An Exchange (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG   (Warning: some adult themes, violence and strong language)
Word Count:  30,853


Slim

It was a hot afternoon in  early fall  and my friend and business partner Jess Harper and I had been working hard all morning bringing some of our cattle down to the lower pastures in preparation for the bad winter weather to come. It had been a long hot ride, and so when we arrived back at the ranch, Jess took off his hat and ran a hand through his unruly black hair and then rubbed his shirt sleeve across his face, the sweat running down his neck, trail dust covering his shirt and denims.

 Looking down at myself, apart from my blond hair and being taller, we looked pretty much the same — hot, dirty and tired.

Then Mike, the young boy Jess and I had adopted a few years back, came running out of the ranch house to greet us and when he suggested a swim in the lake. I guess we couldn’t agree fast enough.

Daisy Cooper, our housekeeper and surrogate mother to us all, had also come out to meet us and raised an eyebrow at us both, and then looking over at Jess, said, “So you and Slim can find time to go swimming, but not to mend the lean-to roof then?”

“Aw, Daisy,” Jess replied,” we’ll do it later, I promise. But right now we’re kinda hot an’ tired after chasin’ all those no good, ornery steers half way across Wyoming….”

“It’s alright dear,” she cut in quickly. “I’m only teasing you; off you go and be sure to keep an eye on Mike. It’s really hot today; I don’t want him getting sick like last time you went off swimming and you all fell asleep in the sun. ”

“Yahoo,” yelled Mike, who had run off to saddle up his pony and was now jumping on. He called out, “Race you there,” and was off in a cloud of dust.

“Sure, we’ll look out for him, don’t worry,” replied my partner. “That’s if we can catch him,” he finished with a huge grin as he gave chase.

It was a perfect afternoon for a swim and we were soon stripped down to our undershorts and into the blessedly cool waters of the lake. We had taught little Mike to swim a couple of years ago and he was a real strong swimmer now, and I had fun telling him how my kid brother, Andy, had taught Jess to swim  the first summer he fetched up at the ranch and  I had taken him on as a ranch hand.

“It was so funny, Mike,” I continued. “I came down to the stream at the back of the ranch and bawled them out for skiving off  work and Andy was showing  Jess how to swim and he practically drowned; funny bit was, when he stood up, he was only standing in about 3 foot of water.”

“Oh ha, ha,” said Jess sarcastically, before swimming over and ducking me.

After wrestling and fooling about in the water and Jess nearly half drowning me, we finally swam to the shore and all crashed out to doze in the hot mid-afternoon sun, but biding Daisy’s warning, under the shade of a large tree this time.

After a while, Mike sat up and turning to me said, “Tell me the story again, Slim, the one where you an’ Jess met for the first time.”

 So I had to relate the whole tale again, although I reflected Mike must know it off by heart, by now. How I’d found Jess trespassing on Sherman land, right by the lake here with Traveler, his horse, hitched to the no trespassing sign and how later I had discovered him back at the ranch showing Andy how to deal from the bottom of the pack and for some crazy reason, I had put him on the payroll as my ranch hand.

Then, as how Jess had struck up a real good friendship with Andy and later with me, after he had saved my life by seeing me out of a spot of trouble by use of his fast gun.

“You were a real gunslinger when you came here, weren’t you, Jess?” said Mike in open admiration,” fastest gun in the whole state of Texas, I reckon”, turning to beam at my partner.

“Now, guess that’s nothin’ to be proud of, Mike,” said Jess, giving him a serious look. “I’ve done a lot of things I ain’t proud of and had to kill a lot of men when they drew on me because of that reputation. That’s why I put my gunslinger weapon up for good when I came here and ol’ Slim offered me a fresh start. “

“I’m sure glad you stayed,” said the little lad grinning up at him, “and that you an’ Slim adopted me and we found Aunt Daisy to care for us an’ all; guess I’m a real lucky boy.”

“What’s brought this on, Tiger?” said Jess, looking over at our young charge kindly.

“Dunno, guess it’s my friend, Charlie, at school,” he said, thoughtfully. “His Ma died when he was a tiny baby and his Pa was shot in that bank robbery last month and he’s gotta go and live in the state children’s home and he’s real sad.”

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said and then glancing over at Jess, added, “Maybe, if everyone agrees, we could have him to stay with us during the school holidays.”

Jess nodded in affirmation and Mike jumped up and threw himself at me, giving me a big bear hug. “Gee thanks Slim, that would be great,” he enthused.

We decided it was time for one more dip before heading back to the ranch and the good supper we knew Daisy would have waiting for us. And it sure was a good spread, so I was surprised when Mike didn’t seem too, hungry and Daisy gave Jess and I a meaning full look.

 “Hey,” I said at once, “we kept him in the shade today, honest Daisy.”

 She gave me a bit of an old-fashioned look but said nothing more.

Anyway, he went off to bed, without the usual fuss of wanting ‘just five minutes more’, and then after a couple of hours appeared again saying he couldn’t sleep.

We were all settled around the fireplace, having a final coffee before bed, me with a book and Daisy and Jess talking quietly about this and that.

He wanted Jess, as he always did if he was sick or upset about something, and so my partner pulled the little boy up on his knee as he sat in his old rocking chair, and said, “What’s up, Tiger?”

Mike cuddled down with his head on Jess’s shoulder and  said very quietly, “You won’t go away, will you, Jess, like you used to when you first came here, like Slim was telling me today?”

I had told Mike that when Jess first came to live at the ranch, he was always taking off for the Big Open, helping friends out of trouble and usually ending knee-deep in some himself.

“No, I ain’t   plannin’ on it,” said Jess now, rubbing Mike’s back gently and talking real softly to him. It’s OK, buddy. I guess you’re feelin’ a bit unsettled, seein’ as to what’s happened to your friend, but it’s alright. You’ll always have a home at the ranch and we’ll always be here for you, you know that don’t you, Tiger?”

“Sure, I guess,” whispered the boy, his eyes growing heavy,

” Come on, partner, let’s get you back to bed,” said Jess, and picking him up gently, headed back to the bedroom with the child in his arms.

I knew Jess really understood young Mike; the death of the boy’s parents during an Indian uprising made him very special in Jess’s eyes, having experienced a similar traumatic time himself at a young age, when his family’s homestead was burnt out deliberately by the Banister gang, killing most of Jess’s kin. I knew there was a real bond there, having suffered similar horrific experiences.

Once they had left the room, Daisy said,” That child is sickening for something, mark my words.”

“I sure hope not,” I said quietly, the youngster being very precious to us all.

Then Daisy turned and smiled at me. “It’s always Jess he wants when he’s upset or sick, isn’t it.”

“Yeah, he sure has a good way with the lad. I guess, with Jess losing his folks so young too, they’ve got a sort of bond. “

“Yes,” agreed Daisy. “Mike is very lucky to have you both. When I think what could have happened after his parents died…”

“Um,” I agreed, “that’s why I figured it would be kind of nice to have Charlie come and visit in the holidays, if it wouldn’t make too much work for you, that is.”

“Oh, come on, Slim, when did I ever complain about hard work, I love looking after you all and one more little boy won’t make any difference at all,” she said, smiling over at me.

Just then Jess joined us. “So who are you callin’ a little boy then, Daisy?” he said, grinning over at her.

“Oh, Jess, behave,” she said laughing. “Anyway, you and Slim are far more of a handful than Mike ever is!”

“Is that so?” he laughed, winking across at me. “Guess we can’t be trusted to fix that old lean-to roof tomorrow then,” he finished.

“Oh my, are you really doing it at last?” she said, clasping her hands together a look of delight on her sweet old face.

“Guess we have to keep our beloved housekeeper happy,” I said, beaming down at her, and with that, she went off to make more coffee, a decided spring in her step.

The following morning when I called Mike for breakfast, there was no answer and entering his room, I found him lying in bed lookin’ real sick, flushed and tearful and callin’ for Jess.

 Well, my partner ain’t the best first thing in the morning and it’s usually sensible to tiptoe around him before he’s outside his first cup of gut rot strong coffee. The exception to that rule is Mike, though, and he was there right away, wiping the boys fevered forehead with a cool cloth and talking gently to him. After a while, the boy settled and Jess joined us at the breakfast table.

“He OK?” I asked.

 He shook his head. “Figure not, buddy; he looks real sick to me. What do you think, Daisy?”

“I agree, Jess; I think one of you needs to ride for Doc Sam to take a look at him as soon as you’ve finished breakfast.”

Jess opted to go and threw his breakfast down at record speed’ he had Traveler ready and saddled and rode out within 10 minutes.

