The Inheritance (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG  (Some adult themes, strong language and violence)
Word Count:  43,800


 

 

It was a peaceful Sunday afternoon at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, in early Fall, and Slim Sherman, the tall blond ranch owner, was huddled down by the fire looking at a sketch pad of old paintings with his young ward Mike Williams.

“Your Ma sure was a good artist,” piped up Mike grinning across at Slim. “I can tell that this one is of you even though you were a little kid just like me when she painted it.”

Jess Harper, Slim’s business partner and best friend, ran a hand through his black hair and then raised a quizzical eyebrow above his dark blue eyes. “So where did all the talent go then, buddy; I reckon you couldn’t draw a straight line to save your life.”

“Now Jess, don’t be unkind,” chuckled Daisy Cooper their sweet elderly housekeeper. “Slim may not have his Ma’s painting talents, but he definitely inherited his father’s eye for business and ranching.”

“Yeah, reckon I can’t argue with that,” said the young cowboy, from where he was lounging in his rocker whittling yet another animal for Mike’s Noah’s Ark. He glanced down at what he was doing. “I’m sure the good Lord in his wisdom knew what he was doin’ creatin’ two of each kind,” he said with his cheeky grin, “but I guess he didn’t have to carve ‘em all.”

“Oh, go along with you,” laughed Daisy, “you know you love doing it.”

Jess gave her a cheeky wink and put the last finishing touches to a remarkably lifelike steer to go along with the cow he had made earlier in the week and tossed it to the youngster. “There you go, Tiger, he should produce plenty of good beef calves for Mr. Noah and his family on their travels,” he said with a chuckle.

“Gee thanks, Jess,” said the youngster his eyes opening wide in delight. “He’s real neat; I’ll go put him with the other animals,” and he ran off happily to his room.

Jess smiled after him, before glancing down at where Slim was still studying the old paintings, so exquisitely worked by his late mother. He came and collapsed down by the fireside next to Slim. “May I?”

“Sure,” Slim said, passing the book over.

Jess spent a long time looking at all the pictures, smiling at some of Slim and Andy, his kid brother, as small children and admiring Slim’s Pa in his army uniform. After a while, he turned to his buddy. “It must sure feel good to have this as a keepsake, must kinda keep those happy memories alive for you?”

Daisy and Slim exchanged a subtle glance, knowing what a contrast Jess’s own upbringing was to Slim’s. His being one of abject poverty on the Texas Panhandle, where his own Pa beat all the kids black and blue at the least opportunity, and his poor Ma was old before her time from childbearing and scrimping and saving.

“Yeah, I guess I was real lucky,” said Slim quietly.

Jess smiled over at him showing not a trace of envy. “So was it just the four of you? No other kin around?”

Slim looked uncomfortable for a moment. “Well, my Pa had a married brother, but they had a big fallout before me and Andy were born and my folks never talked about them.”

Jess grinned at this. “Guess it wasn’t just my family fightin’ and feuding then.”

“Um, never knew what it was all about,” Slim said thoughtfully. “What is it they say — you can choose your friends but you’re stuck with your family!”

“Or not,” said Jess his voice full of irony, remembering the fact that most his family had died in a horrendous fire when their home  was torched by the Banister gang when Jess was just fifteen, with his sister and him being the only survivors of a family of seven.

“Yeah, or not,” said Slim softly, throwing his buddy a compassionate glance.

Then the moment passed and Mike ran back in chattering nineteen to the dozen, but they were to remember this conversation much later — when family conflicts came to the fore of their thoughts again.

It was later in the week when Jess and Slim returned from bringing the last of the stock down to the lowlands for the winter and feeling hot, tired and dirty they heaved a sigh of relief that the task was finally completed. They had been working on the job all week and both men were exhausted after driving the steers back to the safety of the home pastures.

As they rode into the yard and jumped from their mounts, they suddenly realized that the afternoon stage was due shortly and Miss Daisy was off in town doing the marketing so the coffee pot wouldn’t be brewing on the stove ready for the passengers.

Jess made his way over to the outside sink, and priming the pump, doused his head in the icy water to cool down and wash off the dust, before grabbing an old towel and giving his face and hair a cursory wipe.

“Gee, that’s better; feel like I’ve been eatin’ trail dust all darn week.”

Slim wandered over and had a quick sluice too. “So which do you want to do, change the team or make the coffee?” he asked his buddy.

“Oh guess I’ll do the team,” said Jess good-naturedly, knowing it was the more onerous task of the two and seeing how weary his friend looked.

“Thanks,” said Slim, casting him a quick smile before turning to go in.

“Make it good an’ strong though, Slim.”

“Sure, sure, when didn’t I?”

A few minutes later Jess heard old Mose, the stage driver, urging the horses into the yard at a fast trot, bringing them to a shuddering standstill just beside the young cowboy.

“Hi Mose, you got passengers? Slim’s just doin’ the coffee.”

“Just the one, Jess, a gentleman.”

Jess wandered to the stage door, and pulling it open stood back, a friendly grin on his face ready to greet the passenger. “Coffee’s on inside, sir,” he said politely as the slim, blond haired man in a smart city suit stepped down, looking curiously about him and ignoring Jess’s warm welcome.

Mose, who had now jumped down from the box, exchanged a look with Jess, but said nothing.

Eventually the man turned to stare Jess in the eye and the cowboy felt a strange feeling of déjà vu, like he knew the man from another time, another place. “Say, have we met?” he asked.

The older man continued to stare at Jess, a far from friendly look on his face. “Oh no, I shouldn’t have thought so,” he said, with an air of distain.

Then as Jess stared into the light blue eyes set in a wide face, with the blond hair, he suddenly realized what it was, the stranger had an uncanny likeness to his best buddy Slim.

Sure he wasn’t as tall, more Jess’s height and the hair was a tad darker, the face not as open and honest, but the features were very similar.

Then he remembered back to their conversation of the previous week, about Slim’s errant uncle and wondered if this man could be kin.

As if reading his thoughts the blond man said, “I’m here to see Slim Sherman. Is he around?”

“Sure, inside brewing the coffee…. So you know him, do you?” asked Jess unable to hide his inquisitiveness and knowing old Mose was waiting for an answer too.

“Yes,” said the man. “He’s my brother. Now are you going to take me inside or are we going to stand about here all day?”

Jess and Mose just stared at the newcomer in shock, and then after a moment, Jess finally came to his senses. “Slim’s only got one brother, Andy. So who are you, Mister?” he said, his tone suddenly menacing.

The man threw Jess a hard look. “I just said, didn’t I; now be a good man and bring my cases in will you,” and without further ado, he marched purposely off towards the ranch door.

Mose and Jess again exchanged a puzzled glance before the old-timer hauled down a couple of bags, and passing them to Jess, made his way over to the house , not wanting to miss a minute of the unfurling drama.

When Jess arrived a minute later, it was to the sound of raised voices.

“What in Hell are you talking about, I think I’d know if I had an older brother!” yelled a flushed angry looking Slim.

The older man merely sat down at the table and looking across to Slim said darkly, “Well I’m sure it is something of a shock to find that your squeaky clean daddy upped and sired another son, but guess you’ll come to terms with it in time brother dear.”

Then turning to where Jess and Mose were standing on the threshold he said,” so aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend here Slim?”

Slim glanced across at where Jess stood with the man’s cases and ignoring the request for an introduction said, “What are you doing with those Jess?”

“The gentleman here seems to think he’s stayin’?”

“He does, does he, well I reckon we don’t have any business to discuss,” he said, but then staring at the man, Slim suddenly realized the uncanny likeness to himself and felt lightheaded with the shock and the implications, could he really be his brother?

Taking in the sensitive situation, Jess said quickly, “Come on, Mose; help me change the team, will you? Figure your runnin’ a mite late for coffee today,” and bundled him out of the room.

Once they were outside the old timer turned on Jess.

“Huh, what you talkin’ about, Jess? I ain’t a runnin’ late… and I’m real parched too.”

“Well that’ s just too bad,” said Jess and  knowing what a dreadful old gossip he was, he  escorted him over to the other side of the yard  and helped him change the team before bringing him a cup of cool water straight from the pump.

“There you go,” he said with a cheeky grin, “that should quench your thirst.”

“Aw Jess, you’re no fun,” he said taking a swig of the water and then climbing back up on the box, he  clicked the team out of the yard, his back set ridged showing his disapproval of Jess’s cavalier attitude.

Jess mooched about the yard for a while finding jobs to do until his craving for a coffee and a chilly little wind that had got up, made him eventually head for the warmth of the ranch house.

He entered quietly and saw the two men deep in conversation sitting at the table drinking coffee.

Jess wandered over and giving Slim a questioning look, said, “OK if I come in, have a drink?”

Slim gave him a sheepish smile,” yes of course buddy.”

Then he took a deep breath, and said,” according to the birth certificate this is my half-brother, Marcus Sherman, Marcus, my best buddy and business partner, Jess Harper.”

Marcus stood up and shook Jess’s hand rather half-heartedly, “Harper, good to meet you,” then with a speculative look,” business partner eh? “

“Yes,” said Slim quickly,” we’ve been partners for nearly three years now Jess owns half the ranch.”

“Oh really?”

The atmosphere seemed to have subtly changed and Jess felt uncomfortable, but not half as bad as his best friend, he could see as he glanced across at Slim who was looking pale and deeply shocked.

“You OK buddy?” he asked softly, ignoring the rather supercilious look on Marcus’s face.

He just shook his head and said nothing and then the men heard the buckboard rattling into the yard and a moment later Mike burst into the room followed by Daisy, and stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of the stranger and glancing from Slim to Marcus and back looked increasingly surprised.

Marcus had leapt up from his seat at this new intrusion and was now casting Mike and Daisy a less that friendly look,” so Slim, you’ve quite a household here,” he said.

Marcus lost no time at all in introducing himself as Slim’s long lost brother.

Daisy looked askance at Slim and Jess, but took this new information in her stride and asked if Marcus was able to stay for supper.

“Oh yes, my dear lady,” he said somewhat condescendingly,” I shall be staying indefinitely, need to catch up with old Slim here, us being kin and everything,” he said throwing Jess a withering look.

“Well, I don’t know…..” started Slim standing up and looking anxious.

“Oh yes dear bro, we’ve got a heck of a lot of catching up to do, talk about our Pa… and then business to discuss too,” he said again throwing Jess a baleful look.

Jess looked over at his buddy, “Slim?”

Slim just shrugged his shoulders looking defeated,” I’ll take your stuff over to the bunkhouse,” he said weakly and disappeared off out, looking like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Jess walked over to the older man and threw him a hard look.

“I don’t know what your game is mister, but you go upsettin’ ol’ Slim there an’ you’ll have me to answer to.”

Marcus Sherman looked down his nose at Jess and said sneeringly,” your loyalty is most laudable my dear fellow, but fortunately completely unnecessary, why Slim is family and I wish him nothing but good….”

“Sure you do, “said Jess sarcastically, before wandering off to help Daisy with the supper.

It was later that night before Slim and Jess had a chance to talk properly.

After supper Marcus had insisted on cracking open a bottle of whiskey he had brought and as his language got more explicit,  his jokes more risqué and he became a little drunk ,Daisy whisked Mike off to bed before retiring early herself, throwing Jess and Slim  an anxious look over her shoulder as she  went.

Finally Marcus was dispatched off to the bunkhouse still clutching his whiskey bottle and Jess and Slim made their way to their shared room.

Slim sank down  on his bed the picture of dejection and after a while Jess turned from where he’d been washing and said softly , You wanna tell me about it then, Slim?”

He shook his head looking anguished,” I just can’t believe it Jess… that Pa would do that  , go with another woman that way, I always thought he was devoted to Ma….”

Jess sighed deeply. “Well, you know it’s easy for a man to be tempted. Maybe iffen your Pa was away  from home, fighting in the army,  the way your told me…. well may be he just met this woman and he just needed some comfort… some lovin’ …. You know what it’s like yerself, fightin’ with the army; a man gets to thinkin’ each day might be his last, and well then he does things maybe he wouldn’t normally do… “

“Not Pa,” said Slim stubbornly,” he wasn’t like that.”

Jess shook his head sadly. “All men are like that, buddy; I guess you’ve just put your Pa up on a pedestal.”

Slim shook his head again,” I just dunno; maybe you’re right, feels like I don’t know anything anymore, like my whole world’s crumbling around me Jess….. “

But if he was feeling troubled then, well that was nothing to how he was to feel when he heard further revelations from Marcus about his parents and their history, the following day.

It was midmorning and the men were sitting having a coffee after their morning chores.

Mike was at school and Daisy had left early to look after a sick friend, but although she was obviously worried about her good friend and neighbor, she was also relieved to be getting away from the house for a while, having taken a dislike to Marcus following his behavior of the night before.

“I’m so sorry dear, but Betty needs me and to be honest I don’t feel comfortable with that man in  the house, he may say he’s  you’re brother Slim, but I find that very hard to believe.”

“I’m sorry Daisy, but well…… I can’t throw him out, not just yet anyways; he says he needs to talk so I figure I’d better hear him out.”

“Of course dear, I do understand, but just watch Mike around him.”

Then Jess had walked into the kitchen where they were chatting quietly.

“Don’t worry about Mike Daisy; I’ll watch him real good, and anymore of Marcus’ drinkin’, I guess Slim and I will see him off, won’t we buddy?”

Slim nodded,” like I said, he can have his say and then he goes,” and with that they saw Daisy off on her visit, saying she hoped she’d be home in a few days.

Now as the two men sat drinking their coffee, Jess tipped his head towards the door, “so I wonder when Sleeping Beauty’s gonna show his face.”

Slim just gazed down into his cup, “hung over I guess.”

Then Jess idly picked up the birth Certificate Marcus had shown Slim the night before and started reading it.

“That’s funny,” he said, “it’s got your Pa’s name on here, Matt… Sherman, it’s kinda faded and the name is smudged some, but it says Matt Sherman as the father and then an Eva Sherman as mother… funny she should have the same name?”

Slim grabbed it off him and looked for himself, and said, “Yeah… really odd.”

A little while later the door banged unceremoniously open and Marcus staggered in looking the worse for wear.

“Coffee,” he groaned.

Slim and Jess exchanged a smile and Slim poured him a cup and gestured for him to sit with them.

After a while, when Marcus was looking marginally less like he was about to chuck up, Slim broached the question of the names on the Birth Certificate.

“I thought it kinda odd; your Ma was called Sherman?”

Marcus’s head shot up. “Well, sure she was. I thought you understood; she was married to your Pa.”

“What!”

“Yeah, my Ma, Eva was married to your Pa, well before he was your Pa that is, with me being three years older. Then they had a big fall out and he walked out and Wed your Ma…. Only one little problem though bro, he forgot to tell her he was already married…”

Slim’s eyes widened in horror.

“Yes, that’s right, your beloved Pa was a bigamist and so I guess that makes me his legitimate son and you and baby brother Andy are both bastards, and with that he gave a shout of laughter.

“Yes the upstanding Mister Slim Sherman a bastard…. And I guess that’s something you wouldn’t want the good honorable citizens of Laramie to know about would you?” he said with a sneer.

He had been so busy taunting Slim that he hadn’t seen the mounting fury on Jess’s face so it was a complete surprised when he felt himself hauled out of his seat and flung across the room.

“What… what the hell are you doing Harper?”

“Get out!” spat Jess furiously.

“But I really must protest… I … “

“Get out,” bellowed Jess advancing on him a murderous look in his eyes, “I won’t be tellin’ you again.”

Marcus looked over at the young rancher and didn’t like what he saw one little bit and decided to cut his losses and make himself scarce for a while, discretion being the better part of valor.

“Very well Harper, he said.

Then turning to Slim,” see you later bro, we have things we need to discuss,” and with that he left for the bunk house.

After he’d gone Jess sat back down again and replenished their coffee cups before turning his full attention on Slim and what he saw made his heart ache.

His buddy looked completely shattered, almost shell shocked as he turned uncomprehending eyes on his best friend.

“How can that be so Jess? Pa and Ma not properly married…. Hell I can’t believe it… I just can’t believe it,” he whispered almost to himself, shaking his head.

Then his head shot up and he gave Jess an agonized look,” Hell Andy mustn’t know… nobody must know Jess,” he said his eyes beseeching.

“Well no one will hear it from me Slim, but I can’t say the same for that low life out there. I figure you need to find out what he wants and then send him on his way.”

“Yeah, you’re not wrong there Jess, we’ll have it out with him tonight.”

“We?”

“Sure, I want you in on this; you’re a partner in the ranch…. And ….”

“What Slim?”

The blond haired rancher gave him a shy smile, “and you’re sure more of a brother to me than he could ever be.”

Jess grinned back at him. “Thanks, pard. We’ll sort him out and send him on his way and guess you can begin to try and put all this behind you.”

But it was not to be.

That evening all three men sat around the dining table to discuss Marcus’s business.

When it was obvious Jess was staying, Marcus was not best pleased.

“Don’t let me detain you Harper, your boss and I have personal business to discuss… if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Well yes, actually I do,” spat Jess throwing Marcus an angry look.

“I asked him to stay,” said Slim firmly, “Jess is a good friend and partner…. And I’m not his boss, thought I’d made that plain Marcus, he is the co-owner of the ranch and relay.”

Marcus laced his fingers together and surveyed Jess for a moment before giving him a venomous smile,” maybe he is ……..at the moment.”

“What do you mean,” asked Slim looking bewildered,” sure he’s a legal Partner, all signed and sealed.”

“Um, well maybe this will change that,” said Marcus Sherman producing a bulky document from his pocket and throwing it on the table in front of Slim.

Slim picked it up and looked at the brown parchment and read the faded ink, Last Will and Testament of Mathew Sherman, before staring across at his alleged half-brother in shock.

“Where did you get this?” he asked in a hushed whisper.

“From my Ma, just before she passed on, she reckoned she didn’t want to have anything to do with you all… and so although Pa left the ranch to me in his Will she never told me at the time, then when she died I figured I’d find out a bit about you and what this ‘property ‘that was mentioned in the Will was like.”

Jess and Slim exchanged a wary look before Marcus continued.

“And low and behold I find a nice thriving little business, which, my dear brother, was actually left solely to me by our late Pa… you and that kid brother of yours aren’t even mentioned in his Will, so you see the whole of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station belongs exclusively to yours truly… not you Slim, or Andy…. and certainly not to Harper here,” he said with a wicked grin.

“What are you talking about?” yelled Slim jumping up from his seat and glaring at the older man, “after Pa died Ma inherited the property and then it was passed to Andy and me…..”

“Well I think you’ll find this is his last Will and Testament, which overrules all others and it was all left fair and square to me.”

Slim looked closely at the document and then threw Jess an anguished look.

“Hell this is dated just before he died and the copy of our Will was made just after Andy was born, I think,” he gasped.

Jess’s mouth gaped in shock,” you sure?”

Slim just stared back, shaking his head,” guess I’m not sure of anything anymore, it’s so long since I’ve seen it.”

“Well, where is it? Let’s take a look.”

“Er… dunno.”

“What?”

“I’m not sure, Jess. Like I say it’s been so dang long since I saw it… last time was when Jonsey lived here,” he said, referring to the old timer friend of his Pa, “and I remember him saying he was putting it somewhere safe.”

Jonsey had lived at the ranch with the young brothers after their parent’s death, before locating back east to care for Andy when he was at school there and had since moved to be with relatives in England.

“Well it’s not like you can ask him where he put it,” said Jess with rising irritation.

“Um… well, amusing though this little drama is, I think I’ll take myself off to town for the odd round of cards gentlemen and will bid you good evening and  happy searching,” said Marcus with his malicious smile before retreating from  the room.

Once he had gone Slim sank his head in his hands and sighed deeply, before looking over at where Jess was still sitting opposite him looking stunned.

“I feel like I’m living some sort of nightmare and I’ll wake up in a minute,” he said quietly.

Jess shook his head. “Nope, buddy, this is real and I figure we’ve gotta find your Will because I really don’t believe this rubbish about your Pa leaving everything to that lowlife, come on Slim, let’s get searching,” he said getting up and giving him an encouraging pat on the back.

They spent the whole of the evening and long into the night practically pulling the ranch house apart from attic to root cellar and there was no sign of the missing Will and eventually they admitted defeat and turned in.

As they were about to bed down Jess peered out of the window,” the buggy’s not back, I reckon Marcus must still be in town, probably been tippin’ the jug again and sleepin’ it off somewhere.”

Slim who was lying staring up at the ceiling suddenly sat up. “Hell, you don’t think he’s said anything about all this business do you…in town, I mean?”

“Nah, be too busy gettin’ pie eyed and losin’ at cards, I should think, and anyway, it ain’t any reflection on you Slim, what your Pa did or didn’t do; people won’t judge you on that.”

Slim gave his buddy a hard look. “It’s his honor at stake here Jess… his memory, there are still a lot of people in town who liked and respected him… I can’t let his reputation be tarnished this way… don’t you see that?”

Jess looked down and then back at his friend,” yeah… yeah of course I can and I’m sorry Slim, guess we’ll do whatever it takes to keep him quiet… and to get this business sorted out.”

“Thanks Jess, I knew I could count on you,” and with that they finally settled to sleep.

Then just as Slim was drifting off, Jess suddenly sat bolt upright in his bed and said, “Goldarnit, we’re a pair of fools, Slim!”

“Huh… wh… what Jess? “

“Us, prize idiots, you’ll have had a copy of the Will…..somewhere, but the original will be lodged with the family lawyer Matt Benson and I reckon he’ll be able  to tell us if that Will Marcus has is the genuine article or not too.”

“Jess you old son of a gun, never let me question your intellect again,” said Slim suddenly looking ecstatic , “of course why didn’t I think of that, old man Benson will sort it out, heck he wrote the Will in the first place,” then turning to beam at Jess,” thanks buddy I owe you.”

“Well I reckon there ain’t nuthin’ wrong with my intellect, as you call it, and as for owing me…. mine’s a pint. After we see Benson tomorrow, and get it all sorted out,” he said, grinning over at his friend.

“Done!” said Slim as he happily lay back down, maybe the nightmare was coming to an end.

*****

The following morning they took Marcus’s suspect Will and rode over to town first thing, only to find their mission thwarted. They marched up to Benson’s Office to see a notice on the door saying closed until further notice.

“What in hell does that mean?” asked Jess sharply.

Slim gave him a sarcastic look,” he’s closed until further notice I guess.”

Jess just threw him a withering look and crossed the road heading for the Sheriff’s office.

“Hold up,” said Slim running after him, “where are you off now?”

“Ask Mort of course,” said Jess referring to Mort Corey, their good friend and town Sheriff.

“Anything goes on in town Mort will be sure to know.”

He burst into Mort’s office closely followed by Slim.

“So where’s old man Benson hightailed it off to then?” asked Jess as he breezed in.

“Well, good morning Jess, Slim how are you this fine morning?” said Mort dryly, raising a quizzical eye brow at the pair.

“Sorry, ‘morning Mort… so?”

“Mr. Mathew Benson revered Family Lawyer, or ol’ man Benson, if you prefer, Jess, is on the trip of a lifetime visiting kin back East and will be away for approximately another month. Anything else I can help you with?” he asked, throwing his friend an enquiring look.

Slim slumped down on the chair opposite Mort’s desk looking totally woebegone.

Mort glanced at him and then back at Jess who was looking equally put out, and realizing the men weren’t in  the mood for banter sank down into his own chair and  looking back at Slim said gently, “so what seems to be the problem then boys , you in need of a lawyer?”

Jess glanced at Slim and sighed, “Yeah, I guess you could say that, Mort”.

Then glancing back at Slim again said,” tell him buddy he won’t say anythin’ and might be able to help.”

After a moment Slim sighed deeply,” yeah, sure.”

Then looking at Mort said,” I know I can trust you to be discreet Mort, see it’s this way….” and went on to explain the whole awful predicament.

Mort was his usual no nonsense self and was also extremely understanding and sympathetic. Then after he had finished offering advice and commiserating with their troubles, he gave them the ghost of a smile.

“Well at least this sure makes sense of one of my questions,” he said and walking over to the door dividing the office from the cells, tipped his head and gestured for the men to look inside the cell.

There, lying flat out on the bunk snoring gently, was Marcus Sherman.

“Brought him in last night drunk and disorderly and he kept tellin’ me his brother, Slim Sherman, would be over to bail him out,” he chuckled.

“Of course, I didn’t believe him.” Then giving Slim a penetrating look, “And I guess I still don’t, no matter how many birth certificates or Wills he comes up with.”

Slim gave him a heartfelt smile, “thanks Mort I appreciate that.”

“Um, well, guess it takes more than flesh and blood to be kin; he may or may not be related to you Slim, but he sure don’t act like you or any or your family, so don’t you go fretting. Old Benson will doubtless sort him out on his return.”

“That’s all very well Mort, but what do we do with him in the meantime, as far as that Will is concerned it looks like he could have a case,” said Jess frowning across at the good Sheriff.

“Yes and that’s what’s worrying me, I suppose he could come to me as the Law around here and ask me to step in on his behalf.”

Jess’s head shot up,” Hell you wouldn’t would you Mort?”

