Lost! (by Patty W.)

Summary:  A story of loss on several levels.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG  (Please note some adult themes, strong language and violence)
Word Count:  5,5376


Jess

Jess Harper turned over in bed, and pulling the covers up, snuggled into the pillow and dwelt on his favorite things. He wasn’t quite sure which was top of the list – fishing’ or romancing the ladies. It was a pretty close run thing, but sleeping and eating definitely came joint third.

Daisy Cooper, the sensible kindly housekeeper and Ma to all the men folk at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, always said Jess ate for three, but his lean, muscular body certainly didn’t bear testimony to that idea.

Young Mike Williams, the blond headed youngster Jess and his business partner and best buddy, Slim Sherman, had adopted after his parents were killed, was in agreement with Jess. He thought that fishing’ was simply the best. But as for romancing’ the girls, well, the nine year old just thought that was plain yucky.

Slim Sherman, the tall blond ranch owner, was driven crazy by his buddy’s favorite things, having to listen to endless romantic highs and lows when the dark haired handsome young cowboy was either on cloud nine and passionately in love, or in the doldrums as he had been thrown over by his latest girl; Slim wasn’t sure which was the more irritating.

Then there was the fact that his friend had been known to skive off work when the fish were biting, returning late in the afternoon, with that cheeky grin and  a whole mess of fish, his happy-go-lucky attitude just begging forgiveness, which he always received before the day was out.

But what really drove Slim to distraction was the way his buddy could sleep — anywhere, anytime, anyplace.

Jess would suddenly find the heat of the afternoon or the grinding relentless hard work just too much and would settle down for a quick nap. Slim had caught him in the hayloft, down by the creek and even down under the shady trees in the home pasture.

Oh boy, was he difficult to rouse in the mornings too, seemingly unable to function before his ration of gut-rot coffee, appearing at the table practically comatose. Slim reckoned he could probably sleep through a tornado.

However, when they were camping out on the trail together, Jess was awake, up on one knee with his gun drawn, all senses alert, at the tiniest sound and Slim always marveled at the contrasts in his friend’s incredibly complex make up.

Jess’ fun-loving, carefree nature was at times completely transformed into a fearsomely violent aggressive gunman, if his liberty or that of his friends was threatened, though. Those twinkling deep blue eyes suddenly changed and flashed almost black in anger, as the legendary Harper temper came to the fore.

Jess had had a difficult start to life, living in abject poverty on the Panhandle in Texas where his Pa was a share farmer. Then, at the tender age of just fifteen, Jess’ life changed forever when his home was fired by the Bannister gang, killing most of his kin and setting him off on a life of bitter revenge and hard times.

After fighting in the war, he later found his skill as a fast gun pushed him onto the wrong side of the law and he had five traumatic years on the drift before landing at the Sherman Ranch and starting a new life there, putting his gunslinger iron away for good.

Jess was just drifting off and started reflecting on the things he hated and feared most in life. Being left afoot, marriage — for sure that was real worrying — spiders — gee, those huge hairy ones that always seemed to be lying in wait for him in the barn — the god-awful Wyoming weather, and of course, getting up of a morning.

Just then his thoughts were disturbed by the bedroom door banging open and Slim barging in.

 “Garldarn it, Jess, will you get your ornery hide out of your bed. I’ve cooked the breakfast, fed the chickens, milked the cow and changed the early morning stage team all on my own. Now get up or I swear I’ll shoot that bed from under you.

Jess merely put his pillow over his head and continued to lie still as though dead to the world.

The usually easy going, placid, rancher looked incandescent with rage, and grabbing hold of the sheets pulled them off, leaving the cowboy exposed, wearing just his white cut off undershorts.

“Aw Slim,” Jess groaned, opening one eye, “there’s no need to take on so. Just ‘cos Daisy and Mike are off visitin’ in Cheyenne, there’s no need to get so darned fretful.”

“I’m not fretful and it’s nothing to do with Daisy either.”

Jess opened the other eye. “So what’s got you so all fired mad?” Then after a pause, “Oh, I get it; it’s that Betsy. She never showed up for your date last night, is that it?”

Slim sank down on his own bed, looking dejected. “I just don’t understand her, Jess. If she doesn’t want to date me, well, why agree to meet in the first place?”

“Tactics.”

“Huh?”

“Tactics, Slim. She figures the more she messes you about, the keener you’ll be.”

“Really?”

“Sure, oldest trick in the book. Just ignore her, buddy; she’ll soon fall into line.”

“Oh, so that’s the great expert’s advice is it? “

“Sure is and when was I ever wrong about the ladies?”

“Um…”

“Come on Slim, cheer up. I’ll get up and go make us some coffee, then we’ll decide what to do with your Miss Betsy,” he said. Then dragging himself up, he raked a hand through his unruly black hair and started looking vaguely around for his pants.

Slim smiled in spite of himself. “Thanks buddy,” he said softly.

*****

The following Saturday found the two cowboys dressed up in their best dark frock coats, silver brocade vests, dark britches , polished boots and  Sunday-best Stetsons, propping up the bar in the Laramie Saloon.

The men had a beer a piece and were deep in conversation with Jess’ very good friend Millie, one of the saloon girls.

Jess and Millie went way back and he always told Slim how she was probably the best woman friend he had ever had. They tended to go out together if neither was dating anyone else, and if Millie occasionally chose to share her bed with the dark haired rancher, well she figured that was nobody’s business but their own. They had a mutual respect and understanding and were always there to help each other out.

However, right now, it was Slim that she had been persuaded to help out, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

“I don’t know,” she said casting her beautiful brown eyes on Jess, “it kind of goes against the sisterhood; us girls are supposed to stick together you know. I feel like I’m sort of deceiving Betsy.”

“Yeah,” said Jess, “but it’s for the greater good, see Mill, ‘cos Slim really likes Betsy, and you say she really likes him and well they’re kinda wasting time playing these silly games of hers.”

“So what will me and Slim be doing…just the same kind of silly game?” she said, her eyes twinkling, knowing that Jess could probably talk her into anything if she was honest.

“OK, but it’s just for the dance. She’ll come around real quick and then we can spend the rest of the night together…huh?” Jess said, giving her his most appealing smile.

She turned and smiled at Slim. “Oh alright,” she replied grudgingly, “But just for the dance.” Then turning warm eyes on Jess, “‘Cos I’ve got other plans for you later on, cowboy, and they don’t include Slim and Betsy.”

Jess gave her his cheeky wink, and leaning in, kissed her softly on the lips, before whispering, “Sounds good to me, sweetheart.”

Slim looked up to heaven. “OK you two, can we get going?”

“Sure, you go ahead; I’ll come by a little later. It’ll look more convincing that way.”

Slim entered the dance hall with Millie on his arm. She was dressed in a tightly fitting low cut scarlet and black dress and he knew she looked sensational as every red blooded male turned to look in admiration, while some of the women looked less than welcoming at the competition.

Slim immediately spotted Betsy sitting out with a girlfriend and was delighted to see the look of chagrin on her face when he arrived with Millie on his arm. He then proceeded to milk the situation for the next hour, laughing loudly at her jokes and playing the attentive suitor, hanging on to her every word and holding her close as they danced by where Betsy still sat, her expression getting more and more distraught.

Then Jess arrived, took in the scene and made a bee line for Betsy. “Hey there,” he said smiling down at her, “all on your own?”

“Looks like it,” she said bitterly.

Jess cast a glance at his buddy and his best girl as they cavorted past. Oh yeah,” he said quietly, “you used to go out with ol’ Slim at one time, didn’t you?”

“What do you mean, at one time?”

“Well, I thought you two had split up; you never showed for that date last week.”

She blushed to the roots of her hair. “Oh, that was just a silly misunderstanding”.

Jess shook his head gravely. “Not the way Slim sees it,” and then looking even more upset, “and now he’s gone and muscled in on my best girl.”

Betsy’s eyes looked huge. “What? Millie is really seeing him? I thought maybe they were just keeping each other company until you showed up.”

Betsy was well aware of Jess and Millie’s close relationship, and now she looked beseechingly into Jess’s eyes.

“Nope, guess she’s thrown me over for old Hardrock, there,” Jess said using his nickname for his buddy. Then he saw the tears well up in her eyes and suddenly felt sorry for the subterfuge. “Hey, honey,” he said softly, “don’t go getting upset. Listen, here’s what we’ll do…”

Sometime later, Jess strode over to the band leader and made a request, and a few minutes later, a Ladies Excuse Me was announced. As the first bars played out, Betsy was up and tapping Millie on the shoulder and quickly reclaimed her beau.

Betsy at once apologized for her childish behavior, and as Millie and Jess watched the couple with bated breath, they were delighted to see Slim lean in for a long lingering kiss. As they waltzed past, they could see the look of bliss on Betsy’s face.

“Guess that’s our job done,” Jess said turning to Millie with a big grin. “Want to dance or do…something else?”

Millie reached up and kissed him gently. “Oh something else I think,” she said with a little giggle, taking him by the hand and leading him away from the dance floor.

*****

Millie reached up and took the key, to her cozy room above the saloon from its hiding place over the door and ushered Jess in before closing and locking the door behind them.

He quickly divested himself of his hat, frock coat and gun belt. Then he hung them on the hook by the door, before sitting down on the bench just below it and pulling off his best boots.

Millie stood back grinning down at him. “I’ve sure taught you the rules of the house good,” she affirmed with a little chuckle, “guns an’ boots left by the door.”

“Yes Ma’am,” he said smiling back up at her. “You an’ Daisy wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“How is Daisy? Have you heard from her?”

“Sure, got a wire just yesterday. They’re having a ball with Daisy’s sister and Mike has found a new friend; reckon he won’t wanna come home come Monday.”

“Well, I guess the Spring break is over, so he won’t have any choice.”

“Yeah,” Jess agreed. “Just hope the weather gets a bit better; I’m getting’ kinda sick of being soaked to the skin every darn day.”

“Oh poor baby,” she said pouting a little. “I guess you’re in need of a little tender lovin’, cowboy, the rough time you’ve had lately, what with your lovely housekeeper not there to spoil you, not to mention losing your best girl to your buddy tonight,” she said moving in and snaking her arms round his neck.

Jess grinned down at her. “Well yeah, that’s right. Figure I need some real good lovin’ to make up for that,” he said as he leaned in and gave her a gentle kiss that gradually deepened, as he took her in his arms.

*****

When Jess awoke, the light was streaming in through the window and he figured they had slept in, but hell it was Sunday morning, so why not.

Pulling his arm out from where it was pinned under Millie, he leaned up on his elbow and looked at her sweet face, so young in repose and naked of the usual heavy makeup she was obliged to wear for work.

After a few moments she seemed to be aware of his scrutiny and her eyes flickered open. “Hey ‘mornin’, cowboy,” she whispered huskily. “You OK, Jess?”

He leaned down and kissed her very tenderly. “Reckon I am,” and then he ran a gentle finger down her cheek.

“I wonder how Slim and Betsy got on after we left,” she said with a little giggle.

“Oh just fine I guess,” he said happily. “I sure hope so, anyway; Slim was clear drivin’ me loco with all his fussin’ and frettin’.”

“Well you’re just lucky, you’ve got a nice uncomplicated, obliging girl like me,” she said pulling him down into her warm embrace.

*****

 Much later they sat in Miss Molly’s café enjoying a good breakfast.

“So Jess,” said Millie securitizing him over her coffee cup, “did you hear any more about those threats Denny Jackson has made against you?”

Denny Jackson was an outlaw responsible for robbing the Overland Stage of over $5,000. He had been apprehended by Jess, Slim and Mort Corey, Sheriff of Laramie and good friend of the ranchers, and given a hefty jail sentence.

However when being transferred between jails the previous month, he had escaped, and his buddies had put the word out on the street that he was gunning for the trio, Jess especially as he had been the one to finally apprehend him.

“Nah,” said Jess, “he’s all talk, I reckon. He just said that to put the law off his trial; figure he’s down in Mexico by now.” Then casting a jaundiced eye out of the café window at the still falling rain, said, “and I figure I’ll be joining him pretty soon if this weather continues — either that or build an ark.”

Shortly afterwards, Jess walked Millie back across the road to the saloon and kissed her tenderly before he left her. As he drew back, she hugged him again before looking deeply into his eyes. “Take care Jess,” she said softly.

He looked puzzled for a moment before replying in his usual cheery manner. “Sure I will, Honey. You Ok to go out next Saturday?”

“Yes, I should be. I’ll check with Tom and send a message with Mose,” she said referring to the elderly stage driver.

“OK Mill, see you soon.” And with that, Jess made his way off to collect his mount from the Livery.

Millie ran lightly up the stairs to her room and stood at the window.

A little later she heard him riding Traveler down the street and stared after him as he disappeared in the driving rain, at a brisk trot.

“What’s wrong with me?” she said softly to herself.

 Why did she have such a feeling of foreboding, why was she suddenly so scared for Jess? Giving a little shrug, she turned to made herself ready for work, trying to put the bad feeling from her mind.

*****

When Jess arrived back at the ranch, Slim emerged from the barn and beamed up at his buddy.

Jess slid down from Traveler’s back and strode over. “See, told you it would work!”

“Well it sure did, thanks, buddy. She was a dream last night, just a shame she still lives with her Ma and Pa.”

“Um… maybe you’ll have to take her on a picnic down by the lake, if this darn rain ever stops that is,” Jess said with a wicked wink.

Slim smiled back and then sobered. “I had another word with Mort last night, Jess, after I’d taken Betsy home. That Jackson is still at large and apparently he got someone to send a wire to Mort threatening him, you and me too. Says he’s on our case and it’s only a matter of time. Said he’d hit us where it really hurts, whatever that’s supposed to mean.”

“Hell Slim, the guys plumb crazy. The only one as is gonna get hurt is him, and anyways I still think he’s hightailed it across the border.”

“Hum, maybe, but just watch your back, Jess.”

The men had been walking to the barn as they spoke, as the rain was still pouring down, and now as Jess removed Traveler’s saddle and started rubbing him down, he cast a wary look towards the open barn door. “I reckon we’d better get on down to the north pasture tomorrow, buddy and move the stock to higher ground. The way this rains still comin’ down, that river could flood again like it did a few years back. Goddamn Wyoming weather,” he finished bitterly.

Slim gave his friend a sympathetic look. “Yeah, figure you’re right there, Jess. We’ll take off at first light. Don’t forget Daisy and Mike are due back on the noon stage.”

Jess’s face broke into a broad grin. “So they are.” Then a sudden thought froze the smile. “Oh no. Hey Slim, we’d better get to srubbin’ the floor. The amount of mud we’ve traipsed in this last week, she’s likely to take one look and turn tail back to Cheyenne.”

The men spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning and tidying the house for the imminent return of their housekeeper and dear friend and finally retired exhausted.

*****

The following morning they were up and out at first light and spent the morning moving the herd up to higher ground after checking the condition of the river.

Later they had sat on their mounts looking down at the fast moving water and Jess had turned to his buddy a grim expression in his deep blue eyes. “Sure looks bad, Slim. Any of the stock got in there… they wouldn’t stand a chance.”

And then they had gone about the business of driving the herd up to the far pasture well away from the dangerous bubbling waters of the river.

*****

They landed back at the ranch around noon, and before too long, they heard the rumble of the approaching stage.

Jess looked up at the rise and the approaching vehicle and whistled. “Gee, he’s goin’ fast even for Mose Reckon he’s showin’ off for Miss Daisy’s sake,” he said turning and exchanging a grin with his buddy.

Jess walked over to where Mose usually brought the stage to a standstill and then did his customary trick of standing with his hand outstretched ready to open the stagecoach door, Mose usually managing to stop within an inch or so of the raised hand. This time, however, it looked like Mose’s judgment was way out of line and Jess leapt out of the way as the stage ran so close it nearly hit him and then continued on several feet before coming to a shuddering standstill, the horses sweating and shaking, their heads thrown up in distress.

Slim ran over right away looking up in alarm. “Hey Mose what in tarnation are you playing at? You nearly hit Jess. I…” And then he stopped, looking up at the old man in consternation as he saw the wound to his arm, blood soaking the shirt sleeve.

Jess ran over and quickly took in the situation. “Hell Mose what happened buddy?” he asked as he jumped up onto the box to help the old timer.

Mose stared at him his eyes wide with shock and looking dazed. Then he shook his head and replied in an anguished voice, “Oh Jess, I’m so sorry.” Then glancing down, “Slim… there was nothin’ I could do… oh God I’m so sorry… he’s got ‘em ….got ‘em both.”

Jess pulled the old man round to face him. “What’re you sayin’, Mose? You’re makin’ no sense. What are you talking about?”

Mose looked deeply into the young cowboys’ eyes for a moment and then looked down unable to meet the anxious gaze. “It’s Miss Daisy and the boy. Jackson held up the stage a ways down the track; he took ‘em both at gun point, Jess. I tried to stop him and he done shot me in the arm.”

“What!” exploded Jess, his eyes flashing darkly. “That low life Denny Jackson’s got Daisy and Mike?”

Slim was already running for the barn to saddle their mounts and Jess turned worried eyes on Mose. Then quickly pulling off his bandana, he tied it carefully around the driver’s arm to stem the blood flow, before casting him another anxious glance. “Do you think you can make it back to town, alert Mort to get a posse?” he asked.

“Sure thing, boy. I’m made of tough stuff, you know that, Jess. Just find them. He had horses and made off towards the river crossing just north of the old Johnson spread.”

“I’ve got it. Just tell the Sheriff where we’re heading,” said Jess and leapt from the box straight onto Traveler’s back, as Slim brought him alongside, and the two cowboys left the yard at a reckless gallop.

They reached the area where the incident had taken place and Jess lost no time in jumping down from his mount and studying the churned up ground seeking to track the trio. He thanked goodness that at least the rain had stopped, making the tracks still visible. “Goddamn it, what’s he thinkin’ making an old lady like Daisy ride a horse,” he spat, anger making his voice gruff.

“God know what’s in his mind, but I figure this is what he meant when he said he’d hit us where it really hurt,” lamented Slim.

“Well he got that one right,” Jess muttered, before hopping back on Traveler and leading the way, being the most experienced tracker of the two men.

It was about half an hour later when a strong wind had got up and Jess was in despair of being able to read the tracks when he suddenly saw something moving in the distance.

Then as they rode nearer they saw a couple of saddle horses grazing calmly.

The men drew their guns as they rode closer, their eyes seeking out a possible ambush. They finally reached the mounts, and warily hopping down, Jess went over and checked them.

 His eyes hastily scanning the surrounding area and then he saw them — two inert bodies lying some distance apart and he sucked in a deep breath. “Slim, look over there.”

Both men ran over dreading what they would find.

The first body was lying on her back, her diminutive figure partly hidden by the long grass and Jess ran to her and gently felt for a pulse in Daisy’s neck, and then looking up at Slim swallowed hard before saying, “She’s still alive.”

Both men leaned over her and Jess said softly, “Daisy, can you hear me?”

Then a moment later, her kind old grey eyes opened and she looked up in shock that quickly changed to relief as she recognized the cowboys. “Oh thank the Lord,” she whispered.

“Daisy, what happened?” asked Jess his voice thick with emotion.

“It was that terrible man, Jackson,” she said weakly. “He abducted us from the stagecoach, was taking us to the caves to hold us for some ransom money… he was leading my horse and then suddenly his animal reared up and threw him — must have been a rattler or something — and my horse spooked too … and that’s when I fell,” she finished quietly.

“Are you hurt badly?” asked Slim concern flooding his face.

“Just my ankle, a sprain I think. Anyway that’s when I told Mike to go for help.”

“What about Jackson?” asked Jess, getting up quickly from where he had been squatting beside Daisy suddenly remembering the outlaw.

“Oh, I don’t know, dear; he’s been out of it a while now. I don’t know if he’s just unconscious or dead.”

“Well, he soon will be if he ain’t already,” muttered Jess darkly as he strode over to the fallen man. He bent down and checked him and came straight back. “Yeah, he’s gone; split the back of his head open when he fell.”

“Oh, the poor man,” said Daisy shuddering.

“Poor man my foot,” said Jess gruffly, fear making him sound aggressive. Then he bent down beside her again. “We need to get you to the doc Daisy, so which route did Mike take back to town? Do you think he’ll have got there yet?”

“I don’t know, dear. He said he was heading down to the river bank and was going to try and cross at the river crossing, or if it was too high, he was going to just follow the bank and then cut across to the Laramie road. “

At the mention of the river, Jess and Slim exchanged a worried glance.

“I’ll go after him, Daisy. Do you think you can ride double with Slim if he helps you?”

“Well the last thing I want to do is get back up on one of those wretched animals, but I suppose I’ll be alright on Alamo, with Slim to assist me,” she said bravely.

And so it was Slim and Daisy made their slow journey back to town whilst Jess continued tracking Mike, hoping that he would have the sense to steer clear of the river.

Jess had been riding for twenty minutes or so when the river came into view; in fact, he heard it before he saw it, such was the noise it made as it hurtled along, its muddy waters bubbling and swirling carrying debris and the odd animal carcass at a frantic pace. He stood up in his stirrups and surveyed the area, and seeing that the river looked even more dangerous than it had done out where it bordered the north pasture, he gave a little shudder of fear for the youngster’s safety.

Jess urged Traveler down the steep bank towards the river and followed its progress to where in mid-summer it was usually fordable, but he knew long before he reached the place that there would be no chance.

 However, he doggedly followed the tracks Mike’s mount had made and saw that he was indeed following the riverbank along until the trial would take him back up the bank and  through a rocky path up onto the Laramie road.

Then Jess realized that the boy’s tracks suddenly veered off and went frighteningly close to the steep slippery edge of the river. He again scanned the area, and finally leaving Traveler ground hitched, he continued down the bank to the very edge of the water. Here the mud was churned up like the horse had been spooked and then the tracks disappeared down the river bank, the ground again having deep indentations as though the animal were galloping.

Jess continued on foot, and then a moment later he saw a small bay pony cropping the grass. He ran over and finally caught the rather highly strung animal. Then looking around, he shouted for Mike against the ever rising wind. Then he suddenly had a terrible thought. What if the boy had dismounted for some reason near the bank? He quickly retraced his steps, and squatted down at the water’s edge as he searched for a clue.

Then he saw it — a small child’s boot mark. So he was afoot.

Jess stood up, his heart beginning to pound in his chest as he surveyed the crashing water… then he saw something that made his heart pound even harder.

Caught on some branches just a few feet into the water was Mike’s best Stetson, the one he was so proud of and had been wearing for his trip to Cheyenne.

 Jess caught his breath and felt a stab of fear in his guts.

From where he was standing, it was impossible to see if it was just the hat, or if there was a small lifeless body beneath the water.

Without any thought to his own safety, Jess scrambled to the edge of the river and leaned out, his fingers just inches from the brim of the hat, then he leaned further and that was when it happened. He lost his balance and slithered into the water as he desperately clawed at the muddy bank for a hold. Then he made a wild grasp for the branch where the hat still remained lodged before the water took hold of him and carried him away as though he was no heavier than a piece of straw as he bobbed along pulled by the strong current.

The power of the water was just incredible, and although Jess fought with all his strength to swim towards the shore, he had absolutely no chance and he was merely thrown about the fast moving water pulled from one side to the other as he hurtled along completely helpless.

But Jess was no quitter and he fought to the bitter end. Time after time he was pulled under the filthy bubbling water, but struggled to the surface again. The third time he felt his lungs would explode as he was drawn down beneath the surface, but again with super human effort, he surfaced, gasping and coughing, shaking his head and trying to get his bearings.

He realized that he was coming to a bend in the river and the water slowed a little and he again made a valiant effort to swim to the edge with his last ounce of energy.

Then he saw an uprooted tree on the river bank, its branches in the water, and desperately struck out for it. It seemed just that it was almost in his grasp when everything suddenly went black… and he knew no more.

*****

When Slim and Daisy finally made their way into town, they went directly to Doc Sam’s office and the door was opened by Carrie, the doctor’s daughter and nurse.

She looked shocked to see a pale, trebling, disheveled Daisy supported by Slim and she immediately ushered them inside.

At the sound of their arrival the door from the parlor burst open and Mike charged in, shortly followed by Mort Corey. Corey cast Miss Daisy a concerned look and then turning to Slim said, “Young Mike here has just been filling me in on everything; he only landed a short while ago.”

Slim flung an arm round the boy’s shoulders. “Gee you had us worried, Tiger; Jess is out looking for you.”

Then Doc Sam came in and bore Daisy away to deal with her injuries, assisted by Carrie.

Meanwhile Mike sat down beside Slim to tell his story, and as Slim listened he was relieved to see the boy was more excited than upset by the turn of events.

“So after the bad man pitched off, Aunt Daisy said as I should ride for help. Well I didn’t wanna leave her,  Slim,” he said turning innocent blue eyes on his friend, “but I figured that’s what you and Jess would have done, so I rode down to the river ‘cos I know that way to town, been with Jess before. “

Slim nodded encouragingly.

“Well, I rode towards the river, but it looked real bad and I was gonna stay well clear and then…”The boy stopped suddenly looking tearful.

“What, Mike?”

“You won’t be mad at me?”

“No, of course not.”

The boy swallowed hard before looking up at the tall rancher. “It’s my new Stetson Slim; it blew off. It was blowin’ something fierce down by the river…and…and it went in the river.”

Slim gave a deep sigh. “Heck, that doesn’t matter Mike, as long as you’re safe.”

The boy gave him a watery smile. “Anyways, I took the pony down to the edge to try and reach my hat, but when I dismounted, the animal got real spooked by the noisy water, and then I couldn’t reach the hat either.” He sighed deeply. “Anyways I went to try and get back up and the ornery critter ran off,” he said scowling.

Slim hid a smile, the demeanor and turn of phrase so obviously copied from Jess. “So what did you do, Tiger?” he asked gently.

“Well, I walked up to the road and then I met my school teacher driving her buggy into town and she took me to the Sheriff and then the Sheriff said Doc Sam should check on me and then you came,” he finished with a big beam. Then he looked uneasy. “Say Slim, where is Jess? Shouldn’t he be here by now?”

Slim agreed and something made him suddenly feel anxious. “Figure I’ll ride out and meet him.”

Then Sam came back in to the room, concern registering in his kindly eyes. “Daisy’s got a nasty sprain and she’s quite shocked. She’s been through a lot for a woman her age. I reckon I’ll keep her in the hospital bed for a couple of days, Slim.”

Slim looked worried. “She’ll be OK?”

“Oh sure, she’s a tough one, we know that; just needs some rest and a bit of TLC from Carrie here.”

“Thanks Sam. I was just going to ride out and meet Jess. Could I leave Mike with you?”

“Why sure. In fact would you like to stay overnight. Mike, keep aunt Daisy company? I think Mrs. Braddock my lovely housekeeper has got fried chicken and apple pie for supper.”

The child’s face lit up. Oh may I, Slim?”

“Sure,” Slim said looking down indulgently at the youngster. “Jess and I will have to get back to the ranch for the afternoon stage and see to the stock, but we’ll pick you up tomorrow. OK?”

“Yup, thanks Slim.”

Slim shook hands with the Doc and thanked him again, before riding out with Mort, who needed to collect Denny Jackson’s body.

When they arrived at the river and there was still no sign of Jess, the uneasy feeling Slim had experienced earlier came back and he stood up in the stirrups peering along the river bank for some sign of his friend. Then they went back along to where Jackson’s body still lay and Mort tied him to the outlaw’s mount before casting Slim a worried look. It’s strange there’s no sign of Jess; we should have passed him.”

Slim nodded. “Figure I’ll just go upstream a mite further,” and the Sheriff nodded in agreement.

They rode on for another five minutes and then Slim gave a little gasp of shock.

“What’s up?” asked Mort riding up from where he had been behind Slim.

Slim just pointed. “It’s Traveler,” he said softly, “ground hitched,” and with that he spurred Alamo on down the steep bank. At the bottom he threw himself off his mount and ran to Traveler who gave a little whinny of welcome.

Slim patted him absently, all the while scanning the river bank.

And then he saw it — Mike’s hat still stuck firmly in the tree branches in the water.

Slim ran forwards and looked at the muddy bank and then he saw the marks where someone had obviously desperately been struggling to get out of the water, and he turned as Mort joined him, the blond rancher now as white as a sheet. “He’s gone in, Mort. Goddamn it, he’s gone in.”

Mort looked at the tracks, Jess’s boot marks on the edge, but none coming away. “Looks like you’re right,” he whispered, looking shocked to the core.

Then Slim turned and ran for his horse.

“Where in Hell are you going?” cried Mort, sounding more aggressive than he meant to, the shock making his voice harsh.

“To find him, of course,” said Slim. “I’ll ride on aways. He’ll have got out, Mort; he’s a strong swimmer. He’ll have got out.”

Mort just shook his head sadly. “Ok I’ll come with you,” and he walked up the bank and jumped up on his tough old Buckskin and fell in behind Slim, although he knew it was a fool’s errand. He figured Slim knew it too; there was no way anyone would come out of that bubbling cauldron of icy water alive and they both knew it in their hearts.

It was nearly dark before Mort could convince Slim to stop searching. “Slim, come on, buddy; we can’t see where we’re going. Even if Jess was here, we wouldn’t know it. Look, get off home. Maybe he did get out, picked up a lift and is right there waiting for you.”

“You think?” asked Slim the light of hope in his eyes.

No, Mort didn’t really, but then he didn’t want one of his best friends to end up in the river either, wandering about in the dark. “Yeah, could be, and if he ain’t, well, I’ll get a posse up and we’ll ride the length of the river again as far as we can tomorrow, OK?”

Slim nodded reluctantly. “Yeah, I guess you’re right…and Mort, don’t say anything back in town yet. Daisy and Mike don’t need to know until…well, until they have to.”

“Sure, sure I’ll keep it real low key; just ask a few of our close friends to meet up down here at first light, unless I hear from you.”

Slim nodded and leaning over from his saddle shook Mort’s hand. “Thanks. buddy, I appreciate that,” he said softly before riding back to the ranch, leading a reluctant Traveler, who obviously was missing his best buddy too.

When he got back to the ranch, it was plain there was nobody home — no friendly welcoming lamps lit, no smoke from the cook stove and no buddy running out and cussing that he’d near drowned garldarn it, damn Wyoming weather….

Slim thought he would just give anything to hear Jess having a good old moan, and sadly went off to tend the horses, spoiling Traveler especially with an apple, which he knew is exactly what his buddy would have done if he was there.

He stayed out in the barn until coldness and fatigue forced him inside, and as he entered, his heart plummeted as he saw how spick and span the place looked after all the hard work he and Jess has put in the day before in preparation for Daisy and Mike’s arrival home.

He went into the kitchen and looked vaguely around, and then deciding he couldn’t be bothered to fix himself anything to eat, he finally poured himself a stiff whiskey, and carrying it through to the bedroom, lit the lamp and slumped down on his bed, looking deeply into the tumbler, before knocking it back in one, grimacing as the fiery liquid hit the back of his throat.

Then he glanced over to Jess’s bed and saw where the covers were tumbled onto the floor and remembered his good natured cussing of just that morning as he hauled himself out of bed to go and move the stock away from the danger of the flooding river.

Then he had a vision of his friend sitting on Traveler and looking down at the angry river, turning and saying gravely, “Any of the stock got in there, they wouldn’t stand a chance”, and Slim admitted the truth of it …his buddy was lost.

*****

The following morning Slim set off at first light and met Mort at the riverside along with a group of friends and neighbors. The men spent the whole of the day riding the riverbank for many miles, scanning the river and opposite bank with binoculars then making a close check of every square inch, but there was no sign of Jess. The weather had closed in again and by the end of the day the men were cold, wet and despondent.

