you’re right, I’ll take myself off to Mort’s place I reckon we can celebrate with a bottle of Red Eye just as well as with a Turkey and all the trimmings,” he said, but without conviction.

Jess ducked his head. “Well, guess we’ll just have to make up for it at Christmas; I figure we should all be home by then.”

“Hell I hope so, that’s not for another few weeks; you’d better be back before then Jess! You need to get home before the snows start, which won’t be too long to go up in the mountains; don’t you get stranded over there will you?”

“Sure, sure I won’t, quit your frettin’ and anyway you’ve got old Jake Morris coming in to help you with all the work ain’t you, guess you’ll hardly miss me.”

“Yeah, of course I won’t,” said Slim grinning up at his friend from where he was now seated on his mount.

Jess leaned down and they shook, hands,” watch your back buddy,” said Slim softly.

“Sure, see you soon, might even get you a Christmas present while I’m away, they say there’s some mighty pretty girls over in Rawlins!”

Slim chuckled and waved his buddy off, shaking his head as he returned to the warmth of the ranch house.

*****

It was a couple of days later when Jess finally rode into the town of Rawlins and tethering Traveler outside the sheriff’s office, strode inside.

The Rawlins Sheriff glanced up from his paper work and  then his handsome face was  suddenly wreathed in  smiles as he recognized his visitor and he leapt up from behind his desk and went and clapped his old friend on the back,

” why Jess you old son of a gun, where have you sprung from!”

Jess grinned up at the tall man. “Same place as ever, Red; just left ol’ Slim doin’ all the work on the relay and I’m out here on a mission for an old friend.”

“Well, sit you down buddy,” said Red Smith grinning happily at this unexpected interlude in his busy morning, as he fetched the coffee pot and an extra cup.

Once the two men were settled and Jess had filled him in on all the news of the family and the dreadful Diphtheria epidemic, he finally got to the point.

“So Ginny’s Ma, old Rose Adams is dead?” said Red sorrowfully.

Jess nodded,” yeah so I have to see Ginny and tell her and try and sort this whole sorry business out too Red. So you know Ginny and her husband Ben then?”

“Know him……I’ve got him banged up in the cells out back.”

“Um….… I thought you would have and so where is Ginny then?”

Red shook his head sadly;” I reckon your guess is as good as mine, she’s gone off on the trail of the guy that allegedly robbed the bank, left yesterday.”

“Allegedly, then you don’t believe that story then Red?”

“Well I’d really like to, Jess. I’ve known the couple about six months, moved up here from Texas for a fresh start, but well… you know folks around here aren’t real forgiving and once they heard about Ben’s reputation well, they hounded him, poor Ginny too. that’s why they were selling up and joining her Ma in Laramie… until this business with the bank that is….”

“So what happened?”

“Well the way Ben tells it, he  went to the  bank real early, saw a local man, Comanche Bill in there , half Indian with a white Ma… a real low life, but not in  trouble of this kind before that’s for sure. Anyways, Ben says he’d hit the cashier on the back of the head, just snuck in and took him unawares apparently, it was real early no one about, but Ben. So before he could raise the alarm Comanche Bill, hightailed it out the back and away and when several folks entered they saw Ben leaning over the cashier and the safe open, well what were they supposed to think?”

“Have you caught up with this … Comanche Bill?”

“Yeah, later that morning in with one of the Saloon girls, she offered him an alibi, said he’d been with her all night.”

“And you believed her?”

“Didn’t have much choice Jess, several honest citizens saw Ben in there by the cashier and Bonnie covered for Bill, well what else can I do?”

“So where is he now?”

“Gone back up the mountain, got a shack up there, I reckon that’s where Ginny is heading, I tried to stop her, but that’s one determined young lady.”

“Don’t I know it,” muttered Jess.

“So you know her well?” asked Red, a twinkle in his deep brown eyes.

“Yeah, you could say.”

“And you know Ben too?”

“Oh yes we’ve had the pleasure,” drawled Jess sardonically.

“I take it you don’t like him too much.”

Jess shook his head. “One of those hombres hears you’re a fast gun and just has to try you out no matter what.”

“And he did that to you, called you out… just for a shoot-out?”

Jess nodded. “He thought he was faster, just had to prove it.”

Red studied his friend for a moment. “And did he?” he asked quietly.

Jess grinned across at him,” nah… I just winged him; only thing that was hurt was his pride I guess.”

Red gave a low whistle,” and then he upped and married the lovely Ginny.”

Jess nodded, “can’t figure that, thought she had better taste.”

“Well there’s no figuring women folk; I reckon we’ve both learnt that over the years buddy.”

“That’s for sure,” Jess grinned back.

“So you want to see the prisoner, make up your own mind about whether he’s innocent or not?”

Jess sighed,” yeah I guess I’d better, then I’ll take off after Ginny afore she gets herself into even more trouble.”

Red led him through into the cells,” visitor for you Ben,” and left the two men alone.

Ben’s head shot up, from where he was lounging on the bunk.

“You,” he spat, “what in hell are you doing here Harper?”

“Come to help out your Mrs.; reckon she needs all the friends she can get right now.”

“Um… figure you’d be sniffing around once you knew I was banged up…….I shouldn’t be surprised as that was why she was so all fired keen on moving to Laramie, knowing you lived just down the road.”

Jess shook his head in amazement. “You’re crazy, all that was a long time ago. She’s married to you now, Reeves, for better or worse. I’m just here to try and help you both out some.”

“Well, I reckon you can help her all you like, but forget about me.”

“What are you sayin’?”

“That me and Ginny are through, finished and you can tell her that when you catch up with her. I ain’t no good for her.”

Jess’ eyes flashed in anger. “Stop feeling so dang sorry for yourself. I’m here to help you man whether you like it or not, now just simmer down and tell me exactly what happened……”

It was over an hour later when Jess finally called for Red to let him out.

As he left though, Ben called him back.

“Look Harper, we’ve had our differences in the past, but….” he sighed,” well I guess I really appreciate what you’re doing…. And I meant it about Ginny, tell her to move  on… no matter how this pans out, guess she deserves better than me… you tell her you hear?” he called as Jess moved off.

He spun around at that. “No, I ain’t doin’ your dirty work for you, Ben. You want to finish with her, you tell her to her face; I want no part of it you understand? And the only reason I’m here is because it was Rose’s last wish, I promised her see……. that’s the only reason, nothing to do with me an’ Ginny, you understand?” he said again firmly.

The older man just shook his head and slumped down on the bunk. “Well, I hear you,” he said quietly and Jess turned and marched out.

Once back in the office Red cast a glance at his good friend,” you were a bit harsh there weren’t you buddy?”

Jess just shook his head, “um maybe I….”

“What…… maybe there is a grain of truth in what he’s implying, you’re here for Ginny?”

Jess turned troubled eyes on his good friend,” yes maybe,” he said very quietly, before turning to leave.

“I’m gonna get Traveler fixed up in the livery, meet you for a drink later?”

The Sheriff’s eye’s crinkled as he grinned back,” sure buddy, catch you later.”

Later that night Jess and Red sat at a quiet table at the back of the saloon enjoying a relaxed drink together.

“Can’t believe it’s going to be Thanksgiving in another few days,” said Red grinning over at his friend, “figure it will be a bit different for you this year, what with Daisy and Mike off in St Louis  and Slim  back at the ranch alone… you out here.”

Jess just nodded,” well I figure it’s just another day ain’t it?”

Red ducked his head and then looked across at his buddy, “well I guess it was all those years you were on the drift, but figure you’ve moved on from that Jess, your family and friends are real important to you now and especially at this time of year.”

He just nodded. “I guess, but that’s just the way it has to be right now.”

“You’re welcome  to come to my place for the holiday,” Red said beaming at him,” the wife would be real pleased to see you again, not to mention my Ma, she thinks you’re almost as wonderful as I am,” he said chuckling.

“Well that’s real kind of you Red, but figure I’ll be riding out first thing tomorrow, need to catch up with Ginny, sort all this stuff out for her.”

Red threw him a speculative look,” so what’s the story between you two then?”

Jess looked down into his glass for a long time before answering.

“Well we grew up on the panhandle together Red. Her Pa and Ma were real good to me and I used to hang around with Ginny and her brother, and then it was just me and Ginny…. Well, you know what young boys are like. We were just kids really, fourteen, but it seemed… well real important at the time. Hell, I thought I was in love, Red, her so cute an’ all….”

“Yeah, I sure know,” said Red his eyes glazing over as he remembered girls from his youth.

Jess took a deep breath,” anyway, we were real close, up until the Banisters fired my place.”

Red knew all about Jess having lost his family home and most of his kin in a fire set by the Banister gang, and how he lit off after them, aged just fifteen, vengeance in his young heart.

“So what happened after that, did you ever meet up again.”

“Yeah… yeah we did, it was just after the war and I’d gone back to Texas, but there was nothing there for me anymore…. Nothing except Ginny that is…..”

“Go on.”

“Well, we met up and it was just like we’d never been apart, she was just as keen , and just as beautiful, wanted it all…. you know?” he asked turning sad eyes on his friend.

“A spread of our own, marriage…kids….”

He looked down and sighed deeply, “but I wasn’t ready, had a whole lot of living to do…… I’d still gotta a lot of pain in my heart too, from the fire… the war… just stuff…… you know? “

“Yeah, sure buddy I know alright, it wasn’t easy for any of us after the war, settling down again”.

“Well… I guess I broke her heart, said I couldn’t do it….. and rode out, haven’t seen her since.”

Red looked over with kind eyes,” so I  figure you meant it when you said you owed her, it is about Ginny, not just her  Ma isn’t it?”

“Yeah…… I guess so.”

*******

 A little later Red made to leave. “Sure you don’t want to bunk down at our place? We’re a bit cramped now; we’ve got the baby, but you’re more than welcome to the couch, Jess boy.”

“No thanks, Red; figure I’ll bunk down with ol’ Trav at the livery, be off at first light.”

“OK buddy,” Red stood up and  leaned over to shake hands,” safe trip and I’ll see you when you get back, hopefully with that Comanche Bill ready to tell the truth,” he grinned.

“Yeah, hopefully,” said Jess smiling as his friend left.

He sat on for a while and then draining his glass wandered over to the bar.

“Is Bonnie around?” he said looking across at the surly faced barkeep.

He nodded, “she don’t come cheap mister.”

“Oh I ain’t buyin’; just want a word with her is all.”

“You want a word with her, you’re buyin’,” he said throwing Jess a hard look. “What do you think I keep her for, I’m running a business here mister.”

Jess sighed,” OK; Ok simmer down, which room?”

“Number 3 top of the stairs and like I say she’s a popular girl charges top rate.”

Jess ran lightly up the stairs and knocked at number three and after a moment the door was pulled open by a scantily clad sultry looking blond woman.

“Bonnie?”

“Well, hello stranger,” she said pulling the door open wider, obviously liking what she saw.

Jess went in and closed the door behind him and surveyed the dingy looking room housing nothing but a huge bed and a screen from which some black underwear and a garish feather bower hung.

Then he looked back at Bonnie wearing just a skimpy black negligee and a huge smile.

“Well come along in  honey, don’t be shy,” she said moving swiftly over and  running an experienced hand down his shirt front, stopping  at  his belt buckle and throwing him a  suggestive   look from under her shaggy blond fringe.

Close to, she was much older than first impressions, late thirties maybe even forty and the smell of her cheap scent was overpowering.

Jess took an involuntary step backwards and said quickly,” I ain’t here to do business with you Ma’am; I just wanna ask you a few questions.”

She pouted in a little girl like manner which hardly sat well with her age and demeanor, and said, “Oh now that’s just too bad, honey, but I guess I can answer questions and do a little business too, huh?” she asked shimmying up even closer and undoing the top couple of buttons  of his shirt.

He grabbed hold of her hand and pushed it roughly away.

“I guess you didn’t hear me right, Ma’am; I just need some questions answered.”

She looked slightly hurt and flounced off and sat on the edge of the bed, crossing her legs to show an ample amount of shapely thigh, before leaning over and taking a cigarette from the nightstand and looking up expectantly at Jess.

He walked over and taking a match from his vest pocket, struck it on the seat of his denims and leaned forwards to light the cigarette for her.

She took a deep inhalation and then blew the smoke seductively out into his face before giving him a slow sexy smile.

“So what’s your name honey and what do you want to know?”

“The name’s Jess Harper and I wanna know why you lied about being with Comanche Bill when the Bank was robbed.”

Her eyes opened wide in shock, “what’s your game mister… who are you… the law or something?”

“I just told you, didn’t I. Jess Harper and I’m a good friend of Ginny Reeves, wife of that poor idiot that’s banged up in jail for something your friend Bill did.”

She looked down,” and why do you think that?”

“Because Ben Reeves told me and I believe him.”

She took another deep drag on the cigarette her face wreathed in blue smoke and her eyes squinted up at him as she said, “And so what’s in it for me if I tell you the truth?”

“Well let’s put it this way, I figure you’re goin’ to be in big trouble if you don’t come clean,” and he advanced and fixed her with an icy stare.

She looked down and swallowed hard, “Ok I’ll tell you the truth, but you tell your friend Red Smith and I’ll just deny everything.”

“Go on,” he said ominously quietly.

She stared up at him again and then gave him a defiant look,” sure I lied for him, he did the job, or I should say bungled it, had the safe open and then that Ben walked in so he scarpered without the money, high-tailed it up here and said as how I was to say he’d been with me all night.”

“Now why would you wanna say a darn fool thing like that?” he asked his eyes still hard.

“Because he did the robbery for me, I’ve a notion to go west to California and I said I’d go along with Bill if he could find the stake money for us to go with the wagon train.”

Jess shook his head sadly,” and then you’d have ditched him the minute you arrived.”

“Well what do you think honey?”

Then she arose from the bed and  walked over to him and grabbing hold of his belt pulled him in close,” you’re much more my style,” she said peering up at him  seductively.

He looked down and  for a split second felt sorry for her, but she took the fact that he didn’t pull away to be a sign of his interest in  her and reaching up she kissed him hard.

He kissed her back thoroughly, but then pulled back, squinting down at her for a moment before disentangling himself from her arms and turning away.

She grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him back to face her,” you’re not going?” she said in amazement.

He just nodded,” I don’t pay for it Bonnie, never have…”

She looked down sadly,” no well I guess a man like you wouldn’t have to.”

Then he took pity on her and reaching in his pocket took out several coins and threw them on the bed.

Her face was suddenly alight with pleasure once more and she moved towards him.

“I thought you said you didn’t pay for it honey?” she whispered gazing up into those fascinating deep blue eyes.

“I don’t,” he said softly,” that’s for the information, goodnight Ma’am,” and with that he left, closing the door quietly and leaving her staring bleakly after him.

*****

He was up at first light and on his way towards the distant mountain range as the first rays of sun shone down warming his back.

It was yet another wonderful Indian summer’s day although it  was now late fall and Jess wandered how long his luck would last and if indeed he would be able to complete his business before the weather broke and the first winter snows began.

It was early morning on the second day of his journey and he was in the mountain foothills when he saw the smoke from a campfire over the next ridge and dismounting he walked Traveler up to the top of the ridge and gazed down wondering who could be abroad in this desolate area, save a mountain man or maybe a drifter. He certainly didn’t expect to find Ginny yet as he figured she would be much further ahead of him, so it was with surprise and pleasure that he looked down to see her diminutive figure standing over the fire, her back to him.

Hopping back up in the saddle he made his way down to her at a steady walk and he was nearly upon the camp before she spun round reaching for a rifle propped up nearby and training it on the approaching stranger.

“Hold it right there mister,” she said gruffly, squinting at the lone rider through the smoke from the fire.

“Hey don’t shoot me Ma’am, I don’t mean you no harm,” said Jess gazing down at her, a smile playing around his lips.

As Traveler walked slowly forwards she was suddenly able to see who it was.

“Jess… Jesse Harper that you?” she asked her voice alight with joy and her deep brown eyes sparkling with delight.

He jumped down from the saddle and ran towards her and she threw the rifle down and ran straight into his arms.

He held her tightly, breathing in her delicate perfume before softly kissing the top of her head and then pushing her gently away so that he could look at her properly.

Even though she’d been on the trail for a couple of days she was immaculate, from her glossy dark brown hair that fell to her shoulders, down to her highly polished boots. She wore a tightly fitting crisp white shirt; open at the neck and showing a glimpse of tanned cleavage and her skin tight denims showed off her curvy figure to perfection.

She threw him an amused look, “guess you’ll know me again then cowboy.”

 Jess cast his eyes down, knowing he’d been staring and that his glance had headed south for far too long as he had drunk in the delightful vision there, of her open shirt and the tantalizing glimpse of tanned skin.

Quickly pulling himself together, he said, “Well, I ain’t cast eyes on you for so long sweetheart, guess I’ve got to get reacquainted.”

