Tough Choices (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG  (Some strong language, violence and adult themes.)
Word count:  40,964


Buck’s Story

It had been a long hard winter at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, and all the inhabitants were feeling the backlash in one way or another.

For Slim Sherman, the tall blond rancher who owned the Relay, it was the worry the inclement and unpredictable weather brought with it. Often the stagecoaches ran late, if at all, in the severe snow. Then there was the problem of stranded passengers at the Relay if they were caught in a bad storm, bringing the chaos of unexpected overnight guests.

When the stage couldn’t run, there was a lack of news from the outside world, and none of the usual banter with the driver as they changed the teams, which they really missed. During the worst of the winter weather, they had gone three whole weeks without seeing another living soul.

Jess Harper, Slim’s dark haired, blue eyed, young business partner and friend, was just plain miserable. He hated the bitter weather; originally hailing from Texas, he really felt the cold, and he complained the frost seemed to get inside his very bones, making them ache, which in turn made him short-tempered. But Slim had said with a grin that it was nothing to do with the weather as Jess was ornery all year round.

That was typical of the friendly banter between the pair of young men who were so different and yet such good buddies.

Whereas Slim, the tall blond handsome rancher, made slow considered judgments and was always aware of his duty to his family and society in general, hardworking and committed, Jess was wilder, less predictable and quick to anger, with an edge of danger to him. He was fiercely loyal to his friends, though, even if this loyalty was sometimes misplaced, but also had a charming sense of fun, which complimented Slim’s more sober ways. And Slim knew that Jess had brought a new dimension to his life when he had fetched up at the Relay Station over six years ago, on the drift and with a very checkered history as a gunslinger.

Now Jess had put his old gunfighter ways behind him for good and was occasionally heard to say mournfully that he was ‘almost dang well domesticated,’ although Slim didn’t believe that one bit.

Jess too missed socializing due to the enforced imprisonment of the bad weather, although in his case it was more that he missed the company of the saloon girls and a few beers on a Saturday night more than news of the outside world.

Young Mike Williams, the cute blond haired little boy who the ranchers had adopted several years ago after the death of his parents, loved the winter and the snow and most of all no school. However, even he was growing bored of it now and was ready for the arrival of spring so that he could go back to town and catch up with all his school friends.

Daisy Cooper, their middle aged, kindly housekeeper and ‘mother’ to all her ‘boys’, was as stoic as usual, knowing that it would take more than a bit of winter weather to upset her indomitable spirit. No, the only thing to bother Daisy was if one of her beloved surrogate sons was in danger or hurt in some way. And that was why she was looking particularly anxious as they all sat around the supper table one evening in early spring, discussing the jobs for the following day.

Jess sat looking moodily into his empty coffee cup and then turning to his partner said, “I just don’t get it, Slim. There’s hardly any lying snow now and the winds stopped roarin’; heck it’s positively warm out there, for Wyoming that is. So why don’t you want me to ride out to the foothills and get us some fresh meat?”

“I’ve already told you,” said Slim patiently. It may look like spring to some uninitiated Texan boy, but it isn’t yet.”

“Huh?”

“It could — probably will — snow again any day now and I don’t want you caught up in it like last time. Remember when you near froze to death?”

Mike’s eyes opened wide with excitement. “Gee that sounds interesting, Jess. Will you tell me about it?”

Daisy cleared her throat. “I think that’s quite enough about freezing to death,” she said with a small shudder. “Now if you have finished, Mike, I think an early night wouldn’t do you any harm.”

“Aw, Aunt Daisy.”

“Come on, Mike, you heard Daisy,” said Jess softly. “You get into bed, Tiger, and I’ll come and tuck you up, tell you a story,” he said with a wink.

“OK,” said the boy, knowing he would hear all about the’ freezing to death’ incident after all, and he made his ‘good nights’ and left the adults in peace.

“So, what’s the real problem?” asked Jess. “Cuz if I don’t get off this ranch pretty soon, I’m gonna go plumb loco.”

Slim gave him the ghost of a smile. “Dunno,” he said. “Just got a bad feeling and there is snow in the air; I can smell it.”

“Ok,” said Jess in a resigned voice, “I won’t go out for the day. I’ll just go as far as the standing trees by the East pasture boundary — off at first light, back to do the afternoon stage. How does that sound to your ‘bad feeling’?”

Slim looked across at Daisy, shaking his head and grinning. “The boy’s like Buttons with a bone — just won’t let go,” he said referring to Mike’s dog.

“Speaking of which, has that child taken him to bed with him again? Oh Jess, would you mind?”

“Sure I’ll fetch him,” said Jess, “and tell him his story. Then I guess I’ll have an early night too. “Looks like I’ll have a busy day tomorrow,” he said with his charming grin.

Daisy couldn’t resist him when he turned on the boyish charm. “Oh you,” she said reaching over and ruffling his already unruly hair. “Just make sure you’re back before dark.”

“Yes Ma,” said Jess cheekily, ducking as the fond ruffling turned into a clip around the ear for his impertinence.

Slim and Daisy exchanged a look as he went off to tend to the youngster. “Do you really think it will snow again?” she asked anxiously.

He nodded. “But he’ll be OK as long as he comes straight back. Don’t worry, Daisy,” he said kindly before getting up and helping her with the dishes.

Jess was up and out at first light and had made the boundary of the Sherman land an hour or so later, but having no luck there, pushed on another couple of miles towards the foothills. With their pine clad slopes and rocky outcrops, it was an ideal hunting area, and before long, he had found exactly what he was looking for — a reasonable sized deer.

He shot it easily and tied it carefully behind his saddle before moving a little further into the foothills, wondering if he could bag a turkey too before it was time to head for home. It had been a beautiful sunny morning, but as Jess rode on, the wind got up again and casting an eye to the horizon he saw storm clouds billowing in.

Cursing softly under his breath, he reached forwards and patted Traveler on the neck. “Dang it, looks like Slim was right all along. Guess we’re in for a nasty storm, old fellah. Let’s head for home.” With that, he turned his mount around and headed back the way he had come at a brisk trot.

It all happened so quickly that afterwards he was never really sure what happened, but the usually sure-footed Traveler suddenly stumbled badly and Jess, who had been holding the reins loosely in one hand and his canteen in the other, was caught unawares. He was pitched off as the horse jerked forwards, scrabbling desperately on the loose shale underfoot to get a grip. Jess fell badly, and catching his head on a rocky outcrop, was knocked out cold.

When he came to a while later, there was no sign of Traveler, which was again unlike his horse, and all Jess could think of was that he must have been spooked by a rattler –practically the only thing, apart from cougar, which really upset the usually calm mount.

Jess looked suspiciously around him but could see no sign of snake or big cat and so tried to haul himself up gently. As soon as he tried to move, though, it felt like his head was exploding and he fell back down, feeling sick to his stomach with the pain.

As he lay there breathing heavily, he was suddenly aware that the wind had increased to a mighty roar and then came the snow, falling so thick and fast it almost covered him in a matter of minutes. His last thoughts before he passed out again were why in Hell didn’t I listen to Slim.

The next time he awoke, at first, he seemed to be in the pitch dark and then as his eyes gradually became accustomed to the dim light and he realized that the snow was no longer falling, and then, that he was actually in a cave. He tried to sit up, but again the pain in his head made him fall back down again.

He closed his eyes, and after a moment, opened them again to see a big man leaning over him holding a lantern. “So you’ve woken up at last, have you?” drawled a strangely familiar voice.

Jess screwed up his eyes and tried to focus on the man who had a grey beard and a hat pulled low down, partly obscuring his eyes. After a minute, the man pushed the hat back and said with a grin, “you don’t recognize your old buddy, do you, Jess?”

Suddenly Jess realized he was looking deep into the eyes of a very old friend, Buck Rogers. He put a hand out to the big man’s shoulder. “Buck…Buck that you?”

“Sure is, son, and looks like I came along just in time to save your bacon; you were getting a mite chilly lying around in the snow, boy.”

Jess tried to remember, then struggling to sit up. “Trav, what happened to Traveler?”

“Bolted; something sure spooked him”. Then seeing the look on Jess’s face, Buck said, “Don’t fret none, boy; he’s most likely in his stall enjoying his supper as we speak.”

Jess groaned inwardly; his horse might be, but he wasn’t and he had no doubt about the unrest that would be causing back at the ranch.

“What’s up, boy? You feelin’ sick?”

“Yeah…er, no, I’m Ok, just in big trouble. My partner warned me we were in for more snow, but I wouldn’t listen, needed some space…you know, Buck. But I guess he was right and they’ll all be worried sick about me now.”

Buck looked concerned for a moment before patting the younger man on the shoulder gently. ”Well, guess you’re lucky to have folks back there that care about you, son.”

Jess took a deep sigh. “Yeah, guess you’re right,” he said. “So what about you Buck? What are you doin’ here?” Then softly, “still on the run?”

The older man shook his head sadly. “Guess I always will be. Got a rope waiting for me when they catch up with me and there ain’t anything I can do about it.”

Jess took a deep breath. “Yeah, we sure tried, but when you’re up against crooked lawmen and a corrupt town, what are you goin’ to do?”

“Guess we did all we could. You tried to make them see sense and then you sprung me from that God forsaken jail. I can never thank you enough for that, boy. Given me a good six years of freedom, even if they do catch up with me one day.”

“So what brings you to these parts?” asked Jess.

“Well, I’ve been holed up in a small settlement other side of the mountain for 3 …no 4 years now, and everyone there knows me as Seth James. I’m accepted and it’s safe. Then one day a dang bounty hunter rides in and I knew him, Jess, and he knew me. Well, I high-tailed it out of there and figured these caves were a good place to hide out until the heat dies down. Just wasn’t expecting to stumble across you.”

“Well, nobody will hear anything from me, that’s for sure,” said Jess sleepily.

“Goes without saying, son. You get some shut eye now and we’ll get you home tomorrow.”

Jess closed his eyes and said, “Well, guess we’re even now. Buck. You sure saved my skin; wouldn’t have made it through the night out in that storm…” Then he groaned quietly.

Buck disappeared and came back with a damp cloth and washed out the wound to his friend’s temple. “It ain’t too bad, Jess, good night’s sleep should see you right. Here, drink this; help you sleep.” He gently lifted the younger man’s head up and helped him to sip some hill whiskey from a small bottle.

“Thanks,” said Jess wearily, and lying back, closed his eyes again.

He lay there thinking about Buck and their past together. The older man had been a neighbor when Jess lived on the panhandle as a boy.

Jess remembered that fateful night when the Banister gang had fired his home and all of his family had burnt to death, bar two siblings. After he had escaped from the flames, he tried to return to help get his Ma and sisters out, who he could hear screaming, and it had been Buck who held him back, saying, “Leave it, son. They’re gone; ain’t nothing you can do.”

Weeks later, Buck also had a run in with the Banister gang and it was then that he joined forces with Jess to try and track them down and kill them, to no avail. But they rode together for a good while and Buck’s care and understanding was succor to the aching soul of the then 15-year-old Jess. Then, just before the war started, they split up, not meeting again until many years later.

When they did meet, it was under very difficult circumstances. Buck was with his younger brother Christy and they had led something of a wild life since the war, pretty much the same as Jess had, walking a tightrope between the law and trouble, but never committed any really bad crimes.

One night, the three of them met up in a small town near Boulder for a few drinks in the saloon. They had only been in there a few minutes before it was made clear that Texans weren’t welcome.

They tried to ignore the unfriendly attitude until a deputy came in and asked them to leave for no obvious reason. Jess, being Jess and having a notoriously short fuse, was ready to argue the toss.

However, Buck, being a lot older and somewhat wiser, was ready to back down and the men were just about to cut their losses and leave when the deputy, who Jess had realized, was the worse for drink, suddenly drew on Christy and killed him in cold blood. It was then obvious he was just about to do the same to Buck and Jess, but Buck was faster and shot the deputy and then the sheriff was suddenly there and all hell was let loose.

The deputy, who was still alive but just, told the sheriff that Christy had drawn first, which was a blatant lie, but before Jess could remonstrate with him, the deputy upped and died and Jess and Buck found themselves on the wrong side of a jail door.

Before they were dragged away by the sheriff and another deputy, an incensed Jess appealed to the crowed. “Come on, you all saw the deputy draw first. What is wrong with you people?” but they all turned away refusing to meet the Texan’s eye. Jess turned once more to the saloon girl, Gina, who he knew. “Please,” he appealed, “tell them.” But she just cast her eyes down and whispered, “Sorry, Jess.”

After that, everything seemed to happen so quickly and it was like a living nightmare for Jess and Buck. Witnesses came forwards to say that Jess was an innocent bystander and he was released and he guessed he had Gina to thank for that. But Buck was tried and convicted within a matter of days and there was nothing Jess could do to help, although he spent every waking hour lobbying on his friend’s behalf.

It soon became obvious to him that the sheriff and his deputies ran a town where all the residents lived in fear of them. Gina apologized profusely to Jess for not standing as a witness, but knew she would be killed if she did. She also said that the deputy, who had been shot, had a deep hatred of Southerners since the war and was also three quarters drunk the night of the shooting and that the sheriff had been in a similar state, both of them too fond of the bottle.

The night before the hanging, Jess entered the jail to say his farewells to Buck and the sheriff was there to greet him.

“What do you want Harper? You ain’t welcome here.”

“Come to say goodbye to my buddy; figure I have the right,” said Jess harshly.

The sheriff merely nodded towards the cell. “Five minutes.”

Jess went and stood by the bars and whispered to Buck, “Here’s the plan, buddy. I’m leavin’ you a bottle of Red Eye; sheriff won’t be able to resist it. As soon as he’s out of it, I’ll be back to spring you and I’ve got a good horse round the back waiting.”

Buck looked his good friend in the eye. “Can’t ask you to do that for me, boy.”

“You’re not askin; I’m tellin’ you. Just, be ready, Buck,” and with that he left.

As he went out, he handed the Sheriff the bottle. “He wants that instead of a last meal,” he said casually and the sheriff accepted it with a grim nod.

Later that night after Jess had seen the deputy leave for his supper, he waited another hour and entered the jail to find the Sheriff completely comatose. Swiftly taking the keys from their hook, he let Buck out the back of the jail, to the fast horse that was waiting.

Buck turned and shook the young cowboy’s hand. “Thanks, son, I’ll not forget this.” He galloped off into the night and that was the last Jess had seen of him until now.

Jess smiled to himself as he remembered how he had gone up to Gina’s room as arranged and she had given him an alibi, saying he was with her all that evening and night. The barkeep confirmed seeing Harper leaving the girls room at breakfast time, so he got clean away with it, although the sheriff secretly always had his suspicions and voiced them long and loud to no avail.

That had all happened before he landed at the Sherman Ranch, and was just one more part of Jess’s former life that none of his friends knew about. He aimed to keep it that way, and wondering again what was going on back home, he finally fell into a fitful sleep.

*****

It had started snowing at lunchtime at the ranch and Slim immediately exploded with an angry ‘I told him so’ speech to Daisy.

“Don’t fret, dear, he is probably on his way back now. He did promise to get here for the afternoon stage.”

“Daisy, have you forgotten the last time he was caught in a blizzard? Darn near cost him his life. First he practically froze to death and then he had that real bad chest, coughing and wheezing for nigh on a month. Hasn’t got the sense he was born with,” he finished angrily.

Daisy knew the anger was just because he was worried and tried to calm him, but Slim just said, “Got a bad feeling, Daisy.”

When the afternoon stage had come and gone and with the storm increasing, Slim decided to ride out and meet him.

Mike, who had returned home from school on the stage, asked if he could go too.

“No Tiger, it’s real bad out there. What I need you to do is help your Aunt Daisy, and keep the fire stoked up and the cook stove too. Guess Jess could do with a good soak in the tub when he gets back.”

“OK,” said the boy, glad to be of use. Daisy walked with Slim to the door, and peering out at the elements, recoiled in horror,” Oh Slim, it’s dreadful out there.”

Slim was just reassuring her when they heard the clatter of hoof beats in the yard.

” Oh thank goodness, he’s back,” beamed Daisy.

They went out onto the porch to greet their errant friend but were shocked to see a riderless Traveler trotting exhausted into the yard.

“Oh my,” gasped Daisy, and at that Mike joined them on the porch, and all three looked on in consternation at the sweating, heaving horse.

“Looks like he’s been thrown,” said Slim softly.

“Gee, that ain’t like Jess,” piped up Mike. “He can sit any horse and old Traveler would never pitch him off anyways.”

Slim just nodded in agreement and secretly thought that maybe his buddy had been shot or attacked by a big cat or similar. He grabbed hold of the horse’s reins and then saw the deer attached behind the saddle. The dang fool, he thought again, putting himself at risk just so we can all dine well. Turning to the boy, he said, “Can you take care of Traveler for me, Mike? Rub him town real well, you know the way Jess does, and then a bran mash and once he’s cooled down some, a warm blanket.” Then turning to Daisy… “And I’ll go and try and find his owner,” he said with a worried frown.

Daisy leaned across and patted his arm. “Take care, dear,” she said anxiously. With a nod, he mounted Alamo and rode out into the storm.

Slim made straight for the East Pasture and rode to the boundary fence and beyond. He was pretty sure Jess would have had to head for the distant foothills to bag the deer and went as far as he could, but there was absolutely no sign of his partner.

He yelled out across the great expanse of whiteness but could see no living creature within miles. The snow had stopped, and as the wind dropped, he could feel the temperature rising and knew the snow would be thawing by the morning. Even so, he continued a little further until dusk was falling and he knew he should turn back and come out again to continue the search in daylight. With a heavy heart he turned back.

He told himself Jess had probably just had a fall and was sheltering in one of the many caves to be found in the mountain foothills, and that was what he told Daisy and Mike on his return, although none of them really believed that.

The following morning he set off later than he had hoped as a neighbor had arrived at first light saying one of Slim’s prime steers was caught up in the boggy ground a mile or so away and he had to go and save the animal before he could ride out.

On his return to the ranch, he saddled a spare horse for when he, hopefully, found Jess and was just about to continue his search when he looked up the track and saw a horse silhouetted against the sky line on the ridge just above the ranch. As he watched, he saw the horse was carrying two riders and one slipped down from the saddle, turned and shook the hand of the mounted rider and then start to make his way down the track as the mounted man rode off at speed.

As Slim squinted into the morning sun, he realized the figure was familiar and as he got nearer, he raised a hand in salute and he sighed with relief.

 Jess was home.

Slim called out to Daisy before marching up the track to meet his buddy. He ran towards him and gave him a concerned look when he saw the big black bruise at his temple and generally disheveled appearance. “Jess, you OK?”

Jess gave him a sheepish smile. “Guess so. Got tipped off old Trav.” And then more concerned, “He did make it home?”

“Sure, resting up in his stall; he’s fine.”

Then Daisy came running out and stopped as she saw the state of Jess and the nasty abrasion to his head. “Oh my, come along in, dear; let’s take a look at that head.”

Jess followed her in, although Slim could see he really wanted to check on his horse first, but knowing how fussy Daisy could be if one of her ‘boys’ were hurt, he thought better of it.

Once he had been cleaned up, and Slim was sure there was not too much damage, he laid into Jess. “I told you it was crazy to go out that far,” he said harshly, “but will you listen to me…no! Honestly Jess, I could really tan your hide putting us all through the worry. For what? Just so we eat deer…well I’m telling you pal it ain’t worth it….”

“Slim…..” said Jess softly.

“And what’s more…..”

“Slim, I’m sorry right, I apologize.” With that, Jess marched out of the room heading for the barn to check on his beloved mount.

Slim stood there fuming until Daisy came and rested a hand lightly on his arm. “I think he is truly sorry, Slim; don’t be too hard on him. At least he’s back in one piece.”

Slim looked down and took a deep breath, before giving her an embarrassed smile. “Yeah, guess I was a bit hard on him, I just get so worried, you know Daisy?”

She smiled up at him. “I understand, dear, and I feel the same, but go and make it up with him. Please. I hate it when you two fall out.”

He gave her a weak grin. “OK you win,” he said softly, and grabbing his jacket, made for the barn.

When he arrived, Slim wasn’t surprised to see his buddy fussing his horse, giving him an apple and then grooming him gently, talking softly to him all the while. He stood there quietly in the shadows smiling to himself and shook his head gently, Jess and that old horse. After a minute he walked across, and as Jess looked up, he grinned at him. “Guess I’ve finished sounding off,” he said quietly. “Welcome home, pard.”

Jess smiled back. “I really am sorry,” he said.

Slim just nodded, then, “So who was the guy that brought you back?”

“Huh?” said Jess, playing for time.

“The guy that dropped you off up the trail…and come to that, why didn’t you invite him in to rest for a spell. Least you could do considering he brought you all this way back.”

Jess looked away quickly, desperately trying to think of a cover story. “He had urgent business in Laramie, meeting someone I think.”

“Oh…so what was the guy’s name then?”

“Dunno.”

“What. He rescued you, patched up your head, brought you back and you never thought to ask his name?”

Jess looked worried and then said, “Well yeah, of course I asked. I was kinda out of it you know, Slim, what with that bang to my head; just can’t recall it that’s all.”

Slim gave him a long calculating look and then said quietly. “Why are you lying to me Jess?”

Jess replied angrily, “I ain’t lying to you. Now will you just leave it, Slim; my heads aching something fierce and I could do with some peace.”

Slim just nodded and left the barn, but the bad feeling he had had before Jess lit out had just become a whole lot worse, and he aimed to get to the bottom of what was going on sooner or later. As it happened, the next turn of event was to put Jess’s lying about his mystery benefactor completely out of Slim’s mind, for a while at least.

*****

It was a few days later, and a beautiful spring morning, when the stage rattled down the track. Mose, the old driver, was doing his favorite trick of scattering the hens in all directions.

Jess greeted him with the usual banter. “Hell, Mose, if we want scrambled eggs, we’ll let you know!”

The old man gave his toothless grin back. “aw, Jess, you know they enjoy a bit of sport,” he replied laughing. He climbed down from the box and indicated passengers to Jess, who went to help them out and escort them to the house for coffee, while Mose and Slim changed the team.

As it happened, there was just one passenger — a dapper, clean-shaven middle aged gentleman, with a good head of grey hair and twinkling blue eyes.

Jess greeted him warmly and the two strode across the yard and into the house, Jess calling out to Daisy that they had a guest as they entered.

After a moment, she bustled out of the kitchen with the coffee pot, and on glancing up at the passenger, stopped dead in her tracks and all but dropped the pot as she gave a little gasp.

Jess stared at her in surprise and then back at the newcomer and saw a look of delight in the older man’s eyes.

“Daisy my dear,” the man said rushing forwards, “you haven’t changed one little bit.”

Daisy put the pot down quickly, on the table, before just standing staring at the man, then said weakly, “Walter Smith…..Walt, what on earth are you doing here?”

Jess could see how shocked she looked and quickly came over and put a protective arm around her shoulders. “Daisy, are you OK?” he said softly. “Do you know this man?”

Daisy looked up at Jess as though she was seeing him for the first time and then shook her head, to get some sense back into it before replying, “Yes, it’s alright, Jess. This is Mr. Walter Smith; we are very old friends.”

Just then Slim and Mose came in and they all sat around the table as Daisy poured out the coffee.

“Thank you, my dear lady,” said Walt as Daisy filled his cup and old Mose’s eyebrows shot up. It was a well-known fact that Mose was sweet on Daisy, but it had never got any further than Mose applying copious amounts of hair oil whenever she travelled on the stage and his usual complementary comments on her cooking.