As the hours had worn on  and there was still no glimpse of his best friend, Slim gradually began to come to terms with the fact that he was gone, but he still couldn’t stop looking, even if only to retrieve his friend’s body.

At twilight, Mort rode up to Slim and said, “I’m sorry, we’re gonna have to call a halt now, Slim. It’s dangerous to continue when we can’t see properly. Anyway….” he sighed deeply, “we ain’t gonna find him now, Slim. He’s gone.”

Slim just looked down unable to speak, or find the words, had been able to.

Mort reached across and patted his arm. “Come on Slim, let’s get back to town. Figure we’re gonna have to break it to Daisy and Mike.”

Mort had already warned Sam that Jess was missing, but said he didn’t want anything said until they were sure of the situation. When there was no sign of Slim or Jess to pick the child up the following day, Sam had said he thought the ranchers we’re real busy because of all the bad weather but they would be by later and the child seemed to accept this explanation.

Now as Slim and Mort entered the doctor’s home Mort caught Sam’s eye and shook his head sadly.

Sam sighed deeply, looking devastated. Jess was a really good friend; they were fishing buddies and spent hours together quietly chatting, waiting for the fish to bite, exchanging jokes and banter. On the other hand, Jess was a terrible patient and drove Sam loco as he was very difficult to treat. Always saying he was just fine when he patently was not, refusing to rest and take proper care, every doctor’s worst nightmare and Sam would be forced to read him the riot act… But oh, how he wished he could do that right now. Then he cast a glance over at his pretty young daughter and saw the puzzled look she cast Slim and Mort as they stood there looking grave.

Carrie and Jess were very close. Once, when she was a youngster of just fifteen, she had had a major crush on the young cowboy, driving him mad with her unwanted attention, as she tried desperately to win his heart. However, in the end matters, had been resolved and now they were very close good friends and Sam’s heart ached as he knew how devastated his daughter would be at the sad news.

Then Mike ran into the room. “Hey Slim you’re back.” Then looking round, “Where is Jess?”

The silence in the room was deafening and then Slim found his voice. “Come with me, Tiger; I’ve got something to tell you and Aunt Daisy. Figure we’ll go sit in her room,” and throwing a comforting arm around the boy’s shoulders the couple left the parlor together.

*****

When he came out a couple of hours later, Slim looked pale and drawn and the first person he saw was Carrie, her eyes red from weeping.

When she saw the tall blond rancher enter the room, she ran in to his arms and started crying afresh. “Oh Slim, I’m so sorry,” she said between sobs.

Slim held her closely, stroking her hair and trying to calm her down, and after a moment Mrs. Braddock came and led the girl away to bed.

 Then Sam came in. “Mort’s gone back to his office, said to call in if he could do anything.” Then he gestured for Slim to sit and passed him a large glass of whiskey. “So how did they take it?” he asked softly.

Slim took a sip of his drink and then relaxed back in the comfortable armchair, his eyes closing for a moment before turning an anguished expression on his good friend. ” Pretty much as you’d expect Sam. Mike was inconsolable, couldn’t stop crying, cried himself to sleep, cuddled up to Daisy. And well Daisy, she’s completely distraught, figure she’ll need a sleeping draft tonight.”

Sam nodded. “I’ll go and sort them out in a moment and Mrs. Braddock has made up the guest room for you and Mike. So how are you feeling, Slim?”

Slim sipped his drink again, and shook his head sadly. “I don’t know Sam — numb, darned angry… What was he thinking of, getting so dang near the river?”

“Of Mike I guess, maybe he thought he was in there, seeing his hat.”

Slim closed his eyes as if in pain. “Yeah… of course he would have done. I would have done. Oh hell Sam. What a bloody mess.”

“I’m so, so sorry, buddy; he was a good man — one of the best — and I shall miss him sorely.”

Slim could only nod and Sam patted his shoulder and left him to some privacy to grieve in peace.

*****

The day  that Jess had gone missing, while Slim had been making his way slowly back to Laramie with Daisy, and Mike was being dropped off at Mort’s by his teacher, a certain Joshua Atkins was strolling along the river bank.

His keen old eyes were taking in the rampaging river as he walked down to the very edge to get a better view, wondering how far the water would encroach on his parcel of land a few hundred yards away.

He was just about to turn back, with the wind howling and promise of more rain leading him to seek the comfort of his nearby cabin, when something in the river caught his eye. In the distance he thought he could see just another broken branch, but as it came closer he realized it was a man, desperately trying to swim to the bank. It looked as if all his efforts would be in vain, but then as he rounded the slight bend in the river, he was suddenly drawn in towards the bank by the current and Joshua watched mesmerized as the man was spun round and round coming closer and closer to the bank and finally came to an abrupt halt as his head hit a protruding branch with sickening force. Then he lay there in the water, as if suspended, as the waves washed him against the heavy branch time after time.

Joshua moved incredibly quickly for his sixty years, and in spite of his age, he was still a fit strong man. So on seeing the Jess’s plight, he wasted no time in leaning over and hauling the unconscious man out of the water and on to the muddy river bank.

 However, fit though he was, Jess was a dead weight, deeply unconscious and soaking wet. He was exceedingly difficult to move and the older man was exhausted by the time he managed to pull him further up the bank onto safe firm land.

Jess was lying on his front and after Joshua had rested a while, he finally got his breath back and turned him over.

Then he stared at the black wavy hair and lean ashen face, turning almost as pale himself, “Jamie,” he whispered. “My God, Jamie? “

He was so shaken it took him several minutes before he was able to collect his thoughts. Then he pulled himself up from where he had been squatting by the younger man, and after glancing down one last time, he turned and ran off towards the cabin.

It had taken Joshua and his wife Mary a considerable time to drag Jess up to the cabin.

Then they quickly divested him of his wet clothes and put him to bed in a small room at the back of the large cabin.

When Mary had first seen the soaking unconscious form, she had had a similar reaction to her husband, sucking in a deep breath, her hand flying to her mouth in shock as she bent over the body. “Oh my boy, my boy, you’ve come home,” she whispered.

It was later when Jess was cleaned up, a bandage round the nasty gash to the back of his head, wearing clean undershorts, and lying as still as death in the warm comfy bed that Joshua and Mary bent over him scrutinizing every beloved feature.

Then Mary turned to her husband. “Oh Josh, he is so like him. It really could be our Jamie couldn’t it?”

The older man looked grim. “Yes, except he isn’t, my darling. Our Jamie has been dead nigh on two years and this poor boy may look the splitting image of him — but he isn’t him. So don’t you forget it,” he said casting her anxious look.

Since their son had been killed in a shootout in Laramie, Mary’s sanity had been sorely tried and she had slumped into a deep depression, to the extent that at one stage Joshua had feared for her life as she refused to eat and just sat, day in and day out, staring into space.

 That was why they had moved out of town to this cabin and parcel of land on the banks of the river some ten miles from civilization. Here Mary was slightly better; now she didn’t need to see people or pass the spot on Main Street where her son had fallen, and they had gradually begun to try to come to terms with their devastating loss.

Now staring across as his beloved wife, Joshua saw a glimpse of the old Mary –brightness in her eyes that he had not seen in years as she looked down lovingly as Jess’s battered body.

Then she suddenly tore her eyes away from the young man and cast her husband a worried look. “Oh no, what will Lizzie say when she sees him?” she wondered, referring to her daughter-in-law who had moved out with them, also trying to get over her young husband’s untimely death.

Joshua just shook his head sadly. “I guess she’ll be as shocked as we are at the way he favors our Jamie; figure she’ll be upset.” Then turning sad eyes on his wife, “But what could I do? I couldn’t leave the boy to die down there in the river.”

“No,” she said quickly, “of course not. And at least Liz is sick with that nasty cold. Maybe this young man will have recovered and be on his way before she is up and about again.”

Joshua shook his head. “I doubt that, my dear. You didn’t see the blow he took to the head. I reckon he’s sick… real sick, and if he doesn’t come round by tomorrow, well, I’ll just have to ride over for the doctor.”

“Oh no,” said the older woman wringing her hands. “Maybe it won’t come to that. You know I hate you riding to town and leaving us. I worry so.”

He shook his grey head. “I only go in once or twice a year, my dear, and you can always come too.”

She just shook her head and went and ran a hand over Jess’s forehead. “He seems cool and his breathing has eased. I’ll sit with him a mite longer; you go and see to the stock, Josh.”

Her husband cast her another anxious look before turning and saying, “Very well; call me if he wakes.” When she didn’t answer, he said more firmly, “Mary, call me. He may look like Jamie, but he isn’t. He could be anyone. That gun he was wearing — set low and tied down — that’s a gunfighter’s way, Mary. We don’t know anything about him, so take care you hear?”

She just nodded vaguely, and said softly, “Don’t worry, Josh; he’s a good boy. I just know. A mother can tell….”

About an hour later, Jess started to stir, and after a moment, his eyes flickered open and he stared up at the ceiling and then at the unfamiliar room. It appeared to be that of a young man with fishing rods stacked in the corner and a painting of a big bay horse on the wall.

His first waking thought was ‘Where in Hell am I?’

Then his face contorted as if in pain. “Who in hell am I?’

Jess lay there gradually feeling more and more panic stricken. “My name… Goddamn it, what is my name?’

‘This is crazy,’ he thought, ‘just calm down, relax and it will all come back in a minute. I am…blank. OK I was going to…blank.’ He gave a little cry of anguish, the fear turning to anger.

Then he felt the pain and gingerly put a hand to his head and felt the swathe of bandage. OK so I’m hurt, gotta a bang to the head, so that can cause a man to lose his memory maybe,’ he thought and he sighed with relief. ‘I’m not loco then, just hurt some, and figure it will all come back to me.’‘

Just then, an elderly, grey haired woman with a serious expression bustled in and stopped in her tracks as she saw he was awake, and again her hand rushed to her mouth in shock as she saw those deep blue eyes, the absolute image of her dead son’s.

Jess mistook her look of shock for one of fear and he tried to sit up and reassure her. It’s OK, Ma’am; I don’t wish you no harm.”

Then she came over at once and sat down on the edge of the bed taking his hand. “It’s OK, son, I know that.”

Jess considered her words carefully, son. “Ma?” he asked tentatively.

She smiled down at him and just nodded. “So how are you feeling?”

He shook his head and stared back up at the ceiling. “Guess this will sound crazy, but I can’t remember anything, not my name, anything. Not even you, Ma.”

Then something clicked inside Mary’s brain. He wasn’t just using the term as a shortened version of Ma’am; when he said Ma, well he meant Mother. He thought she was his Mother — and why not, Mary thought suddenly. If he couldn’t remember his former life or identity, then why couldn’t he become her son?

She smiled down at him. “It’s alright, Jamie; you’re Pa hauled you out of the river and you’d hit your head, but everything’s going to be fine, son. You just rest and I’ll go and fetch you some of your favorite chicken soup.”

Jess just nodded, looking perplexed, but he closed his eyes and drifted off again soon enough.

As Mary rose from the bed and went to leave the room, she saw her husband standing in the doorway, shaking his head gravely. “Oh Mary my love, you can’t do this. What will happen when he gets his memory back?”

She cast a glance back to the bed. “By that time, he’ll be our son. We’ll love and care for him, then maybe he’ll want to stay,” she replied happily as she went off to fix the chicken soup.

This was the happiest he had seen his dear wife since before their son’s death and he was torn as to what he should do or say. Go along with the subterfuge and just hope the boy was eventually amenable to the idea of being their surrogate son? Or tell him the truth and break his wife’s heart a second time? Shaking his head in despair, he turned and left the room.

As he entered the kitchen, he heard his wife singing quietly to herself for the first time in years and there and then his decision was made. No matter what it cost later, he couldn’t deny her this current happiness.

He came in and snaked his arms around her waist, just as he had done when they were young lovers all those years ago. “You win, my love; I’ll go along with your wishes and we’ll just see what happens.”

She turned and kissed him. “Thank you,” she whispered joyfully, “it will all be alright, you’ll see.”

However Mary hadn’t taken into account Lizzie’s part in the deception, or how badly she would react when she saw the man who was a dead ringer for her late husband.

The young woman had taken to her bed the previous day with a severe head cold, and then she had slept deeply for most of that day and the following day. However at dusk she suddenly awoke feeling better and pulling a shawl over her nightdress she mooched down to the kitchen for something to eat.

That was when she heard muffled voices coming from the small room at the back of the cabin. The one that her in-laws had set up as a virtual shrine to their son, housing all his fishing gear, pictures and even his clothes that they refused to part with.

Feeling intrigued, she padded over to the partially open door her bare feet making no sound and she peered through into the dimly lit room.

What she saw made her stop in her tracks and such was the shock, the room tipped and she thought for a moment she would faint as she took in the scene.

Her mother-in-law was sitting by the bedside chatting softly to a young man who was lying down listening intently, his deep blue eyes never straying from the older woman’s face — Jamie’s deep blue eyes. “Wear Lord….. how can this be,” she whispered as her gaze feasted on the recumbent body of a man who looked to be her dearly beloved husband…at first appearance anyway.

She must have given a little gasp as Jess suddenly turned and saw the beautiful girl clad in just a nightdress standing peering intently at him, and giving her his most charming smile he said, “So who are you then? My little sister?”

Mary had turned and seen her daughter in law and was suddenly terrified that she would ruin her deception  and so quick as a flash she turned to Jess and said quietly, “No dear, she is your wife.”

Jess’s face was a picture, his eyes staring wide in shock, his mouth hung open and then he reacted in typical Harper fashion. “I ain’t married,” he yelled, looking from the girl to Mary and back again. “Hell, I’d remember that!”

Lizzie stared at him, equally shocked, then turned and ran from the room sobbing, as Jess lay back down on the pillow looking pale and sick.

He shook his head and said quietly, “I’m sorry, Ma. I didn’t mean to upset her… but married… I just can’t take it in.”

Then he turned anguished eyes on Mary. ”Hell, it’s hard enough for me to accept I’ve got a Ma and Pa —  had this gut feelin’ that I was all alone in the world — but a wife…. Garldarn it. a wife I just can’t figure”.

Mary gave him a kind smile. “Hush boy, ‘tis alright; you’re sick. Now you rest some and things will feel better in the morning.”

She rose to leave, and as she did so she leaned over and brushed his unruly hair back from his forehead, the simple gesture seemed so familiar to Jess it made his heart lurch within his chest; maybe she was his Ma, he thought. But as that thought came he suddenly had a vision of another elderly lady, with a sweet smile and loving grey eyes doing exactly the same gesture. Who was she, he thought desperately trying to remember as the picture of Daisy haunted him. His grandmother maybe; he must ask Ma in the morning and with that he drifted off to sleep.

**********

Meanwhile Joshua and Lizzie were sitting at the kitchen table, with a cup of coffee a piece talking in low tones as Mary had just retired for the night, leaving her husband to offer the explanations and hopefully talk the girl around to their way of thinking.

“What’s going on, Pa?” she asked her father-in-law. “What on earth is going on and who is that man in there? Surely Mary doesn’t really think it’s Jamie… come back to life?” she finished bitterly, the shock making her sound harsh.

“No, of course not, but you can’t deny the resemblance is striking, Lizzie,” he said casting her a concerned look. “And I’m truly sorry we didn’t warn you. We thought you were still sleeping and we were going to talk it through with you tomorrow.”

She sighed deeply. “That’s alright Pa, but who is he?”

Joshua gave her a small smile. “I fished him out of the river, looked to be more dead than alive, got a nasty blow to the head, and well…seems to have completely lost his memory. Doesn’t know who he is, where he is. Poor boy’s at a complete loss”.

“So why is Mary calling him Jamie?” she asked looking puzzled.

The old man sighed deeply and ran a hand through his thick white hair, his lean face a picture of worry,  and his deep blue eyes, so like Jess’s, looking misty for a moment. “See, it’s like this, honey;  she reckons that he’ll stay if she cares for him, mothers him, makes him real at home here, then well…if he does get his memory back, he’ll be so happy here he’ll stay around for good…like a sorta adopted son, I guess.”

“But that’s crazy,” she exploded. “Why, he could be married, even have children who are missing him. We can’t deceive him this way, Pa.”

“Well he seemed pretty adamant that he wasn’t married. I don’t think we need worry on that score. And that’s a Texas accent he’s got there so I figure he’s a mighty long way from home, so there might be nobody to miss him. Heck, we might even be doing him a favor befriending him.”

“Maybe,” she said softly, “but it’s still not right.”

“Yes, I feel the same as you, Lizzie, but Mary there… Well, you’ve seen how she is, like a dog with two tails, fussin’ and caring for the boy. She ain’t been this happy since…well, since before we lost Jamie. And hell, I know it’s wrong, but please Liz go along with it for Mary’s sake, just for a little while and we’ll see what happens — yes?”

She gave him a weak smile, “Oh Pa, you always seem to talk me round. I can’t promise, but I’ll sleep on it,” and with that she made her weary way back to bed.

*****

The next morning Lizzie entered Jess’s room, and noting the young man was still asleep, she crept over to the chair beside the bed and sitting down she looked at him closely for the first time.

 His dark wavy hair was identical, his lean face was a similar shape to Jamie’s but the eyebrows were more expressive and he was very deeply tanned, whereas Jamie had lighter coloring and a smattering of freckles across his nose, she remembered, her heart aching at  the memories this new young man  was evoking in her.

His mouth was firmer than Jamie’s and there was something about his whole demeanor which was different. Jamie had been very quiet and placid, almost a mother’s boy, kind, gentle too, but this man had something exciting about him, that gave her a small frisson of fear…and also a stirring of long forgotten sensations deep within her.

Then his eyes suddenly flickered open and Jamie’s eyes were staring back at her. He gave her a lazy smile, and then he said in his deep Texan accent, “I’m so sorry I upset you last night, sweetheart”.

Lizzie flinched at the over familiar name and said quickly, “Lizzie, my name is Lizzie.”

“Yeah, sorry. It’s just that you remind me of someone,” and Jess wracked his brains, the beautiful dark haired brown eyed girl with the curvy body seemed so familiar. What was her name, he was sure it wasn’t Lizzie. Maybe she was his wife after all, he thought…and he was remembering her? “Anyways, I’m real sorry,” he said again. Then pulling himself up on the pillows, his brows knitted he said, “I can’t explain what it’s like. I just get these gut feelings, like I’m all alone in the world, no Ma and Pa and no decent woman beside me,” he said quietly.

Then he looked down at his hands. “I’m a workin’ man that’s for sure… with the horses maybe?”

Jamie had worked with horses and so not being able to think of an appropriate answer, she just nodded.

Then he looked over at the picture of the tough looking Bay on the opposite wall. “That my mount?” he asked.

She nodded again.

Jess stared at the horse, and cussed under his breath.

When she raised an eyebrow, he apologized, “It’s just so dang hard. I just can’t remember. He looks like a horse I know, but his name… Track… he called Tracker, somethin’ like that?”

“Tramp,” she said with a genuine smile now. “He’s called Tramp.”

But there was no light of recognition in his eyes and he sighed deeply.

Then he smiled at her again, “So how long have we been married?”

Her heart skipped a beat. Could she really keep up this deception? She loved her mother-in-law like her own Ma and if there was a chance of making her happy… well she guessed that she could do what she had to. “Six years,” she said softly.

His expressive eyebrows shot up and he gave a soft whistle. “That long eh. So have we got kids?”

At this, her heart really started pounding and she could hardly breathe.

“Hey what’s up Lizzie?” he said softly taking her hand and looking into her pretty face that had suddenly become deathly pale.

“We lost our baby. she was stillborn just after…you were shot, two years ago.”

“Oh God no,” he said in sudden anguish. “I’m so, so sorry,” and then looking up at the ceiling. “Why in Hell can’t I remember,” he said his voice thick with emotion as he ran a hand through his unruly hair in frustration.

“You were badly hurt in a shoot-out.” God forgive me the lies, she suddenly thought. Her husband wasn’t just badly hurt; he had been killed and the following day she had lost their much wanted child.

Then it was suddenly all too much for her. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed,” I can’t do this,” and casting him an anguished look, she ran from the room.

He collapsed back on the pillow, feeling completely drained, the frustration of remembering nothing making him feel close to tears.

*****

It was now over two weeks since Jess went missing, and although Slim had made several trips down to the river, there was no sign of Jess’s body.

The weather had cleared into a beautiful warm sunny spring, but it was mid-winter in Slim’s heart and all who dwelt at the Sherman Ranch and Relay.

But it was also one of the busiest times of year with calves and foals being born, and Slim just had to get on with it. Mike did his very best to help, but he had school and he was only a small boy and Slim couldn’t expect him to do a man’s work. So very reluctantly, Slim took on a string of temporary workers, feeling heart sick at the thought of replacing Jess permanently, but things were not working out.

The usually fair-minded, easy-going rancher was short tempered and fractious, and the hired help found it increasingly hard  to work with him, often leaving saying they refused to work for a miserable bad tempered employer. Of course, as casual labor, just passing through, the men knew nothing of their boss’s recent bereavement, or maybe they would have made some allowances for him.

The latest one, Pete Valentine, seemed a pleasant enough young man and was a hard worker and Daisy had warned Slim to go easy on the new man.

“Please try and be understanding with Pete, Slim, you need the help, you can’t go working yourself into the ground like you have been. Jess wouldn’t have wanted that.”

“Don’t,” said Slim angrily, “Jess isn’t here anymore”…and he marched off to the barn.

Half an hour later, he made his way into the kitchen and gave Daisy a sheepish look. “Heck Daisy, I’m so darn sorry; I don’t know what came over me,” and he went across and took her in his arms, giving her a big hug.

After a moment she pulled free and gently rubbed his arm. “I do. You’re just grieving dear — we all are — but things will get better; just give it time,” she said her kindly eyes brimming with unshed tears, and Slim held her close again, near to tears himself.

Later he went back out and spent the morning checking the stock with Pete and managed to remain calm and tolerant.

Pete was a pleasant sandy haired stocky young man, looking nothing like Jess and he was nothing like him in character either. He didn’t skive off for a nap or an unscheduled fishing trip and didn’t cuss the Wyoming weather or ornery mustangs. But neither did he laugh and joke with Slim, or offer advice on his girl problems, or give and take the general crazy banter that Jess and Slim had exchanged, which more often than not had led to a scrap, ending up with them laughing their heads off. No Pete was no Jess, and Slim just had to accept it.

After Jess had been gone a month, Mort had called around as he had done every week since Jess had been lost, asking Slim to come into town for a quiet drink or meal, but he steadfastly refused to go. However this time Mort had said that he was worried about Millie. “She’s not too good Slim and old Tom, the barkeep, is real worried about her.”

Apparently on the day that the news had been broken to her by Doc Sam, she had become almost hysterical and he had had to sedate her and then she refused to come out of her room for over a week.

“Well Tom has got her back working, figured it was the best thing for her, but I reckon she’d appreciate a visit you know Slim.” Then ducking his head down, continued softly, “Millie and Jess were close, you know, that, Slim, about as close as friends can be and I figure Jess wouldn’t want to think you’d neglected her.”

The two men had been sitting with Daisy round the table drinking coffee and Daisy’s head shot up at this wondering how Slim would react, waiting for the rumblings of anger, which she so often heard when anyone said things like that about Jess.

However, surprisingly, this time Slim blushed and looked really uncomfortable. “Gee Mort, you’re right. I just never thought. I guess I’ve been so busy licking my own wounds, I never thought about anyone else’s suffering. I’ll ride in and take a drink with you on Saturday and see Millie too.”

“I guess Betsy would like to see you too,” said the Sheriff. “I hear from Millie she keeps asking after you.”

Slim just shook his head. “I really haven’t got the stomach for romancin’ right now,” he said softly, and Mort exchanged a glance with Daisy, but didn’t push the matter.

Slim arrived deliberately early at the saloon, and when he entered, it was practically empty save for Tom polishing glasses behind the bar.

As soon as he saw Slim, Tom came over, the light of compassion in his eyes. “Hey Slim, how are you doing?” he asked kindly.

Slim took a deep breath before answering. Would people give him that sympathetic look and speak to him that way forever, he thought fleetingly before pulling himself together. Hell people were only trying to be kind, he knew that. “Not too bad thanks Tom,” he said forcing a smile. “Is Millie around?”

A shadow passed over Tom’s old face. “Yes she’s in the back, Slim; I’ll fetch her.”

A minute later Millie walked in and Slim hardly recognized her.

She had lost weight, her voluptuous curves that made her so popular with the drinkers in the bar gone, a lackluster look to her eyes and deep purple shadows beneath them.

However as soon as she saw Slim, her face lit up and she ran round from behind the bar and straight into his arms.

He held her close for several minutes, dropping a kiss on the top of her head before saying, “Oh Millie, I’m so darned sorry I’ve neglected you. Jess would be real mad.”

Millie pulled back and at the mention of his name tears welling up in her eyes, but she bravely blinked them back. “Nonsense,” she replied. “He of all people would know how busy you are, working single handed and all. I understand, really I do.”

Slim shook his head sadly. “I was always cussing him for skiving off, napping or fishing… but it’s amazing the amount of work he got through; I never realized,” he said with a sad smile.

Then Tom cleared his throat, and as Slim looked over, he pushed a bottle of whiskey across the bar. “On the house Slim, good to see you back.”  Then turning to Millie said, “Take as long as you like, honey; no need to work tonight if you don’t feel up to it.”

She nodded and thanked her boss before leading Slim over to a table in a quiet corner and he followed with the bottle and two glasses.

He poured them both a good measure, but Millie merely sat staring into the glass. Then she made an effort to pull herself together. “So how are Mike and Daisy coping?”

“Daisy has been a rock as you’d expect; dunno how she’s kept it all together. She cries at night I’ve heard her, but the rest of the time she’s just so cheerful, kept us going she really has.”

He sipped his drink and his face lit up a little as he said proudly, “Mike’s been a star, worked his butt off helping me, that’s why I had to hire in, to be honest; hated seeing him getting so darn tired trying to do all Jess’s work. He’s taken over caring for Traveler too”. Then looking off to space, “Figure Jess would be real pleased about that.” Then he gave her a little grin. “That darn horse is going feral. You know how he wouldn’t let anyone ride him save Jess, and then me under protest?”

She smiled back. “Yeah I know.”

“Well, he’s had no exercise and he’s getting fat as butter so I figured I’d ride him out yesterday instead of Alamo. Well we got as far as the yard and the dratted horse tipped me off. Very politely, you know Trav. But tipped me off none the less. Jess would have loved to have seen that,” he said with a little smile, before his face turned grim at the thought of Jess not knowing, never sharing a joke again.

Millie reached out and took his hand and Slim suddenly remembered why he was here.

“So how are you Millie? Not coping too well? “

She shook her head. “I guess not. I keep having these nightmares, seeing him struggling in the river, thrashing about, calling out for help…”

He shuddered involuntarily. “Oh Millie…don’t.”

She looked down and then said softly, “I had a feeling that something was going to happen to him that last Saturday we spent together.”

He opened his eyes wide in surprise. “Really?”

“I tried to warn him, Slim, really I did; told him to watch his back. I thought it would be Denny Jackson that got him, that’s what I was worried about, I never thought about that old river.”

Then she gave a little sob, and he held her hand more tightly. “Millie, please don’t cry.”

“I’m sorry,” she said giving him a watery smile. “That last time we made love, it was just so special, Slim. and I felt it then. I felt it was the last time…and then when he rode out, I watched him go and I just knew I’d never see him again.” and she started to cry quietly.

He held her hand and talked softly to her until she finally finished.

“I’m so sorry, Slim, I really didn’t mean to do this,” she said sniffing and blowing her nose. “it’s just that you are the only person that understands how I’m feeling; you were his very best buddy and so you know what’s it’s like.”

He just nodded sadly.

They finished their drinks and he poured another.

Then Mose entered the bar and looked apprehensively around before he and walked over to their table.

He stood looking down at the couple and then finally said hesitantly, “Can I join you for a moment.”

“Sure Mose, have a drink.”

“No thanks Slim, gotta go in a minute it’s just … well I’ve got something for you and I figured…well it wasn’t appropriate to give it you when I was driving the stage with all the passengers lookin’ on and all…” he murmured, sitting down heavily.

Slim gave him a puzzled look. “What have you got then Mose?”

Then the old timer pulled Jess’s bandana out of his pocket, freshly laundered and ironed.

“He tended my arm with it, the day Miss Daisy and Mike were taken. Anyway I figured you should have it, Slim,” and passing it over he was obviously distressed and got up quickly. “I gotta go, see you tomorrow,” and he was off.

Slim just stared down at the familiar blue square of fabric and his stomach turned over. Then he picked it up and handed it to Millie. “Figure this should be yours,” he said softly.

She stared at him and then picking it up she held it close to her heart. ”Thank you,” she whispered, and then getting up quickly said, “Night Slim,” and with that she turned and ran lightly up the stairs to her room, stifling a sob as she went.

Tom looked over and shrugged. “Guess she’s having an early night,” he said quietly.

Slim drained his glass and marched towards the saloon door. “Yeah…me too. Thanks for the drink. ‘night Tom; tell Mort I’ll catch him another time,” and with that he was gone.

*****

Slim continued working hard as the days progressed and Mike was by his side as much as school allowed.

One day Slim had been watching the boy groom Traveler, and after a while Mike turned his innocent blue eyes on him, wide with excitement  and said, “Can I get up on him, Slim? I figure I’m big enough now; just in the corral … please? “

Slim went to shake his head, worried that the big horse would unseat the boy as he had done with himself just the previous week. Then he looked into the animal’s kind eyes and saw how gentle he was around the boy and he instinctively knew the horse would never hurt Mike. Besides he figured that it’s what Jess would have wanted.

“OK,” Slim said with an indulgent smile, “but just in the corral and only when I’m around to watch, you understand?”

“Yippee,” Mike yelled and then running over he hugged Slim. “Thanks Slim, you’re the best.” Then looking up into the ranchers smiling face, he said, “Won’t Jess be surprised when he comes home to see I can ride ol’ Trav?”

Slim’s heart missed a beat and he squatted down by the boy so that he could look him in the eye. Then he took a deep breath and said softly, “Hey Tiger, I thought you understood. Jess isn’t coming back, he’s lost. He drowned in the river, you know that. I know we didn’t have a proper funeral, like with your Ma and Pa, but that’s because there was no body to bury.” He stopped his voice full of emotion, before forging on. “He’s in Heaven now Tiger with your Ma and Pa.”

The boy’s face looked strangely passive. “No he ain’t,” he said. “He’s alive. I figure he got out of the river on the other side; well, you couldn’t search there because you couldn’t cross over, see,” said the boy smiling kindly at the rancher. “He’s OK Slim and  he’ll be comin’ home, and  when  he does, ol’ Trav here will be lookin’ smart as paint the way I groom him,” and with that he returned to his task whistling softly, just the way Jess used to do.

Slim just stood there helplessly staring at the boy’s straight little back and the stance reminded him  so much of Jess that he couldn’t bear it, and marched out of the barn, to stand by the corral fence breathing deeply to try and control his emotions.

Later that night he retold the story to Daisy, who nodded in understanding. “I think the boy loved Jess so much that his mind just can’t accept the dreadful truth,” she said sadly. “He’s in denial, Slim, and I think we just have to wait until the truth finally hits him…and then I reckon we’ll be in for a difficult time.” Then she turned her wise old eyes on her dear friend the light of hope suddenly glimmering. “You don’t suppose…that he could possibly be right, Slim. Could he have made it out on the other side?”