She laughed at that,” well do you like what you see then?” she asked throwing a little pose for him.

He just nodded, ‘way too much’, he said to himself, remembering suddenly that she was now somebody else’s wife.

“So how are you then Mrs. Reeves,” he said, deciding he should get their relationship on the proper footing right from the start.

“Oh, why so formal?” she said glancing up and throwing him a challenging look.

“Well you are married now ain’t you?” he said firmly.

She nodded and continued giving him the challenging look, “well you didn’t think I was going to wait around for you all my life did you Jess?”

He looked down quickly and flushed a little before looking back into her steady gaze. “No, I guess not,” he said finally.

She sighed and looked away for a moment and then gathering herself, said,” so what are you doing here, did Ma send you? “

At the mention of Rose Jess’s heart missed a beat and the thought of what he had to tell her daughter made him feel suddenly wretched.

He just nodded avoiding eye contact and then said quietly,” you got any coffee on the go sweetheart?”

She nodded gesturing to the pot on the fire, “I’ve plenty, sit,” and they hunkered down by the fire as she poured them both brimming cups of the strong brew.

They enjoyed the drink in a companionable silence for a while and then Jess took another sip and looked at her over the rim before lowering the cup and setting it down.

Something in his demeanor suddenly alerted her. “Jess…what is it?”

He very gently took the cup from her and taking her hand pulled her up so they stood staring into each other’s eyes.

“Jess?”

“It’s your Ma, Ginny…. Hell, I’m so dang sorry……..but she’s dead.”

Her chin came up and her eyes widened in total shock. “Dead… you say Ma’s…….. dead?”

He just nodded and then took her in his arms and held her close as she started to weep silently.

A long time later she finally pulled away and looking up into his concerned deep blue eyes said, “What was it, how did she die?”

“She caught the Diphtheria, there’s a real bad epidemic over in Laramie, lost a lot of folks, the young and the elderly… I thought my boy had it… been tending to him…. or I’d have checked her sooner. I’m so sorry Ginny, from what she said when I helped her move in I expected you to arrive any day. Wasn’t until I checked on her last week I realized you weren’t there…. “

“I should have been,” she burst out… “It’s all my fault; I should have been there for her,” and she started crying again.

He held her gently rubbing her back to sooth her as he would have done Mike and eventually she settled again and they sat back down by the fire.

“Your boy was sick you say,” she said, “you have a son…and is he OK?”

Jess smiled across at her, “gotta a real cute little boy, he landed at the ranch a few years back, been found on the trail, parents both murdered in an Indian raid.”

She looked shocked, “oh how terrible the poor child.”

“Yeah,” said Jess ducking his head,” but he’s a real strong kid, got over it mostly… anyways Slim, my buddy and I adopted him, treat him like our own kin now.”

“You must be very fond of him… and he’s OK you say?”

“Yes thank God,” he said softly. “Turns out it was  just real bad tonsillitis, so once he was well we parceled him and Miss Daisy, our housekeeper, off up to St Louis until things settle down.”

She nodded,” I see… so Ma did you speak to her before…. You know….”

Jess nodded and said as to how her last request had been that Jess take off and help Ginny and Ben.

When she heard this she put a hand out and gently stroked his arm.

“Bless you and thank you for coming Jess… I don’t know what I was going to do, I was just so dang mad that I took off after this Comanche Bill… and then yesterday Beauty went lame and….”

“Beauty?”

She nodded over to where a graceful Palomino was grazing a little way off.

Jess at once went over and checked the animal out and returning he smiled down at her.

“She seems fine, just a bruise on the front nearside leg, figure she kicked a stone up, should be alright to ride by tomorrow.”

She heaved a sigh of relief, “thank goodness you’re here,” she said again smiling up at him.

They settled down to chatting and then Jess went off to scare up a couple of rabbits for supper and afterwards they settled down for the night with a final coffee, enlivened with a drop of Red Rye that the Sheriff had given Jess.

They were sitting in front of the glowing embers when Jess finally asked what he had wanted to since he first landed,” so why did you marry Ben Reeves then?”

She looked up from where she was sitting beside him, their bedrolls a chaste distance apart and said, “Well, like I said, I got pretty tired of waiting for you to come back and I figured he was the next best thing.”

Jess looked surprised at this,” so you rate him then? “

“Sure I do, why in hell do you think I’d up and marry him Jess, he’s a real good man… but like you, he’d got real big problems too….he’s had it hard and it’s been really  difficult for him to turn things around… but  he really is trying you know?”

“He is? “

“Sure he is, he was OK with us going to live with Ma…. even knowing you were just down the road, so I figure that shows that he cares for me, willing to make an effort and trusts me.”

Jess looked down. “Yeah, I guess you’re right and all that was in the past, we were just kids, weren’t we. Was never really too serious I guess.”

She gave him a thoughtful look,” you think not?”

He blushed and looked down, “guess it doesn’t matter now anyway does it, like I said we’ve moved on and you’re married… and … well I hope it works out for you Ginny, I really do.”

Then he remembered the conversation he’s had with Ben, when he’d said he wanted to end the relationship and felt terrible keeping this from her. But Hell it was none of his business and like he’d said it was down to Ben to make or break his relationship with her, not Jess.

*****

As Jess had predicted Ginny’s mount was fit by morning and the two rode on up towards the mountain range shortly after dawn.

“So you know where you’re heading then?” asked Jess.

“Yes, I think so, not too many places up on this side of the mountain and apparently it’s just the other side of a small lake, I reckon we can’t miss it.”

“Um,” said Jess thoughtfully,” and then I guess we just have to beat the truth out of him huh?”

She grinned across, “same old Jess,” she giggled, “yes I suppose that’s about the truth of it.”

 Then giving him a sincere look,” Ben is innocent you know Jess.”

“Oh yes I know he is”.

She gave him a questioning look.

“I chatted to Bonnie; turns out she gave Comanche Bill a false alibi.”

Her eyes opened wide in surprise, “she admitted that to you?”

“Yeah, after a little persuasion.”

“Um, it’s usually her doing all the persuading from what I hear, knows her way around a man pretty good, so the word is.”

“Um, well she didn’t get a chance with this one,” he said sardonically.

She raised an eyebrow,” so didn’t get your money’s worth from her then, after you’d finished interrogating her?”

Jess just gave her a cool look, “you know me better than that.”

She looked down blushing at the rebuke,” yes, of course I do… sorry.”

“Come on,” he said briskly, “let’s pick up the pace; I’d kinda like to be home for Christmas, you know,” and he kicked Traveler on to a brisk trot, Ginny matching his speed as they carried on up the steep trail.

It was shortly after noon that the lake came into view in a small valley below them, the shack clearly visible on the opposite shore, but even from a distance it looked unoccupied. No sign of life anywhere around outside, no stock in the small corral and no smoke issuing from the cookhouse chimney.

Even so Jess insisted on entering the area alone,  when they arrived an hour or so later, making sure Ginny kept well out of sight behind a little thicket of trees a distance back down the trail.

“I’ll whistle you to give the all clear,” he said as he went stealthily off on foot.

He made it across the yard and then shimmied up to a window and peered within and was rewarded by a completely empty room save a few sticks of furniture and a cold empty grate.

After a moment, he kicked the door open his gun in his hand and called out, but his voice merely echoed through the empty building, the dust and stillness making it obvious that it had not been recently occupied.

He checked out the back and then the lean to barn and found it all equally deserted and then he put two fingers in his mouth and gave a shrill whistle and shortly afterwards Ginny came into view leading the horses behind her.

“He’s not here?”

“Nope, not a sign of him in the house, but there are some tracks out the back leading up the mountain, he could have gone further up, but can’t for the life of me figure as to why, the snow will be down in a matter of weeks, unless he’s got another hideaway up there.”

“Do you think he thought the Sheriff would have found out Bonnie lied and was going to come after him, got him running scared?”

“Dunno, a possibility I suppose; figure we’ll just have to follow him up there,” he said craning his neck to look up towards the steep mountain trail.

She just nodded, and casting her a quick glance, he saw how exhausted she looked.

“Figure we’ll leave it until tomorrow though huh?”

She gave him a tired smile, “well it would be mighty tempting to have a proper roof over our heads and have a meal cooked on the stove.”

He grinned across at her. “OK I’ll go get us something for supper while you clean the place up some and get a fire goin’, deal?”

“Deal,” she grinned back.

When he got back an hour or so later with a small wild turkey, she had transformed the place with a fire crackling in the grate, lamps lit and she’d swept up and even found a bright Indian rug to throw over the threadbare couch, pulled up in front of the fire.

He beamed at her as he entered. “A real little home maker ain’t you?” he said his blue eyes twinkling in merriment.

And then he saw that she had changed into a very becoming low cut blue dress and had piled her hair up giving her a look of sophistication and beauty and was amazed that she had such clothes out on the trail. But then he remembered what store she had always held by being properly dressed for every occasion and hid a smile.

“You scrub up pretty good yourself too,” he said softly.

“Why thank you kind sir, now you go and wash up, while I get supper started,” she said smiling across at him.

They sat down to the meal a couple of hours later and it smelt delicious.

They were just about to commence eating when Jess put a hand over hers to stop her picking up her knife and she gave him an enquiring look.

“Figure I’ll say the Blessing,” he said, “seein’ as how it’s a special day.”

She looked perplexed for a moment and then said, “No… don’t tell me. Is it Thanksgiving?”

“I reckon so.”

She shook her head in disbelief,” I’d completely lost track of the days.”

He nodded and then held her hand and dipped his head.

“Dear Lord, please bless this food and the folk around this table tonight, far from home and their loved ones. Remember those we care for, and keep them safe until we can be together again, in your lovin’ mercy, Amen.”

“Amen,” she repeated and then looked him in the eyes,” that was beautiful,” she said softly.

He looked a little embarrassed but just said, “Well I guess I’ve picked it up off of Slim; he’s got a good way with words, usually says a Blessin’ when it’s called for, sometimes makes a speech, or toast at special family meals, you know.”

“Slim is your friend, back at the ranch?”

“Yeah, my best buddy and business partner too, I’m an equal partner in the Ranch and Relay,” he said with a hint of pride.

She smiled across at him and shook her head, “the wild Jess Harper all domesticated with a kid and his own business, well who’d have thought it.”

He grinned back, “not completely domesticated, I still have the odd wild moment every now and again,” he said winking at her.

“So… you’ve never found the right girl to settle down with?” she asked casting him a coquettish glance.

He looked down at his food, his face suddenly a mask, closed and very still.

“Jess?” she asked the smile on her face freezing as she saw the look of desolation in his deep blue eyes as he looked across at her.

“There was once yes,” he said quietly,” I was engaged to be married.”

“So what happened?”

“She died…… was murdered.”

She put a hand over his,” Oh Jess, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.”

“How could you? That’s OK…. was a long time ago now anyways…. and sure there have been girls, but I guess there’s always been something that happened to stop me…. Sometimes I figure it’s better to be alone than with the wrong person.”

She just nodded thoughtfully and they continued their meal in silence.

Then after a while he poured them both a glass of the Red Eye whiskey and they started chatting about this and that until the meal was over.

“That was wonderful, thanks,” he said smiling at her and they took their coffee and another couple of drinks over to the couch by the fire.

“It feels kinda strange not being with the family for the holiday,” he said after a while.

“Um, same for me, I keep thinking of poor old Ben locked up.”

“You two been together long then?”

“About three years on and off.”

“On and off?”

“Yes, he sort of gets  these moods on him when he reckons he’s not good enough for me, tries to end the relationship, but I always talk him around in  the end,” she said with a rueful smile.

Jess looked uncomfortable at this and shifted a little in his seat staring deep into the glowing embers of the fire.

Again she became alerted to his mood, always having been able to tune into his feelings and emotions.

“Jess did he say something to you?”

“Huh?”

“You know fine what I mean. Did he ask you to tell me it was over?”

“Um… I don’t recall; we talked a lot… about the trouble he was in and all… “

“Jess Harper, I know when you’re lying. He did, didn’t he… asked you to tell me, I bet? “

He knew he couldn’t lie to her.

“I guess,” he said very quietly, before glancing over to where she was sitting close to him, her expression stricken.

 Then he saw the tears brimming up in her eyes and felt terrible.

“Hey baby, don’t cry, I figure he didn’t mean it, was just real upset about everything…”

Then he saw a tear run down her cheek and couldn’t bear it.

“Don’t,” he whispered, leaning forwards and wiping it gently away with a finger.

Their eyes locked and very slowly he moved in closer staring at her lips and then back up into her eyes and then…..

There was a furious rapping on the door and the couple sprang apart.

Jess was up and with his gun in his hand in one fluid movement as he went to the door and pulling it open stood staring at a ragged little man, teetering on the doorstep, looking more than a mite tipsy.

He squinted up at Jess and looked momentarily puzzled, then looked the cowboy up and down again and said in surprise…”Bill?”

“Ain’t here,” said Jess gruffly, “what do you want?”

Then the old man took in the gun pointed at his belly and swiftly put his hands up, “hey I don’t mean no harm mister; just come to see if Ol’ Bill had got my grog.”

“Huh?”

“Bill, Comanche Bill… you must know him seeing as how you’re stayin’ in his place?”

“Err, sure, sure I know him, was expectin’ to see him, come visiting’ and no sign.”

“Well of course he ain’t here is he, like I  keep sayin’ he’s gone up the mountain to fetch the Christmas grog down from the still, he said relaxing somewhat and lowering his arms, figuring the  young cowboy bore no real threat.”

“And so where would that be then?”

The old timer tapped his nose and grinned. “Well, that would be tellin’.”

“Yeah,” said Jess brusquely, “an’ that’s exactly what I want you to do.”

The old man looked suddenly perturbed. “Hell, you ain’t the law, are you, boy?”

“No I ain’t the law, just need to see ol’ Bill on some urgent business so you just tell me exactly where he is an’ we can part  as friends and you can keep that ol’ head on your shoulders, where it belongs.”

The diminutive man staggered a little and tried to process this latest information before saying, “Well, no need to get nasty, mister. Sure, I’ll tell,” and then proceeded to give instructions as to the whereabouts of the illicit still and the small band of Mountain Men who worked it.

Once he’d finished Jess holstered his gun and grinned down at the strange little man that reminded him a little of Jonsey when he’s been on the medicinal whiskey.

“Well I’ll be off, seein’ as how Bill ain’t here,” he said sorrowfully and walked of a little way.

Then turning back retraced his steps and looking up at Jess said sincerely,” watch your back with those Mountain Men up in the hills boy, they’re kinda protective of their moonlightin’ activities, don’t take kindly to strangers poking around.”

“Thanks for the tip,” said Jess and watched as the old man staggered off forlornly into the night, all hope of the appearance of his Christmas grog gone, for the time being at least.

When he returned inside he knew that the mood of intimacy between them had been shattered and he suggested they turn in and make an early start in the morning, now very uncertain of his feelings and somewhat embarrassed about what he had been considering doing just a few minutes before.

 He quickly pulled the one cot out near the fire for Ginny then threw his bedroll on to the old couch, making the sleeping arrangements obvious, lest she were in any doubt as to his intentions.

Then he said he would go and check on the horses, giving her some privacy to prepare for bed and when he returned, sometime later, there was just one lamp left burning low for him and Ginny was in bed and looked to be asleep.

Once he was lying down in the darkened room his mind was spinning, had he really been going to reach out and kiss her before…….. and if he had done, would it have stopped at that… he thought not.

What in Hell are you playin’ at, Harper, he thought to himself as he struggled to get comfortable on the old couch, are you plum crazy ….. and with that unhappy thought he finally fell into a troubled sleep.

The following morning the couple trod softly around each other, Jess avoiding eye contact and both of them talking little over breakfast, the relations strained after the near intimacy of the previous evening, both feeling wary of rekindling their passionate past.

As soon as breakfast was over Jess said he’d go and saddle the horses leaving Ginny to pack up and they were soon on the trail again, working their way up the steep path, between huge pine trees, which led to the secret caves near the crest of the mountain where the Mountain men lived with their illicit still.

After an hour or so of riding in silence Jess had, had enough. This is mad he said to himself, hell we’re old friends, sure things got a bit out of hand last night , but that was just the whiskey and them  missing their friends with it being Thanksgiving… nothing more than that.

He turned and grinned at Ginny. “Guess we’ll make it before nightfall, find our man and be back to liberate your husband before you know it,” he said cheerfully.

She grimaced back,” you think it’s going to be that easy Jess?”

He shook his head,” probably not, but guess we can hope,” and giving her another cheeky grin kicked his horse on to a greater pace, just wanting  to be done with it all, and  to get himself back home… home for Christmas he thought with a  wistful sigh.

It was getting on for noon by the time they came to the place that Comanche Bill’s neighbor had told them about and were passing through a deep ravine, with massive boulders overlooking it.