“Not if I can help it Jess, no, but as far as the town is concerned, well I do have my duties to perform, so I reckon you’ll just have to keep him at the ranch until you can get your Will validated, meet him half way and keep him sweet for a while.”

Slim sighed again,” oh well, I guess it’s only for a few weeks, we’ll manage won’t we buddy?” he said turning to Jess for reassurance, but his friend had a grim smile on his face.

“Sure we’ll manage OK, but will he?”

“Huh?”

“Well, he wants to inherit the ranch, don’t he, and we’ve both seen he knows about as much about ranchin’ as the cat; hell, he can barely sit a horse… “

“So what are you saying?”

“Just that I figure if Marcus there thinks he’s going to be a ranch owner, then we need to give him a sorta crash course in ranchin’…”

Slim smiled for the first time that day.

“You get my drift, pard? “

“Oh, yeah,” said Slim happily,” I’m way ahead of you Jess.”

Then turning to Mort, he said, “If you’d like to wake your prisoner, Sheriff, I’ll pay his fine and get him home. I figure there’s a whole mess of chores back there with his name on.”

Mort grinned back,” I reckon this calls for a good jug of cold water to liven him up a little,” and he went off cheerfully to complete the task.

*****

However the way it worked out Jess’s plan was to backfire spectacularly.

The next day Marcus was sent off to ride fence.

“So what pray does that entail,” he asked looking bewildered.

“Well, it’s real hard, Marcus. See, you ride down the fence lines and check they’re all OK, and iffen they ain’t, you go back and repair ‘em.”

Marcus had only been gone an hour or so when his horse returned rider less and Marcus limped home a good two hours later, having been unseated once the horse broke into a trot.

So Slim figured he’d be better off working closer to home where they could keep an eye on him, but then he spooked the horses so badly when he tried to care for them that he had to abandon that task too.

He ran out of the barn cussing and saying the damn animals were wild and how was he supposed to groom them when they wouldn’t stand still?

He managed to nearly chop his foot off when asked to split some kindling for the fire and finally even Mike’s jobs seemed beyond him when he was unable to corral the hens for the night and then managed to drop the basket full of eggs.

Slim and Jess were in the kitchen making a scratch meal, steak and eggs…. minus the eggs, when Jess’s temper finally got the better of him. “Goldarnit,” he exploded,” can’t he get anything right?”

However just as he spoke Marcus emerged from where he’d been skulking in the big room and glared at Jess.

“OK your fun’s over,” he spat,” from now on I’m purely working in a management capacity and first thing tomorrow you and I will go through the books Slim,” he said firmly.

Jess glanced at Slim, who was looking decidedly pale, and then back at Marcus.

“Well what the hell’s that supposed to mean…’ management capacity,’ so you sit around and watch the rest of us work all day is that it? “

“Yes I suppose you could say that, and I will be making all the decisions around here … and I hate to say it Harper but the first one I shall be making is to dispense with your services.”

Jess turned from where he had been chopping some meat for supper and throwing the knife down advanced on Marcus so that he was just inches away from his face, and then speaking dangerously quietly he said, “I think you may have forgotten something Mister Sherman; you ain’t got no say here until that Will is proven, so if I were you, I’d just pipe down before I forget you’re supposed to be Slim’s kin and I show you my capacity for managing…lowlife scum like you!”

“Jess, take it easy, just leave it, huh?” said Slim coming over and pulling him gently away from the confrontation.

“What!”

“Jess, please you’re not helping any just leave it for now.”

Jess threw his buddy a harsh look and shrugging his hand away made for the back door and left slamming it after him and a few minutes later they heard Traveler galloping out of the yard.

“Um, wise choice siding with me Slim, that ex gunslinger really isn’t good for the business image you know and the sooner you dissolve the partnership the better all around.”

“Now just a darn minute here,” spat Slim, suddenly regretting reining Jess in, “that just isn’t going to happen, Marcus; Jess will be a partner in this ranch as long as I own it.”

“Ah, yes but you won’t own it for much longer dear bro and the sooner we get rid of all these ‘hangers on’, the boy and the old woman and that saddle bum, then the happier I’ll be.”

“Slim just shook his head you’re crazy you know that?”

“Maybe I am, but the way I see it I hold all the cards right now, you haven’t forgotten our little talk the other night have you Slim? How I promised complete discretion about your family’s … shall we say somewhat colorful past, in return for your complete acquiescence during our current discussions regarding ownership.”

“No I haven’t forgotten,” said Slim wearily,” but Jess is right, you don’t own the place yet Marcus, so you can’t…no….won’t make any changes, you understand?”

“Oh that’s all right, I guess I can bide my time, but I’m warning you, keep a tight rein on that hot head, unless you want all Laramie  to know what our dear Pa was really like.” said Marcus.

*****

That ‘hot head’ was currently leaning  against the saloon bar and knocking back a beer that didn’t touch the sides before smashing  his glass down  and calling for another one.

Tom, bar keep and good friend, exchanged looks with Millie one of the saloon girls , who raised an  eyebrow in  return and  said softly, “ it’s OK I’ll go Tom, looks like  Jess is in  need  of a bit  of female company to smooth those ruffled feathers.”

She took his glass and refilled it and then leaned on the bar opposite him, her chin resting in her hands and turning her big brown eyes on him said,” so what’s the matter honey?”

“Aw, don’t ask, Mill, nuthin’… really,” said Jess, looking down into his beer and sighing deeply.

“Hey Jess you’re talking to your best friend here,  in fact one of your oldest, so don’t give me that rubbish that there isn’t anything wrong, because I can see there is.”

Jess and Millie went way back to his childhood Panhandle days, when he was a snotty nosed kid with the seat out of his britches and she was a grubby faced little Tom Boy in a hand me down dress, as Jess had often described her affectionately to Slim.

Well they’d both grown up some since then and Millie with her hour glass figure, long black hair and pretty features was a great asset to old Tom and the saloon trade. She would have a laugh and share banter with the customers but that was as far as it went, and if she and Jess were not dating anyone they could usually be found in each other’s company.

Jess once admitted to Slim that she was his best female friend and if she occasionally shared her bed with Jess, well, that was nobody’s business but their own. And Millie had once confided in a close girlfriend, that she and Jess loved each other, but neither had ever thought of taking the relationship onto a more permanent footing. “Both too young and fancy free, she had said with her infectious giggle, but maybe when we’ve both grown up some more!”

Now watching him staring morosely into his beer she felt a stab of pity and reaching out took his hand and looking him in the eye said,” come on then Jess tell me. “

When he still didn’t open up she threw him a speculative look,” this isn’t anything to do with that sleazy drunk that was in here the other night, trying to tell anyone that would listen he was Slim’s long lost kin?”

“What,” said Jess his head shooting up,” what’d he say?”

“Just that he was a distant relative come to stay a while that’s all… why? “

“Oh, nuthin’.”

Then there was a long pause before he said, “What do you mean sleazy? He didn’t try it on with you did he Millie?”

She nodded and then when she saw Jess’s hackles rising said,” it’s OK  he just made a few suggestive remarks, nothing I haven’t had to cope with before, no need to get to frettin’ Jess.”

“Um, wait ‘til I see him,” he muttered.

The evening wore on and Millie’s duties, waiting table and pouring drinks took her away from Jess, but she was back at his side at the end of the night and saw that the several pints he had imbibed during the course of the evening had done little to lighten his mood.

Taking pity on her friend she said quietly, away from the other customers hearing, “like to come up for a coffee after we close?”

Jess gave her a faint smile. “Guess I’m not very good company right now, Mill; thought I’d just bed down at the livery with ol’ Trav.”

“You not going home then?” asked Millie looking surprised.

“Nah, don’t feel too welcome there right now.”

“How so? Miss Daisy always makes a fuss of you and as for little Mike he loves you to bits, so what is it, had a fall out with old Slim?”

Jess looked down again. “Well, I’ll tell you, Mill, Daisy and Mike have moved out… Just for a while like.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, staying with Daisy’s sister out Cheyenne way and seein’ as how school’s closed for half term she’s taken Mike with her.”

Jess didn’t mention that Daisy and Marcus had had several disagreements leading to her saying it would be better for her and Mike to get away for a while. And then the matter was finally decided when Marcus thought Mike had been rude and raised a hand to him.

That had been the last straw for Jess and he had thrown a punch and floored the older man, the result being that Daisy had packed her bags that night and left on the morning Stage saying she would return when the home felt safe again. She knew nothing about the alleged bigamy or to Marcus laying claim to the ranch, or Daisy being Daisy would most likely have stayed and fought Slim’s corner, but she did not and was merely trying to keep young Mike out of harm’s way.

Now with Jess perceiving that Slim was somehow siding with his kin, he felt hurt and angry and knew if he returned that night it might well end in blows again.

“Come on, honey, you look like you could do with some cheering up and you can tell me all about it, huh?”

Suddenly dear sweet Millie seemed very appealing to him,” thanks,” he said softly”, guess maybe I could use some company.”

They entered her large room on the first floor and as she lit the lamps Jess looked around the familiar abode and felt his spirits rising as he stooped down and removed his boots and gun belt and leaving them, along with his hat by the door he padded across the room and took a seat on the comfy old couch set in front of a glowing fire.

Meanwhile Millie busied herself throwing the odd item of discarded underwear behind her dressing screen and pulling the sumptuous red drapes to block out the chill night, before throwing a patchwork quilt across her large old bed and finally coming and pouring their coffee from a pot by the fire.

Jess accepted the cup and glanced around the cozy room, with its red glow from the lamps, and Millie’s fripperies and ornaments dotted about giving a lovely feminine, soft feel to the place and felt at once comforted.

He relaxed back and stretched his legs out in front of the fire and took a sip of the strong coffee. Then Mille came and cuddled down beside him, her feet circled beneath her and an expectant look on her pretty face,

“Well, tell me all about it then, Jess,” she said softly.

He turned to regard her for a moment and then said, “It’s kinda personal; Slim’s family business, you know?”

“Well if he’s having a tough time I figure he wouldn’t mind me knowing, we are real good friends you know that.”

Jess considered this for a moment and knew the truth of it.

“Well I guess Slim  could use all the friends he can  get  right now,” he said thoughtfully, “but see thing is , well you know what a proud man  he is and I reckon  there is stuff going on  right now that… well I guess he  wishes even I didn’t know about, and iffen  I tell you anything,  it’s to go no further.”

“That goes without saying, you know that.”

So Jess explained the situation briefly, but without the added stigma of the alleged bigamy, just that this half-brother was laying claim to ownership of the ranch.

“ I reckon the Will is a forgery, but I guess we won’t know until old man Benson comes home  and I figure it would help if we could find Slim’s Will too.”

Millie looked very upset,” poor Slim how awful for him… to lose his house and business like that.”

Then suddenly her eyes opened wide as the full implications hit her,” heck… your home too Jess you’re a Partner, own half that place.”

Jess looked down feeling the full depth of his despair, for a moment and then looked across at his dear friend.

“That ain’t the worst of it, Mill; it looks to me like Slim might be siding with this Marcus over me… what is it they say, blood is thicker than water?”

She looked profoundly shocked at this,” no,” she said,” I don’t believe it of Slim.”

“Well I tried to stand up to that bastard tonight, support Slim, and he called me off –backed down. Hell, Mill, I thought I meant more to him than that,” he spat angrily.

She took his hand and looked deeply into his eyes.

“You do Jess, you must hold onto that. I figure this hombre is deliberately trying to mix things between you and Slim and if what you say is true, about there being stuff going on that Slim doesn’t want anyone to know about; well then maybe this man has a hold over him. Told him to toe the line or he’ll tell everyone about this private family business?”

Jess smiled into her eyes for the first time that night. “You think?”

“Yes, I do, Slim wouldn’t abandon you, you must know that. “

“Yeah, I know…” he said softly, “guess it’s just all kinda complicated.”

“You’ve not told me the half of it have you?” she said with a teasing little smile.

He gazed back and then returned the smile. “I guess not; like I said, some of it is real troublesome stuff that Slim wishes even I didn’t know…and anyways I reckon it’s all lies.”

Then she gave  him a  bleak look,” never mind about Slim  right now, what about you, you could lose your friend, your home and  your livelihood,  what would you do if this Will turns out not to be  a fake?” she asked looking fearful.

Jess turned quizzical eyes on her. “Well, you sure know how to cheer a body up, don’t you!”

She flushed. “Gee, I’m sorry, honey, that was real crass of me… guess I’m just worried about you… I couldn’t bear the thought of….”

“Of what, sweetheart?” he said softly, seeing tears beginning to form in her eyes.

As one spilled over and ran down her cheek she brushed it angrily away, and then in a small voice, said, “I couldn’t bear the thought of you leaving Jess, of you going back on the drift.”

He stared at her for a moment and then leaned across and very tenderly wiped the tear away with his finger.

“Hell, Millie, it won’t come to that; I ain’t goin’ nowhere. I’m gonna stay and fight Slim’s corner, whether he wants me to or not,” he said with a rueful smile.

She gave him a watery smile back,” honest?”

“Honest.”

And then he leaned forwards  again and gently kissed her tears away, before finding her mouth and kissing her very softly and tenderly, then as he felt her responding, kissed her more passionately, running a hand through her hair and pulling out the pins so it flowed prettily down  around her face and shoulders.

“My beautiful girl,” he whispered as he pulled back and looked lovingly at her, one finger caressing her cheek.

“Stay, don’t go Jess, stay tonight,” she whispered her eyes searching his.

The following morning they overslept and the first thing Millie knew, Lily, one of the saloon girls, was tapping on the door wanting to know if Millie was considering doing any work that morning.

She groaned and then extricated herself gently from where Jess’s dead weight was pinning her down, with one leg and his arm thrown across her body as he lay in a deep sleep. As she moved him and got up he gave a low moan and then turned over on his side and continued snoring softly.

She glanced down and gave him an affectionate look before searching around for her wrap and eventually padding to the door.

She opened it to an indignant Lily,” well about time I thought you were out!”

“Hush,” said Millie softly, pulling the door a little wider so that Lily could take in Jess’s recumbent sleeping form.

“Sorry Lil, had company last night, guess we overslept.”

Lily gave her a cheeky wink and giggled, “Well, with Jess around, I imagine you didn’t get much sleep.”

“Oh you…Shush, Lil; I don’t want Tom hearing. You go down and cover for me and I’ll be down shortly OK?”

Lily nodded and turned to go, then she turned back,” so was Slim in town with him?”

Millie knew Lily was sweet on Slim and they dated occasionally, but she was pretty sure Jess wouldn’t want her to know anything of the current dilemma.

“No, figure he’s real busy at the ranch right now.”

“Oh that’s too bad, so…err, Mill will you ask Jess to remind him about the Harvest dance next week, I’d kind of hoped he’d ask me.”

“Sure, sure  I will, now go keep Tom sweet while I wake up Jess and get him out the back… and lord knows how long that  will take, he hardly functions in  the morning without a gallon  of gut rot coffee,” and giggling the two girls set off about their business.

As predicted Jess was in need of coffee and lots of it, so on leaving the saloon he made his way across the road to Miss Molly’s café where he sat in a semi-comatose state until her strong brew began to work its miracles and he felt he could face the long ride home.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, when Slim awoke to see Jess’s bed empty and unslept in, it fuelled the fires of guilt he was already feeling. He knew he had put his own agenda first, trying to keep Marcus sweet at all costs to prevent him besmirching his late father’s memory, but Hell at what cost, his friendship with Jess?

He knew Jess was only trying to stick up for him and to keep a roof above their heads and the business safe and if he did it in a somewhat unorthodox and volatile manner… well that was just Jess wasn’t it.

At breakfast that day he was morose and barely spoke or looked at Marcus and once he had finished eating he made to leave.

“So where are you off to?” asked Marcus looking surprised. “And where’s that lazy no good ranch hand? Still in his pit, no doubt. I really think… “

But he was never to say what he really thought as the patient, easy going Slim had finally had enough.

“I don’t give a damn about what you think… or what you say for that matter, and you can leave Jess out of this, he’s worth a hundred of you, and I just hope he knows I think that,” Slim finished more quietly. Then turning to glare at the older man, Slim added, “I’m riding fence this morning and you can muck out the barn seeing, as how Jess isn’t here right now.” With that, he turned on heel and marched out without a backward glance, leaving Marcus looking dazed at this sudden turn about.

He finished a leisurely breakfast and then reluctantly made for the barn.

There were three horses in their stalls, two of the best stage team animals and one of Jess’s favorites — Chief, a tough old buckskin that he rode occasionally or used to pull Daisy’s light buggy.

Marcus gave them a dour look and then started half-heartedly to clean them out, but after an hour or so he decided it was time for a break.

He collapsed down on the floor leaning back on a bale of straw and pulling a flask from his vest pocket took a good swig of the bitterly strong hill whiskey.

Then he lit a cigarette and lay back for a smoke and, as he felt, well deserved rest.

Gradually his eyes began to close and he took one final drag at the cigarette, before tossing the butt away and settling down for a mid-morning nap.

*****

Jess saw the plume of black smoke wafting up into the clear blue sky the minute he crested the ridge overlooking the ranch, then he smelt the acrid smoke and finally he heard the anguished whinnying and banging about as the terrified horses desperately tried to escape from the flames.

He sat on Traveler looking down in horror for a moment before he was suddenly galvanized into action and spurring his mount down the slope and into the yard he threw himself from the animals back and tore towards the blazing barn and the terrified, trapped animals.

As he entered he was accosted by the smell of burning and a cloud of black smoke that immediately made him gasp for breath and retch as it made its way down to his lungs. He quickly adjusted his bandana to cover his mouth and nose and made for the first of the stage team horses and after a few false starts finally managed to guide him out and left him to run free away from the conflagration before going back in for the second horse, which seemed slightly calmer than the first. However the smoke was getting denser and Jess knew he had to get the stock out safely before he could begin to fight the fire.

He ran back in and was just going to liberate Chief when he stumbled over something in the now pitch black darkness of the barn.

He fell to his knees and felt about on the floor until he finally located an unconscious body and using all his strength he managed to lift the dead weight and stagger out with him into the blessedly cool fresh air of the yard.

He dumped his load unceremoniously on the ground and after a moment Marcus started to come around coughing and spluttering.

That was the moment that Slim galloped back into the yard, having seen the smoke in the air from where he was working in the north pasture.

He quickly took in the scene of Marcus’s recumbent body and Jess, his face black and clothes filthy and singed, trying to help the older man.

“You OK, Jess?”

“Yeah, start the fillin’ the buckets; I’m goin’ for Chief.” Turning, Jess ran back towards the blazing barn, but Slim was on his heels.

“No Jess,” he said grabbing hold of him,” you’re not going in,  he’s  right at the back, you’ll never make it, let it go buddy.”

Jess turned furious eyes on Slim, “can’t do that,” and wrenching himself free he ran back into the black hell hole, that was their barn.

This time the heat of the flames nearly pushed him back but he managed to locate a bucket of the horses water near the door, and  doused himself with it before staggering and  choking he made for the rear stall where he could hear Chief banging desperately at the stall door with his heavy hooves.

Once he reached the animal and unfastened the door it was obvious the big horse would refuse to go through the flames that were now licking the nearby wall.

Jess knew there was just one chance and he had to take it.

Coughing and gasping he grabbed hold of the horse’s mane and threw himself up onto his back and then urged the horse forwards.

Chief at once recognized the authority of the rider, from the confident way he sat to the firm commands he gave him and the old horse knew this was the man he loved and trusted …and conquering his terrible fears he ventured forwards as he was commanded.

Once the old horse saw the light of day through the open barn door he headed straight for it and bolted out, not stopping until he had reached the far side of the yard where Jess leaned over his neck, talking softly until the horse slowly settled and he slid from his back, suddenly defeated as he fell to his knees coughing and retching.

Then firm arms were supporting him and Slim was there offering a canteen of cool water,” take it easy Jess, just relax, try and breath real slow and deep.”

“The barn,” he whispered. “We gotta save the barn…”

“Look,” said Slim, supporting Jess so he could peer over at the big building and he was amazed to see a line of local friends and neighbors forming a chain to convey water buckets and the flames already beginning to be doused down.

“Everyone who was working on their land saw the smoke and  high tailed it over, got it under control in  no time,  was mostly just the straw as was burning we’ll save  the barn … thank God,” he  whispered looking down  at his buddy’s filthy, yet triumphant face.

“Guess the old place is worth fighting for, ain’t it, Slim?”

But Slim was too moved to reply and just nodded, and thought to himself if ever there was a time for realizing Jess was a true Partner in the ranch and belonged to the place as much as any kin might have, then this was it, and he was determined that Jess would know that before the day was out.

However as it happened a deep heart to heart was not on the cards for that day as it soon became apparent that Jess was in a bad way.

One of their neighbors was dispatched to fetch Doc Sam Baker, their good friend and family physician, as soon as it became apparent that Jess was having difficulty breathing.

He breezed in an hour or so later and immediately went over to where Jess was still wheezing and retching, lying on the old leather couch by the fire, tears streaming down his face from a violent coughing fit he had just suffered.

Sam came over and forgot about his usual banter when he saw how sick his buddy was looking.

He quickly opened Jess’s shirt and spent several minutes listening to his chest before casting Slim a grave look and seeing Jess was quite incapable of speech said,” so how long was he exposed to the smoke?”

Slim shook his head sadly,” a while before I landed, he’d already pulled out Marcus and got two of the team out,  then when  I arrived he went back in for Chief… hell I tried to stop him Sam, but you know Jess….”

“Oh yes, I know Jess and his horses alright,” he said with a faint smile for his friend Slim.

“So this Marcus, is he suffering too? “

“No, he’s not too bad at all, reckon Jess hauled him out before he’d inhaled too much, he’s resting in the bunk house but he’s fine.”

Sam just nodded dismissing the man from his thoughts as Jess began coughing and spluttering uncontrollably.

He hauled him up into a sitting position and resting a hand gently on  his belly said softly,” try and breath really slowly from deep down here  Jess and just relax buddy,  don’t panic,  I know it’s really scary when you can’t breathe….just take it real slow….”

He continued speaking calmly and softly until Jess relaxed back, his breathing slower and the coughing and gasping for breath finally stopped.

“S…sorry Sam….”

“Hush, buddy, it’s OK; you’ve  just got way too much smoke in those old lungs of yours and you’re going to have to take it real easy for a week or so, do exactly what Slim tells you for once… understand?” the doctor said with mock severity.

Jess turned red running eyes on his buddy, and giving him the ghost of a smile, he nodded.

“Well good,” said the doc cheerfully. “So Slim, he needs to be kept sitting upright at all times, two even  three pillows at night, as much fluid as you can get into him, water fruit juice, milk and broth, no alcohol and NO coffee,” he said, glancing down at his patient.

“I’ll leave you some medicine to help ease the burning in his throat, but I’m afraid the coughing is nature’s way of trying to clear some of the rubbish out. A mixture of lemon and honey in water will help ease things some too.” Then the doctor turned and patted Jess on the shoulder. “Try and take it easy, Jess, and I’ll see you in a couple of days”.

He went out with Slim. “You need to keep an eye on him, Slim; if he has a really bad attack where he can’t breathe like just now. Try and keep him calm and talk him through it, OK?”

Slim just nodded, looking anxious.

“You’ll have to feed him a light diet too; all that coughing  may make him tend to chuck up his food, so just stick to broth and egg and milk for a few days.”

Slim nodded and wished, not for the first time, that Daisy was around to help; she was fantastic at nursing Jess, and Slim was missing her calming presence something fierce.

“I’ll take a look at your guest while I’m here. And are you OK Slim?”

The tall blond rancher turned troubled eyes on his friend. “Sure, sure,” he said absently. Then turning back to gesture to the house, he asked, “He seems real bad, Sam… he’ll be OK?”

The older man looked concerned. “Difficult to say what the damage is with smoke inhalation. His lungs sound pretty bad right now. He really needs to behave to give himself a fair chance, but to be honest it’s too soon to say, he may make a full recovery….”

“Or?”

“Or he could have serious lung damage that will never clear properly. But let’s look on the bright side and I’ll be over to check him come Wednesday. Now let’s have a look at this Marcus, a cousin did you say?”

Slim just gave him a noncommittal nod and showed him to the bunkhouse, but didn’t go in.

Truth was he was so dang mad with Marcus he couldn’t bear to be in the same room with him.

Shortly after the incident he had almost completely recovered and he admitted to smoking in the barn and said he was ‘awfully sorry’, if he had caused the ‘little mishap.’

Now knowing how sick Jess was as a result of Marcus’s carelessness Slim couldn’t trust himself to be anywhere near the man.

Sam was in and out in a matter of minutes and had a thoughtful expression on his face as he emerged from the bunkhouse. `

“Well he’s a strange sort,” said Sam conversationally,” Jess saved his life and he couldn’t even be bothered to ask how he was.”

Slim just grunted,” yeah well he’ll be gone soon if there’s any justice.”

His friend gave him a quizzical look but when it appeared Slim was not going to be forthcoming with anything more on the subject, Sam left, saying to a call him if there was any detrition in Jess’s condition.

At least Marcus had the common sense to leave Slim alone and spent several days away from the ranch before returning to the bunkhouse where he kept a low profile.

Meanwhile Jess was having a tough time of it.