Slim looked across wishing so much that he could nurture that little grain of hope, but he knew it would be cruel to do so. “I’m sorry, no Daisy; it would have taken a miracle for anyone to get out alive. I’m so sorry,” and he took her in his arms and held her tightly as the tears flowed once again.

And as the days passed and there was still no sign of Jess, Mike still persistently talked of his return and spent all his time grooming or riding Traveler, because as he said, Jess would want to see a fit, well exercised horse, as well as well as a smartly groomed one.

Eventually Slim decided that if it kept the child’s spirits up, then maybe he should just leave him to it… for the time being at least.

*****

Jess appeared to have recovered physically, save for his memory loss, from his dunking in the river, within a few days, although Mary was loath to let him out of bed for another day or so. However she hadn’t ever tangled with the Harper stubbornness before and she soon realized that Jess might look like her dear Jamie, but in character, they were poles apart. Whereas Jamie had been biddable and easy going, Jess was much more spirited and edgy.

By the time he got to the fourth day of being mollycoddled and waited on hand and foot, he could stand it no more, and finding a shirt and pant in the wardrobe in his room, he was dressed and up at first light the following day and Mary found him in the kitchen brewing coffee when she got up.

“Why Jamie dear, whatever are you doing up?”

“Well I’ll tell you, Ma,” said Jess giving her a hard look, “I’m kinda sick of lyin’ around the place when I’m fit and healthy. I might be pretty much done for up here”, he said tapping his head, “but I reckon I can still do a day’s work.”

He took a deep breath. “So if Pa shows me what to do, figure I’ll just get back to work until my brain catches up with the rest of me.”

She stared at him in amazement; her dear Jamie would never have spoken to his Ma that way, but then this wasn’t Jamie as she was quickly learning. But he was a young spirited boy and by the twinkle in his eye now, a pretty cheeky one too.

She chuckled and leaning over ruffled his hair, “Alright you win, son; you can help Pa, but not until you’ve eaten a good breakfast.”

Jess sank down at the table. “Well you won’t find me arguing with that Ma,” he said with a cheeky wink.

It had been mostly Mary who had played the key role in deceiving Jess thus far as Lizzie had given him a wide berth after her emotional outburst, following the revelation of her loss of the baby.

Joshua too had left the young man in the sole charge of his wife, but this morning, it was his turn to deal with the dark haired cowboy who so favored his dear deceased son, and he was finding the whole business really hard to deal with.

Now standing opposite him in the barn he hesitated before answering Jess’s question. “Well,” he said after a moment looking vaguely around him, “you just used to help me around the place, with the stock, horses and such like, fence mending… that kinda thing,” he finished lamely.

Jess tipped his hat back. “Well, figure I can do that — all seems kinda familiar — so can I start with groomin’ the horses. I’d like to reintroduce myself to …er, Tramp, is it?”

Joshua smiled. “Did Liz tell you about old Tramp?”

Jess nodded. “So where is Lizzie…..I’ve not clapped eyes on her these last few days.” Then looking down he glanced up at Josh and said softly, “Figure I upset her asking about young‘uns.” Then turning sad eyes on the older man said, “I’m real sorry; I’d no idea we’d lost a baby”.

Joshua literally jumped at the mention of his little, still born, granddaughter, and suddenly felt sick to his stomach for deceiving this innocent young man, for burdening him with things that were not his problem. He opened his mouth to tell the truth and suddenly Mary was there calling them in for coffee and cake and the moment passed.

Afterwards, Jess set about tending to the horses and later threw himself into fixing the barn roof, which Joshua had been meaning to do for months. The truth of it was he had lost his nerve for heights a while back when he had suffered a dizzy spell and nearly fallen.

Now at the end of the working day, he inspected his surrogate son’s work and he couldn’t fault it, and for the first time he could see the advantage of having a fit young partner in the business to support him as he aged.

 Joshua smiled across. “You’ve done a good, hard day’s work son and I’m proud of you,” he remarked. Then as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized how much he meant them and how much this dark haired young man had begun to mean to him already.

That night after supper, Joshua suggested he and Jess took their coffee out onto the porch while the women folk tidied up.

As soon as Jess sat down and tipped his chair back, looking out onto the small yard surrounding the cabin and the hills beyond, he had an immediate feeling of familiarity. Then he suddenly had a clear vision of a young, blond haired man sitting beside him, his head thrown back as he was laughing happily and the picture suddenly made Jess feel completely bereft.

His expression must have changed because Joshua stared at him intently and said, “What’s the matter, boy?”

Jess shook his head. “I dunno, thought I remembered something…well somebody.” Then turning to Josh said, “Have I got an older brother Pa, real tall and blond haired?”

The old man looked puzzled and shaking his head said. “Well no boy, you’re the only one; your dear Ma could have no more after you… women’s troubles you know,” he said looking down embarrassed. Then looking him in the eye said, “I guess that’s why she fusses you so much, boy; figure you have to be a bit patient with her.”

Jess just nodded, “OK”.

At the mention of Mary, he suddenly saw that other elderly lady in his mind’s eye again.

There she was, the older woman with the twinkling grey eyes and sweet expression fussin’ over him, telling him to wrap up warm before he went riding the range. Who was she?

Jess thought until his brain hurt, but nothing would come. “How about a grandmother?” he asked. “Fussin’ me somethin’ fierce too?”

“Oh yes,” said Joshua, “my Ma back in Ohio; she fussed you as a kid.”

Jess smiled back; see, he’d remembered her. Everything else would soon come back to him.

Then he suddenly thought of the other thing that had been bugging him ever since Lizzie had mentioned the baby, as soon as he’d mentioned kids he had had this vision of a cute little blue eyed blond boy, grinning up at him. Who in hell could that be — a relative, neighbor’s son? Then it all became too much for him and he felt bone weary.

“Figure I’ll turn in,” Jess said quietly, getting up from his chair, he leaned down and patted the older man’s shoulder. “‘night Pa.”

Joshua’s heart beat faster at the name and he felt a warm glow inside. “‘night son,” he said softly smiling at the young man as he left. But once he had gone, the guilt set in again. What were they doing playing with this nice young man’s life and feelings, and how long would they get away with it?

*****

The following day Lizzie decided that she couldn’t go on avoiding Jess forever and she emerged from her room where she had used the excuse of her recent cold to hide away.

As she entered the kitchen Jess grinned across at her from where he was once more making an early morning brew of strong coffee. “Want one?” he asked raising his cup.

She nodded and sat at the table and a minute later he joined her and sliding the cup across sat down opposite.

“Ma said you were sick. Feelin’ better?” he asked pleasantly.

She nodded. “Yes much, thank you.”

“Well enough for a walk later? I could do with somebody to show me around.”

She hesitated for a moment and then looked up into those deep blue eyes and was completely lost. “Yes,” she said, “yes, of course I will.”

They sipped their coffee in companionable silence before she asked, “Any improvement then? Have you remembered anything yet?”

“Not really; just kinda flash backs — people mainly. A tall blond man and a cute little kid with white blond hair and an older woman, that could be my gram… but the other two, well I just can’t figure.”

Lizzie looked anxious. What if he suddenly remembered a whole family who had been missing him; he would be so angry at the way they had lied to keep him here and she quailed at the thought.

Jess threw her a solicitous look. “Hey you OK? You’ve gone kinda pale.”

“Oh I’m fine, I’ll get my shawl and we’ll go for a walk round before breakfast, best bit of the day so J… so you used to say,” she finished quickly before bustling off.

They set off across the yard and then branched off down a little pathway that led to the river bank.

After a while Jess gently took her hand and as he did so felt her flinch. “Hey what’s up?” he asked in surprise, as she looked down embarrassed. ”We are married you know,” he said giving her a playful look.

“Yes, of course, but I guess it’s the way you are right now, well not knowing me. It’s so weird and I feel almost as though I don’t know you either. You’re different since your accident you know, Jamie.”

He looked across. “Well if it’s bad for you, I guess it’s even worse for me. I honestly feel I’ve never met you before, honey, and I’m real sorry about that, but I just can’t help it,” he said giving her a troubled look.

He still had hold of her hand and she desperately tried to ignore the mounting feelings of desire his touch was generating. Then turning and looking into those amazing blue eyes she said softly, “I guess we’ll just have to start all over, getting to know each other again.”

They had stopped and now his eyes seemed even bluer as he looked down at her lips, then back up to her eyes, his expression one of deep longing.

 Then he looked down at her full tempting lips again and very gently moved in for a kiss.

His tender touch was electrifying and she melted in his arms as he held her close and the kiss deepened until she thought she might well faint clean away with desire. Never had she been kissed like that in her life. Jamie had been her one and only lover and he was kind and gentle, but it had never been like this, so tender, but with just a hint of danger.

Then just as she felt she would definitely swoon away, he pulled back and looked deeply into her eyes as if seeking something, before caressing her cheek with a finger and taking hold of her hand again, they walked on down the path towards the river in silence.

Jess had said nothing because he just didn’t know what to say.

He had convinced himself that as soon as he kissed her he would remember her, remember the loving, feel the love…but nothing.

 Oh he felt good…as good as he would kissing any pretty girl and he figured that yes maybe they could become lovers — in time. But hell, why couldn’t he remember those sweet lips. He should remember.

And the first seed of doubt was sown. Maybe they weren’t married, maybe they weren’t his family? But hell why would anyone say those things if they weren’t true… and Ma — well, if she was his Ma — she couldn’t act that good, could she, all that fussin’ and frettin’ over him. Sure, she must be his Ma.

When they reached the river, he recoiled a little at the sight of the water, even though it was now lazily drifting by as it meandered off around the bend where Jess had finally landed. “This is where Pa found me?” he asked looking down at her.

She nodded. “Yes”.

“So what’s up stream, where had I come from?”

“Well nothing much. The town of Laramie is about five miles down, if you cross at the ford, and then otherwise a few ranches have land that backs to it.”

“And you can ford it at this time of year?”

“Should be able to; the levels have gone right down, but not when you had your accident last month it was in spate then.”

“So how did I fall in? I wonder. Where was I going?”

Lizzie froze, these sudden questions floored her and she hesitated before saying, “Er, to town for supplies, I guess.”

“Hum,” he said, “maybe I’ll ride into town later, see if anyone knows what happened. There may be a doc there too I can ask about my memory?”

“No,” she said quickly, “you can’t do that, Jamie. Pa is real strict about us going into town, especially after your accident there, when you were shot that is.”

“Well that’s crazy,” he said quickly, “Sure I’ll need to go into town, buy stuff, get a drink.” ’See if anyone knows me,’ he thought privately.

“It won’t happen, Jamie. You weren’t supposed to go last time and Pa was real mad with you; only reason he said nothing was because you were hurt,” she improvised.

“Weren’t supposed to,” he growled. “Hell Lizzie I’m a grown man; I do as I please, go where I please. I may have lost my mind but I know that much about myself.” and with that he turned and strode back to the cabin.

When he caught up with Joshua later that day, Jess had it out with the older man, saying exactly what he had to Lizzie.

Josh sighed, “Sit down, son, we need to talk.”

Jess sat and listened intently as Joshua explained that the reason he was not to go to town was because he had been banned from visiting by the Sheriff.

“Huh?”

“Yes son, you shot his deputy. OK, it was in self-defense, but even so the Sheriff took a dim view and swore to find a good reason to put you in his jail if you went into town ever again.”

Jess gave a low whistle. “So why was I crazy enough to go before then?”

Joshua shook his head sadly. “Guess we’ll have to wait for your memory to return to find that out, son. Now can you go and start feeding the stock? I’ll be along shortly.”

Jess wandered off and Joshua gave a huge sigh of relief. Thank goodness Lizzie had tipped him off and he’d had time to concoct a good story. But gee all this lying was shortening his life some he thought as he brought out a handkerchief and wiped his brow.

Later that evening after supper Jess asked Mary if he could work on the table and she agreed at once and continued washing the dishes. However when she returned a little while later, she looked scandalized to see him with his gun in pieces cleaning it thoroughly.

He caught the look she gave him and said quickly, “It’s OK, Ma. I put some newspaper down; I ain’t making a mess.”

“It’s not the mess that bothers me,” she said casting him a dark look, “it’s the gun, Jamie. Why do you have to wear a gun? “

He shrugged. “Dunno, Ma; it’s just one of those things I sorta know. Something I haven’t forgotten is how I wear a gun…feel naked without it,” then jerking his head up and giving her a penetrating look said, “You should know that anyways.”

She flushed a little before turning away and muttering. “I might know it, boy, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

As it turned out, Mary Atkins was going to be more than relieved that her surrogate son wore a gun before the day was out.

Jess was just wondering if he should take a last walk around the yard to check on the stock, as it was still quite light, when he heard one of the horses in the corral give a shrill whinny, and on exchanging a look with Joshua, both men rose and headed for the door, telling the women folk to stay in the house.

As soon as they got outside, they saw two men by the corral, one with a rope around their best quarter horse and the other still mounted and holding his accomplice’s horse.

As soon as the man on the horse saw Jess, he drew his gun, but he was way too slow and Jess’ draw was almost too fast for Joshua to see as he shot the man in the arm and turned his attentions to the other.

This second man had let go of the rope as soon as Jess arrived on the scene and now he leapt up onto his mount and hightailed it out of the yard, firing a departing shot at Jess that went wide.

Jess returned the fire and also winged the second man, but then they were out of range and so he ran over to check on the spooked, but unharmed horse, letting the would-be thieves go.

After a moment he came back to the house and was surprised to see all three of the Atkins family staring at him in shocked amazement.

“Where in hell did you learn to shoot like that, boy?” asked Joshua with unconcealed admiration in his voice.

Jess holstered his gun and looked down, shaking his head slightly. “I dunno,” he whispered. “I just knew I needed to draw real fast… and I guess I did.” Again the alarm bells rang deep in his mind, surely his Pa should know if he was a fast draw?

 However the moment was broken by Ma. “Come along in; guess you’ve seen them off anyway, son. Now put that darn gun away and I’ll make us all some nice cocoa.”

Jess and Joshua exchanged a little smile but did as they were bid and not long after the family retired for the night.

After the intimate moment Lizzie had shared with Jess that morning, she wondered if he would demand his conjugal rights and ask to sleep in her room that night and the thought both alarmed and excited her.

However when the family retired to bed, he seemed to read her mind and he just gave her a peck on the cheek and wished her a goodnight. Then said very softly, so Joshua and Mary wouldn’t hear, “Figure we need some more time, to get to know each other… yeah?”

She breathed a sigh of relief. “Yes,” she whispered back. “Thank you.”

He gave her his shy smile and departed for his own room.

Once they were in bed and the household was quiet, Mary turned to Josh and said, “What was all that about? I don’t think I have ever seen anyone draw a gun so fast; I never even saw him go for it. how does one do that Josh?”

The elderly man shook his head sadly, “With lots of practice my dear, lots of practice.”

“So what are you saying he’s a professional with a gun, a gunslinger, or an outlaw… oh Josh, what if he’s dangerous and turns on us,” she whispered now thoroughly rattled.

“Calm down, Mary. Has he done or said anything at all to make you think that he’s been nothing but hardworking and seems a thoroughly pleasant young man? I’m sure we’re at no risk from him, no matter how he uses his gun.”

She sighed deeply. “Oh I hope you are right, dear. I have become so very fond of him in just this short time and what’s more I think Liz has too. Did you notice the way she was looking at him at supper? I really think those two could hit it off,” she said eagerly.

“Yes until he gets his memory back and finds out the sort of people who have befriended him, liars each and every one,” he said bitterly.

“He won’t think that at all, dear. Once I’ve finished mothering him, he’ll forgive us anything I’m sure.”

He looked pained, “No Mary, you’re wrong. You’re acting as if he really were Jamie and he isn’t; he’s a strong minded independent man, with a fast gun and a whole life out there. I have a horrible feeling that all this is going to go terribly wrong if we don’t tell him the truth soon,” he finished sadly.

“No, no please don’t do that, Josh, please… just a little longer. I couldn’t bear to lose him,” and she began to cry softly.

If there was one thing Josh couldn’t stand, it was Mary crying. “Hush,” he said gently, “It’s alright, don’t upset yourself. We’ll give it a little longer,” but then quietly almost to himself, “I just hope there aren’t people out there as upset as you are at losing him.” and with that they finally settled down for the night.

*****

Several miles away at the Sherman Ranch and Relay station, Slim Sherman stretched out on his bed and cast a glance at his buddy’s bed next to him, now stripped of its bedding, and thought for the hundredth time that he really should move it out of the room, hating the constant reminder, but hating the finality of moving it even more.

Next door Daisy knelt in prayer, praying for the young cowboy’s soul as she did every night, and in Mike’s room, the young boy stared up at the ceiling hatching a plan… Jess had been gone way too long and he really had to do something about it.

*****

So life went on both at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station and at the Atkins Ranch and the one thing they had in common was that the occupants spent a lot of time thinking about a certain blue eyed dark haired young cowboy.

Jess was feeling more and more edgy being confined to the ranch and yard and he never seemed to have any time to himself either. it was almost as though Joshua or Mary were watching him, checking he didn’t stray too far away and if it hadn’t been for Lizzie, he figured he’d have moved on long ago.

As it was, their relationship had deepened and he was really beginning to feel he was in love with the beautiful, brown eyed girl, but he couldn’t help feeling when he looked into the depths of those beautiful eyes that he was seeing another girl, a girl with a soft giggle, a girl that he knew intimately… a very special girl and somehow he didn’t feel it was Lizzie.

But as time went on the vision of the other girl became a little hazy and then one day everything changed between Jess and Liz.

He had courted her slowly and gently somehow being aware that she was very unsure of him, but how could this be, he kept asking himself, if they were man and wife, then surely intimacy should not be a matter of fear or shyness? Yet those were the signals she sent out and that was why he took his time and was tender and understanding as he gently wooed her.

Then one morning Joshua announced that he and Mary were taking off to visit his brother and wife at their place about twenty miles away up in the hills for a couple of days and would Jess be OK looking after the place?

Mary and Joshua had discussed the matter the previous night and Mary was loath to leave the young couple together after she had witnessed Jess’s prowess with a gun.

“Supposing he is an outlaw,” she had whispered as they sat up in bed talking softly, “and some other hoodlum comes by for a shoot-out?”

“Well that’s hardly likely, is it,” he replied patiently. “After all, nobody knows he’s here; he hasn’t been off the ranch since I found him.” Then he turned troubled eyes to his wife. “And that’s the problem. I’ve seen him sitting on the porch of an evening looking out at the sunset. He has that look in his eye, that of a traveling man…wanderlust Mary, and I don’t know how long he’ll stay here unless….. “

“Unless what?” she asked turning anxious eyes on her husband.

He looked down and then said softly, “Unless maybe he has the love of a good woman.”

Mary sucked in a shocked breath. “What are you saying, we should leave them to…well to get together?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“But… but they can’t… they’re not married! “

“Mary… Mary, you can’t have it both ways,” he said in frustration. “You are the one who wanted to dupe him into thinking he is our son and Lizzie’s husband, so you can’t turn round now and say that. And anyway you told me she said she felt she was falling in love with him…so…”

She sighed deeply. “Yes you are right; I’ll pack tomorrow and we’ll visit Charlie at the weekend.”

*****

So the following Saturday morning found Jess and Lizzie waving off the elderly couple as they left in their buckboard.

Then Jess turned to Lizzie and with a mischievous twinkle in his eye said, “So were all alone what shall we do?”

She just stared at him, her heart suddenly beating faster and a becoming flush lit up her face.

She looked down, lost for words, “Well, I…I don’t know,” she whispered.

Jess looked down at her, again wondering why she seemed so uncomfortable around a husband she had loved for six years, but he put the thought to the back of his mind and taking pity on her he stopped teasing and said gently, “I was thinkin’ along the lines of a picnic maybe…up in the woods. It’s mighty pretty up there and I could bag us a rabbit for supper too.”

At this innocent suggestion, her eyes lit up. “Oh yes,” she said in delight, “I’ll go pack the picnic right away,” and  she ran off after casting him a grateful look.

A little later, after Jess had seen to the stock and done all the chores, they made their way up the hillside behind the cabin and through the forest of massive pines until they reached the summit. It was very beautiful with a panoramic vista of the river below and the grass land and hills beyond leading to the Laramie road and Jess stood surveying the view.

“So Laramie is just a few miles if you ford the river?” he asked looking down at her.

She nodded and pointed out the place where the river was now shallow enough to cross. “But if you have to go across by the bridge, it’s another twenty miles downstream and that is often impassable when the river’s in spate. Why, you’re not thinking of going are you Jamie?”

Jess looked down at her. “Maybe.”

“Don’t, please don’t leave me alone,” she said quickly. “Not after the other night. What if those men come back?”

“Hey take it easy. I weren’t thinkin’ on going right now…but sometime I guess I will”. Then he grinned down at her. “Well are you gonna feed me then,” he said teasingly, “or am I gonna starve to death up here? “

Later after they had finished the meal, they lay back on a blanket in the hot sun and dozed for a little while.

Then there was the tiny sound of a twig breaking and Jess was immediately awake, up on one knee and his gun in his hand in the blink of an eye. Then as he surveyed the surrounding foliage, a small fawn stood staring back at them, its eyes open wide with fear before turning tail and trotting off, back into the woods.

Jess, who had been poised like a coiled spring, relaxed back on the blanket and smiled over at Lizzie, who was looking at him with shocked eyes.

“I have never seen anyone move so fast,” she said softly, “Your reactions are like lightening.”

Jess threw her a puzzled look. “Well, you must have seen me act that way before?” he said.

She looked vague. “Yes I suppose so…” and then she quickly changed the subject and asked him something about the new foal that had been born a few days earlier.

After chatting for a while, she relaxed back and Jess lay propped up on his elbow looking down into her beautiful face and after a moment he leaned across and caressed her cheek before sighing deeply. “You’d think a man would remember having a wife as beautiful as you,” he said softly.

She smiled up into his eyes. “It will come back, don’t fret about it. I guess you just have to live in the moment…forget about the past.”

Jess gave her an amused look. “Guess I ain’t got much choice,” he said and they both smiled at the irony of her words. Then he leaned close and said softly, “I guess we need to make some new memories.”

She could feel his sweet breath on her cheek and looking deep into his eyes knew exactly what he was saying, but again she was fearful, she knew nothing of this man and although all her emotions were crying out to take that final step, something held her back and she knew in her heart it was because she was deceiving him.

He leaned down and kissed her very softly, and then more firmly as he felt her respond beneath him.

They had been kissing for a few minutes and Lizzie could feel he was getting more and more aroused and she suddenly knew she couldn’t carry on and pushing him gently away, she shook her head. “No”, she whispered.

He stopped at once and regarded her with hurt, puzzled eyes. “What is it,” he whispered, “you want this don’t you… Lizzie, I’m your husband. I ain’t gonna hurt you; you must know that. Don’t you want me too?”

She looked tearful. “I do….. yes of course I do… just not here… later… I promise.”

He gave a little sigh. “Yeah, OK later…” Then he jumped up. “Figure I’ll go bag that jack rabbit for supper,” and he strode off into the woods.

*****

After supper they sat out on the porch enjoying the cool of the evening, a small glass of Joshua’s moonshine a piece and again something about the setting, the whiskey, the cool evening air sparked off a picture from his past.

He was sitting out on the porch after a hard day’s work, the smell of supper coming from within and he was chatting to the tall blond man, feeling so calm and relaxed. Hell, he was at home; that place was home and then the little blond kid came running across the yard, hurtling into his arms, talking wildly about…what? fishing, that was it, fishing and then there was a call from within and the elderly lady with the twinkling eyes was there telling them to hurry and wash up for supper, and then…….

“Jamie… Jamie what is it you look to be miles away? “

He shook his head as if doing so would physically clear it make him able to see the picture more clearly to remember them… to remember their names… he had nothing but that feeling, that oh so strong, tantalizing feeling of home and love.

“Jamie?”

“Huh?”

“I said you look to be miles away, are you OK?”

He nodded, “I guess,” but his eyes returned to the horizon, and she knew his thoughts were far away, maybe beginning to remember his past… and she was frightened and suddenly knew just what she had to do to keep him…

“Shall we go to bed now?”

This time she had Jess’s full attention. “Is that what you really want?” he asked giving her a penetrating look, remembering how she was at the picnic earlier.

She nodded decisively, “Yes, I’m not a tease …really I’m not; it’s what I want”.

He gave her his lovely shy smile. “Ok.”

Jess went and gave the stock a final check before turning in, wanting to give Lizzie some space.

When he knocked lightly at her door a little while later and she called for him to come in, his was heart pounding and he felt incredibly emotional as he entered.

He stood on the threshold drinking in the scene before him.

The room was dimly lit by a night light set on a table by the bed, another lamp on Lizzie’s dressing table, which she now sat before, brushing her long glossy hair. After a moment she turned and rising walked towards Jess and he saw she was wearing a thin white shift that showed off her curvaceous body to perfection and he felt a frisson of desire as she smiled up at him beguilingly.

He took her in his arms and looked deeply into those wonderfully expressive eyes, before leaning in, cupping her face and kissing her tenderly, then more passionately. She clung to him, her hands raking through his hair as the kissing became hotter and hotter, until he finally picked her up and carried her to the big soft bed.

*****

When he awoke the first light of dawn was filtering in through the window and he gently pulled out his arm from where it was pinned under Lizzie, and resting on  his elbow he looked down into her sleeping face…and  then something seemed to gradually unfurl  in  his brain  and he had the strangest feeling  of déjà vu  and  suddenly it all came flooding back to him — the beautiful dark haired girl, the one he knew so well, it wasn’t Lizzie at all. It was a girl back in Laramie, it  was….  come on man think…it was Millie.

He rolled over on his back almost crying with relief… his friend Millie. That last passionate night they had spent together and the following morning when he had teased her with their usual banter, he remembered every minute. If he could remember her, then sometime soon he’d remember the others he just knew he would.

However it was still early days. What was Millie to him? Just the thought of her made him smile, they were real close he knew that …and then a terrible thought struck him. Maybe she was his mistress. Maybe he really was married to Lizzie like they had all kept telling him.

So if Millie was his mistress, well then that would be why they all kept frettin’ about him going into town…and maybe that was why Lizzie had been a bit hesitant in resuming her wifely duties. Maybe they were all just walking on eggshells waiting for him to remember about his affair? But somehow it just didn’t ring true, he wasn’t the sort of man to cheat on his wife…was he…or maybe he was?

The next day was Sunday and Jess suggested they go down to the river and do a spot of fishing, mainly because he wanted the peace and quiet that would afford to try and think things through.

Lizzie seemed very loving after the night before and was happy to do anything as long as she could stay close to the man she now was absolutely sure she loved. She didn’t care about the deception anymore; it had all been worth it.

Now she was floating along on cloud nine, to the extent that she didn’t realize that Jess was very quiet and withdrawn. She took his hand and chatted cheerfully as they made their way to the river bank, Jess just nodding and smiling occasionally…..his thoughts far away.

Jess had suggested they try their luck downstream from some rocks that gave him a good view of the crossing place, secretly looking at the lay of the land as he had decided that no matter what happened he had to ride over to Laramie as soon as Mary and Joshua returned.

He just couldn’t stand the myriad of emotions which where whizzing around his mind. He had to see this Millie and find out what they were to each other…and make some decisions about his future. So he sat there in silence, after casting his line out, trying to get his thoughts in some sort of order.

Sitting next to him Lizzie was deep in thought too and after a little while she said hesitantly, “Jamie?”

He turned and smiled indulgently at her. “Yeah?”

“I was wondering… well, what you think about trying for another baby?”

Jess was completely stunned and just stared at her in shock for a few minutes.

When he didn’t respond she took his hand and looking up into his face said softly, “You want to, don’t you…want to try?”

Jess didn’t know what to say. “Well honey, I’m kinda all over the place right now. I figure we need to wait until I get my memory back before we go rushin’ into anything.”

How could he say that all the feelings and emotions he had invested in her were really aimed at another dark haired beauty — the one he’d left back in Laramie. Sure he was attracted to Lizzie; she was a wonderful girl, but did he really love her and was she really his wife?

Again after last night, the lovemaking had been great yeah, but it wasn’t familiar. It felt like he had never been with her before and for the hundredth time he wondered what was going on. Surely he would remember his own wife?

She looked dismayed for a moment, but quickly got it together and gently patting his hand said, “Sure darling, I understand,” and the matter was dropped as they sat in the morning sunlight watching the river each with their own thoughts.

*****

Meanwhile back at the Sherman Ranch and Relay station, Mike, Daisy and Slim were sitting finishing a late breakfast as they had slept in for once.

“Well may I, Slim please?” asked the blond haired youngster again, casting him his most charming smile.

“Well I don’t know Mike. Is Billy expecting you? “

“Sure, he said I could go round to play anytime I want, Slim, and he really wants to see Traveler too.”

Daisy and Slim exchanged a glance at the mention of Jess’s horse and then Daisy said softly, “Billy Jones’s place is only a ten minute ride away, Slim, on the road to town. I know Pete said he was riding in later. Maybe he could drop Mike off and then you could collect him at lunchtime?”

The youngster looked pleadingly at the tall rancher. “Please, Slim,” he wheedled.

After a moment, Slim reached across and ruffled the youngster’s hair, just pleased to see him enthusiastic about something. God knows he’s had a rough time lately he thought. “OK Tiger go knock on the bunk house door and ask Pete if he minds riding over with you, but no going off the Jones spread with Traveler and be ready at lunch time for me to collect you, OK?”

“Ok thanks Slim,” and with that the boy ran off to the bunk house and a little while later he rode out with the hired hand.

When they arrived at the turn off for the Jones’s place, Mike reined Traveler in and said cheerfully, “I’ll be OK now, Pete; it’s just a little ways down this track.”

Pete looked over at the youngster. “Well I dunno, Mike; I was told to deliver you to the ranch house.”

“I’m fine really,” Mike said. “I’ve been loads of times, Slim always leaves me here.”

Pete looked undecided, but it was a hot day and there was a cool pint of beer with his name on it waiting in Laramie and so he grinned at the boy and said, “OK son, see you later,” and kicked his horse off at a brisk trot, on down the road to town.

Mike stayed there until the cowboy was out of sight and then he spurred Traveler across the road and up over the ridge and made for the river and the crossing place, determined to check out the other side of the river for any sign of Jess. He knew Jess was alive, he just knew it, and he aimed to prove it, even if it did land him in hot water with Daisy and Slim later.

He made good time, and about twenty minutes later he was cresting the ridge that led down to the river. He stood up in the stirrups surveying the scene below, just as he had seen Jess do so many times before and then pulling his new Stetson down  hard,  his eyes shining with the light of hope he kicked Traveler down towards the river and the crossing place.

**********

Jess was still deep in thought, staring absently into the water when he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and looking across to the opposite side of the river, downstream, he saw a solitary rider on a bay slowly start to cross. The rider was small and blond and as the horse walked carefully through the shallow water Jess felt a flicker of familiarity.

He continued watching as the plucky horse came out the other side and then trotted briskly up the steep bank before turning to continue along the river bank in the direction of Jess and Lizzie.

After a moment, Jess stood up and peered intently at the young rider and his mount, his whole body alert and poised as if to suddenly take flight. His expression, at first stunned, changed to disbelief and then to pure joy.

Liz suddenly became aware of the change in him and stared from the cowboy to the young rider and back again, and what she saw in Jess’s eyes made her shiver with apprehension. She knew in that moment that she had lost him.

Suddenly everything flooded back with such force that Jess felt like he had been physically kicked in the guts. He felt winded and dizzy with relief as he stared at the youngster riding the bay towards him and then the child looked up and saw him standing there, his hands by his sides, his head up just staring back at him.