However now Mose perceived a rival for his beloved’s affections and was considerably upset and sat glaring at the stranger throughout the proceedings.

“So,” said Jess, rather enjoying the turn of events, “have you known Daisy long?”

“Oh I should say so,” replied the little man, beaming over at Daisy, who was now blushing prettily. “We were childhood sweethearts. She was my chosen one until that old devil Will Cooper upped and married her,” he said with a sad smile in Daisy’s direction.

“So what brings you to Laramie?” asked Slim innocently.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” smiled the older man,” I met a mutual friend a few months back, told me as how dear Daisy here was widowed now and moved out to Laramie, and then would you believe it, he said that he had heard the haberdashery was on the market and was I interested. Well, I’ve been running my own store in that line of business back East for many years and thought it was time for a change.”

Then looking over at Daisy with a fond smile, he said, “thought it would be good to look you up too, Daisy. Maybe renew an old friendship?”

Mose coughed loudly. “Well, all aboard,” he said. “Can’t sit around here all day; schedules to keep to you know.”

But this was all far too fascinating for Jess and Slim and they ignored Mose’s haste. Jess just said, “simmer down, Mose, and have another drink; no rush.”

Then turning back to Walt, Jess said in an even more innocent voice than Slim had adopted, “So are you bringing your family with you, Mr. Smith?”

Walt turned sad eyes on him and replied, “I never married, I’m afraid. Just me, that’s all,” before turning back to Daisy with a lovelorn look.

Mose just grunted, and seeing his long face, Daisy took pity on him. “More pie Mose?”

Mose shook his head and gave her a lugubrious look. “No thanks, Ma’am; must be makin’ tracks.” He stood up and left.

Jess and Slim exchanged an amused look, but said nothing.

Walt got up and walking over to Daisy, took her hand and kissed it gently, before saying, “once I am settled, may I call on you my dear? Maybe take you for a little buggy ride?”

Daisy looked like she was going to make an excuse but then she caught the look in his bright twinkling eyes, and smiling back, she said lightly, “Well, I don’t see why not.”

Then turning to Slim and Jess, she said, “I’m sure the boys could manage without me for an hour or so?”

Slim smiled back. “Sure,” he said softly.

With that, Walt beamed at Daisy and with a cheery, “See you soon, my dear”, walked out to the stage, where Mose was huffing and puffing, and climbed aboard. “See you boys soon,” Walt said cheerfully, and Mose drove the team out of the yard, his mouth set in a hard line, his back ramrod straight, registering disproval in every inch.

Jess and Slim turned and looked at each other bemused looks on their faces. “Well, I never,” said Slim quietly. “Our Daisy dating again.”

Suddenly Jess’s expression changed to one of horror. “You don’t think she’ll up and marry him do you Slim? Hell that would be awful. We’d have to do all the cookin’ and all…”

Slim looked equally shocked and then said, “Nah, they’re too old…aren’t they?”

Then, after a minutes thought, Slim said more seriously, “guess we should be glad for her, you know Jess. She ain’t had an easy life, what with her husband up and dying and her boy killed in the war and then losing everything all her money on that bogus deal. Well, guess she deserves a bit of happiness.”

“Sure,” said Jess nodding. “But she’s happy here with us, ain’t she?”

Slim nodded. “yeah, but maybe it’s not enough.”

Jess gave him a sad look. “Yeah, guess you could be right.” They went about their chores in a very sober mood, envisaging life without their dear Daisy.

After supper when Mike had gone to bed, they tried to engage her in conversation about Walt but she seemed strangely reticent and just said it was early days, and left it at that.

It was a week later when Walt Smith called on Daisy for the first time and she was as nervous as a young girl getting ready and nearly drove Slim mad by asking him which hat was the most suitable.

“Well, they all look real fine to me Daisy,” he said diplomatically, throwing Jess a harassed look.

Grinning, Jess took pity on his buddy, and going over to Daisy, picked a pretty little blue floral hat from the pile and said, very seriously, “definitely this one, Daisy; always been a favorite of mine.”

Daisy gave him an astonished look, but recovered quickly. “Why thank you dear, that is a help, good choice.” She went off happily to decide which dress to wear.

Walt arrived on time and the couple went off for their buggy ride, Slim, Jess and Mike waving them off from the porch.

As they disappeared down the track, Mike voiced what the others had been thinking. “Do you think Aunt Daisy is going to go off and marry that man?”

Jess and Slim exchanged looks before Jess said, “Well, they are just good friends, you know Mike. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

Mike looked tearful. “Think she’ll go away and forget about us?” he said in a small voice.

Jess immediately knelt down beside him and said quickly. “heck no, she’d never forget us, Tiger.”

“You sure?” asked the small boy, tears in his eyes.

“Sure I’m sure,” said Jess, leaning over and giving the child a big hug before glancing up at Slim. Then he continued, “how about us all goin’ fishin’ this afternoon. Then we can have a nice fish supper when Daisy gets back.”

The boy beamed. Oh, that would be swell,” and ran off to fetch the fishing lines.

When they returned late in the afternoon, they were surprised to find that Daisy had still not returned, but Jess set about gutting the fish for their meal while Mike and Slim completed the evening chores.

Suppertime came and went with no sign of Daisy, and Mike begged to stay up until she came back, but as it got later and later, he was finally persuaded to go to bed. Jess sat with him and told him stories until he fell asleep.

Jess went back into the main room where Slim was pouring out their coffee.

”It’s getting real late,” said Jess anxiously. “Think I should saddle up and go and look for them? That Walt is used to Eastern rigs; he might have had an accident.”

Slim looked equally worried. “How about we give her half hour?”

Jess agreed reluctantly, but as time dragged on, both men were getting more and more tense.

Jess was just about to go and saddle up Traveler when they heard a buggy approaching the yard. He leapt out of his chair and headed for the door but Slim grabbed hold of his arm and hauled him back.

“What?” asked Jess trying to pull free.

“Stay here,” whispered Slim. “they might be…you know.”

“What?” asked Jess again, looking bewildered.

“You know…be saying goodnight.”

“Saying goodnight? Oh, saying goodnight, yeah, right.” Jess sat back down again.

Within a few minutes, Daisy rushed in full of apologies. “oh Slim, Jess, I am so sorry. I missed supper didn’t I? it’s just that Walt and I got talking and we just didn’t notice the time,” she finished, her eyes sparkling as she smiled at them both.

Slim was the first to recover and said, “That’s OK, Daisy; glad you enjoyed yourself.”

Jess wasn’t quite so forgiving, though; he had been terribly worried and now he just gave Daisy a hard look and said, “we’ve been worried sick, Daisy. I was just comin’ to look for you. “

Her pretty face was suddenly troubled. “oh Jess dear, I am so sorry,” she said softly, going across and rubbing his arm gently.

Jess looked down and took a deep breath before saying. “no, I’m sorry, Daisy I shouldn’t have sounded off like that. I was just worried about you. guess I’ll turn in now you’re back.” Leaning over, he kissed her gently on the cheek, before he left the room.

She turned back to Slim. “oh I really am sorry; it was very thoughtless of me.” Then looking back at the closed bedroom door… “Was he very upset?”

Slim looked down at her anxious face. “we all were Daisy,” he said softly. “I guess you don’t know how much you mean to us, do you?”

“Oh Slim,” she whispered, her eyes misting.

“Hush,” he said softly and gave her a gentle hug. “as long as you are safe and you had a fun time, that’s all that matters. see you in the morning.” he too retired, leaving Daisy feeling very unsettled as to her feelings for Walt and the possible effect they would have on her boys.

She sat down by the dying fire and looked deep into the embers. What if she decided to make a go of things with her first love? what about her beloved family here? she knew she couldn’t have both, and if it came down to choices, she knew it would be the hardest decision she would ever have to make, whether to go or to stay.

*****

It was a couple of weeks after Daisy’s first outing with Walt that Mort Corey, Sheriff of Laramie and good friend of the Sherman Ranch, called.

Slim and Jess were mending tack in the yard, but they put the work to one side as the Sheriff rode in and greeted him warmly.

“Just thinkin’ about a coffee,” said Jess as Mort dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching rail. “want some?”

“Sounds good to me,” said their friend cheerfully, and all three men strode into the ranch house.

 Daisy popped her head out from the kitchen and beaming at Mort, said, “good morning Sheriff? would you like some pie with your coffee? “

“That would be great, Miss Daisy,” Mort replied before taking a seat around the table with the two ranchers.

“So what brings you here?” asked Slim smiling at his friend. “business or Daisy’s cooking?”

Mort grinned back. “well, I’ll tell you Slim, guess it’s a bit of both.” Sitting back in his chair, he pulled out a somewhat dog-eared Wanted poster from his vest pocket.

“Got a wire from the Sheriff over in Rawlins yesterday saying this guy had been flushed out of hiding by a couple of bounty hunters, after being on the run for nigh on six years, and he thought he might be heading in this direction. I wondered if either of you had come across him on your travels,” he continued as he spread the poster out on the table for the ranchers to see.

Slim glanced at it and then said with a smile. “well, we ain’t been off the property too much over the last few weeks, Mort, because of the weather, well except for Jess that is and his hunting trip,” At that, he looked across at his partner.

As he did so, the smile froze on his face as he saw the look in Jess’s eyes as he stared at the poster; he had gone deathly pale and was clearly upset.

“Jess?”said Slim softly.

Jess ignored him but kept staring at the face of his buddy Buck Rogers staring back from the poster.

Mort and Slim exchanged perplexed looks.

“Jess do you know him?” asked Mort.

Jess’s head shot up, but he merely shook his head no.

Just then Daisy bustled in with the coffee and pie and the moment passed.

They enjoyed the welcome break from work and chatted about this and that but Jess was noticeably quiet. When it came time for Mort to go, he picked up the poster, and casting a quizzical glance at Jess, said, “You’re sure you don’t recognize this hombre, Jess?”

“Told you didn’t I,” replied Jess quietly.

“OK, son. well, if any of you see him, just let me know. he’s got a long overdue date with a rope, I’m afraid,” he finished, before taking his leave, Slim showing him out.

After he had gone, Jess just sat staring into his empty coffee cup. Daisy came over to him and put a gentle arm across his shoulders. “Are you alright, dear?”she said softly.

Jess looked up into her kind wise eyes and she saw a look of total despair in them.

She sank down in the chair next to him. “Jess, whatever is the matter?” she said softly.

Jess just continued to look at her, then as he opened his mouth to reply, Slim breezed in from seeing Mort off. He called from the door, “you stuffin’ pie down your face all morning Jess or are we going to do a tad more work? “

Jess gave Daisy a tired smile and getting up slowly, went off back to the yard.

It was after supper when Daisy and Mike had retired to bed that Slim tackled Jess about the Wanted poster. They were sitting by the fire drinking coffee when Slim glanced across at his partner and said softly, “so why did you lie to Mort?”

Jess’s head shot up and he said aggressively, “don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh come on, Jess, I’ve known you long enough to know when you’re lying, and you were lying through your teeth this morning. you know it, I know it…and I’m pretty damn sure Mort knows it too. so are you going to tell me what it’s all about?”

Jess just gave him a deadpan look and said, “No, I ain’t.”

Slim tried again. “look, Jess, if you’re trying to protect someone….well I know your weird sense of loyalty…but…”

Jess flung himself out of his chair. “Slim, will you leave it.”

“Can’t do that, buddy, I need to know what’s going on.”

“Well it’s none of your goddamn business.”

“Sure, it’s my business if I think my best friend is going to land it jail for aiding and abetting. What do you want me to do, just sit back and do nothing?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I want you to do. what you don’t know about, you can’t get in trouble for. now just leave it, Slim…I’m warning you,” Jess said furiously. With that, he marched out to the barn to check on the horses before turning in.

The atmosphere at the ranch was very strained and Mike and Daisy picked up on the bad feeling between the two ranchers.

“What’s wrong with Slim and Jess?” asked Mike after supper one evening when he and Daisy were washing the dishes together in the kitchen. “aren’t they friends anymore?”

Daisy spun round to look at the small boy. “why ever do you say that, dear?”

“Well, they are usually always laughing and play fightin’ and stuff, and now they hardly even speak to each other.”

Daisy bent down by the little boy. “I think that they have both got things on their minds right now, dear, which is making them feel a bit sad and worried, but at the end of the day, they are best friends and nothing will change that. all this will blow over soon, I’m sure.”

“Well I sure hope so, Aunt Daisy, ‘cos I don’t like it. gives me a funny scared feeling in my tummy, like when you go off with Uncle Walt.”

“Why whatever do you mean, dear?” asked Daisy, giving the boy an anxious look.

The child suddenly clammed up. “not to say”, he replied.

“Why, you can say anything to me, you know that.”

The boy just shook his head vigorously. “nope; Slim said I wasn’t to tell you.”

Daisy pulled out a kitchen chair, sat down and pulled the little blond headed boy onto her knee. “just tell me,” she said quietly. “I’ll answer to Slim”.

Then the child opened up and said how afraid he was that Daisy would marry Walt and up and leave them all, how sad that made him, how Jess and Slim had said that she deserved to be happy and if she needed more than she had at the ranch, then they should be happy for her and be grown up about it all.

“Slim said we weren’t to say anything to upset you, but I cried,” he admitted sadly. “and Jess looked real sad too when I found him in the barn later,” he finished quietly.

For once in her life, Daisy didn’t know what to do or say. After a moment, she composed herself and said, “I think Slim was wrong to keep me in the dark about how you were all feeling,” she said softly, “but I guess he did it for the right reasons. he just wanted me not to worry about you all. But you know we have always taught you to be honest, Mike, and talk things out. And I am going to be very honest with you. Walt and I are very old friends, and yes, I think he might ask me to get married. but if he does, then I will tell you all and we will discuss it as a family, before I decide.”

She paused thoughtfully for a moment before continuing. “Even if I did get married and live at the haberdashery, I could still see you every day, Mike. you could come over from school for your lunch. As to Slim and Jess, well, I would visit often and they could see me when they come to town, so it wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”

Mike considered this long speech and then he grinned up at her. “guess not,” he said “and you’re right Aunt Daisy, it sure helps to talk things through”.

Daisy ruffled the small boys’ hair and just wished her older two ‘boys’ would talk their problems through too.

*****

It was a couple of weeks later and an uneasy truce was in place between the two ranchers, but Slim was watching Jess like a hawk and the pressure was beginning to tell on the dark haired man. he longed for a break from the ranch. So, when Daisy asked if he would care to drive her into town to collect some supplies, he jumped at the chance.

It was late morning by the time they had finished their shopping, and Jess suggested Daisy pay a visit to Walt while they were in town, secretly thinking he could enjoy a quiet drink or two in the Saloon. It was a while since he had seen his good friend Millie and he had kind of missed her. Daisy ain’t the only one that could do with a bit of romancing, he thought to himself.

Daisy jumped at the chance. “are you sure we have time dear? “

“Oh sure, plenty of time,” replied Jess happily.

“Would you like to join us for lunch at the shop then?”

“Err… no thanks Daisy; got a bit of business, you know?”

“Yes, dear, I know, and do give Millie my love. see you later,” she said, giving him a playful pat on the arm.

Jess grinned at her, shaking his head. Nothin’ gets past old Daisy, he thought wryly as he turned and entered the saloon.

Jess and Millie went back a long way, and she was probably the best female friend he had, He knew he could confide things to her he wouldn’t tell another living soul and she would never breath a word. They spent a lot of time together, if neither of them was dating, and if Millie occasionally shared her bed with Jess, well, that was nobody’s business but their own. They had a very open, uncomplicated relationship and they were both happy with that.

As he entered the dimly lit saloon, Tom the barkeep and owner welcomed him. “Hey there Jess, long time no see. has old Slim got you hog tied to that ranch?”

Jess nodded. “yeah, something like that,” he said with an ironic smile. might as well have, he thought to himself.

Tom slid him a beer across and they chatted idly about this and that before Jess said casually, “Millie about?”

Tom grinned back at him. “didn’t really think it was my company you wanted all afternoon,” he said. “yeah, she’s out back; I’ll fetch her.”

Millie swung around from behind the bar and straight into Jess’s arms where they hugged and she reached up and kissed him gently on the lips.

As she pulled back, Jess said softly, “sure is good to see you, sweetheart.”

Millie beamed up at him. “why Jess Harper, I should be mad at you, I feel downright neglected. I haven’t cast eyes on you in over a month….but I guess I can never stay mad with you for long,” she finished with an attractive giggle.

Jess gave her another warm hug and whispered, “thanks honey,” and then, “can we talk somewhere? “

She gave him a quizzical look. “do you mean talk? “

“Yeah, right now at least,” he said giving her a wicked grin. “got Daisy in town with me and so I haven’t got too long.”

She nodded. “well, that’s a shame,” she said softly. “so if you need to talk, shall we go over to the café?”

Jess nodded. “mind if I steal Miss Millie for half an hour?” he asked Tom.

Tom grinned good-naturedly back. “sure, but have her back here before the lunchtime rush,” and with that the couple left.

Once they were seated at a table with coffee, Jess didn’t know where to start and sat with a brooding expression, looking deep into his cup.

Millie reached across the table and gently took his hand that was lying there, “what’s up, Hon?” she said gently.

Jess looked across into her warm compassionate eyes and opened up about his history with Buck and how he had met him again and then about the bounty hunters on his trail.

Millie gave him a shocked look. “I remember all about that,” she said. “Gina and I were great friends. it was when I was working out in Denver. after that business she was so upset she moved over to Denver and I found her a job at my place.”

Jess looked surprised. “I knew you two were buddies; you introduced me to her if I remember rightly. But I didn’t know she had left that town.”

“Yeah, soon after you did. she was plain scared, Jess; that place was pure evil.”

“That’s not wrong,” agreed Jess with feeling.

Then a thought struck him. “Do you think if I was to appeal again, get another trial she would give evidence this time?”

Millie’s face fell. “Oh Jess.”

“What? “

“She’s dead, Jess, twelve months since; caught a real bad fever and died.”

Jess looked shocked. “oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry. she was a real good friend of yours, wasn’t she?”

Millie just nodded, tears welling in her eyes.

“Mine too,” whispered Jess, remembering the loving nights he had spent with her, her beautiful face and wonderful sense of humor and felt deeply saddened.

After a few minutes, Millie continued, “guess you have to face it, Jess; there aren’t going be any more appeals or calls for mercy. you tried all that last time and nothing worked. that’s why you had to spring him. I hate to say it, but I figure that if he’s caught this time, then he will hang.”

Jess nodded soberly. “yeah I know you’re right,” he said softly. “Guess I just don’t wanna face it. And it’s so hard, you know, having to lie to Mort and Slim, but I had no choice, did I? “

Millie considered what he had said and then said very softly, “there are always choices, Jess, but I guess this is a real tough choice for you. your old buddy, who goes way back and did so much for you when you were a kid, or Slim, your best friend, who is always there to watch out for you. Everything he’s done for you, Jess; guess you can’t turn your back on that either.”

“Do you think I want to?” he asked angrily. “That I want to let Slim down — hurt him this way — but I can’t let Buck down either. oh God, Mill, I’m in one hell of a mess here.”

She grasped his hand tightly. “it’s all right, Jess. you’ll find your way through; you always do.”

“You think?”

“I know.”

“Oh sweetheart, you are so good for me,” he said with a look of longing in his deep blue eyes.

She blushed slightly. “I have to go Jess. I’ll have Tom moaning.”

He nodded. “sure, I understand.”

“Come and see me soon and we’ll ….not talk…”

“Sure, I’ll look forward to that; see you real soon.”

Planting a soft kiss on his cheek, she left the café and Jess sat there staring after her a look akin to love in his eyes.

After a while he got up, threw some coins on the counter for their drinks and sauntered out onto the street. He was just in time to see a tall man, dressed in black, riding down the centre of the street leading a horse which had the body of a dead man slung across its back.

Jess’s eyes narrowed. “that’s a bounty hunter or I’m a Dutchman,” he said under his breath and crossed the street to where the man was hitching his horse outside Mort Corey’s office.

He followed the tall man into Mort’s office and was in time to hear him say. “the bastard shot my brother Pete dead and then winged me. think I may have wounded him some, but he got away, heading for the mountains, I guess.

Mort suddenly noticed Jess’s presence and welcomed him. he turned to the bounty hunter and said, “this here is Jess Harper, fills in as deputy for me every so often.”

The man turned to look at Jess and his eyes narrowed. “Harper you say?” But Jess completely ignored him.

Mort smiled inwardly, remembering too late that Jess thought bounty hunters to be the lowest form of life — not without good reason, though, he acknowledged.

Then turning back to Jess, Mort said, “Mr. Bill Robbins here reckons he’s wounded that Rogers guy. we know where he is heading, don’t think he’ll be getting too far. figure I’ll take out a posse tomorrow. You up for it, Jess?”

To his surprise, Jess just shook his head. “Sorry, Mort, too much on right now.”

“What about Slim then?”

“Dunno. I’ll ask him for you.”

He turned to Robbins. “so where did you catch up with this Rogers?”

The man told him the area and Jess figured that they had been nowhere near Bucks hiding place, so that’s where he would have returned to and he knew he had to go and help him.

Jess excused himself quickly and went and fetched Daisy and they made their way home at a fast pace.

“Goodness, dear, where is the fire? you will be breaking the new crockery we’ve just bought.”

“Sorry, Daisy,” he said with an apologetic smile, and slowed the buckboard down.

“Has your haste got anything to do with that bounty hunter shooting the man on the run?” she asked candidly.

Jess was shocked to the core and he spun around in his seat to look at Daisy. “what do you know about all that?” he asked.

“Just what Walt told me. he had heard that there was a bounty hunter after that man Mort told us about….Buck Rogers, wasn’t it?”

Jess said nothing.

“He’s a friend of yours, isn’t he, Jess?” she asked softly.

He looked down and again said nothing for a few minutes before saying, “what makes you think that?”

“The way you looked when Mort showed you the poster. I was just bringing the coffee out and I could see how upset you were. That’s what all this feud with Slim is about too, isn’t it? He must mean an awful lot to you, Jess, if you are prepared to put your friendship with Slim at stake.”

Jess pulled the buckboard over and tied the reins before looking deep into Daisy’s eyes. “he does Daisy, one hell of a lot,” and he went on to explain the whole sorry story to her, including how Buck was completely innocent of killing the corrupt Deputy.

“Why on earth didn’t you tell Slim all this?” she asked gently.

“Because I didn’t want him involved. I thought if I helped Buck, I didn’t want Slim mixed up in it too. I figured if he didn’t know about it, then he couldn’t get any of the blame.”

“And what now? are you still going to help him, even though he had murdered this bounty hunter?”

“We only have his brother’s word on that,” said Jess bitterly. “and I can’t say I hold much credence to a bounty hunters word.”

“Yes, I know how you feel about them, dear, and I know why, but even so, the man is still dead.”

“Maybe, but I won’t believe it was murder until I speak to Buck.”

“So you are still going?” she asked.

“Please, Daisy, just don’t ask me. I don’t want you involved any more than Slim. you won’t tell him all this, will you?” He finished anxiously.

“No, dear,”she said, “you have told me all this in confidence and I respect that.” Then she grabbed his hand. “but Jess, please be careful.”

“Sure,” he said smiling wearily at her before picking up the reins and urging the team on again.

When they got back, it was late afternoon and Jess knew he couldn’t leave the ranch without arising suspicion and so he decided to leave at first light.

Slim seemed aware that there was something going on as both Jess and Daisy were very quiet, but they both assured him they were fine, and so after an uneventful evening, they all retired early.