Jess was just wondering what sort of reception they would receive when they finally encountered the men from the mountains, figuring it would be a less than welcome meeting, when he suddenly found out, as a tall man wearing buckskin from head to foot, stood on a boulder above and training a rifle on them called out, “Hold it right there.”

 Jess instinctively went for his gun, but seeing the rifle move to point at Ginny’s head he froze and then holstered the gun that had been in his hand in the blink of an eye.

“Good move,” said the older man,” now slide down from the saddle real slow and git yerselves over here,” he said gesturing with his gun to where the trail opened out just in front of them.

Jess cast a glance backwards to see Ginny looking pale and scared,” you OK?” he whispered.

She shook her  head, but  jumped down from her mount as requested and the two made their way forwards,  on through the ravine to what turned out to out to be an open sparsely wooded area with caves in front of them, before the trail continued on  further  up the mountain and another trail forking off and heading back down.

The rough looking character jumped lightly down from the boulder and was shortly joined by two younger men all having similar features with swarthy completions, beady brown eyes and long shaggy hair framing their unprepossessing faces.

The spokesman was much older than the others and had grey hair and rheumy watering eyes whilst the younger men looked like his sons, Jess thought.

Jess was reminded of an old acquaintance Denver James and his two boys Mick and Cody and was suddenly filled with dread as he realized who this unbecoming trio most probably were, Denver’s older brother Carson James and his son’s Bull and Jackie.

Denver and his family were pleasant enough, if a little wary of Jess’s history of deputizing for the Sheriff, but when the chips were down they had always helped him  out and even shared their vittles’ and on one occasion patched him up when  he’d been shot.

However if the word on the street was to be believed Carson and his family where a completely different kettle of fish and were semi reclusive, having little to do with their kin, or any of the other mountain dwellers preferring to make their living by selling the  proceeds from their  illicit still rather than fur trapping. It was known that they had a bitter hatred of strangers, especially lawmen and any other hapless person who presumed to trespass on what they saw as their domain.

 Now Jess decided that maybe the best way around the situation was to rein in his usual hot temper and try and reason with these renegades, Ginny’s safety being foremost in his mind.

He looked the scrawny, older man in the eye and said,” Howdy mister, name’s Jess Harper and this here is Ginny Reeves; we’re lookin’ for Comanche Bill?”

You are, are you. Well you won’t find him here.”

“Not what I’ve been told.”

“Well, you been told wrong then,” spat the older man.

Jess sighed deeply. “So who am I talkin’ to?”

“Name’s Carson, Carson James, if it’s any of your business.”

Jess’s heart sank, but he still smiled at him,” well, pleased to meet you, Carson; I’m a friend of Denver James and his boys.”

The older man’s eyes narrowed and he looked suddenly aggravated, “that low life scum of a brother and his useless offspring?” he yelled seeming very much affronted.

Then the shorter of the two boys came forwards and waving his rifle in Jess’s direction said, “is he a lawman Pa?”

“Good question son.”

He turned on Jess. “So are you?”

Jess just shook his head, standing his ground, “no I ain’t.”

The old man looked down and then back at Jess. “Well, how do I know you telling the truth?”

Jess thought about this for a moment and then with the ghost of a smile, said,” well how’s about I don’t show you a badge.”

Carson stared at him for a full minute and then he saw the joke and throwing his head back barked with laughter, taking several minutes to control himself. “I like your style boy,” he said eventually, wiping his eyes.

All the time this had been taking place Bull, the massively built older son, had been sidling his way around towards Ginny and now he stood a few feet away ogling her.

Jess suddenly realized what was going on and took a pace forwards so that he was standing protectively in front of her and he threw Bull a hard look but said nothing.

Carson was swift to note this little drama taking place though and suddenly his old face split into a huge grin. “You see something you like there then, boy?” he asked addressing his older son.

The man wasn’t nicknamed Bull for nothing thought Jess as he regarded the huge powerful looking giant of a man. He stood about six feet 6 tall and weighed well over 200 lbs thought Jess as he regarded the aggressive looking man.

Bull glanced away from Ginny over to his father,” sure do Pa she’s real pretty.”

Jess tensed at this and looked at the big man more closely and was suddenly aware that he didn’t look quite right, there was a vacant look to the eyes and a slackness around the mouth that suggested the man might be simple or at least somewhat slow, but Jess figured that what he lacked in intellect he more than made up for by size and strength and imagined that what Bull wanted he usually got, Jess’s blood running cold at the thought.

Carson chuckled, but the sound was pure evil to Jess’s ears and he moved even closer to Ginny and took her hand, trying to convey some comfort , through contact, but could feel her trembling as she stood close, and he cast her an encouraging smile, before looking back to Carson.

“The lady’s married James,” he said firmly,” she ain’t available.”

Carson James’s head shot up,” to you cowboy? I thought you said her name was Reeves?”

“No not to me, we’re just old friends and I’m escorting her right now ‘tis all.”

“Escorting, is it eh… so that’s what they call it down in Texas is it boy? Looks more like you’re romancin’ her from where I’m stood,” he said chuckling evilly again, and nodding to where Jess still held her hand.

Jess ignored the implication and simply said,” why Texas? “

“Well it’s where you’re from, ain’t it boy?”

Jess just cast him a pained look,” maybe.”

“Oh yes, I know your reputation real well, reformed gunslinger, ain’t you… but maybe not quite as reformed as your good friend the Sheriff in Laramie would like to think.”

At this Jess flushed up and began to feel his temper rising.

“What in Hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that you killed a defenseless old man, friend of mine… Cougar Jack, you remember him boy?”

“Sure I do,” spat Jess angrily, “he bushwhacked me and shot me in the leg with his hunting rifle, I damn near died and yeah sure I killed him, it was him or me, and if he  hadn’t  been so dang greedy and shot me for the bounty on my prisoner I’d have given it him… I sure as hell didn’t want it.”

Carson looked somewhat chastened at that. “Yeah, well, that’s what you say.”

“That’s what I say because it’s the dang truth and it was all proven in a court of law, if you’d been bothered to get your facts straight, you’d know that.”

“Um, well…”Carson looked somewhat uncomfortable.

Then Bull broke the silence … “what does not, av… avable mean Pa? “

Carson sighed deeply. “She ain’t available, son; it mean’s you can’t have her. See, she’s already married to some other joker.”

Bull threw Jess a dirty look. “Well, I could fight for her, couldn’t I, Pa? Fight this here Mister Harper for her? “

Carson started to explain, and then his eyes narrowed. Harper had made him  look stupid in front of his sons over the Cougar Jack business and sure why shouldn’t his boy claim the pretty little lass as his own, both boys needed a wife and there was precious little choice up on the mountain.

After a moment’s thought, he said, “Well, I don’t see as why you shouldn’t fight fer her hand, son. I’m sure Mister Harper here would be happy to have a little scrap with you; he enjoys a good brawl from what I hear,” he said turning mocking eyes on the young cowboy.

“Now just a Goddamn minute here,” Jess exploded, finally coming to the end of his tether. “I told you the lady is married and…”

“Don’t make no difference,” said Carson quickly,” see we have our own rules and laws up here on the mountain, and if you don’t wanna abide by them, then I figure you shouldn’t have come trespassing, should you?”

Jess threw Ginny an agonized look. “I’m so sorry for brining you into this mess,” he said softly.

“It’s Ok, Jess really.”

Then she turned furious eyes on Carson James and his sons.

“I am married whatever you think and there is no way I would have anything to do with any of you anyways… even if you were the last men standing,” she cried harshly.

Carson grinned over at Jess. “Feisty little thing, ain’t she. Bet she keeps you on your toes, Harper,” he sniggered.

“Why you!” yelled Jess throwing himself at the older man, but unfortunately Carson brought up the rifle with surprising speed and rammed it hard into Jess’s belly felling him, and he groaned in agony, bending forwards and  grabbing himself, as the pain shot through his  body.

Ginny ran to him and helped him up.

“I’m OK honey,” he said softly, then turning his back on the James family rubbed her arm gently, trying to offer her some comfort.

“Looks like I’m gonna have to take him on. You stay way back by the horses, and if it looks like things aren’t going too well, get on your horse and hightail it out of here. Hopefully you’ll be halfway back to Rawlins before they notice you’ve gone… understand?”

“I can’t leave you Jess, I… “

“Hey you two love birds, there’s the little matter of a good old fisticuffs to be arranged here,” drawled Carson, grabbing hold of Jess’s arm and pulling him around to face him once more.

Jess wrenched himself angrily away and stood his ground, his hand clenching and unclenching above his holster. knowing he would just like to draw and finish the matter, but his sense of honor would not allow him to do that, no matter what the stakes.

“Ok, I’ll tell you how it’s gonna be, boy. You’ll fight ol’ Bull here for the lady’s hand. He wins and he gets to keep her and you get a nice quick death. Figure my boy here would fight to the death for this little lady and he’s quite capable of killin’ you with his bare hands… make no mistake of that, boy.”

Jess just stared unblinkingly, showing no sign of fear or distress.

“Then in the unlikely happenin’ that you win,  and you are able to get up and mount your horse unaided after the fight, well, you get to keep the young lady and I’ll even throw in where you can find that old bastard Comanche Bill… fair deal, Harper? … Oh and no holds barred, he tends to fight kinda dirty my boy here.”

“Sounds fair to me,” said Jess, sarcastically peering up at the man who was a good head taller and many pounds heavier and with a killer instinct if ever Jess saw one, in fact he thought the man to be slightly crazy.

“Have been known to fight kinda dirty myself,” he said and then suddenly launched himself at Bull taking him absolutely unawares as he head butted the big man, completely winding him and bringing him down to his knees  like a mighty oak being felled.

 Jess quickly followed through with a haymaker to the jaw which in turn sent the giant of a man flying backwards.

 Jess was quick to take the advantage and advancing on his adversary dragged him up and delivered another right and left to the chin. This time however he didn’t go down but gave a low animal like roar of anger and grabbing hold of Jess he picked him up and physically threw him several feet in the air slamming him into a large boulder, which he hit with a sickening thud before falling badly, all the stuffing knocked out of him.

After a moment he got his second wind and the two men traded vicious blows, Jess sustaining a black eye and split lip while Bull’s nose bled copiously down the front of his chest. Both men evenly matched, for what Jess lacked in weight and strength he more than made up for by his speed, stamina and fast thinking.

Gradually though the big man took the lead as he threw Jess down again, this time making him shout in pain as his back was yet again thrown against the boulder. He somehow managed to pull himself up, but then Bull rained punches down on his head and chest and again he fell to his knees.

It was then that Bull made his fatal mistake, he started taunting his opponent.

“Looks like the pretty lady is all mine, Harper. I’ll show her how a real man does it… guess my brother will too… might even let you watch and…. “

But he never finished his sentence, Jess was incandescent with rage and from somewhere deep within he found the strength to slowly lever himself up from where he lay and he stood swaying for a moment the look in his eyes striking terror into the bigger man.

The he  suddenly launched himself at Bull, laying into him with such a wild and bitter energy that the big man put his arms up to protect himself and gave a small cry of fear as this light, wiry man seemed to suddenly have the strength of ten men.

Bull backed off and panicking at the terrifying anger in his advancing adversary, he did the only thing he could to protect himself; he drew his large hunting knife from its sheath on his belt and wielded it in Jess’s direction, making random slashes near his chest and face.

Jess ducked and dodged and then he lost his balance and staggered a little and Bull lashed out again this time slashing the knife down Jess’s left arm, blood immediately soaking his shirt sleeve and dripping down onto the parched earth.

He looked at the injury in deep shock, and then stared back at his attacker and saw something akin to madness in his eyes.

He glanced over at where Carson and Jack stood watching, their expressions one of fear as they too realized the big man was out of control and way past any rational thought.

Jess shook his head as if to clear it and addressed the big man.

“Ok, if that’s the way you wanna play it,” he said, reaching down into his boot for his own knife.

Bull gave an almost primeval roar at the sight of the knife and again lashed out, but Jess was too fast for him and the two men circled each other, like two big cats prowling around and around.

Bull again had the advantage as he had the longer reach and again Jess’s strength was diminishing as his life blood was oozing relentlessly out of the deep gash to his upper arm.

Then Bull struck again and  slashed the knife across Jess’s chest, a  crimson line appearing  where his shirt was ripped open, the cut not as deep as the one to his arm, but almost as painful, the searing white hot pain, making him gag, and almost black out.

Then Ginny screamed his name in anguish and as Bull looked across at her Jess took his chance and with all his might he kicked the knife from the big man’s hand and then followed through with another head butt throwing him hard to the ground then Jess straddled him and with his knife held against the fallen giants throat, the fight was finally over.

Bull stared up into Jess’s incensed blue eyes and snarled,”Go on then, finish it.”

Jess just stared at him for a long minute before raising his knife above his head and then bringing it down with all his force to penetrate deeply……. into the ground, mere inches from Bull’s head.

Bull had closed his eyes tightly and now he opened them again, and looked up into those intense eyes, dark with fury.

Jess brought his face down close to Bull’s and then said chillingly quietly,” you’ll never know how close I was to doin’ what you asked, and if you ever… ever so much as look at that girl again, I swear to you I will finish it for good… you understand me?”

Bull just jerked his head in the parody of a nod, being unable to function properly such was his terror.

Very slowly he disengaged from where he  was still pining the big man down and wrenching his knife from  the ground put it back down the side of his boot and stood there swaying gently, holding his injured arm with his other hand.

Then he turned to where Ginny stood holding the horses and staggering over he said softly, “Mount up, Ginny; guess we’re goin’”

“Jess you’re hurt, let me help you,” she started.

“No, later,” he said urgently, “just mount, will you?”

She did as he asked and then handed him his reins.

Then he turned to Carson James, “so where is that low life Comanche Bill?” he asked.

Carson gave him an evil grin. You’re not on your horse yet, Harper. Deal was you’d be mounted and ready to ride out.”

Jess took a deep breath and almost falling against his horse, he grabbed hold of the saddle horn and tried to get his foot in the stirrup, but failed miserably, the burning pain in his arm and chest rendering him helpless and he stood there holding on to Traveler’s mane, his eyes closed tightly against the pain and rising nausea as the world started to spin around him.

Then he took a deep breath and summoning his last ounce of energy he got his foot in the stirrup and dragged himself up into the saddle.

Then he pulled his hat down hard and addressing Carson growled,” well? “

“He took off last night was going down the back track,” he said gesturing to where the track forked and then went on down the mountain.

“Last night, ridin’ in the dark?”

“No, left late afternoon, but was stopping over at a friend’s place; should be back in his shack by now. Won’t be goin’ anywhere in a hurry; he said he was gonna be lying low there for a while, been some trouble in town.” Then he laughed, “I guess you should just have waited it out, saved yourself some grief if you had cowboy.”

“Oh, wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” said Jess with irony. “After all, I love a good brawl.”

The older man shook his head in admiration. “Like I said, I like your style Harper. Good luck. ”

Then he looked more closely at Jess,” I figure you’ll need to rest up a while,” then he cast his old eyes up to the mountain peaks,” storms on the way, you don’t wanna be out tonight. There’s an old abandoned shack halfway down the track lay over there, boy. You won’t be troubled again by us, I promise you that.”

Jess nodded his thanks and with that he and Ginny moved to leave the camp.

But then Carson called Jess back.

Jess reined Traveler in and backtracked looking expectantly down, “yeah?”

Carson leaned across, and unstrapping Jess’s saddle bag, placed a couple of bottles of Moonshine inside, “on the house,” he said grinning up at the dark haired cowboy.

Jess tipped his head back and gave him the ghost of a smile,” thanks,” he said and then kicked Traveler on to join Ginny and they made their way slowly down the mountain.

*****

They rode on for about ten minutes before Ginny reined in her horse and said urgently,” let me clean out those wounds Jess, you look terrible.”

“I’m OK, we need to get away, get down to this shack before the weather breaks.”

“At least let me stop the bleeding,” and pulling her bandana off she wrapped it tightly round his still bleeding arm and he removed his own and stuffed it inside his shirt to soak up the blood from the gash to his chest, before urging Ginny to follow him on down the mountain as quickly as they could.

A small bubbling stream ran along beside the track, hurtling down the mountain side to join up with the river below and when they finally reined in beside a dilapidated old shack, Jess slid down from his mount and staggering across the track fell to his knees by the stream and doused his face and chest with the cool clear water, then after a few minutes he rolled over onto his back and just lay there looking up at the still clear blue sky, totally spent.

Ginny ran over and hunkered down beside him.

“Oh Jess your poor face,” she said seeing the full extent of his injuries now he had removed his hat, which had been hiding the black eye and deep purple bruising to his face.

Then she said softly,” shall we get you inside and I can dress the wounds?”

He shook his head. “Figure I ain’t goin’ anywhere right now,” knowing that he was too exhausted to move a muscle.