Mike’s little heart skipped a beat; he was right. He’d been right all along, and with simplistic childish faith he was hardly surprised to see his beloved friend waiting there for him, but that didn’t stop him being overjoyed. He slipped from the saddle and ran full pelt the last few yards and Jess held out his arms as the child ran into them. “Jess oh Jess,” he cried, “I knew you were alive I just knew it,” a look of utter elation on his young face.

Jess held him close and then after a moment pushed him back and looked deeply into his eyes. “Tiger,” he whispered unable to say more.

Then the boy’s face suddenly crumpled, “Jess I missed you so much,” and he started crying desolately.

Jess pulled him  close again. “it’s OK buddy,” he whispered “I’m here now,” and then he looked up over the child’s head  and met Lizzie’s horror stricken  eyes. He said nothing, but the look he threw her said it all. ‘How could you… how could you do this to me?’

She just stared back and then whispered, “I am so sorry,” before fleeing back to the cabin.

After a few minutes, Mike calmed down some and Jess walked him over to where he had been sitting overlooking the river and they sat down together, the boy never moving his eyes from his friend, drinking in every beloved feature.

Jess took a deep breath, “So I guess everyone thought I’d gone in the river and … and I didn’t make it?”

Mike nodded. “It’s been awful, Jess. Aunt Daisy cryin’ all the time at night, when she thought we didn’t know, and Slim bawlin’ out the hired help, then Sheriff Corey came a callin’, said as how Miss Millie was getting sick with grievin’ for you.”

Jess just stared at him, feeling the prick of tears behind his eyes and a huge lump in his throat rendering him speechless again.

The boy said softly, “It’s been real bad, Jess… but at least you’re safe, that’s the thing, ain’t it?”

Jess pulled him close. “Yeah, that’s the thing Tiger.”

They sat close together for a long time, and then Jess finally pulled himself together. “Come on Mike lets go home; they’ll be worrin’ about you,” he said softly, and collecting Traveler they made their way slowly back to the cabin to collect Jess’s gear.

When they arrived, there was no sign of Lizzie and he went straight to his room and stripped off all the borrowed clothes he was wearing  and quickly found his own, not wanting to take one thing from these people who had betrayed him  so deviously.

When he returned to the main room, the door suddenly opened and Lizzie entered and stood on the threshold staring at him for a moment before saying, “I couldn’t let you go without apologizing.”

“So that makes it alright does it?” he spat. Jess felt he had never been so angry in his life, to have made a fool of him by lying to win his affections was one thing, but to hurt his family and friends so cruelly was another and it was something he would not tolerate from anyone, being fiercely loyal to, and protective of, those he loved.

He looked down at Mike and said very quietly, “Go water Trav, Mike; I’ll be out shortly.”

Mike knew that tone of old, one used very rarely by his friend, but he knew that he must obey without argument and he left the room at once closing the door quietly behind him.

Once Mike had gone, Jess turned his gaze on Liz and what she saw made her quake, his eyes were black and blazing with anger, then as he advanced, she could see he was literally shaking with rage. “Have you any idea what you and your family have done to mine?” he said chillingly quietly.

She just shook her head, her eyes wide with fear.

“Well, I’ll tell you. You’ve left an ol’ lady, who’s been like a Ma to me cryin every night. My partner and best buddy trying’ to run a business single handed while missing his best friend something fierce, he sighed deeply before going on. And my best girl has been sick with grievin’ for me… and if it hadn’t been for the guts of that  little kid out there, they’d probably be doin’ the same for ever an’ a day if it was left to you folks …. “

She shook her head. “I’m just so sorry. We thought maybe if you came from Texas…well, there wouldn’t be anyone to miss you.”

“But you could have done something. You could have tried… ridden to Laramie and asked around. Why Lizzie why pretend I was Jamie? I just don’t get it.”

She shook her head tears streaming down her face now. “You are so like him. We just wanted you to stay here and maybe take his place… I don’t know,” she finished lamely.

He shook his head in amazement. You’re all plumb crazy,” he said picking up his hat and pulling it down  hard with an air of finality, making for the door, then he turned back. “Tell Joshua I’m real obliged to him for saving my life,” and then he gave a little ironic smile. “Kinda sad he weren’t my Pa; showed me more lovin’ care than my own ever did.” He stood for a moment looking into the middle distance as the memories of his difficult childhood flooded back, some things were best forgotten he mused. Then he pulled himself together, “Josh and Mary will be back in an hour or so; just keep the door locked. Those hoodlums won’t be back anyways; I saw to that,” and he turned to go.

She ran towards him and grabbing his arm pulled him round. “Jess please… what about last night?” she whispered.

He pulled his arm away roughly. “Last night never happened,” he said gruffly. “You were with Jamie, remember, not me. “

She blanched at that and looked down unable to look into those angry hurt eyes.

“How could you do that to me…. lead me on that way, make me believe you were my family, my wife for God’s sake. Hell Lizzie, you even said you wanted a baby with me. How could you say that to a complete stranger?” Then he gave a shuddering sigh before regarding her, his eyes reflecting  deep hurt. “Goodbye Lizzie,” he said wearily and turning he left without a backwards glance.

She stood rooted to the spot for a moment before running to the door, then wrenching it open was just in time to see him help the child up on the big bay before gracefully jumping up behind him and then he kicked the horse off to a brisk trot.

 She watched, tears coursing down her face as he disappeared in a cloud of dust, and she felt utterly bereft.

*****

By the time they reached the Laramie road, Traveler was sweating. It was a warm day and he was also carrying extra weight, and so after a while Jess took pity on him and jumping down led him the last half mile or so, occasionally rubbing the horses muzzle while chatting softly to him.

Then he cast a look up to Mike who was still in the saddle. “You’ve sure done a good job of lookin’ after the old boy for me.”

“Yeah, well I kept tellin’ Slim as how he had to be in tip top condition for when you came home.”

That simple faith made Jess feel very humble and he just nodded and plodded on towards home, thinking it must be nearing lunchtime and wondering if Mike had been missed yet.

As it turned out, Slim had been a tad late leaving to collect Mike as he had had to tend to one of their brood mares who had decided to give birth that very morning. For the hundredth time he had wished that his buddy was there to help him. Jess was the expert at birthing the stock, and although Slim was efficient enough, he didn’t have his partner’s expertise. Once the healthy foal was delivered, however he set off on his way, relieved that there had been no complications.

Slim heard Traveler’s unmistakable clip clopping down the road before he actually saw him and felt a spurt of worry that the child had decided to ride home alone. Then he turned the bend in the road and saw Traveler a few hundred yards away and was relieved to see the boy astride and the horse being led by, he presumed, Billy’s Pa.

Then, there was something in the way the man strode along that was vaguely familiar…the way his hat was pulled down…then the way he absently fondled the horses muzzle…… Jess…. Jess?

Slim felt his breath suddenly coming in gasps, his heart beating overtime and a wave of dizziness threatened to floor him. He slipped from Alamo’s back and stood waiting as Traveler, Mike and yes…. Jess slowly advanced on him.

When they were within a few feet, Jess stopped and stared at Slim for a full minute before saying softly, “Hi pard… I’m home.”

Slim stared for a moment longer before striding over and encompassing him in a big bear hug, both men too moved to speak.

After a moment Slim pulled back and tried to focus through teary eyes. “You OK buddy?” he asked softly.

“Yeah, will be…in time. I hit my head Slim, lost my memory… couldn’t remember you… anything. I’m so damn sorry for what I’ve put you through”.

“Hey, it’s not your fault,” Then Slim looked up to Mike. “You went over the river and found him didn’t you, Mike?”

The boy nodded, fearing retribution. “Yes sir,” he said softly.

Slim smiled. “Come here.”

The boy slipped down from the saddle and ran over as Slim picked him up and hugged him.

“I figure you’ve taught us all something about faith today,” Slim said softly. “You never gave up on Jess, did you, son?”

Mike smiled uncertainly. “I knew he was alive, Slim, I just knew it… and I had to go and look. I just had to and I’m sorry I lied to you.”

Slim looked down at the boy and said softly, “I guess this is one time when the end justifies the means.”

“Huh?”

“It means I’m not mad at you, Mike; you did what you thought was right.”

The boy sighed with relief. “Gee thanks Slim”, and then as an afterthought, “you think Aunt Daisy has lunch ready?”

The two men exchanged a grin over the child’s head, amazed at how easily he could slip back into the mundane when their emotions were still all over the place.

“I guess so, Tiger,” Slim said quietly and smiling across at Jess said, “Let’s go home and find out. “

When they arrived at the ranch, Slim turned concerned eyes on his buddy. “Jess I’m kind of worried as to how Daisy is going to take this… you returning from the dead.”

 Both men shuddered a little at this harsh phrase, but knew they had to face the truth.

“The shock could really upset her, make her faint maybe,” Slim said reflectively remembering his recent reaction to seeing his friend again. “I think I should go in first and try and break it to her really gently.”

Jess nodded. “Sure, whatever you think is best, Slim; I’ll go tend the horses,” and he and Mike went off to the barn leaving Slim to deal with Daisy.

When he entered the ranch house, Daisy called from the kitchen. “Oh good, you’re back, wash up boys this will be ready in two ticks.”

Slim  advanced on  the kitchen and stood watching the  elderly housekeeper  bustling about draining pans and warming plates and reflected that the only time she seemed her normal cheerful self was when  she was busy like this. Once she slowed down and had time to think, she became sad and withdrawn.

Now she suddenly became aware of his scrutiny. “Slim?”

“Daisy, we have to talk.”

“What now? I’m just dishing up, dear.”

“Yes now,” Slim said firmly, walking over he took her arm and escorted her into the main room and sat her down in Jess’s rocker, before disappearing back into the kitchen and returning with two tumblers of whiskey.

Her eyes opened wide with surprise as she saw the unaccustomed drinks and then she went to rise from the rocker. It had become an unwritten law that nobody ever sat in it since Jess’s disappearance, and she looked puzzled when Slim gently pushed her back down. Then looking her deeply in the eyes he said softly, “It’s OK to sit there now. Daisy.”

Her kind old eyes shot up to stare at him. “Whatever do you mean,” she asked. “We never sit here; it was Jess’, you know that.”

He shook his head gently and passed her the tumbler. “Drink this, Daisy.”

“Well whatever for dear, you’ll have me tipsy…and I’ve the meal to see to”.

“Daisy,” said Slim in exasperation, “Please will you drink it!”

Something in his tone reminded her so much of Jess that her heart missed a beat and she suddenly felt in need of a restorative. She took a good swallow of the drink gasping as the fiery liquid hit the back of her throat, then recovering she looked up at Slim. “So what did you want to say dear?”

Slim swallowed deeply and then squatted down beside the chair and said quietly, “It’s OK to sit in his chair now because he isn’t dead Daisy. Jess is home; he’s  out in the barn tending to Traveler….”

She just stared at him as though he were speaking a foreign language. “Home…… Jess?”

He nodded.

Then she said more firmly. “You say Jess is in the barn?”

The tumbler fell from her hand and shattered on the floor, but she didn’t seem to notice as she hauled herself from the rocker and moved across the room at amazing speed for her age, heading for the barn.

Mike and Jess were rubbing down the horses when she entered and she stood on the threshold, waiting for her eyes to get used to the dim light within, but in seconds Jess was there in front of her.

Jess moved forwards and said hesitantly, “Daisy? “

“Jess,” she whispered, “Oh my dear boy.”

He encircled her in his strong arms and held her close as the tears came and he felt her shuddering with emotion and once more he cursed the people who had brought her to this. “I’m so, so sorry Daisy,” he whispered.

“Whatever happened and where ever you’ve been, I know you’d have come home if you could have done,” she said softly, eventually gathering herself together. She gave one last shuddering sob, before wiping her eyes with a lace hanky and saying softly, “Come on in the house; lunch is all ready.”

Jess was relieved at the return of practical, sensible Daisy, and grinning down at her said, “Yes, Ma’am!” as he took her arm and escorted her across the yard.

Lunch was both hilarious and emotional as they talked about the situation they now found themselves in. The relief in the room almost palpable as they all kept looking at Jess like they couldn’t believe he was back amongst them.

 As usual Jess tried to make light of things to ease the stress, trying to joke about everything, but all of them came near to tears at some stage of the meal as they recounted things that had happened during Jess’s absence and the impact his alleged death had had on the immediate family and their friends.

“Mike said that Millie took it real bad,” Jess said glancing over at Slim. “He said she was sick?”

Slim nodded sadly. “Yeah she took it really badly, buddy; Sam had to sedate her and then she refused to eat or come out of her room. Old Tom’s got her working again; I visited her last week,” he sighed deeply, “and well she isn’t herself, that’s for sure.”

Jess looked deeply troubled. “I’ll go visit her, first thing tomorrow when it’s quiet and before anyone else gets wind of the fact I’m back, I wanna see her first, explain everything.”

Daisy nodded in agreement. “And while you’re in town see Sam too dear.”

“Oh I’m OK now Daisy…I…”

“No you’re not dear.”

 Jess had staggered a couple of times and she could see he looked like he was dizzy and every so often he had put a hand to his head.

“You’re still getting dizzy spells aren’t you… and a headache?” she asked arching a questioning brow.

Jess gave her a sheepish look. “Same old Daisy. Not much gets past you, does it?”

Then he looked thoughtful. “I seemed OK after the accident, been working an’ all….but these last couple of days, well I guess I ain’t felt too good,”  he admitted.

“A severe head injury can be that way,” she said wisely, “Some of the symptoms take a while to manifest.”

He gave her an impressed look. “You sure know a lot Daisy”.

“Well I wasn’t a nurse for twenty years for nothing you know, dear. Now you just take it easy until Sam says you can get back to work again, understand?”

“Well, I dunno, Daisy,” Jess said, his eyes twinkling. ”I’m not sure old Hardrock here can manage without me for much longer.”

“Well that’s just where you’re wrong, dear; we have Pete and I’m sure he will oblige and stay on until you are completely well.”

At his name, Slim’s head shot up. “That reminds me. I’ve got a score to settle with that young man; he was supposed to deliver Mike to Billy’s door.”

“Aw Slim, don’t be mad at him; I told him you always left me on the road.”

“You did, did you young man?” Then turning to Daisy. “It seems like this youngster is getting to be a real good liar, Daisy.”

“Hum,” she said, and then, “We’ll let you off this once Mike, but never again you, understand?”

“Yes Ma’am,” said a very serious boy.

“Hey Tiger, you wanna show me this new foal that’s just been born?” asked Jess beaming across at the youngster.

“You bet, come on,” and the two left, Jess turning and winking at the others as Mike dragged him off.

After they had left, Slim stretched across the dinner table and took Daisy’s hand. “You OK?”

She nodded. “I think so,” then smiling at him. ”Oh to be young again and take everything in your stride like Mike. I’m fine dear, but I’m not too sure about Jess; he’s not out of the woods yet, I’m afraid. I’ve worked with patients with severe head trauma and memory loss in the war and it is a difficult recovery.”

“How so?”

“Well there are the physical problem loss of balance and coordination. That could affect him when it comes to horse breaking, and then, dizziness and nausea can last a while as can quite bad headaches and unfortunately these things often start, or continue, several weeks after the initial injury, when the patient feels they should be on the mend.”

“What else?” asked Slim looking concerned.

“Well frustration. The patient may remember names and faces of close friends and family, but you saw him trying to remember the name of Mort’s deputy just now and he couldn’t. Well that can be very troubling; patients think they will lose their memory again and that is a very frightening prospect, you know, Slim. To not know who you are or where you live, who your friends and family are, that must be terrifying, even though he has tried to make light of it all for Mike’s sake.”

“Yeah, I noticed that.”

“And there can be problems with anger too…”

Slim grinned across. “Kinda difficult to tell about that one, Jess being so ornery most of the time”.

She smiled at the joke. “But I think he is very angry about what has happened to him Slim, the way this family seemed to have virtually kept him prisoner with all their lies. He hasn’t told us too much, but I think he needs to talk it out.”

“Yeah, you’re right, I’ll give him some time to settle back in and then we’ll talk.”

*****

The following morning as promised, Jess rode into town and his first port of call was the saloon.

It was still early and as he had hoped the place was deserted save for Tom wondering about tidying up from the night before. He was bending over a table wiping it down with a damp cloth when he glanced up as Jess strode in and said, “Sorry Mister, we ain’t open yet.”

Then looking more closely, Tom nearly fell back in shock.” Lord Almighty, as I live and breathe. Its Jess Harper.” He walked over and pumped his hand.” Gee Jess, I can’t believe it. We all thought you were a dead man.”

“Hey listen Tom good to see you too, buddy, but keep it down, huh. Look, I need you to do me a favor.”

“Well sure anything,” agreed the older man going behind the bar. “Drink is it Jess?” moving towards a whiskey bottle.

Jess grimaced. “Hell Tom it’s only nine in the morning.”

“Um yeah, so it is, well what can I do for you then Jess boy?”

“Well it’s like this Tom, I was wonderin’ if you could go up to Millie’s room and  break the news to her real gentle like, on account of it might be kinda upsetting for her if I just go bargin’ in, you know?”

“Why sure, Jess.”

Then there was a noise in the back room and a moment later Mille emerged from where; unbeknown to Tom, she had been brewing herself a coffee before starting work. She had heard the voices and inquisitive to see who was abroad so early, she walked out behind the bar.

Then she saw Jess and her mouth formed a perfect O of shock, before she clasped a hand to her chest and with a little cry, fell in a dead faint.

Tom ran forwards and caught her before she hit the ground  and Jess was there in a flash  and gathering her up, he said briefly, “I’ll take her to her room; if I holler get the doc, OK Tom?”

“Sure, look after her, Jess; poor kid ain’t been eatin’ proper no wonder she fainted away. Shock of seein’ you I guess didn’t help any either,” he continued, but Jess was already halfway up the stairs.

Jess pushed her door open with his foot and carried her over to the bed before laying her gently down on it.

Then he peered down at his best girl and was shocked at the way she looked. She must have lost a good 20 pounds and her eyes looked bruised with dark shadows beneath them, her skin deathly pale and clammy. “Oh Mill what have I done to you?” he whispered. Then he turned abruptly and fetched a cloth wrung out in cool water, then sank down on the bed beside her and commenced tenderly wiping her brow.

After a few minutes, her eyes fluttered and opened and she stared into Jess’s concerned blue ones just inches away.

“Hey are you alright?” he whispered.

“Jess, is it really you.”

He took her hand. “See, real live flesh; I ain’t a ghost.”

“Jess, don’t josh about it. Have you any idea what it’s been like these last weeks?”

He sobered at once. “I think I have sweetheart, yes, and I’m so damn sorry you had to go through all that.”

“Just hold me,” she whispered. “I still don’t believe you’re real.”

“OK just a moment.”

He returned to the door, removed his gun belt and placed it on the hook there, then took off his boots before returning and stretching out beside her on the bed, saying softly, “See, I know the boot an’ gun rule. I must be the genuine article.”

She gave a little giggle and he had a glimpse of his old Millie.

“Come here sweetheart,” he said very softly and pulled her close.

Much later he returned to the bar and looked across at Tom. “I think she’s feelin’ a bit better now, but I’ll ask Sam to pop over and check her out and I guess maybe she could use a rest Tom?”

“Oh sure Jess, that’s no problem; she can have the day off and I’ll fetch her a coffee up in a while.”

“Thanks Tom, I’ll come by and see her in a couple of days,” and with that he left for the Doc’s office.

When he knocked at Sam’s door, he was beginning to feel paranoid wondering what affect his appearance here would warrant this time, so he was pleased when Sam answered the door himself.

He gave a sigh of relief having had his fair share of weeping, fainting females and didn’t particularly want to add Carrie to his list.

Sam took a step back and looked astonished at seeing  his good friend , but recovered well, his professional training being an asset where matters of life and  death were concerned, and it held a certain novelty value for him that one patient  he thought was dead was actually alive, instead of it being the other way around .

However one look at Jess told him all was not well and he insisted on a full examination and run down of everything that had happened since his near drowning. So it was some time later when Jess managed to escape, with the promise that he would not do any strenuous work until Sam visited to check on him in a week.

“To be honest Sam I’m more worried about Millie; she looks awful,” he said as he made to leave.

“Yes, well she took your loss very badly Jess as you’d expect, knowing what good friends you are, but I figure she’ll bounce back pretty quickly now you’re home. I’ll take her a tonic over and have a word about her doing part time for a week or two and I figure she’ll be just fine, Jess, so don’t fret.”

“Thanks Sam,” replied Jess warmly, “And give my love to Carrie when she gets back from her trip to Cheyenne.”

“Oh I will; she’ll be so darn pleased your OK, Jess boy, her and everyone that knows you I guess.” With that, they shook hands and Jess departed for Mort’s place.

Luckily Mort had called the previous evening and so Jess didn’t have to go through the whole painful business of telling his tale again.

Jess sat with a coffee, and Mort grinned over at him and said, “All you need to do is tell Mose all about it and it will be round the town like wild fire; never have to speak about it again. Of course I can’t say whether people will get the real story or not, we both know Mose never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.“

“Um… that’s exactly the way I feel, Mort. I’m so dadgum mad at those people. I just don’t wanna even think about it anymore, so guess Mose would be doin’ me a favor, no matter what he told folk.”

“Atkins you say? Yes I do remember the incident; you were away down in Texas on that cattle drive if I remember rightly. Anyway the son was a nice lad and yes he was a dead ringer for you, now I think on it — a tad heavier, paler skin, but the same hair and eyes. Anyway one day he got in trouble with a guy named Matt Harding, real tough nut. Turns out Jamie accused him of mistreating a horse and the man just drew on him. Jamie was no gunfighter, didn’t stand a chance,” he said shaking his head sadly. “Next day his wife miscarried…. Real sad that was.”

Jess looked down feeling terrible… so it wasn’t all lies then. But what about that yarn about him shooting the deputy? Jess surmised that had been something Joshua had dreamed up to keep him out of town was there no end to their devious lies he thought bitterly.

“Well old Ma Atkins couldn’t bear to stay in town; she idolized that boy…as his Pa did. Well young Lizzie went with them when they moved out…dunno where they went… had relatives in Ohio, I believe. “

“Joshua’s ma,” said Jess quietly.

“So it really was the same folks, and you say they’re holed up near the river crossing,  but hell, Jess, Slim and I combed that river bank more than once. I never even knew there was a spread up there.”

“It’s set back, real well hidden; figure they don’t like strangers visiting, you see.”

“Yes very likely after what happened. Anyway all done now Jess, try and put it behind you, boy.”

Jess just nodded and draining his cup he thanked the Sheriff and made for home feeling exhausted.

*****

It wasn’t until the following day that Jess really met Pete Valentine the hired hand Slim had got in to help out when Jess went missing. He seemed to have been making himself scarce over the first few days that Jess was back, but the dark haired cowboy had walked over to the bunk house early and caught him before he went off fence checking and introduced himself.

Pete and Jess were like chalk and cheese and that was probably why Slim had managed to work with him as he wasn’t a constant reminder of his best buddy, but Jess found him hard going.

“So, good to know you, Pete,” he said after he had introduced himself. “And I wanna thank you for helpin’ out around here; Slim says you’re a real hard worker.”

“Well I aim to pull my weight, Mr. Harper.”

“Hey, Jess… we’re workin’ together, ain’t we?”

The younger man looked down, “”Well, that’s what Mr. Sherman says, but I figure you two are the bosses and I like to keep it business like. “

Jess gave him a surprised look. “Well not too business like to come out to town with us come Saturday for a few pints, bit of romancin’ with the saloon girls and the like?” he suggested with a wink.

The young man had sandy colored hair and pale skin and he flushed up dramatically at this notion. “Oh no Mr. Harper, I always write to my folks come Saturday night.”

Jess’s mouth dropped open and for once in his life he was speechless for a moment.

“Huh?”

“I write home, not that I’m against drink you understand, I ride into town Sunday lunchtime, drop my letter off at the Stage office and then go for a pint at the Saloon.”

“A whole pint eh,” muttered Jess to himself.

“Pardon?”

“Er, nothin’ Pete, like I say good to meet you.” And he wandered off a dazed look in his eye.

Later in the privacy of the barn when Slim and Jess were grooming their mounts, Jess said, “That Pete’s a bit of an oddball, ain’t he. And what kind of a name’s Valentine anyway?”

Slim grinned across. “Takes all sorts, Jess, and he’s a damn hard worker.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, he doesn’t skive off fishin’ and take naps. But hell Slim, he don’t like town on a Saturday night and the thought of chatting to a saloon girl practically brought him out in a rash.”

Slim hid a smile. “Well like I say, it takes all sorts. He’s very close to his folks; they’ve  retired now live out beyond Cheyenne,  but he’s an  only child visits every weekend he’s off. “

“Yeah, I know and writes every Saturday,” said Jess. “Reckon he’d fit into the Atkins family real well,” he said bitterly, before Mike rushed in calling them for lunch and the matter was dropped.

As Daisy had predicted, Jess had a difficult convalescence after his memory loss and it took all Daisy and Sam’s patience and tact to try and explain things to him .But Jess being Jess didn’t want the prolonged recovery that was common with his type of injury he just wanted everything to get back to normal right away and when he lost his balance or his coordination made him fall off a mustang, or he couldn’t recall someone’s name the frustration made him incredibly angry.

Jess had always been known for his short fuse but things got out of hand one afternoon when  he really lost his temper when he had problems trying to mend a piece of harness because he suddenly started suffering from blurred vision and  couldn’t see to sew the strap.

He hurled the offending article across the barn with such force that it crashed to the floor bringing several other pieces of harness down from the barn wall with a resounding crash, and then he let rip with a mouthful of expletives that would make a sailor blush.

Pete who had been  tending his horse did indeed blush to the roots of his hair and then made a quick exit fearing what Jess would do next and bumped into Slim running in to investigate.

“What in hell’s going on in here?” Slim asked as he saw Jess slumped on a straw bale still muttering under his breath and Pete looking decidedly uncomfortable.

“Ask him,” the young hand answered, before casting Jess another wary look and beating a hasty retreat.

Slim came over and stood over Jess. “Well? “

Jess looked down unable to meet Slim’s angry gaze.

“Come on Jess, I’m waiting. What’s this all about?”

Suddenly Jess erupted again. “I’ll tell you what it’s about!” he yelled leaping up from his seat. “I’m no damn good round here Slim. Sam put me on light duties over two weeks ago now and every time he checks me out he says just be patient. another week should do it.”

“Yeah and so what do you do…. climb up on a mustang? You didn’t have the coordination or the stamina to control, so he chucked you off and that set you back another week,” said Slim equally angrily, although his temper was more born of fear. He too was worried it was taking his buddy so long to bounce back, in fact the longer it was taking the worse he seemed to get.

“Yeah, well I learnt my lesson, damn it Slim; you can’t get much more light duty than mendin’ harness and I can’t even do that,” he said slumping back down on the straw and looking defeated.

Slim sat down beside him. “Why not, buddy?”

Jess turned to him. “Can’t see straight, Slim; everything’s blurred and like it’s movin around; it’s been driving me crazy all afternoon.”

Slim leaned over and squeezed his shoulder. “I know it’s frustrating for you Jess, but Sam said all these things could happen to you, that was a really nasty whack you had on the head, not to mention the amount of river water you swallowed, bound to have a real bad effect on a man … and you’re lucky to be  alive you know that don’t you?”

Jess closed his eyes and swallowed deeply before looking over to Slim. “Yes I know I am… and lucky to have a buddy like you to put up with my ranting too. I’m sorry, Slim.”

“Hey that’s OK , but figure we’d better go check out Pete; he looked scared to death with all your antics and I reckon the letter home this Saturday will make interesting reading,” and chuckling, the pair went off to apologize to the intense young man.

After that Slim and Daisy insisted Jess take some time off and he reluctantly agreed and spent hours with Mike fishing or just chatting and larking about or else he went off to town and spent time with Millie.

About a week after his outburst in the barn, he had spent the afternoon in town with his girl and when he landed back at the ranch, Slim was just savoring a last cup of coffee on the porch before turning in. As he saw Jess ride Traveler into the yard, he went and brought the pot out and another cup and poured him a steaming cup as his buddy sauntered over and threw himself down in the seat beside him.

“Thanks Slim,” Jess said accepting the drink and tipping the chair back, he put his feet up on the hitching rail and took a good sip of the strong brew.

“So how’s Millie doing now?” asked Slim conversationally.

Jess beamed. “Oh real good. She’s sleepin’ OK and put on some weight, really suits her. Tom reckons she’s eating enough for two now,” he said smiling happily.

“Huh?”queried Slim, raising an eyebrow and then grinning at his buddy. “Really?”

It took Jess a moment to realize what his friend was implying and his chair slid forwards as his feet came off the rail and he swiveled to look his buddy in the face. “Aw Slim, let me get over the last crisis before I go diving’ head first into the next one. It was bad enough that crazy woman wantin’ my babies without you thinkin’ Millie’s in the family way”.

“She’s, not then?” said Slim chuckling.

“No,” he said firmly, “she ain’t.”

“So you’re sure about that then Jess?” asked Slim not wanting to leave the teasing, knowing he’d get a rise out of him sooner or later.

“Sure I’m sure,” yelled Jess doing exactly what Slim had known he would  do all along, and then the two exchanged a glance and after a moment fell about laughing.

“Well she ain’t,” said Jess finally. “She’d tell me about something like that.”

Then Slim took pity on him. “Sure she would, Hotshot. I’m only teasing you, you know that.”

“Um,” said Jess and just sipped his coffee.

After a while Slim thought he’d broach the subject of Jess’ prolonged stay with the Atkins family as he had promised Daisy he would talk it out with him.

“So you want to tell me about this crazy woman that wants your babies then?” he asked with a mischievous smile.

Jess looked out to the horizon, and finally said,” not too much to tell Slim. I figure it was Ma Aitkin’s that set the whole thing up, she misses her son something fierce, you can see that from the way she fussed around me,” he turned and smiled at his friend. “Your think Daisy can be clucky,” he shook his head, “she near drove me crazy. “ Then giving Slim a thoughtful look. “The sad thing was I really swallowed it all hook line and sinker. I got to thinkin’ they really were my Ma and Pa and in the end that maybe Lizzie was my wife. I really thought I loved her, you know, Slim.” he sighed deeply.

Slim just nodded and waited for him to continue.

“But I figure what  it was….well…she was very like Millie — hair color, those big brown eyes, real curvy figure — and  I was lookin’ at Lizzie, but I guess I was remembering’ Millie. Hell, it’s way beyond scary not knowin’ who you are, you know, buddy, not bein’ able to remember who your friends are,” he said looking out into the twilight again with unseeing eyes.

“I can’t begin to think how bad it must have been,” said Slim softly.

“Anyway in the end I took Lizzie to bed… and the next day, I remembered that last Saturday night I’d spent with Millie, remembered her name an’ all, but I still didn’t know who she was.” Then softly, “I thought she might have been my mistress, if I really was married to this Lizzie… and that sat real bad with me, Slim, real bad. I’m not a man to cheat on his wife — hell, even to cheat on my girl — but I just didn’t know.” Then he turned back to Slim, and said softly, “What’s a man without his integrity, Slim?”

Slim nodded. “But yours is intact buddy, you know that now.”

“Yeah, I know now,” he said softly, looking out to the middle distance again as if hoping to find the answers there.

“You’re still real angry about all this, aren’t you Jess.”

He turned and looked at Slim then, “Yeah I guess I am… but more for you and the others. The people I care about most, Mike, Daisy and Millie,” he said bitterly. “I just can’t forgive them for what they put you all through.”