*****

The following morning Jess packed some food and medical supplies and headed off at first light. He made good time, and as he approached the cave where he had been tended by Buck, he slipped down from Traveler and went on foot quietly to the entrance of the cave.

He knew Buck would be on the lookout for the bounty hunters, so he made his presence known and yelled out,” Buck, it’s me Jess. Are you there?”

After a minute, Buck emerged from the cave looking pale and ill, and Jess noticed fresh blood on his shirt.

He ran over. “Buck, you OK?”

The older man staggered and Jess ran and grabbed hold of him, helping him back towards the cave. there was a rocky outcrop near the entrance and Jess helped him sit down on it. After a minute, Buck gave Jess a rueful grin. “well been better, boy, I have to tell, but figure I’ll survive.”

“Let’s have a look,” said Jess, fetching the bandages and his canteen from his saddlebags.

Carefully removing Buck’s shirt, he surveyed the damage, before giving a low whistle and looking down at his friend said. “So they shot you in the back?”

“Yeah,” said Buck. “guess I got a bit too sure of myself. thought they’d be heading for the border, not looking for me here. I was doing a bit of fishin’ in that lake of yours and the bastards bushwhacked me. Turned into a free-for- all shootin’ match and I killed one, winged the other. guess they’re coming after me Jess?”

“Yeah, Sheriff’s getting a posse organized this morning. you’ve got to head out as soon as I’ve patched you up, Buck.”

Jess got to work, cleaned and bandaged the wound. “just a flesh wound, should be Ok in a week or so,” said Jess. “I’ve got you some provisions.” Then he went and saddled Buck’s horse.

When he came back, he said, “Better get yourself off, Buck, head for the old line cabin up at the top of the northerly trail. figure they’ll track you, so be sure to wipe out the tracks. once they’ve lost those, they’ll figure you are heading straight up the mountain. guess they won’t think to check that cabin being so far off the trail.”

The older man shook his head sadly. “shouldn’t have come, Jess; you’re putting your whole life at risk for me. I ain’t worth it boy. You’ve got it good here, Jess, a partner in the ranch and all, deputized for the Sheriff, folks trusting you. don’t throw it all away for the likes of me.”

Suddenly Jess heard a sound behind him and saw Slim standing there, his rifle pointing at the two men. “that’s good advice he’s giving you. Jess; I should listen to it,” he said angrily.

“Slim! “

“You didn’t really think you’d get away with this did you? Jess? what in Hell are you playing at — putting everything on the line for a murderer?”

Jess suddenly lost his temper. “He ain’t no more a murderer than I am…or you, for that matter. he was framed, Slim; he was innocent on the first account and those bastard bounty hunters just shot him in the back for God sake!”

“Jess, don’t be a fool. he has been tried and convicted of one offence and now he has killed again. can’t you see sense? “

Jess looked down and then he said in a menacing growl, “no, I guess I can’t,” and with that, he drew his gun like lightening at the same time getting between Slim and Buck.

“Drop that rifle, Slim.”

Slim just stared at him, looking totally shocked.

“I mean it, Slim. Drop the Goddamn rifle, or so help me, I’ll shoot you.”

Slim turned pale and then very slowly lowered the gun and placed it on the ground.

Jess motioned to Buck with his head. “go on, Buck…..mount up.”

Buck stood there for a minute staring at the two men a look of indecision on his face.

“I said go!” yelled Jess.

Buck walked forwards and mounted his horse. “take care, boy. please go home now. you’ve done all you can for me, and I appreciate it,” and with that, he kicked his big horse off to a gallop.

Once he had disappeared over the ridge, Jess holstered his gun and walked over to the cave entrance, leaning on the wall for support as he was visibly shaking.

Slim went and sat on the rocky out crop near him, his eyes to the ground and after a minute he looked across at Jess. “I guess we all know where we stand then,” he said frighteningly quietly.

Jess said nothing, but after a few minutes, he walked slowly to where Traveler was tethered, and hopping up into the saddle, kicked him off towards home.

It was late when Slim arrived back at the ranch, and Daisy and Mike had already retired to bed.

Daisy had tried to talk to Jess when he returned to the ranch later that morning, as she could see he was in a terrible state when he entered the ranch and she came out from the kitchen looking worried. “Oh Jess, there you are, dear.” Then looking behind him, “is Slim with you?”

Jess shook his head. “No… he ain’t, Daisy; figure he’s riding with Mort’s posse.”

She came over and put a gentle hand on his arm and looked into his troubled eyes. “Jess, whatever is the matter,” she said softly. “You’re shaking and you look awful; you and Slim haven’t had another falling out over this business have you?”

Jess just looked down unable to meet her eyes. “could say so, yes.” he said.

“Oh goodness, do you want to tell me about it?”

Jess just shook his head. “Can’t Daisy,” and giving her a sad look, he went off into the yard to start the chores. That was the last time he spoke for the rest of the day and nothing Daisy could say or do would bring him out of his brooding mood, so she decided it was better to leave him alone, for the time being at least.

Now he was sitting with a glass of whiskey, looking deep into the embers of the dying fire as he heard Slim ride into the yard and go and put his horse up in the barn.

Five minutes later, Slim entered the house, and seeing Jess sitting by the fire, stopped in his tracks. Then he seemed to recover himself, and leaving his gun belt and hat on the peg by the door, came in and strode across to the fire, looking down at Jess in his rocker.

Jess looked up, but couldn’t meet his partner’s eye. “Daisy left some supper for you,” he muttered.

“Not hungry.”

Jess reached down beside his chair for the bottle. “Wanna drink?”

Slim just nodded and went and fetched a glass and Jess poured him a generous measure.

Slim knocked it back and Jess poured him another and then he sat down on the other side of the fire.

After a few minutes, Slim looked across at Jess and said quietly, “We need to talk, Jess.”

“Ain’t nothing more to say,” said Jess equally quietly. ”I made my choice. I had to help him Slim and that’s the end of it.”

“Oh no, no it isn’t the end of it, Jess. I want to know why you decided to choose some no hoper over all you’ve got here. Over our friendship, Jess….or does that mean nothing to you?”

Jess sprang from his seat, looking Slim full in the eye for the first time and spat furiously, “of course it means something to me, you know that. this has got nothing to do with my life now. Hell, Slim you just don’t understand.”

“Well, try and make me understand,” yelled Slim.

Jess slumped back down in his chair, stared into the fire for a few minutes before he started talking quietly. He told Slim all about the part Buck had played in his life in the aftermath of the fire. Slim knew all about the fire that still gave his buddy nightmares, waking up screaming, sweating and terrified. Then Jess told him about the incident in the saloon and the crooked deputy and sheriff and the town that lived in fear.

“Hell Slim, it could just as easily been me that blew out that deputy. he killed Christy in cold blood. it was only the fact that I’d got a busted hand that Buck drew first.”

“But why did the judge convict him?” asked Slim mystified

“Because of the evidence stacked against him — a sheriff’s account, the dying confession of a deputy and all the townsfolk who acted as witnesses. what judge wouldn’t convict him? I tried to get him off, Slim; God knows I did, going to appeal asking for a re-trial, everything I could do.”

“And then he escaped, been on the run all this time?” asked Slim.

Jess just nodded, looking away.

“You sprang him from jail, didn’t you, Jess? “

He nodded again.

Slim thought about it. “So even if that is so, what about that bounty hunter he killed?”

“Slim will you wake up? that excuse for a human being bushwhacked him, shot him in the back, and he’s got the wound to prove it.”

Slim raked his hand through his hair. “even so, I guess the law would say he was fair game. if he was wanted for murder, guess it was dead or alive on the poster.”

Jess just shook his head. “but he damn well wasn’t guilty the first time, Slim.”

Slim suddenly groaned and put his head in his hands.

“What?” said Jess, then he realized. “you rode with the posse didn’t you Slim, did…did they find him?”

Slim nodded. “yes they did”.

“You heard us talking and took them to the line cabin?”

“Yes.”

Jess just sat there for a moment before erupting with the full force of the Harper temper.

“Damn it, Slim, why did you do that? Why couldn’t you have trusted me? I told you back at the cave, I told you he was no murderer, how he’d been framed… Why in Hell couldn’t you just trust me, Slim?” With that he got up and left, striding across to the bunk house, too angry to sleep in the same room as his buddy.

Jess took off for town at first light and burst into Mort’s office while the Sheriff was still brewing his first coffee of the day.

Mort looked up in surprise as the door banged open and then relaxed and smiled at his friend. “Why Jess, what are you doing here at this ungodly hour. Couldn’t you sleep? “

Jess ignored the Sheriff’s friendly greeting. “Wanna see the prisoner,” he said harshly.

“Well good morning to you too,” said Mort, with a dead pan look.

Jess ignored that too. “Mort?”

“OK, OK keep your hair on boy.” Fetching his keys, he unlocked the door to the cells and said, “Visitor for you Rogers,” and left them to it.

Jess walked over and looked through the bars at his friend. “Gee Buck, I am so, so sorry. this is all down to me,” he said regretfully.

Buck got up from the bunk and walked over to the bars.” Hush, Jess boy,” he said softly, “none of this is laid at your door. You just done the best you could to help me and I’m real appreciative, you know that.”

Jess just stood there shaking his head. “Buck, you’re gonna hang for sure this time. I’m not gonna be able to convince them otherwise.”

“I know,” he said with a deep sigh, “but maybe it’s time, Jess I’m kinda sick of running, lookin’ over my shoulder. guess maybe my time has come.

Jess looked down blinking back tears. “I ain’t gonna let this rest, Buck,” he said finally before turning on heel and walking out of the office slamming the door behind him.

*****

Jess rode back to the ranch, his heart aching, his mind working overtime trying desperately to think of a way of helping his buddy, but the only answer was to spring him again.

If he attempted that, he knew people he loved and cared about would be hurt, possibly killed in the process, and he would be forever on the run too. Could he put his friends through all that, but equally could he let an innocent man hang?

By the time he arrived back at the ranch, he was so deep in thought it took him a minute to realize that Daisy and Slim had run out of the ranch to meet him.

Suddenly he was aware of their anxious faces looking up at him as he sat on his horse. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“It’s Mike,” said Daisy urgently. “Is he with you? Slim and I thought you might both have gone hunting at first light.”

Jess shook his head before sliding down from the saddle. “you mean he’s missing? “

“No sign of him,” said Slim. “we’ve searched all over the ranch and I’ve looked further afield, but nothing. His pony is still here; thought he might have been riding double with you if you hadn’t gone too far.”

Jess shook his head again. “no, ain’t seen him, I’ve just been to town…on business,” he said quietly.

“Yeah, well maybe it’s time you put this family before you’re so called ‘business’,”snarled Slim.

Daisy grabbed hold of his arm. “oh Slim, you don’t mean that. you are just both upset. please don’t start arguing again,” she said tears welling in her eyes. “Can we just find the boy?”

Slim was immediately contrite. “Sorry Daisy,” then turning to Jess, “Any ideas, buddy?”

“Yeah, think I may know,” said Jess jumping up on Traveler again. “I’ll check it out, be back shortly.” With that, he galloped off down the track again before turning off and making for the creek.

This was a favorite spot for Jess and Mike, and they often fished from a large rocky outcrop overlooking the water. Jess knew that down on the shore line just beneath the rock made an excellent hiding place. He sometimes came here himself when he was in need of peace and quiet.

He slipped down from the saddle and made his way softly to the base of the rock and his heart missed a beat as he saw the small boy slumped against the rock looking out at the water, tear tracks running down his cheeks.

Jess walked over and sat down beside the boy before saying, “Hey partner, what are you doing out here? Got Slim and Aunt Daisy frettin’ something powerful back at the ranch.”

The boy turned defiant eyes on his friend. “don’t care,” he said stubbornly.

“Hey Tiger, what’s got into you?” asked Jess in surprise.

“Well they don’t care about me…none of you do,” he shouted.

“Why do you say that Mike?” Jess said quietly.

“Because you’re all going to go away and leave me. Aunt Daisy will up and marry Uncle Walt and you’ll be riding out soon because you hate Slim now, and that will just leave me and Slim. I love Slim, I really do, but it won’t feel right without you and Aunt Daisy.” Then his anger disappeared and he started crying again.

“Hey whoa there, Tiger, we don’t know that Daisy is going anywhere yet. Heck they’ve only been courting a few weeks…and romancing, well, these things take time, you know?”

“What about you and Slim then? I heard you yelling at each other last night.”

Jess flushed in embarrassment. “gee, I’m sorry, Tiger; we never meant to frighten you. it’s…well, it’s real hard to explain what’s going on between me and ol’ Slim right now.”

Mike threw him a challenging look. “I’m not a baby anymore, Jess,” he said. “I understand what’s going on alright. you wanted to help an old friend and Slim is worried that if you do, you’ll get in trouble. But what is really wrong is what you were shouting last night. you kept saying, why couldn’t you trust me, over and over, but I figure you didn’t trust Slim enough in the first place to level with him about your old buddy, so I guess maybe you are both in the wrong…”

“Come here,” said Jess softly, throwing an arm around the child’s shoulders and pulling him close. “guess you know one heck of a lot more than I give you credit for,” he said.

After a while he said gently, “Now listen, Tiger. if I promise to make things up with Slim and start acting like a grown up, will you come back home with me and promise not to run off again?”

The child beamed up at his friend. “you bet,” he said jumping up at once. “let’s go.”

When they arrived back at the ranch, Daisy and Slim were waiting and Jess jumped off his horse and lifted the boy down. Mike ran straight into his Aunt Daisy’s arms. “I’m so sorry Aunt Daisy, Slim; I won’t run off again I promise.”

They both looked down at the child, relief in their eyes, and then Slim gave Jess an enquiring look. “where did you find him?”

“Down by the creek.”

“Oh Mike,” said Daisy, “you know you’re not allowed down there on your own”.

The boy hung his head. “guess I needed to think about some stuff, Aunt Daisy.”

“Well, I don’t know…” she protested, but Jess butted in.

“I think we all need to sit around the table and talk Daisy.”

She looked up at him in surprise. “Well, yes, of course, dear, if that is what you want.”

“Yeah,” said Jess softly. “Me and Mike here too, eh buddy?”

The boy nodded vigorously yes.

Once they were all seated, the adults with coffee and Mike milk and cookies, Jess said quietly, “Tell Aunt Daisy exactly what you told me, Tiger.”

Mike looked from Jess to Slim and Daisy and back before taking a deep breath and repeating what he’d said about feeling abandoned.

Daisy gasped and said quietly. “oh Mike, we’ve been all through this. I thought you were feeling better about it.”

Mike thought for a moment and said, “I guess I was, but…I don’t know, the place just wouldn’t be the same without you, Aunt Daisy,” he finished sadly.

Daisy just looked down at her hands and said nothing, and Jess could see she was obviously upset, so he said, “Go on, Mike, tell Slim the other stuff.”

Slim sat and listened, clearly very moved by what the boy was saying, then he turned to Jess. And what do you think, pard?” he said softly.

Jess looked down and then up into his friend’s worried eyes. “I think this little guy has got more sense than the two of us put together,” he said. “I’ve been a fool, Slim, and I’m truly sorry…not for trying to help Buck — guess I just had to do that — but for not being up front with you all along. Hell, I knew you’d be mad at me, but you would have tried to understand… and well, maybe if you had, you wouldn’t have led the posse to him.”

Slim looked across at his friend, pain in his eyes. “I’m so sorry about that, Jess, me and my sense of right and wrong, black and white. You’d think all the time I’ve spent around you, I’d have learnt things aren’t always as they seem. If I’d just stopped to think, but I was so dang mad at you and then Mort rode up, asked if I’d seen him, well…you know me, I just can’t tell a lie.”

Jess just nodded. “yeah, I know,” he said with a faint smile. “Guess I’ll have to teach you sometime.”

Slim gave him a small smile back. “we OK again, Jess?”

“Sure.”

Mike beamed at them both. “I feel much better now, Aunt Daisy …figure I could eat another cookie,” he piped up.

It was later in the barn when the two ranchers were grooming their horses that Slim opened up the subject again. Giving his friend a speculative look he said, “so what are you going to do, Jess?”

Jess looked back. “not much I can do. the circuit judge is due next week. if he finds him guilty, which he will, then…” he took a deep breath before continuing “…then he’ll hang.”

Slim stopped grooming Alamo and went and leaned on Traveler’s stall, and looking his friend in the eyes said, “are you going to try and spring him again, Jess?”

Jess looked down and swallowed deeply before replying gruffly, “thought about it, yes.”

Slim gave a low whistle. “you know what that would mean? “

Jess nodded. “yes”.

“And you’re willing to do that, lose everything for him?”

Jess looked down. “I don’t know, Slim, I just don’t know. If I could be sure you and Mort, would be safe, then maybe, yes.”

“But you can’t be sure, can you? Mort’s no fool. he knows the situation between you two, and I guess he’s got a pretty shrewd idea that you probably sprang him last time, and he’ll be guarding him day and night. You want him, Jess, you’re going to have to shoot Mort.”

“And you too? “

“I guess…if it comes to it, yes. it’s gone too far now, Jess If he is convicted, then we have to uphold the law; there is no other way. Mort’s hands are tied; even if he believed you, which I think he very well might, he can’t overturn a judge’s decision and you know that.”

“Yeah,” said Jess, “I know that.”

Jess spent all the spare time he had trying to find another way out of the situation; he even made an appointment with the Sherman family solicitor, but the lawyer just confirmed exactly what Slim had said — it was a hopeless case. The trial date was set and Jess and Slim attended. Jess was allowed to give a testimonial, but that was as far as it went, and as he had predicted, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

When the judge gave his verdict, Jess went completely crazy and Slim had to haul him out of the courthouse, as the judge was threatening to jail him for contempt of court if he didn’t simmer down and moderate his language.

Now it was the night before the hanging and Jess was in town alone. Slim had offered to go into town with him, but Jess had refused.

Slim had looked at him long and hard. “don’t you want me around because you’re still thinking of springing him?” he asked.

Jess looked at his buddy. No it ain’t that. I just figure there’s no point in us both being miserable. besides, I’ll spend the evening keeping him company. guess he’ll be glad of that.”

“Jess, will you promise me you won’t do anything, you won’t try and spring him?”

Jess looked down and then back at his buddy and Slim could see the struggle going on in his best friend’s mind. Finally he swallowed deeply before saying huskily, “I promise, Slim,” before pulling his hat down hard, mounting Traveler and trotting out of the yard at a fast pace.

Now as he rode into town, the first thing he saw was the gallows standing stark against the sky line , the rope hanging ready and he gave an involuntary shiver.

He walked into Mort’s office and his friend gave him a wary look. “you ain’t here to cause trouble are you, Jess?” he asked.

Jess just shook his head. “Nope, just come to spend the evening with Buck…..if that’s OK?” he asked, handing Mort his gun.

Mort looked a bit sheepish. “Sure it’s OK, son; he’s just finished his supper. Like to take him a glass of Red Eye?”

Jess smiled at the irony and figured that the way Mort handled his drink, Jess could give him a bottle and the Sheriff would finish it happily, ask for more and still be able to guard his prisoner.

“So what are you smiling at?” Mort asked, then he remembered the case. “Oh yeah, the Sheriff was pie-eyed last time, I believe; someone knew he had a liking for the bottle and left one for the prisoner. Now that wouldn’t have been you, would it, Jess?”

Jess just gave him a wink and tapped his nose.

Mort smiled grimly, and shook his head, then. “Seriously, Jess, we aren’t going to have any problems tonight, are we?”

Jess gave him a sincere look, and then shook his head. “No, Mort, I promised Slim”.

“Good enough for me,” said the Sheriff and went and unlocked the cell so that Jess could sit with his buddy.

“Jess boy, oh it’s good to see you,” said Buck beaming at his friend.

Jess passed him the glass of Red Eye. “here, present from the Sheriff.”

Buck smiled at him. “thanks,” he said, tipping it back and then gave an appreciative sound. “that sure hit the spot. So how are you doing, son?”

“How am I doing? What about you Buck…you OK? “

At the concerned look in Jess’s eye, Buck finally dropped the act of bravado, and said quietly, “Well, guess I’m OK now, boy. Sorta come to terms with it; truth is I’m feelin’ kinda numb…like it’s not really happening you know?”

Jess sank down onto the opposite bunk and looked across at his friend and nodded, “yeah took me that way,” he said. “When I was in the same position once….” remembering the relief when he had received a pardon just minutes before the execution.

They chatted inconsequently for a couple of hours, played some checkers and Mort gave them another couple of drinks.

Suddenly Buck’s attitude changed and he became agitated. “Jess boy, I hate to ask you but there is something I need you to do for me.”

Jess looked over, his heart aching for his friend. “Sure…anything, you know that, Buck. “

The older man took a deep breath and said, “Jess, will you go fetch my daughter, bring her back here, look out for her, help her get some work maybe. I know it’s one hell of a lot to ask you…but I’m desperate, son, real desperate.”

All the time he had been talking, Jess had been staring at him mouth hanging open in amazement. “I didn’t know you had a kid, Buck,” he finally said

Buck smiled sadly. “Yeah, married just before the war, then, when I came home in one piece, was going to settle down, play happy families. Then when Anna was just a little girl, her Ma was gunned down, caught in the cross fire from a bank raid.”

“I’m so sorry, Buck, I’d no idea.”

“No, well, that’s when I went off the rails a bit; guess we all did after the war, but me well…maybe more than most. I got the bounty on the men that killed her — some satisfaction in that I suppose. Anyways, couldn’t bring up a young girl myself — needs a woman’s touch — so my sister had her down in Texas up until she died four years back and then I went and fetched her and she’s been living up on the mountain with me ever since. When the bounty hunters came looking for me, my neighbor took her in, but they’re poor folk Jess can’t keep her forever.”

Jess nodded. Sure, I can see that and I’ll do whatever is needed Buck, I promise you.”

“She’s a bright little thing, pretty too, just turned 16; she has…” Then he put his head in his hands and finally wept.

Jess felt his emotions rising too and he went over and flung an arm around his buddy until he finally got control.

“I’m sorry, boy. Not like me to get emotional. just the thought of never seeing my little girl again…..well it hurts something fierce.”

Jess just nodded unable to speak.

After a while, they continued with the practicalities and Jess suggested he could maybe find her work with Walt at the haberdasher’s and he knew of a very respectable boarding house in the town.

“Money shouldn’t be a problem,” Buck said. “still got that bounty, and by the time my spread is sold, she should have enough to tide her over for emergencies and the like.”

“Thought it all through, ain’t you?”said Jess softly.

“Well, she’s more important than anything to me, you know. just wish I hadn’t given her up when she was little, but guess we’ve made up for it these last few years. we’re real close now…well we were…”

“Buck…”

“It’s Ok, boy, I’m alright. I’ve a letter here for her explaining she’s to go with you, do as you say….saying goodbye too.”

Jess could see his friend was on the edge, but knew there was nothing he could say or do to make things better.

After a minute, Buck rallied and looking over at Jess could see how painful the whole business was for him too. He stretched and yawned. “Got a mind to turn in, guess that whiskey’s made me kinda sleepy.”

“Sure,” said Jess getting up and calling for Mort.

As he went to leave, Jess looked deep into Buck’s eyes and said, “I’m just so sorry I couldn’t do anything, Buck.”

The older man patted his arm gently. “by looking out for my girl, you’ll be doing more than you’ll ever know for me Jess,” he said.

As Mort unlocked the cell and Jess walked out, Buck said, “one more thing you could do for me, son.”