As always he spent half his time joking and trying to make light of his illness and the rest of the time moaning and being a stereotypically difficult patient.

He declared he couldn’t function without coffee and that a diet of broth and milk was only suitable for newly born kittens or puppies and as he was neither he demanded something more substantial. But of course Sam was right and he couldn’t hold down any food and also suffered several very distressing episodes when he couldn’t get his breath.

The worst incident was a few nights after the fire.

Jess was tucked up early and almost sitting up as he had three pillows to his back and eventually managed to drift off to sleep. But  in the early hours  of the morning Slim was awoken by blood curdling screams and  he knew Jess was suffering from one of the dreadful nightmares he had intermittently, when he relived the family home having been fired by the Banister gang, and he again experienced  being trapped and then the  screams of his dying siblings and  parents.

He usually had the nightmare if he was unduly stressed about something, but of course having just been in a burning building was bound to bring all the old sensations back to him. Now as Slim leapt out of bed and threw a comforting arm around his buddy’s shoulders, he thrashed about as if trying to escape from the building in his dream.

Slim talked softly to him , trying to wake him gently and after a moment the struggling finally stopped and Jess opened his eyes wide in terror, staring around the room as if he didn’t recognize the place.

“It’s Ok buddy, just dreaming”, he said as he rubbed his back and tried to relax him.

Then the coughing started, and after a minute or so, it was obvious that his breathing was getting more and more difficult as he took ragged gasps to try and fill his aching lungs.

“Easy, easy Jess; do like the doc said, breath real slow and deep from  your stomach, try and relax, it’ll be OK…”

But he seemed to get worse and had a blue line around his mouth as he gasped desperately trying to breathe normally.

Slim looked on in anguish as he saw his buddy losing his battle for life as he turned blue and the fear suddenly turned to anger… “don’t you dare up and die on me Jess,” he yelled,” don’t you dare… just breathe goddamn you!”

Jess’s eyes opened even wider in shock at this cavalier treatment, but then something deep inside him rallied, the old Harper fighting spirit.

He used every last ounce of his resolve to calm himself down, and try and remember what he was supposed to do, breathe Harper, come on you can do this, just breathe,’ he thought to himself and gradually as he focused his mind the panic, which had taken over, receded and after several long minutes he was finally able to breathe normally.

He continued panting for a little while , the sweat pouring from  his pale face and  he finally relaxed back into Slim’s strong  arms, and  looking up at his buddy with hurt eyes, said through gasps, “Well, there was no call to yell at me, Slim; I’m sick, you know.”

Their eyes locked for a minute and they smiled and then started laughing, so much that Jess nearly had a relapse, but from then on he began to heal and within the week he was back on his feet.

 *****

The following Saturday found the two men sprucing themselves up for the Harvest Dance that night. It was the last of the outdoor events for that season, held on a little dance floor adjacent to the road out of Laramie and a popular venue. Not least because of the fairy tale like appearance of the place with lanterns hanging from the surrounding trees illuminating the small dance floor and alfresco bar, but also the proximity of a small copse of pine trees making the perfect meeting place for young lovers.

Slim and Jess were looking smart in pristine white shirts with black neckties, brocade vests, black frockcoats, dark trousers and highly polished boots all set off with their Sunday best Stetsons and both were making  an effort to put their current troubles behind them for one  night at  least.

That was until Marcus barged it.

He walked into the ranch house as though he already owned the place and glancing across at Jess said ,”so you’re up and around again then Harper.”

Jess just threw him a hard look without replying, but Slim was incensed.

This was the first time Jess had seen Marcus since he had pulled his unconscious body out of the burning barn, but he just moved over to warm himself by the fire, picking up a copy of the local paper as he went and settled down  to read.

Slim just stared down at him in astonishment for a moment before going over and ripping the paper from his hands and yelled,” you really take the biscuit don’t you, Jess here saved your life and nearly lost his own in the process and you can’t even be bothered to thank him!”

Jess flushed up and looking down said gruffly,”Just leave it, Slim; it’s OK.”

“No it’s not OK,” cried Slim getting even more annoyed,” and I want  to make something crystal clear to you Marcus, while you and  Jess are here… “

He took a deep breath,” I figure I’ve been every kind of a fool trying to go along with you, sit back while you treated this place like you already owned it, just to buy your silence about Pa. Well it’s over, Marcus. You can say what you damn well like; me and Jess are going to fight for this place and we’re going to keep it no matter what it takes.”

Then turning to Jess he said,” and I’m truly sorry if you felt I was siding  with that low life Jess , your worth a hundred of him……… guess I’d be proud to call you a brother,” he finished quietly giving him a pleading look, “can you forgive me?”

Jess just threw him his shy smile and leaning forwards gave him a light punch on the arm and that was the only answer Slim needed as he grinned back.

Meanwhile Marcus had been getting more and angrier at this display of solidarity and now he leapt to his feet making for the door, but then turned back and gave them both a malicious smile.

“Very touching dear bro but I’m afraid it makes no difference to me, Harper is still out on his ear as soon as I gain control of the business. “

“Oh and Harper, thank you for saving my life, dear chap, but I fear you will live to rue the day, but there we are….”

“Anyway I’m off to the dance; got a pretty little thing I’m after tonight and I think she’ll be more than happy to accommodate me, especially when she finds out I’m shortly to be moving in permanently. She might even be wife material…. See you later,” and with that he shot off without a backwards glance.

“God help any girl he takes a fancy to,” said Slim dryly.

Jess grinned across at his buddy. “Come on, Slim; forget about him. He really ain’t worth the bother and besides you’ve got more important things to concentrate on, like Miss Lily.”

Slim beamed across at him. “She really asked after me the other week?”

“Sure did. Was real concerned. You should ask her along. Figure you’re on a promise there, buddy, and don’t forget what I taught you — it’s all in the kissin’!”

“You and your romancing,” laughed Slim. “I’ll manage quite well without your meddling, thanks Jess.”

“Hum, well iffen you need any help, just come to the expert,” he replied and he went off to saddle up, chuckling to himself.

However he was back a few minutes later looking annoyed.

“I thought Marcus had rounded up the chickens for the night? “

“Sure. I saw him do it myself, threw some food in and then locked ‘em up way I’d showed him.”

“Well there not dang well locked up now. Slim, give us a hand, will you?”

It took them a good half hour to catch all the ornery critters as once they had been fed they were quite happy to run around the yard causing mayhem and frayed tempers.

They were finally incarcerated back in the hen house for the second time, after much cussing and running around by the two cowboys and angry squawks from the hens.

Then Jess couldn’t find Traveler’s bridle which was missing  from its usual place on a hook near his stall and  was finally unearthed  under a pile  of old rope.

“How in hell did it get here?” asked Jess looking exasperated.

“Um, first the chickens out and now this. Guess I’m beginning to smell a rat,” said Slim thoughtfully, “a rat named Marcus.”

Jess just shook his head. “Well I wouldn’t be surprised; come on buddy, the girls will think we’ve stood ‘em up”.

When they finally rode into town, over half an hour late they could already hear the band striking up at the open air dance at the end of Main Street, and leaving their mounts at the livery they hurried over to the Saloon, where they had arranged to meet the girls. However when they entered the place was practically deserted.

They came in, and leaning on the bar, ordered a couple of cold beers before turning round to survey the quiet bar.

“So where is everyone?” asked Slim.

“Why down at the Hop, of course. Thought you boys would be there by now; your dates left long since.”

“Huh?” said Jess looking surprised. “Millie’s gone?”

“Sure, Millie and Lily went off with that er…cousin is it? Guy as is stayin’ with you, anyways.”

“What! Come on, Slim.” Both men marched out of the bar at speed, pausing only to throw a couple of coins down for the drinks.

“Well, you were late,” old Tom called to their retreating backs, but they were halfway out the door and didn’t respond.

When they arrived, the dance floor was heaving and it took them a few minutes to locate Lily sitting out and scanning the crowds, an anxious look on her face. However, as soon as Slim wandered over, she smiled up at him. “Why hello; thought you’d stood me up,” she said shyly.

“Heck no,” said Slim, slumping down in the seat beside her. “I wouldn’t do that, Lily; we just had a last minute hitch.”

Then Jess was at their side, still looking around uneasily; he glanced down at Lily and gave her a small smile. “Hi honey. So is Millie dancing? “

She looked up at Jess in surprise. “Well yes she was, with that man that’s staying at your place, Marcus is it?”

“Where is she?” asked Jess his voice suddenly icy cold.

Lily glanced nervously from Jess to Slim and back,” well like I said they had a couple of dances and I could tell Millie wanted to sit out, then he said he’d just remembered that Jess said he’d be a little late and he’d meet her at the livery.”

Jess raised an eye brow, “the livery?”

“Well I thought it was a bit odd. Anyway he offered to walk her there and they took off through the pines, I could tell Millie wasn’t any too keen, so I was going to walk with her and then… “

“And then?” prompted Slim.

“And then old Ma Johnson came over to introduce me to her niece, and when I looked up, they’d gone.”

Jess looked seriously worried now,” through the pines you say?”

“Yes, only about five minutes ago, you’ll probably catch them up if you hurry,” but Jess had already left, running off in the direction of the dark pine wood.

He plunged into the shadowy wooded area and followed the path on through to the corral at the back of the livery, with no sign of Millie or Marcus and he entered the stable through the back door, that old Bill always kept ajar for clients to come and go as they pleased, and called out, but there was no answer.

He walked stealthily into the dimly lit building and listened intently, but all he could hear was the munching of one or two horses feeding and others moving about in their stalls.

He stopped when he came to Traveler’s stall and fondled his nose for a moment and was about to walk out onto Main Street, thinking  they had moved on to the Saloon, not finding Jess in  the Livery, when he heard it —  a muffled sob, and then another louder one.

He stood stock still, his heart suddenly pounding. “Millie,” he whispered, then louder,” Millie… that you?”

Then from nowhere, she was suddenly there beside him, weeping as though her heart would break. “Jess… oh Jess, thank God,” she cried as she fell into his arms.

“Mill? Hey Millie, what is it, honey?” He pulled back so that he could see her properly and was horrified by what he saw.

Her beautiful red and black strappy dress had been torn badly; there was a livid cut to her cheek, her hair wild and her face tear stained.

“What in hell has happened to you?” he said in a shocked voice.

“Marcus,” she sobbed, “it was Marcus.”

Jess’s grip on her arms tightened and he turned pale,” he… he attacked you?”

She just nodded,” he……. he said you were going to meet me here, I didn’t want to go with him Jess, but he insisted, said I shouldn’t go through the  woods alone… and then  … “

“What…… tell me Millie, what?”

“We were half way through and he grabbed me and tried to kiss me and when I said no, he got mad… real mad, tried to… force me…to…to….. pushed me down on the ground…. But I struggled and then kicked him real hard….” Then she started sobbing again.

Jess ran a hand through his hair and stared at her for a moment before pulling himself together. “Did he… Millie, did he … “

“No, no I escaped. After I kicked him, he keeled over and I ran here, thinking you’d be waiting and he followed me, started slapping me about and then I… well I guess I just lost my temper. I hit him back, real hard, slapped his face and it seemed to bring him to his senses; he sort of apologized and walked off.”

“Where is that bastard?” Jess spat. “I’m gonna kill him…”

She shook her head,” no Jess leave it, just take me home will you… please, “she asked starting to shake.

He took his jacket off and covered her nakedness, where her dress had been torn away and pulling her close he started to walk slowly back to the saloon, a protective  arm around her shoulders.

He went to take her in the back way, but the door was locked so they had to go in through the main entrance.

“I can’t face anyone,” she whispered,” don’t want them to see me this way.”

“Hush, it’s Ok, the bar’s practically deserted, everyone’s down at the dance.”

Jess was right, the place was virtually empty save for one drunk swaying at the bar, being given dubious looks by old Tom who was at the far end polishing glasses.

He looked up when Jess and Millie entered and the smile of welcome froze on his face as he took in his saloon girl’s disheveled appearance. “Millie dear, what on earth happened to you?” he asked, his eyes wide in shock.

Then as they came further in, the drunk turned from the bar to see who had entered and Jess found himself staring into the bleary eyes of Marcus Sherman.

Pushing Millie gently aside he advanced on  his quarry and without any preamble,  launched a blow to the man’s chin which sent him flying across the room  where he landed on a table, sending it crashing to the floor with him atop, practically out of it from a single blow, but  Jess wasn’t about to leave  it there.

“Get up you bastard,” he roared, “or is it only girls you hit?” Leaning down he dragged the man up by his shirt front before laying into him again with a quick right and left that brought him to his knees, trembling and begging for mercy.

“Oh no, you’re not gettin’ off that lightly,” said Jess with a malicious grin. “Come on, you low life, fight me.”

Marcus staggered to his feet and threw a couple of wayward punches at Jess which he  easily parried and then the dark haired cowboy seemed to lose interest  in  the  conflict and finished it with a haymaker that sent the other sprawling.

Jess wiped his sleeve across his sweating face and finally stooped down and dragging  Marcus’s recumbent form up, frogmarched him to the door and threw him unceremoniously out onto the side walk.

Tom followed,” good riddance,” he spat,” you’re barred Mister,” and with that he turned back inside to lock the door.

“Reckon I’ll close early,” he said,” what with everyone being at the dance and all.”

Jess just nodded.

“So you staying over?” asked Tom quietly, tipping his head to where Millie had collapsed down on a chair, and was still looking pale and shaky.

Jess nodded, “sure I’ll take care of her Tom.”

“Reckon we need Doc Sam over?”

He shook his head. “I guess not, just that cut on her cheek. He didn’t do anything else to her.” Then looking down he said softly, “He sure wouldn’t be wakin’ up tomorrow iffen he had, Tom.”

Tom nodded knowing how close Jess and little Millie were. “Yes well, glad it didn’t come to that son. Go on, you take her up and tell her to take the day off tomorrow, wait until she’s feeling a mite better afore she comes back to work…”

Once in Millie’s cozy room Jess tenderly set about cleaning up the scratch to her cheek and then very gently helped her get undressed and into bed.

He tucked her up and then went off to make them some coffee, liberally laced with whiskey and returned a little later and passed it over to where she was now sitting up in bed and looking a little brighter.

She patted the bed next to her, “getting in?”

“Sure,” he removed his shirt, but keeping his denims on joined her lying on top  of the covers and sat up next to her sipping the powerful brew.

After a while she gave him a small smile,” you sorted him real good, thanks Jess.”

He turned to look at her. “Beats me why you went with him, Millie; you’ve seen what a low life he is when he got drunk here the other night.”

She sighed, “I know, I know… I guess it’s just the fact that he’s Slim’s kin, I thought he can’t be that bad… and the way he kind of has a look of Slim about him…. but guess I’ve  learnt the hard way, he ain’t nothing like Slim.”

“Um…… I guess I know what you mean… when I was slugging him before, I was way passed mad… that’s for sure, but I somehow couldn’t feel good about layin’ into him… guess there is something there that  reminds me of old Hardrock too…. reckon he is kin, you know…. but he sure is the black sheep of the family.”

Finally he took the cup from her and she settled back down for the night. “You’ll stay with me won’t you?” she whispered, her eyes growing heavy.

“Sure, I’ll be here.” and he put a brotherly arm around her and she relaxed with her head on his shoulder, “I’ll be here,” he whispered again as he heard the gentle rhythm of her breathing but he knew she was already asleep.

The following morning when she awoke the bed was empty and she thought for one dreadful moment that he had left her, but then she sat up and on looking around saw him tending the fire.

He wiped his hands and then came over and sat on the edge of the bed. “Hey, sleepy head, how are you feelin’ today?”

She smiled up at him. “Much better, kinda foolish, but better.”

“Hey sweetheart, none of this is your fault; it’s all down to that excuse for a human being Marcus Sherman.”

“Jess… don’t let  this business rock the boat, I mean I know how sensitive Slim is about all this family business coming out, whatever it is, so just do as he wants OK?”

“Nah, it’s alright, I reckon me and old Slim are of a mind now as far as Marcus is concerned and I tell you something, I ain’t spending another day under the same roof as him after this. Slim will just have to decide, either Marcus goes or I do… “

“Jess…. no… “

“It’s OK honey,  now you stay put, Tom says you’re to have the day off, so you relax and I’ll see you as soon as I can, next week for sure OK?”

“OK”

“And I’m having a word with Mort too, and if that lowlife as much as glances at you he’ll be banged up in a cell.”

She eventually smiled at him. “I sure wouldn’t wanna cross swords with you, Jess Harper; you can get real mean.”

He looked down into her beautiful smiling eyes and then suddenly felt incredibly moved. “Yeah, well you’re my best girl ain’t you,” he said softly, before leaning down and kissing her tenderly.

The he stood, and strode over to the door and snagging his hat from the hook pulled it down  firmly before giving her a little salute,” take care sweetheart.”

“And you…” and then he was gone.

It was still quite early and he wandered over to Miss Molly’s café where he figured he’d find Slim if he’d stayed in town after the dance.

He walked in and spied him right away in the window and walking over straddled a chair and resting his chin on his arms gave his buddy a broad grin. “So you struck lucky with Lily then?”

Slim flushed a little but couldn’t hide a big smile,” could say… left her fast asleep… so what happened to you and  Millie last night… that was sure an early night you had Jess… even for you….”

“No”, Jess butted in quickly it weren’t like that.

Slim detected a note of anger in his buddy’s tone.

“Oh?”

Then Jess told him all that had happened the previous night.

“So you see, Slim, I can’t work with the man any longer, not after what he did, so I guess he leaves the ranch… or I do”, he said,  throwing his buddy a penetrating look.

“Well, do you think I’d really have him back after this?” said Slim enraged.

“ Hell Jess you’re not the only one that’s fond of Millie, the guy isn’t fit to live with god-fearing folk, sure he’s not coming back…. and hopefully Daisy and Mike will be home next week and things can get back to normal…well once we’ve settled things with Mr. Benson that is… “

“Um, he ain’t due back for another couple of weeks though, Slim.”

*****

As it turned out, the return of their lawyer suddenly became irrelevant as there was a turn in events about to emerge that was to have far reaching effects on the two cowboys and their extended family.

After breakfast the two men wandered across the street to the Sheriff’s office and were made welcome with a coffee, before sitting down opposite the desk.

“So Jess, I heard about your little ruckus with this Marcus Sherman, or whatever he calls himself.”

“Yeah well he deserved ever last punch,” said Jess stubbornly, “and lucky he didn’t get worse.”

“Hey, steady, I’m on your side here; young Millie is a real favorite in  town and Tom told me what that evil bastard tried to do….in fact, I’m gonna haul him in later and read him the riot act, tell him if he bothers her again he can leave town for good.”

Jess smiled across at him, “well that saves be a lot of bother, that’s exactly why I came over to ask you to do just that.”

Mort smiled back and then looking from Slim to Jess and back again, said, “oh, I thought you’d come to discuss this meeting next week.”

“Huh?” said Jess.

“What meeting?” asked Slim.

“Why the one this Marcus has arranged with his lawyer from back in Rawlins and the circuit judge, me and you two.”

“First I’ve heard of it,” said Slim looking shocked.

“So what’s it all about?” asked Jess,

“Well, I guess Marcus got tired of waiting on Benson returning so he went over to Rawlins last week, when you were sick Jess.”

“And?”

“And he’s persuaded the lawyer that drew up your Pa’s last Will and Testament  to come over and swear in front  of the judge and me that it is valid and if so…. well I’m real sorry boys , but it looks like he might get the ranch.”

Jess leapt up and banged a fist down on Mort’s desk. “Hell, he can’t do this, Mort.”

“Hey, steady boy, don’t you go shootin’ the messenger; I’m just surprised he ain’t told you about it.”

Both men rode back to the ranch in a state of shock, neither knowing which way to turn, the problem suddenly seeming insurmountable.

“If only we could find that damn Will.” said Jess morosely. Trust old Jonsey to hide it real good.”

“Hum just how he was with the medicinal whiskey, do you remember, we found it in an old boot of Pa’s once,” he said smiling grimly.

“Yeah, well I doubt we’ll find the Will there we’ve just about turned the old place inside out and no sign.”

When they arrived back at the ranch, they were amazed to see Marcus lounging on one of the old rockers out on the porch, but he stood up his eyes wary when he realized Jess was with Slim.

“Well I’m surprised you’ve  got the nerve to show your face here after  what you’ve  done,” spat Jess, marching over to where Marcus stood uncertainly on the porch, putting the hitching rail between himself and  Jess.

Slim was in hot pursuit and turning to Marcus said firmly, “you aren’t welcome here anymore Marcus pack your bags and get out.”

“Oh really, so you want me to go to town and have a chat with all your good friends there do you Slim, talk about old times, family history….?”

“You can do what you Goddamn like,” spat Slim looking furious,” just get off the ranch….”

Then Marcus gave him a malicious smirk. Your ranch until Wednesday, dear bro… oh I forgot to mention the little matter of the meeting with the judge didn’t I…?

“Get out,” yelled Jess moving over and grabbing the man by his shirt front he hustled him towards his hire horse that was hitched up in front of the house.

Marcus mounted awkwardly, before looking down at the two men and delivering his parting bomb shell.

“I reckon  you two had better get packing yourselves, because the moment I get the go ahead from the judge I’m putting this place on the market, figure ranching isn’t for me after all,” and with that he kicked his mount off  out of the yard to a brisk walk, leaving Slim and Jess staring at each other in consternation.

*****

The day of the hearing dawned as dark and gloomy as the men’s thoughts.

They rode to town in relentless rain and were cold and wet when they arrived and went for a quick reviving drink in  the Saloon, before the Hearing which was to take place in the Sheriff’s office at 2pm.

Millie ran out from behind the bar as soon as the two men entered and  gave Jess a hug and Slim a sympathetic look, “I heard the news,” she said,” they can’t do this can they Slim, surely it isn’t legal?”

“I’m afraid it is, I can’t find my Will and anyway I know that is precedes the one that Marcus has by several years, so I guess his is the Last Will and Testament, which is legally binding, the thing is… is it genuine?”

“Well let’s hope not,” said old Tom coming over with free drinks for the couple and as news got around the bar both men received good wishes and kindness from all around.

Once they made their way back out onto the sidewalk, Slim gave his buddy a satisfied smile,” well that sure was nice of everyone to side with us that way, figure Marcus hasn’t harmed my reputation any, that’s something at least.”

“Told you didn’t I,” said Jess with the ghost of a smile.

Then said softly to himself, “If the place comes up for auction, I reckon it won’t stop anyone of them from biddin’ for it, though.”

“Huh?”

“Nothin’, nothin’, Slim; come on, let’s get this over with.”

The hearing seemed to be over in the blinking of an eye to the two shell-shocked cowboys.

Marcus and his smug lawyer Hank Brown were already waiting in Mort’s office and they were soon joined by a very rushed and irascible circuit judge.

“Come along, come along then,” he said as he entered the office,” let’s get this over with I’ve an important trial in Cheyenne to attend and the Stage won’t wait you know!”

Slim and Jess exchanged an amused glance knowing full well that Mose wouldn’t be taking the Stage anywhere until he’d heard the outcome of the Hearing.

Mort and the judge wasted no time in checking the lawyer’s credentials and then he swore on oath that he had drawn up the Will and it was a legal and binding document.

The judge gave it a cursory glance and too agreed it was the genuine article and was already standing to go, when Jess leapt up and said. “That can’t be right; hell, this is our home, our livelihood. You can’t just dismiss it so damn lightly.”

The judge turned hard eyes on him. ”And you are?”

“Harper, Jess Harper, co-owner of the business.”

“Well in that case Mister Harper, my condolences but this is an open and shut case. This man holds the only Will available and it seems to me to be a legal document citing him as sole owner of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, and therefore your legal Partnership with Mr. Slim Sherman is hereby voided as from today. Now I must bid you good afternoon.”

Then Slim turned to him. “Please judge can’t you just wait until Mr. Benson returns he has the original copy of my Will.”

“But by your own proclamation it predates this one. No I’m sorry, Mr. Sherman, but the case stands and Mr. Marcus Sherman inherits the property as from this Saturday and is at liberty to put it on the open market as soon as the legal paperwork is completed. Good day.” With that he marched out, leaving Jess, Slim and Mort looking dazed and Marcus and his lawyer triumphant.

“Hell that only gives us three days to pack up and get out!” yelled Jess looking shocked to the core.

Then Marcus turned his evil smile on Jess, “oh no Harper, you heard what the judge said, you are no longer a Partner and I want you out today.”

Then Mort interceded,” I think you’ll find you do not have any legal rights until Saturday Sherman, now get out of my office, if you will, I have business to discuss with my friends here.”

“Certainly Sheriff,” and then turning to Slim said,” you will be most welcome to stay and care for the beasts until the sale, I imagine you would wish to do that, knowing animal husbandry is not… well not my forte shall we say,”, and with  that he swept out followed by his pompous lawyer.

When the men had gone they slumped back down in their chairs and Mort poured them all a coffee with a generous slug of Red Eye.

Then he turned his attention to Slim,” so what are you going to do Slim, stay on like he wants?”

He sighed deeply,” I guess otherwise the stock won’t survive to the auction…. “

“I figure we’re done for buddy, I’m sorry,” he said casting Jess an anguished look.