When our good friend and family Doctor, Sam Baker, arrived later, he was in with Mike for quite some time. When he eventually emerged with Daisy, he looked over at Jess and me and said, “It’s OK, no need to look so worried; it’s at the early stages, but I guess the young man is in for a nasty dose of chicken pox. Have you all had it?”

I hadn’t but Jess with his large number of siblings had had most childhood ailments at some time, as had Daisy.

“So unless you want a dose, I suggest you keep clear, Slim,” he said, “and it’s down to you, Daisy, and Jess when he’s not working, to look after him. It shouldn’t be a nasty illness, just uncomfortable. I guess the little fellah will feel a bit sorry for himself for the next few days, and then once the spots come out, he’ll be itching really bad, so you need to apply lots of this lotion and stop him a scratching. That’s it, really”

We thanked the Doc for coming over and Jess went and sat with Mike for a while until he fell asleep, and then we headed back out on the range again, driving more steers down to the lower pastures for the winter.

I could tell Jess was real worried about the little fellah, as was I, and so we landed back sooner than usual, and Jess spent the evening and most of the night sitting up with him. I offered to do my share, as did Daisy, but Mike just wanted Jess to sit with him, so that was the way it was and Jess really didn’t mind.

It had been over a week now, and Daisy had been looking after him during the day, but Jess was still getting up in the night to him as the fever persisted. Mike was truculent and tearful.

 And every day we were busy continuing to bring the steers down from the high ground. We had been caught out the previous year when we had a very early snow fall and lost several head of cattle, stranded up in a mountain pass, so this year we were determined that the same thing wouldn’t reoccur. However, although we were well into fall, it was still as hot as summer on some days, making the tiring work even harder, and we were both pretty bushed at the end of the day.

We rode into the ranch at the end of another exhausting day and took our mounts to the barn to settle them for the night, and as Jess pulled off his saddle I saw him stagger a little and, closing his eyes, leaned against Traveler.

“You OK, buddy?” I asked, looking over.

He paused for a minute and said, “Yeah, I’m fine, just dizzy for a minute there.” Shaking his head, he started rubbing down his horse.

 “Guess all the sleep I’ve lost sitting with the Mike has worn me out some, that’s all,” he said lightly.

“Hope it is just that,” I said giving him a concerned look. “Don’t think you’re coming down with it too, do you, Jess?”

“Nah,” he said. “I got anything that was going when I was a nipper, being in such a big bunch of kids at home,” he said, a sad look in his eye.

“Do you miss that, Jess, being part of a big family?” I asked, knowing he hardly ever spoke of his childhood.

“Sometimes; not the beatings off my Pa, though,” he said, giving me a sad smile.

“So, you were always in trouble, even in those days,” I said, trying to lighten the atmosphere, but as so often when his past was mentioned, he started to clam up.

“No so much”.

“So why all the beatings?” I asked, really wanting to understand this complex best friend of mine.

“Pa was drunk,” he said gruffly, obviously wanting me to just accept it.

But something drove me on. “So why you?” I asked.

“Was me or Ma, I took the beatings for her mostly, stop him hurting her. I’d rile him and he’d kick off at me, forget about her.”

There was a long pause and then he turned to me and said quietly, “Slim, can we drop it now, please”.

“Sure,” I said, at once sorry for my curiosity. “Sorry, Jess, I didn’t mean to pry. It’s just…”

“I know, buddy, just trying to work me out, ain’t you.”

“I suppose so; it’s just that you’re such a good father figure to young Mike, so caring…”

“Well, I guess you learn from other peoples mistakes,” he said, giving me the sad smile again and turned back to tending his horse.

The following day Mike’s illness seemed to turn around, and although he was bothered by the constant itching of the spots, at least he didn’t appear to be feeling ill anymore and he was much happier and more his old self, much to the relief of us all.

Jess had been kind of quiet since our chat about his family and I was worried that I had upset him  in some way, so that evening as we were sipping our coffee out on the porch before turning in, I looked across at him and said, “You Ok, pard?”

“Sure, why shouldn’t I be?” he asked, giving me a quizzical look.

“No reason; you’ve just been a bit quiet. I sure didn’t mean to upset you talking about your Pa, Jess,” I finished.

 “Hell, you didn’t upset me,” he said, grinning over at me. “Truth is, I’ve just been thinking about Mike, growing up here with us, never really thought about it before, but guess we’re givin’ him a real good start in life, ain’t we. Somethin’ I never had. Just feels real good,” he finished, smiling at me.

*****

Jess

Guess we’d all had a real good afternoon at the lake, and Slim an’ I felt bad when little Mike was sick the next day. I had a gut feelin’ the night before when he wanted a cuddle and couldn’t sleep. I figured he was goin’ to get sick; I always seem to know when somethin’ isn’t sittin’ right with the boy.

We were glad when ol’ Sam said it was the chicken pox, but even so, I was real worried about him as I always am when he is ill, and spent as much time as I could with him, just chattin’ and holdin’ him when he was sick or tearful. I was real glad once he was on the mend.

One night, Slim an’ I got talkin’ about my childhood. He knows I don’t like discussin’ it, but for once he didn’t seem to want to let it lay, an’ I guess he brought back a few memories I’d really rather forget.

 My Pa… now there was an ornery cuss if ever there was one. Slim thinks I can be ornery and stubborn, but he never met my Pa, that’s for sure. I guess he had reason at times; bein’ a share farmer back in the panhandle in those days, well, it sure weren’t easy. Then he had a whole bunch of us kids to feed and clothe. My poor Ma, old before her time after havin’ us lot, often  goin’ hungry to feed us, well, she ended up his punch bag,  as many a night he’d come home drunk as a skunk on hill whiskey. That’s when he’d want her, and I guess not wantin’ anymore mouths to feed, she’d try and dissuade him; that’s when the fists would fly and I’d get between them, rile my Pa real bad so he’d beat me and  would leave  my Ma alone, until the next time…

Anyways, it got me to thinking about the job we were all doin’ supporting young Mike, and I sure felt real humble at bein’ in the position to be able to help bring him up. Slim an’ Daisy always said Mike an’ I had a real strong bond, because of our past history, I guess, and I am always the one he wants if he’s sick or troubled, and I’m happy to be there for him.

We all play our part, though; it’s always Slim he turns to when he needs help with his ciphering or spellin’, and Daisy, well, I guess she’s Ma to him, to us, all truth be known and a real good one too. Guess I miss my Ma sometimes, though I’d never admit it to a livin’ soul, the whole family too, but things happen, an’ I guess you can’t change ‘em, so you just carry on as best you can and thank God for new friends and family and kinda do the best you can by them.

Mike was up and about again at last, and we had been told by Sam that we had to keep him off school for another week until all the spots had completely gone, but he was fine in himself and eager to help out around the ranch as usual.

Slim and I had moved most of the stock down now, and I was concentrating on schoolin’ the green broke mustangs we had worked on during the summer. This particular day I was up on Lucifer, well-named by Mike, as he had pretty much shortened my life some breakin’ him, as he threw me continuously and stomped on me untold times.

 Although he was green broke, today he seemed to have forgotten the fact and bucked and threw me. I wasn’t expecting him to do that and guess I landed badly, hitting the ground hard, winding myself and I lay still for a minute. Lucifer high-tailed it over to the other side of the corral, and Mike climbed under the fence where he had been sitting watching, and ran to me, crying, “Jess, are you OK?”

Using all his strength, he managed to haul me over onto my back and I grinned up at him, still unable to speak. After a few minutes, I was aware that the stallion was still running around lose and pulling myself up by the fence, grabbed Mike’s hand and pushed him under and I vaulted over it. “Thanks, pard,” I said grinning down at him. “Guess ol’ Lucifer there has forgotten who’s boss. Reckon I’d better get back up there and remind him.”

So with that, I caught the mustang and jumped back up again, talking softly to him all the while. This time he was a perfect gentleman and I was real pleased with his progress, and after another hour’s work, I was satisfied he was learning the rules. Hopping down, I removed the saddle and loosed him out in the big corral.

Mike grinned over at me. “State of you, Jess, figure you’d better get cleaned up some before the morning stage arrives.”

I knew I was covered in dust after the fall and had a nasty graze on my cheek. Then looking over at Mike, I said, “You can talk; guess you’d better get cleaned up too,” as he was in a similar condition, having been down in the dust helpin’ me after the fall.

Just then, we heard the rattle of the stage as Mose, our old friend, hustled the team into the yard. Slim came out of the barn where he’d been grooming his mount and hurried to the corral to collect the replacement team, and I went to greet Mose. “Hi there, Jess,” he said, grinning down at me. “Been tussling with one of them ornery mustangs, have you?”