Jess turned. ”Yeah?”

“Could you take that last walk with me, boy? figure it’ll be the longest walk I’ll ever take; be good to have friend along.”

Jess turned to Mort. “That OK with you, Mort?”

The older man too looked visibly moved. “Sure,” he said, “glad to have you along, Jess.”

Jess turned back to Buck. “Be proud to walk with you,” he said softly and turned and left the office quickly. He went straight down the street to the undertakers, and made the funeral arrangements for his friend.

As he left, the undertaker said casually, “So you still think your friend is innocent then, Jess?”

Jess turned and gave him a stony look. “I don’t think he is…I know he is,” he said, before leaving, slamming the door violently behind him.

*****

Jess went straight from the undertakers to the saloon. As he entered, a hush fell over the drinkers, but he merely marched to the bar, ordered a bottle and retired to a corner table with it where he sat looking broodingly into his glass.

Tom the barkeep cast a wary eye at his friend; he knew that look on Jess’s face that said so clearly, ‘don’t mess with me.’ He very rarely saw Jess the worse for drink, and if he did, occasionally, he was usually a very placid drunk, just talking too much and cracking risqué jokes.

Tonight, however, Jess looked like he was well on the way before he had even opened the bottle, and now he was halfway down it, and by the look on his face, he was going to be anything but a placid drunk.

Millie came over and stood by Tom. “Jess OK?”

“Nope he ain’t. Been sitting brooding there for an hour now and I don’t like the look of him, Millie. Anyone riles him, guess it could turn violent, and you know Jess if he gets in a scrap, he’ll end up trashing the place. Be a good girl, see what you can do, will you?”

Millie nodded and walked over to Jess’s table and sat down quietly. He seemed not to notice, and so after a minute she said softly, “Jess…you OK?”

He looked up as if suddenly seeing her for the first time and said, more loudly than he meant to, “No… I sure as hell ain’t.”

“What is it?” she asked. “can I do anything?”

“What is it…what is it?” he exploded. “Well I’ll tell you what it is…the good people of Laramie have seen fit to try and judge a man for a crime he didn’t commit… and he’s gonna hang in a few hours…and…not only is he innocent, but he’s leaving a young kid behind who’s gonna grow up without her Pa. All because of a corrupt sheriff and a couple of low life bounty hunters,” he finished finally running out of steam and knocking back his drink before pouring another.

“Jess,” she said softly taking his hand, “why don’t we go up to my place talk it through there, um?”

He shook his head. “Time for talkin’ is gone; I need some action just feel like breaking this goddamn town up for starters.”

“Jess, you don’t mean that; it’s the drink talking. Now will you simmer down and come with me, or do I have to go and fetch Mort to you?” she asked crisply.

Something in her voice cut through Jess’s befuddled brain and he looked at her properly for the first time before ducking his head and saying very quietly, “Sorry, Millie, guess I’m out of order. Maybe it would be good to sit for a spell, if you can put up with a drunken ol’ cowpoke.”

She grinned across at him. “Guess I’ve seen you worse,” she said lightly. “need a hand up?”

Jess stood up slowly and staggered. “yeah, guess I do,” he said ruefully.

She put an arm around his waist and they made their way slowly up the stairs to her room.

Once inside Jess slumped down on the bench by the door and removed his boots, gun belt and hat, as he always did when staying in her room and then just sat there his head in his hands, groaning softly.

“You sick?” asked Millie.

Jess looked up, pale and shaking. “Nah, think I’ll be OK. Just head aching some, that’s all”

“Come here,” she said and pulling him up she helped him over to the bed and sat him on the edge and started unbuttoning his shirt and denims and undressed him, down to his underwear.

To her surprise, he just sat there, unresisting and she then gently helped him lie down and covered him with a blanket .She knew it was very unlike Jess to be so passive and she thought he must be even more the worse for drink than she had first imagined.

He lay there quietly just looking up at the ceiling and willing the room to stop spinning.

After a while, she got ready for bed, and climbing in beside him, reached out and took him in her arms.

He felt her warm body close to him and pulled her closer, her head resting on his shoulder and he took a deep shuddering breath, gently stroking her hair. “Thanks Millie,” he said softly, “for being here for me tonight.”

She kissed him gently on the cheek. “that’s what friends are for,” she said simply.

The next morning, he awoke at first light, and finding the bed empty, sat up slowly, swinging his legs around sat on the edge, holding his head in his hands, the pain making him wince.

After a minute, he looked up to see Millie advancing with a cup of coffee. “here,” she said, “I figure you could use this.”

He accepted it gratefully. “Thanks, Millie; feel like I’ve got a whole herd of mustangs stomping around in my head.”

“I’m not surprised,” she said with a candid look. “You sure tied one on last night, Jess.”

“Yeah, I know. I hadn’t eaten and then I had a few with Mort and Buck before I even landed here” he said giving her a sheepish look. “was I … you know …did I get in any trouble?” he asked, sipping his drink.

“Apart from cussing everyone in Laramie, then wanting to go and break up the, quote, ‘goddamn town’…well no, not really.”

“But I didn’t?”

“No, you saw sense and came up here with me.”

“Thanks Millie, I owe you,” he said giving her the ghost of a smile.

“You gonna be OK today?” she asked softly.

He nodded grimly. “I can’t believe it, you know, Millie, that it’s come to this. Old Buck, well, he was like kin to me after the family died. I’m just so dang mad that there is nothing I can do.”

“I know,” she said giving him a sympathetic look. “But you’ve done your best, Jess; there is nothing else you could have done.”

“Except…… spring him again, maybe.”

“And shoot Mort, spend the rest of your life on the run?” she shook her head sadly, “you’d never have done that, Jess. maybe a few years back, but not now…you’ve got too much sense.”

“Or, maybe not enough loyalty.”

“No, Jess,” she said sincerely, “no one could accuse you of that. it just wouldn’t have made sense, and what’s more, I doubt if Buck would have gone along with it anyway, now that he knows how much would have been at stake for you.”

“Yeah, maybe you’re right.”

Shortly afterwards he washed up, got dressed and headed off for Mort’s office.

The hanging had been scheduled for 8am when Jess hoped there would not be too many sightseers, but as he walked along the Main Street to the jail, the crowds were already gathering. “Damn vultures,” he muttered under his breath.

When he entered Mort’s office, he saw the Sheriff sitting at his desk, sipping a coffee and looking deathly pale.

Jess nodded. “Mort.”

“Morning Jess, help yourself,” Mort said, gesturing to the coffee pot on the stove.

Jess walked over and poured a cup and then went and sat on the chair opposite Mort’s desk. Taking a sip of the strong brew, he tipped his head towards the closed cell door. “how is he this morning?”

“Bearing up. the padre’s with him right now,” Mort replied.

Jess nodded. “you OK?”

Mort shook his head. “you know how I hate this part of the job, Jess, and especially as he’s a friend of yours, it’s hard, real hard. But I’ll tell you, boy, I’ve checked everything — Buck’s weight, the drop — it’ll all go smoothly, the best death I can give him, I promise you that. He won’t suffer too bad.”

Jess took a deep breath and swallowed hard before replying gruffly. “thanks, Mort.”

Just then the padre called to be released and Mort took the keys down from the hook and went through to the cell and let the elderly minister out.

As he walked out into the office, he saw Jess, and as he passed, he put a compassionate hand on his arm. “I’m so sorry Jess,” he said quietly, “a bad business.” Then, looking into Jess’s troubled face, he said, ”Believe me, son, if he is innocent as you say he is, then he will meet his God and be saved, I promise you that.”

Jess looked down and then into the man’s sweet kind old face. “Thank you, Padre, I appreciate that,” said Jess softly. He watched the Padre leave and make his way down the street which was now crowded with onlookers, and when he turned back, Mort was standing behind him with Buck. “Time,” he said quietly.

Jess looked shocked, and then turning to his friend he rested a hand on his arm. “Buck….I…” He stopped unable to speak.

Buck gave him a sad smile, and leaning over squeezed the younger man’s shoulder. “it’s OK, son, I know,” he said softly and then turning to Mort said, “Let’s get this over with, Sheriff.”

Mort handcuffed the older man, saying, “Sorry about this, Buck,” and then taking his arm led him through the door and out onto the street.

Jess accompanied him on the other side, and the three walked down Main Street, the crowd pushing and shoving to get a better view. Some yelling obscenities, others just staring.

The three marched slowly on towards the gallows neither looking left or right.

When they reached the foot of the steep steps leading to the platform, they stopped and Buck turned back to Jess one last time, a look of deep despair on his rugged face. “Thank you for all you’ve done for me, Jess,” he said in a voice raw with emotion. Look after my little girl, won’t you, son.”

Jess struggled to speak before saying sincerely, “I promise you I will, Buck.”

Buck nodded and turned to Mort. “ready now, Sheriff,” and the two made their way up the steps to the platform where Mort put the noose around Bucks neck and released the trap door.

There was a sickening sound as the body crashed down and Jess looked away, his heart pounding so much he felt dizzy and a wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm him and he swallowed hard fighting for control. Then he felt a firm hand gripping his shoulder and he turned to see Slim standing there, a look of deep compassion in his eyes.

“Is it over?” asked Jess in a low voice unable to turn and look.

“Yes it’s over, he’s gone…”

Suddenly all the anger and frustration of the last few days came to a head, and wrenching himself away from Slim, he turned on the onlookers. His whole face contorted in rage, his fists balled, his stance as if he were about to draw his .45. “I hope you’re all proud of yourselves,” he spat furiously, “because you’ve just hung an innocent man, a good man, a father and a good friend who did nothing wrong save being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” His eyes were flashing black with rage and he finished, “May God have mercy on you”, before turning on heel and marching back down the street to complete silence, the crowd now shuffling and looking guiltily down, all the bravado gone as one by one they turned and walked away.

Slim caught up with him at the livery; he entered quietly and in the dim light was just able to make out Jess’s form leaning against Traveler, an arm thrown across the horses back , his head bowed, visibly shaking.

Slim stayed out of sight, watching him for several minutes before walking towards his friend. Jess turned, and wiping a hand across his face, looked over at his buddy,” Slim…thanks for coming.”

“You didn’t think I wouldn’t, did you?”

“Guess not.”

Slim advanced on his friend, and what he saw in his eyes shocked him. Jess looked completely done in and defeated, and Slim felt a pang of sympathy. Leaning over and squeezing his arm, he said, “Come on, buddy, let’s get you home.”

They rode out of town, in silence, at a fast trot and they were half way home when Jess slowed Traveler down to a walk. Slim glanced across and saw his partner was deathly pale and had a slick of sweat running down his face. After a minute, Jess reined his mount in and sliding down from the saddle, ran across to the edge of the road and falling to his knees was violently ill.

Slim dismounted, and grabbing hold of Traveler’s reins, held the horses and waited patiently for him to finish. After a while, Jess got up and staggered over to his friend. leaning on his horse for support, he wiped his sleeve across his face. “sorry about that, Slim.”

Slim gave him a sympathetic look. “Tom said you had a skin full last night. you want to sit a while? “

“Yeah,” said Jess, and as Slim took the horses and ground hitched them , Jess made his way to a big boulder at the side of the road and slumped down, his back resting against it, his hat tipped back and his eyes closed against the bright morning light.

Slim came and sat down beside him and passed him his canteen. “Here, have some water; it may help.”

“Thanks.” Jess took a mouthful, then removing his bandana soaked it and wiped his face, before leaning back against the rock once more, looking completely exhausted.

After a minute Jess said, “So when did you see Tom then?”

“Last night. rode in late, looked for you in the saloon but Tom said you were a bit the worse for wear and Millie was looking after you.”

Jess just nodded. “she’s a good girl.”

Slim gave his friend a speculative look. “she sure is. beats me why you two have never got it together…properly I mean…really try and make a go of it.”

Jess looked surprised. “you’re kidding me. Millie is my best friend, female friend that is. Why would I wanna wreck that by getting all serious with her?”

Slim just shook his head and figured Jess couldn’t see what was right under his nose, but decided to let it go and changed the subject. “Old Charlie was in the bar last night,” he continued conversationally, referring to the aged undertaker. “said you’d been in and paid all the expenses.”

Jess just nodded.

“Also said as how he’d told you Buck wouldn’t be welcome in the cemetery, would have to be buried outside the wall.”

A flash of anger returned to Jess’s tired bloodshot eyes. “yeah, I know. I was so mad…but then I figured it wasn’t Charlie’s fault. Guess the good people of Laramie don’t want an alleged murderer resting next to their kinfolk,” he spat.

“Easy Jess,” said Slim, resting a hand on his arm. “it’s just the parish rules. they don’t know he is …was…. innocent.”

Jess nodded. “I was wondering, Slim. Would you mind if I buried him on Sherman land, maybe by the lake or somewhere?”

Slim thought for a minute and then slowly shook his head. “Yes I would mind.”

Jess’s head shot around, “What?”

Slim looked at Jess and said softly. “No, I think he should be buried in the Sherman family plot, up on the hill by the ranch.”

Jess looked shocked and couldn’t speak for a minute then he finally said, “Thank you; that would really mean so much to me…but why, Slim?”

“Because, I guess he had been like kin to you, when you were younger, that is, and well… I think of you as kin now, so I guess he has every right to be buried up there. And if I’m taken first, I’ve left instructions in my will that you are to be buried there too…if you want, that is….”

Jess just bowed his head, so moved he couldn’t reply. He took a deep breath and wiped his hand across his face before he finally he looked over at his buddy. “Slim… I… I…”

“Hush, it’s OK.”

After a long pause, Jess said, “there is something else we have to talk about, Slim.”

“Oh? “

“There is this girl.”

Slim’s eyes rolled. “Why doesn’t that surprise me? there is always a girl somewhere with you. so don’t tell me you’re in love…again.”

“No, nothing like that,” said Jess quickly. “I mean, a young girl, a kid really… Buck’s daughter.”

“Daughter… I didn’t know he had kids.”

“Me neither,” said Jess and went on to fill in Slim on all he knew. “So you see,” he said finally “I promised Buck, at the eleventh hour that I’d see her right, look out for her. I’m real sorry Slim, but I’m gonna have to take off next week and bring her back.”

“Well I guess we’re not too busy right now, I can manage…but what are you going to do with her, Jess? you can’t be expected to bring up a young girl. heck, Mike’s enough of a handful and we understand boys –having been one not too long ago — but well…” Je gave a low whistle. “Bringing up a girl, that’s a whole different thing, buddy.”

“No, he didn’t want me to actually provide a home for her, just help her find a job and somewhere to live, keep an eye on her you know? “

“So how old is she?”

“Just turned sixteen, so she should be able to fend for herself OK. just needs someone to watch out for her. anyways, I promised a dying man; can’t go back on it now, Slim.”

“Sure you can’t. Bring her out to the ranch for a week or so, until you get her settled. Daisy will enjoy looking after her. you know what a mother hen she can be.”

Jess nodded grimly. “sure do.”

“You feeling better now, buddy?”

“I guess.” With that, they finally continued their journey back to the ranch at a slower pace in deference to Jess’s aching head.

When they arrived, Daisy was there to meet them along with Mike as the school had been closed due to the hanging. Daisy took one look at Jess and said, “I’ll put the coffee on.”

Mike said very little and didn’t mention the hanging, although he was aware it had taken place, but he stuck to Jess like glue all day, sitting close beside him, or helping him with his chores. His gentle caring was like balm to the troubled man’s soul.

When Mike went to bed that night, Jess went and tucked him in and said quietly, “thanks for all your help today, Tiger.”

The child looked up from where he was lying in bed, his blue innocent eyes wide. “Well, I figured you’d be feeling kinda sad today, so I just tried to be as good as I could.”

“Well, you sure have been good buddy.” Then Jess looked thoughtful. “Mike, I need you to be real understanding and helpful a bit longer. you see Buck, well, he had a daughter, a girl of sixteen, Anna, and she’ll be staying with us for a little while. Can you make her welcome, be a friend, do you think?”

The little boy smiled. “Sure I will, Jess.” Then his face clouded. “Guess she’ll be real sad when she finds out her Pa’s…well, dead.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right, Tiger; figure she’ll need all the friends she get can eh?”

*****

Anna’s Story

Jess rode out after breakfast the following day, with provisions to last a few days as it was a long and difficult journey across the mountains. However, now that spring had really arrived and most of the snow had gone, he thought he should be able to travel through the mountain pass which would almost halve the journey, and he figured he should be back within a week as long as there were no unforeseen hitches.

As he rode along, Jess cast his mind back to the events of the last few weeks and felt his friendship with Slim had been tested to the limits and not for the first time.

Over the years, his past had impinged on his present life, and in the early days, he had often ridden out on various crusades helping old friends and skirting dangerously near to the wrong side of the law. now though, he was much more in control, and so this recent episode had been even more shocking and unsettling for him and Slim.

He had changed over the years, become less angry, not as hot-headed, but if he could still draw on his best friend, as he had done at the cave when he helped Buck escape, then maybe he hadn’t changed that much. He still felt terrible at the way he had treated his best buddy…but what else could he have done, he asked himself bitterly.

He’d had to make some pretty hard choices recently, helping Buck escape and then deciding not to spring him from jail — with the result that he then had to see him hang. life was full of choices thought Jess sadly and how’s a man to know he’s made the right one?

The nearer he got to his destination, the lower his spirits fell as he thought about what he had to tell Anna. He knew that when Buck had made his getaway, he’d had little time to explain the situation to her and had simply said he had urgent business in Laramie and she wasn’t to ask any questions, so she was unaware that the bounty hunters had been on his trail.

The night before the hanging, Buck had told Jess he had explained to Anna all about the bounty on his head and the reason why when she was just a child, and how he had assumed a false identity to protect himself and her when he moved to the mountain community, so at least the child was aware of the situation, he thought.

But now, as Jess considered how he was going to break the devastating news to her and what her reaction would be, he wished to God that he had Daisy with all her compassion and common sense by his side. She would know what to say how to handle it he thought to himself.

He made pretty good time and was within striking distance of Buck’s place on the morning of the third day .The place where Buck had made his home was in the foothills of the mountain range mid-way between Rawlins and Casper, and the settlement was made up of about a dozen small properties with a single general trading store being the only other building, apart from the basic log cabins, each with their small portion of land. It was an incredibly poor area and Jess could understand why Buck’s neighbors were unable to offer a permanent home to the girl.

It was mid-afternoon when he arrived, and at once he was surprised by the lack of people about. every homestead he passed seemed to be deserted. there was nobody working the land or abroad on the track through the settlement.

On arrival, he reined Traveler in, and after hitching him to the rail outside the General Store, he entered, looking to ask directions to Jed Cavell’s place where he believed Anna was staying.

The store bell jangled as he entered, but again the place was completely empty, with no sign of life. After a while, realizing that nobody had heard him, he called out, “Shop!”

After a few minutes, an elderly lady shuffled in and giving him a hard look asked harshly, “What do you want stranger? where you come from?”

Ignoring the less than welcoming response, Jess sauntered over, and tipping his hat back, said, “Howdy, Ma’am, I’m from Laramie and looking for Anna Rogers…er…that is Anna James,” suddenly remembering Buck’s alias of Seth James.

“Well, make yer mind up, boy,” said the woman. “if it’s Anna, you’re wanting, she’s over at the Cavell’s place, half a mile down the track on yer left.” Then after a pause she said, “So has Seth sent you to fetch her then, because of the Fever?”

Looking bemused Jess said, “Fever? “

“Sure,” she said impatiently, “the Scarlet Fever. we’ve got a real bad out break here, killed five …no six young ‘uns and a couple of old folk too. Figured you’d heard about it over in Laramie. Well that’s where Seth is, according to young Anna, on important business; must be dang important business iffen he sends a stranger to fetch his daughter away,” she sniffed.

Jess just stared at her, taking in the full impact of what she was saying, Scarlet Fever was a relentless killer, taking children and youngsters and sometimes adults too, and he had heard of the devastating effects of the disease when he lived down in Texas.

Oh God, he suddenly thought, what if Anna catches it.

The old woman was watching him closely a calculating look in her eyes. “so you a friend of the family then, mister?”

Jess gave her a distracted look. “Yeah, sure, old buddy of B… of Seth, from way back. We heard about the outbreak…..but he, well he couldn’t make it, kinda sick himself, so he sent me.”

Jess had suddenly realized that it would make his taking Anna away much easier if he went along with this story and then he could tell her the truth once they were on their way back and they had established some sort of relationship.

 He figured if he could choose the time and place he told her about Buck’s sad demise, well. the telling would be a mite easier. Thanking the woman for her help, he retraced his steps, and mounting Traveler, kicked him on to a brisk trot down the trail towards the Cavell place.

The cabin was pretty much the same as all those others in the area, small and squalid looking, with some scrub land nearby with a vegetable garden and a few scrawny looking beef stock. Outside the cabin were a variety of skins nailed up and drying and Jess figured they made a living from the fur trade, with a few head of stock to fatten up as well and wondered how on earth they managed.

As soon as he rode into the yard, the cabin door was flung open and a skinny, pale man stood there, rifle in hand.

“Get away, get away mister,” he yelled, “if you know what’s good for you. this here’s a Fever house.”

Jess’s heart sank, but he still hopped down from his horse and walked slowly forwards. “You Jed Cavell?”

“Yeah, who want’s to know?”

“My names Jess Harper, I’m here to fetch Anna back to Laramie for Seth James.”

“Seth…Seth, you’re a friend of Seth’s?”

“Sure am. can I see Anna?”

“Well I guess, but you come in here at your own risk, Mr. Harper. I’ve lost one young ‘un and got another sick.”

“Anna… is she OK?”

“So far…this is a killer, Mr. Harper, only a matter of time. you take her now. She might be OK … might not. who can tell?”

Jess followed the older man into the dark dingy room and was just able to discern a cot by the fire with a small child tossing and turning, her haggard, anxious mother leaning over her, mopping the child’s fevered brow. In the background, several other children looked on and amongst them stood an older child which Jess assumed must be Anna.

As he entered the room, Jed said, “this here is Mr. Harper, Nellie, come to fetch Anna back to Laramie,” and with that, gave the woman a mournful look before walking outside again.

The woman looked up and gave him a brief smile of welcome. “Mr. Harper, forgive my husband; he has chores to attend to.”

Jess walked towards her, and removing his hat, gave her a deeply concerned look and said, “I’m truly sorry for your loss, Ma’am.”

She gave him a curt nod in acknowledgement. “thank you.”

Then after a pause, she called out, “Anna, gentleman here come to take you away from the sickness. pack your stuff up right away, dear, and go with him.”

The older child just nodded and left the room quickly without answering.

The woman gestured to a rocker set near the fire. “Sit a spell, Mr. Harper.”

“Jess…..please,”

She looked up at him. “Seth couldn’t make it then?”

“No Ma’am, he’s sick just now; sent me. I’m a real good friend; the girl will be safe with me, I promise you that.”

She looked shrewdly across at him and seemed to like what she saw. “I’m sure she will be, Jess. She’s a good girl; we’ll miss her, but she must get away and please God it ain’t too late for her.” she said before turning back to tend the sick child. After a moment she said to herself, “Sheets need changing again; this poor mite is so dang hot.” With that started lifting the child and trying to pull the damp sheets away with the other hand.

Jess immediately went to her aid. “Here let me,” he said, gently taking the sickly child from her mother. The woman gave him the ghost of a smile. “thank you,” she said before bustling off to fetch clean sheets and re make the bed.

When she returned, Jess had the little girl cradled in his arms and she seemed much calmer and was staring up into his arresting, deep blue eyes.