Jess had been sitting completely still just staring into his coffee, but now he seemed to rally.

“No,” he said loudly,” no we ain’t Slim, I’m not about to roll over and die even if you are. I’m gonna fight the bastard.”

“Jess, knocking him into next week might make you feel better, but isn’t going to help any,” said Mort gently,” just get you in trouble son.”

“That’s not what I mean, Mort. I aim to go to Rawlins, where he’s from, and do some diggin’ about. If I can get some  dirt on him, then maybe we’ll be able to find a way out of this sorry mess, hold up the sale for a while anyways.”

“Well it’s a long shot, but all you’ve got I guess,” said Mort giving him a kindly smile.

“Slim?” asked Jess raising a questioning eye brow.

“Thanks,” he said eventually.

Then looking sheepish,” you just never give up on stuff do you buddy?”

“Not when I think it’s worth fighting for no…. come on Slim let’s go home, guess we’ve got plans to make.”

When they got to the rise above the ranch they both reined in their mounts and sat looking down at their home, spread out before them, and never had a homecoming been more poignant as they were lost in their own private thoughts for a few minutes.

Slim  remembering his triumphant return  from  the war and  looking at the view he thought he might never see again , and then returning from  his father’s funeral and realizing he was now the new owner, the future of the business firmly in his young hands.

For Jess it was just as moving, as he remembered the first time he had ridden down into the yard and met old Jonsey and Andy, then how, after Slim had offered him a job, he had put away his old gunslinger weapon, and ways, for good and made a fresh start for himself.

Then he thought of all those difficult, early years when he had gone off on some wild goose chase or another helping old friends from his past and landing in trouble before finally making it back to the place he now called home, the only real home he had, had since the Banisters destroyed his childhood homestead and he lost his kin.

And then he thought of his new family, Slim who was a brother to him and to Daisy and Mike off in Cheyenne unaware of their uncertain future, and he knew that come hell or high water he was going to save this home for the people he loved, as much as for himself.

He turned to his buddy, and seeing the look of despair in his eyes knew he must be the strong one.

“Come on Slim, we’ve got things to do if  we’re goin’ to save this ol’ place for the next generation, for Mike and  his family.” With that positive thought, the two men rode down  into the yard.

As they entered the house Slim looked around him and sighed deeply and Jess cast him a questioning look.

“All this stuff,” he said gesturing to the old leather couch where both men had lain nearer death than  life on  more  than one occasion, his father’s desk with all his private papers, his mother’s water colors gracing the walls. “All this stuff,” he said again. “Dunno where to start with packing it up.”

Jess cast him a sad look,” figure it’s just our personal things we need to worry about, according to that legal note Marcus’s lawyer brought, the sale is to contain all fixtures and fittings.”

Slim looked shocked,” it said that?”

Jess nodded and went through to their shared bedroom and wandering over to his chest of drawers ha pulled out the bottom draw and after surveying the contents turned back to where Slim was leaning against the door frame watching him.

“Guess it won’t take me too long,” said Jess with his lopsided grin, gesturing to the few things inside the draw.

He knelt down and carefully removed the Bible that had belonged to his beautiful fiancée, Maria, who had been brutally gunned down in front of him several years before. He opened it now and surveyed the love letters from her, neatly bound in blue ribbon, along with several other important private letters.

He then took out the little velvet bag containing his mother’s engagement ring and a book Slim had given him one Christmas on horse breeding.

He picked up an intricately carved whistle made by his Indian Blood Brother, Little Wolf, as a special gift for him on leaving the tribe. Then he held a beautifully worked Arapaho medicine pouch made for him by Sky, Little Wolf’s sister, and the woman Jess had married and again lost in tragic circumstances.

There were one or two small gifts he had received from Daisy and Slim for his Birthdays and some pictures Mike had painted for him and that was about all.

He had put all the things on his bed, along with his clean shirts and pants, his Sunday best frock coat, vest and Stetson and finally his engraved pocket watch, and turned to look at where Slim was still watching him.

“Ain’t much to show for a life, is it?” he said.

“I guess this lot will all fit in one of those ol’ crates we’ve got back of the barn.”

Slim surveyed his best friend’s meager possessions and then throwing him a sincere look, said, “Well, I reckon the way a man is judged in life is about how folk regard him, not on his possessions…….. Whether he’s a true faithful friend or not… can be relied upon to come through… no matter what…. and going on that… well I figure your rich beyond measure buddy”, and with that he turned and left the room quickly.

Jess looked down at his things and gave them a sad smile. “Thanks, pard,” he said softly, to himself.

Jess’s stuff was all packed away and Slim had made a start on doing the same and both men were pretty tired by the time supper was eaten and Jess had packed his saddlebags for an early start the following day.

Then he suddenly remembered something, his old gunslinger weapon still hidden behind the lose bricks in the chimney breast.

He walked over removed the brick and reached into the dark hidey hole within and withdrew the gun, wrapped in an old cloth.

Slim watched him intently as he unwrapped it and ran a hand over the gun, almost caressing it, before, cocking the hammer and spinning the chamber of the well-oiled perfectly balanced hair trigger weapon.

“What are you going to do with that?” asked Slim after a minute. “Not thinking of using it again are you, Jess?”

His head shot up and he stared at his buddy for a long minute.

“It sure would be a good way to get some stake money together quickly, as a deposit on a new place.”

“No! No Jess I’m not going to let you go down that road again, you quit selling your gun to the highest bidder long since…. And anyway what do you think that would do to Daisy and Mike knowing you were putting your life on the line every day, just to get us another place.”

Jess sighed deeply and finally wrapped the gun back up,” guess you’re right, figure I’ll leave it here, push it well back so nobody will ever find it.”

He did as he said and as he pushed the gun far back he heard the dull clunk of metal hitting metal.

“What the…..?”

He pulled the gun out again and then reached his arm way to the back of the hiding place and after a moment pulled out a dusty old tin and wiping the dirt off the top took it over to the table.

Slim followed him looking puzzled, “what you got there Jess?”

“Dunno, you tell me.”

Slim looked closely and then he smiled,” well I’ll be……… this is Ma’s old cookie tin; I haven’t seen this since I was a little kid.”

“Don’t tell me, your ma found you and Andy with your hand in the cookie jar once too often so she had to hide ‘em away,” said Jess his eyes dancing in merriment.

Slim just gave him a pained look and after a bit of a tussle finally managed to pry the lid off and both men viewed the contents.

On top we’re Slim and Andy’s birth certificates, under them, some old household bills then a copy of the Sherman Marriage Certificate and finally underneath it all the Last Will and Testament of Mathew Sherman and Mary Sherman, leaving the property, land and stock of the Sherman ranch in equal parts to their son’s Andy and Slim Sherman upon their death, dated as Slim had surmised shortly after Andy’s birth.

The men exchanged a huge grin.

“So all I have to do now is try an’ prove this other one is a fake and we’re laughin’,” said Jess cheerfully.

Slim nodded, in awe of his buddy’s amazing faith, “yeah, that’s all,” he said softly, as he passed the Will over for Jess to take with him  to Rawlins along with Marcus’s version.

*****

They were sitting out on the porch enjoying a last coffee when Slim turned to his buddy,” so you got everything you need then?”

“I guess. It was good of the judge to insist we had that spare copy of your Pa’s Will, Marcus’s version  that is,” he said with a grin. “Reckon that might come in handy when I get to Rawlins. And the birth certificate he left at the ranch, I think there’s something fishy about that too, you know, Slim.”

Slim just nodded looking preoccupied.

If he was brutally honest, he thought Jess was going on a fool’s errand. After all, the Will had been legitimized by a lawyer and  a judge. What more was needed? And even now they had found their copy, it predated the other by many years. But he said nothing, knowing that this was maybe Jess’s way of coping… going down fighting  as ever, he thought with a rueful smile.

Jess cast him a penetrating look,” you don’t think I’ve got a hope in hell of sorting this out do you Slim?”

“I never said that.”

“You didn’t have to it’s what you ain’t said as is bothering me.”

“Huh?”

“Well you don’t seem too interested in what I’m gonna do in Rawlins.”

“I am buddy really, it’s just… “

“What?”

“Daisy and Mike, have you forgotten they’re due home next week,  well they can’t come, I can’t let them see their home sold from under them, guess I’m going to have to write to Daisy and suggest she stay on with her sister for the  foreseeable future. There is a school just down the road, so Mike will be OK and…..….. “

“OK! You think he’ll be OK, Hell Slim  he’s losing the only stable home he’s known since he saw his folks scalped by Indians in that godforsaken raid on the wagon train. He thinks of this as home and us as kin… and you think he’ll be fine because he can still get some schoolin’? “

“I didn’t mean it that way……. guess I’m just trying to be practical………face facts…… “

“And you think I’m not?”

“No…. I …oh hell I don’t know Jess, maybe you do have a chance of disproving this Will, but I can’t rely on that I… we have to make contingency plans.”

“Well, you can go off with your contingency plans as much as you damn well like. I’m goin’ to prove  that Marcus is as bigger bastard as we already know he is, and nuthin’ is goin’ to make me think otherwise….”

“Sure, sure buddy, I’m sorry,” said Slim softly.

After a few minutes, Jess smiled across at his friend….

“ No, it’s me as should be sorry. Guess we’re both just tacklin’ this the way we always do… me goin’ off half-cocked figuring I can beat the truth out of someone and you gettin’ all practical and  thinking things through…. But we shouldn’t be arguing, that’s fer sure…. Sorry Slim.”

“That’s OK; I figure this whole sorry business has gotten us both kinda spooked.”

Then he looked around the yard bathed in golden moonlight and off to the distant hills, and said thoughtfully, “Times we’ve cussed about the work load, the endless drudgery, the beasts dying  on us, the weather against us half the year and the relentless sun scorching us the other half….. well, I guess a man forgets just how darn lucky he is to live out here, have all this he said.” His gesture encompassing the yard and view.

Jess was silent for a very long time and then he said softly, “Guess you’re right there, buddy.” Then turning to his old friend, he said, “But we ain’t gonna lose it. If it’s the last damn thing I do, I’m goin’ to save it — I promise you.”

 *****

The following morning the weather had closed in again after the brief respite of the previous evening, and Jess set off for town in his rain slicker, hat pulled down low, and a determined expression in his eyes.

He rode into town just in time to share Sheriff Corey’s first pot of gut rot coffee of the day.

“So you’re off to Rawlins to try and find something on this Marcus Sherman, are you?” said Mort, settling down at his desk opposite Jess and regarding him over the rim of his coffee cup.

“Yeah, that’s right, Mort. I figure this guy isn’t all he seems and I aim to find out exactly what we’re dealin’ with.”

“Um, makes sound sense to me. I’ll wire Red Smith and let him know you’re on your way. He should be able to do some digging around before you land,” said Mort, referring to the Sheriff of Rawlins and a good friend of Jess’.

“Thanks, Mort. Reason I’m here, I just needed to be sure your watchin’ Marcus… that business with Millie,  well I couldn’t leave if I thought she was any  danger… you know?”

“Sure, sure Jess don’t you fret none I’ll look out for Miss Millie for you. Anyways I’ve had a stern word with this Mister Sherman and if he so much as considers sharing the same piece of side walk with her then he’s out of town, and Tom’s barred him from the saloon too.”

Jess grinned at his friend. ”So where’s he drinkin’? That dive on the edge of town?”

“You got it, he reckons the beers cheaper and the saloon girls more willing,” he said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, well that’s because the beer is watered down and the girls charge for their favors,” said Jess with irony. “Anyway as long as he’s leaving Millie and Slim alone I guess I’m happy.”

“So how is Slim bearing up?”

Jess shook his head. “Not good, Mort… busy makin’ ‘contingency plans’ for our future.”

“Well I guess it’s good to be prepared for the worst.”

“Come on Mort, you’re worrying me now,” he said with his cheeky grin.

“Gotta be prepared , you know Jess.”

“Um… well I figure if the worst does happen, we can always move over to Cheyenne to be near to Mike and Daisy. The Sheriff there is always banging on about wantin’ me as Deputy and Slim could find work on a ranch… just until we get a stake together to start up afresh that is,” he said quickly.

Then his face looked suddenly despairing. “Oh hell, I’d have to leave Mill… can’t do that…”

“Well guess you’ll just have to up and marry the girl, take her with you,” said Mort grinning at his friend.

Jess’s face was a picture.

“Hell Mort, now you’re really worrying me,” he said,” I’m off, see you in a week or so,” and with that he marched out of the office and down the street to the saloon to say his farewells to Millie.

When he arrived the place had the special peace and quiet that only a nosy, lively place seems to have when empty, an almost tangible silence.

“Anyone about?” called out Jess as he entered.

Tom wandered out from his room at the back, scratching and looking dazed, “you’re about early Jess, streets ain’t aired yet.”

“Yeah well I’m on my way to Rawlins, just called by to say goodbye to Millie, she about?”

“Still abed as far as I know son, go on up,” he said waving vaguely in the direction of Millie’s room before retiring into the back room again.

He tapped at the door, and after several minutes, Millie pulled it open and stood there looking drowsy but stunning in a gold colored, silk negligee.

She opened her eyes wide when she saw who it was and put a hand up to her hair, “Jess… what are you doing here at this hour? I must look a sight.”

He just stared at her for a full minute, “you look beautiful, “he finally whispered, taking in her drowsy eyes, prettily tousled hair falling around her shoulders and the alluring night wear.

She took hold of his hand and pulled him into her room, and glanced up and down the corridor before going in and closing the door behind them.

As soon as she closed the door he took her in his arms and leaning in close kissed her, at first very gently and then more firmly, running one hand through her hair and the other down her back, the silky material of negligee adding to the frisson of pleasure that shot through him.

She gave a little sigh before pulling away and helping him divest himself of the rain slicker, hat and boots before they wandered over to the couch.

She curled up next to him and said,” so what are you doing here at this hour Jess… and why do I have a bad feeling….you’re going away aren’t you?”

He looked down and then back up into her dark brown concerned eyes.

“Yeah, I have to honey, goin’ to Rawlins’s to try and sort out this sorry mess once and for all…”

She smiled at him then, and taking his hand said softly, “And you will.”

His eyes opened wide. “You really think so?”

“I know so. All the years I’ve known you Jess, you say you’ll do something…well then you do it.”

Jess beamed at her,” yeah I do don’t I!”

She gave him a puzzled look back,” what is it honey?”

He smiled down at her. “Just you… the faith you always have in me… well guess it kinda knocks me sideways sometimes,” he said softly.

“Well I reckon you do too, knock me sideways that is…when you suddenly show up when I ain’t expectin’ you… Kind of makes me realize how much you mean to me,” she said throwing him a seductive glance.

“Come here,” he whispered……

He left town much, much later than he meant to, but he figured it had sure been worth it and he left feeling one hell of a lot happier than when he arrived, that was for sure, he thought as he finally rode out, and good old Traveler soon made up the lost time and so he arrived at Rawlins a couple of days later just about on schedule.

*****

He entered Rawlins and went straight to the Sheriff’s office.

Red Smith was sitting at his desk reading old wanted posters but he leapt up when Jess wandered in and shook his hand warmly,” why Jess you old son of a gun, sure is good to see you.”

Then looking concerned, “Mort wired me, bad business about the ranch and all real bad…. I’ll help anyway I can.”

Jess smiled at his buddy. “Well, thanks Smitty; I appreciate that, I really do.”

“But, first things first, you’ll come away home with me for supper and see the wife and new addition to the family.”

Jess grinned across,” that sounds good to me.”

“Well what with the baby and all we can’t put you up, but Ma is still living down the street and she’d be real proud if you’d stay there Jess.”

Jess’s face broke into a wide smile. “And I’d be real proud to oblige,” he laughed. “So how is old Maud, keepin’…. well?”

“Oh yeah, can’t keep her down and dying to hear news of the folk back in Laramie, especially Daisy.”

Daisy and Maud Smith had formed a strong friendship a few years back when Jess had brought Daisy out to Rawlins seeking her long lost brother and the two women had got on so well that they still wrote at Birthdays and Christmas.

Maud had at first mistaken Jess for Daisy’s son and thought him a wonderful young man the way he had cared for the older lady and she always asked after him when she wrote and was now looking forward to spoiling him during his stay.

Jess enjoyed a wonderful meal cooked by Annie, Red’s pretty young wife and duly admired the new baby and it was after supper when both men were enjoying a beer out on the porch that the business of Marcus Sherman and his inheritance was finally discussed.

“Sure I know him and his Ma,” said Red, “live out of town a ways, keep themselves to themselves, especially after the old man died a while back.”

“But his Ma is dead too ain’t she?”

“Eva, nah, alive and kicking, a friend of my Ma… well as much as she’s a friend of anyone that is, as I say they don’t socialize much.”

“So, she remarried then?” asked Jess looking puzzled. “You said her husband died?”

“Re-married, no. She was married to old Marty for nigh on fifty years, I guess. She’s about 70 now and married when she was just a young lass in her twenties; Ma attended the wedding.”

Jess looked even more astonished. “Well that ain’t the way Marcus tells it. He reckons that Matt Sherman, Slim’s Pa, was his father and then Matthew upped and left her and married Mary, Slim’s Ma… but neglected to say he was still married to Eva…. making Andy and Slim illegitimate and Matt Sherman a bigamist.”

“What!” spat Red, practically choking on his beer,” you are kidding me. Hell, that’s purely a tissue of lies from start to finish Jess boy.”

“Well I’ve got his birth certificate here,” he said reaching in his vest pocket and handing it over for Red to scrutinize.

He looked carefully  and  then said, “yeah, I guess that is his birth certificate OK, but it doesn’t say Matt Sherman as father; it says Martin, see here where it’s all smudged, you can just make out Martin… see the i and n at the end?”

Jess looked again and once it had been pointed out to him he could see it.

“If you want any more evidence just ask my Ma she’s known them for years, and remembers young  Marcus being born… and his Pa was certainly Marty, that’s for sure, not Slim’s Pa. Heck we didn’t even  make the connection between Marty and Matt Sherman as Marty and Eva always said they had no kin in this country at all.”

“That figures,” said Jess thoughtfully,” apparently there was a big bust up afore Slim and Andy were born and his Pa would never talk about it.”

“Families eh,” said Red looking thoughtful,” they sure hide a mess of secrets sometimes.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, as far as I remember my predecessor said Marcus had been in trouble before, something to do with legal documents, cost him his job, but it was all before my time.”

Shortly afterwards they repaired to the Saloon for another couple of beers before Red took Jess around to Maud’s place for the night.

However the two men were so deep in conversation in the bar that they failed to see the shadowy figure of   Hank Brown, Marcus’s pompous lawyer, see Jess and quickly exit the bar by the back door.

The following morning found Jess sitting at the breakfast table with Maud Smith, finally refusing the third helping of ham and eggs, but accepting another coffee.

“You’re spoiling me ma’am,” he said giving her his cheeky grin. “I figure my horse won’t appreciate the extra weight.”

“Get on with you, skin and bone you are young man. You tell dear Daisy you need feeding up when you get home,” she said chuckling.

After a while Jess turned serious eyes on his buddy’s Ma and said, “Can I ask you somethin’, Maud?”

“Sure son, fire away.”

“I need to speak to Eva Sherman, ask her some questions about her son,” and he went on to explain all about the Will and Marcus’s lies.

She looked troubled. “Well, I don’t know my dear, we can try, but I doubt she will speak to you. She’s real cagey when it comes to that son of hers. Ever since he lost his job, she’s avoided everyone, me included; I reckon she’s real embarrassed about what he did.”

“Do you know what that was?” asked Jess. “Red said it was before he was in office?”

“Yes that’s right dear he was still in the army then.”

She looked thoughtful. “I think it was something to do with his work;, he was a clerk with the local law firm Brown and Marshall… well Marshalls as it  is now with Mr. Brown having left.”

“Brown,” said Jess thoughtfully, “would that be Hank Brown?”

“Yes that’s right, dear. Do you know him?”

“We’ve met… so he’s not actually working as a lawyer anymore then?”

“No, some say he left under a cloud and others he just took early retirement, two months ago I think.”

“So what about Marcus? Why was he fired? Something to do with his work at the law firm?”

“Yes that’s right; he had a short jail sentence. It might have been forgery or inappropriate use of the information he had as a clerk, something like that. I forget, dear, and as I say, Eva never discusses it”.

Jess’s eyes flashed darkly. “Oh I guess she will,” he said quietly, “once she knows how important it is to me.”

Later that morning he hitched up Maud’s light buggy and drove the half mile out of town to Eva Sherman’s place.

They knocked on the door, but it was a good few minutes before it was hesitantly opened by a small frail looking woman in her early seventies.

“It’s alright Eva dear ”said Maud at once. “This is Mr. Jess Harper, a very good friend of mine and Red’s and he needs to have  a word with you about Marcus.”

Eva  looked like she would close the door, but Eva spoke up again, “please my dear, he has come a long  way to see you and is having a very hard time right now and   he thinks you may be able to help him.”

The old woman sighed deeply and then pulling the door open said,” I suppose you’d better come in then.”

Once they were seated in the front parlor, Jess wasted no time in explaining the situation he was in. How the family were in danger of losing the ranch and the reason. Then he brought out the Will and showed it to Eva.

She turned troubled eyes on the dark haired young cowboy who her dear friend obviously held in high regard and then looked down at the Will again.

“But this makes no sense,” she whispered. “Why would dear Mathew leave the business to Marcus? He didn’t even know of his existence. After the family break up, we moved out here and had nothing more to do with Mathew and Mary, nor them with us.”

“So are you’re sayin’ you think this Will is a fake?” asked Jess softly.

She just looked down and he could see she was battling between loyalty to her son and the truth.

Finally she looked over at this personable young man and knew what she had to do.

“Everything Marcus has told you is a lie,” she said, her voice thick with emotion.

“Mathew and I certainly never had a relationship…..” then she sighed deeply,” much to my regret.”

Then she turned tired old eyes on Jess,” I must be honest with you… you see I was the reason for the rift.”

“You?”

“Yes, Mathew, Mary and Marty and I were all good friends. Matt and Mary were married the year before us and then we were wed… but it wasn’t long after that I realized I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. I married the wrong brother; I married Marty and I should have married Matt.”

Jess and Maud exchanged a surprised glance but tried to hide their shock. “Go on dear,” said Maud kindly.

“Well it was Thanksgiving and we had all celebrated, had some wine and I went outside for some air along with Matt, and Marty was round the back of the ranch fetching more wood for the fire.”

“Anyway the excitement of the day…the wine… whatever, I suddenly wanted Matt so much….. I went up to him and throwing my arms around him kissed him passionately.”

Jess and Maud looked on enthralled.

“He tried to pull away and then the next thing Marty was there…. I felt so embarrassed that I’d kissed my brother in law that I…..”

“Go on,” whispered Jess fascinated by this unfurling tale of lost love.

“I slapped him hard… made it look like he had kissed me…..”

“Of course Marty was furious, the brothers came to blows and shortly afterwards we left.”

“And that caused the rift for all those years?” asked Maud.

Eva nodded.” The worst of it was Mary was just coming out to join us and saw the whole thing, me going to kiss Matt and him trying to back off and  then  me pretending it was all Matt’s doing. Eventually she wrote to me begging me to tell Marty the truth… but I was too embarrassed and the months turned to years and we never met again, both brothers too stubborn to talk it out, and me too scared to admit what I did,” she said shaking her head sadly.

Maud thanked her for being so honest,” I really appreciate it my dear, this had been  hard for you to discuss I know that, in fact I am really overwhelmed that you have been so  frank.”

Eva gave her old friend a small smile, “it was suddenly the right time to confess after all these years the burden has just got heavier and heavier and when this lovely young man told me what Marcus was capable of… well I just had to stop it now. I couldn’t let the next generation have their lives spoiled, as we did, by my stupidity. And I had to do it for dear Mathew’s memory… if Slim is anything like his Pa… then he will be a good man and I couldn’t bear him to lose everything Mathew worked so hard for because of my lackadaisical  son,” she finished bitterly.

Jess sighed deeply and took the old woman’s hand.

“I figure Mathew would have been real proud at the way Slim has brought the business on,” he said softly,” and if you’d ever like to meet him, I guess he’d really like to meet his Aunt Eva after  all this time.”

At this the old woman’s eyes finally filled with tears,” how can you be so kind,” she asked,

”after what Marcus has put you all through?”

“Well none of that was your doing,” he said softly.

She gave him the ghost of a smile,” you are too kind young man…. And yes if I ever had the opportunity to meet my nephew and put the record straight then I would be forever in your debt.”

*****

Later that day he returned to Red’s office to fill him in on the latest news and his buddy was overjoyed.

“Thing is though Jess, I don’t think her statement will hold up in a court of law, you need to take the fake Will over to the lawyers and confront them about it. It was drawn up by Hank Brown of  Brown and  Marshall… well if it is a forgery you can bet old Frank Marshall won’t be too keen on admitting it… but that’s what he’s gonna have to do.”

Jess just nodded.

“I’ll draw up a witness statement for Eva to sign. Figure they can’t ignore that and I’ll go with you to the lawyers, make sure they give you a fair hearing.”

“Thanks Red, I owe you.”

“Sure you do…….. and mine’s a double , come on buddy, reckon I’m finished for the day.”