Then he gestured to the stream”, got the water for cleaning me up, and there is some spirit and bandages in  my saddle bags, can you do it here, while I kinda get my breath back?”

“Sure, sure I can ,” she said softly and  running off returned a minute later and started to remove his shirt, so that she could tend the wounds. She washed the deep gash to his arm first and at his insistence liberally splashed it with the moonshine, making him cuss softly under his breath as the burning spirit flowed into the open wound, the pain almost worse than the initial wounding had been. She then did the same to the cut to his chest and when she gently sat him up so that she could bind the chest wound she gave a little gasp of shock when she saw the terrible bruising to his back where Bull had thrown him against the rocks with such force.

“Oh Jess your poor back, is it very painful?”

He just shook his head stoically. “Kinda hard to tell which bit of me ain’t hurtin’ right now,” he said with a grim smile.

At this, her eyes filled with tears. “Oh Jess, I am so sorry. This is my entire fault; I shouldn’t have asked for your help.”

He reached up from where he had collapsed back down on the cool springy turf beside the stream, and gently caressed her cheek, “hey you didn’t ask, I offered remember?”

She just gave him a watery smile,” come on Mister; think you can make it to the shack now if I help you?”

Once inside, Ginny initially wondered if they would have been better off facing the elements outdoors, such was the state of the old place. It had obviously been empty for many years and the dust swirled about the room as soon as they opened the door letting a gust of wind blow in.

Jess stood leaning heavily on her and surveyed the scene and was of a similar mind, until he heard the ominous sound of thunder rumbling in the distance. “Guess we’d better just make the best of it for tonight,” he said. “At least it’ll be dry.”

“Sure it will be fine once I fix it up some,” she said exhibiting an enthusiasm she didn’t feel, and helping Jess to an old straw stuffed mattress in the corner she laid him gently down.

“You just rest up honey; I’ll soon have this place just like home.”

He gave her a heart breaking smile,” sure you will, I’m sorry I can’t he…” but he never finished the sentence as his body took over and he collapsed  into an exhausted sleep.

The sound of thunder directly overhead awoke him several hours later and he squinted into the dimly lit room trying to remember where he was, and then he tried to sit up and the searing pain in his back and chest suddenly brought everything back, the ride up the mountain, the encounter with the mountain men and the fight for Ginny… Ginny where was she?

He sat up a wave of panic flooding through him and staggered to his feet,” Ginny,” he called hoarsely, but the cabin was empty… empty but completely transformed.

 In the blink of an eye he took in the spotless room with a cheerful fire now blazing in the grate, a pot of coffee nearby and the makings for a scratch meal lay on a freshly scrubbed table nearby.

 The only other item in the shack, seeming to be the large straw mattress that he had just vacated.

With rising panic he lurched towards the door, just as it opened and Ginny entered looking bright eyed and flushed from the harsh wind and rain without.

“Where have you been?” he asked more harshly than he meant to.

She raised an eyebrow at his tone, but just said, “Tending the horses. There’s a lean-to around the back; they’re perfectly safe and dry in there.”

He gave a sigh of relief and wondered how he had managed to fall asleep without considering the needs of his beloved mount, but just figured he was too far gone to consider anything.

“Thanks,” he said softly. “Sorry I yelled; just worried when I couldn’t find you.”

“I understand,” she said and wandering over to the fire poured him a coffee,” how are you feeling?”

“OK,” he smiled accepting the drink and then looking around the room said,” you’re right; you sure fixed the place up good.”

She smiled and they sat down on the floor in front of the blazing fire,” so is it?” she asked after a moment her eyes dancing.

“Huh?”

“Is it just like home?”

He grinned at that. “Hardly. I can’t see Miss Daisy putting up with a dump like this.”

“Miss Daisy,” she asked curiously. “She’s your housekeeper right?” Then giving him a speculative look, “So how old would this… Miss Daisy be then?”

He caught her drift at once and chuckled to himself.

“What’s so funny?”

He just shook his head. “Oh nuthin’. So you wanna know about our Miss Daisy, do you?”

She just nodded.

“Well, I’ll tell you she’s one of the most important women in my life. She’s honest, real kind, incredibly wise, real good at doctorin’ and has saved my bacon more than once.”

“Go on,” she said, her face registering dismay, which she was trying valiantly to hide,” she sounds a wonderful girl.”

“Oh she is,” he said quietly. “And I love her to bits.” But he had stopped teasing Ginny now and the words just came of their own volition as he realized how much he was missing Daisy and the others.

She looked really upset at this and said softly, “Oh, I see. “

He looked over at her and then suddenly realized what he’d just said.

“No, no you don’t,” he said quietly. “Sorry, Ginny, I was just teasing’ you, but then I got talkin’ about Daisy and realized how much she means to me…to us all.”

“So are you going to marry the woman then?” she said suddenly feeling bereft for some reason.

Jess opened his eyes wide in amazement and then remembered how he had just described Daisy. “Hell no,” he said quickly. “I guess she wouldn’t have me anyway.”

At that she looked quite affronted. “Why not? Any girl would be proud to be your wife,” she said staunchly.

He raised a quizzical eyebrow and then threw her a penetrating look. “You really think so?”

Their eyes locked for a moment and the she looked away. “I guess,” she whispered.

“So,” she said finally impatient. “What’s the deal between you and Daisy? She lives with you right, and so….? “

Jess knew he must put her out of her misery before things went any further.

“Sure. She looks after Mike mostly, but me and Slim too when we’re in need of a bit of motherin’.”

“Mothering?”

“Sure, she’s a real old mother hen is Daisy.”

Ginny cast him another pained look. “So how old did you say she was? “

“What Mrs. Daisy Cooper? I’ve never dared to ask, but near to 60-odd I’d guess.”

“Sixty! Why you,” she cried with embarrassment and irritation and lashing out aimed a swipe at his head which he ducked, then they stared at each other and after a moment started to giggle uncontrollably, the fear and pain of the last few hours being dissipated in laughter.

After a while he clutched hold of his chest and still laughing said. “Aw stop it, Gin, I’m in agony here.”

Her face suddenly softened and the laughter stopped. “It’s a long time since you’ve called me that,” she said softly, throwing him an adoring look.

 He stared back, almost mesmerized by her deep brown eyes and the old familiar nickname sent him hurtling back in time to when they were last together, when he went back to Texas just after the war…..

*****

He had been badly injured and spent many weeks in a prisoner of war camp hospital and he was still quite weak and incredibly bitter and traumatized after his time there when he rode back into Texas.

There were few people left in his home town that he knew or had been close to anyway, whole vast areas had been devastated after the war, families dispersed some members moved away, others dead. The crops lay standing in the fields as there was no one to harvest them, or worse still whole swathes of good farm land was given over to weeds and the stock all missing or dead. Homesteads were burnt or destroyed and the stark detritus of war lay all around.

There was no American money to be had just worthless Confederate notes and with the economy in ruins and often the family bread winner lying dead on a distant  battlefield,  many of those left starved to death.

It was a stark and unhappy homecoming for Jess after his years away, firstly seeking retribution on the Banister gang who had fired the family homestead killing his kin when Jess was just 15, and then later the bitter years spent fighting the Yankees.

Now what was left for him?

He trudged along the track  heading out of the small town, leading his horse as he had been ridden hard and was in need of a rest, and was wondering where he would head next, when he spied Seth Adams riding towards him.

The older man almost rode past Jess and then he stopped, reined his horse in and came back, peering down at the painfully thin young man,” Jesse, Jess Harper, that you boy?”

Jess grinned up at him. “Yes sir, real good to see you, Mr. Adams,” he said reaching up and shaking his hand.

“Hey you can call me Seth now boy, guess you’re all grown up.”

Then he studied the young man, taking in his thin frame, the way he stood, looking weary and defeated and worst of all, the look in his eyes, like he had been to hell and back.

“Yes, you sure look grown up,” he said softly.

Jess looked down for a moment and then back up into the kindly concerned eyes,” well I guess war will do that to a man,” he said bitterly.

Seth felt so moved he couldn’t speak for a moment, then he pulled himself together,” come home with me boy, stay a while until you decide what you’re to do next, huh?”

His kind words were like balm to the young cowboy’s shattered soul and smiling at his friend, he said quietly, “Well, I’d be obliged, thank you kindly, Mr.… er…Seth.”

Then he had gone back to Seth and Rose’s place and they had cared for him, treating him almost like their dear son Davy, who had not survived the war, and Jess in turn helped them get the ranch back up and working after all the difficulties they had, had during the war years.

It was later on that first day when he saw Ginny again as she had been visiting a friend when he arrived.

He was in the barn tending his horse when she came in, and looking up he saw someone standing hesitantly by the barn door. Leaving the loose box, he went over to investigate and then saw who it was.

The youngsters just stood staring at each other for a full minute before she ran into his open arms, “Jesse, oh my darling you’re back,” she cried.

He held her tightly, all his senses suddenly alive, feelings he could hardly remember before the drudgery of war had ground him down, now leaping to the surface, his pulses racing as he breathed in her sweet perfume and felt her young body soft and yielding against his.

Then she pulled back and studied him, seeing the lean good looks of a stranger as she peered up into his face, the suffering and pain he had experienced since they last met etched into his features “oh Jesse you’ve changed so much,” she whispered.

He gave her the ghost of a smile,” well it’s been a long time sweetheart; I ain’t that fifteen year old kid anymore.”

She searched his face again. “No…no, you’re not, are you?”

“And it’s just Jess now, not Jesse.”

She nodded, looking down and then looking back up into his eyes, “kiss me,” she whispered,” the way we used to… kiss me Jess.”

He looked beyond her to the house, but all was quiet and he looked back down into her expectant brown eyes, so childlike and innocent.

Then he bent his head and brushed her lips very gently with his own, before pulling her close and kissing her deeply.

After a few minutes he pulled back, squinting down at her an amused look in his twinkling blue eyes.

She just stared at him for a full minute before saying breathlessly, “Heck, Jess, where did you learn to do that?”

He looked down and then with his head on one side gave her a quizzical look,” just along the way I guess.”

Then she looked down and flushed. “You’ve been with other girls, haven’t you, Jess? “

He sighed deeply at this. “Honey, I ain’t seen you since I was just 15 years old. I’ve been on the drift, fought a war. I’m a grown man now. Sure I’ve been with other women.”

Then seeing her agonized expression. “Hell, I never made you no promises, did I, sweetheart?”

When she didn’t reply, he said, “Well, did I? “

She looked him in the eyes finally and said, “no I guess not.”

“Come on, we were just kids fooling about back then we never…. Well, we never really got it together, you know.”

Then her head shot up,” yeah, well I’m older now… and the local boys find me attractive… real attractive.”

Jess hid a smile,” well I’m sure they do honey, you are … you’ve grown up pretty, real pretty.”

“So… are we gonna be going together again then?”

“Hell, you don’t waste time do you? You know its kinda manners for a girl to wait to be asked,” he said, openly smiling at her then.

“Well, if I wait for you to get going, I’ll be an old maid,” she said briskly.

He just shook his head chuckling.

“Well, I’ll tell you, honey; I ain’t gonna be around here forever, but sure we can hang out while I am here.”

So that was the beginning of the rekindling of their intense relationship.

Jess was at first very wary, knowing she was not as experienced as he was and not wanting to place her in the sort of situation that… well that she just wasn’t ready for. But as time went on he was left in no doubt as to what she wanted from him and he wrestled long and hard with his conscience, as not only was he concerned for her, but he also liked and respected her parents.

Seth and Rose Adams had been kindness itself to Jess and he knew in his heart that part of it was that they were trying to compensate for the loss of their dear son and Jess’ good friend Davy. Rose especially seeming to need to spoil him and satisfy  her maternal instincts by nurturing him whether it be by feeding him up,” a young boy like you shouldn’t be bone thin,” to cleaning and mending his clothes and would have done even  more if he had allowed her.

On his first night there, they had offered him Davy’s old room in the house, but he had point blank refused, albeit politely, saying although he was here as a guest he also wanted to help Seth build the business up again and as such his rightful place was in the bunk house, but it was a couple of weeks later before Seth found out the real reason that he refused to sleep in the house.

It was a warm summer’s night and Seth was having difficulty sleeping ,as he had done indeed since Davy’s death, and he had taken himself off for a midnight walk around the property for a breath of cool air which  he  thought might help.

He was walking across the home pasture just behind the bunkhouse, passing a tall Pine when he heard someone cry out in fear or pain and stopping stock still he looked around him. After a while the moon came out from behind a cloud and he saw, illuminated in the bright moonlight, a figure lying on a bedroll beneath the pine.

Thinking it was a drifter or drunk rolled in off the nearby road, he drew his gun and wandered over to investigate, but he quickly holstered his iron when he saw who it was.

Jess was lying on his back, lashing about as if fighting someone and every so often he would scream out, the chilling sound sending shivers down the older man’s spine.

After a while he could stand it no longer and squatting down beside Jess he gently shook him.

Jess was instantly awake and sat up staring around him in terror, the sweat pouring down his troubled face.

“Jess, Jess boy, ‘tis alright you’re just having a nightmare son.”

After a moment, Jess realized where he was and then recognized Seth.

“Hell, I’m sorry Seth…” he said looking profoundly embarrassed.

“Well there’s no need to take on boy, you were just having a bad dream,” and then seeing how distressed he obviously was, sat down bedside him, “want to tell me? “

Jess lay back against the pine and closed his eyes for a moment, before looking back at the deeply concerned eyes of his friend.

“I get these nightmares,” he said softly, “since the fire…you know?”

Seth nodded with understanding. “Sure I’m not surprised. Was a bad business that, boy.”

Jess nodded,” and, well I guess they’ve been worse since the war, I had…… well a kinda bad time these last few months…”and just shook his head, not wishing to go further.

“I understand boy, I’ve heard  tell what went on in some of those camps… no need to spell it out, but why are you out here in the open son, the bunk house not to your liking, you can still have our Davy’s room you know.”

Jess shook his head and thanked him,” it ain’t that Seth, just can’t bear to be inside sometimes… truth is the big open is the only place I feel safe,” he said again looking embarrassed. “Just can’t stand to feel hemmed in, you know?”

The older man looked moved,” well I’m sorry to hear that… anything I can get you right now, drop of whiskey to calm you some maybe?”

Jess smiled up at his friend,” no, I’ll be fine now Seth… thanks.”

“OK, goodnight then son,” and he wandered off back towards the house casting the odd anxious look back behind him.

 That wasn’t all of Jess’s problems however, his notoriously short fuse had got even worse since the war and he had many a scrap in town after having drunk a little too much and he got himself a reputation of a wild and dangerous hombre and one with a lightening draw to boot, so honest folk gave him a wide berth and the less than savory characters sought him out, wanting to test his gunslinger skills.

However, he desperately tried to make amends by working hard on getting the ranch back to its former glory and was never anything but kind, polite and trustworthy when back at the ranch and Seth realized that it would take the boy a while to recover properly from the traumas of war and so cut him some slack.

However as days turned into weeks Jess knew in his heart that it was time for him to move on… he was desperately seeking something in his life, although he didn’t know what… just that it wasn’t there for him in Texas anymore.

It could all have been so easy if he could just have put his past behind him and settled down on the ranch. Be the lost son that Rose and Seth so desperately wanted him to be… and the loving husband that Ginny wanted him to be too.

Ginny and he had finally taken their relationship onto the next level when he had given in to what she wanted.

They had been seeing each other for a few weeks and Jess was finding it difficult to keep himself in check, as he got closer and closer without actually making love to her. He knew that if he took that irrevocable step, then she would expect certain things from him, like commitment, a ring on her finger, a home and family…. And that was just a step too far for him, the way he was right then, restless and wild…. He just wasn’t husband material, no matter how much Ginny wanted it.

Sure, he loved her…  he thought he loved her, and he sure as hell wanted her. The leaving of her every night getting more and more difficult for them both… but marriage?

Finally they found themselves alone one night, her parents away at a funeral in a nearby town and although Jess tried hard to be the sensible one and back off, he hadn’t been ready for Ginny’s determination and feminine wiles.

She had decided that, that was to be the night she took that final step and nothing, but nothing was going to dissuade her. It was Jess she wanted and she thought she knew how to get him.

They had dined alone and she had produced a wonderful meal washed down with some fine wine from her father’s small cellar and now they sat by the blazing fire in the ranch’s comfortable sitting room , holding hands and chatting.

She was looking beautiful in a low cut pale blue dress, her dark glossy hair spilling around her shoulders and a becoming blush to her cheeks.

As Jess looked into her sparkling amused brown eyes he thought she had never looked lovelier and as he felt the familiar stirrings of desire he knew he should leave.

He let go her hand and stood up. “Better turn in, got a busy day tomorrow,” he said lightly, but she pulled him back down beside her.