Her mother smiled across at them for a moment before taking the child from him and settling her back in the cool bed. “You certainly have a way with little ones, Jess. You gotta family?” she asked.

“Little boy, adopted, always seems to want me when he’s sick,” Jess said with a faint smile.

She smiled back and then looked up as Anna re-entered the room.

Anna was surprisingly quick in returning, but then Jess saw why. She had practically no belongings; everything just tied up in a small sack.

As the girl came shyly forwards, he took a good look at her for the first time, but could see no resemblance to Buck. She was small for her age and looked much younger than her sixteen years. With her dark hair tied back neatly, her innocent, open face scrubbed clean and her dark shabby dress a size too small, she looked very immature and vulnerable. Looking down, Jess saw she had no shoes and felt a pang of pity for the child.

As he glanced back up, he saw a look of proud defiance in the way she stood and held her head and he blushed slightly at having been caught out noticing her lack of footwear.

“Hi,” Jess said softly, standing up. My name’s Jess Harper and I’m a real old friend of your Pa. Come to fetch you back to Laramie.”

“Yes,” she said. “Pa…he’s OK? “

“Couldn’t make it,” said Jess, looking away and feeling uncomfortable at having to stretch the truth, but thinking again that this was neither the time nor place to break the news to her.

With that, she said her tearful farewells to the family and they left quickly, Jess thinking it better not to prolong the obviously painful departure.

Once outside the house, she looked around her for one last time, and taking a deep breath turned to Jess. “May we go and collect Ginny on the way?” she asked.

“Ginny?”

“My pony. I can’t go without her Mr. Harper, I just can’t,” she said tears welling up again.

Jess grinned at her. “sure, we can fetch your pony,” he said in relief, thinking for a moment Ginny was a sibling.

He took her belongings and tied them behind the saddle and then mounted, offered a hand to the child and swung her up to ride behind him. once they were settled, he set off at a sedate walk down the track towards her old home.

When they arrived, Jess slide down from the saddle and then helped the girl down. they walked to the small paddock behind the cabin. Anna whistled, and minutes later a pretty little pinto came galloping up.

“Saddle in the barn?” asked Jess, tipping his head towards a tumble down lean to by the house.

She shook her head. “Don’t have a saddle, Mr. Harper, just a blanket.” She marched off to the barn, returning with a brightly colored Indian saddle blanket, and throwing it across the horses back, grabbed hold of the animal’s mane and jumped up in one athletic movement.

Jess shook his head in admiration. “you OK riding bare back?” he asked. “Long trip, you know.

“Sure,” she said, “all I’ve ever known. Don’t worry about me, Mr. Harper, I won’t hold you back none; me and Ginny, we can keep up real good.”

“I’m sure you can,” said Jess smiling up at the skinny young girl. “And do me a favor, will you? call me Jess. makes me kinda uncomfortable you callin’ me Mr. Harper; makes me feel like I’m your schoolteacher or somethin’.”

She gave him a shy smile back. “OK Jess, thanks.”

With that they set off at a brisk trot down the trail and towards the mountain pass that would lead them home to Laramie.

*****

By late afternoon, Jess could see that the young girl was tiring. and after a while. he spotted a good place to stop for the night — a sheltered area, just off the pass, with tall pine trees and a small stream and a few large boulders strewn about.

Looking over at the youngster, he said, “I’m feelin’ kinda bushed, Anna; figure this would be a good place to camp.”

She nodded in agreement, obviously glad of the rest, and they pulled their mounts up. As Jess unsaddled Traveler and fed and watered the animals Anna went off searching for wood for the fire.

They soon had a good camp fire blazing and Jess heated up some beans and bacon. “Sorry it’s just trail grub,” he said apologetically. “guess I’ll shoot us something tomorrow.”

“Looks good to me,” she said with her shy smile and they were soon digging in.

Jess kept glancing over as they ate and he noticed that the child was eating as though she were really hungry. He ate slowly and after a while pushed his plate away. “Guess I’ve had enough,” he said quietly, “wanna finish this off for me?”

She looked over. “you sure? “

He nodded and she took his plate, and as she made light work of it, he hid a sad smile. Poor kid, he thought, she’s darn well-half starved.

After the meal, they settled down with their backs to a large boulder and drank their coffee, the fire crackling away in front of them. After a while, Anna said, “So how do you know my Pa then?”

Jess explained how Buck had been a neighbor back on the panhandle in Texas when he was a child, and then went on to tell her about the Banister raid and how her Pa had helped him afterwards. “So you see, I’ve known old Buck since I was younger than you,” he finished smiling across at her. “He was a real good friend to me back then”.

She looked thoughtful for a while, then said, “Oh yes, I know of you. It was a Jess that sprung him from jail after that awful shooting when Uncle Christy was killed…was that you?”

“Yeah,” he said “that was me.”

Then she gave him a penetrating look. “So where is my Pa, really, Jess? Why couldn’t he make it? There is something wrong, isn’t there?”

Playing for time, he said, “Why do you think that?”

“Because it just didn’t feel right what you said; Pa would have come himself…if he could. Is he hurt, Jess? Then her eyes opened wide in anguish. “Oh God…is he dead?”

Jess’s head shot up and he looked at her, then quickly looked down and took a deep breath, before looking back at her pinched tired little face, a look of fear in her eyes. Reaching out, he took her hand and said softly, “Yes…yes he is, Anna. I’m so, so sorry, sweetheart.”

She just stared at him for maybe a full minute before shaking her head slowly. “No…oh please no, he can’t be.” Then she jumped up and ran to where the horses were tethered and threw her arms around the pinto, crying hysterically.

Jess followed her and let her cry for a few minutes before gently turning her round to face him and she fell into his arms. He held her tightly, stroking her hair and whispering softly to try and comfort her as he would have done with Mike, after a bad dream, and within a few minutes she calmed down a little, and they made their way back to the fire.

She sank down to the ground again and he poured her another coffee with a very small drop of Red Eye. She took the cup, her hand shaking, and sniffed it suspiciously.

“It’s OK,” he said. “Just a small drop of whiskey for the shock,” he said, squatting down beside her.

She nodded and sipped it slowly, and as he watched, she seemed to relax a little. After a while, she turned to him and said simply, “How?”

Jess looked down, unsure as to what to say.

She seemed to understand his dilemma and said, “I am sixteen, you know Jess; I know I look a lot younger, but I am really quite grown up…just tell me.”.

He shook his head sadly and finally said, “Guess you have to know sooner or later. A couple of low-life bounty hunters saw him back at your place, that’s why he hightailed it so darn fast. Then we met up, I tried to help him…..keep him safe but… “

“But?”

“He had a shoot-out, killed one of them and then a posse finally caught up with him. He went before the judge and he was tried and he was found guilty.”

She turned her tear stained face towards him. “Couldn’t you do anything, Jess? couldn’t you have stopped them?”

“I tried,” he said gruffly, “God knows, I tried everything I could, but he was found guilty and he was…he was hung, Anna, last week…I’m so sorry.”

He saw she was completely shocked, pale and shaking, and sitting down beside her, he put an arm around, holding her close. She collapsed into tears again, her face buried in his shoulder, and as he felt her hot tears seeping through his shirt, felt the prick of tears behind his own eyes as he listened to her agonized sobbing.

It was much later when she finally got control again and he suggested she settle down for the night. He laid a bedroll by the fire for her, and tucked her in, as he would have done with Mike, before lying down close to her, partly to reassure her and also to help keep her warm as the spring evening had turned chilly.

She seemed to have exhausted herself with all the crying and she fell into a deep sleep almost at once, but Jess lay there for hours, just looking up at the stars, her words echoing around his head. “Jess, couldn’t you have stopped them?”

The following morning he awoke first and got the fire going and some coffee on, and glancing across at her, he saw her wake and called over to her softly, “hey sleepy head, want some coffee?”

She sat up and after a minute said, “Thank you Jess,” and reached over for the cup.

“How are you feeling?”

“It’s really strange,” she said after a minute. “When I awoke, I had forgotten everything… for a moment….and then it suddenly hit me…about my Pa and all, and well, it’s like this big black cloud has come down…and I can’t rightly see my way forwards…feel so bad Jess, worse than I can ever remember…”

He looked across at the slender young girl and after a moment said, “You’re just grieving honey…but guess I’ve never heard it put so poetic before.”

She gave him a tiny smile. “I suppose I talk real silly sometimes — other kids have always said so — but thing is, Jess, I love reading — always have — and I guess if you read a lot, then you kinda pick stuff up — words and the like — and say things kinda different….but heck, guess that’s the way I am,” she finished defensively.

Jess looked at her in surprise. “Hey, I wasn’t criticizing….or poking fun,” he said sincerely. “I think you express yourself real well.”

“Thank you.”

“You’ll get on with Slim; he reads loads, and got books you can borrow too.”

“Really?” she said, her whole face brightening up. ”I so love books, Jess, but since my Aunt died…..well I’ve hardly seen one.”

After a while, they ate breakfast and then started preparing for the journey, Jess watching her like a hawk, terrified that she would come down with the fever. “Are you feeling OK?” he asked as they packed up.

“Sure, I am, let’s get going. I’m fine, really, Jess, you mustn’t worry.”

They set off and made good time and had reached the far end of the pass by lunchtime and decided to push on a little further until they were at the end of the foothills and nearly on Sherman land, where they stopped for a break and some food.

Jess was glad of the break as he was feeling exhausted, all his muscles were aching and he put it down to lack of sleep. He had worried most of the night, firstly about Buck’s death and then about Anna contracting the killer disease.

Now as he started to eat, he became aware that his throat was sore too. Getting a darn cold he thought, that’s all I need. He pushed his food around his plate for a while before abandoning it altogether.

Anna gave him a quizzical look. “I hope you’re not going to pretend you’re not hungry again like last night, and give that to me,” she said with a cheeky little grin.

Jess started to deny yesterday’s ploy, but looking into her large brown intelligent eyes, he just blushed slightly and said, “well, you were hungry, weren’t you?”

She nodded with a big grin. “guess I was, but I’m fine now.”

“Well anyway, I’m really not hungry, got a sore throat, guess I’m sickening for a cold.

Her smile froze. “A sore throat…anything else?”

“Nope, just kinda tired and aching; guess I’m getting old,” he said with a little laugh. “There’s a line cabin not too far off the track. figure we’ll stay there tonight, get us some sleep in a decent bed, and then should be home the next day.”

All the time he’d been speaking, he had been making some coffee and now as he passed her a cup he looked at her for the first time and saw a look of fear in her eyes. “What is it, sweetheart?”he asked in a concerned voice.

“The fever…that’s how it starts, Jess — aching, tired, a sore throat…”

“Nah, I’m fine; grown-ups hardly ever get it. I’ll be OK, don’t you worry, just a cold,” and with that he drained his cup before starting to break the camp.

By mid-afternoon, he had to admit to himself that he was really feeling pretty rough; the aching limbs now felt like lead and his head was aching too and he was feeling hot and nauseous. It couldn’t be, could it? Then he remembered cuddling the sick baby. Maybe…but he refused to entertain the idea, and with typical Harper stubbornness, he kicked Traveler on in the direction of the distant line cabin.

They finally arrived, and as Jess dismounted, he staggered and grabbed hold of his saddle to steady himself. Anna was immediately by his side, and holding his arm she helped him into the cabin and then turned worried eyes on him. “Jess?”

“I’m OK,” he said, “just a nasty cold like I said.”

“Jess, you’re burning up and you look awful. Come and lie down for a little,” she said helping him to one of the low cots in the room.

He started to protest and then felt his legs going and sat down quickly on the cot, “Trav,” he said weakly.

“I’ll see to the hoses,” she said firmly, and removing his hat, she gently pushed him back on the bed and covered him with a blanket.

Jess lay back and closed his eyes for a moment.

When he awoke, the room was in darkness except for the dim light from a lamp on the mantle and a fire crackling in the grate, casing shadows on the walls. As his eyes became accustomed to the light, he was able to make out Anna, sitting on the other cot.

As soon as she realized he was awake, she turned the lamp up and came and sat on the edge of his bed. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine,” he said quietly.

But she gave him a seriously look. “No you aren’t,” she said “and it’s all my fault. If you hadn’t come to fetch me…..”

He put a hand out and rubbed her arm gently. “Hey, don’t think that way…and we don’t know I’ve got it anyways. It don’t usually affect adult, I’ll be fine don’t you worry,” he said. Then after a minute, he asked, “You had some supper?

She shook her head. “Not hungry.”

“Alright, well get some sleep, sweetheart. we’ll set off at first light, be home before sundown…OK? “

“Sure,” she said softly and went and lay down on the other cot, but in her heart she knew they wouldn’t be travelling anywhere in the morning.

Then next day when she awoke, she went directly to check on Jess and was distressed to see a slick of sweat on his face and his shirt soaking with perspiration as he tossed and turned in a restless sleep.

She immediately went and fetched some cool water from the stream running along behind the shack, and started bathing his burning face. Then she unbuttoned his blue shirt and sat back in shock as she looked down at the angry tell-tale rash covering his chest. Her hand shot up to her mouth stifling a sob — first her Pa and now this kind, gentle stranger was going to die. She shook her head in sorrow, peering down at him, as tears streamed down her pinched little face.

As she watched him, she saw his eyes briefly flicker and then open and suddenly she was staring into those amazing deep blue eyes.

He seemed to have trouble speaking and she immediately fetched the canteen and lifting his head, helped him to drink a little. Then he finally managed, “What’s the matter? Why are you cryin’, honey?”

“You’ve got it…..got the rash, Jess,” she whispered.

He looked down at his chest where she had left his shirt open and saw it for himself.

His head fell back on the pillow and he closed his eyes again for a moment, before opening them and trying to focus on the young girl. “It will be OK”, he said, “don’t upset yourself. I ain’t thinking of upping and dying on you, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he finished with the ghost of a smile.

Those were the last words he was to speak for several days as he fell in and out of consciousness, the fever eating him up, and gradually he became weaker and weaker, until on the third day, his breathing became labored and she knew the end was near.

All the time he had been sick, the youngster had nursed him day and night. She had watched Nellie Cavell care for her children and knew what to do. She had overcome her natural modesty and stripped Jess down to his underwear and bathed him with the cool stream water and then when he was shivering and shaking so much she feared he would fall from the bed, she had stoked up the fire and covered him with all the blankets.

However, now she felt all her efforts had been in vain. She had watched Nellie’s small son die of the illness and she knew the signs that the fight for life was coming to an end and recognized these in Jess  — the deathly pale skin, rapid pulse and labored breathing, all heralding his last hours or even minutes in this life.

Suddenly it was all too much for her and she fell prostrate across his chest sobbing and calling out, “Jess, don’t leave me, don’t go…please don’t go…”

Jess had walked through the desert for days, the relentless sun beating down on him and now he had finally reached the lakeside. He pulled off his boots and socks and waded into the deep cooling waters of the lake. Never had it felt so good; it’s chilly depths so very welcoming. He stood looking to the horizon, a welcome breeze blowing up, and he couldn’t remember ever having felt so calm, so happy and relaxed.

Then he looked down into the water, anticipating how good it would feel once he went in. The sun was still beating down and he longed to dive into the icy depths. He knew once he did so, he would be at peace and all his troubles would just float away, but he also knew that once he dived in, he would never get out again, but strangely the thought didn’t bother him. all he could think of was the cool waters flowing over him, submerging him…forever. He took another step in and was just about to dive into the tantalizing waters when he heard someone calling him from the lakeside.

“Jess, don’t leave me…don’t go, please don’t go….”

He turned and saw Anna standing on the bank and he suddenly remembered his responsibility, his promise to Buck at the foot of the gallows. he couldn’t leave her; he had to go back.

He gave the water one last longing look, before turning and wading to the shore, to Anna and the baking desert.

As she lay across his chest, she felt him stir, and on sitting up, was amazed to see his eyes open, and look straight at her. After a moment, he said softly, “Did you call me?”

“Oh Jess,” she whispered, “thank God”…and started weeping in earnest.

After a few minutes, Jess said, “Hey, you’re in danger of drownin’ me here, sweetheart,” as the tears flowed down and fell on his bare chest.

She gave him a watery smile. “Oh Jess, I was so darn scared, thought I’d lost you.”

“Told you, didn’t I,” he whispered. “I ain’t going nowhere.”

From that moment on, he started to get better. the fever had broken and he was able to drink a little broth that night and sit up in a chair a few days later.

During his long convalescence, they got to know each other well and a true bond of friendship was forged between them which was never to be broken, as they shared their life stories. He was interested to note that her early life, living in poverty on the panhandle was very similar to his own and they shared many memories of the place.

She took all Jess’s colorful past as a gunslinger in her stride and marveled at how he had turned his life around and was now a valuable member of society in Laramie.

He in turn learned of her love of books and writing and was suddenly aware that he was in the company of a very intelligent young lady. He was surprised to hear that her aunt had once been a schoolteacher, before her marriage to a share farmer, and as he listened to her talk, he realized she was a very special youngster, very special indeed.

*****

It was a while before they decided to head off to the ranch because Jess was terrified of passing the disease on to Mike, or even Slim or Daisy, seeing as how he had succumbed to it. As time went on, he knew how worried they would all be about him, as the one week trip had now lasted over three, but he had to be sure he was over it before risking returning home.

He had urged Anna to make the last leg of the journey without him, but she pointblank refused saying, “we’ve come this far together, Jess, and I’m not leaving without you.”

He smiled inwardly at the way the youngster had become much more self-assured over the last couple of weeks and figured that she had maybe always been that way, but her Pa’s passing had knocked the fight out of her some.

She sure was an intrepid little thing anyways, he thought fondly, remembering how she had killed a variety of game for their table with only a sling shot while he was still recuperating.

“You’re gonna have to show Mike how you do it,” he said, after they had enjoyed a rabbit stew. “he’ll be real impressed,” and she had promised she would.

Now they were on the trail again and Jess was longing to see everyone and get back home, as he had missed them all far more than he had ever imagined. It was almost as though the near death experience had highlighted the importance of his loved ones in his life and he vowed to be more appreciative of them in future.

When they rode into the yard, Slim and Daisy came running out, and as Jess jumped down from the saddle, Slim came forwards and pumped his hand and slapped him on the back. “gee we’d practically given up on you, buddy.”

Then Daisy came forwards and hugged him before pushing him away and looking closely into his tired face. “Why Jess, you look sort of peaky? are you alright?”

He nodded. “I’m OK now Daisy, been kinda sick, that’s why we’re late back.”

Then remembering his manners, he turned to where Anna was still seated on the pinto. He walked over and helped her down. “come here, sweetheart,” he said softly taking her hand. “let me introduce you to Slim Sherman and Mrs. Daisy Cooper.”

Slim grinned at her. “great to meet you at last,” he said kindly.

Daisy came forward and looked at the girl and then pulled her towards her in a gentle hug. “I am so pleased to meet you at last, my dear,”she said.

As she looked at the youngster, her heart bled; she was small and underweight for her age and the shabby dress and lack of shoes told a story of abject poverty. She knew the child originally hailed from the same area where Jess had been brought up and she was aware of the hard life he had suffered. Now looking at this youngster, she was determined to help her to make the most of her lot, and taking the girl’ arm, she led her inside, intending to start feeding her up at once.

When the men folk had tended to the horses, they entered the ranch and sat down at the table where Daisy was dispensing coffee and pie.

Casting an anxious look at Jess, Daisy said, “Anna has been filling me in on how ill you have been, Jess.”

“Aw it was nothing, Daisy.”

“Nothing…you nearly died, Jess,” she replied with feeling.

“Yeah, well I didn’t, did I?” he answered with his cheeky grin.

Daisy and Anna exchanged looks. “see what I’m up against dear,” she said with a resigned smile. “and Slim is almost as bad. it will be lovely having another woman around to help me cope with their nonsense.”

Anna smiled back. “well I’d love to stay for a little while, but I can’t accept charity, I’ll pull my weight while I visit and then I must really be looking for a place to stay…and some paid work maybe in town.”

Jess looked across at Daisy. “I thought maybe Walt might need some help?”

Daisy and Slim exchanged a charged look.

“What?” asked Jess.

“Well, I had hoped to discuss it with you,” said Daisy, “but you were away for so long. Walt proposed to me when you were away and the three of us discussed it and… well, I said yes.”

Jess looked shocked and said nothing for a moment before he gathered himself together and jumping up went and hugged her saying, “that’s really great, Daisy, congratulations!”

“It won’t be for a while, but Slim and Mike convinced me I should do it and of course Walt is so pleased,” she said blushing prettily. “Anyway, as to your question. I am sure Walt would be very glad of Anna’s help in the shop, that is if she would like to work in haberdashers?” she asked giving the girl an enquiring look.

“Oh yes,” smiled the girl, “anything to pay my way, and a haberdashers would be fun, all that lovely material. I should love it really.”

“That’s decided then,” Daisy said happily,” I shall speak to Walt tomorrow.”

Then the party broke up as the afternoon stage bowled in and Mike ran in eager to meet the new member of the household.

Later that evening when the others had retired to bed, Jess and Slim sat out on the porch, enjoying a rare glass of hill whisky as a welcome home celebration.

Jess sat in his chair, feet up on the porch rail and turning to his partner said. “gee it’s good to be home. So Daisy’s really getting hitched then?”

“I guess. She was so upset about it all, you know, buddy; didn’t want to leave us, but she’s got a life too and I figure, well, she ain’t getting any younger and this might be her only chance of lasting happiness.”

“Sure, I know that…it’s just…well, hell Slim, I’m gonna miss her something fierce.”

“I know Jess me too, but what can you do.”

“So she was talked into it then?”

“Well, Walt came to see me, explained how she was torn, because she didn’t want to upset us, worried about Mike, but once we sat down and talked it through, well, she got real upset, especially about how you’d feel, with you not being here and all, but as I say, we have to put her happiness first”.

“Yeah, sure we do, I know that.”

There was a pause as they sipped their drinks, looking out into the night. Then Slim said, “sounds like it was touch and go for a while with you there, pard.”

For once Jess took the comment seriously. “yeah, guess I was on the way to meet my Maker alright, until Anna called me back”, and he went on to explain what had happened. “She nursed me day and night, you know, Slim; she really is a great kid.”

“Yeah, bright too. Figure she’ll have read all my books in a few weeks, the way she was lookin’ at them today”.

“Um, she sure likes her words, reading and writing them. shame she can’t go back East to college. figure she’d make a real go of it.”

“You’re right there, but we just can’t afford it, Jess, not right now anyways. you know what a bad year we’ve had what the drought last summer an’ all.”

Jess looked down into his drink and nodded. “yeah, I know, I know…..guess I’ll just have to rob a bank.”

Slim’s head shot up and his eyes met Jess’s blue ones, twinkling with laughter. “Aw, Jess that’s not funny,” he said, grinning back.

The following morning Jess drove Anna and Daisy to town so that they could visit with Walt and see if she would be able to work in the shop. Once he had dropped them off, he made his way down the street to the boarding house owned by one Maud Brown.

Jess had first come across Widow Brown a few years back when she had been responsible for him being seriously injured after she had spread malicious gossip about him, the lies making a man so jealous he tried to kill Jess. The backlash of her meddling not only effected his life but also the woman he was in love with at the time, and he had been very bitter, with the result being the widow had experienced the full fury of the Harper temper, leading to her completely changing her ways.