I grinned back at him. “How’d you guess? “ I leaned over and opened the stage door for the passengers to alight. Mike was by my side and I stood back for a tall young blond man to climb down, my arm flung around Mike’s shoulders.

Suddenly I felt him tense and then…

“Pa?”

I looked from the man to Mike and back, surprised.

Then Mike gulped and said in a strained whisper ,”No it ain’t; it’s Uncle Joe,”  and with  that, did something he hadn’t done for years — put his arms around my waist and buried his head in my shirt, hiding his face from the man.

The stranger looked slightly annoyed. “Some welcome that is, Mike, after me travelling all this way to find you,” he said.

 Then turning to me, he declared, “I heard tell in town as to how you two gentlemen had brought in a lady housekeeper to look after the boy. Guess she’s turned him soft,” he concluded a look of disgust on his face.

“Now just a minute,” I exploded, “Who the hell are you?”

He reached out to shake my hand, which I ignored, and dropping it to his side again said, “The name is Joe Williams. I’m Mike’s Uncle, his late Pa’s brother. Mr. Harper I presume?”

I just stared at him mouth agape and Slim strode over. “Hello, Mr. Williams. I’m Slim Sherman. What can we do for you?”

“Well, get the boy ready to travel, of course. I haven’t come all this way for nothing. I’ll be taking him back East with me today.”

“The hell you will,” I broke in.

“Easy, Jess,” warned Slim, and turning to Joe Williams, said, “There must be some mistake, Mr. Williams; Jess and I are Mike’s legal guardians.”

“So I hear, but that was before I came on the scene. Obviously as kin, I have first rights to the boy.”

“Well, it sure took you a long time to claim him,” I yelled, “seenin’ as how he’s been orphaned for nigh on 3years.”

He looked kind of uncomfortable, but ignoring my comment, turned back to Slim. “So if you will just prepare the boys stuff, I’ll be off,” he said, and turning, made a grab for Mike’s arm. Mike ducked out of the man’s grasp and high-tailed it for the barn. I drew my colt, and leveling it at Williams’ chest, said furiously, “I’ll tell you exactly what’s goin’ to happen, Williams. You’re gonna turn tail, climb back on that stage and go back to where ever you came from, savvy?”

I was so goddamn angry I wanted to just gun him down there where he stood, and in the old days, I might have thought about it. Slim knew how I was feeling and came and stood next to me. My eyes were flashing almost black with anger — a sign that I was pretty near the end of my fuse. “Steady, Jess,” he whispered to me.

Then addressing Williams, Slim said, “My partner is right; you can see Mike doesn’t want to know you. Guess you’re not welcome here, Mr. Williams”.

The man had gone real pale when I had turned my gun on him and now he looked over at me and said bitterly, “I’m not having my nephew brought up by a no good gunslinger like you, Harper. If I have to go through the courts, so be it, but I think the judge would rather see kin bring up the boy than a saddle tramp like you.”

I leapt forward, the gun pushed hard into his chest, but Slim pulled me back. “No, Jess, don’t rise to it, please — just back off”

Turning to Slim, Williams said, “I’ll be waiting in town when you come to your senses, Mr. Sherman, and I will be engaging a top lawyer, so you can tell young Mike  it is only a matter of time before he is reunited with his real family, Good day.” And with that, he turned on heel and climbed back on the stage.

*****

 Slim

We stood together watching the stage disappear in a cloud of dust, shocked expressions on our faces. I looked over at Jess and then we both had the same thought — Mike — and ran off towards the barn.

Jess found him cowering in Traveler’s stall, sobbing pitifully. Jess reached down and scooped him up and held him tightly in his arms, tears forming in his own eyes as he looked down at the small boy’s devastated face. He swallowed and said gently, “It’s OK, Tiger, take it easy.”

I leaned over and ruffled his hair, and then Jess looked up behind me, and turning, I saw an ashen-faced Daisy enter the barn. It was obvious that she had witnessed the whole scene and was as upset as Jess and I were.

“Bring him in the house,” she whispered. Jess carried him in and sat in his rocker, Mike on his knee, cuddling him until the sobs finally lessened and stopped.

Looking up wide-eyed into Jess’s face, Mike said, “Don’t let him take me, Jess; please don’t let him.”

“Are you frightened of him, Mike?” Jess asked softly.

“I guess, and Pa wouldn’t want me with him, said he was a bad…inf …influ…”

“Influence?” asked Jess.

“Yeah that’s it, he was a bad influence”.

“How so?” asked Jess.

“Pa said he got in with a bad crowd, drinkin’ and the like, an’ then he did some real bad stuff and ended up in jail for a spell.”

“And he says I’m a no good saddle tramp,” muttered Jess darkly.

I can’t remember seeing Jess as angry as he was with Joe Williams, and I was pretty worried as to how he would cope if the worst came to fruition and Williams had his way.

“What else?” asked Jess.

“He beat me once, when he’d had too much liquor, said I was a little pest ‘cos I fell down and hurt myself an’ I cried. After that, Pa sent him away an’ we didn’t see him again.”

I glanced over at my partner and he was frighteningly calm.

“How old were you, Mike?” Jess asked.

“Four years old, maybe five — before I started school, anyway,” he replied.

I saw Jess turn pale and waited for the storm to erupt. He swallowed hard, and with admirable control for Jess, said nothing. But I knew he would not rest until he had seen Williams again and knocked him into next week.

I wasn’t wrong. Once Mike had settled down and gone with Daisy to the kitchen in search of apple pie, he rose and marched off to the barn and started saddling Traveler.

I followed him in. “Where are you going Jess?” I asked

“You know damn well where I’m goin’,” he spat.

I leaned forwards and grabbed his shoulder spinning him round. “Oh no, you’re not, not like this, Jess.”

His eyes flashed darkly in anger. “Get off me, Slim, or by God I’ll…..”

“You’ll what, Jess? Knock me out? ‘Cos that’s what it’s gonna take.”

He looked at me, fury in his eyes and his stance, his hands balled into fists and a nerve twitching in his cheek that was threatening, and for an awful moment, I thought he was going to punch me or even draw his gun. We stood for a full minute, eyes locked, before he backed down, and moving over to a bale of straw, slumped down on it, the picture of dejection.

I went and sat beside him, and after a few minutes, slung my arm across his shoulders.

“It ain’t the way, buddy,” I said quietly. “Men like Williams, they know how to play the system. You going and punching his lights out is just what he wants. A good lawyer could make a case out of it, Jess, prove you’re an unsuitable guardian. You don’t want that, do you?”

He shook his head slightly. “Guess not,” he said, looking over at me, “but I sure as hell want to punch his lights out.”

“I know buddy, I know,” I said. “We just have to outsmart him, that’s all.”

The following day, Mike was predictably upset and all he wanted was to be with Jess, so I took the opportunity of taking off for town to have a quiet word with Mort Corey, Sheriff and a good friend of us all at the ranch. He was extremely upset by my news as he has a real soft spot for Mike.

 “Poor little tyke,” he muttered grimly.” So how’s Jess takin’ it?”

“As you’d expect,” I said gloomily. “Kept him outta town so far, but don’t know how long I can keep a rein on him, Mort. He sure is mad. Wouldn’t want to be in Williams’ shoes if he catches up with him, that’s for sure,” I finished.

“No,” sighed Mort, “guess not. “

“So how do we stand in the law?” I asked him.

“Well, as far as I know, you are the legal guardians and unless you are proven unfit, I don’t think Williams can claim him. But he may be granted reasonable access. Figure you need to get your lawyer involved. Sounds like this Williams knows a few tricks.”

“What about the circuit judge that granted the adoption? Could he help?” I asked.

“Guess so, but he’s real sick at present, Slim. Got a fellah from back East covering for him, and off the record, I hear tell he has his price”.

I must have looked pretty shocked, “What, you mean he’s open to bribery?” I asked.

“Heard tell.”

“Well, that’s just the sort of lowdown trick this guy would pull,” I replied.

“Like I said, get your lawyer involved, Slim, and for God’s sake, try an’ keep Jess out of town. All Williams needs to make his case is a black eye or worse at the hands of Mr. Harper,” he said, giving me a rueful look.

True to his word, Williams got a real expensive lawyer, and within a week, the circuit judge, of questionable reputation was due to visit the town. I had engaged our old family lawyer, and he did the best he could to alleviate our fears, but like Mort, he figured that Williams might well be allowed reasonable access.

On the day of the hearing, Mike went to visit with a friend while Jess, Daisy and I attended in our Sunday best. I had had a long discussion with Jess the night before, spelling it out for him as to where any of the Harper temper would lead us, and he grudgingly, promised to behave…but I had my doubts.