“Not yet, please,” she said softly,” let’s just talk a little longer. “

“OK, what about? “

“How about we talk about your girl friends?”

“Huh? “

“You know all the ones you had after me.”

“I don’t think… well, you don’t wanna hear about all that,” he muttered, looking embarrassed.

“Sure I do,” she said giving him a firm look. “See, I want to know what they had that I don’t. Were they more beautiful… cleverer… more sexy… What did they have, Jess?”she said sounding angry now.

“No,” he said quickly,” you know what I think of you, you’re bright, funny… really beautiful……you know I care about you.”

“But not enough?”

“Huh?”

“Not enough to make love to me? “

“Look Ginny, we’ve been through this before, sure I care… I maybe even love you, but we can’t……. well we can’t be that way until we’re engaged…until I make you a promise and I just ain’t ready for that commitment.”

“Sure you are.”

“Hell Ginny, you know that’s not true… I was even banged up in jail last week for getting drunk and wrecking the saloon, I’ve got half the fast guns in the territory wantin’ to try me out and I’m not right… not right up here,” he said tapping his head.

“Jess you’re just fine, you’re all I want.”

“I ain’t fine…the nightmares, hell the thoughts I have sometimes,” he said shuddering. “You’ve no idea the way I am, Ginny. Sure, you know what you want me to be, but the two things just ain’t the same.”

“But, you could be, you could change Jess, please you could try… for me….”

He shook his head sadly “,it’s gonna take time sweetheart, maybe one day we could get it together, but not right now.”

 Then he sighed deeply,” I’d been meaning to tell you… but hell I didn’t want it to be this way….. “

“Meaning to tell me what?” she said immediately on the alert.

 He looked deeply into her hurt brown eyes. “I’m goin’, Ginny, leaving. I need… I need the big open… need to heal some I guess before I can settle down.”

She looked shocked to the core… “no, no you can’t leave… you can’t leave me Jess… please.”

He shook his head sadly. “I’m no good for you, honey. Just face it. I’m going an’ I’ll tell your Pa just as soon as he lands back.”

She was silent for a long time, then … “Alright, Jess, I understand, but before you go…. “

She leaned over and taking his face in her hands she kissed him, gently and then more and more passionately, until he finally pulled away.

“Ginny… honey, no… this ain’t right.”

“Jess it is, it’s what I want, I’ve waited for you all this time, since we were kids together, I want you so much, please just tonight, stay just tonight, no promises… no commitment, just love, please just love me.”

He tried to stop it, afterwards he said to himself,’ God knows I tried to resist her’, but suddenly she was in his arms again, making all the running and then, they were past all rational thought, past common sense and then  pure passion took over and nothing else mattered.

The following day he felt terrible, sure he’d told her that night it wouldn’t change anything, he still had to go and she promised that she understood.

 Sure he should take off,  she thought, take time … and then when he felt better he would return… he would come back for her… she knew he would, she just knew it….. after last night… of course he would.

He rode out just a week later, unable to bear the atmosphere once he had broken the news to Rose and Seth.

Sure they understood, just wanted what was best for him, but he felt in his heart he had let them down, let them all down, he wasn’t the person they needed and he felt he never  could be, not the son Davy had been and  not a suitable husband for Ginny either… certainly not then anyways.

On that last morning he had said his farewells and thanks to Rose and Seth, promising to visit, trying to take away some of the pain from their sad old eyes.

Then it was just him and Ginny, his horse saddled and ready to go, standing in the yard of the ranch.

He looked down at her his blue eyes deeply unhappy…” I’m sorry,” he whispered…

“For what?”

“That I can’t be the man you want… the one you imagine me to be… “

“Hush,” she whispered, “it’s alright, really.”

“You don’t regret… “

“No, never, it was very special, you’re very special,” she said softly, tears in her eyes.

“Don’t,” he said putting a hand on her arm and patting it gently,” please don’t.”

She reached up and kissed him and then they were in each other’s arms kissing passionately, before he finally pulled gently away.

Their eyes locked for a full minute and then he pulled his hat down hard,” I’m sorry Gin,” he said his voice thick with emotion, before jumping up into the saddle and riding out at a trot without a backwards glance.

But then, just as he rode through the gate, he reined in and looked back at her still standing where he had left her and he raised a hand in a final farewell salute before kicking his mount off into his future…..

*****

“It’s a long time since you’ve called me that,” she said again, and their eyes locked as they both remembered the day he had ridden out for the last time and the passionate kiss they had shared all those years ago.

Suddenly he was transported back into the squalid little shack, his whole body aching and there was Ginny, looking just as lovely as she had done when he rode out on that day…. ….and for a moment just as sad.

Then she gave him her beautiful smile.

He looked at her and then deeply into the fire which they were still sitting in front of….

“Way back then … I shouldn’t have done it,” he said quietly, “shouldn’t have taken advantage of you that way.”

Her head shot up and her eyes opened wide. “You didn’t…. Jess you really didn’t I wasn’t a little kid, I was a grown woman, able to make my own decisions.”

“Yeah, may be, but it was still the first time for you…. I shouldn’t have left you that way.”

“I understood… I understand now…. sure I wasn’t happy when you never came back… but well that’s life… and… “

“And you found Ben.”

“Yes I found Ben,” she said her chin coming up defiantly,” and whatever you think of him, he is a good man… well he tries to be… same way you did……..all those years ago when the odds when stacked against you.”

He just nodded,” I figure we don’t want to lose sight of why where here, to get old Ben out of jail and get that bastard Comanche Bill in there where he belongs,” then turning to look her in the eye,” and  get you and Ben back together again where you belong as well.”

She just stared at him for a full minute and then said,” oh Jess…. I’ve just remembered why I love you so much….”

Then ducking her head,” I mean loved you… so much.”

“Thanks,” he said softly, and then giving her his cheeky grin. “So any chance of you feedin’ a battered ol’ cowboy tonight?”

She smiled across and the embarrassing moment was gone, “you don’t change,” she said laughing,” always thinking of your stomach.”

They were relaxing by the fire again much later, the storm still howling around the shack, when they heard a really loud thumping sound just outside the door and Ginny leapt up in fear, a hand to her mouth.

“Oh God Jess, they’ve come back to get me… it’s that Carson and Bull.”

He dragged himself up from where he’d been sitting by the fire, every part of his frame aching and crying out in pain, but he made his way to the door his gun in his hand, before turning back to reassure her.

“I can tell you now, it ain’t them, but guess I’ll check, set your mind at rest.”

He opened the door and peered out and after a moment beckoned for her to join him and gestured as to where a huge branch had been blown from a nearby tree and was now being lashed by the prevailing wind, knocking against the shack window.

He went out and threw it to one side before taking a cursory look around then saying he’d just check on the horses he disappeared around the back of the building.

When he returned five  minutes later  she had banked up the fire and pulled the old mattress in front of it and poured them a couple of shots of the moonshine.

He raised a quizzical eyebrow at the scene that greeted him and the drinks.

“Purely medicinal,” she said as she passed it to him and then sat down on the mattress, patting the place beside her and after a moment he joined her…….

“And this is purely practical,” she said, “seeing as how there is only one place to sleep; I figure we’ll have to share.”

 Then giving him a little smile and brushing his unruly hair from his fore head, she said fondly, “And anyway, I reckon you’re not up to any romancing, seeing as the way you are at the moment.”

He rested a hand on his lower belly for a second, where Bull had kicked him viciously, and he looked over at her, a grim smile on his handsome face, “well I guess you’ve got that one right,” he agreed with a hint of irony.

After a while, once they had finished their drinks, they settled down for the night, Jess lying on his side, his back aching something fierce and Ginny lay beside him on her back, looking up at the patterns the fire was making on the ceiling and listening to the still raging storm.

After a while she turned to him, just able to discern his features in the fire light and said softly,” so why were you so sure it wasn’t Carson and Bull outside before?”

He turned his head to face her,” well Carson gave me his word and whatever those mountain men are… I reckon you can trust them if they give their promise.”

“But what about Bull, he never said anything when his Pa made that promise to you.”

Then she saw his features tense, and after a moment he said,” well I just told Bull that if he ever so much as looked at you again…. then I’d kill him.”

He heard her take a sharp intake of breath and then she said quietly,” did you mean it?”

There was a long silence and she thought he wouldn’t answer and then she felt him reach out and take her hand.

“Oh yes …. I meant it,” he said.

***** 

The next morning when he awoke Jess couldn’t move.

He heard Ginny banging about preparing the breakfast and he dragged himself up on his elbow, but the pain in his back was horrendous. Then as he gritted his teeth and tried to stand he realized that he had practically no feeling in his legs at all.

At first he thought he had been sleeping  in a funny  position and his legs had gone dead because of that, so he massaged them to try and get the blood circulating, expecting to get a bad case of ‘pins and needles’, but nothing, his legs remained stubbornly unresponsive……… nothing at all.

Then he panicked and swore loudly, again rubbing his legs.

At this Ginny turned from where she was fixing breakfast and looking alarmed came over and squatted down beside him.

“Jess, what’s the problem, honey? Your legs hurtin’? “

He shook his head. “No, I wish they were. Can’t feel ‘em, Ginny, can’t feel a blessed thing from the waist down.”

They stared at each other in consternation and then she said quickly,” lie down again, on your side.”

He stared at her,” huh… why? “

“Jess just do it will you?”

He shook his head, but did as she asked and she gently pulled his shirt out of his denims and inspected his back, giving a little cry of fear as she did so.

“What? “

She didn’t reply, merely pulled his shirt down again.

“Ginny, for God’s sake what is it?”

She took a moment to compose her features before moving around to face him.

“Now don’t go getting upset, but it’s your back Jess… it’s hurt… quite bad, where that bastard Bull threw you against the rocks… well the bruising is bad… real bad, black and blue.”

“Well what’s that to do with me not bein’ able to walk?” he asked irritably.

“Well, it’s the nerves in your back that are hurt, the same ones that run down to your legs, the blow to your back must have damaged your spine, the swelling and bruising hurt the nerves inside.”

He looked surprised. “How do you know so dang much? You ain’t done nursing, have you?”

She shook her head and gave him a little smile,” no but Davy took a real bad spill from his pony once… couldn’t walk for….….for a while and the doc explained all about it.”

He thought about this for a moment,” and you think it’s the same, these damaged nerves in my back are effecting my legs.”

She nodded.

“So how long was Davy laid up for then?”

She said nothing, just looked down.

“How long Ginny a week, two weeks, how Goddamn long,” he yelled, shouting in his frustration.

“Three months,” she whispered.

“What… what three months!”

“Well you may not be as badly hurt, I don’t know Jess, I’m not a doctor.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry I bawled at you, just kind of a shock.”

She looked down, unable to meet his eye. What she hadn’t told him was that the doctor said it had been touch and go and the injury could have been permanent, it was impossible to say in the early stages. However she figured Jess didn’t need to know that and she had to keep him positive.

“Well I reckon you’ll have to go back down the mountain, fetch help and get Red to pick up Comanche Bill, I had hoped to try and scare the shit out of him and get a confession,  but maybe he’ll see sense, sure can’t figure any other  way, right now.”

She shook her head,” no… I’m not leaving you. “

“Ginny listen, we can’t stay up here, once the snow comes, well it would be a death sentence, there’s precious little fuel for the fire and no food… you’ve gotta go.”

She just shook her head firmly,” listen it’s vital you get treatment.”

“Huh?”

“Heat treatment that’s what we had to do for Davy, heat to his back all day long, hot flannels a fire kept going day and night… lots of heat and that increases the blood supply and helps it to heal… “

“Yeah, OK well, I guess I can have all that back in Rawlins, if you ride for help.”

She just shook her head, “you really don’t understand do you.” …. She sighed deeply,” Jess if you are moved, at all the damage could be………permanent.”

He just stared at her his eyes wide, his mouth agape and he went deathly pale.

“Really?” he whispered.

She nodded and took his hand,” but I’m not going to let that happen,” and she jumped up and ran to the door.

“Where are you goin’?”

“To fetch some wood for the fire, then I’m going to start the treatment,” she said confidently and turning ran from the room, leaving Jess staring after her a look of total shock in his deep blue eyes.

*****

That was to be the start of some of the worst and in a strange way, best of his time with Ginny.

She at once started ‘the treatment’ as she  called it, which entailed her ripping up a couple of pairs of her red flannel draws and soaking them in boiling water before applying the hot cloths to the appalling bruising on his back. She did this throughout the day and night, as soon as the makeshift heat pad had cooled applying a new one and Jess was not only appreciative of her efforts but also deeply touched by her loving care.

By the end of the second day he could see she was worn out and suggested she take a break.

“A few hours off won’t hurt,” he said softly. “You should really get a decent night’s sleep; I’ll be Ok, really I will.”

She just shook her head stubbornly. “I remember the doc saying if we’d started the treatment as soon as he’d had the accident, he might have recovered much sooner. It’s worth a try anyway.”

He just shook his head and threw her an admiring look but said nothing more.

Ginny knew that of equal importance was Jess’s state of mind, he had to keep positive, to want, and believe he would walk again soon. Again that had been their old doctor’s philosophy and she blessed him for it now and she made a concerted effort to keep Jess’s spirits up, especially when the days moved on and he was still effectively paralyzed, although he was beginning to get a little sensation back.

“So tell me some more about this ‘family’ of yours you’re so all fired up about getting back to for Christmas,” she asked lightly, one night when they were sitting by the fire and yet another wind and rain storm was lashing around the little shack.

He turned to her and gave her a cheeky grin. “Well, I guess I told you about Miss Daisy.”

She grinned back at him at this, “oh yes, I heard all about Daisy,” she chuckled…” you and your teasing, so what about Mike, is he a handful or a good boy?”

“Oh, just a regular kid, a mixture of both I guess,” he said.

“He goes and hides when it’s time for his bath and then fights something fierce when you catch him,” he chuckled, “what is it about boys and getting clean?”

“He don’t always like doin’ his homework, but we usually get there in the end, between us all. Slim and Daisy help with the ciphering and spellin’ and the like, and I give him ideas for stories he has to write or help with his practical learnin’ around the ranch, learnin’ to rope steers and mustangs, show him how to do the chores, basic ranching really, that kinda thing.”

She nodded,” go on.”

“Well, like I say, mostly he’s a real good kid, good company too. We go fishin’ together, huntin’ as well; the boy is getting’ to be a real good shot, you know.”

“You sound very proud of him.”

Jess ducked his head and then grinned across at her,” well I truly am. The boys done real good, considering all he’s been through.”

“You say his folks were killed in an Indian raid? “

Jess nodded, “they were scalped, the whole wagon train killed and the boy witnessed it,” he looked down shaking his head,” no kid should have to go through that. “

She reached out and took his hand. “I figure you and young Mike have quite a lot in common.”

He thought about that, then gave her his shy smile,” yeah, I guess you’re right, except he’s smarter than I was at that age, figure he’ll really be able to make somethin’ of himself, you know?”

“And you think you haven’t?” she asked looking at him in amazement.

He just shrugged. “Guess I’ve turned it around these last few years, but hell I wouldn’t want Mike to have the sorta life I’ve had,” he said turning sincere eyes on her. “I want him to be a success, at the ranchin’ or even go to college.”

“From where I’m standing you’re a real success,” she said softly, “the Ranch and Relay partnership, and a good life and good friends to share it with… when I think how you were back on the panhandle… so wild, hell so bitter Jess, and now look at you….”

He looked down and was silent for a long time before he replied and then, when he looked at her she saw his eyes were very bright. “Well, that’s all down to Slim,” he said softly. “If he hadn’t taken a risk on me, God knows where I’d be now.”

“He sounds a really special man.”

Jess nodded,” he’s my best buddy, I watch his back and he watches mine… always been that way since we first met up I guess.”

She nodded encouragingly,” go on.”

“It was him that convinced me to lay down my gunslinger weapon for good, make a fresh start and all. It took a long time for me to see reason I guess. I kept takin’ off,” he said casting her a rueful look. “Fetching up in trouble along the way, but always seemed to find my way home in the end.”

Then his eyes became misty, home……. hell he was sure missing home so dang much.

Almost as though she could read his mind, she said,” I guess you’ll be glad to get home then, home for Christmas eh?”

He cast her a bleak look. “Do you think I’ll be better by then?”

“I know so,” she said taking his hand again and squeezing it.

Then she looked into the fire and went very quiet.

“What is it?”

She just shrugged her shoulders and then after a minute he heard her give a little sniff.

“Ginny?”

She continued looking into the fire, from where she sat beside him on the old mattress pulled up close to the warmth.

“It’s your Ma ain’t it,” he said after a minute,” guess you’re gonna miss her real badly this Christmas.”

She just nodded and sniffed again, but said nothing.

“I’m so sorry sweetheart,” he said softly,” she was a  wonderful woman your Ma, she was real good to me when  I landed back home after the war, as kind and caring as my own Ma would have been….. I never forgotten that, never….”