“But I guess they didn’t know, didn’t mean to hurt us.”

“Don’t make no difference, Slim. You don’t do that to a person, take ‘em in and then lie to them, say they’re someone they ain’t. They took advantage of me that way when I was sick… that just weren’t right Slim.”

“No I guess I agree with you, but you have to let it go now Jess, move on.”

Jess sighed deeply.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right… and anyways I’ve got enough to worry about. Saw Sam in town tonight and he’s comin out to the ranch at the weekend, gonna give me another check and then take in some fishing’, and I tell you what, Slim, if he don’t say I’m fit to work this time, I may very well have to throw him in… new fishin’ line an’ all! “

*****

Lizzie

A couple of days after  their conversation  on the porch the men were again sitting out there chatting as they waited for the  early  morning Stage to roll in and taking a rest from their chores.

Jess had got so bored with sitting around doing nothing that he was back on the workforce doing odd jobs around the place until his check up with Sam and as he had said with a grin, at least I’m capable of feedin’ the hens and chopping the firewood.

 After a little while they heard the Stage clattering down the rise and into the yard and as Mose brought it to a standstill Jess went to open the door.

“No passengers Jess,” Mose called down, “but figure I’ve got time for a coffee, if it’s on… and got a bit of news too… just heard it this morning.”

“Come on in,” grinned Slim,” Daisy’s got the coffee going and there might be some biscuits left over from breakfast too.”

Once they were all seated around the table Slim turned to him and said,”So what’s this hot news then, Mose?”

Mose was bursting with the latest from town and couldn’t wait to share it and such was his excitement he didn’t stop to think what effect this devastating gossip would have on Jess.

“Well ol’ Bill from the stage office was over at the doc’s first thing, getting’ his indigestion tablets and he was just leavin’ when there was a tremendous hammering on the door. Well doc Sam went to answer it and who do you think was a standing there?”

“Just get on with it Mose,” said Jess, a twinkle in his eye, as he loved teasing the old timer.

“OK, hold your horses, I’ll tell you. It was only that Joshua Atkins… the one as pulled you out of the river, Jess boy and then kept you at his place, lettin’ us all think you were dead,” he said shaking his head sadly.

“So, go on then Mose what did he want?” asked Slim trying to move Mose on, mindful that he and Jess still had to change the teams and time was getting on.

Mose pushed his hat back and took a sip of coffee, for effect, before continuing.

“Well I’ll tell you. The poor man was in a terrible state …shakin’ and weepin’ old Bill said, was a good couple of minutes before  Doc Sam could get any sense out of him.”

“Mose!”  Slim said in frustration.

“OK, I’m coming’ to it…well it turns out that daughter-in-law of his…. Lizzie is it?”

Jess’s head shot up and he nodded. “Yeah Lizzie, what about her?”

“Well, everyone in town knew as she was pretty highly strung, suffered with her nerves and the like after her Jamie was gunned down and then losing the baby and all…but I guess nobody thought she’d do what… well, what’s she’s done.”

Jess went pale. “For God’s sake Mose spit it out, what has she done?”

Mose turned to face Jess and suddenly realized that maybe he shouldn’t have started this conversation, but it was too late to back out now and he could see Jess’s eyes darkening a sure sign that the old Harper temper was getting fired up good.

“Well,” he said softly, “She done hanged herself, early this morning in the barn… and it was old Joshua as found her.”

The room was suddenly deathly silent and all eyes turned to Jess, who had turned ashen.

Daisy moved to touch his hand, but he suddenly lurched up from his chair and shot out of the front door, slamming it behind him.

He made it to the corral fence and leaning over it thought he was about to lose his breakfast as waves of nausea and dizziness threatened to overwhelm him. He was shaking and sweating and he took deep breaths to try and control the rising nausea.

A few minutes later he felt a comforting strong arm around his shoulders. “Jess?”

He looked round into Slim’s kind concerned eyes. “Take it easy, buddy, it’s OK,” he said softly.

Jess turned anguished eyes on his friend and said, “No it ain’t, Slim, it ain’t OK at all. That girl is dead and it’s all my fault.”

“Hey Jess, you can’t think that way. You heard Mose say she was unstable; you know that, saw what she was like.”

But Jess merely shook his head. “She’s dead, Slim, and that’s down to me, just as surely as if I’d taken out my colt and shot her through the head.” Then he gave an agonized gasp as he closed his eyes turning away. “Sorry, Slim,” he said as he walked off towards the barn, leaving his partner to sort out changing the team.

Slim stood staring after him, not knowing what he could do or say to help.

Then after a few minutes Mose came out and walking over said softly, “I’m sorry; that was real thoughtless of me. Is he OK?”

Slim just shook his head, “Not really, Mose, but I guess it’s better he hear it from you than in the saloon or someplace.” With that, he turned and started changing the team.

Slim left Jess to his own devises for a while thinking he’d want to be alone, but after half an hour he saw him coming  out of the barn leading Traveler and jumping lightly into the saddle, he started to ride out of the yard.

Slim was grooming the Relay team horses in the yard and he dropped his brushes, ran over to his buddy and grabbing the halter said, “Where are you going, Jess?”

“Dunno, need to get out for a while, Slim…need to think.”

“You’re not thinking of riding over to the Atkins place, are you, Jess?”

He looked down frowning, before glancing across at his friend,” maybe I am.”

“No buddy, it’s not the right time. I know what you’re thinking, that you’re to blame for this, so you reckon you should go over and let them bawl you out, maybe even work you over some, or perhaps you want her Pa-in-law to shoot you. That make you feel better would it?” Slim asked looking angry now.

“Well I deserve it, don’t I?” Jess yelled back.

“No you don’t and I really don’t want you to go, Jess ,and more importantly neither does Daisy. She’s  real upset about all this, buddy. Don’t you think she’s been put through enough lately?”

“That’s a bit below the belt, ain’t it?” asked Jess scowling down at him.

“Whatever it takes for you to see sense,” replied Slim giving him a hard look. “So how do you think Mike’s going to feel when he comes back from school and finds you all beat up… or worse?”

Jess sighed deeply,” OK, you’ve made your point,” and sliding down from Traveler he turned and led him back to the barn.

After a while he emerged and Slim saw him making his way down the back track to the creek and knowing he needed some solitude left him alone.

Jess sat with his back to a large boulder at the edge of the water, a favorite spot for fishing or just thinking his thoughts in peace, as now.

He sat there running through his last meeting with Lizzie. How they had spent that passionate night together, then down by the river she had asked him about starting a family and how terrible he had been feeling, remembering Millie and not knowing what their relationship was.

He had tried so hard to make that connection with Lizzie; she was his wife, for God’s sake, so why didn’t he feel it, that special bond. His mind and body were in turmoil as he had looked out to the river wrestling with the problem that was near driving him loco.

Then that little blond figure emerged riding the plucky Bay horse across the river, and he suddenly felt like his whole world was rocking on its axis as the memories and feelings flooded through him and with dizzying relief he remembered everything at last.

Later as Mike had explained the depth of the trauma his family and friends had been put through, that was when he felt the anger rising in him and, on seeing Lizzie, it had finally boiled over.

He could hardly recall what he had said, but he remembered shaking with anger and had she been a man he would doubtless have lashed out such was the depth of his feeling. Hell, had she really deserved that? If she was sick, still grieving for her lost husband, could she really be held responsible for her actions, after all they were hardly the ones of a normal rational person.

As to Mary, well a mother’s grief could go real deep, but if she was the instigator of it all, the blame should lie firmly at her door. But again in the cold light of day with all the facts, Jess could somehow acknowledge the elderly woman’s need for a surrogate son, even if she hadn’t gone about it in the right way.

As to Joshua, he just pitied him, caught in the web of emotional turmoil experienced by the women of the family. He had seen the deep devotion Josh had for his wife and figured he would do pretty much anything to make her happy and he could understand that, to some extent.

Even though Jess was deep in thought, his usual lightening reactions kicked in when he heard a twig snap behind him and he was up, gun in hand and facing the intruder in the blink of an eye.

Doc Sam Baker stood there in front of him an uneasy smile on his face and his hands up in a gesture of submission. “Hey buddy, I come in peace.”

“Sorry… sorry, Sam,” said Jess putting his iron away and giving him a sheepish smile. “You kinda crept up on me there.”

“Yes, I’m sorry; I guess I know you well enough to know not to do that. Just that I needed to see you really urgently and Slim said I’d find you out here.”

Jess nodded and slumping back down he gestured for the doc to join him. He cast his friend a moody look. “If you’ve come to bawl me out for the part  I played in Lizzie’s death, well I guess there’s no need; there’s nuthin’ you can say as will make me feel any worse than I already do,” he said with feeling.

“Jess… it’s OK. That old fool Mose got it all wrong, heard only half the tale. Sure Lizzie tried to kill herself, but Joshua got there just in the nick of time and cut her down. She’s hurt pretty badly, but she isn’t dead Jess.”

At this Jess spun around to face the doc, the light of relief in his eyes. “Really?” he gasped.

“I promise you, she’s got a really sore throat, nasty rope burn and some bruising, but she’s alive alright.” Then turning to look out to the creek, Sam said softly, “It’s not her physical wellbeing that concerns me now, Jess; it’s her mental state.” He turned to look at the young cowboy and said gently, “That’s where you may be able to help, if you can find it in your heart to forgive them for what they did to you. Because she’s asking for you, Jess, and I reckon you’re the only one that can get through to her now. She really wants to see you.”

Jess was silent for a long time looking out to the horizon beyond the water, a nerve twitching in his cheek the only sign of the strain he was feeling. Eventually he said, “And if I can’t?”

“Well, I guess she may well try it again. She talked to me, Jess, was very honest about her feelings for you, about how she was really beginning to believe you were Jamie…after you’d slept together. How it was Mary’s idea to dupe you. Not that she saw it that way. She just saw this young man that so favored her son and all common sense went out of the window. She just had this crazy urge to mother you, make you one of the family, keep you safe.”

“Crazy’s right,” said Jess morosely.

“Well grief can make you that way, can’t it, Jess?” said Sam very softly.

Jess knew he was alluding to the terrible time he had been through after the death of his fiancée a few years back when he was so shattered by his grief that he nearly joined her. Now he looked up at Sam and their eyes locked, and after a moment he nodded, “Yeah.”

“So what do you want me to say to her, Sam? It’s all OK, I look like your dead husband so let’s get married and live happily ever after?” Jess asked bitterly.

Sam knew that the angry response was due to the pain of remembering Maria and how she had been brutally murdered in front of Jess, feeling was sorry he had to bring the painful experience back. But he knew he had to stir Jess into helping the poor lost soul that was Lizzie Atkins. He also knew that if Jess let his bitterness and resentment get in the way of helping her, he would regret it later, especially if she did make another attempt on her life.

Sam ignored the sarcasm, and said, “No she understands the situation between the two of you, but I think she needs your forgiveness and maybe support — as a friend — to move on with her life.”

Jess looked down shaking his head  as though he felt he was about to regret his decision, then turning to look his buddy in the eye he said quietly, “OK Sam, what do you want me to do?”

*****

Jess rode into the Atkins yard the following morning, and after hitching Traveler to the rail, knocked on the front door. After a moment, Joshua Atkins stood staring at the young cowboy who was looking uncomfortable, his hat in his hands and a troubled look in his eyes.

“‘Morning Mr. Atkins,” Jess said quietly, “I’m real sorry about Lizzie. Doc said she was askin’ for me?” Jess wasn’t sure what sort of reception he would receive, but what he got certainly wasn’t the one he was expecting.

“You’re sorry? Hell it ain’t you that should be sorry, it’s us. Each and every one of us is purely mortified at the way we treated you — and the effect it had on your people. Doc Sam told us everything and I’m truly sorry.”

“Let’s put that behind us right now, guess we need to be thinking of Lizzie,” said Jess diplomatically.

Yes, yes, of course, you right come in Mr.….Ha…

“Jess,” he said softly, “just call me Jess.”

Josh showed the young cowboy into Lizzie’s room and told him to just holler if he needed anything and left them alone.

The room was dimly lit by a nightlight beside the bed, the curtains firmly closed against the bright sunlight and it took Jess a moment or two for his eyes to adjust to the dim light.

Then he was finally able to make out Lizzie’s recumbent figure, her eyes closed and her chest gently rising and falling as though asleep.

Somehow he knew she was faking it though, and walking across the room he sat down gently on the edge of the bed and took her hand before saying softly, “Hello, Lizzie.”

After a moment, her eyes opened and looked directly into his concerned blue ones and what he saw sent a shiver down his spine. Never had he seen such a look of wretched helplessness and despair.

Forgetting his previous feelings of anger and resentment at once, he said, “Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry it’s come to this.”

She closed her eyes and swallowed before attempting to speak, but when she eventually managed it, her voice was a mere painful whisper. “I… I don’t blame you, if… that’s… what you’re thinking,” she finally managed.

He gave her his shy smile. “Well, I guess I didn’t help any,” he said honestly. “I’m real sorry I sounded off at you that way. I was just so dang mad when Mike told me the way the folks had been sufferin’ back home. Guess I just wanted to lash out at someone.”

She nodded and tried to speak again, but she only managed a harsh rasp, before giving up.

He took the water tumbler from the bedside table and helped her to drink, before resting her head back on the pillow, noticing the angry red rope burn round her neck and the black smudges beneath her eyes telling of many troubled nights since he saw her last.

He looked down his eyes full of sympathy, before making a decision.

“Look Lizzie, you’re not well enough to talk right now. How about I ask Josh and Mary if I can have my old room back, stay a few days until you’re feelin’ better, huh?”

Her eyes welled up with tears, that quickly spilled over and she grabbed hold of his hand again. “Thank you,” she whispered.

He tenderly wiped a tear away with his finger before leaning over and kissing her forehead. Then he rose from the bed. “Try and get some sleep,” he said gently “and I’ll be back later,” and with that he went in search of Mary.

He didn’t have to look far. Entering the kitchen, he found her sitting at the table, a cup of coffee  cooling in front of her, as she looked into space, her thoughts miles away.

She had been working on the vegetable patch when Jess had arrived and so his sudden presence now, in her kitchen, was a complete shock.

She looked up as he entered and stood in the doorway regarding her. Then she jumped in shock a mixture of surprise and pleasure on her tired old face. She leapt up, but still stood routed to the spot, trying to read the young cowboys expression. “Jamie?”

“No Ma’am, it’s Jess and I figure we need to get that straight…right away.”

She looked down embarrassed. “Of course, and I owe you a huge apology, Mr. Harper… Jess. The doctor told us all about you and what we had put your family through. Well, I’m deeply ashamed. Can you ever begin to forgive a foolish old woman?”

This was the moment Jess had dreaded. Promising Sam he would do his best to help Lizzie was one thing, but offering unreserved forgiveness was another, so in true Harper style. he just completely sidestepped the question and asked a question of his own. “Sam asked me to come and try an’ talk some sense into Lizzie and I was wondering if I could have my old room back, just until she’s well enough to talk to me?”

Her face was suddenly wreathed in smiles. “Why, of course, son.”

“Jess,” he said throwing her a hard look. “The name’s Jess, Ma’am.”

She looked down and then said quietly, “I’ll go and make the bed up for you, Jess.”

Jess slipped back easily into his old life at the Atkins place, enjoying Joshua’s company and helping him around the spread. However, he still felt very uncomfortable around Mary, at first, knowing how she felt about him.

For her part, she made a tremendous effort not to spoil him, or treat him as kin, but it was very hard for her, and after supper on the first night she retired to bed exhausted, her mind in turmoil as it tried to come to terms with the young man’s presence. It was the first time she had been around him since his memory returned and now she could see he was a completely different character to her son. In fact, in many ways his opposite — having an edge to him, and a hint of danger and wildness — whereas Jamie had been quiet, placid and predictable.

 However Jess’s charisma won her  over in  his own right and she loved his wicked sense of fun and dry irony as he regaled her and Josh with stories from his past at supper that evening.

 But he wasn’t Jamie and she knew she must accept that and move on.

But what of Lizzie, she thought sadly, as she lay there trying to sleep. The poor girl seemed besotted with the dark haired young cowboy, asking for him time and again in the aftermath of her suicide attempt.

She also had to realize that he was nothing like Jamie; otherwise, she would never be able to move on with her life, thought the old woman sadly. That’s exactly what we have to do, she thought at last. It had been that young Jess Harper who had finally made her understand that and now she just prayed that he would be able to make Lizzie ‘see sense’, as he had called it, as well.

Jess and Joshua sat out on the front porch with a glass of moonshine apiece, chatting softly, so as not to disturb the women folk, who had retired for the night.

After a while the older man turned to Jess and said, “I can’t begin to thank you for coming out here to help our Lizzie, especially after what we did to you.”

Jess just shook his head. “That’s done with, I guess, and anyway, the way I figure it, you were just tryin’ to make your wife and daughter-in-law happy, and after what they’d been through, well I can hardly blame you.” Then he gave him his shy smile. “And there was one good thing that came out of it all.”

“Oh really, what was that?”

“I guess I had a Pa that actually gave a damn about me, if only for a little while and it was kinda nice.”

Joshua looked shocked and then immensely pleased. “And you made a good surrogate son too,” he said with a sigh. “It was good working alongside another man; got the jobs done quicker and nice to have the company…the banter. Yes, I’ve missed that since we lost Jamie.” Then after a pause, he said, “Stop me if I’m being interfering, but you didn’t hit it off with your Pa then?”

Normally Jess would have clammed up and said, ‘yes you are’ but somehow with Josh he didn’t mind. “Yeah, could say that,” he replied bitterly. “He used to drink, beat my Ma sometimes, then when I tried to help her, he’d knock me around too. But you know if a kid ain’t ever known no different, I guess it ain’t too bad; you just kinda accept it.”

Josh sucked in a shocked breath. “Is he still alive, boy?”

Jess took a deep breath. “Nah, he was killed, my Ma too, and most of the kids. The house was fired, see, by the Banister gang; there were seven of us in the family and only three made it out alive.”

“Oh God, boy…so what did you do?”

Jess gave him a grim smile. “Went after them, of course; didn’t find ‘em, luckily. I only fifteen, but I was a fast gun even in those days, but not as fast as I thought I was and certainly not fast enough to outdraw the Banisters.” He sighed deeply. “Then after the war was over, I went on the drift, using my fast gun to pay the way often as not, and that can get a man into a lot of trouble, you know, Joshua.”

Jess sighed again. “I got on the wrong side of the law, ended up in prison… even felt a rope around my neck more than once,” he said easing his collar at the thought. Then casting Josh a sad look said, “Reckon I can sympathize with Lizzie on that one. It’s mighty painful for a few days.”

“You’ve not had an easy life, boy, that’s for sure.”

“Oh it ain’t too bad, not since I met ol’ Slim and moved on to the Sherman spread anyways. Got me a good life there, real good friends that are like kin to me, a partnership in the business and a real cute girl, yeah, reckon I’m a lucky man.” Jess looked off to the horizon with unseeing eyes for a while and then turned back to the older man. “But the way I am, Josh, like I was tellin’ Mary earlier, I ain’t nothin’ like your boy. I’m way harder and rougher, got me a temper and a real stubborn streak; guess I’m not an easy man to live with sometimes. But I figure things in life kinda make you the way you are; I’ve had to be that way to survive, see? “

“I understand, yes, but I’d say it’s more the way a man copes with life that makes him who he is. Sure, you’ve had a tough time of it, but you’ve never given up, and it looks to me that you learnt from your mistakes and that has made you wise beyond your years, Jess, and a very strong man, one I’d certainly want at my back in times of trouble.”

Jess was immensity touched, but just smiled and nodded and said very softly, “Thanks, I appreciate that, Josh.”

*****

It was a couple of days later before Lizzie was well enough to talk to Jess properly. Her voice was still strained and her throat sore, but she insisted she was fine, and so after the morning chores were done, Jess suggested a walk down by the river.

It was another hot day and they sat down in the shade of some trees on the river bank where Jess had been fishing on that fateful day when he finally got his memory back.

Now he turned to look at Liz as she gazed off across the water, her hands constantly moving and an expression of anxiety in her deep brown eyes. After a while he said softly, “Do you wanna talk about it, Lizzie, tell me why you did it?”

She turned startled eyes on him and looked even more anxious. “I… don’t know,” she said producing a lace hanky and twisting it between her fingers. “I guess I just couldn’t take it anymore. I…just wanted to be with Jamie.”

Then she  leapt up and ran to the water’s edge, her back to him as she cried angrily, “You don’t know what it’s like to lose someone like that, have them die in front of you that way…you don’t understand…nobody does…”

Jess got up and strode towards her and pulling her round to face him he looked into her tear stained face. “Well that’s where you’re wrong,” he said firmly. “I do know. Sure, I don’t know exactly how you’re feeling right now, but I sure know the hell of losing a loved one that way.”

“You do?” she said her eyes opening wide in disbelief.

He nodded. “My fiancée was gunned down, died in my arms.” He sighed, the pain of remembering making the feelings suddenly raw again. “So you see I can understand.”*

 (* see “Loved, Lost, Survived” by Patty Wilkinson.)

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered and fell into his arms crying openly now.

After a moment, he pushed her gently away, and taking her by the hand, sat her down on a boulder by the water’s edge, and then sat down next to her. “I took it all real bad too,” he said softly. “Couldn’t eat or sleep… got myself real sick, even kept seein’ her. I figure I came damn near to endin’ it all too. Doc said I nearly died of a broken heart, just plumb wore myself down. He reckoned if I’d carried on that way, first chill or cold I got come winter…well I’d have got real sick and just died. Got no reserves left, you see, no fight in me — and I plumb didn’t care if I lived or I died.”

“What happened?”

“Slim happened. He talked some sense into me, helped me figure it all out… said somethin’ that changed the way I was thinkin’.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, he told me to go see what I’d written on her head stone.” Jess looked out to the distant hills across the river, in the direction of Laramie where Maria lay in the town cemetery. “’In my heart always and forever’,” he quoted. “That’s what I put on her headstone. And suddenly when I read it again, it all kinda made sense.”

Then he dragged his eyes away from the horizon and turned back to Lizzie. “See, she’s here,” he said gesturing to his heart, and then tapping his head, “and here, and so I ain’t never gonna forget her. I ain’t lost her — not really; she’ll be with me forever, until we’re reunited.”

Then he sighed deeply, and looked into Lizzie’s deep brown eyes. “But that’s gonna be when the good Lord decides it’s my time to go, Lizzie. It ain’t my decision to make — and it ain’t yours either. Takin’ your own life is one hell of a selfish thing to do. Think of Josh and Mary and all the other folk as care about you. That ain’t no way to act; it’s a coward’s way out and I don’t have you down as a coward.”

“Would you?”she asked, searching his eyes.

“Huh?”

“Would you care if I wasn’t here? Are you one of those folk you were talking about, that cares about me?”

He smiled down into her eyes. “Sure I am,” he said softly. “You know that; I care for you as a friend… as a real good friend.”

“Is that all?”

He nodded. “It has to be that way, Lizzie.”

“Why?” she whispered. “We were so good together that night we…”

“Hush,” Jess said quickly. “I told you before, that night never happened. It was Jamie you were makin’ love to, not me.” He sighed and looked into her eyes with compassion. “You don’t know me, Lizzie; I ain’t nothin’ like Jamie and I never could be.”

“That doesn’t matter anymore, Jess. I…I love you for who you are. That night we had together…I knew I loved you after that. We could try. Please, we could be good together; I’d make you happy.”

He shook his head looking anguished. “Hush sweetheart, don’t do this to yourself. It would never work. Jamie’s ghost would always be there between us. You’d look into my eyes and see him.”

“Jess?”

He shook his head. “I’m so different from him, Lizzie and if you give yourself time to get to know me, properly you’ll realize that. I’m real ornery, stubborn and gee I’ve got one hell of a temper, you’ve seen that already,” he said his eyes looking bleak. “I’m always takin’ off, landing in trouble, getting beat up or shot.”

“I don’t care,” she said,” I could deal with all that.”

“No, I don’t think you could, and I reckon it’s me as is to blame for what you tried to.”

She started to shake her head in denial. “No, you had every cause to shout at me that way. It wasn’t that that made me do it.”

“But it was my fault all the same; the way I figure it, seeing me, being so like Jamie in appearance, it brought all the pain of losing  him back, then looking deeply into her eyes… am I right?”

She looked back and then said softly. “That first time I saw you properly, I sat by the bed as you slept, and your face.” She  ran a finger lovingly down  his cheek. “It was so like his. You’re more tanned. Jamie had freckles across his nose…” and then her voice cracked and she broke down in tears again.

He held her close whispering gentle words of comfort until she managed to pull herself together.

Jess pulled back and looked at her with concerned eyes. “See sweetheart, it’s like I said; I’m no good for you. Do you want me to leave?”

“No!” she said quickly. “Please Jess, I do understand what you’re saying and maybe it couldn’t work between us,” and then she gave him a sad look, “but I sure could use a friend right now.”

Jess smiled down at her and his blue eyes twinkling said softly. “Well then I guess you’ve got one.”

 He stayed at the ranch for a few more days and when he wasn’t spending time with Lizzie, the two really getting to know each other, he was working alongside Josh, the two men having a good rapport.

When he had originally stayed with them, Jess had started breaking a big mean looking mustang Josh had acquired and now he decided to finish the job.

“Are you sure you’re fit for this boy?” Josh had asked. “I got the impression from Doctor Baker that you were still sick from that bang on the head.”

“Oh, I’m OK,” said Jess lightly, thinking that his check up with the doc was due at the weekend anyways and he’d doubtless give him a full bill of health.

The big black horse gave him a real run for his money alright, but it sure was good to be up on a wild mustang again pitting his wits and skills against the wild horse and even being thrown didn’t detract from that feeling of pleasure he always got from being at one with an animal.

However true to form, Jess didn’t hold back when  he was viciously thrown  for the third time in a row and let fire with a blast of expletives that turned the air blue.

Joshua who was leaning on  the corral fence merely smiled to himself, thinking how different this boy was from his own, who had never let an oath pass his lips all his days, well certainly not in front of his folks anyway.

Lizzie, who had been wandering across the yard with some washing to peg out, heard the strong language too and was shocked. But then Jess was full of contrasts as she was beginning to learn — kind and gentle, yet with a dangerous edgy side to him, polite and courteous to a fault in front of the women folk and yet  now earthy and rough in the work place. Then he amazed her yet again as he finished his tirade and returned to the recalcitrant horse, now talking softly and fondling the muzzle before jumping lightly back in the saddle.

She stood watching him as he gracefully stayed the course this time and mused on his mercurial character so at odds with Jamie’s predictable relaxed  persona. They were so different  and yet both so desirable in their own way, she though wistfully as she went about her chores.

That evening Jess and  Lizzie sat  out on  the porch drinking coffee long after Josh and Mary had retired for the night.

Jess was sitting with an arm held across his ribs where he had been thrown by the mustang  before he had finally tamed him, and come into sharp contact with the corral fence.

Lizzie gave him a concerned look. “Are you OK?”

“Oh sure, goes with the territory, a few cuts an’ bruises,” he said giving her his cheeky grin. “Was sure worth it; got the big fellah broke in the end. He should make a good mount  once he’s schooled on.”

“But you won’t be around to do that?”

“I guess not, but now he’s gentled, I figure Josh can manage, ”  Jess said thoughtfully, unsure that that was actually true, even as he said it. But what could he do? he couldn’t stay here indefinitely with the Ranch and Relay to run as well.

She just nodded and then looked to the darkening yard. “Jamie didn’t do much horse breaking, hated to do it. Said he couldn’t bear to see their spirits broken that way.”

“Um, me too, it don’t sit easy with a man taking a critter  from the wild and breaking his spirit.” Then he turned to look at  Liz, “but  every rancher has to do it  sometimes, just  to make ends meet. It’s what I do for a living and I figure I do it as easy as I can for the beasts.”

“Yes I noticed that,” she said. “How you are so gentle with them, feeding  them treats and talking nonstop. I’ve never seen a horse broke that way before; times I’ve watched it  has been  so brutal.”

“Called horse whisperin’,” he said softly. “A good friend of mine an Arapaho brave taught me when I lived with the tribe some years back.”

She looked across amazed again at the things he had done. “You have fitted so much in a short life,” she said, “and I so little.”

“Hey, you sound like your life’s over. You’ve got one heck of a lot of living to do yet. Why how old are you, twenty three….four?”

“Nearly twenty six.”

“That old eh,” he said teasing her a little. Then  sobering he said gently. You’ve got time to meet someone new, have that family you want so much, but you ain’t gonna find a good man stuck out here in the middle of nowhere Liz, I figure you should think of movin’ on.”

She turned fearful eyes on him. “Ooh how could I leave Mary and Josh? They’ve been so kind and they are all the family I have. Anyway what could I do?”

“I dunno. What did you do before you met Jamie?”

Her eyes lit up momentarily. “I was a teacher,” she said with a little sigh, “back east and I loved it, but then I met Jamie, who out visiting kin, and that was that. I gave it all up and moved out west.”

 Jess was silent for a long time, deep in thought then he turned to her. You know what, honey, I reckon this is your lucky day.”

She looked puzzled. What do you mean?”

Then he turned to her his face alight with excitement. “Well you won’t believe this but you know ol’ Slim my partner in the ranch?”

She nodded.

“Well he’s on the School Board and he was tellin’ me just the other day that they’d got problems with Jane Taylor the school teacher.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, well apparently Jane was sounding off something fierce, sayin’ as how she couldn’t cope come next term as there are just too many kids. See we had this sorta baby explosion a few years back and the kids are all startin’ school pretty soon. Well, Jane’s got all the big ‘uns and some of those boys can be kinda a handful,” he said with a grin. “And anyways, the upshot is that the Board is looking for a second teacher to help with the little ‘uns.”

“Do you think they’d consider me?” she asked looking up at Jess the light of hope in  her eyes.

“Well sure, why wouldn’t they? You’re a teacher ain’t you and they need one.”

“You make it all sound so easy.”

“Well it is, ain’t it. Jane has a spare room so you’ll have a place to stay and I’ll pop in every so often , check you’re OK.”

“Really, you’d do that?”

“Sure.” Then he looked across and said, “There’s been somethin’ botherin’ me, Lizzie, and I think this job  might be the answer to the problem.”

“Go on?”

“It’s Joshua; I’m kinda worried about him.”

She looked upset and turning to face the dark haired cowboy said. “What is it, Jess? He’s not sick is he?”

“Nah, nothing like that, but…well, he ain’t getting’ any younger and I’ve noticed he’s finding some of the work round here real hard… and to be honest, I don’t know how much longer he can run a spread like this without some help. Come winter, it’s gonna be real isolated up here. Hell, you can’t even cross the river at some times of year. What if one of them got sick?”

“I know, that worried me last year  when  we were snowed in for weeks, and I agree with you. I suppose there would be nothing to stop them moving back to town too; they still own their spread on  the outskirts. It’s just Mary, she was so upset after… well after we lost Jamie she swore she’d never set foot in town again.”

“Yeah, but that was over two years ago. Maybe she has had time  to change her mind. Guess I’ll talk to her tomorrow, see if I can persuade her. Yeah, you leave ol’ Mary to me,” he said with a grin.

*****

The following day he made the excuse of helping Mary wash the breakfast dishes and once they were alone he opened up to her.

“Can I talk to you?,” he started giving her his most charming smile. “Only as you know, Sam asked me to come out an’  try an’ help Lizzie… and well, I reckon I need your help.”

“Of course dear, just tell me. I’ll do anything to help the dear girl. She’s like our own daughter, you know that Jess.”