The meeting was not looking too good as the circuit judge seemed very rushed and wanting to settle matters as soon as possible. He was very terse and asked for information from Williams’ lawyer first. He  started off by saying he was surprised that Mike had been at home on a school day when Williams first visited and then went on to say he looked in a filthy state  and  had obviously been used as cheap labor on the ranch.

At this Jess jumped to his feet and yelled, “The boy was off school recovering from chicken pox and the only ‘work’ he had done was to help me up after a fall from a mustang I was breaking; that’s how he got dirty. He ran over to help me, reason bein’ he cares about me, Williams,” he spat. At that, I pulled him back down into his seat and he sank down again, looking furious.

The circuit judge said, “Order there, Mr. Harper, I have heard tell from Mr. Williams about your violent temper. I do not wish to experience it in my court”.

Jess rose again and apologized, although I could tell his heart wasn’t in it.

“I also have notes here,” continued the judge, “of your, shall we say, less than savory past, Mr. Harper. To be honest with you, I am amazed that my learned colleague actually granted you legal guardianship, but that’s by the by and I won’t be disputing it at this current hearing,” he said, giving Jess a hard look over his spectacles.

Jess just grunted, but said nothing.

The meeting carried on and finally the judge stood to give his concluding address.” I hereby grant Mr. Joseph Williams reasonable access to his nephew, Michael Williams, this to include a road trip via stage coach to Cheyenne to meet Mr. Williams’ spouse, with the understanding that when this hearing re-sits in three months, Mr. Williams may apply  for sole guardianship of the afore mentioned child, being the only remaining family of said child.”

Jess sprang to his feet again. “What the hell do you mean, apply for sole guardianship? Me an’ Slim are his legal guardians, signed and sealed; you can’t change that.”

“Oh yes, I can young man, and I can have you thrown in jail too for contempt of court if you aren’t careful. Court adjourned,” he concluded, and with that he marched from the courtroom and left town almost at once, before we could say or do anything.

 To be honest, that was probably a blessing, considering the look in ol’ Jess’s eye, though. Once the judge was out of sight, he really let rip with his temper and I was sorry for anyone in his path and tried to get him back to the ranch as soon as I could. If it had been left to him, I guess he’d have ended up having a session in the saloon, but Daisy managed to dissuade him and we headed for home and the sad task of having to explain the latest news to Mike.

Mike had been playing over at a nearby ranch with his best friend, and we had not told him about the meeting with the judge. During supper, I could tell Jess was getting more and more upset and he just pushed his food around his plate.

Truth was, Daisy and I were feeling pretty much the same, but I guess we all figured it was probably up to Jess to break the news to Mike about his impending trip.

 As soon as the meal was over, Jess looked over at me, and with an almost imperceptible nod, looked over at Mike and said, “Need to talk to you, Tiger. Slim an’ me gotta a bit of news”.

“Oh?” said the boy, looking up at Jess with trusting blue eyes.

“Yeah…er…see it’s like this, Mike. The judge met with us an’ your Uncle Joe today, and, well, the outcome is you’re to have a little trip to Cheyenne with him to meet his new wife and her parents.”

Mike looked horror-stricken. “No…no, Jess, I ain’t. Please say I don’t have to….please.”

“Look, buddy, it’s just for a week and you’ll meet a whole lotta new kin, might have a real good time,” said Jess, trying to sound convincing.

Mike was understandably upset and it took us all the best part of an hour to calm him down. We finally put him to bed and he fell into an exhausted sleep.

Daisy was obviously worn out too, after all the turmoil of the day, and took herself off to bed pretty soon after, leaving Jess and I with a last cup of coffee, sitting out on the porch, feet up on the rail as usual after the day’s work.

Jess sighed deeply and looking over at me said, “I sure as hell don’t want to go through another day like this, Slim. Near broke my heart having to tell him he had to go with that bastard.”

“Yeah, me too,” I agreed.

“So what are we gonna do in three months’ time if they turn around and say he can’t stay here ‘cos I’m an unfit guardian?” he asked bitterly

“It won’t come to that, Jess,” I said.

“Yeah, but what if it did?” he persisted.

“I dunno, I just dunno”.

“Well, I do. If it’s me that ain’t good enough, then I’ll move out. Guess you and Daisy should pass muster with the ol’ judge.”

“That’s crazy, Jess; I wouldn’t hear of it. It won’t come to that, you’ll see,” I finished firmly.

He just shook his head sadly and looked out to the horizon, his eyes suspiciously bright, but said no more.

A week later, we had Mike all packed and ready to go when the early morning stage rumbled in carrying Joe Williams, bound for Cheyenne. Mike was resigned to the trip now, and although still a little tearful, faced up to the ordeal well and greeted his Uncle politely.

When it came to our goodbyes, he hugged us all in turn, reaching up to Jess last, tears in his eyes once more as he held tightly to my partner, not wanting to let go.

“It’s OK, Tiger, remember what we said. You’ll be back in a week and Slim and I will take you fishin’.” With that, he gently pushed the boy from him and Williams took his hand and led him firmly up onto the stage. Mose rushed the team out of the yard so as not to prolong the parting, and soon all that was to be seen was a cloud of dust on the horizon.

Head down, Jess marched off to the barn and I went to follow him, but Daisy caught my arm and stopped me. “Leave him, Slim; I think he needs some time,” she said softly. Looking after him and back at her, I nodded and followed her back into the ranch, feeling bereft.

It was late afternoon when Mort Cory along with a small posse of local men rode hell for leather into the yard. Jess and I dashed out to greet Mort as he jumped down from his mount, a very serious expression on his face. Looking at us in turn, he said,” I’ve some real bad news. It’s the stage; it’s been held up and Mike and his uncle taken hostage”

 I looked across at Jess, the horror I felt mirrored in his eyes. He muttered an expletive, before running to the barn to saddle the horses, while I ran into the house to tell Daisy where we were heading.

We searched until it was dark, but there were three sets of tracks running from where the stage had been held up, all of which seemed to end nowhere. As we set off on yet another wild goose chase, I could see the look of despair on Jess’s face.

 Finally Mort had to call time and suggest we meet again at first light. Jess was furious, yelling and swearing, but Mort was adamant.

 “Jess, I know how you’re hurtin’,” he said quietly, “but I can’t risk these men and horses wandering around in the pitch dark. There is no way we can see to track,  and you know it,” he finished sadly.

Jess turned away, heart sick, but argued no more and we made our way back to the ranch in silence, to a tearful Daisy waiting for us at the window.. I went over and just took her in my arms and held her as she started to cry in earnest, and Jess turned away, unable to cope anymore. He walked out to the barn to bed down the horses.

The following morning, we were up and back on the trail at first light, but the search was fruitless. There had been a heavy rainfall in the night, washing away the remains of any tracks left, and eventually we had to admit defeat. Jess and I returned to Laramie with Mort in the hope of catching up with Mose on his return trip and hopefully find out some more information.

 We found him uncharacteristically in the saloon a glass of rye in his hand. Gesturing to it, he muttered, “Medicinal.”

We joined him at the bar and I bought another round of drinks. Jess looked over at Mose. “So what happened then?” he asked very quietly.

Mose looked real worried, taking in Jess’s quiet voice and knowing that it was a sure sign he was real angry.

” Now, Jess, I couldn’t have done anything to stop it, I swear,” he said, looking anxiously at my partner.

“I never said you could,” snapped Jess angrily, then calming himself. “It’s OK, Mose. I ain’t mad at you. Just tell us what happened,” he repeated patiently.

“‘Twas a gang,” said Mose, “six of ‘em. Put a branch on  the road, I pulled to, then next thing, I’d got a rifle barrel pointing at my belly and Williams and Mike were out of the stage and onto a couple of horses before I could do a thing. Williams, he didn’t put up a struggle at all, went off like a new born lamb, but Mike there, well…”

“What?” asked Jess, his face turned ashen and his eyes dark with anger.

“Well, he yelled, kicked did all he could, but hell, he’s a little kid, didn’t stand a chance…”

At that Jess leapt up and walked the length of the bar, pounding his fist on it, his back to us and I could see he was breathing real deep and trying to get control.

 After a minute he came back. “Ten what?” he asked.

“Rode off headin’ East, that’s it. Jess, Slim. I’m just so dadgum sorry,” Mose finished.

I patted him on the back. “It’s OK, Mose; you did all you could,” I reassured him.

“One more thing. The gang leader said his name was Wes Hardy, said he’d be in touch. Might be a ransom to pay and you’ll get Mike back,” Mose said hopefully.

Jess had gone very, very quiet. I looked across at him. “You know him, don’t you, Jess, Wes Hardy?” I asked.

There was a long silence before he finally replied. “Yeah, I know him alright. When  I was a kid, I rode with him. Slim, I was a member of the Hardy Gang.” And with that, he stood up and marched out of the bar, leaving Mort, Mose  and  I staring after him, utterly shocked at this latest revelation.