She turned and looked to where he was sitting, his back against the wall, his face lit up by the firelight and said, “thanks Jess, she was real fond of you too, you know.”

“It’s funny,” he said, “the way we share a past, haven’t seen each other in years, but having those shared memories, well I guess it makes a body feel kinda close  don’t it?”

She nodded, “yes I know, someone whose known you from being a snotty little kid, shared all that stuff … how it was on the panhandle in those days,” she looked across and grinned at him…” hell it was tough growing up there wasn’t it Jess.”

He nodded. “Sure was… but you know I guess it taught us stuff… about friendship and bein’ able to cope when things get kinda hard. Like now, you know you’ve been so dang good to me Gin, I can never thank you … so good,” he whispered.

“Oh hush up you,” she said throwing a gentle punch in his direction,” so how are you feeling anyway?”

“You know what, I reckon I’m feelin’ better,” he said, suddenly grinning over at her.

*****

It was just three days later that he finally began to get the feeling back into his limbs and within a week he was able to stand up and walk a little for the first time. He knew the weather would be closing in soon and they had to make a move so at the end of the following week they decided they would take off down the mountain the next morning.

Supper was over and they were just preparing to settle down for the night when Jess decided to check on the horses. As he went out of the door, he paused for a moment and looking up saw a huge moon, its light flooding over the trees and rocks of the surrounding area transforming it into a magical place, and he turned and called Ginny out.

She joined him, wrapping her arms around herself to keep warm. “It’s beautiful,” she gasped, “but real chilly.”

He glanced back up at the sky. “Um….. storm clouds on the way and this time I reckon it’s cold enough for snow. It’s as well we’re takin’ off tomorrow.”

She looked across at him,” in a funny kind of way I’ll be sorry to go,” she said, “it’s been sort of nice being up here together, just like old times.”

He looked down and when he looked back at her, his eyes were glittering and his voice was thick with emotion.

“I wanna thank you for all you’ve done for me sweetheart,” he said very softly ,remembering  all the loving care  she had given him recently that, along  with the closeness of the  preceding weeks .Then with the moonlight, her proximity, her delicate perfume……….suddenly everything combined to make Jess’s heart start to beat faster.

So many times during their journey together he had, had to rein back his emotions, had come so close to kissing her, holding her close, telling her how she made him feel. But he had resisted it on every occasion, knowing she was spoken for and there was no room for him in her life anymore, not in the way he would have liked anyway.

Now she took a step towards him her eyes seeming huge and her expression one of anticipation, waiting for him to make a move, no…more than that…longing  for him to move forwards, dip his head down and  to find her sweet lips, and just as she had that thought. So he did it.

She felt his lips on hers, almost hesitantly at first, just like he had kissed her when they were so young… but then he kissed her more deeply, more firmly and hell it was nothing like when they were kids and something inside her, so long forgotten, blossomed forth and she pulled him close and responded, kissing him back passionately, feeling his firm body responding to her as she surrendered to his touch…

Then he was running a hand down her back, pulling her closer so that her body molded to his, and he kissed her neck, giving a soft groan of desire and whispering her name…..

Somewhere far off up the mountain, an owl called and then its mate returned the unearthly, lonesome sound…and that finally brought Jess back to his senses.

He very gently pulled away, giving a deep shuddering sigh, and  looked down before finally dragging his eyes up to look into her puzzled gaze.

“Jess, what is it?”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I can’t do this; I can’t hurt you this way again.”

“I told you last time I knew what I was doing back then……… it was what I wanted.”

“Yeah, but I was older, I should have been strong… it was wrong then… and it’s even more so now….. Hell you’re married Gin.”

“It doesn’t feel wrong, Ben doesn’t want me……….doesn’t care, and you do… I know you want me Jess…”

“Sure I want you,” he whispered and then almost to himself, “more than you’ll ever know.”

Then he gave a deep sigh, “I have to be strong for us both, I won’t let you do it Ginny, won’t let you commit adultery.”

 At those stark words she took a sharp intake of breath and her head shot up almost like he had slapped her, her eyes wide in shock, feeling jolted back into reality, just as he had meant for her to be.

“You’d regret it the moment you saw Ben again…. well wouldn’t you?”

And then she knew the truth of it, sure, there was some part of her that would always love Jess, he was always going to be there in  her history, but he had made his decision when he rode out of Texas that day…….. and she had made hers when she married Ben, for better or for worse and she suddenly felt deeply ashamed.

“You’re right of course,” she whispered,” and I’m sorry Jess.”

“Hey, you’ve nothing to apologize for. It takes two, you know…and I guess I was kinda out of order back there for a moment.”

She looked up at him and gave him a sad smile,” friends?”

“Sure.”

“And Ginny…… about Ben.”

“Yeah?”

“What he said to me back in the jail, about splitting up, it’s only because he feels he ain’t good enough for you. “

“What?”

“Sure, after this latest business with the alleged bank robbery, he feels real vulnerable, lost all his confidence, all he needs is to be proved innocent and then  someone to have some belief in him and he’ll turn his life around for good, I reckon.”

“Me,” she said softly,” you mean I should show my belief in him.”

He nodded, “it worked for me.”

She raised a questioning eyebrow.

Jess smiled down at her. “When I was trying to turn my life, around give up my murky past,” he said with a wink, “well…” Then he sobered again. “Old Hardrock — Slim — he believed in me, and that was all I needed, just one person to trust me and have a little faith in me…you know?”

She nodded, “yes I understand……. but you say he doesn’t feel good enough for me, are you sure?”

“Oh I’m sure alright, see that was part of the reason I lit out all those years ago…. Sure I needed time alone, to heal, get my life together… but the reason I never came back was just that, I felt I wasn’t good enough for you… for any of you. I knew I couldn’t replace Davy in your folk’s eyes even though I guess they wanted me to try, and I sure as hell knew I couldn’t be the kind of husband you wanted.”

She just shook her head. “I never knew, you are so wrong about that, Jess… but I never realized that was how you felt.”

“Well it was,” he said softly,” and I’m dang sure it’s how Ben feels too, so don’t let him make the same mistake I did Ginny, fight for him… help him to move on, for both your sakes….”

Then he felt he’d said enough, “you go in, you’re getting cold,” he said gently,” I’m just gonna check the horses,” and he walked briskly away, leaving her staring after him, her eyes brimming with unshed tears.

*****

 They set off at first light and they hadn’t been riding long before the first flakes of snow started drifting down, looking pretty and harmless. But Jess knew better and they spurred their mounts on to as fast a pace as was safe while descending the steep mountainside.

They finally arrived at their previous destination, Comanche Bill’s shack, but this time there were definite signs of habitation.

All the way down the mountain Jess had felt himself getting more and more angry. This whole sorry business had been instigated by one man’s lust for a conniving salon girl who was using him for her own ends. Sure, everyone had their own problems and agenda he knew that, but hell there was only so much a man could take and he figured that he was just about at the jumping off place now.

He’s been beaten and abused by the mountain men, had a prolonged absence from home, when he really needed to be back there with Daisy and Mike’s imminent arrival home, and if he was being brutally honest he was feeling more than a little frustrated at having been cooped up with an extremely attractive woman but unable to do, well… what he would have liked to.

So it was a very strung up, edgy Jess that left Ginny minding the horses on the perimeter of the property, and made his way purposefully, if overtly, towards the humble shack.

Just as on the previous occasion he shimmied up to the window and peered inside, but this time he was rewarded by the vision of Comanche Bill sitting toasting his feet by a blazing fire and a glass of what looked suspiciously like the illicit moonshine in his hand.

Jess decided that surprise was his best tactic, so without further ado, he kicked open the door, his colt.45 already in his hand and snarled menacingly at the shocked man within to get his hands up.

Comanche Bill complied with the order at once, spilling his precious drink as he did so. “Hey what’s your game mister? I ain’t got anything worth robbing,” he gasped plaintively.

“It ain’t robbin’ I’m after doin’, unlike you, you lowlife,” spat Jess aggressively.

“I don’t know as to what you talking about stranger,” he replied, his shifty eyes unable to meet Jess’s.

“Oh I think you do,” said Jess advancing on his quarry, who had leapt up on Jess’s arrival and was now standing with his hands in the air looking anxious.

As Jess grabbed the front of his shirt and glared at him the look of anxiety turned to one of fear…” don’t hit me mister,” he almost squealed.

Jess threw him a scornful look. “Oh, I’m gonna do one hell of a lot more than hit you unless you tell me the truth… right now,” he yelled.

Bill took in Jess’s furious deep blue eyes, his lean fighters frame and the clenched fist just inches from his face and caved in immediately.

“Yeah, sure I’ll say whatever you want mister.”

“Well, let’s start with how you upped and tried to rob the Rawlins bank, messed up, and then got a saloon girl to lie for you, leavin’ an innocent man rotting in jail on your account.”

He shook his head. “I never… I didn’t… “

“Sure you did and I’ve got a woman that will testify that you did. The name Bonnie mean anything to you?”

At her name, Bill’s face flushed up. “She’s my girl, she wouldn’t grouse me up.”

Jess shook his head sadly. “She’s taken you for a prize fool, friend; she ain’t your girl. Hell she’s anyone for a couple of bucks and you know it.”

“She was gonna stop all that as soon as we went away, got us a new life out West.”

Jess felt genuinely sorry for him then. He shook his head. “No…no she wasn’t. She was just tryin’ to keep you sweet; she had no intention of stayin’ with you.”

Suddenly the tall, tired looking man looked broken,” that the truth mister?”

Jess nodded,” better you find out now before you go getting into anymore trouble on her account.”

He sank down back on his chair, not caring about Jess’s gun, or what this dark haired cowboy would do to him, not now his dream was shattered.

Jess holstered his gun and wandering over leaned on the mantelpiece looking down at the wretched man.

“Look, you come back to Rawlins with me and tell the Sheriff the truth, I’ll speak up for you, say as how you’d got that woman in your blood…wasn’t thinkin’ straight. The Sheriff reckons you’ve never been in any real trouble, just petty stuff; you should get off with a few weeks in jail. But old Ben there, the guy you got banged up, well, he’s got a history. Figure if he’s convicted, they’ll throw the key away, and he’s got a young wife waitin’ for him,” he finished quietly.

After a long pause, Comanche Bill finally raised his bloodshot eyes up to Jess. “Ok I’ll do the right thing. Let me saddle my horse and I’ll ride back into town with you.”

And so it was the sad little trio wended their way back to town in the ever increasing snow, landing back just before dusk, and as promised, Comanche Bill made a full statement and on the strength of that, plus Bonnie’s input, Ben was finally liberated.

As Sheriff Red Smith released his prisoner, he watched as the man ran into his wife’s arms, but couldn’t miss the fact that Jess turned abruptly away, staring out of the window onto the sidewalk, a bleak expression on his handsome features. Then a second later it was gone as Ben marched over and took his hand.

“I can’t begin to thank you for all you’ve done, Harper,” he said pumping Jess’s hand and smiling.

Jess smiled back,” well that’s OK, just take good care of this little lady,”  he said tipping his hat towards where Ginny was standing a little apart, watching the two men she loved most in all the world.

At that Ben wandered over to her and flung a protective arm around her shoulders,” oh I will, you can be sure of that, I’m never letting her  out  of my sight again,” he said throwing her an amorous glance.

Shortly afterwards they left for home, on the understanding that Jess would drop in on his way back to Laramie, the following day.

Once they had left he slumped down in the chair opposite Red’s desk, all pretence of equanimity gone as he stared down looking defeated.

“Tough trip buddy?”

Jess just nodded. “You could say so, yeah.”

“So you and Ginny still hit it off OK… after all this time, I mean you go way back yeah?”

Jess turned exhausted eyes on his good friend. “Just don’t, Red; don’t say no more,” he said softly.

His friend immediately understood and pulling out his desk draw he brought out a half bottle of whiskey, and two glasses, uncorked it and poured two generous measures, sliding one across to Jess.

“No more questions, buddy. Get that down you and then we’ll have another and then I’ll take you home for the Mrs. to feed you, and tomorrow well things might seem a little better… huh?”

Jess gave him the ghost of a smile. “Thanks, Smitty,” he whispered.

 *****

The following morning things actually looked marginally worse to Jess as he looked out on the new day with a throbbing head and churning stomach.

 The one or two drinks had quickly led to five or six…and then they stopped counting. It had been Red’s evening off and he intended to enjoy it to the full with his good friend and Jess was past caring, just wanted to blot the recurring picture he had in his brain of Ben holding his wife possessively in his arms, the sudden stab of jealously twisting in Jess’s guts.

And now as he surveyed Red blearily over the rim of his coffee cup he felt the day could only get worse as he had promised to call in on the love birds on his way home.

“So are you sure it’s a good idea riding home in this weather?” asked Red for the third time, casting an anxious glance out of the window where the sleety snow was now coming down horizontally, driven by an icy wind.

Jess just groaned. “Well, I sure don’t wanna Red, but I figure it’s either go today while the trail’s still passable or stay over here until next spring!”

“Well that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? Anyways the wife leaves me alone and stops nagging about my drinking when you’re around; you make me look like I’ve signed the pledge.”

“Oh sure I do,” said Jess grinning at that.

“ Anyway I’m missing everyone back at the ranch, gotta be back for Christmas and then I’ve got a hot date with Millie at New Year,” he said his whole face lighting up at the thought of his real good friend Millie, from the saloon in Laramie.

“Oh well that’s different,” said Red with a chuckle, “can’t keep the ladies waiting I guess.”

With that Jess finally made his farewells and promised to catch up with his good buddy in the spring once the roads were passable again.

Once he was seated on Traveler, his stomach felt even worse and he was in two minds as to whether he would just ride for home and not make the short call he had promised Ginny the previous day. She had again been tearful and asked him to just visit for a little while and as he had to actually pass their door on his way back to Laramie it seemed churlish not to agree.

When he rode into their small yard Ginny came running out to meet him at once and suggested he put Traveler in the lean to bedside the Cabin as the snow was still falling.

Jess did as she asked and as he turned from tending his horse she said quietly,” can we have a quiet word before we go in…. Ben is just brewing us some coffee.”

“Sure,” he said, but he felt uncomfortable, “so what is it you can’t say in front of Ben?” he asked throwing her a challenging look.

She looked down and flushed, “well I just wanted to warn you… Ben is kind of jealous of you… all that time we spent together, well he started asking questions last night wanted to know…… why it took us so long.”

Jess just looked down and said nothing for a moment.

“Oh don’t get me wrong ,”she said very quickly,” he’s really appreciative of what you’ve done to help him, it’s just that… well he knows how close we once were and I think… well he’s imagined things went on between us that… didn’t.”

Jess thought that maybe now wasn’t the right time to remind her that her husband’s worst fears might very well have been realized if Jess hadn’t had the willpower to turn away from her that night in the moonlight.

He just shook his head and then gave her a questioning look. “So what do you want me to say?”

Well nothing really,” just maybe try to convince him that you were really bad on the trail, how you couldn’t walk.”

“Well I don’t think that will be too hard to convince him, because it was true wasn’t it.”

She just nodded,” I figure it’s like you said, his confidence is real low right now.”

The last thing Jess felt like doing was sorting out Ginny’s marital problems, but it didn’t look like he had much choice.

He gave her a tired smile,” OK, come on then, let’s go try and cheers him up,” and with that they left the lean to and ran across the icy yard together.

When they entered the warm little cabin Ben came out of the kitchen bearing a tray and mugs and gave Jess a brisk nod,” good to see you again Harper, thanks for dropping by, I need to talk to you.”

“Oh?”

Ginny looked equally surprised, but just sat down at the table and dispensed the coffee.

“Yeah, you’ve seen this place in Laramie that Ginny’s Ma inherited, what do you think of it?”

Jess sipped his coffee thoughtfully.

“Well I guess it needs a whole lot of work doing, the old guy that had it before had been sick quite a while, it’s real run down, but I guess with a mess of hard work you could turn it around, make something of it.”

“Or sell it?”

Jess’s head shot up and he looked surprised. “Well, sure it’s good land and real near to town. Would make a good investment if someone was to spare the time and money to get it right.”

“So it would fetch a fair sum at auction?”

Jess nodded and cast a fleeting glance at Ginny, who was looking pale and shocked.

“So what’s this all about then Ben?” he asked.

“Well I was thinking of selling it on, using the money from it and this place to give us a stake on the wagon train, heading West.” Then turning to look at Ginny for the first time, he said, “So what do you think, honey?”

Ginny was stunned and looked from her husband to Jess and back. “What not live in Laramie?” she said hesitantly.

“That’s right,” said Ben, an edge to his voice now. “After all, we have discussed making a fresh start out West. Maybe that’s what we need?”

“What do you mean?” she asked quickly.