She had promised Jess that she would make every effort to change from being the bitter old harridan she had become, into a kind and caring land lady, and whereas Jess knew she wasn’t perfect, she was a person he knew he could trust to keep an eye on Anna and keep her safe. She ran a very tight ship and all the girls who boarded with her were pleasant and from good families and Jess knew Anna would fit in well and maybe even make some new friends.

When Maud Brown answered the door to his knock, she threw it open wide and beamed at the young cowboy. “Jess, what a lovely surprise. come in, dear, come into the kitchen; the coffee is freshly made.”

Jess removed his hat and followed her down the corridor to the back room, marveling at the contrast between this and his first meeting with her, when he tried to visit his girlfriend, and she said she wouldn’t allow someone with his reputation across the threshold. He smiled to himself as he remembered his reply, ‘so which reputation would that be Ma’am, the one for fast shooting, fighting or womanizing,’ the irony lost on the old woman.

They had finally resolved their differences, with the widow apologizing for her appalling behavior which had indirectly caused three deaths, and Jess eventually forgiving her.

Since then she had become firm friends with Daisy and had indeed changed, with the welfare of the young women she offered a home to very much her priority.

Now Jess was settled by the kitchen range with a coffee and the elderly woman turned an expectant eye on him. “So what brings you here, Jess?” she asked.

“Well, it’s like this,” he began.” I’m looking for some lodgings for a young friend of mine and wondered if you had a room? “

“Yes, yes I have and I would be delighted to take your friend. Jess.”

“Well, I figure there are some things you need to know first. Maud.”

“Nonsense; if she is known to you and dear Daisy, that is all the recommendation I need.”

“No, hear me out Maud. Do you remember the hanging a few weeks back?”

“The man that shot that bounty hunter…he was a friend of yours, wasn’t he, Jess?”

“Yes…yes he was, and Anna is his daughter.”

Maud gasped, but said nothing and Jess could see the internal struggle that was going on in her head. He knew well that the old Maud would have had nothing to do with a convicted killer’s daughter.

He waited saying nothing and then she said, “I believe you said the man was innocent. well if you think that…then…”

“I don’t think it, Maud; I know it,” he said firmly, “I was there at the alleged first murder, it was self-defense; same with that bounty hunter. They shot first.” After a pause, he said quietly, “And even if he had been guilty, which he wasn’t, but even then, I guess none of this would have been Anna’s fault.”

Widow Brown blushed and looked down ashamed. “you are quite right, dear, and I would be pleased to offer my room to her and I pledge to keep a special eye out for the young lady for you too.”

Jess grinned across at her. “Thanks Maud, I appreciate that.”

“And if you want to come courting, still got the same rules; you can use the front parlor between 7 and 10 pm.”

Jess, looked shocked and then blushed. “Heck no you’ve got it wrong, Maud; we ain’t together. she’s just a kid. I’m just looking after her…promised her Pa day before he died,” he finished quietly.

“Oh, I’m sorry dear,” she said,” it’s just that…”

“Yeah, I know,” he said smiling across at her, “me and my reputation as a womanizer!”

“Not forgetting the fast gun and fighting,” she said joining in with the joke at her expense. Then giving him a serious look, she said softly, “Guess we’ve both moved on from those days Jess, put it behind us for good, yes?”

“Sure we have,” he said kindly, and with that he went to fetch Anna to look at the room.

Once that was settled with an understanding that Anna would move in the following week, Daisy said, “Next thing is to get you some new clothes and shoes, young lady. after all, you can’t be a shopkeeper’s number one assistant unless you look the part.”

They were standing outside the boarding house and Jess beamed at Anna. “you got the job then?”

“With a little help from Miss Daisy,” she said smiling back.

“Nonsense, dear, I could see Walt was charmed the moment he clapped eyes on you and I am sure you will be a great asset to the business. now come along dear — clothes.”

Jess reached into his vest pocket and drew out a wad of notes and passed it to Anna.

She looked surprised. “I can’t take this, Jess; I’ve taken enough from you already…really.”

“Sure you can,” he said with a mischievous look. “It’s yours.”

“Mine? “

“Yeah, your Pa gave it to me — his savings; the rest is in the Laramie Bank. he wanted you to have something for a rainy day. Should be enough there to tide you over for a while.”

Her eyes opened wide in shock and then the tears welled up. “dear Pa,” she said softly.

Jess reached over and squeezed her arm. “Go on, honey, go and get yourself rigged out.”

Anna looked from him to Daisy and back. “I’ve never been on a proper shopping trip before, not sure what to do,” she whispered, smiling at Daisy.

Jess smiled at them both. “Guess you’ll learn,” he said. “Most women I know seem to take to shoppin’ real easy.”

“Oh Jess,” laughed Daisy, and taking Anna’s arm, they marched off together to hit the stores.

*****

Life settled into the usual pace for late spring, at the ranch and Relay, and over the next few weeks, Anna visited regularly at the weekends, and her bond with Jess and all the family grew as they got to know each other better.

She was good company for Daisy, who enjoyed her intelligent, lively conversations with the youngster, and Slim shared his love of books with her, while she enjoyed just working alongside Jess, helping with the chores and talking sixteen to the dozen with him about anything and everything.

She got on especially well with Mike and lost no time in sharing her expertise with a sling shot and they went off on hunting trips together at dawn, returning with fresh rabbits for the pot, much to the amazement of Daisy, who professed the sling shot to be a much better weapon than the hunting rifle she loathed to see in the young boy’s hands.

Mike also loved listening to Anna’s stories and begged her for more and she was always willing to spend time with the youngster, telling story after story. In fact, she spent all her free time writing new ones. She would beg paper and pencils from Slim and then hide herself away in the hayloft, writing her adventure stories for hours on end, before coming down and sharing them with Mike, or whoever would listen.

She had also settled well into her new job, proving to be a real help to Walt in the little shop. And at her new home, she seemed to get on with old Maud Brown and the other boarders very well.

She was also gradually coming to terms with the loss of her beloved father, and had in some way, replaced him with Jess. Although he was a lot younger than her father, he had some of his traits — determination, loyalty, reliability, and of course there was the Texas connection. Jess knew her roots as they were so similar to his own and the familiarly of a shared background made her feel very close to him.

So it was that she would share her most intimate thoughts with him and ask his advice, and if Jess sometimes found this rather daunting, he never made it obvious to the young girl. But he did share his concerns with Slim, though, and the two would talk through any problems. but sometimes Jess just had to admit defeat. and questions pertaining to what he called ‘women’s stuff’ were passed over to Daisy.

One afternoon, Jess, Anna and Mike were down at the creek fishing and had just awoken after an afternoon nap, induced by the hot sun and a huge picnic lunch.

Noting that Mike was still asleep, Anna looked over at Jess and said, “Can I ask you something?”

“Well, sure you can ask me anything, you know that. can’t promise a truthful answer. though,” he said grinning across at her.

She smiled back, before saying. “this is serious though, Jess.”

He adjusted his face appropriately, hiding a smile at her wide eyed innocent expression.

“What does it feel like when you fall in love?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“What does it feel like?”

Jess gave her a shy glance. “Well think that’s probably something you’re best discussing with Daisy,” he said, looking uncomfortable.

“No, you don’t understand,” she said patiently. “I can ask her what it feels like for a woman, or I guess I know that, a little anyways, but what’s it like for a man?”

Jess still ignored the question and said, “So are you…in love, that is?”

“I think I might be.”

“Well who is he,” he asked gruffly.

She shot him an amused look. “You sound just like Pa,” she said.

“Yeah, well it’s my job to look out for you….promised your Pa didn’t I.”

She looked chastened. “yes, I know, and you mustn’t worry, Jess; he’s a real nice boy. his Pa owns the mercantile; he’s called Jamie Somers.”

Jess looked over and smiled. “heck, I’ve known young Jamie since he was at school. he’s a great kid.”

“So……are you going to tell me Jess, or what?”

He thought for a few minutes and then said, “Well I guess it’s the same as for women in some ways. you feel sick all the time, can’t eat, can’t sleep, you get a whole load of butterflies in your belly every time you see her, all you want to do is be with her all of the time….all you can think of is…

“Is what?”

“Um…well guess it’s a bit different. See, men put a lot of store by kissin’ and… well more than kissin’ if you get my drift?”

He blushed deeply. “You do know about all that stuff…in theory anyway, don’t you?”

She hid a smile. “oh sure,” she said softly. “In theory anyway.”

“Um, well let’s just keep it that way,” he said, reverting into her surrogate Pa again.

“Thing is,” he said looking intently at her, “well all that stuff , you have to be really committed to someone, know them real well, care for them, really love them…not just get carried away, know what I’m saying. you should wait until you’re real sure he is the right one for you, thinking of settling down together maybe.”

She nodded wisely. “I’m pretty sure, but its early days yet. We’ve only been seeing each other a few weeks and then we just meet up at his Pa’s shop and chat; we haven’t really been on a proper date yet. Couldn’t get out at night,” she said rolling her eyes and laughing. “old Ma Brown watches me like a hawk.”

He gave a small sigh of relief. thank goodness for that he thought, then. “Well maybe he’d like to come fishing with us sometime, or back for supper, so as you can get to know each other a bit better.”

“Oh really, Jess?” she said and squealed gleefully, jumping up and coming across to where he was sitting, and throwing her arms around him in a big hug, “that would be so good!”

He smiled indulgently at her. “That’s OK,” he said, “but remember what I said — don’t go startin’ things you can’t finish with the boy; take it real slow.”

“I will, I promise,” she smiled happily and then Mike woke up.

“What’s all the yellin’ about?” he asked sleepily. “You’ll scare the fish.” But Jess and Anna just exchanged an amused look and they went back to their fishing

Life went on at a slow pace, with Anna and Jamie very happy together, until one day everything suddenly changed.

It was late one afternoon, and Anna had just come back from work, to the boarding house, and was enjoying her supper, with the other girls, when there was suddenly a violent knocking at the front door.

Ma Brown went to answer it and was back in a few minutes looking pale and shocked, “It’s for you Anna,” she said, accompanying the girl back to the door.

An anxious looking young man stood there and Ma Brown introduced him. “This young man has just been taken on as a hand at the Sherman ranch, Bill Jones,” she said.

Anna smiled at him. “Hello,” she said and then noticing his demeanor, said, “Is everything alright?”

“No, no it ain’t Miss,” he said quickly. “It’s Mr. Harper, Jess…he’s been hurt real bad, been asking for you.”

Anna took a deep breath. “Oh no, where is he?”

“Back at the ranch, the Doc is with him now…but well, it ain’t looking too good, Miss, and he’s asked that I bring you back,” he finished anxiously.

Anna ran off and returned a few minutes later in her outdoor gear and riding skirt, and quickly reassuring Ma Brown, she would be fine and would stay with Jess until he was better, she disappeared off with the young ranch hand.

They went across to the livery where Anna’s pinto was stabled and then they trotted at high speed down the Main Street and out of town.

They had been riding for over half an hour when the ranch hand pulled his mount in, gesturing Anna should do the same.

“What is it?” she said anxiously, “we really need to get to the ranch, Bill.”

The tall man gave her a mocking look. “oh guess there is no hurry,” he said.

“What…what do you mean?”

“I mean, Harper ain’t bad…but guess he’ll be pretty sick when he knows I’ve got his new little ‘daughter’,” he said nastily.

“I don’t understand,” she said, with a sudden feeling of apprehension.

“Name Pete Robbins mean anything to you?”

Anna gave him a frightened look. He was the one shot my Pa, one of the bounty hunters, Jess told me. There were two of them….. Pete and er…Bill. That’s it Bill Robbins.”

“Pleased to meet you,” leered Bill Robbins. “And your Pa killed my big brother.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, “but he drew on my Pa first, tried to back shoot him, Pa was only defending himself.”

“Well, may be but he deserved it,” the man shouted angrily, “and now I’m going to get even with Jess Harper and you.”

“But why…” she gasped. “I don’t understand. what has it to do with Jess?”

“Harper was the bastard that sprung your Pa, and Pete and I spent nigh on six years hunting him down and not just for the bounty either.”

“I still don’t get it,” she replied, “why?”

“Because the Deputy he gunned down was our cousin.”

“He was a no good drunk,” she said with spirit,” Pa told me, he was drunk and shot down my Uncle Christy in cold blood just for fighting for the wrong side in the war, for being a Texan.”

“Well that’s as maybe the way you’ve heard it, but I know different and anyways it don’t really matter no more, because I’ve got you now and as soon as Harper finds out, he’ll be out here quicker than a rat up a drain pipe and that will be the end for you both; lost a cousin, lost a brother and now you two are gonna pay dear for it, “he spat.

With that he motioned for her to ride off the trail and then he dragged he roughly down from her horse and tied her up, leaving her against a tree, while he made camp, ate supper and drank some whiskey before spreading his bedroll by the fire and ignoring her pleas to be released, fell into an alcohol induced sleep.

*****

The following morning when Mose rattled the early morning Stage into the Sherman yard, he was surprised to see Jess emerge from the ranch house looking fit and well.

Mose peered down at him. “You made a darn quick recovery,” he said with a grin. “Accordin’ to Widow Brown, you’re supposed to be at death’s door, son.”

Jess grinned back at him. “What you on about, Mose? You been on the hill whiskey again?”

“No I ain’t,” said the old timer firmly, jumping down from the Stage and greeting Slim as he wandered over.

“Morning Slim, so where is young Anna, she want a ride back to town on the Stage?”

Slim and Jess exchanged worried looks, “Anna ain’t here,” said Jess,” what’s this all about Mose? “

Mose suddenly realized the seriousness of the situation. “Well I bumped into Widow Brown last night, she said as how your new ranch hand, Bill Jones, had hammered at her door at supper time and how as Anna had to come back to the ranch, there and then, as you were taken real poorly Jess.

“What new ranch hand?” asked Slim looking befuddled.

“Well that’s what I said”, said Mose, “but she said he was a nice young man, real concerned and rode out with Anna, just gone 6pm last night. Maud said to give you her best wishes,” he finished lamely, but he was talking to thin air as Jess and Slim were already running to the barn to saddle their mounts and ride out, Slim yelling over his shoulder that Mike would help change the teams.

*****

When they arrived in town they rode straight to Widow Brown’s place and on answering their urgent knocking, she stood back in amazement at the sight of Jess standing on the doorstep with Slim.

“Why, Jess, are you alright?” she asked looking bewildered.

The ranchers quickly explained the situation to her and she became very agitated.

“But…but the man seemed so genuine, so concerned for Jess, both Anna and I were completely taken in,” then she stopped speaking a hand flying to her mouth,” oh dear, little Anna, what can have become of her…did he mean her harm…..do you think?”

Jess nodded grimly,” I guess so now think hard Maud, have you ever seen him before?”

“Well, yes there was something familiar about him, a tall man dressed in black, I’ve seen him in town…he was at the hanging I remember that because I thought at the time he had such a nasty look on his face, sort of triumphant, made me shiver it did. But then, as I say, he seemed the perfect gentleman last night,” she finished shaking her head sadly.

“Thanks for your help Ma’am,” said Slim, and after asking for a description of the man, they turned to go, “we’ll let you know as soon as we have some news,” said Jess and with that the couple took off for Mort’s office.

After explaining the situation to the Sheriff, he gave them a concerned look, “You know he sounds a lot like that Bounty Hunter, Bill Robbins.”

Jess had hardly acknowledged the man’s presence at the time he had met him, didn’t even look him in the eye, but now Mort mentioned it, well the description did fit from what he remembered.

“Any ideas as to where he was heading?” asked Mort looking concerned.

“Well he said he was taking her to the ranch and Ma Brown said they headed off that way, said Jess.

“Figure we’ll head back to the Laramie road and see if we can pick up the little Pinto’s tracks,” said Slim, thoughtfully.

“That’s a long shot”

“Yeah, I know Mort,” said Slim but it’s all we’ve got and the hoof prints are real distinctive, he’s got such small feet,” then turning to his partner,” and old Hot Shot here could track for the Apache, so we’ve a good chance.”

Mort looked really serious,” sorry I can’t come with you, but my Deputy is off sick, can’t leave town.”

Passing over a couple of Deputy badges he said,” here take these, may need them, if you do come across that Bill Robbins. I’d like you to arrest him. Got a wire through yesterday, wanted for murder back in Texas, big price on his head. Seems he was bounty huntin’ back there and shot and killed the wrong man; the law’s been after him for months.”

“I don’t care about the Goddamn bounty Mort,” yelled Jess angrily,” I just want the girl back in one piece.”

Mort gave the younger man a compassionate look,” yeah, of course, I’m sorry Jess…….and good luck,” with that the pair rode away from town at speed heading out on to the road West.

It was still comparatively early in the day and so there hadn’t been much traffic on the road and the weather had been still and clear too, and before long Jess was able to pick up the little Pinto’s tracks, accompanied by a larger horse again with a very distinctive gait as it was favoring its right foreleg.

“Looks like the big fellah is coming up lame,” said Jess,” figure they won’t have got too far buddy”.

They pushed on for another half hour or so and then the tracks left the road and joined an old trail across land leading to the lake on the Sherman Ranch. The terrain changed here and became steep and rocky; the ideal place for an ambush and the pair rode on slowly scouring the landscape for any sign of movement.

Even so, when the attack came it took them by surprise.

They were just rounding a rocky outcrop when a shot rang out from the rocks just ahead of them and then suddenly Anna was there running towards them and shouting out a warning and then another shot rang out and she fell to the ground.

Jess and Slim had jumped from their horses and taken cover as the first shot rang out, but now Jess broke cover and tore towards Anna , throwing himself on the ground beside her, then lying over her prone body to try and protected her from the cross fire.

Slim was still returning fire with the hidden marksman and the shots where whistling over Anna and Jess’s heads. Jess retuned the fire again and this time when the other man returned the shot it found its mark and the bullet hit Jess’s left arm, causing him to wince in pain.

Then, as their opponent leaned forwards to see if the hit had been fatal, Slim took aim and shot him square in the chest and he fell forwards dead within seconds, and they were able to see that it was indeed Bill Robbins, the bounty hunter who had been on Buck’s trail along with his brother Pete.

Slim ran forwards, checked on the dead man and then returned to his Partner who very gently took Anna in his arms and that was when they saw the blood oozing from a wound in her back, the blood pouring out and soaking his shirt.

She was unconscious and deathly pale, her life force draining away,” oh God no,” whispered Jess looking distraught, and pulling off his bandana tried to stem the flow of blood.

Slim looked down in shock, before pulling himself together. “You OK to ride, Jess?”

“Sure, help me get her up on Traveler will you?”

Jess insisted on riding with Anna, and Slim helped him lift her up to the saddle in front of his buddy and holding her gently, she lay back in his arms, and Jess kicked the horse on to a careful walk. Slim found Bill Robbins horse and dragged the lifeless body across the saddle, and taking the reins set off beside Jess, the little Pinto following on behind.

When they arrived at Doc Sam Baker’s office Slim dismounted and Jess gently handed Anna down to him and he rushed in carrying the girl in his arms. As they entered Carrie, the doctor’s daughter and nurse, shot up from her desk a look of distress on her pretty face.

Both Sam and his daughter were good friends of the ranchers and Carrie had made a particular point of befriending Anna for Jess’s sake. However once they met they found they had lots in common and a really strong friendship had formed between the two young women.

Now seeing her friend lying in Slim’s arms looking deathly pale she was too shocked to speak for a second, and then she called out for her Pa and Sam ran in from his consulting room at the back of the building.

Taking one look at the situation he ushered Slim and Anna though to the back room and turning to Carrie said softly,” tend to Jess and then come and help me honey.”

She nodded and looking across at Jess she saw the look of anguish in his eyes, and once more gaining her professional persona, walked across and taking his arm tried to calm him.

“Come and sit on the examination couch Jess,” she said softly,” and I’ll take a look at that arm.”

“I’m OK,” he said automatically, still staring at the closed door which Slim and Anna had just passed through.

“Jess, come on let me take a look at you,” she said again,” Anna is in good hands and there is nothing we can do right now,” he finally looked down at her, as though seeing her for the first time, and allowed himself to be led over to the couch and sat down so she could tend the wound.

He sat on the edge of the couch as she unbuttoned his shirt, now completely saturated with Anna’s blood, and taking a look at the nasty laceration to his upper arm she quickly cleaned and bandaged it before fetching one of her father’s shirts for him to wear.

All the time she had been carrying out the painful procedure he just sat there his eyes never leaving the door to Sam’s office.

Finally Slim and Sam emerged looking grave and Jess jumped up,” how is she?”

“It’s not looking good I’m afraid,” said his old friend giving him a worried look, “she has lost so much blood and I’m not sure if she will survive surgery.”

Jess gasped in horror and then looking from Slim to Sam and back said quietly,” so what are you gonna do Sam, you can’t just leave the bullet in.”

“I know, I’m going to have to do the best I can to remove it quickly and try to stop her losing too much more blood…but I don’t hold out much hope Jess…so I thought…well, you might like to see her…say goodbye?”

Jess’s eyes flashed in anger as he strode towards the closed door,” sure I want to see her,” he said, “But I sure as Hell ain’t saying’ goodbye, ‘cos I ain’t giving up on her yet….even if you are,” and with that he disappeared into the room.

After he had left Sam glanced down a look of sadness in his eyes. Slim reached across and squeezed his shoulder. “He doesn’t mean it Sam. He’s just real upset; you know Jess.”

Sam looked up at his friend, “Yeah sure, and he’s got a point, I should know where there is life there is hope as much as anyone…it just looks so bad though Slim, sort of didn’t want to get his hopes up too much, know how fond he has become of the girl.”

Slim nodded,” yes they sure are close, she’s almost like a daughter to him now Sam, figure he’ll take it real bad if she doesn’t make it.”

*****

Jess entered the room quietly and went and sat on the edge of her bed looking down at the young girl who had come to mean so much to him. She lay with her eyes closed her dark hair fanned out on the pillow, he face deathly pale. After a few minutes her eyes flickered open.

“Hey, sweetheart,” he said softly,” you gave me a nasty scare there,” he continued, taking her hand.

“Had…had to warn you,” she whispered, “He was going to kill you Jess.”

He closed his eyes and swallowed hard before opening them again and looking intently at her,

“Listen to me honey”, he said softly,” you’re sick, real sick…but you’re gonna be OK, do you hear me Anna? ‘Cos I ain’t gonna let you die, you understand.”

“Sure,” she whispered closing her eyes.

He leaned down and kissed her very gently on the forehead, before standing up and looking down again and wiping a hand across his face, tears threatening and his heart pounding.

“You hang on in there OK?” he said again.

“OK, Jess,” she whispered so softly he could hardly make the words out.

And then Sam entered and ushered him back to the outer office as he and Carrie made preparations for the surgery.

Slim was there waiting for him and he gave his buddy a concerned look.

Jess threw himself down on the couch his head in his hands.

After a minute Slim walked over and stood in front of him,” Jess?”

He didn’t move until Slim reached over and patted his arm, “Jess…you OK?”

He finally looked up and Slim saw the pain in his eyes.

 “Why?” he asked his voice raw with emotion, “she is a good kid, why did this have to happen to her Slim?”

Slim looked down, just shaking his head, not knowing what to say to comfort his friend.

Jess jumped up and moodily strode about the room, and then pushing his hands deep into his pocked wandered over to the window and peered vacantly out.

Turning back to Slim, he said grimly, “we’ve left that bastard Robbins out there; we’d better get him to the undertakers.”

“I’ll go,” said Slim, “Guess you want to stay here don’t you?”

He just nodded, “yeah.”

“See you later buddy, take it easy OK?” and with an anxious look Slim left the office.

He walked the bounty hunters horse over to Mort’s office and the Sheriff came out to greet him.