I caught up with him about a mile down the road out of town.

” Hey, where’s the fire?” I yelled as I came level with him.

He slowed his mount down to a brisk trot, and looking across, said, “You heard Mose. Wes said he’d be in touch and he’ll be lookin’ for us at the ranch, not in Laramie.”

“Guess so,” I said and we rode on in silence for the next few miles.

We were nearing the ranch and riding up the hill just by the turn off when Jess reined in Traveler and said, “Slim, I need to talk to you before we get home. Stuff I need to say and don’t want Daisy hearing.”

“OK,” I said, and we dismounted; leaving the horses to graze together, we walked over to a rocky outcrop overlooking the ranch and yard. “We’ll see from here if anyone comes,” Jess said, slumping down with his back to the rock.

I joined him, sitting down next to him, and we looked down at the ranch for a while, and then I broke the silence. “Well, do you wanna tell me about it, Jess?”

“Guess I have to,” he replied after a few minutes. Then turning to look me in the eye, Jess said, “This is real hard for me, Slim. I was a kid, just 16 when I first met Wes. I’d spent the best part of a year trying to track down the Banisters  after they’d burned out my family. I was so dadgum crazy, Slim, guess I’d have tried to down the whole gang. I was a fast gun, even at that age, but hell, not as fast as I thought I was. Guess if I’d found them, I’d have been gunned down in a minute. Anyways, I didn’t find them, but I came across Wes and he was gunning for the Banisters too, so I reckoned it made sense to join forces. He knew my reputation — even at that age as bein’ good with my gun — and so he wanted me around.”

He looked over at me his eyes almost pleading. “We weren’t that bad to start with, honest Slim. Young lads foolin’ about, getting drunk, shootin’ up the town a bit, nothing more. Then Wes got a real taste for the liquor and the stuff, we started to get more serious. He wanted to start robbing stores, stages. Hell, it was still small stuff; half the time we didn’t even have live cartridges in our guns. It was all still a laugh. But then it got more serious; real bad things started to happen and I got kinda scared.”

He looked out to the ranch again with unseeing eyes, remembering a past I could only imagine.

“So…so why didn’t you get out, Jess?” I asked gently.

 He turned sad eyes on me and after a pause said, “It was Becky, Wes’s little sister. I was in love with her…well, thought I was. A 16-year-old-boy, what does he know about love? She was only 14 but still….”

 Again he looked off into the distance before shaking his head and coming back to the here and now.

“So I stayed because of Becky. We were real close, and she was so damn beautiful, Slim, long blond hair, blue eyes. Guess the Yellow Rose of Texas could have been written for her,” he said smiling sadly  at me. ”But…”

“But what, pard?” I said softly.

“But we did another stage job; this time we were all fully armed. Wes had been drinking all day and he was pretty far gone. We got the passengers out and he was telling them to give up their money and this sweet lookin’ old man put his hand in his suit pocket… Well, Wes thought he was goin’ for a gun, but turns out it was just his wallet. Wes shot him through the heart.”

He closed his eyes tight, head bowed and then quietly went on. “I can see him still, Slim, the look of surprise in his eyes and then he grabbed his chest and fell dead at my feet.” He shook his head as if trying to rid it of the vision.

“What happened then?” I asked.

“I lit out; couldn’t do that, Slim. God knows I’ve had my moments, done things I’ve regretted, but I never gunned anyone in cold blood like that…never would,” he finished softly, turning to look at me again.

“What about Becky?”

He paused for a long time and then. “She took it real bad, I heard. Knew a friend of hers, saw her a few weeks later, and she said she was real upset about me leaving her, I felt bad, but…well it was just too much, Slim. I know I’ve got a bad reputation, gunslinger an’ all, but I’ve still got some decency, some principals I hold to,  an’ I just couldn’t live the way Wes did. I got on Traveler and headed West; next thing I knew I was in the middle of the War, enlisted, and never saw Wes or Becky since,” he finished quietly.

*****

Jess

I turned back to Slim. It was real important to me that he would understand, wouldn’t judge me. I waited for him to speak.

After a long pause, he looked into my eyes. “It’s OK. Jess, I guess I know you well enough now to understand how it was back then. As to your decency, morals, I guess you’re a far better father to Mike than Joe ever could be.”

“Thanks, Slim,” I said gruffly, relief washing over me.

“So do you think Mose is right, they’ve taken Mike for a ransom deal?”

I looked across at my partner, then thoughtfully. “No I don’t, Slim. I think he’s taken him to get back at me in some way — for the way I ran out on Becky maybe. He was always so damn protective of her.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said quietly.

“How so?” I said surprised.

“After you lit out just now, Mort told me there is a price on Wes’s head for murder, back in Texas. Apparently some drunk in a bar hurt his sister and he upped and shot the man in cold blood.”

“Sounds about right,” I muttered.

“So why now?” asked Slim. “All this between you and Becky must have been,  what, 10 years ago?”

“I don’t know, Slim; maybe he’s just found out where I live. He’s been down  in Texas all these years. Maybe he lit out after the murder, and moving West, just found me. I dunno. I do know he can sure hold a grudge, though,” I finished.

Just then, we heard a rider coming hell for leather down the Laramie road, and leaping up we ran across to see who it was.

The rider reined in his mount as soon as he saw me and Slim, and jumped down running over the road to join us. It was Joe Williams.

“Where is he?” I yelled.

He was panting, out of breath, but I couldn’t wait for an answer, and grabbing the front of his shirt, blind fury flooding through my veins, I yelled in his face. “Where the hell is he Williams? Is he OK?”

Slim came and dragged me off, and after a few minutes, Williams finally replied. “He’s….he’s OK , for the moment. The gang leader — Hardy — he said he wants you Harper. You’re to go with me right away, or he’ll kill the boy.” Turning panic stricken eyes on me, he pleaded, “He means it, Harper; you gotta come now.”

I ran over to Traveler; Slim followed me, grabbing my shoulder and turning me around, “Jess, this is crazy. Let’s ride for Mort, get this sorted out with the Law”.

“Ain’t time,” I replied.

Turning to Williams, Slim said, “So what’s to happen to Mike? How do we know he won’t kill him anyway?”

“Hardy said he just wanted Harper, said it was an exchange. Harper for the boy,” said Williams.

“See, I have to go, Slim,” I said, turning to my partner and seeing the anguish in his eyes.

“Jess…he’ll kill you, shoot you down; you said yourself he holds a grudge.”

I knew the truth of it, but there was nothing I could do, I had to save Mike.

He knew that too and I saw the look in his eyes change to resignation, as he accepted I had to go.

I put my hand out and we shook hands, then  he grabbed me in a big bear hug. “Watch your back, pard,” he said gruffly. I held him close, and then gently pulling away our eyes locked for a brief moment, understanding passing between us. He knew I loved him like one of my own brothers; it was real difficult goin’ and I figured I might never see him again, but there was simply no choice. I closed my eyes and swallowed hard, and turning, I  pulled my hat down firmly over my eyes. Hopping up on Traveler, I  took off down the road with Williams, without looking back, feeling just about as bad as I could ever remember.

We’d been riding for several hours, heading West when Williams reined in and gestured to an old miner’s track heading into the foothills. “Up there about another couple of miles,” he said, turning his horse up the track. I followed him, but we’d only ridden about a mile when a couple of riders suddenly came from behind a rocky outcrop, rifles pointed directly at my chest. I reined in Traveler and looked across. “Stu, Billy,” I said nodding in recognition.

They both had broad grins on their faces. “Well, if it ain’t little Jessie Harper, come to pay us a visit,” drawled Stu.

“Not so damn little anymore,” I growled. “Where’s the boy, Stu?” I asked, giving him a hard look.

“All in good time, Jessie boy,” he replied, and with Billy riding back to cover our tracks, we headed up along the path some.

Finally we came to a clearing with a line cabin and large bunkhouse attached. Sitting out on the porch was Wes Hardy. He stood up as we rode in, and coming over to me, grabbed Traveler’s reins and looking up said quietly, “Jess, long time no see. How are you?”

He looked older than I remembered — his hair turned grey, although he couldn’t be much over 40 — and had the flushed bleary eyed look of a perpetual drunk.

“How am I?” I yelled, suddenly all the fury and frustration of the last few hours coming to the surface. “I’ll tell you how I am, Wes. I’m so goddamn mad I could  happily kill you right there where you’re standing. Now what the hell have you done with my boy?”

He looked up at me a broad grin on his face. “See the old Harper temper ain’t improved much over the years then,” he drawled.