Then Ben turned cold eyes on Jess. “Well to get Harper here out of your system, maybe we need to put a few thousand miles between the two of you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, looking flushed and uncomfortable.

“Oh I think you do”, he said angrily, pulling her shoulder around so she was forced to face him.

At this rough treatment Jess sprang forwards. “Now just a minute here, Ben; you’re way out of line. There ain’t nothin’ between me and Ginny but friendship and nothin’ happened on the trail either if that’s what’s bothering you, I was sick like she said; that’s why we were away so long.”

Ben looked somewhat chastised. “Really?” he asked casting pleading eyes on Jess.

Jess just nodded.

“Well, honey,” said Ben, his tone now more placatory than irate, “so what do you think?”

She shrugged still looking far from happy…” I don’t know.” Then she turned to Jess, her eyes searching his face. “What do you think, Jess? What should I do?”

He knew exactly what she was saying; this was nothing to do with choosing Laramie or the West and everything to do with choosing her husband or Jess, and he knew what he had to do.

She was now facing him, her back to her husband so he couldn’t see the look of deep longing in her eyes as she gazed at Jess.

He could hardly bear to return that candid gaze, but knew that he must…and very softly, he said, “I agree with your husband, Gin; I think you should go out West.”

The room was silent save for the fire crackling in the grate and nobody moved or seemed to even breath for a good minute as Jess and Ginny’s eyes locked and he saw all her hopes fade and then she pull herself together and taking a deep breath, she gave him a little nod, before turning around and pinning a bright smile on her face as she ran over to Ben and took his hand,” OK then my darling, we’ll do it we’ll go West!”

*****

Jess rode out shortly afterwards, after wishing them luck and refusing to stay for a meal and he was on the trail home by mid-morning. The weather had gotten even worse since his visit, with the sleety snow again coming down almost horizontally, stinging his face and eyes and making Traveler carp at having to face the prevailing weather, uncharacteristically sidestepping, prancing and generally showing his displeasure. Jess leaned forwards and patted his mount’s arched neck,” I know old fellah, it ain’t nice, but  guess we’ve just got  put up with it and get home anyways we can,” and taking a firmer stance, he kicked him on  up the trail in the direction of home.

It was a long, hard ride and he pitched camp in a small spinney of trees at dusk, spending a long time trying to coax a sulky fire to life before he could even think of preparing some much needed coffee and trail grub.

The trees provided some well needed cover, although the wind had finally dropped and the fat snowflakes just drifted aimlessly down, forming a deep and worrying cover beyond the trees. Jess watched the relentless snow and could only hope that it would soon stop and he would be able to make reasonable time the following day and reach the ranch before dark, not wanting to spend another night out in the freezing temperatures.

He had spent a long time rubbing Traveler down and feeding him and had finally covered him over with one of his own blankets and tethered him close by, before he finished his scratch supper and settled down for the night.

Lying back on his saddle, his bedroll wrapped tightly around, he found he couldn’t sleep and lay there tossing and turning and trying to imagine what was going on at home.

He had wired Slim and had a reply saying that he had, had the all clear from Doc Sam, saying the epidemic was now declared officially over and folks sent away were now safe to return and said that he was expecting Daisy and Mike any day now, and Jess smiled into the darkness at the thought of being reunited with his adopted family.

 Then he cast his mind back to that first Christmas he had spent at the ranch with Slim, Andy and old Jonsey, and what an outsider he had felt, with all their family traditions of Christmas trees and gifts, even though his new friends tried hard to involve him.

Just the general Christmassy spirit and bonhomie was a completely alien concept to Jess, his father never bothering with such ‘silliness’. But then he had finally let himself join in and  discovered a magical world that he never knew existed, the combination of friends, those age old traditions and the exchange of presents carefully chosen for loved ones, well it had all added up to something really special.

 Then year upon year it just got better and better and now, although he would deny it fervently, he was almost as big a kid about Christmas as Mike was. He wasn’t sure why, but maybe at the bottom of it all was a sense of belonging he realized now, as he lay watching the snowflakes float down, that and all the good food he thought grinning to himself, not to mention the presents….

Then he suddenly sat bolt upright cussing loudly as he cast his mind back to that night, several weeks ago, when Slim had been berating him for skiving off to town instead of helping bring the stock down to the low land and how he had explained all about his visit to help out Rose. Then, how during the heated conversation in  the bedroom, Jess had abandoned his choosing  Christmas presents out of the  catalogue and had chucked it under the bed as he argued with Slim. Afterwards there had been the dreadful diphtheria epidemic and Rose’s sad demise and the next thing he knew he was chasing off trying to help out Ginny and was away from home far longer than he had anticipated. But however legitimate the reason, the fact was there was not one present bought for his loved ones and Jess felt awful. Sure they’d all understand, but that wasn’t the point….he’d even got around to making his choice, put a big ring around all his intended purchases, had the money saved up and safely in his sock draw…….

He wondered if he’d have time to get to Laramie, but by his calculations he’d be arriving on the day before Christmas Eve which left little time, and the way the snow was coming down now he had his doubts about even getting back to the ranch in one piece, never mind another twelve miles there and back to town. He sighed deeply, well these things couldn’t be helped and he’d just have to give them all New Year’s presents he thought wryly as he finally drifted off to sleep.

The following morning he awoke to a true ‘winter wonderland’, sunlight sparkling on the pristine snow, making his eyes hurt  just  to look at it, the snow and  frost transforming the tree branches above him into a glittering canopy. He lay there admiring it for a moment before stirring himself. “Come on, Harper, get out of your pit and start makin’ tracks,” he said softly to himself as he arose and started to fix a quick cup of coffee.

He knew the landscape looked beautiful, but he also knew it could be deadly and that horse and rider must take care if they were to make it home safely.

The place they had ridden to, to camp, was away from the main track and the area was now covered with treacherously deep snow drifts and Jess had to walk Traveler a good mile until they hit the well-trodden road where the snow was more manageable. There he was finally able to re mount and increase his speed a little, as they headed on towards home, the bright sunlight raising their sprits, with Traveler batting along  at  a good pace.

Even so dusk was just falling as he trotted into the yard and after a moment the ranch house door was thrown open, light spilling out onto the snowy ground, and Jess reined in and looked over as Slim strode out to meet him.

He slipped down from the saddle and both men shook hands warmly.

“Geez, thought I’d never make it,” said Jess, pulling his hat down and looking up at the light issuing forth from the ranch house. The sight of home never seeming so sweet.

“I was beginning to wonder myself,” said Slim, giving his partner a cheeky grin,” so what kept you then Jess, been expecting you home long since.”

“Well, it’s a kinda long story and one that would probably go down a lot better once I’m outside some of Miss Daisy’s good cookin’,” he said winking at his buddy.

“Ah…” said Slim looking unhappy.

“What?”

“Well…..”

“Hell, what is it Slim? She’s OK, ain’t she and the boy? They didn’t get sick after all, did they?” he asked, his face suddenly fearful.

Slim clapped him on the shoulder. “No, nothing like that. Let’s put up Traveler and get out of the cold and I’ll explain.”

Once in the warmth of the barn, Jess unsaddled his mount and started to rub him down. “So?”

“Well, I don’t know where they are,” he said honestly. “They were due home a couple of days go, but we haven’t had a stage through all week because of the weather, I’m hoping they made it as far as town and  they’re just staying at the hotel until the stage can get through.”

Jess looked upset. “Ain’t there anything we can do?”

“Nope, not really, I tried to get the buckboard down the road, but it was impassable. Might get in on horseback, but I figure Daisy’s riding days are over.”

Jess shook his head sadly. “Guess you’re right.” Then he glanced out of the barn door.
“It ain’t snowed all day. Could be if it thaws some, Mose might get the stage in tomorrow?”

“Yeah, well, I guess we’ll just have to hope so, and in the meantime, it’s my cooking I’m afraid, buddy.”

Jess cast him and exhausted look. “Well, you know, Slim, way I feel right now even that sounds good to me!”

*****

 After supper, the two men settled down by the fire with their coffee.

“So are you going to tell me all about it then buddy?”

“I guess. Hey Slim, we got any medicinal whiskey? I took kind of a battering along the way. Wouldn’t say no to a glass or two; feelin’ sort of achy.”

“Gee Jess I’m sorry that’s one of the things I was going to buy when I tried to get into town, there’s only a drop left and I figure we’d better keep that for a real emergency.”

“Oh great,” said Jess sarcastically, “Christmas comin’ and not even a drop of grog in the house, I suppose we ain’t got a turkey either?”

“Well, that’s where you’re wrong. Go look in the cold store out back.”

Jess did as he was bid and returned a few minutes later with a grin on his face. “Hell Slim, he’s a beauty.” Then his face fell. “I sure hope it’s not gonna be down to just the two of us to eat him.”

“Um, me too.”

Jess was just about to collapse back down in his rocker by the fire when he suddenly remembered something and jumping up again he disappeared out through the front door yelling,” back in a minute,” behind him.

He returned a little later bearing aloft the two bottles of Moonshine which the mountain man had given him.

“Is that what I think it is?” asked Slim his eyes open wide in surprise.

“Sure is. Illicit moonshine, straight from the mountain top.”

“So where did you get that?”

“Peace offering from Carson James.”

Slim looked even more shocked at that. “Carson James, you say? Isn’t he Denver’s brother?”

Jess nodded.

“Wow, he’s a real bad lot isn’t he? So when did you tangle with him then, Jess?”

Jess explained all about tracking the hapless bank robber, Comanche Bill, and how he ended up trailing him up the mountain and had run into Carson and his sons. He opened the bottle and after fetching a couple of tumblers from the kitchen poured them both a generous measure, before relaxing back down by the fire.

Slim took it and raised it in a little salute. “So, peace offering you say?”

“Um, had a little ruckus with his son, Bull. Well he fought kinda dirty, pulled a knife on me and slashed me about a bit, figure Carson felt kinda bad about it.”

Slim gave a low whistle. “You hurt bad, Jess?”

He shook his head. “Cut up some, gave as good as I got, you know me,” he said giving Slim his cheeky grin. “Got him in the end, but he did kinda beat me up some and…”

 He looked down into his drink, never liking to admit to any weakness.

“And you were hurt so bad you couldn’t get back home,” Slim supplied, having heard it all so often before and knowing that was probably the truth of it.

Jess cast him a sheepish grin. “I guess,” he said softly.

Slim just shook his head. “So what was this ‘little ruckus’ over?”

Jess dipped his head and looked into his whiskey for a long while before saying. “Over Ginny, Bear took a liking to her, wanted to take her as his wife.”

“But she’s married isn’t she?”

Jess’s head shot up and he threw his buddy a pained look. “Do you not think I mentioned that? No telling that Bull, though; he’s kinda crazy.”

“Um, I had heard he’s not quite the full ticket.”

“Well you can say that again, fights like a bull that’s for sure and never heard of the Queensbury rules,” Jess said with a grim smile.

Slim looked concerned,” so the knife wounds were real bad then?”

“Bad enough, but it wasn’t that, that laid me low, he picked me up, threw me onto some rocks, hurt my back real bad…”

“Go on.”

“Well, I won the fight, me and Ginny headed back down the mountain, where Carson said that low life Comanche Bill was headin’, and stayed overnight in a shack. Next morning… well, I couldn’t walk, buddy.”

“What?”

“Ginny reckoned same thing happened to her brother after a fall from the saddle — real bad bruising can damage the nerves of your back and legs as well. Anyways, I just couldn’t feel my legs, Slim. I was so dang afraid; thought I wasn’t gonna walk again at one stage.”

“Geez Jess, so how long were you laid up for?”

“Nearly two weeks.”

Then he looked at his friend a big grin on his face. But you know what Slim? Ginny was wonderful, nursed me all through it. I figure she saved me, got me well pretty quick anyway… wouldn’t give up, cared for me day and night, you know.”

“Oh really,” said Slim a suggestive note in his voice. “Day and night eh?”

“Aw, Slim, it wasn’t that way. She’s just a real good friend, and nothing happened, she just looked after me… like… well. like Daisy would, I mean… “

“Jess…”

“She was just doing what she would have for anyone — you, if you’d been hurt…”

“Jess!”

“Huh?”

“I think you protest too much?”

“Huh? “

“Jess, this is me you’re talking to. I can tell you’re crazy about the girl, so why not just admit it?”

Jess gave a deep sigh and tossed his whiskey down, grimacing as the fiery liquid hit his throat before finally answering. “Because she’s married Slim. That’s why. I couldn’t admit it… not to her, not even to myself.”

“And so how does she feel?” he asked softly.

Jess shrugged. “I figure she’s still kind of attracted to me. We…we nearly…” Then, he sighed and looked over at his friend, his eyes profoundly sad. “But we didn’t; came to my senses just in time and delivered her back to her husband.”

“Go on… so what happened then?”

Jess poured them both another drink before replying, but just stared into his glass for a while. “Ben, I reckon he knew there was something between us and so, he said he was gonna put the Laramie property on the market, go West with the wagon train. Said he needed to put a few thousand miles between us.”

Slim gave a low whistle again. “So what did Ginny think about that?”

He shook his head. “Didn’t seem too keen… asked me what she should do.”

There was another long silence before Slim said, “So what did you tell her, buddy?”

He sighed again. “What I had to, of course; I said I thought she should go.”

“And so they’re going to?”

“Yep, I guess so.” He tipped his glass back, both men looking deep into the embers of the fire.

After a long time Slim said, “You did the right thing, you know that, don’t you, Jess?”

“Yeah… I know that. But guess it don’t make it hurt any less,” he said softly and shortly afterwards he retired to bed, looking utterly worn out.

***** 

The following day was Christmas Eve, and as soon as all the chores where done, Slim said, “There’s one thing I just haven’t got round to yet, Jess — the tree.”

“Oh right, so what do you want to do?”

“Well, go get one of course. Come on Jess, it won’t be Christmas without a tree.”

Jess just looked moodily down. “Hell, it won’t be Christmas without Daisy and Mike either.”

“Yeah, well, they still might make it, and what will Mike say if he lands home after all this time and there’s no Christmas tree up?”

Jess sighed, still feeling the after effects of the gut rot whiskey from the night before. “OK. I suppose you’re right,” he said reluctantly and went off to saddle the horses.

They rode due west to a small plantation of pines on their property and spent a while choosing a suitable tree, before chopping it down and after putting a rope around it started hauling it back to the ranch.

“So what’s the news from town, last time you made it in, that is?” asked Jess, as they made their way slowly back to the ranch.

“Well everyone is mightily relieved that the diphtheria seems to have run its course, especially Doc Sam and Carrie,” he said.

Jess nodded. “Yeah, that’s a blessing and they would be.”

“Um, so Sam said he and Carrie were doing their usual Christmas thing of inviting every waif and stray in town to Christmas dinner.”

Jess was good friends with the doc and his pretty daughter and nodded in approval. “They’re real good folk.”

“Mose and old Bill from the livery are going over to the saloon for their dinner with Tom,” he said referring to their good friend the barkeep.

Then he grinned over at his buddy. “And I saw Millie. She said seeing as you were off gallivanting and doing your ‘knight in shining armor act’ again, well, you’d just have to wait for your Christmas present until she sees you at New Year.”

“Oh really?” said Jess looking interested.

“Um, and she gave me a very cheeky wink when she said it too!”

Jess just smiled, looking down having a good idea what his present might be. He and Millie were real close friends, real close, and went back a long way. In fact he often told Slim she was the best dang woman friend he had ever had… and their relationship often went a little deeper than just platonic friendship. Jess had a sudden urge to see her.

As though reading his thoughts, Slim gave him a mischievous grin. “Sorry, buddy, she’s gone home to her Ma’s in Cheyenne for Christmas. Guess you’ll just have to be patient.”

Jess accepted the news reasonably philosophically, and changed the subject.

“So what about Mort then? Wasn’t he supposed to be coming over for the holiday? “

“Yeah, riding over later today. Maybe he’ll have news of Mike and Daisy, and if they are holed up in town, how’s about we ride over and spend Christmas there? At least we’ll all be together.”

“Good idea, pard,” said Jess visibly brightening. “Come on, let’s get this ol’ tree home. The stage just might make it through yet; you never know.” With that positive thought, they rode on home at a good pace.

*****

They set the big tree in an ancient cider keg just to the right of the fireplace and then Slim disappeared up to the attic to find the old family decorations, some of them dating back to his mother’s childhood in the old country. On his return he opened up the box and started to take out the carefully wrapped baubles.

As always, he was amazed that the fragile glass decorations had survived the journey of thousands of miles and then being handled every year by two lively boys, but survive they had and he hung them, almost reverently, on the tree.

Meanwhile Jess dug about in the box for the little homemade wooden and card adornments made by a youthful Slim and Andy and finally the beautifully carved Santa, complete with sleigh that Jess had made for Mike as a present for his first Christmas at the ranch. As he placed it on the tree, he had a wave of sadness and a deep longing to see the boy and Daisy again.