As it happened the meeting with Frank Marshall went well. It was obvious from  the start that the Will was a fake and instead of trying to hide the truth he seemed almost relieved that it had come to the fore.

“I’ve been  trying to get something on that no good partner of mine Hank Brown  for a couple of years now, but he’s managed to get clean away. The last time I  thought I’d caught him  he wriggled free again, but  decided to resign, I figure he thought he was just flying too darn close to the wind and he’d be found  out eventually.”

“So this is definitely a fake then?” said Jess.

“Oh yes no doubt about it, the witnesses signatures  are  forgeries. This man Jackson was deceased at the time he allegedly witnessed this Will and Jones had  moved on. They were both our clients and  so Marcus would have had access to their signatures while he worked here. Likewise he would have seen his Uncle’s signature on letters written before the family rift. That is why he was dismissed, for forgery and I reckon there is enough evidence here for a trial and lengthy jail sentence and the same for Brown… if you can catch up with him that is.”

The lawyer  then  drew up a legal document saying that the Will was null and  void and  gave it to Jess, with his apologies for his trouble.

Afterwards the two men retired to the salon and  Red asked old Ted the barkeep if he had seen Brown  recently.

“Funny you should ask that Sheriff. I was wondering  about his whereabouts myself. Haven’t seen him for a day or two and he owes me gambling debts here , same as he does in half the county, so you just send him home when you find him.”

“Well at least we know where Marcus is and  he shouldn’t be going any place soon seeing as he’s got an auction to attend.”

At  this Jess’s head shot up,” that won’t be for another few weeks will it?”

Red shook his head, “red tape usually settled in a week or so, reckon it will be scheduled for Saturday, but don’t fret I’ll send  Mort a wire telling him to arrest the prisoner, cancel the sale and  say you’re on your way home with the evidence and in the meantime I’ll keep a look out for Brown , he’ll turn  up eventually and when  he does I’ll nail him.”

However things  were not to be as straightforward as they seemed.

The following morning  when  Jess visited Red he looked less than happy.

“What’s up buddy?” he asked at once picking up on his friend’s somber mood.

“Bad news, Jess; the lines to Laramie are down. Had some bad flooding with all that rain  you had last week. Telegraph company is on the case, but right now we’ve no direct communication with Mort.”

Jess gave a low whistle, “ guess it’s down to me then,  I’d better ride for home today.”

Red nodded, “well its only Wednesday, you’ll make it by Friday easy, Thursday night if the going isn’t too wet and the auction won’t be scheduled before Saturday, so you’ll be fine. But Jess I have to warn you, if you don’t make it in time and the auction goes ahead it could be very costly for you and Slim.”

“How so, Marcus can’t sell a place that ain’t his can he?”

“Absolutely not, but once the auction goes ahead and then the sale is made void, it often takes a lot of time before everything is settled again, especially if Marcus and Brown have high tailed it across the border with the money,  which I imagine they aim to do. Well while the sorry mess is being sorted out business has to be suspended until the rightful owner is reinstalled, so no buying or selling of stock and no operating as a Relay, so you’d most likely lose the contract.”

Jess looked pale and gave a low whistle, as he listened to all this, “Hell Red, I’d better darn well make it in time then…….. I’m on my way.”

Red nodded and shook his friend’s hand, “good luck buddy and I’ll let you know when I catch up with Brown.”

Jess nodded. “Say goodbye and thanks to your Ma, will you, Red.” And with that, he marched off to the livery at speed.

He made excellent time on the first day and when he camped for the night was more than half way home.

He sat by the fire and after a scratch meal of trail grub he drank his coffee, thinking back to the events of the past couple of days with amazement. It had all been so easy somehow, the way old Maud Smith had known Eva and was able to introduce Jess, and how that was the catalyst that had suddenly set the ball in motion that helped him solve all his problems. When she finally had the courage to pour out all the events of the past and even to admit to them, and herself, what a bad lot her son was, that was to help Jess to see the full picture. Then armed with that information and the fact that Marcus had worked as Brown’s clerk at the lawyers and had privy to information and the vital legal forms was the last piece in the puzzle.

He felt again in his vest pocket for the legal document drawn up by Mr. Marshall and the sworn statement signed by Eva Sherman, and gave a little sigh of relief. However underlying the relief was a stubborn feeling of anxiety and even then his stomach churned as he heard the sound of a mournful owl crying in the still night air and its mate’s answering call.

Was it really owl call or Cheyenne braves signaling? He  knew there had been some trouble over the last  few months with  a small band of young  renegade braves, but  the last he heard they had been rounded up and sent back to the reservation, but even  so…..

“Come on Harper get a grip,” he said firmly to himself,” so when were you ever a feared by being out on the trail alone?”

But there again, when had he ever been in  a position when he had so much to lose, carrying  such responsibility with the  vital evidence, papers  essential to the future wellbeing and  livelihood of himself and his family and  when he thought of how much was at  stake he gave  an involuntary shudder.

But it wasn’t just the spooky owl calls or the burden of being in sole possession of the papers that was sending shivers down  his spine, it was the overriding feeling that he was being  watched. He had had the strange feeling all day and had constantly glanced behind him and even doubled back and surveyed the open countryside at one stage all to no avail.

Now he got up and walked the few yards to where Traveler was ground tethered and contentedly cropping the verdant offerings, and unhitching him brought him into the camp near to him, so that he had his horses reassuring presence and eventually he turned in for the night and finally fell into a troubled sleep.

The following morning he was up at first light and knowing he had pushed Traveler kind of hard the previous day he set off early, determined to pace himself. It was now Thursday and he figured he would be home by evening, or even sooner if he took the cutting through the forest and forded the river there. However after the recent floods, he thought it better to carry on on the more well-travelled trail and reckoned he would still arrive by Friday at the latest.

Heck, I don’t even know if the auction is set for  this week  he said to himself as he rode out, could well be another week or two and hopefully, Marcus and Hank Brown would be  tucked up nice and  warm in Mort’s jail by then awaiting trial.

It was another brilliant Indian summer day and he could feel the heat beating down on his back as he made his way down the trail towards Laramie and home. After an hour or so the ruts in the road were so deep he saw Traveler was struggling and so he cut across land a little and made his way up on the lush grass land above the road .

By lunchtime he decided to go on just past a rocky outcrop, where he could see a little stream bubbling along and break for lunch, before returning back down towards the road and taking the fork that would lead him towards Laramie and figured he’d make it by night fall even if he took a little break.

He was just passing down below the huge boulders when it happened…. A single rifle shot rang out, hitting him in the back and he fell from his mount like a stone and rolled over a couple of times before lying deathly still.

Traveler had been spooked by the shot and galloped off, but after a little while, he returned to his beloved master and stood close, nuzzling his hair gently, but all to no avail.

The lone rider replaced his rifle in its scabbard and with a grim smile on his face pulled his hat down and urged his mount away from the fallen man and towards Laramie at a fast gallop.

Jess lay prone and unconscious for a good half hour, the midday heat beating down on him, and then he gradually came round and was aware, firstly of the pain radiating from his left shoulder through to his chest, the heat of the sun beating down on the back of his head and a desperate thirst, quickly followed by a wave of nausea as he tried to roll over and sit up.

He fell down, now on his back and squinted up at the noontide sun and then at where Traveler was gently cropping the grass nearby.

“Gotta get home,” he whispered. “Gotta tell Slim about it all…today.” With that, using all his resolve he finally managed to sit up and looking down at  the spreading red stain on  his pale blue shirt, he untied his bandana from his neck and stuffed it roughly inside his shirt before steeling himself to get to his feet….

He tried to stand a couple of times and failed and after a minute he gave a short whistle to attract Traveler.

The sturdy bay flicked his ears back and then ambled over to his master and lowering his head blew down his nostrils in greeting.

“Good boy,” he whispered before gingerly pulling himself up and grabbing onto Traveler’s mane and then painfully managing to pull himself up onto his strong back.

Later Jess didn’t really know what was in his mind; did he really think he could ride  all the way to Laramie injured that way? Well… just maybe he’d have made it if the effort of mounting hadn’t displaced the makeshift bandage covering his bullet wound.

As it was, the wound had been dragged open and started to bleed profusely again and the last thing he remembered was pushing a hand inside his shirt and feeling the warm sticky blood slowly oozing out, before he felt a blackness envelope him; he tipped and fell gracefully from the horse landing with a dull thud in the dirt and rolling over onto his back, where he lay, again deeply unconscious.

Meanwhile a mile up the track, a strange tumbledown old covered wagon pulled by two ancient mules plodded slowly down the deeply rutted road.

The rig was driven by an elderly man with a straggly grey beard and dressed from head to toe in the Mountain Men garb of buckskin, as were his two companions.

The occupants Denver James and his sons Mick and Cody were still chatting about their encounter, a little earlier that morning.

“It was definitely him,” said Cody the younger of the two boys,” I’d know that ornery no good card sharp anywhere.”

His Pa nodded wisely,” yeah, it was him alright, recognized that fancy frock coat he wears and that lively Palomino he rides too.”

“Just too bad we traded in all that horse flesh we’d broke,” said Mick bitterly, “or I’d have gone after the cheatin’ bastard, gotten our money back.”

“Yeah well, they was tradin’ horses, son, and we done trade ‘em for all these supplies we’re carrying’ and I reckon what with the horse tradin’ and all the fur tradin’ we did, we’re set up good for the winter, and so there ain’t no point with worryin’ about that no good Hank Brown. We’ll catch up with him another time, don’t you fret.”

Cody grinned across at his Pa from where he was sitting next to him on the wagon seat,” he sure didn’t seem too pleased to see us Pa took off like the Devil was on his tail.”

“Um, he was goin’ a crackin’ pace afore he even spotted us. I wonder if someone was a shootin’ at him. Seems  we heard a shot a while back?” said Denver thoughtfully.

“Wouldn’t be surprised Pa,” said Mick from his perch in the back of the wagon. “I figure we ain’t the only folks he’s cheated at the card table.”

It was a little later when the three men looked up to the skyline and saw a rider less horse silhouetted against the deep blue sky.

“Well looky there, Pa, a right fine mount just sittin’ there for the pickin’.”

Denver frowned at his eldest son. “Well now Mick boy, I don’t have to remind you that horse stealing is a hanging offence in this state, do I?”

“Aw Pa, ain’t no one gonna know.”

Denver sighed deeply. “OK we’ll take a look at him as we pass by, just a look mind you.”

A few minutes later he pulled the old wagon up and they jumped down and moseyed over to where Traveler was now cropping the grass. However when the men walked over, his head shot up and he gave a protective little whinny and again bent his head down to nudge Jess’s motionless form.

“Well I’ll be,” said Denver James, his features changing from passive interest to concern. “It’s Traveler and Jess Harper, from the Sherman place.”

Then turning to Cody said, “Go get the canteen boy and some clean rags, looks as how he’s in a bad way.” Then squatting down by Jess, he gently unbuttoned the sodden shirt, the red blood stain now covering most of Jess’s chest.

In spite of his ragged appearance and rough ways Denver was actually quite skilled at doctoring and he cleaned the wound thoroughly with whiskey before packing it with medicinal herbs to staunch the bleeding and bandaged Jess’s chest firmly with the clean rags.

Then he leaned back and grinned up at his sons’ anxious looking faces. “That should sort him out. Bullet  went  straight through,  back to front, give him a few days and  reckon he’ll live  to get his revenge.”

“On that no good, back shootin’ card sharp, Hank Brown Pa?” asked Cody.

“Sure looks that way son, he was in the right place at the right time and he looked guilty enough, way he sped past us. But time will tell. Old Jess here should know if Brown was a gunnin’ fer him.”

But it was a while before Jess was able to tell them anything.

When he finally began to come around night had fallen and the mountain men had made camp on the site that Jess had earmarked to stop over for a short break at noon.

There was tree cover and a small stream running through and the men had brought the wagon to settle nearby, then lit a fire and put Jess to rest in the lee of the wagon, near the fire.

When he finally stirred he gave a little groan, his eyes flickered open and he looked around the unfamiliar surroundings fearfully.

The first thing he did was to put a hand up to his vest and then  he realized he was naked form the waist up and felt the  swathes of bandage  surrounding his chest and  the memory of the shooting  came back to him.

He tried to sit up, but the wave of nausea, dizziness and excruciating pain radiating across his chest made him sink back cussing loudly and this alerted the other men in the camp.

Denver James wandered over and squatting down beside the recumbent cowboy, grinning down at him. “Well then Jess boy, welcome back to the land of the livin’.”

Jess squeezed his eyes shut and then opened them wide,” Den… Den James that you? “

“Sure is boy, large as life and twice as ornery as usual,” he replied with a chuckle.

Jess gave him the ghost of a smile, and then suddenly looked panic stricken,” Denver, my vest an’ shirt where are they?”

“Well boy, don’t reckon you’d have much use for that ol’ shirt no more, dang near covered in blood that even your Miss Daisy would have trouble getting’ clean…and …well I guess you can have one of Cody’s. He’s a similar size I reckon and…”

“Denver, for Pete’s sake, where in hell is my vest!”

“OK son, no need to lose your rag; see it’s here right by you, along with your gun belt,” he said pointing to the objects beside Jess.

Jess leaned over for the vest and feeling in the inner pocket reached inside and pulled out the intact, precious documents.

He closed his eyes as if in silent prayer, “thank God,” he whispered.

Denver gave him a baffled look,” so what you got there Jess boy, letters from your girl?”

“Even more important than that Den,” he said allowing himself to grin at his old friend now.

“Um… well I won’t ask, but tell me Jess, does a Hank Brown mean anything to you?”

Jess nodded,” sure does, he’s wanted for fraud, along with another guy he tried to get the ranch off of Slim an’ me… forged a Will,” then patting the vest,” got the proper, legal copy here.”

“So this hombre would want you dead then, Jess?”

“I reckon, I hold all the evidence to convict him right here.”

“Well he was the bastard that back shot you then, son; just a good thing he didn’t know what you were a carryin’.”

Jess nodded, “you’ve seen him then?”

“Yeah, headed for Laramie like a scalded cat, just after noon.”

Jess struggled to sit up. “Gotta get goin’ Den, got business I need to attend to in Laramie.”

“Hey whoa, boy; you ain’t in no fit state to ride out tonight. You’d come a cropper afore you’d gone half a mile amount of blood you’ve lost Jess, no way you’d make it.”

“I gotta be there by Saturday at the latest, Den, just gotta.”

“Look boy, it’s only Friday tomorrow. Rest up tonight, have some grub and we’ll get you up on your horse come sunrise, OK?”

Jess could see his point and he felt as weak as a day old pup. “Yeah, thanks, Den.”

Then Cody came over and greeted his friend,” suppers just about ready Jess.”

He smiled up, “sure smells good so what’s on the menu then Cody?”

“Why your favorite, Jess, bear stew,” he replied his eyes twinkling in delight.

Jess turned pale and then a shade of green. “You’re kiddin’ me,” he whispered.

Cody was then joined by Mick. “Yeah, he’s kiddin’ you, buddy. Rabbit stew do you?” Jess sighed with relief.

“Just swell Mick”.

Then all three men shouted with laughter at their young guests discomfort, remembering the  last time they had eaten together and the delicacy of bear stew had made Jess chuck up for almost a week.

However he finally joined in the general laughter and accepted the plate of delicious rabbit stew and coffee liberally laced with hill whiskey.

He was still in tremendous pain, but the whiskey thankfully took the edge off and shortly after supper he fell into a deep sleep, needing to gather his strength for the ride the following day.

However it was not to be.

*****

 He awoke at dawn and was sweating profusely and then the shivering started and it was soon blatantly obvious that he was going nowhere as the fever began to take its toll and he slipped in and out of consciousness throughout the day.

In his odd lucid moment he begged the men to help him mount his horse and continue his journey, but before they could even reply he would fade away into oblivion again, all the while shaking and sweating.

It was the following morning, Saturday, before he was able to have a proper conversation with the mountain men and as soon as he realized he’d lost another day he again insisted he must ride out.

“So what’s so all fired important?” asked Denver. “You’ve got your evidence safe there boy so what’s your rush?”

Jess sighed with impatience. “you don’t understand, Denver; this Marcus Sherman is putting the ranch under the hammer, could be any day now.”

Then the older man and Cody exchanged a glance. “A sale, you say?”

“Yeah, the ranch is going to be put up for auction anytime soon, that’s what I keep tellin’ you. I need to get to Laramie today and ….”

Then he suddenly noticed the way the men were looking…… sheepish, Cody shuffling his feet, unable to meet Jess’s eye.

“What?”

“Well, you see, you didn’t actually say anything about a sale,” said Denver rallying a little. “Just you’d got business.”

“Nor I did,” agreed Jess…” so?”

“It’s today,” burst out Mick,” we saw the sign out on the Laramie road, didn’t make the connection between the sign and your place , just assumed it was the old Benson place come back on the market again,  Hell we knew Slim would never sell….”

“What time?”

“Huh?”

“What time is the Sale?” asked Jess who had turned even paler and was now struggling to stand.

Cody leaned over and helpfully hauled him up,” 2pm it said… 2pm on Saturday 7th… “

“Thanks Cody,” said Jess giving him the ghost of a smile.

Then he turned to the other men.

“Thanks for your help, I appreciate it. Now if you’d just saddle my horse and give me a leg up, I’ll be on my way.”

“Jess, you won’t make it,” said Denver scratching his grey old head. “We ain’t got any horse flesh, only these old mules, but Cody there could ride your mount over, warn them?”

Jess gave him a dejected look. “Ain’t no use, Den; ol’ Traveler here won’t tolerate anyone up save me. He’d just tip you off… but thank you kindly for the thought.”

Then he peered across at the men. “So are you gonna do it?”

“Huh?”

“Saddle my horse,” said Jess slowly and distinctly as though talking to an idiot.

Denver shook his head sadly.

“You sure were first in line when the good Lord was handin’ out stubborn weren’t you, Jess?”

Jess grinned back at the old timer,” I guess.”

Once he was seated on Traveler, he looked down at the men and thanked them again, then taking out his pocket watch he scrutinized the face. “Ain’t gonna make it down the road, guess I’m gonna have to go across land, down through the forest and ford the river just West of the Laramie road.”

Denver sucked in a deep breath. “That river’s runnin’ mighty high, boy….”

“Yeah, well that’s a risk I’m gonna have to take, ain’t got time to follow the road over  the bridge, so long Den, boys, and thanks again,” and with that he pulled his hat down low, the light of determination in his eyes as he kicked Traveler on to  a brisk trot.

“Think he’ll make it Pa?” asked Cody looking anxiously after his buddy.

Denver jumped up on the wagon and shook the reins,” Nah,” he said softly, “not a hope in hell, poor bastard,” and with that he, clicked the mules on towards the distant mountain range and home.

The early morning sun had clouded over as Jess made his way through the dense woodland and he shivered, remembering suddenly that they were already several weeks into fall and had been lulled into a false sense of security by the halcyon days of the recent Indian summer.

As he rode he tried hard to concentrate on keeping his seat and negotiating the rough terrain, but the pain running through his back to his chest started to take over so that after a while it was all he could think of.

After a few miles his breath was coming in harsh gasps and he felt sick and dizzy, but he was determined not to faint again and after stopping to take a pull from his canteen, he then took out his pocket watch from his vest pocket and frowning returned it before he urged Traveler on to a faster pace.

He heard the river before he could actually see it, making its way through a narrow gorge before it opened out just below the forest he was now riding down through.

It sounded noisy and dangerous.

The trail he was following was originally forged by mountain men making their way home after having traded their furs in Laramie and beyond, but it had long since been abandoned, not least because of the danger of fording the river during fall and winter.

Finally the rushing white water came into view and Jess gingerly made his way down the steep bank to the clearly defined ford lying between two huge pines at the water’s edge.

Jess knew of old that the water was usually only a few feet deep at this point, but after the  torrential rain of the previous few weeks it  was doubtless much deeper…….but how deep he had no way of telling.

He sighed and slipped from the saddle surveying the bubbling cauldron of water as it eddied and flowed past him.

Then he took off his vest containing the vital documents and folded it carefully in his rain slicker along with his gun belt and then placed it in his saddlebag and pulled the bags up so they were securely fastened high up on the top of the saddle, hopefully out of the way of the water.

Then taking a deep breath he grabbed hold of Traveler’s reins and started to wade into the icy reaches of the river leading his horse in behind him.

He was halfway across when he knew he wasn’t going to make it.

The water was now swirling around his waist and every now and then he would lose his footing and have to try and swim a little, while still leading his mount.

Finally he knew he had to give his horse his head if he was to have any chance of getting out alive and tying the reins around the animal’s neck, he urged him forwards slapping his rump and yelling him onwards.

Traveler’s ears went back and he showed the whites of his eyes terrified at being suddenly alone in the boiling muddy water, but after a moment he fixed his eyes on the distant shore and struck out swimming bravely forwards and making good progress now Jess wasn’t dragging him back.

However once the support of his horse was gone Jess sank down under the surface and came up a moment later gasping for air and finally struck off swimming and  following his fast departing horse.

He never knew how he managed to get across, he was three quarters there when he saw Traveler slipping and sliding as he made his way up the steep bank and then stood at the top, shaking himself , spaying droplets of water far and wide before standing head down, trembling and completely spent.

Then somehow he found himself clambering out of the swirling icy water and staggering up the bank to collapse in a heap near his beloved horse. He lay their coughing and retching, chucking up the filthy water and grabbing his chest as the pain radiated throughout his exhausted body with every movement. Then he finally lost the battle and fell into a deep dark safe place where all his troubles were finally  over as he lay there soaking  wet and deeply unconscious as the wind got up, rain clouds threatened and  again and  his faithful old horse came and tried to nudge him awake.

*****

At the Ranch and Relay Station, all was hustle and bustle as the men from the auction company prepared the ranch, stock and contents for the imminent sale. It was now noon and already prospective buyers were arriving and pushing and prodding the stock, all herded in the two main corrals or out on the home pasture to the rear of the house.

Old Chief, the buckskin and a particular favorite of Jess’, was tethered in the main corral along with Snow Bird Jess’s breeding mare and pride and joy. The beautiful animal stood tossing her snowy white mane and prancing around within the constraint of her rope, picking up on the restless atmosphere around her.

Slim stood watching her, glad that at least Jess had been spared the sight of seeing the horse he so loved sold off to the highest bidder, but again wondering what had become of his buddy. He had heard nothing since he rode out a week ago and although he knew the telegraph lines were down he had hoped upon hope that his partner would show up with the vital evidence that they so needed.

A few minutes later his old friend Doc Sam wandered over.

“Just a couple of hours to go then, Slim. How are you holding up?” he asked sympathetically.

Slim  looked down and shook his head sadly,” guess I’m resigned to it now Sam, just wish it was all over, don’t reckon I can bear to see everything sold off… figure I might ride out down the trail once they start…. “

“Looking for Jess?”

“Maybe… I don’t know…… I just thought perhaps he’d pull it off, but I reckon the odds were way too long even for ol’ Jess,” he said his voice thick with emotion.

“He’s going to be mighty mad when he lands home,” said Sam, casting his buddy the ghost of a smile.

Slim nodded back, knowing the truth of it. “That he is, Sam… just a good thing he isn’t here right now. I figure you’d be able to hear him cussing way down in Texas if he could see all this,” and the older man gave his friend a warm smile in agreement, both trying to find   a little comfort in humor.

Then he gestured over to where Mort Corey was standing deep in conversation with the Auctioneer.

“So is that why Mort is here, to sort Jess out if he lands home and starts a ruckus?”

Slim nodded,” I guess, and to keep the peace if the bidding gets too lively.”

“So where is the alleged owner then?” asked Sam sarcastically.

Slim sighed deeply. “Oh he’s the owner alright, got the paperwork to prove it,” Then he gestured over to the barn where Marcus and Hank Brown, who had ridden in the previous day, were having an animated conversation.

“So why has he brought his Lawyer over?” asked Sam.

“Dunno, to see fair play, I guess.”

“So what would he know about that?” said the Doctor sniffing derisively.

*****

Jess was going under for the  third time, he fought with a vengeance and  then  suddenly it all seemed too much and  he let go and  just lay there suspended floating below the surface of the water, seeing the sky above  him and the sound of the angry water pounding in his ears and all at once the fear and  pain were gone and gradually the noise of the water was replaced by the sound of bird song and he relaxed back floating down, down, down  into the dark secret place at the bottom of the river.

Then he seemed to sleep and when he awoke he was sitting out on the porch of his old childhood home, nursing his little sister Sally. He looked down at her tiny,  beautiful face with joy in his heart,” I thought you’d died sweetheart,” he whispered softly, and rested the infants head against his shoulder, gently rubbing her back as she cuddled into him and slept.

Then he raised his head and saw his beloved Ma sitting out on the other rocker and his heart leapt with happiness, “Ma?” He whispered.

“Welcome home son,” she said giving him her loving smile.

It was all too difficult for him to comprehend, two of the people he had loved most in the world… but they were dead and were now back with him, how could this be? And then he ceased trying to figure it and just immersed himself in the pure bliss of the moment.

The sun beat down on the old Texas homestead and the bird song was sweet and melodic and he relaxed back absorbing the sounds and scents of home.