I slipped down from the saddle and was just about to show him exactly how fired up the Harper temper was when I heard a noise from  the cabin.

Just then a little blond figure hurtled out of the cabin door, closely followed by Chas and Pete, and charged into my arms. I held Mike close, and falling to my knees I hugged him so damn hard, like I’d never let him go, tears springing to my eyes. Closing them tightly, I swallowed hard, finally getting control again. I pushed the boy gently from me and looked deep into his troubled eyes. His face was filthy and had clean tram lines running down it where the tears had flowed down.

 “Jess, Jess, oh Jess,” he cried as fresh tears coursed down his little face.

“It’s OK, buddy,” I whispered, brushing his blond fringe back with a gentle hand. He winced and I saw a large vivid blue bruise on his forehead, “What the hell…. Who did this?” I yelled, looking up at the assorted company. Chas’s eyes looked shifty and eventually he said, “The little bastard tried to run off; guess he fell when I went after him.”

I launched myself at Chas, felling him with the first punch before dragging him up by his shirt front and laying into him a second time, sending him sprawling a good six feet away. I went to grab him again but three pairs of strong arms came to restrain me and then there was a rifle aimed at my belly and I had to stop in my tracks.

Turning to Wes, I said, “So is this what it has  come to, Wes, knocking about a nine-year-old boy?” Then looking back at the others, I added, “Hope you’re real proud of your selves.”

I shrugged free of their restraining hold and returned to Mike, kneeling down by him again and holding him close, his head resting on my shoulder, his little body trembling.

“Yeah, very touching, I’m sure,” said Wes sarcastically, “but guess it’s time to say your goodbyes now, Jess. The kid is goin’ home.”

Mike pulled away and said, “Not without you I ain’t, Jess,” shaking his head adamantly.

“Yeah, you are so, Tiger,” I said firmly. “I have to stay, do a bit of business here with Wes, an’ I’ll be along home later,” I finished, gently pushing him towards Joe Williams.

“But……”

“No Mike, you have to go,” I said firmly. “Tell Slim not to wait up” With that, I turned away as the boy was led off to a pony by Williams, and after a minute I heard them ride out.

Wes looked over at me, a quizzical expression on his face. “Don’t tell me the great Jess Harper, fast gun, has gone soft,” he said. I looked down, but said nothing, I had a huge lump in my throat and couldn’t have replied if I had wanted to. I just hoped Mike would pass on the message to Slim, and I knew he would get the coded message, “Don’t wait up…ever, ‘cos I won’t be back”

Wes went and sat back on the porch and gestured for me to join him. I slumped down on an old rocker next to him. He uncorked a bottle of Red Eye, poured two generous measures, and passing one over to me, tossed his back and then sat there looking across at me a speculative look in his eyes.

I tossed back the drink, feeling it burning as it went down, a welcome warmth taking the edge off the pain I was feeling seeing Mike ride away.

Turning to look at him, I said, “Well, what do you want of me, Wes?”

“I want for you to join the gang again,” he said without hesitation.

 I was shocked to the core. “Now why would I want to do a damn fool thing like that?” I replied.

“For one, you were the best darn gunfighter I ever worked with and I need you now, Jess. Guess I’m slowing down a bit. Need someone I can trust at my back.”

“And the other  reason?” I asked.

“Well, I guess you owe it to me, to Becky anyways, for running out the way you did. Damn near broke her heart that did, Jess, and by God, I’d have finished you if I’d caught up with you at the time, that’s for sure. “

“So you ain’t about to do it now?” I enquired.

“Guess not. It’s Becky, you see; she’s still real stuck on you, Jess, waited all this time for you. I figure if you make an honest woman of her, then we’ll let bygones be bygones,” he concluded.

“Now hold on there,” I yelled, sitting up and turning on him. “That was all a hell of a long time ago; we were just kids, puppy love. I only ever held her hand and kissed her, Wes, and we’ve changed grown up, moved on…” I finished lamely.

“You may have done Jess but she ain’t. Besides…”

“Besides  what?” I asked looking alarmed.

“Well, way she is now, I guess nobody else would have her…”

“What the hell are you on about, Wes?” I asked.

“You’ll see for yourself all in good time; she’s here with me, just out walkin’.”

“No I won’t,” I said. “I’m outta here. Thanks for the offer, Wes, but no thanks. I gave up that sorta life way back. May have escaped your notice but I’ve been operating on the right side of the law these  last few years, and I aim to keep it that way.”

“Sorry, Jess, guess it’s not quite as easy as that”

“What do you  mean?” I asked.

“Well, did you ever wonder how as I found you, knew to take the boy?” he asked.

“Guess I did,” I replied.

“Joe Williams. Met him in jail a few months back; we got talkin’ and he was saying he had a nephew he was thinkin’ of hookin’ up with. Needed some help on his spread, and so he reckoned he’d lay claim to the boy; thought now he was 9 or 10 so he could be a real help. Then he mentioned you and Slim had adopted him, told me where you lived. Said as how the boy was real important to you, so I figured he’d be a good bargaining tool.”

What!” I exploded. “You mean he knew all about Mike and never said anything?”

“Yeah, seems so. He knew all about the adoption, didn’t give a damn. So anyways, he’d already bribed that bent judge to give him access to the boy, so all I needed to do was give him a little cash incentive to get the boy away from you and bring him out here.”

I rose and made to walk off, but he was too fast for me, and grabbing my arm, hauled me back down again.

“Where in hell are you off to in such an all fired hurry?” he yelled.

“Where do you think? To catch up with that bastard Williams,” I spat.

“Oh no you ain’t, Jess boy, and I’ll tell you why you ain’t. See it’s this way. Williams there is on my payroll now. Deal is he stays in Laramie and visits with the boy out at your ranch regularly for the next few months, so as to ‘bond’ with the kid. Real reason is he’s waiting to hear from me. If you are behavin’ and courtin’ our Becky and bein’ my right hand man on any jobs I pull, then the kid is safe. Soon as you step outta line, boy, well the kid will be disappearing and you, Slim and that Miss Daisy of yours will never see him again, not alive anyways. Now then, do you get my drift, Jess? “

There was a long pause while I tried to see my way through this, but I just couldn’t, so eventually I answered him. “Sure I get your drift,” I said bitterly.

Leaning forwards, he refilled our glasses. “Welcome back to the gang, Jess,” he said, raising his glass, but I just stared at him a feeling of bleak despair overwhelming me.

*****

Sometime later he showed me to my room in the line cabin. It had three bedrooms and I was to stay in there with Wes and Becky, and the other gang members  slept out in the adjoining bunkhouse. I figured Wes wanted to keep me close to keep an eye on me.

 I lay down on my bed, staring up at the ceiling, a wave of misery and homesickness enveloping me. I must have finally fallen asleep, made drowsy by the couple of shots of Red Eye.

 When I woke up, it was early evening and I could hear somebody moving about in the kitchen next door, so getting up I went to investigate. Standing in the doorway, I could see Becky working at the stove, her back to me.

 I watched her for a few minutes and then said softly, “Hi, Becky.”

I saw her stiffen and then very slowly she turned to look at me.

I drew in a sharp breath as I saw her beautiful face now marred by a livid scar running from her eye down as far as her mouth. I looked away quickly and then back at her again,  and pinning a smile on my face, said, “It’s good to see you again, sweetheart.”

Her hand instinctively shot to her face and then she looked me in the eye and said, “Jess, I didn’t know you had arrived. Wes never said .What…what are you doing here anyway?”

“Guess I’m back on the payroll,” I said quietly.

“What?” she whispered. “I’d heard you had gone straight, had a family, friends, that sweet little boy. He is yours, isn’t he? Where has he gone, Jess?”

“Long story,” I said quietly. “Back to the ranch, to stay with my partner while I help Wes out for a while.”

“I just don’t understand why you would want to do that, Jess?” she said, giving me a questioning look.

“Well it’s kinda complicated,” I said.

How could I tell her the truth? I was being held here against my wishes and part of the reason was I was supposed to renew our relationship, because no one else would want her. I understood at last what Wes meant and felt desperately sorry for her.

Suddenly she turned on me and shouted, ”Don’t look at me like that, Jess; I don’t need…don’t want your pity!” and with that, fled from the room.

I felt terrible and realized my eyes had betrayed the feeling of  deep sadness I felt on seeing her perfect face disfigured so savagely.

Running after her, I caught her arm and turned her around to face me.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “real sorry; it was just a shock.” I walked her back to the porch and we sat down together. “Do you want to tell me about it?” I said softly.

For a moment I thought she would run off again, but she swallowed deeply and seemed to control herself, and then finally looking into my eyes she started to speak quietly.