 “I see you found Robbins OK then,” he said sardonically, taking a quick look to identify the body.

“He tried to bushwhack us up on the lake trail off the Laramie road, shot Jess in the arm and young Anna in the back.”

Mort’s head jerked up,” shot Anna is she…”

“No, really badly wounded though, Doc doesn’t think she’ll make it.”

“Does Jess know that?”

“Yeah, but he won’t accept it though. He’s over there now; Sam’s operating at the moment.”

Mort shook his head sadly. “Well, I’m real sorry about that Slim, I sure hope she’ll be OK. Give Jess my best will you?”

Slim left Robbins at the undertakers and then went down Main Street to call on the Widow Brown to fill her in on what had happened to her boarder and as he passed the Saloon, Millie came running out.

“Oh Slim what’s going on,” she asked looking troubled,” I saw you all riding in before, are Anna and Jess seriously hurt… all that blood on Jess’s shirt….. “

“No he’s OK,” Slim reassured her quickly,” just got a flesh wound in the arm, it’s Anna that’s hurt.

She’s real sick Millie and old Jess there…….. He’s taking it kinda bad”.

“Shall I pop over for a minute,” she asked,” check he’s alright? “

“Thanks, I’ve got to break the news to Maud Brown; just let yourself in. Sam and Carrie are in the operating surgery.”

Millie nodded and quickly ran over the street to the Doctor’s office.

She entered quietly and saw Jess at once, lying on the examination couch, his arm in a sling, staring up at the ceiling a look of abject misery on his face.

As soon as he saw her, he got up and went to meet her, “Hey Millie, what are you doin’ here, sweetheart?”

“Come to see you, Slim said Anna was real bad…. I’m so sorry Jess”.

He took her hand and led her over to the couch and they sat down together,” it’s a bad business,” he said,” that bastard Bounty hunter that went after Buck shot her in the back…thing was she was running away from him trying to warn me,” he said, his voice husky with emotion, his eyes misting over,” this is all my fault, Mill.”

“Jess you can’t think that way, none of this stuff that has happened is your fault, all you have done is try and help a buddy and then keep your promise to him, to care for his child, and you’ve done that……real well. Heck Jess I’ve talked to Anna and she looks on you as a second Pa, you couldn’t have done more to help her.”

He just looked into her eyes and leaned forwards and throwing his good arm around her shoulders gave her a gentle hug, “thanks Millie,” he said softly.

She stayed, chatting and trying to calm and reassure him, until Slim returned a while later, but it was another hour before Sam finally entered the office. He looked weary and slumped into his chair before swinging around to face the two ranchers waiting expectantly for his news.

He looked from Jess, to Slim and back and finally said; “well she made it through the operation….but…”

Jess jumped up, cutting him off,” can I see her? “

“In a minute Jess, first you must to listen to what I have to tell you.”

Jess sank down again, reluctantly,” yeah?”

“Well, she has made it through the operation, but not without some more quite significant blood loss. There is a danger she may go into shock…and then we can’t save her…I’m sorry. I have to be brutally honest with you; I can’t see her lasting the night, but…the next couple of days are critical, if we can get her through those, well then she has a chance. She has to be kept warm, given as much water as she can drink, to make the fluids up, and most of all she must be kept calm.”

Jess just nodded taking all this information in and then said, “Right. I’ll stay with her, see her through this, Sam.”

Sam opened his mouth to argue knowing that Jess was himself quite drained from the gunshot wound he had received, but then he saw that stubborn look in his friend’s eyes and knew there was no sense in arguing.

So it was that Jess spent day and night at Anna’s bedside, leaving only to wash, before returning. He survived on strong coffee, refusing all the offers of food Carrie made, saying he just couldn’t stomach anything and he barely slept.

Sam and Carrie sat with the patient too, carefully nursing her, offering water during the brief moments when she was awake and monitoring her temperature and pulse.

However it was Jess that kept her alive, Sam said later, with the way he chatted to her, telling her jokes or stories or just urging her to hurry up and get better. He talked about all her plans, her writing, her romance with Jamie and everything and anything he could think of to encourage her to fight for her life.

Jamie too had been a regular visitor and showed such loving care for the girl, Jess was incredibly moved and knew that even though the couple were still very young, that they were a good match, and he felt in his heart that they would really make a go of things if they ever decided to settle down together.

By the third day in was obvious that Jess was exhausted, he had a dark shadow of beard, looked bleary eyed and pale and Sam had fears for his wellbeing.

“Jess please, take a break from all this, buddy; you’re going to collapse yourself, if you carry on this way,” he said firmly.

But as he predicted Jess simply said he was fine and refused to budge.

Slim had to see to things at the Relay, but had promised to return at the weekend and Sam was determined that Slim would make Jess see sense, even if he wouldn’t listen to him.

However in the end, that wasn’t necessary as in the early hours of the fourth day, as Jess was dozing at the bedside, Anna suddenly awoke and tried to sit up. Jess woke up immediately and could tell at once there was a change in the patient. Her eyes had their old familiar sparkle back and her color was normal and she looked alert and well.

Turning to Jess she gave him a surprised look,” whatever are you still doing here Jess,” she asked, ”it’s the middle of the night, I haven’t been that sick have I?”

Jess could hardly speak and then he finally said, “That you have, sweetheart, but guess you’re on the mend now,” as he tried hard to hold back the threatening tears.

Then she looked over and peering at him said with a little giggle, “Jess you look really rough, guess you need a shave.”

He ran a hand over his face and smiled back at her, “well I figure maybe you’re right there,” he said softly.

The following morning when Sam checked her, he was amazed at her progress and looking from Anna back up to Jess, who was standing watching the doctor work, he said,” figure we’ve experienced nothing less than a miracle here.”

Anna looked shocked,” was I really that bad?” she asked.

Sam nodded,” but I guess you are going to make a full recovery…..…so will you please tell Jess here to go and get his head down for a nap now!”

Once Jess had left for the hotel and a nice soft bed, Sam filled her in on what had happened over the last few days and how Jess had refused to leave her side day or night and she wept, “And I was teasing him about his beard,” she whispered through her tears.

Then after a few minutes she wiped her eyes and said, “ I guess my Pa knew what he was doing when he asked Jess to look out for me, I couldn’t wish for a better second Pa, you know Sam? “

He nodded and smiled down at the young girl, and then said,” I’ve known Jess for quite a few years and I figure it works both ways, I know he counts himself real lucky to have you too, so stop your frettin’ and get some rest and once we’ve fed you up some, I guess you can go over to the Sherman place to convalesce… if you’d like to?”

The look of pure happiness on her face was all he needed to see, and he went off to find Carrie to fix some breakfast for their young patient.

*****

Meanwhile Jess walked slowly across the street towards the hotel, before turning and retracing his steps and entering the Saloon. It was still early morning and Tom was busy washing glasses from the night before, but he stopped at Jess’s approach and looking at the weary unshaven man he assumed the worst.

“Jess?”

After a second Jess beamed at him. “She’s gonna be OK,” he said his relief obvious.

“Well, thank God,” said Tom sincerely.

“Can I see Millie?”

“Sure go on up Jess,” she’s in her room.

As Millie opened the door she looked shocked at Jess’s appearance and ushered him in, before giving him a questioning look.

Jess all but broke down, the strains and stresses of the last few days surfacing and he just stared at Millie, his eyes welling up, but then he swallowed and finally said, “She’s fine.”

Millie stepped towards him and held him close for a long time before standing back and saying softly,

” I think you are the one that needs looking after now hon. There is a hot tub just down the corridor and then come back here, you can sleep all day and nobody will disturb you”.

Still feeling completely overwhelmed he just nodded his thanks and took off for his bath. Then as Millie went to work he settled down in her comfy bed and slept right around the clock. Woke up, had some food and drink that Millie brought him and then fell asleep again.

It was in the early hours of the day after that he finally awoke, feeling refreshed, to moonlight flooding the room and turning his head he saw Millie sleeping peacefully next to him.

After a while he reached over and slipping an arm around her he gently pulled her towards him and she woke and looking into his deep blue eyes, saw a look she knew well.

He leaned down and kissed her hungrily, before pulling back and looking intently at her.

“So you’re feeling better cowboy?” she said with a cheeky smile.

“Guess I am,” he said softly taking her in his arms and kissing her passionately…………….

*****

It was a week later that Jess took Anna home to the ranch in the buckboard, together with a box of books on loan from Sam and as they drove along in the bright early summer sunshine Anna looked happily around her taking in all the sounds, smells and sights of the open countryside.

As they drew level with the lake she said,” please can we stop, just for a minute Jess?”

“Well, I don’t know, I promised Sam I’d take you straight back and get Daisy to tuck you up in bed, it’s gonna be another week before you can get up properly,” he said.

“Please…Jess,” she asked her sweet face dimpling as she gave him her best smile.

Never being able to resist a smile from a pretty girl Jess finally gave in,” just five minutes then and you keep that blanket around you,” and with that he reined in the team and helped her down, carrying her over to sit on a log overlooking the lake and beautiful scenery.

She drank in the view and turning to Jess said,” everything seems sort of special when you’ve been really ill doesn’t it, kind of magical.”

Jess smiled across at her,” yeah, I guess I know what you mean,” he said.

Then she turned back to him and said quietly,” I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for me since Pa died.”

He just smiled back,” I ain’t done much”.

“That’s not true she said, I owe you so much, I owe you my life Jess, I wouldn’t have got through this awful business if it hadn’t been for you. Sam told me how you stayed by my side day and night, everything you did….. ….”she finished a tear rolling down her cheek.

“Hush sweetheart,” he said,” it’s all over now and you’ve got so much to look forward to, you know”

“Yes, you’re right, I have Jamie and …and my dreams.”

“And Jamie, you sure you really love him?”

“Oh yes,” she said her whole face lighting up,” I’ve never been so sure of anything.”

He nodded.

“So tell me about your dreams,” he said indulgently.

“Promise you won’t laugh.”

“Well, course I won’t,” he said sincerely.

“OK then, if I had lots of money, I’d like to go to college back East and learn how to write books properly and then I’d like to work in a library and write lots of books in my spare time and end up a famous author that you could be proud of”, she finished turning to look at him, blushing slightly, her eyes sparkling with excitement.

He looked back for a long time and then said very softly,” I’m real proud of you already.”

Then more thoughtfully,” but I guess if that is what you want, then we’ll try and do it, someway.”

“Oh no,” she said suddenly shocked,” I wasn’t hinting Jess, honestly, I’ll make my own way. You see I really aim to make a go of it with Jamie and when he’s 21 he is due to inherit his Uncle’s General Store back East. And guess what, it’s in one of those pretty little college towns, so I’ll get a job, work hard, save up and one day I will go to college. It’ll all be fine you’ll see,” she said grinning across at her surrogate Pa.

“Looks like you’ve got it all worked out,” he said with a smile,” but guess we’ve got to get you fit and healthy again first,” and with that he pulled the blanket snugly about her and with a protective arm around her shoulders walked her back to the buckboard.

She spent the next few weeks recuperating, reading all the books Sam had lent her and writing more stories for her biggest fan, Mike, who was delighted to have his ‘big sister’ back in residence.

She also spent many hours helping Daisy to plan her coming nuptials to Walt. Everything had now been booked from the Church and Reception at the Laramie Hotel, but there was still an endless list of jobs that had to be done.

One of the worst jobs being trying to rig out the men folk of the ranch in decent wedding attire.

Jess and Mike had dug their heels in and were refusing to budge saying they weren’t gonna be the laughing stock of the town all done up like a dog’s dinner in fancy duds. Slim however was more adaptable and reasoned that it was only one day and if it made Daisy happy then…they must just bite the bullet and do it.

“Bite the bullet I’d rather take a darn bullet than look a prize idiot,” snarled Jess, but out of Daisy’s earshot and Slim knew he would behave himself on the big day. After all it wasn’t for another eight weeks and he figured a lot could happen in that time, and as it turned out he wasn’t far wrong.

A couple of weeks after Anna had returned to the ranch something happened that was to take Jess’s mind off the problem of his wedding clothes completely.

Young Jamie was a regular visitor to the ranch during Anna’s convalescence and he got on well with everyone and was polite and deferential. That was why Jess wasn’t particularly surprised by the way Jamie approached him one day when he said,” may I have a word with you please sir.”

Jess grinned across at the boy and said, “How many times do I have to tell you Jamie, call me Jess; I keep lookin’ behind me every time you call me sir to see who’s come in,” he said.

The boy smiled politely back at the older man’s joke, but Jess could see he was ill at ease and said quietly, “Like ta talk in private boy? “

Jamie nodded so they left the ranch house and wandered over to the corral and leaned on the fence looking out at the view beyond.

After a while Jess could stand the uncomfortable silence no longer and said slightly impatiently, “come on then Jamie spit it out, what’s the problem?”

The boy took a deep breath and finally said,” I want to ask for Anna’s hand in marriage, Mr. Harper, sir….er Jess, I mean.”

Jess hid a smile at the boy’s confusion and turning to him said, “Well I don’t know as I’ve got the right to give that or not Jamie, I ain’t her Pa.”

“Well, she thinks of you that way Jess, me too and we sure would appreciate it if we had your blessing.”

Jess took pity on the boy, he was obviously so in love, so serious, and he knew he would be good for Anna. He wondered for a moment what Buck would have said and he figured he would have liked the lad too.

Jess looked deeply into the boys eyes and saw sincerity and strength of character there in spite of his nervousness and finally said,” well I guess you are both kinda young, but I figure if you really love each other, then it’s OK by me.”

Then more quietly, “But if you ever hurt her, Jamie, I’ll come lookin’ for you, I promise that.”

The boy looked serious for a minute and then overjoyed,” I promise as God is my witness I will care for her until the day I die,” he said firmly.

Jess took his hand and shook it,” that’s good enough for me,” he said,” let’s go and share the good news.”

Everyone was thrilled and the young couple settled down to making their plans. Jamie had just turned twenty and had another year to go before his childless Uncle, back east, retired from his thriving business and passed the reins over to Jamie and Anna decided to work as hard as she possibly could and to start saving up for the college education she so aspired to.

So everything settled down to the usual rhythm of life at the Relay Station, with the ranchers buying and selling stock, breaking mustangs and dealing with all the Stages as they passed through.

Anna was soon completely healed and returned to town and her job, much to the sorrow of all at the Relay who missed her tremendously.

However at that time nobody realized then that three things were to happen shortly, which would change some of their lives forever.

One evening not long after Anna had returned to her land lady in town, Jess and Daisy were sitting by the fire enjoyed their post supper coffee together as Slim was away in Cheyenne on Relay business and Mike was in bed.

Jess turned to his housekeeper and good friend and noticed she was looking very tired and as she stared into the glowing embers of the fire he thought she looked none too happy as well.

“I’m sorry looking after Anna made so much extra work for you Daisy,” he said casting her a concerned look.

She glanced up at the young cowboy in surprise,” nonsense dear,” she said, “it was no trouble at all I loved having her here.”

“What is the matter then?” he asked looking at her intently.

“Why nothing,” she said quickly, before starting to rise from her chair muttering something about tidying the supper dishes.

Jess leaned over and put a restraining hand on her arm so that she sat down again, “Leave it,” he said, “I’ll do them later.”

Then,” Daisy, please, I can tell there is something wrong, talk to me.”

She hesitated looking down and then as she looked across at him he saw tears welling up in her kind old eyes.

He jumped up from his rocker and squatted down beside her chair and taking her hand, said softly, “Daisy, what is it ….you can tell me.”

“I feel such a fool,” she whispered.

“Of course you’re not…..what’s this all about?”

“It’s Walt,” she said turning anguished eyes on her young friend,” I can’t do it Jess….. I can’t marry him.”

Jess said nothing for a moment and then assuming she was still worried about upsetting the status quo at the ranch, he smiled at her,” sure you can,” he said,” we’ll be fine honestly, Daisy.”

She just shook her head.

“Sure we will; Slim and I used to manage OK…well, I never actually died of any of his cookin’,” he said trying to lift her spirits. “And as far as Mike is concerned, well, he’s growing up fast, guess he’ll be fine as soon as he gets used to the idea.”

“It’s not about that dear,” she said sadly,” although I do worry about you all, but I know you would cope if you had to.”

Jess’s head shot up,” is it something Walt’s done, had he been messing you about Daisy, if he’s hurt you, by God I’ll…”

“No, no Jess,” she cut in quickly,” it’s nothing Walt has done really.”

“Jess looked mystified, what then?”

“It’s me,” she said in a whisper,” I’ve come to realize I don’t love him enough.”

“You don’t love him…but Daisy I thought he was your first love, your beau, all those years ago.”

“He was, but I didn’t love him enough then and I don’t now. That’s why I ran away with my Will, and I broke his heart Jess and now, God forgive me, I’m going to do it again.”

“Why though Daisy, why did you say yes? “

“I suppose I was flattered and seeing him again, well it brought it all back to me, those feelings I had when I was young. Then we went out together and he was so charming, well I guess I got carried away…..and then……”

“And then?”

“Well, we settled down and I saw him for what he really is, a very boring, and fussy old man. He’s mean too Jess. You and Slim would give me your last dime, but Walt, well he turns the lamps down low and makes one log on the fire last all night….and well really he is a bit of an old woman.”

Jess hid a smile,” so what’s wrong with him then?” he asked, finally breaking into a grin.

“Oh Jess, this is no laughing matter ,”she said beginning to smile a little herself,” I would just be so bored, after everything you and Slim and Mike get up to, always having to patch you up or listen to your problems, well life just wouldn’t be the same without you boys in it.”

Then she looked serious again,” and there’s something else Jess, he’s told me a few days ago that after we marry he wants to sell up and retire back East…..and I’d never see any of you again….”and then fat tears began to cascade down her face and Jess leaned over and hugged her close.

“Don’t cry Daisy,” he said softly,” we’ll figure something out, I promise you.”

She pulled herself together at that and said firmly,” no dear I must deal with this myself, I will go and visit Walt next week and tell him the truth it is only right that I should do it.”

Jess understood her feelings. “OK, but I’ll drive you and bring you home, deal?”

She gave him a loving smile,” deal.”

However it was not to be. Jess had thought she looked a little peaky the night before and the following morning when he awoke and joined her in the kitchen for breakfast he could tell she was far from well. Her eyes were unnaturally bright, she looked flushed and then she started sneezing.

At that Jess took her firmly by her elbow and said, “Back to bed for you Daisy.”

“Oh, no I can’t dear, it’s wash day, far too much to get through.”

Jess was adamant. “The only thing you are doing is resting today. Now are you gonna go back to bed, or do I have to pick you up and carry you?”

“Oh Jess,” she said half laughing as she sneezed again,” you win.”

He smiled at her kindly; “I’ll bring you some broth in later, now off you go,” and for once Daisy actually obeyed and went off to bed where she was to stay for several days.

It was later in the week when Daisy was still in bed that the morning Stage rolled in with one lady passenger on board. Slim was back from his business trip and while he changed the team, Jess led the elderly lady into the ranch and went about fixing her some coffee.

“I’m sorry there ain’t any pie,” he called out from the kitchen to the woman who was sitting at the table in the main room, waiting expectantly for her drink,” our housekeeper is sick right now.”

He entered the room with the coffee just as Slim and Mose came in from changing the team and they all sat around the table as Jess poured out the strong brew.

“So where are you heading Ma’am?” asked Slim politely.

“Just as far as Laramie,” she replied with a warm smile, “and I can’t wait to get there either, no offence to the driver, but those stage seats are awfully hard.”

“That they are,” agreed Jess grinning over at the woman,” come far then Ma’am?”

“Oh yes, I’m from back East.”

“Just visiting then?” asked Slim.

“Oh no dear, I’m here to join my husband in Laramie, we had….well a little fall out, but I just know everything will be just fine again once we are back together. He has been very silly, and he must pay for it….but I will forgive him I expect. He really can’t manage without me you know,” she confided with a complacent smile.

“Oh,” said Jess with a spark of interest,” maybe we know him? “

“I shouldn’t have thought so dear,” she said with her rather condescending smile, “he owns a haberdasher’s, wouldn’t have thought men like you would frequent such places,” she said, casting an approving eye at the strong muscular young men in front of her,” can’t see you two doing much dress making,” she said with a little laugh.

But the joke was lost on Slim and Jess as they were staring open mouthed at each other.

After a moment Jess’s eyes returned to the elderly lady who was now giving him a puzzled look,” so err…… what is your husband’s name Ma’am?” he asked quietly.

“Walter Smith and I am Henrietta Smith, and I am here to take my errant husband back home where he belongs,” she finished beaming at the shocked faces around the table.

Mose was the first to collect his wits and changing the subject said, “So Miss Daisy is sick then, nothing serious I hope?”

“No,” said Jess quickly,” just a bad cold, she’ll be OK soon.”

“Good, good,” said Mose and then turning to Mrs. Smith, “best be on our way Ma’am, expect you’ll have a lot to discuss with your husband,” he said with a broad grin, obviously delighted that his dear Daisy would not now be marrying Walt.

Jess and Slim saw their visitor off and as the Stage pulled out of the yard Slim turned to his buddy and said, “So who’s going to tell her?”

“Toss you for it?” asked Jess hopefully.

“I suppose, but not with that two headed dollar of yours.”

They tossed and Jess lost.

“Best out of three?”

“No buddy, get to it, sooner its over then we can all get back to normal.”

“I could swing for that bastard Walt Smith,” said Jess grimly, “doing’ this to our Daisy.”

“Um, me too, but looking at the first Mrs. Smith, well you can kind of understand it, why he’d prefer Daisy; she looks a real harridan.”

“Huh? “

“Heap of trouble, Jess.”

“Yeah, you’re right there,” he said as he marched off to talk to Daisy.

As it happened Daisy took it very well. After her initial anger at having been deceived, she listened closely as Jess described Mrs. Smith and repeated what Slim had said about understanding why he would prefer Daisy.

“Um,” she said,” well I guess he is just a very weak character, it sounds like he was hen pecked and then when his friend told him about having seen me in Laramie and then the shop coming on the market, well I suppose he thought he would get away with it, with it being so far away from his home.”

“Well there’s one good thing come out of this,” said Jess cheerfully, “you won’t have to have that conversation with him now.”

“Oh Jess,” she said giving him a sad look,” I just never want to lay eyes on the man again.”

“Well, you won’t then Daisy,” he said firmly,” but figure I’ve got a bit of unfinished business with him,” he said looking angry.

“No, please leave it dear, for my sake; after all I was going to leave him, so maybe this is all I deserve.”

Jess just shook his head,” even so, he shouldn’t get away with it Daisy, what if you had gone through with it?”

Just then there was a commotion outside and Jess left Daisy’s room and went to investigate.

He was surprised to see Anna just dismounting from Ginny, her Pinto pony.

“Hey, what are you doin’ out of work on a week day?” he asked in surprise , as he took her arm and walked her into the ranch, settling her down at the table and pouring a coffee.

“Well the strangest thing happened, this bossy woman arrived and started shouting at Mr. Smith and then the next thing I knew he said he was closing early and I could have the rest of the day off.”

Jess gave her an ironic smile, “well guess there is a good reason for that,” he said, and went on to explain the rather sensitive situation.

“Oh poor Daisy,” gasped the girl when she fully understood the situation,” I must go to her.”

Jess put a restraining hand on the young girls arm,” no, should leave it right now sweetheart, she’s still figuring it all out, give her some time OK?”