“Where are the kids and Pa?” he asked softly.

“Down at the creek fishing son, they’ll be back shortly.”

He nodded.

Then she opened her arms, “give me the baby and go and visit with your old horse boy, I know you want to.”

He got to his feet and handed the warm little bundle over before stooping and kissing her tenderly on the forehead, “thanks Ma,” he said before turning and striding over to the barn.

Once inside he went straight to where Chance his old buckskin pony was standing in his stall and the horse’s head shot up and his ears pricked at the sight of his adored owner and he gave a low whinny of welcome.

Jess went over and scratched the old horse’s ears,” how you been buddy?” he asked softly.

After a few minutes he found a brush and started grooming the old horse, the timeless rhythm of the task calming and relaxing him even more, until he finally felt the urge for a nap and he lay down in the sweet smelling hay in the stall by his cherished mount, not wanting to leave his soothing presence.

After a while he felt himself falling asleep and the last thing he remembered was the sound of the birdsong outside the open barn door, the warm sunlight flooding in, and old Chance gently nuzzling his hair and he sighed with deep contentment as he fell into a deep sleep.

He awoke to his horse now nudging his head and blowing gently in his face.

“Aw, Chance, quit it,” he said chuckling and then as he made to sit up he felt a searing pain shooting across his chest , the sunlit barn had disappeared and he was lying in the  mud on the riverbank shivering with pain and cold.

Then he looked up and saw Traveler’s benign presence and the horse again blew down his nostrils at his adored master pleased to see him awake at last.

He reached up and caressed his cherished horse, and then shook his head to try and clear it.

Then he took a deep shuddering breath as the piercing agony of loss stabbed his heart, Ma… little Sal… even old Chance it had all been a dream….?

But the baby, so warm and sweet smelling in his arms, the tender kiss he had dropped on his Ma’s forehead… so real all so Goddamn real….

Then he slowly dragged himself up until he was leaning on Traveler, his breath coming in ragged gasps from the effort, and  again he tried desperately to clear his aching head, what was he doing here, freezing cold, soaked to the skin. He looked down  to his chest…the pain… and bleeding?

Then it suddenly struck him like a thunderbolt and he remembered it all, carrying the vital evidence home, the back shooting, then  the perilous river crossing as he tried  to beat the clock, get home before the two o’clock auction started.

He hurriedly dragged the saddlebags from their place of safety atop of his saddle and pulling out his vest checked the pockets… yes the documents still dry and intact. He thrust them back in his pocket, pulled the vest on, and hopped up into the saddle, wincing in pain at that simple physical act.

Then he pulled his hat down hard, the light of determination in his eyes, he was going to make that deadline come hell or high water and then laughed to himself at this choice of words,’ guess you’ve seen quite enough of both of them lately.’ he thought to himself as he kicked Traveler on to a gallop over the last few miles home and hoped and prayed he would be in time.

But even as he had the thought he knew he would not be. He reined Traveler in once he hit the Laramie road and checked his timepiece, it was already 2pm and he had another good half hour ride to go… it would all be over bar the shouting by the time he got there and his heart sank….” Goddamn it Harper, so darn near,” he whispered to himself.

He sighed deeply and kicked Traveler on to a fast trot, how could he let Slim down…. Daisy and Mike… maybe there would be a miracle… but as he rode on he knew in his heart all was lost, but he wouldn’t, no he couldn’t give up.

*****

Sam nodded to Slim, “looks like they’re about to start buddy,” he said as he looked over to the rostrum that  had been erected in front of the house and where the auctioneer was now standing waiting for the large crowd to quiet down.

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, it is now 2pm and I will start the sale of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station with the livestock sale, then move on to the dwelling house and land.”

“Lot number one is this prime breeding mare. An unusual dapple grey, quarter horse of exceptionally fine lines and proportions. Been proven to breed excellent progeny and will be a great asset to any breeding program.”

The crowd surveyed Jess’s pride and joy and again Slim was glad his buddy wasn’t here to witness this sad day.

Snow Bird had been increasingly nervous as the day had worn on and she had gone from head shaking and pulling at her rope to full blown rearing and neighing long and loud even though Slim had tried hard to calm her down.

Now she looked at the amassed crowd as though knowing she was centre stage and her shrill cries became more and more anxious and her prancing more frenzied until she yanked her head back and rearing up finally broke the restraining rope.

Then with her newly found freedom she careered madly around the corral several times before charging towards the fence and leaping up, cleared it and landed amongst the crowd, scattering them as she galloped onwards and down the track towards the road and freedom.

Several bystanders were hurt and the other horses were in such a state of confusion that the whole proceedings had to be stopped while order was restored.

Sam was called upon to administer first aid to several of the unlucky punters who had got in Snow Bird’s way. Meanwhile Slim did his best to calm down the rest of the horses, but was having a hard time of it as they were now all spooked by the recent events and the noisy jovial crowd, many who had visited the saloon on their way to the sale, did not help any.

Finally the auctioneer came to a decision, when the next horse was brought out and was almost impossible for his assistant to handle.

“Ladies and gentlemen, in view of the fact that the stock is somewhat excitable at present, I think we will proceed to the sale of the house and contents and give the animals time to settle down.”

Slim turned to Sam,” I guess I’m out of here now  Sam, this was the part I was dreading… and anyway I think I’d better  get on the trail of Snow Bird, before she leaves the State, way she was carrying on she’ll  be half way to Texas by now.”

Sam nodded throwing his buddy a compassionate look, and Slim turned to where Alamo was saddled and was just about to mount when he heard the distant sound of  horses galloping down the track.

“Ladies and Gentlemen we have on offer this pleasant family home along with substantial barn and the home pasture to the rear will be included in this Lot….”

Then the hoof beats became louder and a moment later Jess, riding Traveler and leading Snow Bird, blazed into the yard and came to a shuddering standstill just feet from the auctioneers rostrum.

The bald headed little man tried to take this intrusion in his stride and manfully carried on “So what am I bid for the house and barn ladies and gentleman. Who will start me off?”

But the crowd was far more interested in this latest turn of event and finally even the auctioneer couldn’t deny Jess’s presence as he sat on his horse glaring at him and the amassed crowd, his eyes black with fury.

“Nothing!” he shouted finally. “You ain’t gonna bid nuthin’… none of you,” he yelled again, scanning the crowd with an icy stare “Because it ain’t up for sale.”

Then Slim and Mort were galvanized into action.

Slim strode forwards and grabbing hold of Traveler’s bridle looked up at his partner with beseeching eyes,” don’t,” he said softly,” don’t do this buddy, it’s all over… just let it go huh?”

Jess peered down at him and shook his head,” let it go…. Let it go!” he yelled “the Hell I will… I……”

Then Mort was at his side. “Jess, I don’t wanna have to arrest you, but if that’s what it takes then…well…. Come on son, just simmer down eh?”

Jess took a deep breath and tried to calm himself,” sorry Mort.”

Then he put a hand in his vest pocket and drawing out the documents handed them down to him and said louder so that the crowd could hear,

“The place ain’t for sale because Marcus Sherman ain’t the legal owner. The Will he has is a forgery and I’ve got a statement signed by the Rawlins lawyer and Sheriff to that effect, along with a warrant for the arrest of Marcus Sherman and Hank Brown.”

The crowd started chattering animatedly and Mort accepted the documents from Jess and took them over to the rostrum to look at and as soon as he saw the Warrant his old eyes scanned the crowd looking for Marcus Sherman and his accomplice.

However Jess was one step ahead of him and from the added vantage point of still sitting Traveler, he had a better view of the crowd.

There was no sign of Marcus who had melted into the masses and seemed to have disappeared, but out of the corner of his eye he saw Hank backing away and kicking Traveler through the throng he reined in, in front of him and drew his gun like lightening.

“Hold in there, you lowlife back shootin’ scum!” he roared.

“What… what do you mean, I don’t understand,” he whined.

“Sure you do, you gunned me down, shot me in the back, nigh on two days ago and then left me out there for buzzard bait.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you that bad…just slow you up some. I’m sorry… I…”

Mort strode over. “So you admit shooting this man and leaving him out on the range?”

“Well yes… I suppose so, but there were circumstances… you don’t understand I was desperate I owe gambling debts and … well like I say I was….”

But Mort cut him off, “ yeah… desperate I know….save it for the judge,” he said snapping on the hand cuffs and marching him over to where his Deputy, Lon was standing ready to take the prisoner away.

Then it was the auctioneers turn to   speak.

He banged his gavel for silence and once he had everyone’s attention, he said solemnly, “Ladies and gentlemen, in view of the fact that the Will submitted by Mr. Marcus Sherman is null and void, I declare this sale annulled and all items withdrawn permanently, or until the rightful owners Mr. Slim Sherman and Mr. Jess Harper should decide to sell at some time in the future. Thank you ladies and gentlemen, now please leave in an orderly fashion.”

There was a  fresh fever  of conjecture and gossip and then Mort took the stand and said,” on your way now ladies and gentlemen, come on give these good people some peace… on your way now…” and after chivvying them along the good folk of Laramie finally started making their way home.

All this time Jess still sat Traveler, and now Slim grinned up at him and placed a hand on his knee, “well done buddy,” he said softly.

And then the smile turned to a look of concern, “hey you’re soaking wet Jess.”

He gave a small smile. “Trav and I took a dip on the way home…”

“You… you never took the short cut through the gorge, hell Jess that river’s way too high to ford just now.”

“Well I guess you’re right there,” said Jess laconically.

Then Slim looked at him properly. ”Hell Jess, you look awful.”

“Well thanks…. “

“No seriously, buddy.” Then he stopped. “He didn’t really back shoot you; it was just a graze, right?”

Jess shook his head, again beginning to feel the familiar dizziness and nausea overwhelming him.

“Jess?”

Jess looked down at his best friend. “Said I’d do it, didn’t I, pard… said if it was the last thing I did….I’d….”

But he never finished the sentence, he just looked dazed and then very gracefully slid from the saddle, as if in slow motion, in a dead faint.

Slim grabbed hold of him and caught him before he hit the ground and then Sam and Mort were there and willing arms held him and carefully carried him into the house and deposited him gently on the old leather couch.

Sam squatted down beside his buddy and as soon as he pulled his vest back he could see a small bloodstain forming and he gently started to unfasten his shirt to examine him further.

Then glancing up at Slim said, “he’s soaking wet and icy cold, what in hell’s he been up to?”

“Came across the river, I guess he knew he was running late and had to take that chance…..”

“Chance? More like a suicide mission way that river’s running right now,” he sighed.

Then looking concerned said “can you get a bowl of water please Slim, this wound will need cleaning up.”

Mort looked anxiously on,” anything I can do Doc?”

Sam smiled at his good friend,” sure can you get a blaze going and then  help me pull this old couch up to the fire before this young man freezes to death.”

Then he continued to divest Jess of his shirt and the rest of his soaking clothes before he cut away the makeshift bandage.

When Slim came back with the water and a warm blanket to cover his buddy, he looked at his chest in shock, “what the heck’s that stuff Sam?”

Sam glanced up. “Medicinal herbs, excellent at stopping bleeding, but not so good for keeping a wound clean, I’m afraid. I reckon whoever put this on saved his life though, the position of the wound would mean he’s have lost one heck of a lot of blood, he’d have bled out for sure without this intervention.”

Slim nodded,” that’s Indian medicine isn’t it?”

Sam nodded, “seen it used by the Trappers too though.”

“Mountain Men, um we had a parcel of them move through Laramie just a week or so back, fur trading.”

“Well could be that’s who he bumped into.”

Then he finished cleaning the exit wound and said,” Now can you give me a hand Slim, I need to sit him up ,can you to hold him while I check out the entry wound to his back?”

Slim did as he was asked taking his friends dead weight and cussing softly when he saw the damage that had been inflicted on him.

Then Jess started to stir and groaning softly, his eyes flickered open and he felt Slim’s strong arms around him and the Doc gently cleaning his back and knowing he was in good hands drifted off again.

It was the following morning before he came around properly and was able to start to share the events of the last week with his buddy, but all the time his story was interrupted by violent coughing fits and as these got progressively worse through the morning, Sam, who had stayed the night, looked more and more concerned, especially when Jess seemed to be having difficulty breathing.

After the latest coughing fit Slim had repaired to the kitchen to make a lemon and honey drink for his friend hoping it might help and was shortly joined by Sam, who shook his head sadly.

“Guess it will take a mite more than that Slim…”

Slim’s head shot up, “he’s not too bad is he Sam… just caught a chill from that dunking in the river hasn’t he?” he asked his blue eyes open wide, pleading to be told what he longed to hear.

Sam was silent for a long time just looking down and both men could hear Jess’s wheezing even though he was in the next room.

Eventually he gazed at his friend, “I’m sorry Slim it’s worse than that, one heck of a lot worse, he’s got pneumonia, lung fever that is, and really badly too…. I’m not sure he’ll make it buddy.”

“What!”

“I sorry Slim, real sorry and I’ll do all I can of course, but he just hasn’t got any reserves to fight back with. I reckon his lungs took a real beating with all that smoke inhalation after the fire, that’s why he’s so bad now, and I guess we need to get Daisy and Mike home as soon as possible….”

To say goodbye thought Slim, although the words were left unsaid.

“No!” he shouted, giving his good friend an anguished look.

Suddenly it was all too much and he strode out of the kitchen door into the yard, needing some time alone to come to terms with this latest bomb shell.

It was still quite early and he realized he hadn’t fed or cleaned out the stock, so he wandered over to the barn… and that is when he saw him, Marcus Sherman, quietly leading his mount across the yard from where he had obviously spent the night hiding in the barn.

Slim couldn’t remember when he had felt more angry and diving across the yard he reached out and pulled the older man around before smashing him hard in the face with his fist and then going in again and again as the terrified man cowered and begged for mercy.

After a while, Sam stormed out into the yard to see what all the noise was about and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Slim beating the living daylights out of who he know knew to be his cousin.

Sam ran over and hauled him away from his victim, “Slim…. Slim, hold off. This isn’t like you… this may be Jess’s way, but it’s not yours now come on… settle down,” he shouted all the time trying to restrain his friend.

Slim turned angry eyes on him, “well maybe Jess’s way had been right all along, maybe that is all people like this bastard understands.”

“Come on Slim, you know better than that, now tie him up if it makes you feel better and leave him in the barn, Mort said he’d look in on Jess today, just let the law deal with it huh?”

Slim finally saw sense and Marcus was tied up and left in the barn for Mort to collect when he rode in later.

He arrived a little after the noon Stage had left with Mose taking a note to Daisy in Cheyenne, asking her to return as soon as she was able.

As Mort entered the ranch he looked concerned, “saw Mose on the road, “said Jess was none too good?”

Slim just nodded and gestured to where Jess lay on the couch in front of the fire propped up by several pillows, his breathing ragged and shallow and his face deathly pale with a slick of sweat across his forehead.

Sam had, had to leave on his rounds, but had promised to sleep the night again and that of all things made both men realize the seriousness of the situation.

When Mort entered he was sleeping and he gave a soft whistle.

“Gee Slim, how long had he been this way?”

“Since yesterday, came on real sudden…. Sam…said…”

“Huh?”

Slim tried again, taking a deep breath before speaking.

“Sam… doesn’t think he’ll make it Mort,” said Slim finally, just staring at his partner’s deathly still form, the only sign of life the terrible wheezing breaths.

Mort advanced and clapped his buddy on the arm.

“Sure he will, Slim, take more than a dose of lung fever to floor ol’ Jess… he’ll make it you’ll see.”

Slim shook his head sadly, “do you know what he said just before he left?”

Mort shook his head looking enquiringly over.

Slim sighed deeply,” he said, ‘I’m gonna save this place if it’s the last thing I do… I promise you…..’”

Then struggling to keep his composure he said softly,” and he did Mort, he saved the place, he always kept his promises…. But what if it is the last thing he ever does?” he asked his face looking anguished and all Mort could do was dip his head, remove his hat, and offer a prayer for his good friend’s safe deliverance.

And then they sat down close to him, listening to him struggling for breath and knowing there was nothing more they could do.

*****

It was two days later when Daisy and Mike landed home and Slim was amazed at how quickly they arrived.

They rode in on the noon tide Stage and Daisy was up and ready to take charge within minutes of entering the house.

However it took little Mike a while longer before he could come to terms with the situation.

He took one look at Jess gasping to get his breath and was immediately terrified with the situation.

But Daisy soon put him straight,” it’s OK Mike it’s the same old Jess that we both know, it’s just that he isn’t too well right now and can’t talk to you, but he still loves  and  cares about you and needs you to help him too.”

Mike stood stock still, just staring at his hero, unable to speak, terrified by this terrible spectacle of Jess struggling for breath.

“Come along dear,” said Daisy softly. “What Jess would say now, if he could, would be ‘come on Tiger, go look after Traveler will you!’”

The way she even sounded like Jess hit home with the young boy and turning to Jess’s exhausted figure, he  finally smiled and said confidently, “Sure Jess, I’ll look after ol’ Traveler; you can rely on me,” before marching off to tend to the old horse, a  spring in his step and hope in his young eyes.

Slim exchanged a look with Daisy and then went and slumped down on Jess’s rocker, looking across at his friend.

“So what kinda chance do you think he’s got, Daisy?” he asked, peering across at his beloved housekeeper, knowing that she was as equally qualified  as Sam, to make an informed judgment.

She was silent for a while and then finally turning her kind grey old eyes on her beloved ‘older son’, she said, “as good a chance as we are prepared to give him Slim, he’s very sick……. we both know that, but the power of love can work miracles and I think that is what he needs right now, just our love… and that will bring him back to us…”

******

That night Daisy insisted that Slim get some sleep and she said she would sit up with Jess.

He was very restless and kept falling in and out of consciousness and when he awoke in the early hours of the morning he seemed confused and upset.

Daisy was at his side immediately and tried to calm him as he had a particularly bad coughing fit, the spasm making the pain in his chest agonizing.

She rubbed his back and talked to him gently and when he lay back his eyes looked dazed and unseeing,

“Ma?” he whispered.

She gently wiped his damp forehead with a cool cloth. “No dear, I think you were dreaming; it’s me, Daisy.”

He focused on her and then realizing who it was gave her the ghost of a smile, “Well, guess you’re my Ma now, ain’t you Daisy?”

She flushed with pleasure. “Well, I’d like to think so dear, yes… if you‘ll have me.”

He smiled properly then,” sure,” he said softly.

Then his breathing became even more erratic and he was obviously in agony each breath ripping through his chest until he thought he could stand it no longer.

He turned exhausted blue eyes on Daisy and whispered, “Don’t reckon I can bear this much longer, Daisy; figure I wanna go….”

“Hush dear,” she said quickly, “don’t think that way… it will get better soon, just hang on a little longer.”

“I’ll try,” he whispered before closing his eyes and falling into a restless sleep, while she sat on, holding his hand and praying.

The following day Millie rode in on the early morning stage, saying she had heard how poorly Jess was and had taken the day off to visit with him.

As Slim walked her into the house he paused for a moment and taking her hand turned her to face him.

“Before you go in Millie, I guess you need to know how sick he is. Sam… well Sam doesn’t hold out much hope; it’s four days now and he’s just getting weaker and weaker.”

Her dark brown eyes clouded with concern and she took a deep breath as though steeling herself for the worst and drawing herself up to her full five foot, said,” I understand Slim, take me to him.”

As she entered she could hear his shallow fast breathing, the wheezing noise sounding painful and then as she neared where he lay on his side, one hand grasping his chest, she saw the full extent of his pain.

She flew to his side, where he lay on the couch pulled close to the fire, and knelt beside him taking his free hand and looking deeply into the fearful blue eyes.

“Jess… Jess honey,” she whispered,” I’ve come to sit with you a while.”

He just nodded, unable to speak, but she felt him squeeze her hand and saw the light of welcome in his eyes.

After  a while he managed to rally and  when  Daisy  came in from  the kitchen  bearing coffee she was delighted to see Jess sitting up, still holding Millie’s hand and  smiling down  into her beautiful  face as she regaled him with tales from the Saloon.

Even when he fell asleep she stayed close by his side, holding his hand or smoothing his dark hair back from his fevered forehead, stooping to kiss him tenderly there.

Daisy and Slim witnessed this loving little act and exchanged a small smile, knowing the depth of loving friendship there lay between them.

Then they retired to the kitchen to give the young couple a little privacy.

Daisy turned to Slim and said in a soft whisper, “I really don’t know why he has never married Millie; they are obviously devoted to each other.”

Slim shook his head sadly,” guess he just can’t stand to take that  step again,  not after the way Maria died,” he said referring  to the tragic death of Jess’s fiancée several years earlier,” figure  he’s scared of the commitment.”

“Um, you’re probably right, and Millie once told me she would never go into that kind of relationship with him because if it didn’t work out she might lose her best friend.”

Slim again shook his head sadly. “I could knock their heads together. Why can’t they see what the rest of us can, they’re a perfect match.”

Daisy smiled over at him, “well I reckon she is just what he needs right now and I know she’ll come through for him, she’s a lovely girl, she’d do anything for him, I know that.”

Even when he awoke and was coughing and retching, grabbing his chest in  agony, she still stayed by his side, insisting on  cleaning him  up and all the time talking softly and  kindly to him.

Once they were alone again he managed to talk a little.

“I’m sorry Mill,” he said weakly. “sorry you gotta see me this way.”

“Oh get away with you, seen you worse than this, remember that night after old Albert’s wake and you drank that bottle of vintage brandy, geez you were sick.”

“Well I was only fourteen at the time,” he said indignantly.

She giggled.

Then he threw her a loving look. “And you looked after me all night, told my Pa I’d gone fishin’ with your brother the next day to stop me getting a beatin’….”

Then after a long pause… “Seems like you were always lookin’ out for me in those days, Mill, when we were both kids.”

She smiled down at him. “And I guess you’re not so old that you don’t need some lookin’ after now too.”

His face looked suddenly concerned. “Doc don’t think I’m gonna make it, you know,” he said softly.

She flushed and her head shot up.

“Nonsense, you’ll be fine what with Miss Daisy on the case an’ all. Hell, you got no choice but to survive, boy!”

He sighed deeply his eyes growing drowsy and she knew she must leave on the afternoon Stage when it arrived shortly, so she said gently, “try and get some sleep honey and I’ll be by later in the week.”

He shot out a restraining hand. “No,” he whispered, “Don’t go just yet…not until I’ve told you something.”

She raised an enquiring eyebrow.

He held her hand tightly, “I just wanted to say…” his breath was coming in painful gasps again and he was obviously in a lot of pain.

Seeing he was hurting she said,” hush honey, you rest.”

“No”, he said again,” hear me out Millie, please.”

She just nodded, although she thought her heart might break if she didn’t leave soon.

“I just wanna thank you for being the best friend,” and then with the hint of a twinkle in his tired blue eyes, “the best friend — and lover — a man could hope to have,” he took another deep breath before continuing. “And when I’m…you know…when I’m not around anymore…”

“Jess, no, please don’t talk that way.”

But he ignored her and taking a shuddering breath said, “Go out an’ live your life. Mill…live it for us both…find some nice guy as will look out for you… don’t…. don’t waste time grieving for me, huh?”

But before she could answer, he took another shuddering breath, his eyes closed, and she knew he could hear her no more.

She sat holding his hand, the tears coursing down her cheeks until she felt a light touch on her shoulder.

Slim had witnessed this last little scene and felt the tears pricking at the back of his own eyes, but he swallowed deeply and squeezed her shoulder as she sat silently weeping.

“Stage is waiting Millie,” he said softly, “come on,” and gently raising her up from where she still knelt beside Jess’s now deathly still form, he threw a protective arm around her shoulders and helped her from the room.

Once outside she broke down completely and he held her close as she wept for several minutes, before finally pulling herself together and then he helped her up into the Stage.

She leaned out of the window,” I’ll be back in a few days, as soon as I can get the time off…. let me know if… there is any change…. if…”

He nodded, “sure I will, take care”…. and Mose clicked the reins and urged the team out of the yard.

Unbeknown to Slim, Mike had been standing by the barn door and witnessed the scene of the usually cheerful, funny Millie; looking distraught and crying loudly, and now he was terrified.

They had lied to him… Aunt Daisy and Slim, when they said Jess would be fine; he’d be OK….. he wasn’t going to be OK at all….. he was going to die…..

Mike tore across the yard and banging the door open hurled himself at Jess and lay across his chest holding him close and sobbing…..

*****

Jess stood at the gate of his old home and looked over to the porch where his Ma was again sitting, holding his baby sister and rocking gently back and forth on her old rocking chair singing softly to the child.

Two of his other small sisters sat on the warm wooden  porch, one cuddling a doll and the other sitting beside her  gently braiding her hair,  the two talking softly to each. He stood drinking in this picture of home, the hot sun beating down on his back, his hand on the warm wood of the gate latch, poised to open it.

Then he heard a soft whinny and saw old Chance in the field, up to his hocks in the verdant pasture, his head up and his ears pricked as he saw his beloved master and he gave another little whinny of pleasure.

At the sound the girls looked up and saw Jess standing by the gate and their eyes opened wide with joy at the sight of their big brother  and the youngest held out her  arms to him, expecting him  to run to her and pick her up, throwing her around and laughing as he always did.