 “See it was like this, Jess, Wes had gone on one of his benders and I went to the saloon looking for him. I couldn’t see him, and then this rough-looking man at the bar caught hold of my arm , made me sit with him and bought me a drink. I tried to say no, I wasn’t interested, but he just kept going on and I thought it safer to just go along with it, all the time looking out for Wes. Anyways, he must have been quite drunk, and after a while, he tried to kiss me. Mauled me about, Jess; it was awful,” she said, her eyes wide in fear again at the memory.

“I tried to get away and then he called me a teasing whore and pulled out his knife…did this,” she said quietly, her hand touching her cheek.

I took in a deep breath. “You poor kid,” I said, looking at her,  a white hot anger suddenly welling up inside me.

“What happened then?” I asked, my voice shaking.

“Suddenly Wes was there, seemed to come from nowhere and just shot him dead on the spot. He wasn’t even wearing a gun, Jess,” she whispered. “So we had to leave Texas and now he is wanted for murder; if he’s caught, they will hang him for sure. See what you’ve got yourself into, Jess?” she finished, looking tearfully over at me.

“I guess you could use a friend right now, that’s for sure,” I said, reaching over and taking her hand, and for the first time, she smiled at me and she was really beautiful again, to me anyways.

*****

The following day, Wes came to me and said he’d got a job in mind, said as how he wanted it known throughout Wyoming that Jess Harper was running with the Hardy gang again.

I just stood, there shaking my head. “Why, Wes?” I asked, feeling completely devastated by this new turn of events.

“Because as long as you get a reputation, it’s known to all your law-abiding friends that you’ve gone feral again, Jess, well, it will be just that much harder for you escape back to your old life, won’t it? Yes sir, before long I’ll have the likes of your good friend Mort Corey gunning for you. Even your best buddy Slim; figure he’ll disown you too. “

I must have looked totally shattered as he said, “Yeah, feels real bad don’t it.boy. Guess I want you to suffer some, same as my Becky did when you lit out. Guess I’ll get my revenge on you one way or the other.” He laughed bitterly.

*****

A few days later we took off and stopped the Overland Stage and robbed all the passengers. Thank God it wasn’t Mose up driving, but I recognized the driver and he me, and it sure didn’t help when Wes shouted, “Come on, Jess,” as we rode off.

When we got back, I was shaking and felt sick to my stomach.

Wes poured himself a large glass of whisky and passed me one. “Get this down you, boy. Don’t worry, Jess, it will all come back to you before too long. Guess we’ll be seeing you on a Wanted Poster any time now.” He continued laughing and pouring another drink.

That night I couldn’t sleep and lay awake reliving the God-awful day I had just experienced. How had it come to this, riding with a gang again, terrifying innocent citizens, possibly even killing them another day? I figured it was only a matter of time before Mort, Slim and all my friends in Laramie heard the news. Would any of them stand by me, I wondered, or would they simply right me off — once a no good saddle tramp, then always one.

What would Slim think, I wondered. Would he stand by me, believe in me against all odds? He didn’t know about the part Joe Williams was playing, the fact that he was on Wes’s payroll. He had sure been a good actor when he rode up on the Laramie road, pretending to be so worried about Mike, I figured he would be able to convince everyone he was the concerned uncle and I had simply reverted to type, gone bad again.

Would Slim buy that? I really couldn’t blame him if he did. Now that Mike was home, apparently safe, well, there was no good reason for me to stay with the gang was there? I’d told Slim all about Becky too; maybe he’d think she was the reason I was staying away.

I had worked — no fought — so goddamn hard to pull myself out of this way of life. I had been  a no good saddle tramp when  I fetched up at the Sherman Ranch, but gradually, with  the help of Slim and Andy and all my other friends, I had turned my life around, become a respected citizen , even  deputized for the Sheriff,  for  goodness sake. And now look at me, back to square one and I was even beginning to lose faith in myself. Maybe the past 5 or 6 years I had been living a lie and the here and now was the real Jess Harper. I just didn’t know anymore.

As to Becky, I had been so shocked at her appearance at first, but once that wore off, I hardly noticed the scar anymore and I figured the old spark was still there between us. I knew she had waited for me all these years, kept herself pure, never even looked at another man, so Wes said, and I figured the responsibility of starting anything up with her was huge and I wasn’t sure if I was ready for that kind of commitment.

There again, it didn’t look like I had much choice, the way Wes was thinking. I figured if I didn’t do exactly as he wanted and start a relationship up with Becky again, then it would be Mike paying the price and I sure wasn’t gonna allow that to happen.

I just couldn’t see any way out. I figured Mort would be getting a posse together at first light and I wondered if Slim would be riding with them.

I knew it was only a matter of time before the law caught up with us, especially the erratic way Wes was running the gang now. He seemed to have no fear and I figured that was largely to do with his excessive intake of hard spirits. He was talking of doing another job the following week instead of lying low and waiting for things to settle down, and I couldn’t help but think he was on some sort of suicide mission.

Then I had a thought. If it came to a shoot-out with the posse, then I’d get myself in the line of fire and finish it for once and all. How ironic if I fell from a bullet from Slim or Mort, I thought, as I finally drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

*****

Slim

As I watched Jess ride away with Williams, I had a real bad feeling. Our parting had seemed so final somehow, and I was worried sick about what was about to happen to my partner and best friend. I could see from the look he gave me before he turned and rode out that he was real worried too, and not just about  Mike, although he was our paramount concern.

I had chatted to Mort for a few minutes about Wes Hardy and I didn’t like what I heard one little bit. Apparently he had shot down a man in a saloon in cold blood for assaulting his sister, how badly we didn’t know, but even so, the man wasn’t armed.

 Hardy had a growing reputation as a violent drunk and was particularly unpleasant if anyone should upset his little sister. Judging by what Jess had told me about running out on their relationship, well, it sure didn’t look like he would be too popular in the Hardy camp. That was why I had wanted to ride along with them, but Williams insisted that the boy would only be released in exchange for Jess and nobody else should be present or the deal wouldn’t go ahead.

It was just getting dark when Daisy and I heard riders entering the yard, and running out, we were relieved to see Mike and Joe Williams reining in their mounts.

 I ran over and pulled Mike from the pony and held him tight, “Thank God,” I whispered, before passing him over to Daisy, who put a loving arm around him and took the boy into the house.

 Williams looked very emotional and exhausted, and I shook his hand. “Thanks for helping to get him back,” I said. “Any news of Jess?”.

“No,” he said, “but I shouldn’t worry too much, Hardy seemed real pleased to see him, shouldn’t be surprised if he offered him his old job back with the gang.” He smirked.

I was furious. “Well, you don’t know Jess then. I appreciate what you’ve done for the boy, Williams, but please don’t talk about my partner like that.”

“OK, OK, sorry, I’m sure,” he said, backing off.

“I was wondering,” he continued. Guess I won’t make the trip to Cheyenne with the boy for a while. Would it be alright for me to visit him, say once a week, and get to know him better?”

What could I say, I didn’t trust the guy, but he had helped bring Mike back in one piece. “Sure,” I agreed, “that will be fine.”

After he had gone back to Laramie on the understanding that he would visit Mike later in the week, I entered the ranch. Mike was sitting up in bed with milk and cookies and Daisy was putting some of her special ointment on a nasty bruise on the boy’s forehead.

“How’d you get that, Tiger?” I asked gently.

“A big bully called Chas chased me and I fell and then Jess saw it and he started  punching Chas and he would have  won too, but all the others held him back. Then Jess said I was to come on home and he couldn’t come right then as he had business with Wes.” Mike said without pausing for breath.

“Then  what?” I asked.

“He said to tell you not to wait up, and then I rode out. Jess looked kind of sad,” he finished thoughtfully. “He will be home soon, won’t he, Slim?” His big blue eyes looked up trustingly at me.

What could I say? I knew the truth Jess had sent within the simple message. ‘Don’t wait up,’ had been a euphemism we had used in the war if we were going on a suicide mission and didn’t expect to come back; I knew that and so did Jess. My heart ached and I turned away from Mike at a loss as to what to say.

It was a week or so later when Mose rushed the early morning stage into the yard at a tremendous pace, scattering the chickens and raising the dust. I ran over, and glaring up at him, said, “Steady, Mose. Where’s the fire?”

Jumping down, he gave me a baleful look. “I’ve some real bad news. Slim, about Jess.”

My heart stood still for a minute. Oh God, no, I thought, that bastard Hardy has shot him.

I must have turned real pale because Mose said, “You OK, Slim?”

“Sure, sure just tell me, will you, Mose. “

“You won’t like it,” he said

“Mose!” I yelled, my patience running out.

“OK,, well, I have to tell you, the South bound stage was robbed yesterday, by the Hardy gang and Jess was riding with them.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t believe it”.