He felt suddenly restless and wandered over to the window and  kneeling up on  the  couch peered out into the yard for a sign  of the noon Stage,  but all was quiet, the  winter sun shining down on  the pristine snow and  the only sign of life the  chickens scratching about and clucking contentedly. He sighed deeply, and thrusting his hands into the pockets of his denims, wandered back and stood surveying the tree, now with all the decorations and candles in place looking stunning.

Slim looked up from where he was just draping a piece of scarlet cloth around the cider keg, as a finishing touch and said, “What’s up, buddy?”

“It’s way past noon and no sign of the stage. I figure we’d better face it. If Mike and Daisy ain’t made it to town yet, well, I guess it’s gonna be a pretty quiet Christmas.”

“Um,” agreed Slim, now listening to the silent house which would normally be alive with Mike’s exuberant, excited voice as he helped trim the tree.

Jess stood beside him equally lost in the deep silence of the old house, when suddenly he heard something — the sound of bells jingling, coming as if from far away.

“What the hell?” he said turning to stare at his buddy before they both rushed to the door and ran out into the deserted yard.

Then they heard it again, the sound of distant bells ringing and turning to Slim, Jess’ face broke into a huge grin. “So what do you think that is, pard — Santa and his sleigh?”

Then Slim looked up at the rise above the ranch and there on the track, making its way slowly down towards them was the most incredible sight, a large sleigh, complete with sleigh bells, being pulled by…Mort Corey’s  old buckskin. And there at the reins was Mort and sitting next to him on the seat, Mike and Daisy, the sleigh behind them full to brimming with luggage, presents and supplies.

Slim turned back to Jess and then gestured back to where the sleigh was rapidly advancing into the yard. “No, it isn’t Santa, Jess, but I guess it’ even better… it’s family. They’re back buddy, they’re back!” Both men ran joyously to meet the returning travelers.

Mort brought the sleigh to a standstill and beamed down at his buddies. “Well, here we are, one housekeeper and one small boy safely delivered.”

 Slim reached up and shook his friend’s hand, before helping Daisy down who he hugged lovingly, before Jess came and took her hand and he too hugged her and then kissed her tenderly on her forehead. “Welcome home, Daisy,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.

She smiled up into his eyes. “Oh it’s good to be home,” she said sincerely, casting her gaze around the yard and then over to the ranch house and her beloved home.

Meanwhile Mike had leapt down from the sleigh and now hurled himself at Jess, who held him close for a moment, before suddenly pulling back. “What the…? “

The boy grinned up at him and laughed at the consternation on his good friend’s face as he had felt something soft and squishy give a little yelp as he had held the boy close.

Mike carefully unbuttoned his coat to reveal a highly annoyed tiny little scrap of sooty black kitten.

Jess’s face was at once wreathed in smiles as he took the cute little kitten from Mike and said. Well, who have we got here?”

Mike chuckled and said, “Meet Snowball”

Jess raised a quirky eyebrow. “Snowball?”

“Sure, look at his underside.”

Jess lifted the little creature up and sure enough amongst all the black fur there was a snowy white marking on his little belly, the size and shape of a snowball.

“Ah, right,” said Jess grinning down at the boy enjoying the joke.

“Snowy for short,” said Mike succinctly,” and I guess it’s better than the name aunt Lily gave him.”

“Which was?” asked an amused Slim.

“That darn cat!” said the boy laughing.

Daisy smiled across. It’s true. The poor little beast was beginning to respond to it too; thought that was what he was called.”

 Then she went on to explain how Lily’s prized pedigree cat had had an unsuitable liaison with a local Tom cat with Snowball and his sisters being the result. Lily had been all for sending her husband off with a sack full of kittens to dispose of in the local river until Mike had intervened and been able to find homes for them all except this last one.

“I can keep him, can’t I, Slim?” he asked, turning eager eyes up to the tall rancher.

Slim leaned over and ruffled the boy’s shaggy blond hair. “Sure you can, Tiger; I guess one more animal around here won’t make any difference.”

“Gee thanks, Slim,” said the boy excitedly. “Do you think Jasper will like him?” referring to the resident ranch cat.

“What that ornery critter? I shouldn’t think so,” said Jess darkly. “I doubt he even got on with his own Ma.”

“Oh come on Jess, he’s not that bad,” said Slim grinning across at his buddy.

“Not that bad?” exploded Jess. “Why I caught the dang animal stropping his claws down the seat of my denims to sharpen them just yesterday….. and I was wearin’ them at the time!”

Slim laughed and slapped his buddy on the back. “I don’t know. You can beat up crazy mountain men and sort out would be bank robbers, but can’t deal with a little kitty.”

“That animal ain’t no ‘little kitty’; it’s pure evil Slim!”

Mike had been beaming up at his two heroes during this exchange and said, “Gee, it sure is good to be home!”

“And it sure is good to have you back, Tiger,” said Jess, realizing again how much he’d missed his adopted family.

“Think I’ll go introduce Snowy to Bandit,” Mike said, happily running off, leaving the two men staring after him.

Then Slim cast Jess an anxious look. “Do you think raccoons and kittens get along?”

Jess gave him a huge grin. “Don’t know, pard, but guess we’re gonna find out.”

Then they turned and started unloading the sleigh with Mort’s help.

“So where did this come from?” asked Jess, admiring the fine coachwork of the ancient vehicle.

“Mike found it  at the back of the livery. See, he was getting stir crazy stuck in that hotel for almost a week, so he asked if he could help old Bill out at the livery, cleaning out, grooming and  the like for some pocket money and he was tidying up and found it. Bill hadn’t seen it for so long he’d forgotten he owned it.”

“Anyway, me and  Sam went and tidied it up some and greased the  runners and it drives like a dream, just skims over the snow and it’s a real good job too, because according to Mose it will be next week, at least, before the stage can get through. “

Jess beamed at his buddy. Thanks, Mort, I guess we owe you.”

“No, no you don’t; it was payment enough just seeing their faces when they landed home,” he said with a sentimental smile.

“Come on, buddy, come and get warm,” said Jess, slapping the Sheriff on the back, and the three men went into the house to start their festive celebrations.

The day flew past with Daisy cooking up a storm in the kitchen and the men enjoying some friendly banter amongst themselves.

However, Daisy wasn’t too busy to be her usual mother hen and later that day she summonsed Jess to the kitchen for a quiet chat.

“Well then, young man,” she said sternly, “and just when were you going to tell me you had been so badly hurt?”

“Huh?”

“I had a letter from Maud Smith, Red’s Ma.”

“Yeah, yeah I know who Maud Smith is, but what did she want?”

“Merely to tell me that you had been severely injured, knifed and then beaten so badly you couldn’t walk. Now don’t you think you should have told me, dear?”

“Oh Daisy I just didn’t want you takin’ on. I’m fine, really.”

“Well I’m sure you are, dear, but get that shirt off and let me check the wounds are healing properly.”

“Aw, Daisy, do I have to?” he asked miserably, as he heard the guffaws from the others, emanating from the main room.

“Yes you do, and just ignore them. I’d be just the same even if it was the Sheriff. You can’t be too careful with knife wounds; they can be very nasty,” she said raising her voice slightly for the benefit of the others.

He sighed deeply but did as he was asked.

She carefully checked the gashes to his arm and chest and gently changed the dressings before rubbing some arnica on his still badly bruised back, tutting at the horrible injuries all the while.

Mike had run it to watch at the mention of knife wounds and looked on in awe as Daisy tended him.

After a while he looked up at his hero and said, “Gee, Jess, what were you fightin’ about? You sure are a mess!”

“Well you should see the other fella,” said Jess, grinning down at the boy.

“So what was it about?” persisted the youngster.

“Well, see there was this real pretty girl and…..”

Then there was another gale of laughter from beyond the wall and Jess shook his head smiling down at the boy. He leaned over and tousled his hair. “Never mind about that, Tiger. I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“Oh shucks Jess, that’s what you and Slim always say when I catch you talkin’ about girls.” He marched off in disgust, leaving Daisy and Jess chuckling.

*****

They awoke on Christmas morning to the wonderful smell of roasting turkey emanating from the little kitchen where Daisy had left it cooking in the slow oven all night, to be ready to serve at noon.

Everyone rallied around helping to cook  breakfast and wash up afterwards and  then were shooed out of the kitchen  so that Daisy could make her Christmas sweetmeats in peace, while the men took themselves off on a short hunting trip once the chores were all completed.

To be truthful the larder was bursting with food and drink, but it was a fine sunny morning and the men all felt in need of a little exercise after the overindulgence with Daisy’s cooking and Mort’s whiskey the previous afternoon.

They finally shot a of brace of pheasants to hang and season  for eating later in  the year before heading  back to the ranch where Daisy was ready  for a hand with the vegetables.

Slim and Jess helped her in the kitchen while Mort cut some extra firewood and banked up the fire and young Mike set the table with the best china and glassware, being very careful not to break anything.

Then they were all sitting down to the wonderful meal ,but  not  before Slim had said a poignant Blessing remembering absent friends and thanking the Good Lord not only for the  delicious provisions on the table, but also for the  family being reunited at long last.

Jess closed his eyes and swallowed hard, thinking of his good friend Rose, Mike’s friend, little Tommy and then dear Millie, far away in Cheyenne. Then he thought of Ginny and said a little prayer for her hoping that she would finally find the deep and lasting relationship she so craved with Ben once they moved  out West.

Then his reverie was suddenly interrupted as Snowball did what he’d been attempting to do all morning and finally scaled the Christmas tree, but a fast moving Slim caught him  just in  time before any lasting damage was done, to shrieks of delight from Mike.

Then the usual lively chatter of the Christmas meal ensued and Jess managed to put all thoughts of love and angst to the back of his mind as the wine flowed and the convivial chatter increased as the winter’s afternoon wore on.

It was much later when they were all replete and sitting in front of the blazing fire that Mike handed around the presents which he had neatly stacked under the tree.

As the present opening went on, Jess became more and more uncomfortable, knowing that he would have to finally admit that all his presents were still sitting on the store shelf. Sure, it was due to circumstances beyond his control, not that he didn’t care, hell he had spent hours poring over the catalogue and saving  a couple of dollars every payday since spring… but that didn’t change  the fact that he had received so many wonderful presents and had none to give.

After a while everyone sat back and Slim turned twinkling eyes on his buddy and said “so saving the best until last, are you, buddy?”

Jess flushed up and was just about to admit to his terrible secret when Slim continued remorselessly. “Come on then, Jess, forgotten where you hid them have you, you’ve been away so long?”

“No Slim, it ain’t that…it’s just that well…I…”

“Come on then,” said the tall rancher, jumping out of his chair. Grabbing hold of Jess, Slim hauled him up out of his rocker. “Guess we’d better go and check out our room; can’t be that far away,” he said with barely concealed mirth.

“Slim you don’t understand….”

But Slim just hustled him out.

Once they were in their room, Jess spun around to face his buddy. “Look, Slim, you know darn well I never sent off for that stuff. I’d  just about decided it was easier to ride into town and get everything  and  then …well all the trouble kicked off.”

“I know,” said Slim, smiling across at his buddy.

“Well if you know, what are you playin’ at? They’ll all expect me to march back in with presents I ain’t got and … “

“Jess…..”

“I mean, the gown ups will be OK I guess, but Mike… well… “

“Jess!”

“What?”

“Look under your bed”.

“Huh?”

“Look under your bed buddy.”

Jess hunkered down and what he saw fair took his breath away, as he looked at a selection of beautifully wrapped presents.

“Where did these come from?” he asked, peering up at Slim.

“Well I figured you wouldn’t be back in time so I had a look see at the catalogue, saw all the things you’d ringed and went to town to get them for you a few weeks ago, before the weather closed in, wrapped ‘em up and there you are.”

Jess looked amazed.

“Just need for you to write the labels.”

“Huh?”

“Write the labels, Jess; you know, ‘with love from Jess’. You can still write, can’t you?”

“Sure I can,” Jess said, recovering at last. “Gee thanks, Slim, I owe you.” Then he went over to his sock draw. “I mean I really own you,” he laughed.

“It’s OK, I helped myself,” said Slim grinning back. “And I even did a deal in town and so you’ve got some change.”

Jess just shook his head in wonder. “Thanks, buddy,” he whispered. Then he marched over to him and gave him a bear hug. “I mean, really thanks. For everything.”

Now it was Slim’s turn to look bewildered. “What do you mean, Jess?”

“Not just for doin’ this for me, but for takin’ me in all those years ago… Hell, Slim, for having a bit of faith in me.”

Slim smiled back at him. “Well, you know, you’re real welcome, but what’s brought this on?”

Jess slumped down on his bed. “I don’t know… I guess it was meeting that Ben Reeves again. He was so much like I used to be, I guess; he feels kinda unworthy.”

“Unworthy?”

“Yeah, of Ginny’s love, keeps tryin’ to split up, reckons he’s not good enough. I figure he should just try an’ make a go of things with her, count himself lucky he’s got someone that cares enough.”

“So why did you two split up all those years ago?” asked Slim softly.

Jess looked down for a long time and then shook his head,” same darn reason I guess,” he said.

Slim gave a low whistle, “so you regret that?”

Jess was silent for a while and then said,” no  I guess not I wasn’t ready back then , not for the sort of relationship she wanted, I was so darn bitter… , hell Slim I was so wild…. And I guess maybe I’d have stayed that way if I hadn’t had fallen on this place, met you an’ Andy and old Jonsey…..”

Slim said nothing, just gazed down at where his buddy was sitting on his bunk, looking down at the presents with unseeing eyes.

After a while, Slim leaned over and squeezed his shoulder affectionately. “Well you did and you managed to turn your life around and, well, maybe thanks to you, Ben will be able to as well.”

Jess looked up surprised. “Why thanks to me? It’s all to do with Ginny.”

Slim just shook his head. “But it was you that gave her up. I figure if you’d have shown any interest, she’d have thrown in her lot with you. But well, you helped her make her mind up and once they’re on the way out West, I figure it will all work out for them.”

Jess looked up at his buddy. “I sure hope so, Slim.”

Then the tall rancher slapped him warmly on the back. “Come on, Jess, let’s go and give out your presents. Can’t wait to see what you’ve bought me.”

Jess looked up from where he’d just finished writing the label for Slim’s present and getting the joke, barked with laughter. “I promise I’ll get you a surprise for your birthday,” he said chuckling.

“Well, you promised me a pretty girl from Rawlins but you never came through,” said Slim laughing again as they made their way back to the party.

*****

It was much later that night when the two buddies settled down in front of the dying embers of the fire for a final drink before turning in.

Daisy and Mike had retired for the night long since, and after one glass of Red Eye too many, Mort was stretched out on the couch under the window, snoring gently.

Jess wandered over. “Think he’ll be OK in the morning?”

“What Mort? He’s tough as old boots; never seen him with a hangover,” Slim chuckled softly. “Always seems to sleep it off.”

Jess covered him over with a blanket and then went to check on Mike.

He was fast asleep, stretched out on top of the covers with Snowball and Buttons the dog curled up together at the foot of the bed.

Jess grinned at them and, as Buttons wagged his tail, Jess leaned down and caressed him and the kitten. “OK, I guess you can stay, but just for tonight.”

Then he covered Mike over with a blanket and silently left the room.

“He OK?”

“Sure, him and half the ranch animals in there with him,” he said grinning, before sitting back down in his rocker and accepting a drink from Slim.

The men stretched out their legs in front of the fire feeling mellow and contented.

Then Jasper or ‘the cat from Hell’, as Jess always dubbed him, awoke from where he had been snoozing by the fire and stretched languidly, before sitting down and thoughtfully washing a paw. Then he gazed from Slim to Jess and back and finally marched over to Jess and jumped lightly up on to his lap.

Jess tensed himself, waiting for the claws to dig in, but nothing happened, and after a moment the large cat circled a couple of times before settling down to sleep.

Slim and Jess exchanged a surprised look before Jess reached out a tentative hand and gently stroked the soft fur, and after a moment, was rewarded by a deep purr resonating around the room.

“Well I’ll be”… said Jess looking amazed.

“Guess you’ve got a Christmas Truce there, buddy,” said Slim grinning across at his friend.

Jess looked down at the old cat again and then chuckled. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he said.

“You know I reckon that old cat is smarter than we give him credit for,” said Slim.

“Oh, how so?”

“Well I reckon he understands all about Christmas, you know/ ‘Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All Men’…even you, Jess. “

Jess smiled down at the cat. “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”

Both men grinned at each other and then raised their glasses.

“Happy Christmas, Jess,” said Slim.

“Happy Christmas, pard.” Then more softly, Jess added. ”Happy Christmas, you ornery ol’ cat.”

***End***

Thank you for reading and Happy Christmas!

Return to Patty W.’s home page

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