Jess knew this, and his hand was on the latch about to open the gate, but he paused for a second, somehow instinctively knowing that once he entered the garden, he could never leave it again.

In that split second of indecision he heard it, the sound of a child weeping and then shouting,” no… no don’t go Jess… you promised me… you promised.”

He continued to listen, his hand still on the latch….

“When Ma and Pa died you promised you’d be here for me forever, you promised,” cried Mike from where he still lay on Jess’s chest, weeping pitifully.

Very gradually the scene before Jess’s eyes grew dimmer and dimmer until it faded away completely and his eyes flickered open to see Mike’s little blond head lying on his chest, his tears soaking his shirt.

All the pain and distress suddenly flooded back and he gasped for breath.

Then he put a tentative hand out and gently caressed the boys blond head.

“Hey Tiger, what are you carryin’ on for,” he said softly, forcing himself to try and breath normally.

The boy raised his tear stained face to the man he loved above all others,” everyone thinks you’re dying,” he said simply,” but you can’t Jess, you just can’t leave me,” he whispered, fresh tears pouring down his distressed little face.

Jess wiped them away with a finger.

“Listen to me Mike,” he said firmly, “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

The child just gave a muffled sob.

“Look have I ever broken a promise to you?” he asked sternly, struggling to try and breathe normally for the child’s sake.

Mike blinked, “no sir.”

“Um, well I ain’t about to start now… I’m sick, real sick……. that’s for sure, but I will get better… I promise you, Tiger…” and as he said it he knew it was the truth, he wasn’t about to give up and die… no matter how hard living was for him right then.

He’d go on for the sake of those he loved, if not for himself at that moment. He remembered the scene as he stood by the gate and longed to see his kin again  so much… so very much…… and  knew that was where he  was destined to go… one day, but not  yet… no not quite yet.

Daisy and Slim had been there, Slim really thinking he had lost his buddy for a while, until his eyes opened and he came back to them again. Now seeing Mike looking so distressed Slim picked the youngster up and held him close.

“Hey, what all this about?” he said gently. “Don’t you think Jess got wet enough in that old river without you giving him another soaking with all these tears? “

The boy gave his good friend a watery smile. “Sorry Slim, I got to thinking Jess was gonna die and I got kinda upset.”

Daisy and Slim exchanged a worried glance, not knowing quite how to react to such a candid statement, but knowing the truth of it, as they too thought their dear friend had gone from them for a few minutes.

But before they could reply, he beamed at them both. “But it’s OK ‘cos he ain’t gonna die, he’s promised me,” he finished with innocent childish logic.

Then he stood up “Gotta go and finish grooming Traveler; you will be OK won’t you, Jess?” he asked, a little frown returning to his young face.

“Told you, didn’t I?” said Jess, making a supreme effort to breathe and talk normally.

“Sure you did,” the boy said beaming now. “I’ll go and get to grooming Traveler so he’s all ready for you to ride, just as soon as your able,” and he dashed out of the room, a boy on a mission.

Daisy and Slim turned concerned eyes on Jess, wondering how he was taking this latest drama in the chain of events of the last few days, and were delighted to see a twinkle in his deep blue eyes.

“Well, you heard what the boy said, Daisy,” he said, his voice weak, but the light of battle back in his eyes. “I ain’t gonna die, so how’s about a nice strong coffee?”

“Oh you,” she said, reaching  across and cuffing him lightly, but they both saw the tears in her eyes as she bustled off to do as she was bid, muttering,” a little of what he fancies can’t do him any harm  I suppose.”

He was to have several ups and downs during the following week, but that one pivotal event was the turning point in his recovery and slowly he regained his strength and was able to get up within two weeks and finally cause mayhem wanting to go back to work as soon as he was up and about again.

“I’m fine Daisy really I am,” he said turning  clear blue eyes on  their housekeeper as they sat around the  breakfast table, just  two weeks after Mike had ‘pulled him  back from the brink,’ as Jess always thought of it.

“I’m sure you are dear, but none the less you are not doing a jot around here until Doc Sam gives you a clean bill of health.”

“Aw Daisy,”

“And don’t argue,” she whispered. “You’re setting Mike a bad example.”

He opened his mouth to reply, and then glancing across the table he met Mike’s innocent eyes, wide open and taking everything in, and he closed his mouth again, looking down into his coffee cup.

Then he gave Daisy a small smile. “Whatever you say Ma’am,”he said softly, before handing his empty cup over for a refill, his blue eyes twinkling.

A while later Slim and Mike left the table to do the chores with Slim shooting his partner a firm look.

“You just behave huh Jess… no giving Daisy a hard time.”

“Me?”

“Yes you, do as she says and take it easy until Sam visits tomorrow, OK?”

“Sure buddy, anything you say.”

Slim raised an eyebrow and then winking at Daisy went off to clean out the barn.

As soon as he’d gone, Jess turned to Daisy and said,” can we talk?”

“Why of course dear what’s on your mind?”

“Well Thanksgiving is coming up next month and I was kinda wonderin’ if we could ask some guests to stay for the holiday?”

“Of course, that would be lovely.”

“It wouldn’t be too much work for you? “

“No of course not, who did you have in mind ……Millie?” she asked with a little smile as poor Jess had been teased mercilessly over his relationship with her, by Slim, saying he was crazy not to snap the girl up…

Jess blushed a little at her name.

“Aw, Daisy don’t you start; you know how it is with me and Millie. We’re happy the way we are… for now anyway,” he said searching her kind face for approval.

“I know dear and I respect you both far too much to try and push you into anything…. So was it Millie you had in mind?”

He grinned at Daisy,” well yeah, I guess, but there were some other people and if they came, well it would be quite a party… but we’d all pitch in and help you.”

She beamed across at him, just happy to see his animated face looking healthy and excited and she cared not a whit about the extra work as long  as her boy was fit and well again.

“Well, tell me then who?” she asked, picking up on his high spirits.

“Smitty, Sheriff Smith that is…….. and his Ma Maud,” he said.

Daisy clasped her he hands together,” oh how lovely, I am so fond of Maud, and her dear son too… that’s a fine idea!”

“Well I wanted to thank them for helpin’ me out when I was in Rawlins; if it wasn’t for Maud taking me to see Eva Sherman, well I guess we might not be celebrating Thanksgiving here… ever again,” he said thoughtfully.

“Oh you are so right, we must ask them, thank them properly.”

“Daisy, there is someone else too… and I’ve a feelin’ Slim won’t approve.”

“Oh?”

“Eva… Eva Sherman, his aunt.”

She looked a little shocked and  then said,” well she  was instrumental in us getting to the truth too, so she should be thanked really … and if what you told me is true about that dreadful  misunderstanding,  then I don’t see why Slim shouldn’t welcome his aunt back into the fold so to speak.”

Jess looked down his eyes troubled.

“Thing is though Daisy, Slim still believes Marcus.”

“He told me when he caught up with him, when I was so sick, he really laid into him… and well Sam hauled him off and convinced him that Mort should deal with the situation, it was after that that Marcus filled his head with more lies about Slim’s Pa. ”

Daisy gave a shocked intake of breath. “Goodness, I’d no idea Slim had been violent towards his cousin.”

Jess gave her an ironic smile. “Yeah, I guess that is more my style, ain’t it?”

Daisy acknowledged his dark humor. “So what happened? You said Slim still believes Marcus?”

“Well after Slim had finished knocking him around, he took him to the barn and tied him up ready for Mort to collect and that’s when he started talkin’ ,telling Slim that , yes everything he’d said had been a tissue of lies, but then he said he was going to tell him the truth…”

“Which was?”

“Well, Marcus’s version was that Matt had feelings for Eva; his Pa Martin caught then together kissin’ and that was the cause of the bust up.”

“But that isn’t true, you told me what Eva said… that she made all the running, and I believe that, why would she lie? No I believe her.”

“So do I Daisy, but Marcus has been brought up on the lie and so that’s what he genuinely believes, and I guess that because he thinks it’s the truth he had no problem sucking Slim in.”

“And you want to invite Eva so that Slim can hear the honest truth.”

“That’s right Daisy. He’s so darn upset about it all, thinkin’ his Pa could cheat that way, well. I reckon we need to set him straight… make him feel he can respect his Pa’s memory again.”

“You think she’d come and set the record straight then Jess?”

“Yeah, I think she would, with a little persuasion from Maud.”

Daisy chuckled,” and we know what a persuasive lady she can be.”

“The thing is, though, Daisy, I figure we’d have to keep it a secret; if he knows she’s coming, well, I reckon he’d try and stop her, say she’s not welcome here.”

“Yes, you’re probably right; we’ll just have to go behind his back…. I don’t like it, but if it will set his mind as rest about his father, then I think it will be worth it,” she said giving him a conspirator’s grin.

Sam visited the following day as promised and took Jess off into his room so that he could give him a thorough examination.

He made Jess lie on  his bed and unbutton  his shirt and he spent several minutes listening to his chest, before drawing back and giving his friend a  considering look.

“Well, am I OK?” asked Jess, a hesitant smile on his face.

When Sam didn’t answer immediately, the smile froze and he said,” Sam…… Sam, you’re worrin’ me now. I’m OK, ain’t I?”

Sam gave him a slow smile and patted his arm. “Don’t go fretting, Jess; yes the lungs seem to be functioning well now. Still a little congestion, but that’s to be expected considering…. “

“Considering what Sam?” he asked softly.

Sam sighed deeply,” no easy way to say this buddy…considering you were within’ a whisker of dying…that close,” he said holding up his first finger and thumb with an inch between them.

Jess merely looked down. “Yeah, I know… The honest truth is I’d had enough, Sam; if it hadn’t been for young Mike haulin’ me back from the brink… well I reckon I’d be up on the hill yonder,” he said gesturing to the window and  the Sherman family burial plot beyond.

Sam nodded and gave him a sad smile. “Good. I’m glad… “

“Huh!”

“Let me finish,” he said gently. “I’m glad you realize the seriousness of the situation, Jess because you really need to, and to heed my words.”

He cocked an eyebrow, giving Sam a quizzical look.

“I just need to warn you, that you must take special care of your health, during the coming winter especially. You’re not 100% fit yet, Jess, and if you get another attack, well, you really won’t pull through the next time. What with the strain of the smoke inhalation and then the lung fever, well you just have to be really careful.”

“Hell Sam, I’ve gotta work, can’t stay wrapped up in cotton wool all winter.”

“And  neither would I want you to either, I’m just asking you to be sensible, avoid getting overly chilled or soaked to the skin, take things  slowly at first…. and please Jess… no fighting, just conserve your energy for a while yeah?”

“OK, OK if it makes you happy, I’ll wrap up warm and keep out of trouble….. Ma!”

“Why you!” said Sam giving him a playful swipe,” I can see how as Slim is nearly driven to distraction by you.”

“Hey, he’d be bored stupid if he didn’t have me to liven things up around here,” said Jess laughing.

“Um,” said Sam darkly,” well you just behave so he’s still got you around here, and hopefully for a long time to come.”

Jess ducked his head at that and just said softly, “yeah OK Doc.”

Then regaining his high spirits, he asked, “So can I ride into town now, then Sam?”

The good doctor sighed,” I guess so, but make sure if you go in the Saloon it’s purely to court Miss Mille, no hitting the hard stuff for another week or two.”

Jess grinned back at him. “Well, you know what, Sam? That’s exactly what I’ve a mind to do.” The two men went off cheerfully in search of some of Daisy’s pie and coffee.

*****

He rode into town early the following morning and made straight for the telegraph office and sent the wire over to Rawlins inviting Red Smith and his Ma and also Eva Sherman over to the ranch for Thanksgiving and then he marched across the road to Mort’s office.

The older man beamed when he saw who it was and leaping up from his desk strode across to Jess and pumped his hand.

“Well Jess, you sure are a sight for sore eyes, so how are you boy?”

“Just fine now Mort, managed to get under the wire,” he said with a huge grin.

“Um, way you were a week or two ago, I’m surprised Miss Daisy has let you out of her sight,” he said returning the grin.

“Well see, Mort, I’m on a mission.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, so how do you feel about your usual visit to the ranch for Thanksgiving? Think you can get away?”

Mort’s grin got even wider,” why sure, it’s Lon’s turn  to work the holiday and anyway guess I’d have pulled rank even  if it weren’t, with Miss Daisy’s Turkey dinner at stake.”

“Um,” said Jess thoughtfully, “I ain’t shot him yet, Mort, don’t count you chickens….”

“Chicken, Turkey, don’t make no odds to me as long as Miss Daisy’s a cookin’ it,” he said with a bark of laughter.

“Well you’re sure are in a good mood,” said Jess smiling back.

Mort slapped him on the back and then said, “Well, I’m just real pleased to see you up and about again, Jess; there was a time there for a while…well…you know…”

Jess ducked his head. Yeah, I know… anyways, I’ll be getting off…got, er… business to see to.”

“That wouldn’t be some real cute, brown eyed, five foot nuthin’ kinda business would it Jess?” he said with a huge grin.

“Mort, what are you sayin’?” asked Jess in mock innocence.

“Just that a certain little lady was frettin’ something fierce about you, Jess boy; figure she’s in need of seeing you looking fit and healthy, set her mind at rest some.”

Jess smiled back. “Yeah, well guess that was where I was headin’,” he said with a laugh. “Catch your later.” He was off down the street with a spring in his step and a cheeky twinkle in his eye.

He strode down the street and into the bar and was greeted by Tom, who was standing polishing a glass, but he put it down and  came over when he saw Jess enter. “Well howdy son, it sure is good to see you up and about again.”

“Thanks Tom. Millie around?”

“Just stepped out to the mercantile. it’s her day off, but she’ll be back shortly.” Then he proffered a whiskey bottle.  “Join me in a drink?”

“Better not, Tom, I’m still under doctor’s orders.”

“Oh well in that case you’d better just have a beer then,” he said smiling and drawing a pint and pushing it over.

“Thanks Tom,” he replied taking a long pull and looking around the bar and then back to Tom.

The old timer was shaking his head and looking over at Jess, “yeah sure is good to see you back boy, you’ve no idea how upset our Millie had been, well and Lily…. ….Sharon and young Becky too…if truth be told.”

Jess raised an eyebrow and showed a spark of interest,” Sharon and Becky too?”

“Oh yes boy, the night Millie came back from a visitin’ that first day, gee she was real upset. Then she told Lily how bad you were and in the end I had ‘em all frettin’ and creatin’ didn’t get any sense out of them all evening long.”

“That bad eh?” he asked shaking his head and frowning down into his beer.

“Um, you must tell me how you do it someday,” he said with feeling. “Managed to completely render all my staff incapable of work without doin’ a thing, ‘cept lie on your sickbed.”

“Yeah well, it ain’t easy havin’ that kinda affect on the women folk you know,” he said picking up on his friend’s banter, and giving him a cheeky grin.

Tom grinned back. “Oh well, at least we can laugh about it now, but I figure you didn’t feel much like laughing at the time.”

Jess gave him a nod,” yeah, you got that right,” he said.

Then the back door slammed and suddenly Millie burst through into the bar and gave a little squeal of delight at seeing Jess and ran straight into his arms.

He held her tightly, completely forgetting Tom and the small audience of drinkers watching the romantic little drama playing out in front of them.

Then Tom gave a subtle cough, “Er, why don’t you take Jess out back for a coffee,” he said jerking his head towards the back room and winking as they went through, knowing full well they would go straight out the backdoor and up the fire escape to Millie’s room. The watching bar flies weren’t fooled either and gave way to a little good natured banter as the young couple left, but neither noticed, only having eyes for each other.

Once in the privacy of her room he at once took her in his arms and kissed her long and hard, before he released her and they made their way to the sofa in front of a crackling fire.

Then he turned and grinning at her said,” so what happened to the boot and gun rule then?”

She giggled  and  pushing him  down  on  to the couch kneeled  down before him and started to pull his boots off and then  leaned forwards and giving  him a provocative  look from  beneath her fringe,  unbuckled his gun  belt and slid it off before  jumping up and snagging his hat from  his head as she went past to hang up his things by the door.

When she returned she looked down at him her expression one of deep affection.

“So don’t I get coffee then?” he asked softly.

“You want coffee?”

He saw the amorous look in her eye and shook his head and smiled at her. “No, I guess not”.

She immediately took several cushions and put them behind him, before grabbing hold of his legs and swinging them up onto the couch so that he was lying, propped up by the cushions with his feet up.

“Hey,” he said grinning at her,” I ain’t an invalid you know.”

She sank down on the couch, facing him and took his hand, “I know that, just feel like taking care of you, nothing wrong in that is there?”

He gave her a lazy smile. “Nothin’ wrong at all; in fact, I kinda like it.”

She caressed his cheek with a finger,” you still look real pale,” then tears sprung to her eyes,” Jess it was awful I was so scared…”

“I’m so sorry you had to see me that way, Millie; it was real difficult for you I know that…. “

“You nearly died didn’t you… just after I left,” she whispered, Slim told me all about it…. and the way Mike seemed to get through to you, when you looked to be more dead than alive….?”

He looked down to where she still held his hand,” I guess,” he whispered, I figure I just felt I couldn’t handle it anymore.”

“That’s why you said what you did… about me finding someone……to look out for me?”

“Yeah, didn’t want you wastin’ your life mourning me… wouldn’t have made any sense.”

“I was so relieved when Slim rode over and told me you were going to be OK.”

He gave a little sigh and squeezed her hand.

“Just forget about it now honey…it’s all done with…”

Their eyes locked and then she leaned in and he took her in his arms and held her close, kissing her very tenderly on her the top of her head, her cheek and then eventually working his way down to her mouth, the teasing caresses sending her crazy with desire.

“Jess,” she whispered,” you really are alright now aren’t you?” and she pulled back and threw him an anxious look.

“Oh yes,” he said softly, “I’m just fine sweetheart, just fine.”

*****

The lovemaking had never been so special and afterwards she broke down in tears.

“Hey, honey, don’t,” he whispered.

“I can’t help it; I so nearly lost you…I just don’t know what I’d do without you… I really don’t.”

“Hush, it’s OK,” and he held her close rocking her gently as all the fear and tension of the last few weeks came flooding out and she wept uncontrollably.

Finally the sobbing slowed down and ceased and she found a hanky and wiping her eyes gave him a watery smile,” I must look a sight.”

“You always look beautiful to me…” he said, returning the smile.

“Aw, you and your sweet talkin’,” she said, giving him a gentle swat, which he dodged with ease.

“Hey, I’ve been sick, you know,” he said in mock indignation.

This time she really laughed and he grinned back. “That’s better; I hate to see you upset, sweetheart.”

She lay in his arms and they slept for a little, and when they awoke, it was late afternoon; the sun having dipped down over the horizon and the room growing chilly, the fire reduced to glowing embers.

Jess gently disentangled himself from a still sleeping Millie and stretching got up and started wandering about the room picking up his discarded clothes from the floor and quickly dressing before he tended the fire and brewed some coffee.

Then he padded back over to the large comfy bed and sitting on the edge put out a hand and gently shook Millie awake.

“I’ve made you some coffee.”

Her eyes flickered open and after a moment she yawned and then sat up, “thanks Jess…. what time is it?”

He gave her a rueful look. “Time I was headin’ home I guess, nearly supper time. Miss Daisy will be frettin’ about me and ol’ Slim’ll be wantin’ to know why I’ve been so long in town, when there’s fences to be mended,” he said with a little sigh.

She sipped her coffee and then regarding him over the rim of her cup, her eyes twinkling, “so what will you tell him then?”

Jess reached out and gently caressed her face. “That I’ve been makin’ love with the most wonderful girl a man could hope to meet and I just couldn’t stand to leave her.”

She swallowed and looked down, deeply moved.

Then she decided to lighten the moment, not wanting to start crying again.

“So what will you really tell him?” she asked with a little giggle.

“That it’s none of his Goddamn business,” he said succinctly, leaning over and kissing her very tenderly.

 *****

The following Saturday morning  the men folk of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station arose at first light and silently made their way out of the house and across the yard to saddle up their mounts, Mike the youngest member of the party practically beside himself with excitement.

“Gee Slim I’ve never been on a turkey shoot before,” he said, and then looking anxious,” we will find one won’t we?”

Jess glanced over from where he was saddling Traveler, his breath making misty patterns in the chill morning air. “Sure we will, Tiger; we’re goin’ to Paradise, all of God’s fine creatures are there just awaitin’ their turn to find their way into Miss Daisy’s cookin’ pot.”

“Aw Jess, you’re so funny, “giggled the youngster as he tightened the chinch on his own pony and hopped up into the saddle.

Paradise, as the ranchers had nicknamed it, was a parcel of land just on the western periphery of the Sherman land and had been neither cultivated nor grazed ever since the ranch was built. It had lush vegetation, a small mountain and a stream, practically bubbling with fish. And the dense forestation, along with open plain, supplied the habitat for a variety of game from turkey through to deer and because the area was only hunted by the ranchers the wildlife was abundant, hence their name of Paradise.

They were soon on their way and Mike turned to Jess and said, “Why do we have to come out so early Jess, it’s only just getting light now.”

“Well you see, Tiger, ol’ Mr. turkey goes and roosts for the night up in the tall trees in the woodland and then a little after dawn her comes on  down and  goes out onto the meadowland to feed and that’s where we’ll be a waintin’ to greet him. Go too soon and his still abed up a tree and ain’t easy getting a shot in the woods and you come in to late, well, he’s hightailed it across the meadow and he sees you comin’ and flaps off, but you find him just as he’s woken up and still kinda drowsy, well you’ve got him and he’s real easy to catch out.”

“Bit like you really Jess,” said Slim chuckling as he reined Alamo in beside his partner,” real dozy in the morning and easy to fool.”

Jess just threw him a pained look, never being at his best having to rise and go out without a couple of restorative gut rot coffees under his belt.

“Let’s just see who gets the first shot, before you get to callin’ me dozy!”

When they were within about a quarter of a mile of their quarry they dismounted and ground hitched their mounts before continuing stealthy on foot.

As they walked they chatted very quietly in whispers.

“You cleaned your rifle real good didn’t you, Mike?” asked Jess raising a questioning eyebrow.

“Oh yes sir, real good,” came the earnest reply and Slim and Jess exchanged a small smile over the boy’s head.

Once they came a little closer to the edge of the woodland they stopped and hunkered down to wait, Jess gesturing to Mike that he should stay silent now.

After twenty minutes or so the boy was beginning to wish they had, had time for breakfast before leaving, and lying next to Jess he could hear his empty stomach growling in protest too.

Then they heard a faint gobbling sound and after a minute or two the turkeys emerged from the brush at the edge of the woodland.

As prearranged Mike was to have first shot and then the other two would follow through, Jess finishing off the bird if Mike had missed his target and Slim going for the next in line.

As the hapless birds advanced Jess immediately picked their target, a very large handsome bird at the front of the small group.

“That’s the one, Tiger,” said Jess softly. “Remember what I told you, and take your time to aim real good and squeeze the trigger real easy.”

The boy did as requested and was rewarded by his bullet skimming the wing of the birds, but before it could recover Jess blasted it again and finished it off and turned to the blond youngster at his side

The boy’s face was alight with excitement.

“Did I get him, Jess? I thought I just winged him.”

Jess leaned over and ruffled the boy’s hair. “You done real good for a first time, Mike; if you hadn’t slowed him down some, I’d have never have got my shot in. Call it a joint effort, eh?”

And the boy’s face shone with pride in response.

Meanwhile Slim had managed to dispatch another slightly smaller bird before the flock had scattered to the four winds.

Once they’d retrieved their kill they wandered on  through the scrub land and  woods and the men  managed to bring down a couple of pheasants while Mike bagged two  rabbits for their supper that night and was beside himself with joy at  having  shot not one, but two.

“Good clean shots too Mike,” said Jess as he picked them up, “well done!”

Mike flushed with pleasure, his eyes sparkling as he looked up into the face of his hero,” gee thanks Jess!”

Jess glanced over to smile at Slim and was surprised to see his buddy looking upset.

He handed the kill to Mike and told him to go put them in his gunny sack before striding over to his partner.

“Shall we head on back now, Slim? My belly’s fair achin’ for some grub.”

Slim ducked his head down but not before Jess had seen the unnatural brightness in his eyes.

He leaned forwards and gently touched his friend’s arm.

“Say what’s up buddy?” he asked softly.

Slim shook his head as if to clear it and then looked over at his buddy.

“Sorry, he said quietly,” but just seeing you and Mike together there… the kid adores you, you know?”

Jess just shrugged. “He loves us all, and so what’s your point?”

“I just got to thinking what life would be like right now if…. …if you hadn’t made it.”

Jess sucked in a deep breath before looking at his friend. “No point in thinkin’ that way, pard. I did make it and now I figure we need to forget it all and move on.”

Slim just nodded, but looked down again taking a deep breath clearly still very emotional.

“Besides we’ve got other stuff to think about right now ain’t we?”

“Huh, we have?” asked Slim looking puzzled.

“Sure we have… like sleeping arrangements?”

“What?”

“Well we’re gonna have a house full soon, buddy; gotta figure where we’re gonna sleep ‘em all.”

“Oh yeah of course, so remind me, who we’ve got coming, Red Smith’s family and his Ma?”