He took the elderly woman’s hand and gestured for her to sit at the kitchen  table with him and then still holding her hand he looked deep into her eyes. “See, it’s this way,” he started

When he explained how he felt a young  girl like Lizzie should be in  the town near people her own age, Mary had to agree, and then when he said he thought he could get her the teaching post that made the elderly woman begin to say yes, of course  they should let the girl go.

Then Jess played his trump card. He said  how worried he was about Joshua doing too much work at his age and the spread they had abandoned near town would be easier to run and much more convenient for the elderly couple too.

She looked like she was wavering, but, then. “No dear I couldn’t go back to town, although I do miss the convenience, and my friends, if I’m honest. Oh dear,” she said a wistful look in  her eyes.

“ I think it would be what Jamie would have wanted, you know, Ma,” he said gently.

At that one special word old, Mary’s heart melted. ‘Ma’ — the boy had called her Ma again. “You really think so, Jess?”

He nodded. “I do He wouldn’t have wanted you two out here all alone through the winter.”

She looked at him for a long time and suddenly her old face was  wreathed in smiles. “Lord love us, Jess Harper, you have the charm of the devil himself. Go on now, scoot. Go and fetch the old man and we’ll tell him  our plans.”

Jess leaned over, and planting a kiss on the old ladies cheek, said, “Sure, comin’ right up, Ma’am… before you change your mind,” and with a wicked wink he went in search of Joshua.

The two men had already discussed the subject of a move back to town and Josh was all for it, so it came as no surprise when Jess sought him out a little later.

“This place was my grandpappy’s, you know, boy, and I kept it on as I figured it would be nice for Liz and Jamie to run someday.” Joshua sighed. “But that isn’t going to happen now, so I figure I’ll sell out to that old rascal Bevan over the ridge.”

“Matt Bevan,” asked Jess. “He’s one of the biggest land owners in these parts.”

“Yeah, but he’s been after this little old place since my grandpappy died back in ’61. Wants the river frontage for fishing, as well as the prime grazing and woodland.”

Jess looked around him. “Should fetch a pretty good price.”

“Well, enough to fix up the old place in Laramie and afford a full time hand to help me out in my dotage too,” Joshua said chuckling and giving Jess a pertinent look.

“Hey, I never said you were past it — just in need of some help, that’s all.”

Joshua smiled. “Yes I know you mean well, boy, and you’re right. I’m not as fit as I once was, would be a real weight of my shoulders to have a young fellah around to help out, and well if it can’t be you,” he said with a quizzical look. “Guess I’ll have to look around.”

“Come on,” said Jess softly, “You know it would never work out between me and Lizzie. I’m not the marrying kind anyway,” he said with a grin, “but I may know a man as would suit you just fine.”

Then the two men heard Mary calling and went off to discuss the family’s future with her and Lizzie.

So it was that the decision was made.

Mary and Joshua would return to the old family home and Lizzie would have an interview with Jane Taylor and all being well, she should be able to start in the fall, living in the school teacher’s house alongside Jane and then going home to be company for the Atkins at the weekends and school holidays.

The following day was Saturday and Jess rode back to the ranch for his appointment with Doc Sam, and promised to fix up a meeting with Jane as soon as possible, then ride out and accompany Lizzie on the journey into Laramie.

As he left, Josh shook him warmly by the hand and said softly, “You may not be kin, Jess, but you’ve sure acted like it these last few days, lookin’ out for us all, and I’m humbly obliged to you, boy, that I am, as is my Mary. And as for Lizzie, well I guess you know how she feels boy.”

Jess smiled looking down, suddenly embarrassed. He swung gracefully up into the saddle and tipping his hat to Lizzie and Mary who had come out to wave him off, he kicked Traveler on out of the yard at a brisk trot heading for home, relief in his heart.

*****

When he arrived back at the ranch, Sam was already there chatting to Slim about the merits of his new fishing rod, but he put it to one side as Jess rode in and beaming up at him from where he sat on Traveler, said, “Well Jess boy, you’re looking pretty chipper. Let’s go check you over and then go see how the fish are biting today.”

The two men went off to the bedroom where Sam could examine him in privacy, but first he asked him various questions and Jess was able to say, no he didn’t have any headaches or double vision and he was feeling fine.

Then Sam asked him to unbutton his shirt and lie back on the bed so that he could listen to his chest, as Jess had also had a nasty cough since his near drowning due to all the water he had taken in. “Aw, Sam, do you have to? I’m fine now, really I am.”

“Jess… come on, sooner we’re done here, sooner we can get to the lake.”

After a minute, Jess relented, and on unbuttoning his shirt he lay back looking up at the ceiling the light of resignation in his eyes and waited for Sam to explode.

He didn’t have long to wait.

“Jess Harper, what in Hell did I tell you about getting back on a mustang!”

Jess cast innocent eyes on the doc. “A mustang?”

“Come on,  Jess, this severe bruising and abrasions to your ribs didn’t come from tripping up as you fetched the firewood in. You’ve been  thrown off a dang  mustang. It isn’t the first  time I’ve seen you injured this way, you know.”

“Ok, you win, Sam, maybe I did break a mustang for  old man Atkins, but hell he needed the help. I couldn’t stand around and watch an old man like that try and do it… now could I?”

Sam shook his head and finally smiled down at the young cowboy. “No, you couldn’t,” he said gently. Then with spirit, “But it’s a dang good job you didn’t fall on that head of yours, Jess. It may be hard but it will only take so much battering…and you don’t want to lose your  memory again do you?”

Jess looked startled. “Hell no, Sam!”

“Um… well just you behave yourself then.” After a minute, Sam smiled down at his friend. “I figure you pass as fit, but just slow up a bit huh, Jess… no heroics for a few days.”

“You got it!”

“So, how did you fare with the lovely Lizzie and family?”

Jess filled him in on all the latest news.

“Well, I’ll be. Well done. That’s an excellent result and just what Lizzie could do with, to be needed, and she sure will be kept busy with all those little ones,” Sam said grinning at his friend. “Be good for Josh and Mary to get back to town too,” he mused. Then he cast his mind to the present. “So let’s see if you’re on a roll and can catch a few big ‘uns for our supper,” Sam said chuckling, and with that the men went off to check out the fish in the lake, looking forward to a good afternoons sport.

*****

It was a week later when Jess accompanied Lizzie into town and introduced her to Jane Taylor and Lizzie was surprised and pleased to see that rather than the old harridan of a schoolmarm she expected.

Jane was petite bubbly, blond and had a wicked twinkle in her eye and an infectious giggle. She looked to be just a few years older than Lizzie and with her peaches and cream completion and baby blue eyes, she was quite a stunner.

The second surprise came once Jane opened the door. On seeing who was standing there, she had given a little scream of delight and the couple had embraced with Jess smiling into her eyes and kissing her fondly…and not in a brotherly way either.

After a moment, he extricated himself from Jane’s embrace and said, “Jane, I’d like you to meet Lizzie. She would be mighty interested in the teaching job; she qualified back east and is ready to start as soon as you like.”

Jane smiled at Jess’s enthusiasm, and then at Lizzie offering her hand and again giving her infectious little giggle. “Well hello Lizzie.” Then she said gently, “I think we need a little chat before you decide. When I dish the dirt on all my disgraceful students, you might change your mind. Come along in, my dear, we’ll have some coffee and cake and a good chat.”

Lizzie warmed to the other woman at once, and after arranging to meet Jess later, the two women went off arm in arm chatting animatedly and Jess grinned after them, knowing everything would work out real well.

He wasn’t far wrong either. Lizzie and Jane got on like a house on fire, quickly setting a date for Liz to move into the school house, within a few days, so that she would be on hand to help Jane prepare for the new term.

Lizzie was delighted by the turn of events, not least by the fact that she was be around in town and therefore able to see Jess on a regular basis when he came in, either doing the weekly marketing with Daisy or visiting the saloon  or the Sheriff, which she noted he did quite frequently.

Her little room at the top of  the school house afforded her a wonderful view of Main Street,  so she was able to see if Traveler was hitched up anywhere and then  casually make her way down  the town   accidentally ‘bumping into’ him on a regular basis.

If Jess noticed this subterfuge, he said nothing and was always kind and polite when they met up. He would ask after her health and new job, but go no further, although she hinted occasionally about seeing more of him; he didn’t offer to take her out, keeping their relationship purely platonic.

The day after Sam had given Jess a clean bill of health, Slim and Jess discussed Pete’s future at the ranch. “It’s a shame we can’t keep him on,” said Slim sadly. “He’s a damn good worker, but we can’t justify the wages. We’re only just keeping  afloat as it is, what with the bad weather we had last year and all.”

“Yeah, I know it’s a real shame we have to lay him off, but  I’ve been thinking. Slim. Ol’ Josh could do with a hand when he moves back to town at the end of the month. He can afford to pay reasonable wages. What say  I sound Pete out?”

And so later he had found Pete and told him of the opportunity.

In his usual measured way, the young man thought long and hard before replying. “Well that’s real good of you to think of me Mr. Harper, but I was kind of thinking of moving back closer to my Ma and Pa with them not getting any younger, that’s if I can find work over there,” he said looking anxious.

“Well why don’t you think on it,” said Jess kindly, knowing the young man never made snap decisions even over  whether he’d like a second slice of pie or not. “Well we can afford to keep you on until the end of the month and we were proposing to give ol’ Joshua and Mary a helpin’ hand setting their ranch to rights before they move back in. You can meet Josh then, work alongside him a while and see how you get on. But I’m tellin’ you, Pete, you’d go a long way to find a nicer boss… excepting me an’ Slim that is,” he said with his cheeky grin.

A few days later, Slim and Jess rode over to the Atkins place on the road into Laramie and introduced Pete to Josh and Mary and they took to the serious young man right away. Pete also seemed to like the elderly couple too and seriously began to consider their offer of foreman on the small spread, but it wasn’t until Lizzie called by after school one day that his mind was made up for him.

It was love at first sight…as far as Pete was concerned anyway. As the young woman walked into the yard, his jaw fell open and he was rendered speechless. Jess noticed and nudged Slim who was helping him mend the corral fence, and the two young ranchers looked on mischievously at their hired hand’s discomfiture, Lizzie being completely unaware, having eyes only for Jess as usual.

She walked over to Jess and Slim right away and beaming at them said, “I can’t thank you boys enough for helping out Josh; it’s made such a difference and I know Mary will be thrilled when she moves in  at the end of the week.”

“Well you’re welcome,” said Jess kindly and then walking across to where Pete was still gaping, he got hold of the young man by the arm and led him over. “I’d like to introduce you to Pete Valentine; he’s thinkin’ he might take the job of foreman here.”

Pete’s head swung round to Jess, and for once he looked totally dynamic. Oh I’m definitely taking the job, Mr. Harper, if Mr. Atkins is happy with me…definitely,” he said beaming across at Lizzie.

Liz dragged her eyes away from Jess and smiled at the sandy haired sincere young man in front of her and liked what she saw. “Well I’m really pleased, Pete, and I’m sure my father-in-law will be delighted to have you on board.”

“Thank you ma’am,” he whispered before wandering off back to his duties with a slightly dazed air and Jess had to hide a smile as he chatted away to Lizzie about the work they needed to do before moving day.

Later back at the ranch, Jess was grooming Traveler when Pete came into the barn and stood watching him, then after a while Jess began to feel uncomfortable and turning said, “Everything  OK, Pete?”

The young man shook his head, “Not really. San I talk to you Mr. Harper…about a personal matter?”

Jess gave him a quizzical look and tipping his hat back he said, “We’ll I dunno, Pete; I reckon that depends as to if you can bring yourself to call me Jess or not, because I don’t figure I can help you out if you keep callin’ me Mr. Harper. Makes me kinda nervous, you know. And anyways you won’t be workin’ for me soon. I won’t be your boss, so figure we can forget bein’ ‘business like’ now, can’t we?” he finished with a little smile.

The young man grinned across. “Sure and thank you, Jess.”

“So what’s on your mind?” asked the dark haired cowboy leaving his task and coming over to lean on the stall giving Pete his full attention.

Pete looked down blushing furiously and then said, “Well it’s about girls, Mr… Jess. I guess I need some advice and you sure seem to be the man to ask.”

“Oh really,” asked Jess looking surprised “How so…?”

“Well, all the girls seem to like you. Millie from the saloon is always asking after you when I go in of a Sunday… and that er… Miss Lizzie sure seems taken with you, and I just want to know how you do it. I mean, how do I get real friendly with them that way?” he finished staring hard at the floor like it was the most interesting view he had ever seen.

Jess grinned and then straightened his features, suddenly taking pity on this shy young man. “Well I dunno. Just be yourself I suppose, then listen to ‘em. Girls sure like to talk about things…..themselves mostly,” he said shaking his head in mock despair. “They like it if you show an interest, you know, notice their hair, a new frock that kinda thing, tell ‘em how cute they look. They sure like the sweet talkin’ do the ladies.” Then we smiled cheekily at the young man. “And then of course there’s the kissin’; guess it’s all in the kissin’.

“K…kissing? I haven’t done too much of that,” Pete stammered looking even more uncomfortable.

Jess’s eyebrows shot up and a look of incredulity crossed his handsome features. “Well I reckon it’s time you started then,” he said firmly.

“I couldn’t,” said Pete now kicking at an inoffensive bale of straw. “I wouldn’t know what to do…where to start….”

“You really do need help, don’t you,” said Jess smiling benignly at the young man.

Pete just nodded looking down, embarrassed.

Jess came out from  the stall and told Pete to sit and they both settled on straw bales and after a moment Jess said gently, “See it’s this way, Pete, you can’t really teach someone how to do all that stuff. I reckon when you feel close enough to a girl, well, it all happens kinda naturally.” He paused, his brows knitted before continuing. “I guess the only rule is always to be a gentleman. If a girl don’t like what you’re doin’, well she soon lets you know and that’s when you stop. But if she seems OK then you’ve got the green light and you just do what’s right for you both I guess. Takes time to romance a girl though, Pete… well the sorta girl you’d be goin’ with anyways, a nice young lady. Well, they expect you to behave like a gentleman…take things kinda slow”.

Pete just nodded. “Yes I figured that would be the way of things and I want to do it properly you know buy her flowers and all that…sweet talking and stuff… I really want to get it right…”

Jess nodded. “Sure, so who’s the lucky lady then?”

The sandy haired young man said nothing for a long time and then eventually whispered, “Lizzie, it’s Lizzie.”

“What!” cried Jess and then he remembered how Pete had been when he introduced them; of course, he could see it now.

Pete looked startled, “Heck Jess, am I treading on your toes. I didn’t know you were seeing her. I could see she likes you… a lot, but I didn’t know you were going with her.”

Jess shook his head emphatically. “I ain’t. No it ain’t that, Pete, but you should know she has some history. She lost her husband a couple of years back and I figure…well she ain’t really over it. You need to be real gentle with her; I wouldn’t like to see her hurt.”

“Oh heck no, Jess, I wouldn’t do that, I’m serious about her real serious.”

“So what are you gonna do about it then?”

Pete looked worried. “Well I don’t know… tell her how I feel maybe?”

“Or ask her out… maybe get to know her a bit before you declare undying love?” suggested Jess, a twinkle in his deep blue eyes.

“Er… ask her out?” Pete almost squeaked with fear.

 “Well it usually works for me. that way you get to talk to her… get to know her some,” said Jess with infinite patience…for him anyway.

“Oh… well I don’t know… er…”

“Pete, for goodness sake just ask her out. Look, there’s a dance on Saturday; me and Slim are going. Ask her if she’d like to come along too, say as how we’re all goin’…safety in numbers, that sorta thing… and then when you’ve got her there, well you can start romancin’ her see. It’s real easy buddy…trust me.”

So it was that Pete finally screwed up his courage to ask the beautiful Lizzie out.

She seemed a little unsure at first but when he did as Jess had suggested and told her that the others would be going as well, she seemed to relax and agreed to accompany the polite young man who her in-laws had taken such a shine to.

She had been secretly holding out, hoping that Jess would ask her, but when no invitation was forthcoming, she decided that if she accepted Pete’s offer, at least she would be able to see Jess and maybe get his attention back.

“So who are the others bringing?” she asked casually.

“Well I think Slim is bringing his girlfriend Betsy and then Jess will be with Millie, I figure.”

“Millie?” asked Lizzie her heart suddenly pounding as she desperately tried to sound unconcerned.

“Sure she works at the saloon; Jess always calls her his best friend, so I guess they’re just buddies,” he said.

Lizzie gave a small sigh of relief. ‘Just good friends’, sure she could deal with that, and once Jess saw the dress she would be wearing, well, he would succumb to her charms at last, she thought smiling to herself.

*****

The following Saturday evening found Slim and Jess in their best frock coats, smart trousers, highly polished boots and Sunday best Stetsons sitting in the saloon chatting to Betsy and Millie.

Jess had a sudden feeling of déjà vu as he cast his mind back a few short weeks ago to when the he had been plotting to set Betsy up with Slim and his mind reeled with all that had happened since.

Then he wondered what would have happened if he had never gotten his memory back, if little Mike hadn’t had the courage of his convictions and gone looking for him. A chill  of  fear running down his spine at the thought  of what might have been.

“Hey buddy I said it’s your round,” said Slim grinning across at him, then looking anxiously at the sadness in his friends eyes said , “Hey Jess…you OK?”

Then Jess suddenly realized that all eyes were on him, with varying looks of concern. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” he said quickly.

“Good. Thought you were going to pretend you didn’t know us all, to get out of buying your round,”  laughed Slim, trying to make light of the situation.

Jess grinned back. “Yeah, well I did think of that,” he said with a chuckle before going to fetch the drinks.

Later they walked off to the dance and as they entered the heaving noisy dance hall, Slim spotted Pete and Lizzie sitting over the far side and the group made their way over and sat with them.

“Well don’t you look lovely,” Slim greeted Liz, smiling down and then saying hello to Pete who was looking as nervous as a kitten.

Jess grinned across at her, thinking she looked very beautiful in the low cut pale lavender silk dress and her hair up in a becoming style, but just introduced her to Millie and Betsy and then he turned his attention back to Millie asking her something and didn’t see Lizzie’s face fall as he made no comment on her appearance.

Liz took a covert look at Jess’s date for the night and had to admit that with her glossy black hair curling around her shoulders and the tight fitting sea green dress she was wearing, Millie looked stunning. She hid a sigh and felt a stab of jealousy so strong that it took her breath away as she turned back to Pete.

Turning from the couple, Liz gave Pete all her attention and soon they were up on the dance floor, Lizzie making sure that Jess saw her snuggling into her partner and gazing adoringly up at him.

As for Pete, he had no idea that he was being used as a pawn in a vain attempt to make Jess jealous, any more than Jess was himself as he exchanged banter with his friends.

As the evening wore on, she became more and more frustrated by the blue eyed cowboy’s attitude. He was by no means rude to her and didn’t ignore her, but he was painstakingly polite and treated her as a pleasant acquaintance rather that the close friend…or the lover that she so wanted  him to be.

Then it happened, the opportunity she had been waiting for as the band struck up a Ladies Excuse Me. She quickly disengaged herself from Pete, and with a little murmur of “Excuse me a moment,” she was off at speed across the dance floor and tapping Millie on the shoulder, just a split second before another pretty giggling girl attempted to do the same thing.

Millie surrendered her date gracefully and went to sit out by Slim, both of them watching this latest turn of events with interest. Pete, however, was not as philosophical and returned to the table with a hangdog look and scowled into his beer for the remainder of the dance.

As soon as she was in his arms, Liz said, “What’s the matter, Jess?”

He looked down into her hurt brown eyes, surprised. “Nothin’. Why do you ask?”

“You’re very… well distant tonight. Have I upset you?”

He shook his head. “No of course not… it’s just, well, Pete is real keen on you and I figured Slim and me should back off, give you space so you could get to know each other.”

She considered this and then said. “Well he’s a nice young man… but not really my type.”

Jess said nothing just concentrated on the dancing.

After a while, she said softly, “I much prefer the dark haired, blue eyed moody sort myself.”

Jess sighed and looked down at her. “Pete’s a real nice guy if you’d just give him a chance, and like I said, he really likes you Lizzie.”

“And what about you?” she said softly, looking at him seductively from under her lashes before moving into a tighter clinch, knowing the tight fitting  low cut bodice would be irresistible. Then sure enough, she noticed his eyes momentarily drifting south before glancing away quickly, and she smiled to herself.

When he didn’t answer, she said, “Jess?”

“Lizzie, don’t do this. You know the way it is between us. Now just let it lay, will you?”

Then the dance was over and he escorted her back to the table a hand under her elbow steering her firmly back towards Pete before she could say more.

Surprisingly, the put-down didn’t deter her at all and she still felt she had a chance with him. She already knew he was a very passionate man and she had seen the surreptitious glance down at her figure and knew that he found her attractive. All I need to do is seduce him, she thought, and once he is in my bed, everything will be alright between us again.

The evening wore on. It was an oppressive sticky night, the heat in the dance hall almost unbearable and after a while Millie looked over at Jess and said, “It’s awfully warm, honey. Shall we get some air?”

As Jess’s eyes locked with Millie’s, Liz saw a fleeting look of desire and her heart missed a beat at the intimate glance that passed between the couple.

Then they were gone, Jess just giving Slim a small wink as he left, which Lizzie also saw.

Now her heart was pounding as she watched the couple leave hand in hand and disappear out through the door onto the back ally.

What was happening? Hadn’t Pete said they were just good friends, buddies?

She looked into space, feeling her heart hammering within her chest, all her best laid plans going awry and then she was suddenly brought back to the present when she realized Pete was speaking. “Sorry… pardon?”

“I said is everything alright,” asked a concerned Pete. “You’ve gone kind of pale.”

She suddenly felt a stab of guilt. This perfectly kind pleasant young man was being used and she felt shabby and very embarrassed. She smiled warmly across at him. “Oh I’m fine. Shall we dance again?” and was rewarded by a huge grin.

“Yes Ma’am,” he said as he offered his arm and the couple moved off in the direction of the dance floor again.

When they returned, Jess and Millie were back and as the pace of the evening hotted up they were claimed by numerous other partners, both seeming to be equally popular with the opposite sex, whereas Slim and Betsy stayed together either dancing or  talking softly to each other holding hands.

As the evening progressed, Lizzie’s fears about the relationship between Jess and Millie lessened and she began to think she had imagined that familiar glance they had shared earlier.

Jess even claimed Betsy for a dance and Slim looked on happily.

Pete had gone to the bar and Lizzie threw Slim a quizzical look and then said quietly, “Don’t you mind?” Tipping her head to where Jess and Betsy were cavorting around the dance floor having the time of their lives.

He looked across surprised. “Why should I?”

“Well that is your partner flirting outrageously with your girlfriend,” she said primly, again a little jealous that he hadn’t laughed and made eyes at her that way.

Slim glanced back at her. Heck that’s just Jess, way he is. He doesn’t mean anything by it; he’s just having a bit of fun is all.”

Then the couple returned, Jess holding Betsy’s hand before thrusting her towards his best friend. “Here, have her back. she’s way too lively for me, Slim; near wore me out,” and they laughed together, Millie and Betsy joining in.

Then finally it was the last slow dance of the evening, and Jess and Millie had eyes only for each other and as Pete guided Lizzie around the dance floor, not holding her too tightly and being the perfect gentleman , she watched as Jess held Millie closely. One hand was gently stroking her back and her head was resting on his shoulder, then he bent down and kissed her gently on the top of her head and Lizzie had to look away, feeling a pain in her chest like she had been stabbed.

Then it was all over and they were outside on the sidewalk in the cool of the evening all taking their leave of each other.

Pete had taken Lizzie’s hand and had offered to walk her home.

“I’ll come part of the way with you,” said Slim,” I’ve got to drop Betsy off at her folks place just down the street a way.”

Pete nodded. “Fine, glad of the company,” as now the evening was over his knees were knocking with the prospect of a goodnight kiss. Should he… shouldn’t he?

Then just as they were going, Slim turned back to Jess and Millie. “You staying over, buddy?” he said softly, but not so quietly that Lizzie didn’t hear and her head shot up and she strained her ears to hear the answer.

Jess just put an arm around Millie and the two exchanged a look so charged with intimacy that this time Lizzie knew she had not mistaken it.

“Yeah,” Jess said quietly, “See you tomorrow, Slim,” and with that he said a little louder, “’night all,” and turning he took Millie’s hand and they walked slowly off towards the saloon together.

*****

When they arrived at the School House, Lizzie produced a key and unlocked the door and then turning back said softly, “I’d ask you in, but it’s kind of late.”

“Oh sure, I wouldn’t want to impose, ma’am…er, Lizzie, and thank you for a lovely evening…I er I…”

She looked up at his kind innocent face and suddenly had a great surge of warmth towards him. She could see how nervous he was around women and that reminded her of Jamie, how he was when they first met.

Then he was close and taking her hands again he said very softly, “Goodnight then”… and after a moment, he reached down and kissed her very softly.

Something in his kiss was so evocative she felt a moment’s dizziness, and as he pulled back and looked into her eyes she smiled up at him. That kiss it was so like Jamie — hesitant, but oh so tender and for a moment her heart melted. “Goodnight,” she whispered and turning she went inside closing the door quietly.

She leaned with her back to the door her heart thumping within her chest and her mind in turmoil.

That kiss, so like coming home, so safe, so full of promise. But then something else suddenly flashed into her mind, the time by the river when Jess had first kissed her, so tenderly, but with that mixture of danger and excitement and she was lost.

She walked into the parlor and adjusted the night light Jane had left burning for her and collapsing into one of the large shabby old armchairs, she put her head in her hands and wept.

After a few minutes, she heard Jane call out. “I’m just making cocoa. Would you like some,” then she entered the room and took in her friend’s obvious distress. “Why Lizzie, whatever is the matter?” she asked as she ran in and crouching down by her took her hand squeezing it gently. “Tell me, my dear, who has upset you?”

Over the few weeks they had been working together, the two girls had become very close and although Jane hadn’t said anything, she was fully aware of Lizzie’s feelings for Jess. Her sudden dashes out to Main Street to do some urgent marketing and then her return flushed and excited saying , “Guess who I bumped into,” had alerted Jane to her new friend’s infatuation.

Now looking down at the tearful face, Jane said softly, “Go and get ready for bed and then we can sit by the fire with our cocoa. I think we need to talk.”

Lizzie did as she was bid and shortly both girls were relaxing in front of the fire a mug of cocoa a piece.

Lizzie still remained silent, just looking into the flames and after a while Jane said softly, “It’s Jess, isn’t it.”

Lizzie’s head shot up at his name and after a moment knew she had to confide in her friend. She nodded. “I think I love him, but he won’t commit…won’t go out, nothing.”

Jane gave her a sad smile. “That sounds like Jess.”

Then Lizzie suddenly remembered that little cry of delight when Jane and opened the door to see Jess and Liz standing there and the way he had kissed her. Her eyes opened wide in shock. “You too?” she asked. “Have you been out with him, Jane?”

Jane gave her a sad smile. “Oh yes I’ve been out with Jess. We were really close, but…”

“But?”

“Well   I guess I wanted more. We dated for several months and we were inseparable; I thought we could make a go of things and I wanted to get married, have children, but Jess….”

“Why, why is he like that? I don’t understand.”

Jane shook her head sadly. “You have to really get to know him to understand and he’s not an easy man to know, very proud, very private, and he’s got so much history, Lizzie,” she said looking acutely sad. “So much bad stuff,” she added looking off into the distance. Then her mind came back to the present. “Well in answer to your question, I figure it was all about Maria. Did you know his fiancée was gunned down in cold blood in front of him?”

Lizzie nodded. “I kind of felt that brought us closer together, seeing as how I suffered something similar.”

“Oh yes, of course,” and Jane squeezed her friend’s hand again. “That must have been terrible.”

Liz just nodded. “So go on, he took it very badly?”

Jane nodded. “I knew him quite well at that time because of teaching Mike, and after her death I saw him at the funeral and he looked awful then,” she said turning to look at Liz. “But then I saw him a few weeks later and…” She sucked in a deep breath. “I hardly recognized him. He’d lost so much weight, had a sort of haunted look in his eyes, it was tragic to see him that way.”

“Anyway,” Jane said with a deep sigh, “je finally seemed to turn it around with his friends support, Slim Daisy and Mike and Millie of course.”

At Millie’s name, Liz felt that familiar stab of jealousy, but said nothing.

Jane turned to give Liz a tight smile. “After a long time, he started dating again and we got together, but he just wasn’t ready to love again, not properly…to commit completely.” And then turning sad eyes on her friend, “and I don’t think he ever will, you know, Liz…at least not for a very long time.”

Lizzie’s head shot up then and she said bitterly, “What about Millie then. He’s with her now, you know…making love to her now,” she whispered the tears flowing again as she brushed them angrily aside with the sleeve of her nightdress.

Jane patted her back in a kindly gesture. “Oh well, Millie is different; she’s his best friend…”

“Best friend and lover,” she spat.

Jane sighed and  said gently, “What you have to remember about Jess and Millie is that they go way back, knew each other as kids  and she is a rock for him and vice versa. They hang out together all the time if neither is dating anyone else, and yes I guess Jess does love her in his own way. But you see the thing is, Lizzie, Millie doesn’t expect… doesn’t want…any more from him. They are both happy with a casual open relationship; it suits them both, and I wouldn’t challenge that. He’s very protective of Millie. I heard him say once that if she chose to share her bed with him on occasion, it was nobody’s damn business but their own…and I guess I can see his point.”

“So you’re not jealous?” asked Liz in a small voice.

Jane gave a genuine laugh now. “Heck no. You see, I moved on and I’m engaged to the most wonderful man, Henry. He’s back east on business right now, but you’ll meet him in the fall…so you see, Liz, there is life after Jess Harper and I guess you just have to move on too.”

Then Lizzie started crying again. “I can’t, I just can’t…the way he kisses…makes love…I just can’t forget him, Jane.”

“You’ve been lovers?” asked Jane looking even more concerned for her friend now with this latest revelation.

She just nodded. “I just want him back; I know I could make him happy… please Jane, help me,” she said softly.

*****

Early the following morning, Jane dressed and let herself quietly out of the School House and made her way down the road to the livery where she had espied Jess heading as he had left the saloon a few minutes earlier.

When she entered the dimly lit building, she saw Jess in Traveler’s stall and on looking up and seeing her, he grinned and walked over. “What are you doing up so early on a Sunday,” he said with his cheeky grin. “As I remember, you used to like a lie in at the weekends.”

“Jess Harper, don’t you be so cheeky,” she admonished him, but with a twinkle in her blue eyes. “Anyway that was a long time ago; I’m a respectably engaged lady now”.

“That you are,” said Jess smiling broadly. “And how is Henry?”

“Oh just fine, home in the fall.”

Jess nodded and then gave her a questioning look.

“We need to talk Jess. About Lizzie.”

Jess swore softly. “What’s wrong,” he asked looking worried. “She ain’t gone and harmed herself again, has she Jane?”

Jane shook her golden curls. “No… at least not yet, but she’s really upset Jess and I guess… well it’s down to you,”she said suddenly looking serious.

“Oh hell,” he whispered, “what she been sayin’ now?”

“Jess, I’m serious; she is obsessed with you.’

“Jane, this ain’t my fault. She’s got this crazy idea I look like her late husband, that’s what it’s all about. She just took one look at me and saw… well she saw him. She knows nothing about me and if she did, she’d realize I’m nothing like her Jamie in character. He was committed, steady, and dependable, the strong silent type, real gentle and placid. Hell, nothin’ like me, you know that Jane. It would just never have worked and she knows that if she’s honest; she’s just kiddin’ herself if she says different.”