“Sure, I wanted to talk to you anyway Jess, we’ve had a letter from Jamie’s Uncle and it’s real exciting, turns out he wants to retire sooner than he said….this Fall in fact,” she said, her eyes sparkling.

“Right?” said Jess giving her a bemused look.

“Well don’t you see, we don’t have to wait, we can get married right away and I will go with Jamie to run the shop…..….that’s if you think that would be OK….. I had thought of a double wedding with Daisy…but now, well…..”

“Now hang on here ain’t we kinda rushing things, what do Jamie’s folks think?”

“Well we’ve hardly had time to think about it all, news only came through a few days back and his Ma and Pa are all for it, but they figure it will be hard making all the arrangements in time, you see if we had shared with Daisy and Walt, at the end of August, the timing would have been perfect, but now, if that is all off, guess we won’t have time to arrange it all, “she finished taking a deep breath.

Jess sat still for a moment his mind working overtime, and then he grinned at her,” well I guess if Daisy and Walt won’t be using the Church or the Hotel, then I don’t see why you shouldn’t take over the bookings,” he said.

She sat stock still for a moment,” of course that would be perfect…..and you don’t mind me getting married and leaving a year earlier?”

“Come here,” he said softly and she jumped up and ran into his arms.

He gave her a big hug before pulling back and smiling at her, “sure I mind, I’m gonna miss you something fierce, but if it makes you happy, then guess that’s what’s gonna happen,” he said.

The girl let out a squeal of delight and gave him a bear hug,” oh thank you , thank you,” she said, looking delighted, and then Slim came in wanting to know what all the fuss was about and the whole story was told once more.

Then she turned her glowing countenance to Jess,” please Jess I need two more things to make my day perfect.”

Jess and Slim exchanged an amused glance,” go on then,” said Jess in a resigned voice,” what else?”

“I want you to walk me down the aisle…to give me away.”

Jess just stared at her for a solid minute before saying,” I… I couldn’t do that; it should be a relative, an uncle or someone… Jamie’s uncle, maybe,” he suggested.

“There is only one person I want…it should be my Pa, but you are the nearest I’ve got to a Pam Jess and I want you,” she said, her huge brown eyes suddenly misting with unshed tears. “Please?”

Jess took her hand and said softly, “If you really want me then I’d be proud,” he said gently, “real proud.”

She hugged him and then turning to Slim said, “I guess it is really Jamie’s place to ask, but he said last night as how he would really like you to be Best Man?”

Slim beamed at her, “You bet you,” he said cheerfully. “I’d be real proud too!”

Much later Anna went and spoke to Daisy and after the older lady had filled her in on all the details of the broken relationship, including the fact that she had intended to finish it herself, Anna felt able to impart her news and Daisy was absolutely delighted.

“You have no idea how happy that makes me my dear, so some good will come of all this in the end,” she said her eyes sparkling with joy.

Then sitting up in bed she said cheerfully,” what am I doing lying around here; we have a wedding to plan!”

**********

The next few weeks were very busy for the women folk and the ranchers tried to give the proceedings a wide berth, but they were unable to escape the inevitable discussion about clothes and it was agreed that their Sunday best would be just fine, frock coat, dark trousers, a gleaming white dress shirt with smart vest and string tie.

“Guess that ain’t too bad,” said Jess cheerfully,” figure I’m kinda looking forwards to it now.”

“Um”, said Slim,” so written your speech yet have you?”

“Huh?”

“Speech, speech Jess the father of the bride has to make this long speech, at the reception, in front of all the guests.”

“You’re kidding me.”

Slim just shook his head,” no I’m not.”

Jess thought about it for a minute and then said, “Slim, I don’t feel too well, figure I’ll be real sick by the wedding…you’ll have to to it.”

“Oh no you don’t, buddy; this is one thing you’re not dodging out of…so get writing!”

*****

Meanwhile Daisy was busy helping Anna with all the last minute details and the two women were thoroughly enjoying themselves.

The week after the arrival of Mrs. Walter Smith and Anna’s news, the two ranchers went into town for their usual Saturday night recreation.

This week there was no dance on so they had to be satisfied with a drink or two in the saloon and a few hands of poker.

It was quite early and they were standing at the bar having a quiet drink when who should enter but Walt.

Jess immediately got his hackles up and glared at the elderly man as he walked towards them, but Slim pushed Jess back a little and said, “Easy Jess let’s hear him out.”

Walt came and stood beside them and Jess’s aggressive stance wasn’t lost on him.

He eyed the ranchers warily and the said, “Evening Slim…Jess, can I have a word?”

“That’s about all you can have,” exploded Jess, “just tell me in a word as to how you thought you could mess around with a wonderful lady like our Miss Daisy and think you’d get away with it?” he snarled.

The older man looked down, his whole demeanor weary, and then looking up at the two young cowboys he said,” you will never know how sorry I am, I don’t know what came over me”.

Looking them in the eye he continued, “I haven’t had an easy life…well you’ve met Mrs. Smith, and when the opportunity to renew my friendship with Daisy came along…well I just couldn’t resist it.”

“Oh, you couldn’t?” said Jess menacingly, moving closer to the man a fist already clenched.

“Please,” said Walt,” I know how it must look, and I know how close you all are to dear Daisy, but I never meant to hurt her, I was just going to visit, see her again and go back home….but then, well once I had seen her again, I just couldn’t leave her.”

Slim took pity on the elderly man. “I can see how that could happen,” he said,” but I figure you owe Daisy an apology.”

“Of course,” said the now hopeful Walt,” that is what I want …to see her again, to talk things through.”

Jess shook his head firmly, “She don’t want to see you, said so to me.”

The old man looked completely crestfallen, “well I haven’t got time to argue, Henrietta and I are heading home on Monday, but I do have something for Daisy, if you could pass it on for me?”

Jess just looked down, still furious, but Slim nodded,” OK.”

Walt handed him an envelope, “guess she won’t want to keep it, but figured she could pass it on to young Anna, give her a little nest egg.” Slim put it in his vest pocket,” I’ll see she gets it.”

“Slim…….please, just tell her I am so, sorry things couldn’t have been different.”

He glanced across and saw Jess still glaring at him, and decided to back off and with a final, “sorry,” he walked from the saloon.

“Should have let me sock him,” said Jess angrily, picking up his whiskey and knocking it back in one.

“Aw, cut him some slack, pard,” said Slim. “He’s an old man , you couldn’t have done anything and guess he’s learnt his lesson and will be getting his punishment for the rest of his days, from Mrs. Smith…now would you want that?”

“Guess not,” said Jess with a faint grin.

When they returned to the ranch later, Daisy was still up, mending one of Slim’s shirts, sitting by the fire. As the men entered she looked up in surprise. “You are back early,” she said.

Jess gave her his shy smile. “Millie was away visiting her Ma and we lost a couple of rounds of poker, so decided to cut our losses and come home.”

Slim came over and sitting down next to her said. “Plus Walt was in the saloon, gave me something for you.” Reaching into his pocket, he brought out the envelope and passed it across.

“What is this?” she asked in surprise.

“Dunno,” said Jess softly, “but you may want to open it on your own; figure it’s kinda personal.”

“Nonsense,” she said quickly,” I have no secrets from you boys and anyway, I’d like you here with me.”

She tore the envelope open and as she did so a beautiful gem stone ring fell out. She picked it up and said,” Oh my, this must be worth hundreds of dollars, why ever has he sent this?”

“Read the letter,” said Slim, motioning to the envelope.

Daisy pulled out a letter written in Walt’s immaculate copper plate. She read it to herself and then looking up at the ranchers whispered,” he says he was going to give me this as an engagement ring and I am to pass it on to Anna, to help her in her new life. He also says how very sorry he is and that he really did love me,”…..she finished, looking tearful.

Jess took the ring from her,” that’s real generous,” he said grudgingly.

“Oh Jess don’t hold all this against him,” said Daisy softly,” if I can forgive him I think you can.”

Jess looked down for a moment,” I suppose, but Heck Daisy, I don’t like to see you hurt that way.”

“It’s OK dear,” she said gently patting his arm,” it’s all over with now, so let’s move on.”

*****

The issues with Walt were soon forgotten as all the last minute preparations for the wedding got underway and all too soon the big day dawned.

It was chilly first thing, but with the promise of a scorching August day ahead and everyone was pleased that the service was to take place at 11am in the morning, before the overwhelming heat set in.

The men folk went about their chores early and were glad to escape the mounting excitement emanating from Daisy’s bedroom where Anna and her bridesmaids, Carrie and Millie were busy titivating.

Finally all the hustle and bustle was over and the buckboard hitched up ready for Slim to drive Mike, Daisy and the Bridesmaids to church, and Doc Baker’s buggy, on loan for the day, ready for Jess to drive the Bride to her wedding.

Everyone was waiting in the big main room for the Bride and when she finally emerged followed by Daisy fussing around her, the quiet buzz of conversation stopped abruptly as they looked at Anna in all her wedding day finery. Mike was the first to gather his wits and running over to look more closely at the young woman, who had become to think of as a sister, said candidly, “Is that really you Anna? You look beautiful….real beautiful,” he said in an awed voice.

She wore an exquisite white silk dress trimmed with Irish lace and a matching veil, the very same dress that Daisy had been married in nearly forty years ago, but it still looked brand new and to Anna it was the most wonderful dress she had ever seen. When she had thanked Daisy profusely for lending it to her, she had simply said, “If you are as happy as Will and I were, then, that is all I can wish for you my dear.”

Slim just stared, before rallying and adding his enthusiastic comments. Jess could hardly believe that the skinny, shabby little barefoot girl he had brought down from the mountains just a few short months ago had transformed into this vision of perfection and he had such a huge lump in his throat that he couldn’t speak, but the look in his eyes spoke volumes and Anna knew he was proud of her.

Suddenly all was hustle and bustle as Slim handed the bridesmaids up onto the buckboard and with a cheery, “see you later pard,” he was gone leaving Anna and Jess alone.

They knew they had to give Slim about ten minute’s head start to organize everything at the church before her arrival and they sat down on the porch to wait.

Jess looked over at her. “You really do look very lovely,” he said softly.

She smiled back at him. “Well I’m very happy; guess that helps.”

“You’re not scared then?”

She grinned back. “No.” Then more seriously, “Scared is when you are sitting with this lovely kind man you have just met, but sort of know he is real good and will look out for you, and then thinking he’s going to die of the fever and leave you all alone, that’s scary Jess. Or having an idiot bounty hunter carry you off and try and shoot you — that’s pretty scary too — .but this , well this is just exciting.”

He looked over at her. “Guess we have been through quite a bit together,” he said quietly.

She just nodded. “Made us real close though, hasn’t it?” she replied.

“Yeah, that it has sweetheart,” he agreed.

Then she turned to him. “You scared Jess, about the speech and all? “

“You bet you,” he said with a grim smile. “Guess I’d rather face that ol’ bounty hunter again!”

Shortly afterwards they set off for the church and arrived just a few minutes late. “Gotta keep the groom on his toes,” said Jess laughing.

He carefully helped her down from the buggy outside the church, and then looking over at her for the last time as a single woman, he shook his head and said quietly, “Buck would have been so goddamn proud, you know?”

She just nodded.

Then moving close to her he said, “When you’re married and go back East…well, you won’t forget about me will you, Anna?”

She reached out and took both his hands. “No,” she said softly, “I will never forget you, Jess. How could I? And I promise to write and visit… Guess you’ll never get rid of me.”

He leaned across and very gently kissed her on the cheek, before pulling the veil down over her face and saying softly, “Come on then, guess it’s time to give you away,” and with that she took his arm. As the glorious music rose from inside the church, they walked down the aisle to the smiles and joy of all the towns folk who had packed the church; Jess never having felt so proud in all his life.

Much later after the service, all the guests were sitting in the dining room of the Laramie Hotel and the celebrations were in full flow. Then the time Jess had dreaded, arrived when he must stand to give his speech.

He had worked long and hard on the address with Slim, but as he pulled the paper out of his pocket, he realized that he was so emotional that his eyes had misted up and he just couldn’t focus. The he looked across at where Anna and Jamie were waiting expectantly and knew he couldn’t let them down, and abandoning the speech, he rose to his feet, waited for silence and started to speak.

He looked out at the amassed company and then said. “Guess I’m havin’ difficulty reading the speech I wrote, so I’m just gonna say what I’m feelin’ right now.”

He took a deep breath and said. “I’d like to thank you all for coming’ today, to see these two married, and a special thank you to Jamie’s Ma and Pa for all they’ve done to help. I’ve known Jamie since he was a kid and I guess I couldn’t wish for anyone better for Anna and I know he will care for her.”

Then he continued with a twinkle in his eye. “Well, I’ve told him what’ll happen if he doesn’t,” to much laughter, but Jamie saw a glint in the eye that also said he wasn’t completely joking.

Then Jess turned his attention to Carrie and Millie, looking so beautiful in their bridesmaid’s dresses. “I guess it’s about time to thank these two lovely ladies,” he said smiling across, and giving Millie a cheeky wink. “Guess they’ve done Anna proud,” and raising his glass made a toast, “to the Bridesmaids.”

Everyone rose and toasted the young ladies before settling down again.

Then more seriously he said, “There is someone very special missing today — Anna’s Pa and my good friend Buck — but I kinda feel he would have approved of Jamie and I sure hope he’s lookin’ down right now and giving them his blessing.”

He felt his emotions welling up and taking a deep breath said, “Anyways, I’m proud, real proud to be standing in for ol’ Buck today. I know Jamie and Anna will make a go of it back East, and Jamie will be taking over his Uncle’s store and Anna will be helping him out in the holidays, when she ain’t in school, getting herself all educated up,” he said with a broad grin.

Anna’s head shot up and she gave him a puzzled look.

Jess took a small package off the table and passed it across. “This is an extra present from me and Slim,” he said softly. “Guess there is enough to see you through school.”

She stared at him tears of joy in her eyes, but before she could say anything else, he said, “A toast to the Bride and Groom, Jamie and Anna, God Bless them,” and the room stood as one and raised their glasses to the toast to the happy couple.

It was much later when Jamie and Anna managed to corner Slim and Jess and ask them about the special present. “Goodness Jess, there are several thousand dollars in that package,” said Jamie in wonder.

Slim beamed at him. “$5,000, to be exact; the bounty on Bill Robbins for murder in Texas.”

“What, the man that abducted Anna was already wanted?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Jess. “The money just came through today and Mort brought it over to the reception for us.”

“Oh, Jess, Slim,” said Anna, tears in her eyes. “It is too much. I can’t take your money; you could use it on the ranch.”

Both men shook their heads. “We want you to have it,” said Slim sincerely. “Just remember us when you are a famous author,” and with that the festivities continued.

Much later, the young couple were ready to leave on the late afternoon stage heading for Cheyenne for their honeymoon in a smart hotel. All the guests gathered outside the Laramie Hotel, and just before she climbed aboard, Anna said her goodbyes to everyone before turning to Jess, tears in her eyes. “I will miss you so much,” she whispered.

He nodded. “Me too. Just be happy sweetheart, and keep in touch, yeah?”

She nodded and then Jamie whisked her off and they were up in the stage leaning out for one last glimpse of their family and friends.

Anna threw her bouquet directly at Mille, who was standing next to Jess. Millie caught it and looked up at Jess, their eyes locking for a split second, before she quickly threw it to a group of giggling girls just behind her. Jess gave her a hurt, puzzled look, but then the stage was leaving and all attention was on the golden couple.

After it rattled off down the street in a cloud of dust, all the guests returned to the reception with the exception of Jess and Millie, who stood on the sidewalk staring at each other. Then Jess took her hand and led her over to a couple of chairs outside the hotel and they sat down.

He remembered the first time he had ever attended a wedding, a couple of years ago, and how he had caught the bridal bouquet, not realizing the significance and how once Slim had explained about how the one who caught it would be married next, he had thrown it at a gaggle of giggling girls, as if it was on fire, desperately asking Slim if he had got rid of it in time.

Now turning to Millie he said, “You didn’t seem to want that bouquet?”

She looked at him and shook her head gently.

“Millie, I…well I was thinkin’…”

She reached out and put a finger on his lips. “Don’t, Jess…don’t say it.”

He looked hurt. “Don’t you want me?”

“Jess, we’re happy as we are…ain’t we? You’re my best friend…well, why spoil that by complicating things?”

Jess smiled to himself, as that was exactly what he had said to Slim about his friendship with Millie not so long ago. He reached out a hand and caressed her face gently. “Sorry Mill, you are right. Guess I just got kinda got carried away with the moment.”

She smiled back at him. “I’m not saying never, Jess. I just figure maybe neither of us is quite ready to settle down yet. Maybe one day?”

He gave her a loving smile. “Yeah, maybe one day…..”

“But tonight,” she said with a cheeky look, “your place or mine?”

“Seeing as I’m sharing a hotel room with Slim and Mike, figure it’s yours,” he said returning the smile, and reaching over gave her a lingering kiss.

*****

The following morning Slim, Daisy and Mike emerged from the hotel after a good breakfast and turning to Slim, Daisy said,” Where ever has Jess got to? He’s missed breakfast and we really need to get back to the ranch. The chickens will need feeding and the stage will be through soon. Will he be long?”

Slim looked vague. “Er… guess he’ll be down shortly, Daisy.”

Then Mike piped up. “No he won’t, Slim.”

Then turning to Daisy said. “e didn’t sleep in our room last night. I saw him going off to sleep at Miss Millie’s place…and I know why too!” he said with abroad grin.

Daisy and Slim turned shocked faces on the little boy. “So why is that? ”asked Daisy, softly.

The youngster looked from one to the other. “Why because Slim snores of course,” he said happily.

The adults exchanged a look and a sigh of relief and Slim quickly dug his hand in his pocket and gave the resulting loose change to Mike. “There you go. Tiger,” he said. “Go get yourself some candy for the journey home.”

Just then Jess emerged from the saloon looking worn out, but stopped in his tracks when he saw Daisy and Mike on the sidewalk. Daisy never blinked an eye though and just said, “Good morning dear. Did you sleep well?”

Jess just gave her a wary nod.

Then Daisy gathered Mike up. “Come along, let’s get that candy. See you two in the Livery in five minutes,” she finished before waltzing off down the street with Mike.

Jess came over to Slim and giving him a penetrating look said. “Did you tell her where I was?”

“Didn’t have to, Mike told her.”

“Huh?”

“She asked where you were and Mike said you were spending the night in Miss Millie’s room, because I snore.”

Jess flushed up. “Daisy knows?”

“Sure she does, but then I figure she always knows what we get up to Jess.”

“Well she’s never said anything.”

“No, well I guess she doesn’t want to embarrass us”.

“I’m not embarrassed.”

“Well you sure are a funny color for someone who isn’t,” laughed Slim.

Then after a minute Slim said, “Guess we need to have that talk about the birds and bees with Mike sometime.”

“What do you mean? He knows all that stuff, seen puppies and kittens born. Heck he’s even seen the stallion serving our mares. He knows all that stuff Slim.”

“Yeah, but I guess he hasn’t made the connection between that and men and women. Figure we’ll have to have that talk at some stage…maybe not just yet, though.”

“Yeah,” said Jess, “maybe not just yet. And when we do, shall we toss for who tells him, pard?”

Slim just grinned, but Jess muttered under his breath. “And that will definitely be one time I’m using my double headed dollar.” The two men strode off down the street to hitch up the buckboard and head for home.

Epilogue

It was almost twelve months later when the package came for Jess. Mose was just driving the early morning stage out of the yard when he reined the team in again, and looking down at the ranchers said, “Nearly forgot. Parcel here for you, Jess.” He threw it down to Jess, who caught it and called out his thanks as he waved him off.

Jess walked towards the house with it and then there was a commotion in the barn. Throwing the package onto a chair on the porch, he ran over with Slim.

 It turned out that Mike had taken a tumble from the hayloft, and although he wasn’t hurt, the place was in a shambles with hay all over the place, so they tidied it up some and then they rode out on business and it wasn’t until they took their coffee out to the porch after super that evening that Jess saw the parcel and hastened to open it.

He undid the brown paper and inside was a letter and a hard backed book, entitled, ‘The Barefoot Girl,’ by an author Jess didn’t recognize. He passed it over to Slim and then opened the letter. Then he grinned across at his partner, and gesturing to the book in Slim’s hands, said in amazement, It’s by Anna, Slim; she says she’s writing under a pseudonym, but it’s her alright. She’s famous Slim; she’s done it…a real writer. Well, I’ll be darned!”

Slim beamed across at his friend. “That is wonderful, and guess that’s down to you Jess — the way you looked after her. Done old Buck real proud the way you helped the girl. Kept your promise to look out for her that’s for sure.”

Jess just nodded and then said, “Guess it’s down to us all. You gave up the bounty so she could go off to school, and Daisy and Mike befriended her too, encouraged her story tellin’. But in the end, it was her that did it, Slim; gee, she must have worked real hard to have her first book published and her just turned 17, too. “

Then he looked off to the distant hills and said softly. “Have you ever thought about choices Slim? I mean as to how the choices we make can change other people’s lives?”

Slim looked over at his buddy and said. “That’s a bit profound for you, ain’t it, pard? “

“Huh?”

“A bit deep?”

“Yeah, I suppose. Just thinkin’ what would have happened if I hadn’t gone huntin’ last year and met up with old Buck again. I made that choice to go, even though you didn’t want me to.”

“Then there was the choice you made to draw on me, to help Buck escape,” said Slim softly

Jess looked down. “Sorry about that, Slim. It was a hard choice that, but I had to try and help him, you know? “

Slim nodded. Would you…would you have shot me Jess?”

Jess’s head jerked up. “Hell no. Might have had to knock you out, though,” he said with a lopsided grin.

“Then, I guess you made the right choice when you didn’t spring him. You really would have had to shoot Mort, you know.”

Jess nodded. ”Yeah, I know, guess that’s what stopped me in the end, but that was sure the hardest choice I’ve ever made buddy. Seeing Buck die that way, well…” Then after a moment’s reflection he said, “Guess the bounty hunters would have caught up with him anyways, but if I hadn’t met him, I would never have met up with Anna. Guess she’d just have stayed on the mountain after her Pa was killed. She’d never have gone to school or got published or anything”.

Slim looked over. “Figure maybe you are right there buddy,” he agreed.

“Kinda makes me feel a bit better, you know. I felt real bad that I couldn’t help old Buck this time — him dying that way and all — but maybe that’s just life…his time had come?”

“Yeah, you could be right,” Slim agreed again, and then flicking through the book he stopped and read something, and smiling shook his head. “Well, I never.”

“What’s up?” asked Jess giving him a quizzical look.

Slim beamed across at his friend, and passing the book over said, “Read that. Jess.”

Jess looked down at the first page of the book, it read:

Dedication

For Jess Harper, who made a promise to my Pa,

And who kept that promise faithfully.

Thank you for being a very special second Pa, to me.

With my love,

Anna

Anna was one of the youngest female writers ever to be published in the United States and she went on to write many more books and was one of the best loved writers in the USA. She never lost touch with Jess and wrote and visited regularly and her marriage to Jamie lasted over sixty years, with him keeping his promise to care for all the days of his life.

*****End*****

Thank you for reading!

Return to Patty W.’s home page

One thought on “Tough Choices (by Patty W.)

  1. Did Anna give Jess any grandchildren? Need more stories about Jess’ children: natural, adopted, and fostered. If no one’s going to give him a good woman, someone needs to give him children to love and who will love him unconditionally as well. He would be an awesome single parent. Of course he would always have to have a Miss Daisy type to help him since none of his women seem to be able to love him as he deserves to be loved.

    Like

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