“Yeah, that’s right and Mort is coming and bringing Millie over,” he finished carefully leaving out the surprise guest of Slim’s estranged aunt.

Then Slim finally grinned over at his friend, “well I’ll tell you one thing…..”

“Yeah?”

“You and Millie aren’t sharing our room, that’s for sure.”

Jess grinned over, glad to see the moment had passed and Slim was his usual cheerful self again.

“Aw Slim, you’re no fun,” he said laughing, and slapping him on the back, they made to catch up with Mike.

It was just over a week later that the stage, bearing Red and Maud Smith and their dear friend and neighbor Eva Sherman, hurtled into the yard at a good speed and rattled to a standstill by the front door.

Mike who had been waiting  excitedly for the guests sitting on the hitching rail, bundled up in his warm coat, flew into the ranch shouting,” they’re here… they’re here at last!”

Jess and Slim rushed out closely followed by Daisy hastily wiping her hands on her apron, before putting a hand up to her hair, a welcoming smile on her face.

It had been agreed between Jess and Red, that Eva should simply be introduced as a good friend that they didn’t want to leave home over the holiday, knowing that Slim would be more than happy to offer hospitality to a lonely elderly widow.

Jess knew it was kinda sneaky, but better that than to have a confrontation in front of everyone as soon as she arrived. No he figured he’d break it gently to Slim later that evening when they were over in the bunk house and after a glass or two of festive cheer.

In the meantime Slim acted exactly as Jess knew he would and welcomed all their holiday guests with open arms.

They had arrived on the noon Stage the day before Thanksgiving and immediately Daisy got in a huddle with Maud and Eva and Jess Slim and Red retired to the barn, where they caught up on all the news and shared the odd glass of Red Eye.

“I’m sure sorry your wife and the little one couldn’t make it,” said Jess.

“Yeah well, my sister in law and her two kids landed unexpectedly just a couple of days ago and we figured adding another three guests would be a bit much even for Wyoming hospitality,” he grinned.

“Oh we’d have managed,” said Slim looking concerned, but then Red leaned over and winked, tapping his nose with his finger.

“Truth be known, my sister in law is a lovely woman… but….. talk”, he raised his eyes to Heaven,” and those girls have got so much to catch up on I guess I won’t even be missed.”

The men laughed at this and raised their glasses again.

“I can’t thank you enough for all you did to help Jess and me out over this business of Marcus and the bogus Will,” said Slim sincerely.

Jess and Red exchanged a quick look and then Red changed the subject as soon as he could.

“Well you’re more than welcome,” he said quickly;” just glad it all turned out OK for you both.”

*****

It wasn’t until much later in the day that Slim and Jess were able to talk properly.

They had all enjoyed a very happy and lively meal with everyone taking part, although Slim had noticed that Eva was very quiet.

Now Slim and Jess had repaired to the bunkhouse where they were to sleep, along with Red who was just having a last coffee with his Ma and Daisy, before turning in.

Now as the two cowboys washed up and prepared for bed, Slim turned worried eyes on Jess.

“Do you think that Eva is OK, she seems kind of troubled, did she lose her husband recently, do you know? “

Jess looked down and took a deep breath, knowing this was the moment he had been dreading.

“Well you, see, Slim… it ain’t her husband she’s sorta lost recently; it’s her son.”

“Oh, so what do you mean ‘sorta’ lost?”

“Well, he ain’t dead, just banged up in jail.”

“Oh, that’s too bad, she seems a really lovely lady; her son went bad then?”

“You could say. His name is Marcus Sherman…..”

Jess waited for this bit odd information to sink in and he steeled himself for what he knew was about to happen.

“What!  What in Hell are you saying Jess…. that…. that …..woman in there is Marcus Sherman’s Ma?”

“Yeah and your Aunt… and before you start on me, I have to say I’ve done it for your own good, Slim, and you have to hear me out.”

“Hear you out, why in Hell should I Jess… you’ve betrayed me bringing that woman here, how could you…..you knew the way I felt about her, and what’s more….”

“Slim, will you listen to me for a minute, just simmer down and have another drink and let me explain.”

Slim suddenly looked weary and sank down onto his bunk, accepting another glass of whiskey,” OK,” he said in a resigned voice,” so tell me….”

Jess very gently explained the whole scenario as to how Eva had always loved Slim’s Pa and how it really hit home once she had married Martin after Mary and Mathew, Slim’s parents, had been Wed.

Then all about that fateful Thanksgiving, when after a little too much wine she had tried to kiss Slim’s Pa, but how he had backed away, the whole incident having been witnessed by Slim’s Ma .Then how Martin had been led to believe that Mathew was the one who had instigated the kissing… …and not Eva, leading to the feud that had lasted during the whole of the men’s life time.

Slim had listened to all this, slumped down on his bunk, staring at Jess’s face as the tale was unfurled.

After a while he peered   at his buddy, his head on one side,” and you really believe her Jess?”

“Yes, I really do.”

He sighed deeply and shook his head,” it sure is a lot to take in…. my Aunt here after all this time.”

Then he looked thoughtful, “I guess it’s all beginning to make sense, I remember hearing a conversation between my Ma and Pa… I was out in the kitchen and I figure they didn’t realize I was there. Anyways, it wasn’t long after Andy was born and Ma was trying to get Pa to do something. Please Matt, it’s been so long since we saw them, can’t you forgive her?”

Jess listened, enthralled, “go on…”

“Then Pa said, it wasn’t just what she did, it’s my brother too…. how could he not believe me?”

Slim  shook his head,” funny I’d forgotten all about that, then I came in from the kitchen  asking why I couldn’t meet my Auntie and  Uncle and Pa got mad and stormed out and Ma said I was never to mention them again… and so I never did,” he finished softly……..”until now.”

Jess smiled over at his friend. “Well, I guess you’ve got the opportunity to ask her all about it tomorrow… if you want to that is?”

Slim looked thoughtful and then glanced at his friend,” sure I do….. and Jess I’m sorry I bawled you out….. thanks buddy; I appreciate what you’ve tried to do.”

**********

The following morning breakfast was a lively affair for the amassed company, save for Slim and Eva Sherman who were noticeably quiet.

It was a glorious day, the sun beating down out of a clear blue sky and although cold it was pleasant to be outdoors and Jess chivvied Mike up to help him and Red with the chores, suggesting quietly that Slim might like to show Eva around the property.

“It’s real pretty down at the creek right now,” he said smiling over at the elderly lady.

Slim smiled across at her. “Yes I’d be pleased to show you round, Ma’am.”

Eva threw Daisy and Maud a tentative look,” well I think we women folk were going to make a start on the Thanksgiving preparations?”

“Oh don’t worry about that dear,” said Daisy cheerfully, who had been previously primed by Jess.

“That’s right, Eva dear,” chimed in Maud. “You take a turn about the place with Mr. Sherman and we’ll save you some vegetables to prepare on your return.”

Eva smiled at her old friend and then nodded before casting Jess an uncertain look, but he just nodded and gave  her an encouraging smile, and then Slim was there helping her on with her coat and she was bustled out of the  door before she could argue any further.

Once they were on the pathway down to the creek Slim took her elbow to guide her along and after a moments silence she looked into his kind blue eyes and said softly,” Jess has told you hasn’t he?”

Slim stopped and taking both her hands in his nodded and then looking into her clear grey eyes said, “Yes….. aunt… he has.”

Then her eyes misted and she said softly,” I am so, so sorry for what Marcus put you through child.”

Slim took a deep breath and as they had reached the creek he guided her to a fallen log and they both sat down, before he replied.

“Well I guess that isn’t your fault…”

“Oh but it is,” she said quickly, it was my lies and duplicity that has brought us to all this,” and she went on to explain the happenings of that long ago Thanksgiving when she had betrayed her husband and how those events had finally led to the latest repercussions.

“You see dear, the lies I told Marty were passed on to Marcus and so he grew up thinking that your  father was the cause of the rift and all the bad feeling, and there are other reasons why he feels he has cause to hate you too.”

“Oh?”

She looked very sad as she continued,” I’m afraid Marcus was never the son Marty wanted, he was hopeless at ranching, bored with the work, scared of the stock, could barely sit a horse.”

Slim gave her a baleful look,” don’t I know it,” he said quietly.

“Um, well it was obvious he would never be a rancher and that hurt Marty deeply, they had a very difficult relationship. But he was bright enough and he could have done well at the Lawyers, been one himself instead of just a clerk, if he hadn’t been so lazy……..and then……”

“Go on aunt,” said Slim encouragingly.

She gave a deep sigh,” and then he found that a life of crime paid better than a clerk’s wages and he embarked on a career of forgery… I was never sure until he was actually convicted, but I had my suspicions.”

“I see… but what made him hate me so darned much that he almost completely wrecked my life…. And those of the folk I love,” he whispered, throwing her an anguished look.

“It was after his Pa died and he saw the Will… it gave him the idea to forge your Pa’s signature and make the fake Will. I only know all this Slim because he confessed it to me after he was finally caught… I had no idea before it happened I promise you,” she said turning concerned eyes on him.

“It’s Ok I believe you, so go on, after Uncle Marty died you say?”

“Yes, that’s what gave him the idea to forge your Pa’s will and inherit the ranch. You see he found some papers, letters your Pa had written prior to the bust up and it was easy for him to forge the signature. But then he decided to do his research, find out all about you and the ranch, whether it was a thriving business or not…. “

“So how did he manage that?”

“Made friends with an old friend of your Pa’s, a Mr. Kelly? “

“Jake Kelly from the Flying A Ranch?” asked Slim referring to an elderly neighbor.

“That’s him a very gregarious character Marcus said.”

“Oh he’s that alright,” said Slim with a faint smile,” especially after a glass of whiskey or three.”

“Well he told Marcus all about this place and how well it was doing, and how proud your Pa would have been. Then he went on to tell him all about how close you and your Pa were, saying how you rode together, worked together, a real father son enterprise…. Well Marcus was just completely filled with jealousy… and that was the final straw, he wanted to make you really suffer and take everything you cared about away from you. Then Hank Brown got involved, needed the cash for his gambling debts, and helped him by lying on oath so that the ranch fell into Marcus’s hands and Hank was so desperate for the transaction to succeed that he shot Jess.”

At that Slim’s head shot up….” I’ll never forgive either of them for that,” he said bitterly, “we nearly lost him do you know that?”

The elderly woman’s hand shot up to her mouth and she gave a little cry of shock. “No…no I didn’t; I knew he’d been shot, but Marcus said he was just wounded?”

“It wasn’t the back shooting, although that didn’t help, it was having to ford the river to make it home in time, he was soaked to the skin and freezing cold…”then his voice lowered,” he caught pneumonia… lung fever Eva, and it nearly did for him…”

Her old eyes filled with unshed tears,” I’m so sorry my dear I really didn’t know.”

“Well, ‘tis over now and Jess wants to forget about it, so don’t say anything, but you need to know why I’m so bitter about it all.”

She nodded,” I do understand and if you can’t forgive me… well should I go?”

“Hell… err excuse me, heck no aunt I don’t want you to go and I do forgive you, sure I do.”

“Oh Slim!” she said reaching out for his hand and squeezing it.

“What happened was a long time ago and Marcus is his own man, it was his choice to turn all that into a vendetta against me and mine… that was nothing to do with you, you must see that.”

She nodded and her sad old eyes contemplated him, “you are so like dear Mathew, he would have been very proud of you, you know.”

Slim nodded,” yes, I do, but thanks aunt, it means a lot that you can say that.”

Then he saw her shiver a little and was immediately contrite.

“Hey I’ve kept you out here chatting on, you must be freezing.”

“Oh I’m alright dear; it was worth getting a little chilly, just to hear you offer your forgiveness.”

He grinned across at her and standing up, hauled her to her feet, “come on auntie, let’s go home,” he said softly.

Jess was in the yard bringing some logs in as the couple approached, Slim with a comforting arm around his aunt’s shoulders, both of then talking animatedly and laughing at a shared joke.

Jess grinned across at them and winked at Slim,” everything OK then? “

Slim beamed back,” more than OK, thanks buddy,” and he patted his arm fondly.

Then they heard the sound of a rig rattling down the track and a minute later Mort driving the livery hire buggy with Millie seated next to him, hove into view and came to a shuddering standstill next to Jess.

Jess dropped the load of logs he was carrying and went to help Millie down and then held her in his strong arms for longer than was strictly necessary before giving her a tender kiss on the lips.

Slim gave a little chuckle and then as Jess pulled back he introduced his aunt,” and this is Jess’s good friend Millie.”

“I’d never have guessed,” she said softly for Slim’s ears only, giving him a little wink, before taking the girls hand.

“Lovely to meet you Millie,” and then Mort was introduced before they all made their way inside to the welcome warmth of the old ranch house.

*****

Later that afternoon the men sat around laughing and joking and enjoying a glass or two of the Red Eye that Mort had kindly provided, and that, along with a  the huge Keg of homemade cider kept them all in good spirits as they awaited the feast being prepared by the ladies.

Finally Daisy called them all to the table and it was a lively party that sat down to the Turkey dinner with all the trimmings, followed by Pumpkin pie.

However as was the tradition of his family Slim called for silence before they ate, and they all joined hands around the table and bowed their heads for the Blessing

“Thank you Lord for the happiness and health of all those around this table tonight, and for this family’s safe return home where they belong. Thank you for all your blessings this year of strong healthy beasts and a good Harvest,” said Slim sincerely.

Then taking a deep breath he said,” and finally Lord thank you for family and true friends…. Amen”

“Amen,” echoed around the table and then Slim stood to carve the turkey and the lively banter recommenced.

It was towards the end of the meal when Slim felt the need to stand and make a small speech.

He tapped his tumbler with a spoon for silence and standing rather unsteadily, said,” I would like to make a toast.”

The amassed company looked up expectantly and Jess made sure all the glasses were charged, before he looked over at his buddy, grinning at the fact that unusually, Slim looked a mite tipsy.

“I just want to make a toast to someone real special, without whom…. Well, I guess we wouldn’t be sitting around this table tonight.”

He looked down  and then continued quietly, “ with all that went on earlier this year, I’d just about given up on this place, resigned myself to it being sold….”

Then he turned to look Jess in the eye,” but my best buddy just wouldn’t give up, he rode out and made a promise to me, he said that he’d save this place if it was the last thing he ever did.”

Here he paused swallowing hard and then looking around the table said,”…and we all know that it darned near came to that….. “

Jess had ducked his head and was looking acutely embarrassed now, so Slim decided he’d maybe said enough.

“Anyways, I just want to say thanks for everything, Jess,” and raising his glass, he said,”To Jess.”

Everyone raised their glasses and repeated the Toast, the women folk especially, looking very emotional, and Millie, who was next to him, took Jess’s hand and squeezed it tightly.

Jess looked down and took a deep breath, before raising his eyes to Slim and just said softly, “Thanks, pard.”

Then Daisy saw that both men were looking emotional and she chivvied everyone up for more helpings of her excellent Pumpkin Pie and the moment passed.

Later on  Jess insisted that Daisy and the other women took their places by the fire while he and Slim washed up all the dishes, but after a little while Millie came in and told Slim to go back and play the host and she would finish off the chores with Jess.

“You sure,” he asked raising an eyebrow, “you’ve already helped with the cooking?”

She gently untied the apron that he had slung around his waist and said, “Quite sure,” before shooing him out of the kitchen and taking his place washing up at the sink.

Jess continued with the drying up, the two chatting happily away, until the task was nearly completed. Then Jess wandered over to her and snaking his arms around her waist, as she had her back to him, still working at the sink, he gently kissed the nape of her neck.

She arched her back and gave a little sigh, before turning and throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him lovingly.

After a minute he pulled away and taking her hand led her to the back door and removing his thick sheepskin jacket from the hook there threw it around her shoulders, then he turned and grabbed Daisy’s tin containing sugar lumps, from the kitchen shelf, and he gestured for Millie to follow him outside, closing the kitchen door quietly behind him. Then he took her hand and they ran over to the barn, across the yard covered with a powdering of light snow, the air chill and the stars sparkling down from a clear sky.

Once inside he lit the lamp and stood grinning down at her.

“What are you up to,” she laughed,” we can’t leave the party, what will everyone think?”

“That I want some time alone with my girl….and besides we’ve gotten an age-old tradition to carry out.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, see at Thanksgiving, it’s traditional to go around all the mounts and feed ‘em a sugar lump as luck for the following year, supposed to make ‘em all faithful and true… “

“Oh really?”

“Sure.”

Then she giggled,” Jess you’ve just made that up haven’t you?”

He put down the tin and took her in his arms looking down into her smiling brown eyes,” yeah, I guess I did, figure we just needed some time alone……..come here,” he said softly before leaning down and  finding her sweet lips.

After a moment he slumped down on a straw bale, pulling her down beside him, an arm protectively slung around her shoulders, “you OK, not too cold?”

“I’m fine,” she smiled Then looking thoughtful said, “It was real nice what Slim said about you earlier.”

He nodded looking down still feeling a bit embarrassed.

She smiled inwardly, knowing him so well, then turning to him, she said quietly, “Tell me what happened … after I left that day, Jess. Slim just said he thought you were dead, but then you seemed to come back. What was it like?”

He stared at her for a moment as if gathering his thoughts.

“Well it was kinda strange. After you left, I suddenly felt one hell of a lot worse, could hardly breathe and the pain was somethin’ fierce, I just wanted it to stop… and then…. Well I was suddenly someplace else.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well I guess it was just a dream, but it was so damn real Mill,” he said turning to face her, the light of wonder in his eyes.

“See I was back at the old homestead on the Panhandle, felt the sun beating down. I could smell that special smell of home, the pines mixed with fresh cut hay… you remember?”

She nodded.

“I was standing by the gate and Ma was up on the porch nursing the baby, little Sal.”

Millie drew a sharp breath, “the little baby that died when you were what…….. twelve… …thirteen?”

“Yeah.”

She shook her head sadly,” only time I ever saw you cry was at her funeral… poor little scrap, she was,” she whispered shaking her head sadly… “so go on Jess.”

“Well my little sisters were there too and my old buckskin pony in the meadow. Anyways the girls saw me and looked so darned pleased to see me,” he stopped shaking his head.

“Those girls loved you, and you spoiled them rotten,” she said with a little smile.

” And I loved them too…. wanted to see them so much, Mill… and Ma…. I had my hand on the gate latch but, well this will sound crazy, but I kinda knew that if I went through the gate, I couldn’t get back… I’d be dead I guess.”

She looked shocked but not at all skeptical. “So what happened?” she whispered.

He grinned at her then. “Mike happened, that’s what. he was cryin’ somethin’ fierce, yelling for me, saying I’d promised never to leave him. Anyway Slim had run in when  he heard the boy creating and he looked down and  said I was white as a sheet, stopped breathing’… he couldn’t find a pulse.. reckoned I was well… dead…. “

She grabbed his hand at this,” Jess! “

“Anyways, I was still at the gate and then the more Mike was crying, the more I knew I couldn’t stay there and so I….… well I came back.”

“Thank God,” she said with feeling.

He gave her a thoughtful look, “I guess it was just a dream, but hell, Millie it was so damn real…. I wonder….?”

“What?”

“If that’s what happens when you die, you go back to your loved ones… maybe get a second chance, can make amends….for things…. You think?”

“I don’t know honey, but it’s a nice thought and you know what, Jess…?”

“Huh?”

“I don’t think that was a dream at all I think it was real, I think maybe you’re right that is what happens.”

At this he reached over and hugged her. “Thanks, for sticking by me…. and not thinkin’ I’m crazy,” he said with a small depreciating smile.

Then he kissed her again, cupping her face between his big gentle hands, the sweet, tender kissing making her stomach flip with desire, but after a moment she pulled reluctantly back and gave a little shake of the head.

“What is it sweetheart?”

“I don’t think we should start something we can’t finish….”

He sighed deeply,” guess you’re right, they’ll probably send out a search party in the form of Mike any minute now,” and they both giggled at that.

“Oh well, figure I’ll just have to ride over and visit next week.”

She nodded. “That would be lovely, as long as the snow holds off.”

He gave her a cheeky wink at that. “Well, I don’t know; if I play my cards right I might just end up snowed up in town, has to spend the winter in your room.”

She smiled,” think we’d survive?”

He shook his head,” no not on your cooking,” he said with feeling and they both laughed.

Then he suddenly sobered. “I dunno,” he said eventually, “but it would be kinda interesting finding out.”

She smiled at that and agreed.

“Seriously though Millie, do you think we could make a go of things together?”

She looked deeply into his eyes at this and after a moment said softly,” yeah, I guess we could Jess… sometime… maybe not right now, I figure we’ve both still got some living to do before we’re tied down to a home and babies… but yeah,  I reckon there is no one else  I’d  rather be with.”

He gave her an intense look,” so you’ll think about it?”

She leaned over and kissed him very lightly on the lips,” yes I’ll think about it cowboy… but now let’s go back, before my reputation is totally ruined.”

He grinned down at her and pulling her close he kissed her passionately one last time, before hauling her to her feet and walking back to the ranch their arms slung lovingly around each other.

Sometime earlier Slim had gone into the kitchen to refill the coffee pot and seeing the place empty and Jess’s coat missing, had peered out of the window and seen the light on in the barn.

“You old dog Jess,” he had whispered under his breath, before replenishing the pot and returning to the others by the fireside.

“Have Millie and Jess nearly finished tidying up?” asked Daisy turning innocent eyes on the tall rancher as he entered.

“Err, yes, I guess, just finishing off… leaving it tidy for the morning,” he improvised.

Then ten minutes later Jess and Millie entered the kitchen quietly and wandered into the main room, their eyes sparkling and cheeks rosy from the chill of the yard and barn and it was impossible not to pick on their exuberance.

“Well you two look pretty exhilarated considering you’ve just been washing all those dishes,” said Slim grinning across at the couple.

“Huh?” said Jess looking dazed.

“You two, you’re looking mighty bright eyes and bushy tailed.”

Jess neatly ignored the comment and asked if there was any more coffee going and the moment passed, but Daisy and Slim both noticed the secret smile that passed between the couple and the way Jess held onto her hand all evening.

It was much later before Slim and Jess had a chance to talk.

The women folk had retired for the night and Jess, Slim, Red and Mort had made their unsteady way across the yard to the bunkhouse and now Red and Mort were snoring lightly in their bunks.

Jess threw some more logs on the bunkhouse stove and gestured with the coffee pot to Slim, who was sitting on the edge of his bunk, pulled up near to the fire.

“Thanks buddy,” he said as Jess poured them both a final coffee, topped up with the remains of Mort’s Red Eye.

Then he grinned and shook his head.

“What?” asked Slim smiling across at where Jess was hunkered down in front of the fire.

“Just the fact that a few years back if I’d been bunking down for the night with two Sheriffs, well I guess it would have been because they’d arrested me….. and now, well I count Mort and Red amongst my best friends….”

Slim grinned back,” yeah funny how things change, guess you’ve really moved on with your life Jess… made something of yourself…”

Jess just nodded, “I guess.”

“So are you and Millie OK?”

Jess’s head shot up and he beamed over at his buddy, “yeah sure, real good.”

“Oh…. Not thinking of making an honest woman of her are you Jess?”

He looked down and then back over at his friend. Thinkin’ on it, maybe, yeah….well, to be honest she’s thinkin’ on it”, he said truthfully. “Not right now… but someday I guess we could make a go of things.”

Slim looked delighted,” well that’s good buddy, real good.”

Jess nodded grinning down before hauling himself up on his bunk and changing the subject, “Eva alright, you talked everything through?”

Slim nodded,” yeah, thanks for making me see sense about that, for inviting her here and all, I guess it’s been good for both of us. Laid a few ghosts to rest, you know?”

Jess nodded,” sure,” as he lay back, lacing his hands behind his head.

Slim gave him a small smile,” you know it’s sort of ironic really, the family split occurred when  she made a pass at my Pa on Thanksgiving and now all these years later she’s here on Thanksgiving to make amends”.

“Seems kinda right to me,” said Jess sleepily, stretching and yawning, “and anyway, I figure it’s made everything worthwhile.”

“Huh?”

“All the business with Marcus and nearly losing the ranch and all… well at least you got to meet your old Auntie in the end, if it hadn’t been for all that business, well I guess you’d never have met her or mended the rift.”

Slim scratched his head looking amazed.

“You mean you didn’t mind going through all that because I got to meet Eva at the end of it all?”

“Sure, well she’s kin ain’t she…….. and you like her…… so yeah, I guess it was worth it.”

Slim looked flabbergasted,” you never cease to amaze me, you know that buddy?” he said quietly.

“Jess?”

But Jess’s eyes were closed and he was snoring gently.

Slim grinned over at him, “night buddy”, he said softly, before stretching out himself and closing his eyes

The moon shone down and somewhere up in the hills a lone wolf cried mournfully, but the occupants of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station slept on in  peace, and  Slim’s last thought as he drifted off was, thank God the old place is in safe hands again.

Yep what with Jess, him, young Mike and Daisy, he figured the ranch would go from strength to strength,  his Pa sure would have been proud of the way things had turned out he thought, as he finally drifted off into a deep peaceful sleep.

***End***

Thank you for reading and Happy Thanksgiving!

Return to Patty W.’s home page

 

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