“Well, if you feel that way, and knowing she was still grieving for Jamie, maybe it would have been better if you hadn’t led her on then,” she said somewhat tartly.

“Huh?”

“Led her on to think you could make a go of things together.”

He still looked blank.

She sighed in frustration. “By sleeping with her, Jess. Maybe you shouldn’t have taken a vulnerable woman like that to bed if you’d had no intentions of forming a proper relationship.”

Suddenly the penny dropped and Jess went pale and his eyes darkening in anger. “Now hang on a minute here. What’s she been tellin’ you?”

“Just that, how she can’t forget your kissing, your love making and then when you went off with Millie last night, she nearly broke her heart crying for hours.”

Jess looked down and shaking his head muttered something under his breath, before saying softly, “Come here, Jane,” and gesturing to a straw bale she sat down and he sat down next to her. “Did she tell you why we slept together?”

Jane shook her head. “No.”

He sighed deeply and then taking her hand said quietly, “I had that amnesia, you remember. Didn’t know who the hell I was, where I was …couldn’t remember a darn thing and that’s real scary, Jane.”

She nodded looking sympathetic. “Go on.”

“Well Lizzie told me I was her husband — and Josh and Mary did too. Said I was their son, treated me that way too, and I didn’t know any different. I was sick, Jane, real sick, and I just had to trust them.” He looked off into space, remembering that terrible time — the fear, the worry.

“Anyways somewhere along the way, I think Lizzie figured that if I bedded her, I would genuinely fall in love and so, well, all the deviousness would have been  worth it. Ma and Pa lit off for a few days, to give us some space to start afresh, and well…one thing led to another and yes, we did sleep together, as husband and wife, or so I thought.”

She gave him a shocked look, but said nothing.

“Anyways the next morning, I remembered Millie, couldn’t place her, but knew she was real important to me. And then Mike found me and it was all over; I finally remembered everything and her game was up.”

Jane was looking white with shock. “How could they do that to you? I had no idea. Oh Jess, I am so sorry.”

“Hey, it’s OK,” he said squeezing her hand which he still held. “And Jane, don’t go getting mad at Lizzie for this. She was …is still grieving for Jamie; loss can make you do crazy things. I guess I know that as well as anyone. “

She nodded throwing him an understanding look. “You are a good man Jess Harper,” she said softly.

He squeezed her hand again and then let it go and stood up. “Keep an eye on her for me, will you. Jane. And I reckon all we can do is just let her feelings run their course. She’ll soon wake up to what a totally bad lot I am and then ol’ Pete there will seem like the perfect match,” he said with his cheeky grin.

*****

He was riding out of town at a brisk trot when Mort ran out of his office and waylaid him. “Can you spare me a minute, Jess?” he asked looking serious.

“Sure, Mort,” and he slid down from the saddle and walked into the office with his friend.

“What’s wrong with everyone this morning up so darned early?” Jess asked, grinning at the Sheriff, then going over to the stove to help himself to coffee. He turned and gestured with the pot, but Mort shook his head, so the cowboy went and sat down opposite him and took a welcome sip.

“I’m in so early because I’ve got a prisoner in the back,” Mort said tipping his head towards the cells. “Seems to think he deserves breakfast,” he continued in a voice loaded with sarcasm and slightly raised so the outlaw would hear him.

Jess grinned across the desk. “So what’s he done then, Mort?”

“Only robbed the Delaney place last night, murdered old man Delaney and half scared his wife to death”.

Jess gave a low whistle. “The bastard. Gee, they must be in their 70’s. What low life would do that?”

“The one in there,” said Mort,” and I’m taking him to Cheyenne tomorrow for a trial and to get his just deserts.”

“Good,” said Jess with feeling.

“Well I’m not too sure you’ll be saying that in a minute. You see I need cover for a few days. Any chance you or Slim could oblige?” he asked giving his friend a pleading look.

Jess grinned across. “Well, I don’t know, Mort; depends on what the going rate is right now. I seem to remember it was three of Miss Molly’s meals and use of your hot tub, last time I covered for you.

“Still stands,” said Mort with a grin, “plus your pay. So are you up for it then Jess?”

Jess nodded. “Just have to check with Slim, but reckon one of us will help you out.”

“Gee thanks, buddy,” Mort said with a warm smile. Then he sobered. “Oh, bit of news you need to know, Jess… Slim too. It’s about that Denny Jackson”

“He’s dead, Mort, dontcha remember? Darn fool fell off of his horse when he was tryin’ to abduct Daisy and Mike. Got his head stove in. Heck Mort, it was me that had the memory loss!”

“There ain’t nothing wrong with my memory, you cheeky young buck. If you’d let me finish…”

“OK get on with it, Mort; Daisy will have my breakfast coolin’ on the table by now.”

“So, as I was saying Denny Jackson’s  brother and  two cousins are apparently gunning for you me and Slim again, aim to finish off what Denny started. “

Jess went pale. “What take Daisy and Mike?”

“No, nothing like that. The word on the street is that they want to take us on and by all accounts both cousins have got themselves quite a reputation as gunslingers. They’re holed up in Cheyenne at the moment, so I aim to have a word with them with the Sheriff there, but just watch your back, Jess. There is no knowing what those troublemakers will get up to.”

As it turned out, Slim and Jess decided to toss a coin to determine which one of them would go to town to cover for the Sheriff, and it was Jess who won — or lost, according to your perspective.

 Miss Daisy would prefer neither of her beloved boys to be put in the potentially dangerous position, and Mike especially didn’t want Jess to go as he wanted to watch him working the new batch of mustangs.

However, the lure of three good meals at Miss Molly’s café, use of the tub and not to mention proximity of Millie just down the road was enough to persuade Jess that he had got the best deal.

As he was up on Traveler and about to ride out of the yard, Slim walked over and grinning said, “Don’t you go staying in that hot tub too long, pard; you might dissolve clear away.” Then looking more serious. “Watch your back, Jess; if Chuck Jackson and his cousins are on our trail… I’ve heard they are fast, Jess, real fast, and we don’t want to tangle with them if we can help it.”

“Don’t worry, Slim; Mort’s on the case. He’s gonna speak to them with the Cheyenne Sheriff. Reckon they’ll back down once they know the law is watchin’ them.”

“Umm, I hope so; see you later in the week. I’m bringing Daisy and Mike in on Saturday for supplies so we’ll catch up then.”

“OK, see you then, buddy,” said Jess giving him a little salute and he rode out of the yard at a brisk trot.

**********

If he thought he was in for an easy time in town, laying around in the tub and stuffing his face at Miss Molly’s place, then he was sadly mistaken. It was only a few hours after Mort had ridden out on the stage with his prisoner that all hell was let lose.

A large group of wranglers rode into town and headed for the saloon, hot and dirty after eating trail dust for over a month. All they wanted to do was get drunk and find a girl apiece, but unfortunately they had chosen the wrong town.

 As soon as old Tom told them that he ran a clean establishment with no working girls, they started to cut up rough and decided to rearrange his furniture some. When one of them took out his hand gun and started taking pot shots at the oil lamps, Tom ran for the Sheriff.

The scene of destruction that met Jess when he marched in holding his rifle made his blood boil. There was actually very little damage apart from the broken lamps, but the men had now turned their attention to the saloon girls and one had Millie in a vise-like grip and was trying to kiss her as she struggled to get free.

Jess discharged the shot gun to get their attention and then pointed it at the belly of the one holding Millie and barked, “Leave her alone, Mister, else I’ll blow you goddamn brains out where you stand.”

The man dropped Millie like she was burning him and backed off. “Hey I didn’t mean no harm, Deputy. Me and the lads were just havin’ some fun, you know?”

“Yeah, I know,” spat Jess, “and you can just go and have it someplace else.”

“Sure, sure,” said the spokesman eyeing this furious looking law man with respect, and picking his hat up from the bar made a move to leave.

“Just a minute,” said Jess. “Who shot up the lamps? “

The man turned. “Guess that was down to you, Curly.”

A vicious looking hombre with red curly hair came forwards. “What about it?”

“You’ll pay for ‘em,” snapped Jess, “or spend a spell in the jailhouse.”

“How much?” Curly snarled.

Jess put the shotgun down on the bar. “Tom?”

“Five dollars should cover new lamps and fittings an’ all, Jess.”

“Ok, let’s have it ‘Curly’,” said Jess sarcastically.

The man muttered and finally threw the money on the bar.

“Thanks,” said Jess, “now get out of town, the lot of you.”

The men had all started to file out, leaving Curly the last to go and then he suddenly turned back and drew on Jess, but Jess’s iron was in his hand and he shot the man in the arm in one fluid movement,  almost too  fast for the eye to see.

There was a collected intake of breath from the remaining wranglers, none of which had ever seen the like before.

“Gee mister, how did you learn to draw that way?” asked one of the men, looking hugely impressed.

“Necessity,” said Jess succinctly. “Now anyone else like to try or we all done here?”

“We’re leavin’,” said the man, and supporting Curly, they made their way slowly to the door and then a little while later they could be heard riding out.

Jess strode over to where Millie stood by the stairs, her eyes huge with fear, and took her in his arms. “You OK, sweetheart?” he whispered.

She nodded. “Yeah, thanks Jess; I don’t know what happened. They just suddenly went mad when Tom said we weren’t working girls,” she replied still shaking a little.

Jess hugged her close for a moment and then pulled away a little. “They won’t be back, but I’ll pop in and check on you later, OK?”

She nodded. “OK honey, thanks.”

He returned to Mort’s office, and five minutes later he had his feet up on the desk, reading the local rag and enjoying some of Mort’s gut rot coffee when the door burst open and Lizzie flew in.

He stood up abruptly and putting his cup and paper aside cast her a worried look. “What’s up, Liz? Problem at the school?”

She shook her head and ran over clasping his arms and looking beseechingly up at him. “One of the mothers came to collect a child who’s sick and said there had been some shooting in the saloon and she saw you go in alone. Oh Jess, are you alright?”

He looked down to where she still clasped his arms tightly, and gently pulling free, went and put the desk between them. Sitting down, he pushed his hat back and gave her a quizzical look. “No need to start your frettin’,” he said quietly. “Just doin’ my job. I’m deputing for Mort for a few days is all, and it was just a bit of a ruckus in the saloon. Nothin’ to worry about.”

She was deathly pale and she sank down on the seat opposite. “Well I do worry; you could have been shot,” she said tears welling up in her eyes now.

Jess felt his patience wearing thin. “Aw heck, Lizzie, will you stop takin’ on so. I’m just doin’ my job, and that’s what you should be doin’ too, I guess. It ain’t fair leavin’ Jane with all those kids.”

Her head shot up at that. “No, you’re right,” and standing up quickly she turned to go. “I’m sorry, Jess. I just can’t help caring about you,” and with that, she fled from the office and ran off down the street back to the school.

Jess shook his head and whispering, ‘Women’ darkly to himself, put his feet back up on the desk and shaking the paper out went back to his reading.

From then on, Lizzie seemed to haunt the place, constantly popping in with home-baked cake or a tit bit of gossip and she nearly drove him crazy as she constantly checked up on him.

“She’s worse than Daisy on a bad day,” Jess said to Millie later in the week as he took his ease having a quiet beer at the end of the day. “Figure this is the only place I’m safe,” he said grinning across at the dark haired saloon girl.

“Aw, and there’s me thinking you just came in here to see me, Jess Harper,” Millie said with a twinkle in her eye.

Jess grinned back. “Yes well, there is that too. So when’s Tom lettin’ you off tonight? Thought I might treat you to dinner at the hotel.”

Millie looked surprised and gratified. “To what do I owe that honor?” she asked lightly.

He smiled back at her. “Oh I dunno, just appreciate you, I guess, way you never fuss me. I reckon apart from ol’ Slim, you’re the only one that doesn’t start creating when I get myself in a bit of trouble,” he said smiling broadly at her now.

“Well that’s only because I’ve known you so long that I realized there is no point in fretting, because you’ll still go getting  beat up or shot no matter what I say, so it’s easier to just let you get on with it and help pick up the pieces later,” she said with a grim smile.

Jess beamed at her and leaning over the bar gave her a gentle kiss. “That’s my girl,” he said fondly, before calling for Tom and asking him if he could take Millie off.

An hour later, they were sitting in a secluded corner of the hotel dining room, bathed in candle light and Jess was holding her hand across the table and smiling into her eyes as she recounted a funny story, and that was how Pete and Lizzie found them, as they entered and took their place at a table on the other side of the room guided by the ancient waiter.

Jess and Millie where completely oblivious to the newcomers and only had eyes for each other.

After a minute, Lizzie nodded across to the young couple, pretending she had just noticed them, although in reality her heart had missed a beat as she entered the room and at once saw them, Jess tenderly holding Millie’s hand. “Oh look, Jess and Millie. Shall we join them?” she asked.

Pete looked over and then smiled back at his date. “No, they don’t look much like they want company right now,” he said softly, leaning over and daringly taking her hand. “Besides I’d kind of like you all to myself,” he said softly and her heart melted at his old fashioned charm — for a moment. Then she looked over at the young couple and gave a little sigh before turning back and smiling at Pete. “Shall we order?”

Later as they were leaving, Jess noticed Pete and Lizzie, but seeing they were deep in  conversation, merely touched his hat as he passed them and then hurried Millie out.

“Well I’m glad to see Pete is still trying for her affections,” said Millie with a little giggle as they walked down the street. “Gives you a break anyway.”

“Aw Mill, it ain’t funny; she’s near drivin’ me crazy with her fussin’ and frettin’.”

“Oh poor little Jesse Harper,” she said with a mock pout. “Shame you have to play Sheriff or I could try and take your mind off it some,” she said giving him a daring look form under her lashes.

“Hey now ma’am, you would be tryin’ to lead an upstanding man of the law astray would you?” he asked feigning shock.

“Maybe,” she whispered reaching up and brushing his lips gently with her own.

Jess kissed her back very firmly before pulling back.

They had reached the Sheriff’s office and he said softly, “Hang on a minute, Millie,” and disappearing inside he returned a moment later with a notice which he pinned to the door.

FOR ATTENTION OF SHERIFF BETWEEN THE HOURS OF 11PM-7AM PLEASE CALL AT SALOON-THANK YOU.

“Oh Jess,” she whispered, “you can’t…”

“Sure I can. You want me to stay over, don’t you?”

“Well, of course I do…”

He leaned down and kissed her again very thoroughly. “Well then what are you waitin’ for?” and taking her arm they walked on down the street and up the back staircase of the saloon to Millie’s cozy room.

*****

A little after seven the following morning, Lizzie walked down the street carrying a clean tea towel containing half a dozen freshly baked biscuits.

Jane had waylaid her as she left and said patiently, “Don’t you think you’re spending a bit too much time bothering Jess?”

Lizzie looked surprised. “I’m not bothering him, just taking some breakfast over. I’m sure he doesn’t eat properly and drinks far too much of that dreadful stuff the Sheriff passes off as coffee,” she said cheerfully. “Besides, Jane, I may not know Jess as well as you do, but I do know he likes his food. I won’t be long,” and with that she had skipped off down the street a happy smile on her face.

Jane watched her sadly, knowing the girl was deluding herself. Only that morning she had called Jess Jamie by mistake and it wasn’t the first time either. She sighed deeply. Someone had to try and make the young woman see sense she thought, before she was hurt.

Liz seemed to still think of Jess as Jamie, even if it was only unconsciously, and Jane knew that secretly Liz wanted to trap Jess into a relationship and then try and change him into being more like her beloved Jamie, but Jane also knew it just wasn’t going to happen.

Jane knew of old that Jess Harper was not one to be tamed and certainly not by the likes of Lizzie, who he thought of with sympathy, but little else. Then she wondered how long Jess would put up with Liz chasing after him before he lost his temper. She knew he had tried very hard to be patient knowing that the woman was still grieving and he understood all about that, but even so…

When Lizzie arrived at the Sheriff’s office to find the door locked and a note pinned to it, she reeled back in shock as she read it and realized the implication. Jess had spent the night with Millie again.

She had successfully managed to erase the night after the dance from her mind, telling herself that Millie was just a friend and therefore not really in the running for a serious future with Jess.

But now she cast her mind back to last night and how intently he had been looking at her, holding her hand and not even noticing her and Pete’s presence. Now this…and she gave a little cry and ran back down the street, slamming the school house door behind her before running straight up to her room, where she stayed until it was time for work.

Lizzie spent the whole of the day brooding and was in a very bad temper, reducing several of the infants to tears and Jane had to come in and remonstrate with her.

“I don’t know what the matter is, Liz, but you can’t take it out on the children. So just sort it out please.”

“I’m sorry, Jane; it won’t happen again. It’s just…”

“What, dear?”

“Oh nothing,” and Lizzie went back to the children, promising them a story.

Jane watched her, and shaking her head, wondered if she should approach Jess and see if he could do something, before shrugging and going back to her own class and the problems of long division.

Jane tried to talk to Lizzie again that evening, but she merely said she would deal with the problem and Jane wasn’t to worry.

Early the following morning, Lizzie made her way down the street to the livery as she knew Traveler was stabled there and it was Jess’ way to go over first thing and groom and feed his mount before losing him out in the field behind the stables. She had watched out for him, and as soon as she saw him on his way, she checked her appearance in the looking glass before running lightly down the stairs and making for the livery.

As she entered, Lizzie saw him standing in the stall petting his horse and giving him a sugar lump, and her heart started beating faster as she  watched him looking so handsome and strong and yet so gentle, the combination making her feel almost dizzy with desire. He suddenly looked up and saw her standing there in the shadows and she so made her way over  noticing the wary look in his eye, but ignoring it as she moved forwards, now determined to carry out her plan.

“Jess, can we talk?” Lizzie asked, looking across at the cowboy a beseeching look in her eyes.

He sighed softly, but leaving his horse he came out of the stall and went and stood in front of her. “Sure, what’s on your mind?”

“Just this,” she said quietly and then putting her hands on his shoulders, she reached up and kissed him lingeringly on the mouth.

Her lips were warm and inviting and as she put a hand behind his head pulling him closer Jess responded for a moment before pulling back and looking deep into her eyes. “What was that for?” he asked quietly.

“Because I love you and I need you to know that, Ja… Jess.”

He suddenly looked furious. “Hell Lizzie, I’m not Jamie. How many times do I have to tell you I ain’t Jamie and I never can be, no matter how much you want it.”

Her eyes opened wide. “I want you.”

“No, no you don’t; you want Jamie and he’s dead,” he shouted. “He’s dead Lizzie and you have to face it!”

She stared at him in shock, like he had struck her, and he immediately felt guilty. “Look, I’m sorry Liz, but you have to face up to it. It’s no good you feeling this way about me. It ain’t real, sweetheart, and nothing can ever come of it. Look how you’ve been this week — fussin’ and worryin’ yourself sick over me. That’s no way to live your life. Just try and make a go of things with Pete Valentine; he’s a good man — far better than me, Lizzie — and he really cares for you too.”

She just stood staring at him, shaking her head, the tears now streaming down her face before turning on heel and running out of the livery and down the street, like the very devil himself was after her.

Jess turned back to his horse, and on entering the stall, threw an arm across his mounts back and leaned his head down on it for a moment, his heart pounding and he took several deep breaths before pulling his head up and looking in the direction she had gone, wondering if he should go after her. But after a minute, he decided against it, figuring he would only make matters worse and so he carried on tending his horse, albeit with an aching heart.

He spent the day going about his Sheriff’s duties, but the town was quiet and peaceful, and other than having to remove a sad old drunk from the saloon at lunchtime, the day was his own. However, the more he sat at Mort’s desk, with his feet up drinking coffee, the more time he had to reflect on the early morning events, and so by the time school was out, he could stand it no longer and decided he had to unburden himself by talking to Jane and also take the opportunity of finding out how Lizzie was.

He knew that the infants finished half an hour before the older children, and that it was Lizzie’s habit to go over to the school house kitchen and start preparing their supper while Jane finished her classes in the school and tidied up before going home next door.

As Jess entered the lobby, Mike cannoned into him, and seeing his friend, his little face lit up in a huge grin. “Hey Jess I wasn’t expecting you. Are you comin’ home today? We’ve been missing you something fierce back at the ranch.”

Jess bent down and gave the child a warm hug. “Sorry not yet, Tiger. Mort ain’t due back until Sunday, maybe Monday… but I’ll see you at the weekend when Slim brings you and Daisy in for the shoppin’.”

“OK,” said the youngster, then Billy his pal was by his side. “You coming, Mike? The stage won’t wait you know.”

“Sure, see you Jess,” and with that the youngster tore down the street after his friend.

“You take care,” called Jess smiling after him.

“Yeah, you too,” Mike threw over his shoulder and disappeared up into the stage where he and Billy fought good naturedly for the best seat.

When Jess entered the school room, it was empty save for Jane sitting at her desk marking some books.

She stood up and smiled at him as he walked in. “You’ve just missed Mike.”

“Nah, it’s OK I saw him in the lobby. Anyways, I’m not here about Mike. I need to talk to you, Jane.”

“Oh, yes, of course … about Lizzie?”

He nodded and she gestured to a chair up on the dais next to her.

Jess walked up, and straddling the chair, laid his arms along the back and rested his chin on them, looking across, his deep blue eyes full of concern.

“I don’t know what you said to her, Jess, but she was in such a state that I had to send her home to her in-laws place,” she said gently, sitting down opposite him.

“Oh hell…er, I mean, heck, I’m sorry, Jane; that must have been real difficult for you.”

“I’m not worried about that, Jess. I had the babies in here with me and some of the older girls helped me, but she just couldn’t stop crying and it was scaring the young ones. So I’ve told her to take the tomorrow off and then she has insisted on coming to help me on Saturday with preparing for the play. Hopefully she will be feeling better by then.”

“Oh yeah, the play. Mike’s full of it. After church on Sunday, ain’t it.”

She just nodded. “So you want to tell me about it? What happened with Lizzie?”

“I figure I have tp. See it was this way, Jane. She came over to the livery first thing, sayin’ as how she wanted to talk. Well I went over to her, and next thing I know she’s a kissin’ me, like there’s no tomorrow.”

Jane hid a smile at his poetic turn of phrase. “Well, that’s not so bad is it?” she asked.

Jess thought about that for a moment and then said, “Well I guess not, but I reckon it’s about who’s a doin’ the kissin’…and why.”

“Go on.”

“Well, she said she loved me… and then she called me Jamie again,” he said turning anxious eyes on his friend. “Well, that just ain’t right, you know, Jane. See, she’s real confused, up here,” he said tapping his head. “Sure, she knows I’m not Jamie — nothin’ like him, character wise that is — but I reckon in her mind she still thinks I am him — or she can turn me into him anyways — and that’s real unhealthy, you know, Jane,” he finished looking disturbed.

“So what did you do?”

He looked up to heaven and then back into her kind eyes. “I told her he was dead, told her she had to face it, couldn’t carry on pretending this way…that I wasn’t Jamie and never could be.”

“That sounds quite brutal,” she said softly.

Jess looked down and said very quietly. “Yeah, I know that, but she had to be told, Jane; she can’t go on this way. It ain’t fair on either of us.”

“No… no you’re quite right and you were brave enough to address it, just like I should have done earlier. I’m sorry, Jess.”

“Darn it, you ain’t got anything to be sorry about, Jane; none of this is your doing,” he said his blue eyes looking sympathetically across at her.

She shook her head sadly. “You are so like him…those blue eyes of yours,” she said softly. “Guess they could melt any heart — or break it.’

He said nothing, just looked down and then hoping to get her away from what could be a difficult subject for them both, said, ‘So you knew Jamie then?”

“I didn’t know him as such, but I had seen him and his eyes, hair…his face. So like you that he could be a brother. But no, the family rarely came into town and he didn’t frequent the saloon; that’s probably why you never met him,” she said with a little giggle.

Jess just nodded in acknowledgement of this fact.

“But I saw him the day he died. He was in town with Lizzie and saw a horse he had broken and sold on. Well apparently it was in real bad shape, terribly neglected, and then the owner came out of the store. Jamie challenged him and he just went ape and drew on him. Poor Jamie didn’t stand a chance and Lizzie saw it all. It’s no wonder she is the way she is, really, you know, Jess,’ she said sadly.

“Yeah I guess. Do you think I should go around, apologize?”

She shook her head. “No I don’t, Jess. What you said was right and I think you had to really shock her that way to make her think things through, realize what she’s doing to herself, to you.”

“OK.”

“She’s got Pete there, don’t forget. Maybe this is just the chance he needs to get close.”

“Yeah, well I hope so.”

“So how are you, Jess? Enjoying your stint as Sheriff?” she said her eyes twinkling and giggling softly.

“Oh kinda bored; ain’t nuthin’ happening and come Saturday, I figure it’ll be like a ghost town with most folk off to that big auction on the Cheyenne road, so no prospects of a good saloon fight come Saturday afternoon either.”

She shook her head. “You and your fights.”

“Hey, fightin’ keeps a man in shape, stops him runnin’ to fat.”

“I hardly think that’s likely in your case, fighting or not.”

He grinned across at her and remembered the good times they had shared, but then reined back. “so how’s ol’ Henry? Due home soon?”

“Just another few weeks, can’t wait,” she said happily.

He rose to leave. “Thanks for talkin’ it through with me, Jane. I’m real sorry for messin’ up your classes.”

“It’s fine really,” she said smiling across at him. “Let’s just hope Lizzie will see sense now and we can get back to normal.”

“Yeah, sure hope so,” and he took his leave, giving her his cheeky wink and tipping his hat as he left.

*****

On Saturday morning Jess was really looking forward to catching up with his friends from the ranch as they came into town to do their weekly marketing.

As he had predicted, the place was very quiet, with many of the townsfolk off at the large ranch and equipment sale. Slim caught up with Jess at Mort’s office, as they had arranged to meet up with Daisy and Mike at Miss Molly’s café later for lunch, once all their shopping was done.

“So are you going to the sale at the old Watkins place?” asked Jess from where he sat behind the desk, coffee in hand and his hat tipped back at a jaunty angle.

“Yeah, thought we’d call in on the way back, see if there’s any harness going at a reasonable price.”

“Yeah, good idea,” agreed Jess. “We could do with some of that lumber he’s had out seasoning since Adam was a nipper too; come in real useful for mending the lean-to roof  when we get around to doin’ it,” he finished, casting his buddy a rueful glance, both men knowing they had been putting off the task for weeks much to Miss Daisy’s exasperation.

After a while, Slim stood up. “Just gotta see old Fred at the livery about that feed bill. See you across the road at twelve, buddy,” and with that he strode out of the office.

It must have been about half an hour later when Jess heard a ruckus in the street outside and realized someone was calling his name.

He jumped up from where he was reclining in Mort’s comfortable chair and ran out to see what all the fuss was about.

The scene that met his eyes sent shivers down his spine and made him go cold with foreboding.

Three men had recently dismounted, and leaving their horses over by the saloon, they now made their way slowly and menacingly down the center of the street, sending the odd citizen still abroad scurrying for cover.

Jess cast a wary eye up and down the street, but it was deserted save for Carrie, Liz and Jane all standing in a huddle by the school house door, where Carrie had just called to help with the play.

Jess cast them a quick look and gestured with his head for them to take cover before turning his full attention back to the three gunslingers who had now stopped walking, and stood in the typical gun fighter stance, legs apart and hands poised above their guns. Two of the men were very tall, the third stocky, but all three looked mean and threatening, their demeanor oozing menace.

“Harper,” proclaimed the tallest man in the centre, “figure you don’t know me, but you knew my cousin, young Denny Jackson. I’m Gil Jackson, and this here is my little brother,” he said gesturing to a huge ugly man to his right, “Curt and over here is Denny’s brother Cal. So now we’re all acquainted. We’ve got unfinished business, Harper, because it’s about time old Denny had that last word… sorta from the grave, you might say.”

Jess just shook his head, standing tall with his hand hovering above his gun butt, a nerve twitching in his cheek and his hand restlessly flexing the only sign of emotion. ”I ain’t drawin’ on you. As far as I’m concerned, it was over when Denny tipped off of his horse and split his head open. But you want a fair fight then, it’s down to you to draw…. if you call three to one a fair fight where you come from, that is,” he spat contemptuously.

Just then he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and realized it was Slim walking up from the livery. He’d heard every word and now he came to stand at Jess’s shoulder. “Two against three now,” he said softly. “Figure that evens up the odds some.” Then he whispered to Jess. “You take the bastard in the middle, Jess; I hear he’s the fastest, I’ll go for his brother and then last man standing gets that other low life.”

“Suits me just fine,” Jess whispered back.

Then suddenly all Hell was let lose.

Gil Jackson drew on Jess, but Jess was a fraction of a second faster and dispatched him before he could make his mark and Slim out drew the other big ugly man, both brothers hitting the dust at the same time and meeting their Maker.

But as this exchange was taking place, Denny Jackson’s brother Cal fired on Jess, and even though the cowboy had dived to the side and tried to roll out of trouble, Cal’s bullet caught him full in the chest, and then Slim emptied his magazine into the young man, finishing him off for good, but too late to save Jess from his bullet.

The silence as the shooting stopped was deafening — the smell of cordite hanging in the air and then the empty street was full of people, rushing to help them, and the silence was suddenly rent by someone screaming hysterically, and glancing up, Slim saw Jane trying to comfort Lizzie as she cried out in a heartrending way, obviously thinking Jess was dead.

 Slim looked down at the shattered body of his best friend and swore softly.

Jess lay on his back where he had fallen, his eyes screwed tightly closed in pain, his breath coming in shuddering gasps and a large red stain covered his blue shirt front as the blood oozed out and started to form a pool on the ground beside him.

Slim fell to his knees. “Oh buddy,” he gasped as he quickly pulled off the bandana from his neck and unbuttoning the shirt thrust the cloth inside trying to stem the flow of blood.

Jess groaned as Slim increased the pressure as the blood continued to pump out and then Daisy and Mike were there leaning over him, the child white and trembling and Daisy looking horror stricken. She bent down beside him and looked over at Slim. “We must get him over to Sam’s office. He’s out on his rounds, but at least we can make him comfortable while we wait.”

Then strong willing hands gently bore the young cowboy away, leaving a shocked and saddened group of citizens shaking their heads and debating the terrible tragedy.

Pete had just ridden into town, making for the school house where he had promised to help paint the scenery for the  school play, and he was able to  take charge of an almost frantic Lizzie while Jane ran across the street and offered to have Mike to stay with her while Daisy tended to Jess.

When Jess arrived at the doctor’s house, Carrie made sure he was laid carefully on the examination couch and then she and Daisy went about cleaning the wound as best they could.

All the time Jess remained fully conscious and was in considerable pain, although as usual, he tried to play it down. But Daisy could see how badly he was hurt, and as the minutes ticked away and there was still no sign of the doctor, she became extremely anxious. Slim has ridden to the Benson spread where Sam was attending Benson’s terminally ill brother, but the place wasn’t too far and he should have been back by now, Daisy and Carrie agreed.

As time moved on and Jess became weaker and more agitated, Daisy and Carrie came to a decision; they would have to attempt to remove the bullet themselves.

The women had gone into the next room to talk.

“I really don’t think he’s going to last,” said Daisy fearfully. “He’s losing too much blood; the bullet has to come out now if he is to have a chance.”

Carrie nodded. “Can you do it, Daisy?”

The elderly woman nodded. “I had to in the war, more than once when the doctors were all too busy. It’s near the heart, though, Carrie; it will be very hard, but we can’t just sit back and watch him die.”

“I agree and I can handle the anesthetic. I usually do that for Pa. We’d better make a start, Daisy, and hopefully Pa will be back before too long.”

Jess made his usual objections when they told him he had to be put to sleep before they could work on him. “Aw Carrie,” he whispered, “not that darned chloroform. You know it makes me chuck up for days,” he gasped painfully.

“I’m sorry,” Carrie said firmly. “You have to let us help you, Jess, and you can’t expect Daisy to operate on a moving target, which you will be if we don’t sedate you.”

“Daisy?” asked Jess his eyes opening wide in shock. “What about the doc?”

Daisy and Carrie exchanged a glance before Daisy said softly, “We can’t wait for him, Jess.”

“That bad eh?”

She nodded. “I do know what I’m doing, dear; it will be alright,” she said displaying more confidence than she felt at that moment.

“Aw heck Daisy, I wasn’t meaning that,” he said honestly. “I just didn’t wanna put you through it; I know the way you fret when I’m hurtin’.”

“Yes, well, I’ll just have to try and be professional,” Daisy said with a kindly smile. Then taking his hand, she talked softly to him while Carrie administered the drug, and before too long he was deeply sedated.

It was a long and arduous task and half-way through Daisy felt she couldn’t go on; it seemed almost impossible to reach the deeply embedded bullet without causing even more trauma to the badly damaged flesh. She took a deep breath and said a little prayer to herself and then carried on delicately probing until she finally managed to ease the bullet out and gave a little gasp of relief.

She was just about to start stitching him up when the door flew open and Sam marched in. “Daisy I’m so sorry,” he said, “I was caught up at the Benson’s. His brother died and then his wife became so distressed I had to tend to her.”

All the time he’d been talking, Sam had been washing his hands and now he walked over to examine her handy work. He gave a low whistle. “Well done, my dear; you have done an excellent job. Would you care to finish off, or shall I?”

Daisy gave a huge sigh of relief and suddenly realized how strung up she was. “You, I think, Sam; I believe my nerve has just run out.”

He beamed across at her. “You go and get Slim to pour you a stiff drink and one for himself and I’ll be out shortly.”

And so after giving the dark haired young man she thought of as a son one last fond look, she tiptoed out of the room and into Slim’s waiting arms where she finally broke down in tears.

After a while, Slim gently pushed her away and looking into her eyes said softly, “Daisy…is he…”

“No,” she smiled. “He’s holding his own; I think he has a chance Slim… please Lord,” she finished softly. Then giving him her gentle smile said, “Sam says we are to help ourselves to some of his whiskey.”

Slim smiled back. “Yeah, good idea, for medicinal purposes only, of course,” he said as he went to fetch it and she smiled back.

“Of course.”

A little while later Sam joined them. “Well he’s made it through this far, but I have to warn you both he’s lost an awful lot of blood, and even though you did an excellent job, Daisy, well…. It’s going to be touch and go over the next twenty-four hours and he’ll need constant nursing around the clock to try and get some fluids back in him.”

“Sure, we’ll help with that,” said Slim

 Then Sam sighed. “And that won’t be easy knowing the bad reaction he usually has to the anesthetic… but, well we can just do our best and hope and pray that stubborn Harper spirit will carry him through again.”

“Can I see him?” asked Slim.

Sam nodded. “Just for a minute; he’s still out of it, will be for a few hours.”

Slim nodded and slipped into the next room and walked over to the bedside quietly.

Jess looks as white as a sheet, his breathing hardly perceptible and Slim bent down and gently put a hand to his chest where he could eventually feel its rise and fall and the slow beating of his heart. “Hang on in there pard,” he said softly before giving him a final glance and then turning to leave.

Slim took Daisy over to the hotel and booked her a room, insisting she rest that night after her recent ordeal.

“Oh Slim, I should be there to look after him.”

“No Daisy, you need to rest up; you’ll be no good to him if you get sick. Jane is keeping Mike overnight and I’ll go and keep an eye on Jess; you know how ornery he can be when he comes around.”

She smiled at that. “Oh I do yes. Alright dear, but promise me you’ll come and fetch me if… well if he takes a turn for the worse.”

“Sure I will,” and a little later Slim left her to relax and returned to the doctor’s office and then a thought struck him. With Jess laid up, there was no law in the town. He chatted to Sam, and then promising to return to spend the night looking after his buddy, he crossed the street and entered Mort’s office, and finding a spare Deputy badge, stuck it on.

Slim spent the rest of the day filling in the paper work regarding the shootings and  generally carrying out the usual Sheriff’s duties and he was just thinking about locking up for the night when there was a tap on  the door and  Pete Valentine walked in.

“Hi Slim, I just wondered how Jess is,” Pete said hesitantly. “I’m so darned sorry I was too late to help.”

Slim smiled up at him from where he sat in Mort’s seat. “Well it wasn’t your fight, Pete, and as far as I know, Jess is OK. I’m just going over to watch him overnight… he’s sick, real sick, but he’s as tough as old boots; I figure he’ll make it.”

Pete nodded. “Lizzie is in a terrible state, not making any sense….taken it really badly”.

Earlier that day Liz had returned to the school house as promised to help put the finishing touches to the costumes for the school play along with Jane and Carrie and that was when they had seen the strangers approaching Jess.

They moved back into the shadows of the porch and huddled together, watching in horror as the three rough-looking  men called Jess out and they watched with mounting fear as Slim joined his buddy and they realized that neither side was about to back down.

They surveyed the scene with fear as the men exchanged angry words and then the guns were suddenly drawn and blazing and all at once men lay dead or dying, the smell of cordite and smoke wafting down the street.

And then the silence was broken by ear splitting screams, as Lizzie had a heart-stopping moment of déjà vu when Jess fell in exactly the same place where her husband had died two years earlier. She was suddenly transported back to that moment and the other women had to restrain her from running to Jess’s side and prostrating herself over his motionless body as she had done when Jamie lay dying.

Then suddenly Pete’s strong arms were around her holding her tightly as she moaned and lashed out, hysterical with grief.

Pete had taken her home then, tried to explain that Jess had been taken to the doctor’s office and he was still alive. Lizzie didn’t seem to hear him though and retreated into herself, just sitting in her rocker looking into the distance, shaking and sobbing.

Now Pete turned troubled eyes on his friend. “She just won’t talk to me, Slim and all she does is whisper ‘he’s dead, he’s dead’ over and over. I just don’t know what to do,” he finished casting his ex-boss and friend a deeply troubled look.

Slim shook his head sympathetically. “I guess she’s just in shock; with Jess kind of looking like her Jamie, it must have been almost like it happening all over again, poor kid,” he said softly. “Look Pete, I’ll get the doc to call, give her something to help her sleep, and with any luck, we’ll have better news of Jess by the morning…and well maybe if she sees him for herself, she’ll feel better.” And with that the two men parted as Slim made his way back across the road to Sam’s place.

When he arrived, Sam showed Slim in and then went down to the Atkins place at once, saying Slim should go and sit with his buddy.

Slim quietly entered the hospital room and was surprised and pleased to see Millie sitting by the bed, gently holding Jess’s hand and looking down at his motionless form.

She smiled when Slim came in and said softly, “Carrie’s taking a break; she was exhausted.”

“He been giving you a hard time then?” asked Slim with a small smile, sitting down on the other side of the bed and looking down into his partner’s ashen face.

“Umm, sort of. He came to an hour or so ago, chucked up all over us and then started cussing something fierce — even for Jess,” she said with a tiny grin. “Then he came around properly and couldn’t stop apologizing, poor love. He felt so bad. Now he’s sleeping like a baby,” she finished breathing a little sigh of relief.

“Well that’s good, isn’t it? I guess he needs some rest.”

“Yeah, but Doc says he’s to have as much water as possible every time he wakes, He’ll refuse it,  but I guess we’ve just got to try and out stubborn him.”

“And that isn’t easy,” said Slim with a genuine smile now.

An hour or so later, Slim could see that Millie could hardly keep her eyes open. “You go home, Millie. The doc’s arranged for me to bunk down in here,” he said nodding  to a small cot in the corner of the room, “so I’ll be here to keep an eye on him, and the doc will be in and out, so you  go get some rest, huh?”

She looked thoughtfully down at the still sleeping Jess. “OK, I guess Tom will give me some time off. I’ll come back first thing,” she said finally and getting up she leaned over and kissed the sleeping cowboy tenderly on the forehead.

 Then she left the room pausing only to squeeze Slim’s shoulder gently. “See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, sleep well”.

It was an hour or so later when Slim was just thinking of turning in when Jess’s eyes flickered and then opened slightly showing, a sliver of deep blue as he slowly took in his surroundings and then they finally rested on Slim.

“Hey buddy, how’re you feeling?” Slim asked.

Jess said nothing just shook his head a little, not feeling up to his usual banter, and implying that he was not too good.

“That bad eh?” said Slim sympathetically.

“Did… did we get ‘em all, Slim?” Jess finally managed.

“Sure,” he said with an encouraging smile, “every last one of them dispatched straight to Hell.”

Jess allowed as small smile at this. “That’s…. good,” he whispered.

Then Slim decided to get tough. “Doc says you’ve got to drink some water, make up for the blood lost. You have to, Jess… OK?”

Jess noted Slim’s forthright manner, brooking no arguments and really didn’t feel up to arguing anyway. He managed a glass full, but then threw it back up almost at once and that was the pattern for most of the rest of the night, interspersed by the odd respite when one or the other fell into a short restless doze, and  by morning both men were frustrated and dog-tired.

When Sam came in to check on them, as he had done periodically during the night, he looked very worried.

Jess was obviously agitated, lashing about and sweating, still deathly pale and his breathing very rapid. “How long has he been like this?”

“Not long; he started looking kind of anxious, and then when I talked to him just now, he looked like he didn’t know me. Hell, he’s not lost his memory again, has he, Sam?”

The older man shook his head. “I doubt it. He’s just feeling confused due to the blood loss and dehydration. No luck with the fluids then?”

“Not much; been pretty sick all night, but he kept the last drink down…so far.”

Sam took out his stethoscope and listened to his chest and then took a couple of pillows and propped his feet up. Then he took a cloth and wiped his brow, talking softly.

After a moment Jess opened his eyes and said “Doc?”

“Yeah, how are you feeling?”

“Not so good, I guess.”

“Well we’re just going to have to persevere with the liquids, Jess. Mrs. Braddock is making you some chicken soup and I’ll fetch you some milk in a moment.”

Jess groaned and looked up to Slim for support, but his buddy just shrugged. “For your own good, Jess; just try, pard, OK?”

Jess nodded and Slim left him to go back over to the Sheriff’s office for a while, but with it being Sunday he wasn’t expecting too much in the way of trouble.

Much later, Daisy was watching Jess dozing after she had finally managed to spoon all the soup down him and most of the milk. She looked up and smiled as Slim entered the room. “I think he’s a little better,” she whispered. “His stomach seems to have settled now at least and he’s resting.”

Slim nodded and then went on chatting to Daisy very quietly, but after a while Jess’s eyes opened and he said, “”What are you sayin’ about Mike? Is he OK?”

“Sure buddy, nothing to worry about. He’s just being kinda stubborn,” then turning to Daisy said with a faint smile, “and I wonder who he’s learnt that from.”

“Go on,” said Jess softly, “what about?”

“You’d better tell him, Slim; he’ll only worry,” said Daisy aside to Slim.

“Hey there’s nothin’ wrong with my hearing, you know,” said Jess indignantly.

“OK keep your hair on,” said Slim. “It’s just that he’s refusing to take part in the play until he’s seen you’re OK, that’s all.”

“Well why didn’t you say? Bring him over,” said Jess as once.

“Oh no dear, you’re really not well enough….”

“I’m fine Daisy,” insisted Jess although he was still shaking and sweating and was deathly pale. “Please Slim, send him over just for a minute or two,” he said and tried to sit up.

Slim pushed him back gently and was shocked to see how easy it was to push him down. He looked over to Daisy, eyebrows raised in question, and after receiving a brief nod, he left the room to fetch the boy.

“Daisy, help me sit up,” pleaded Jess as soon as his buddy had left.

The elderly woman shook her head and looked worried, but gently pulled him up pushing the pillows behind him for support and then swabbed his face with cool water, and so when Mike ran in a few minutes later, he didn’t look too bad.

The child was overjoyed to see him and sat by the bed chattering cheerfully away.

Jess finally managed to persuade him to take his place on the stage with the other school children and soon it was time for him to leave.

“Heck Jess, I wish you were coming to watch me. Do you think you could manage if me and Slim helped you?” he asked excitedly.

Jess looked profoundly sad. “Well, I don’t think so, Tiger. I’m still kinda beat. But aunt Daisy and Slim will come over and watch and they’ll tell me all about it.”

“OK,” said the lad bouncing off the bed, “I’ll see you later, OK Jess?”

Jess used his last ounce of energy to grin and pat the boys arm. “You bet, Tiger; see you later,” and with that Daisy took him off, promising to return to her patient just as soon as the proceedings were over.

The minute the door closed behind them, Jess sank back on the pillows and gave a low groan. Slim wiped his forehead with the damp cloth again and said anxiously, “You OK Jess?”

“Yeah,” Jess whispered, “just kinda tired”.

Slim looked down at his friend. “That really took it out of you didn’t it, buddy… and it was a real good performance. I guess Mike isn’t the only good actor in the family.”

Jess gave him a faint grin. “Well I couldn’t let him think I was as sick as I am, could I? He’d never have gone on that ol’ stage.”

“Guess not,” said Slim giving him a compassionate look. “Are you going to be OK? I’ll fetch Carrie to sit with you before I leave.”

“Sure I am. Clear off and give me some peace,” Jess said his eyes twinkling. “And be sure and come back and tell me how he did, yeah?”

Slim patted his arm gently. Sure buddy, I won’t be long,” and he strode out of the room and down to the church to watch the play.

When he arrived, he was told by a friend that Daisy was backstage helping as Liz hadn’t turned up and Slim wondered how the young woman was coping. Not very well he assumed, as she had let down her employer and all the children too.

However, he tried not to judge her and settled down to watch the Laramie rendering of The Bible Story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, with Mike in the key role of Daniel, although he had told all the family he’d rather have been the lion, to their great amusement.

All went well and then as the lights came on for the intermission, Slim realized that Liz had come in and was seated near him. He went over and smiling down said, “May I?” gesturing to the seat next to her and she gave him a tremulous smile back and nodded.

“Of course, please sit.”

“Shouldn’t you be backstage helping?” he asked gently.

She nodded. “Yes, I was late. I…I just couldn’t face it after…. Jess…”

“He’s alright, you know. Well, he will be, given time.”

Her eyes opened wide in amazement. “Really? I thought he was very badly hurt.”

“Yes he is, but he’s a real fighter. He’s trying real hard to get himself well.”

“Bless him,” she whispered.

“You know I think he’d want you to be helping, doing your job, not brooding over him.”

“I can’t,” she whispered. “I’m so upset. I… “

Slim suddenly felt angry. “And do you think we’re not? Hell, I’ve been up all night with him, so sick… it was real hard to see, and Daisy’s been nursing him all day long and there she is doing your job tonight. She’s an old woman, Lizzie, and exhausted.”

She hung her head in shame, but said nothing.

Slim glanced at her and then played his trump card. And then there is little Mike. Hell, he worships the ground my buddy walks on, you know that… and sure he’s real worried about him too, but he’s man enough to go on  the stage and give a fantastic performance… for Jess, ‘cos he didn’t want to let him down Lizzie.”

“Stop, stop please,” Liz cried. “I’m sorry… so sorry. I’ve been so selfish. I’ll go and relieve Daisy at once.” She jumped up to go and then  turning back to Slim said, “Tell Jess I’m thinking of him… and I promise to pull myself together from now on, Slim,” and with that she was gone.

A little later, Daisy joined Slim and turning to smile at him said, “Well I don’t know what you said to that young lady, but she is a different girl, working really hard back stage and looking happier for it too.”

Slim just nodded. “Good I’m glad,” and then the lights were dimmed and the second half began.

Once the Play was over and Mike complimented on his triumph, they all went their separate ways. Mike went back to the school house, where Jane had been spoiling him rotten and he was happily settled. Daisy went back to her hotel room on Slim’s insistence, saying she had done quite enough for one day.

“I’ll go and sort out Hot Shot,” Slim said with a grin, “and at least he’s stopped chucking up every ten minutes so it should be an easier night.” After giving her a kiss on the cheek, he made his way back to Sam’s place.

Carrie opened the door and as soon as Slim saw her his heart missed a beat. She looked pale and tearful. “What’s up Carrie?” he asked urgently.

“It’s Jess,” she whispered. “He took a turn for the worse.” Then grabbing hold of his arm said tearfully. “It was awful, Slim; we nearly lost him.”

Slim looked aghast. “I should never have left him… what happened?”

“It wasn’t your fault. Pa and I were with him; there was nothing you could have done. He just stopped breathing; Pa managed to get it started again, but it was touch and go for a while.”

“Can I see him, stay again?”

“Sure, Pa is with him; go on in.”

When Slim entered the room, there was a different atmosphere to when he had left. The nightlight was burning dimly, and as he came in, he could hear Jess’ labored breathing, and as he advanced, saw he was looking flushed and agitated once more, his head rolling on the pillow and his eyes squeezed tight as if in pain.

Sam jumped up from the bedside and came round to Slim as soon as he saw him. “It’s not looking too good right now, Slim,” he whispered. “I guess he overdid it a bit today and he’s suffering, in a lot of pain and got a fever. I’ve given him something and he should sleep shortly and then we just need to keep him cool overnight, keep swabbing him with cold water.”

Slim threw his buddy an anguished look. “This is all my fault; I should never have brought Mike over. Jess put on this big act that there was nothing wrong and he looked dead beat when Mike left.”

“Hell don’t blame yourself, Slim; I’d have let Mike over too, knowing old’ Jess there he’d have got himself up into such a lather worrying about the boy; the outcome would probably have been the same if you hadn’t let him see Mike.”

Slim just shook his head sadly, “I’ll sit up with him, keep him cool.”

“That’s right, but he’s got the shivers too, so once he’s cooled down, you have to pile the blankets on once he starts shaking.”

“OK Sam, I’ve got it.”

“Alright, but I’ll come and relieve you at midnight…and if there is any change, well, just holler.”

Slim nodded again then grabbed hold of the doctor’s arm as he went to leave. “Tell me straight, Sam. Could we still lose him?”

Sam looked down at the now sleeping cowboy, and then back into Slim’s concerned eyes and said very quietly, “Yes… yes we could,” and turning to go, said gently, “just call me OK?”

Slim nodded and then sank down by the bed. “Come on, Jess, don’t give up now buddy,” he whispered.

Jess was stripped down to his undershorts and lying on the covers, and as he continued to sweat and move around restlessly, Slim started washing him down with icy cold water and eventually he seemed to settle into an uneasy sleep.

Jess was in the river, freezing cold and his clothes soaking wet and pulling him down, down below the murky depths and he couldn’t breathe, his lungs on fire, feeling like they would burst.

Then suddenly he was spirited up out of the water and kind faces were peering down at him — Ma… Pa was it? Something was wrong. Jess felt comforted but something wasn’t right. Then suddenly he felt a tremendous blow to his stomach and he awoke dizzy and again oh so hot, the Texas sun beating down on him.

He was home really home and there was his Ma, standing on the porch calling him in and behind him a raggle taggle of kids — his brothers and sisters — and then Pa was suddenly there staggering over towards him and then looming over him shouting and shouting and lashing out and Jess cried out as he fell, from the blows raining down on his young head.

 And then he was so darn hot again, burning hot and it was dark and smoky. The shack it was on fire. “My God, it’s on fire,” he yelled. “Ma….. Pa…. Francie…!”

And he was staggering… crawling on his knees… so hot he could feel his flesh almost burning the tears streaming down  his face from the acrid smoke and then  he made it out through the door and he was lying on  the cold hard ground, panting desperately trying to catch his breath, shivering with the cold.

And then he heard it — he desperate screams for help, his Ma screaming and screaming and then the kids crying piteously calling his name. He dragged himself up and made for the burning inferno that was his family home, and as he grew close, the heat scorched his bare chest and he started coughing and then strong arms were around him stopping him from going back in. “I have to,” he screamed, “I have to save them, let me go, let me go….” he almost sobbed.

“Steady Jess, it’s Ok. You’re dreaming, buddy. Just breathe for me, Jess’ just take some deep breaths buddy, come on.”

Jess peered around the dimly lit hospital room, his breath coming in ragged gasps, totally disorientated. “Ma,” he whispered. Then feeling the strong arms still holding him, he looked up. “Slim?”

“Yeah, it’s Ok, buddy, you were having that dream about your place being fired… trying to help them get out.”

This was a recurring nightmare Jess had and usually when he was very stressed or sick, like now. He breathed a sigh of relief and Slim relinquished his hold and laid him gently back on the pillow.

“It was so dang real, Slim,” Jess said softly. “I was back in the river and then Josh and Mary were there and then Ma, Pa, the kids and then that goddamn fire,” he said turning anguished eyes on his partner. “Hell, I’m sorry, Slim. Guess I must be drivin’ you crazy with all this, chuckin’ up on you one minute and now fussin and yellin’. I reckon you ain’t had any sleep the last couple of nights.”

“Hey, don’t you worry about that, buddy. I’m fine.” Then Slim offered him a drink and settled him back down.

“Thanks, Slim,” Jess whispered before falling into a much more peaceful sleep, the fever seeming to have finally broken.

Over the next few days, Jess was up and down, but by the third day, Sam, straightened up from leaning over the young cowboy and listening to his chest with his stethoscope and grinning down said, “Well, I’m real glad to say I reckon you’re on the mend, Jess, but mind you take it real easy. Got a feeling you’re coming to the end of your nine lives, you know.” Then looking more serious, “I mean it, Jess; we nearly lost you this time. I need you to be really careful until you’re completely healed. No getting up on one of those mustangs of yours the minute my back’s turned, you understand!”

“Sure I do, Sam,” said Jess looking very chastened. “I promise I’ll behave this time, buddy”.

Sam gave him a light punch on the upper arm. “Umm be sure you do. There’s a hell of a lot of people would really miss you, you know,” he said quietly. Then regaining his usual teasing tone, “God knows why, because you’re a complete pain in the neck… as a patient anyway,” he finished laughing.

“So can I get up?”

“Yes you can, but you’re to stay around the house. No wondering off to the livery to see that blessed horse of yours yet. Another few days before I’m letting you out of my sight OK?”

“OK,” said Jess, but the twinkle in his eyes betrayed the fact that he maybe had other ideas about his imposed restrictions and convalescence.

Sam had said he must stay around the house, so later that day, Jess sat himself out on the bench on the doctor’s front porch looking onto Main Street and was able to watch the comings and goings of the town’s folk and idle away an hour or so chatting to anyone who passed and he felt quite contented.

After a while, Mort dodged across the street between riders and the odd wagon, and came and stood looking down at Jess as if drinking in the vision before reaching down and pumping his hand. “Gee it’s good to see you, Jess,” he said the light of relief in his kind eyes.

Jess smiled up at him. “Sit awhile Mort,” patting the bench beside him.

“So you OK? Wanna go for a beer?”

Jess sucked in his breath. “Hell no, not allowed out yet, Mort. Sam says I’m to stay in hollerin’ distance or he won’t be held responsible for his actions,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

“Well you can’t blame him, Jess. From what Slim said, you’ve been real sick. That’s why I haven’t visited; he said you were too bad.”

Jess just looked down. “Yeah, guess I was a mite poorly there for a while.”

“Way Slim tells it they thought you were a goner…more than once, boy.”

Jess just shrugged. “Yeah, well I’m OK now, Mort.”

The Sheriff just nodded, knowing Jess wasn’t one to dwell on his misfortunes and so said, “Well, I really just wanted to thank you for sorting out those no good hoodlums and I sure am sorry you were hurt in the process.”

“Hell that’s OK, Mort; all in the line of duty. I was deputizing for you and anyways I couldn’t have finished the job alone. Slim was fantastic, downed two of the three.”

Mort nodded. Then he turned sad eyes on his friend. “I did try to forestall it all, you know, Jess, like I promised. I caught up with them in Cheyenne. The Sheriff and I read them the riot act and they reckoned they were heading back down to Texas. Garldarn it, they even shook me by the hand, said there were no hard feelings!” he exclaimed turning angry eyes on his buddy.

“It’s OK, Mort; let it lay. They’re all in the jaws of Hell now and I’m fine, so nothin’ more to be said.”

Mort grinned over at his friend. “You’re a good man, Jess Harper… and don’t let anyone tell you different.”

Both men laughed so loudly it brought Sam out wanting to know what all the revelry was about and did the Sheriff know how poorly his patient had been? This then sent fresh gales of laughter, echoing down the street, much to the doc’s alarm, and so a while later he said it was time for Jess to come in  for his nap.

Jess did as he was bid, trying hard to be well behaved, but not before  he’d turned back to Mort and giving him a sly wink mouthed, “Catch you for that beer later in the week,” before  apparently meekly following the doc back indoors.

The following morning, Jess was again sitting out on the porch taking his ease when Lizzie walked across from the school.

He smiled up at her as she came over and said, “Hey, you’re not bunking off school, are you, Miss?”

She beamed down at him, “No, it’s recess and I saw you sitting out and thought I’d join you for a moment , if that’s alright?” she asked shyly.

“Sure,” he said, moving up the bench and making room for her.

“So how are you?” she asked looking deeply into his clear blue eyes.

“Oh just fine. Sam’s gonna let me out of jail any day now and I can get back to the ranch. Gotta whole mess of mustangs there waitin’ to stomp on me,” he said with a depreciating grin.

She shuddered a little at that image but said nothing.

“So how about you? How are you feeling now?” he asked gently, remembering the hysterical scene after he had been shot and Sam having to dash over and sedate her.

She looked down blushing a little and then looked him in the eye. “I’ve come to my senses at last,” she said. “I’ve realized what a fool I’ve been with my silly infatuation and I’m so embarrassed and sorry, Jess,” she said sincerely.

He took her hand and held it gently. “That’s Ok, as long as you’re feeling better.” Then turning quizzical eyes on her said, “So what made you see sense?”

She looked off into the distance and then turning back replied, “I guess it was when you were gunned down, it made Jamie’s death seem so final. I remembered every detail of it and, well, I think I finally believe it now. I know he is never coming back to me. Not even in the guise of a very kind and charming cowboy,” she said softly, smiling up at him.

Now it was Jess’s turn to blush. “Well, I’m just glad you’re over all that,” he said sympathetically.

“Oh yes, I also realized what you had been saying all along was absolutely true. I’d never have a minute’s peace if we were together. You’d be off mustang breaking or chasing after outlaws with Mort and I reckon you’ve already shortened my life some just by us being friends. No, I just wouldn’t last the course with you, Jess,” she said with sad finality.

He nodded in agreement. “You need the silent steady type, a good worker and home lover, someone who’s good to his Ma,” he said smiling and then giving her a speculative look.

She picked up his drift immediately. “Like Pete Valentine, you mean?”

“Yeah, just like Pete.”

Then she looked very sad. “I think I’ve ruined things with Pete. When he saw how devastated I was when you were hurt, he realized the extent of the feelings I had for you…. then he backed off. I don’t know what to do.”

“You just said it yourself. The feelings you had for me back then, not now. Lizzie. Hell, it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, ain’t it, Just tell him the truth, be honest.”

“You think so?”

“I know so!”

“It’s really hard learning to love again after a tragedy like that. I’m frightened,” she said softly.

“You and me both, sweetheart,” he whispered squeezing her hand, “but you’ve got the chance of happiness and you should grab it while you can.”

She looked across at him and suddenly beamed. “Yes…yes I will,” she decided. “I’ll tell him tonight,” and with that she leapt up from the bench and leaning down she kissed him very tenderly on the cheek. “Thank you, Jess,” she whispered before running lightly down the sidewalk and back into the school.

Jess looked after her, a sad smile on his face. ‘If only it were that easy for me,’ he thought fleetingly, before remembering his good fortune, and in a way everything that had happened had maybe helped him to look to the future more positively. Maybe one day he would dare to commit again too, he thought.

 But in the meantime, he was alive and well and he had the best friends in the world, and thinking on that, he made his way slowly inside to start nagging Sam again as to when he could go home.

Epilogue

Slim, Mike, Daisy, Jess and Millie were standing outside the Laramie Church, watching the happy couple as they made their way down towards the decorated waiting buggy, laughing as they were showered with rice and good wishes in equal measure.

“I know all about weddings,” said Mike proudly, looking up at his family. “The rice is for luck and then the bride throws her bunch of flowers at the end, and the lady that catches it gets married next.”

“That’s right,” said Daisy, “and the bunch of flowers is called a bouquet, Mike.”

“Oh, Jess knows all about those, don’t you?” said Slim innocently looking over to where Jess was standing enjoying the moment with his arm slung possessively around Millie’s shoulders.

Slim was referring to the first time Jess had attended a wedding and when the bouquet was thrown, he had dived forwards and caught it, ‘to stop it fallin’ in the dirt,’ he had asserted and then couldn’t understand why all the bridesmaids were giggling so, until Slim and Daisy explained to him, and he had dropped it like a hot potato.

Now Jess cast them a pained look. “Yes, I do know all about it, thank you.”

Just then Pete and Lizzie arrived at their carriage, which was to take them the short distance down the street to the hotel where the reception was to be held.

Just before she was helped up, Lizzie turned and threw the bouquet directly at Millie, who had no choice other than to catch it, and with a broad grin in Jess’s direction, the bride allowed herself to be helped up, before waving regally as she was driven away.

Millie turned back to face Jess and gestured with the bouquet. “Well looky what I’ve got, Jess Harper,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “You know what this means, don’t you.”

Jess stood there like a rabbit with a shot gun pointed at its head and froze. “Er…no, I mean … yes,” he gabbled, before turning to Slim for support. “I promised I’d help Tom bring some more bottles over to the hotel,” he improvised quickly. “Will you escort the ladies, Slim?” and with a quick. “See you later, Mill,” he was gone.

Slim gave Millie a quizzical look. “Are you serious?” he asked.

She was quiet for a second and then her face broke into a huge grin. “Are you kidding? Jess is my best friend. Now why would I want to spoil a perfect relationship like that by getting hitched to him?”

”So when are you thinking of putting him out of his misery?” asked Slim chuckling.

“Oh I’m not sure,” Millie said, coming over and linking arms with Slim and Daisy as they made their way down the street for the celebrations. “Later, I guess … much later.” So with that, all three laughed, and a puzzled Mike looked on, as they all went in search of one very anxious blue eyed cowboy.

***End***

Thank you for reading!

Author’s NoteThe theme for this story was Loss. In part one, Jess was physically lost, as far as his family was concerned. Jess also had an overwhelming feeling of emotional loss, as all his memories were ‘lost’ too. When he got close to Lizzie, memories of his beloved Millie came back to him and then when Mike appeared, everything came flooding back and his memory was finally restored. Of course, all Jess’ family and friends suffered terribly from his loss until he was finally returned to them. The whole incident of the Atkins family duping Jess was down to the fact that they had experienced the terrible loss of a son and husband, making them act irrationally. Loss and grief being the reason for their deceit.

In part two, Lizzie lost her way emotionally when she tried to replace her dead husband with Jess. She maybe even lost her reason for a little while when she contemplated suicide. Then she was eventually brought to her senses when she finally accepted the loss of her husband after Jess was shot, and was able to move forwards with her life. Losses were restored, grief worked through and lives healed as the characters learnt some salutary lessons in life, enabling them to move on.

 

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