“Got to. Pete Miles saw him with his own eyes, Hardy even called Jess by name.”

“How  did he look?“ I asked very quietly.

“Rough, real sick, Pete said; looked like he’d been fighting and real pale. What in tarnation has got into him, Slim? Jess wouldn’t turn feral again …would he?”

I turned away, sick to my stomach; no, he wouldn’t, of course he wouldn’t, I thought. I turned back to Mose. “There must be some mistake; he’ll be home soon, clear it all up,” I said and with that, tight-lipped, went to change the teams.

As soon as the stage had left, I saddled up Alamo and headed for town. I went straight to Mort’s office and he was sitting at his desk, frowning down at some wanted posters on his desk. He looked up and greeted me and then gestured to the chair opposite him and  I sat.

“I thought you’d be in today,” he said, giving me a worried look and then pushed one of the posters over towards me.

My best buddy’s face glared back at me from the poster and I gave a low whistle, “You sure as hell didn’t hang around,” I spat.

“Now calm down, Slim. I’m only doing my job; you know that. I sure hope there is a good reason as to why Jess is mixed up with this gang, and as far as I’m concerned, the sooner we can exonerate him…well, the better. In the meantime, I’ve had my orders from the Federal Marshall and he wants a clamp down on the Hardy gang’s activities. Slim,  they’re completely outta control. I guess Wes Hardy has lost it; he’s shootin’ up towns, robbin’ stages, killing folk randomly, and it’s just got to stop. “

I fell into silence; this was worse than I ever thought.

“He went in to save Mike,” I said after a few minutes. “Hardy asked for Jess in exchange for Mike when he was taken hostage. He thought Wes wanted revenge because of stuff between his sister and, Jess, hell Mort, he went off thinking Wes was gonna gun him  down. Now this,” I finished sadly.

I looked over at our good friend. “Surely you don’t believe he would be doing this willingly, do you, Mort?” I said pleadingly.

” I don’t know,” he said shaking his head sadly. “I just don’t know, Slim. Tell me about this business of the adoption being challenged by Williams. Jess took it kinda bad, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, I guess. The judge reckoned Jess should never have been allowed the guardianship in the first place and said he would try and make sure he was excluded at the next hearing, his guardianship rescinded. “

“How’d he take that?” asked Mort.

“Real bad; said if it came to that, he’d leave so that Mike could stay at the ranch with me and Daisy…….” I suddenly stopped and looked over at Mort, comprehension and fear in my eyes.

“Well, maybe that’s what he’s done,” said Mort quietly.

I rode home with a heavy heart, and after Mike had gone to bed that night, I settled down by the fire with Daisy, sipping my coffee and looking into the flames.

“Do you want to talk about it, Slim?” she asked.

I looked over and shook my head sadly. We had discussed Mose’s news earlier and she felt the same as me — there must be some terrible mistake. Now after my conversation with Mort, well, I just didn’t know what to think anymore. I shared my thoughts with Daisy and she was very quiet and thoughtful for a little while before looking over at me, with concerned eyes.

“No, Slim I can’t believe it of him. He wouldn’t just up and leave like that, without telling us. And he wouldn’t give up on his guardianship so easily either, Jess is no quitter; we both know that.”

“What then?” I asked looking miserably across at her.

“I don’t know; maybe this Wes Hardy has some hold over him. Didn’t you say his sister had been hurt and Wes gunned the man down? Well, maybe Jess is helping her in some way, if they were close once?”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said, “but that doesn’t account for him riding with the gang, does it, Daisy?”

She gave me her stubborn look. “I don’t care,” she finished firmly. “There will be a good reason for the way he is acting, Slim, just mark my words”.

“I hope so, Daisy,” I replied. “I sure hope so, because the way the law is going after the gang, well, he’s going to be in big trouble. and for once I don’t see as how I can help him,” I finished  sadly.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, Mort has the Federal Marshall on his back, so he’s pulling out all the stops to try and nail the gang. Got wanted posters of Jess up already”.

Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, Slim, no,” she whispered. “What will we do if Mike sees one?”

“I guess we’d better try and explain it to him before that happens,” I replied, and then quietly almost to myself, “Don’t see as how that will be easy, seeing  as how I don’t understand it myself.”

She gave me one of her wonderful motherly smiles. “Oh you’ll find a way, and in the meantime, we must just keep Jess in  our prayers and hope he can somehow find his way out of this terrible mess”

“Guess you’re right,” I said, smiling across at her and then taking her hand and squeezing it. “Thanks, Daisy.”

*****

 The following morning, I caught Mike before school. “I need to talk to you,” I said as he waited for the morning Stage.

 He grinned up at me. “Is this about Jess bein’ on a poster?” he asked.

“Well, yes, I guess it is,” I replied.

“Oh my friend Billy saw it yesterday,” he said.

“And so what do you  think?” I asked,

“Well it’s just not true,” Mike replied stoutly. “Jess, would never do anything like that …you know that, Slim.”

“Sure, Mike,” I said, marveling at the boy’s faith and giving thanks for it too.

**********

Jess

The following morning, after I’d spent the night worrying about what to do about everything from the next planned job to my relationship with Becky, Wes came to me and said he was postponing the next stage robbery as he had some urgent business to attend to. I gave an inward sigh of relief, figuring that would buy me some time to try and see some way out of this sorry mess.

Then he hit me with another bomb shell.

 “I’m heading off to visit with some friends up on the mountain,” he drawled. “Supplies of hill whiskey getting a mite low and those mountain men sure make a good drop,” he said grinning at me. Reckon I’ll take the ol’ pack mule and do a deal with ‘em, be gone a few days.”

Then turning a fierce eye on me, he continued, “You and Becky will have the cabin  to yourselves, so I expect you’ll be getting to know her a bit better then, Jess, if you get my meaning.”

I looked over and gave him a hard look. “Oh yeah, I get your meaning alright, Wes, but like I said before, all that was a long time ago. We’re different people now.”

“And like I said, she’d gone and waited for you all these years, Jess, and goddamn it, I expect you to do the right thing by her……or you know what will happen to that precious little kid of yours.”

I launched myself at him in fury, but quicker than the eye could see, he had a lethal looking knife in his hand inches from my belly. “Don’t you ever think you can get one over on me, boy,” he spat.

 I’d forgotten Wes’s lightening reactions with a knife and I backed off some, turning away and breathing deep to try and calm myself.

He stared at me flushed with anger. “That’s it, boy, you calm yourself. and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll  just settle down and do as your told , or by God, you’ll live to regret it, Savvy? “

I gave him a brief nod, refusing to look at him.

 Then as quickly as the anger had flared it was gone.

 “So you have a good time romancing my little sister then, Jessie boy, and I’ll look forward to her telling me all about it when I get back,” he said, and laughing, headed off to saddle up.

 After a minute he returned, and putting his head around the doo, said ,” Oh and if you’re thinkin’ of high-tailin’ it while I’m away, forget it. All the boys have strict orders to shoot you if you try anything. Oh yeah and Big Cal should be back anytime soon too; you ain’t had the pleasure of meetin’ him yet, Jess. He’s a real interestin’ guy, latest member of the gang.” And with that he left, chuckling away to himself.

I sat down on the rocker in front of the fire place and sank my head in my hands, feeling utter despair. It looked like any choices had been taken away from me and I had to try and make a go of things with Becky.

 I knew that, in different circumstances, that wouldn’t have been a problem. I felt deeply attracted to her and all my old feelings from so long ago were resurfacing, but by making a commitment to her, I was signing up to a life of crime  and could end up as morally corrupt as her brother.

 I knew even if I tried to leave with her and start a new life, Wes would not hear of it. He had an incredibly strong bond with her, almost like a father rather than a brother, as there was a large age gap between them. Their mother, already a new widow, had died in childbirth with Becky, and Wes had brought her up, along with her two older sisters. The older girls had married respectable men and moved away, but Wes never seemed to relinquish his hold over Becky and I suspected it was his influence that had stopped her seeking other relationships, rather than just her puppy love for me.

I was still sitting with my head in my hands a few minutes later when I felt  a touch  on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw Becky standing there, looking at me with sympathy in  her eyes, “What’s the matter, Jess?” she asked softly, “you look awful.”

How could I tell her about the conversation I had just had with her brother? She would be devastated.

Instead I just smiled at her. “Bad head,” I said quietly. “Guess I drank a mite too much of your brother’s Red Eye last night.”

She gave me a disbelieving look but said nothing, merely went into the kitchen and made me some coffee.

We sat together sipping our coffee , and after a while she said, “Feeling better now?”

“Yeah, thanks,” I said, gesturing to the empty cup.

“Feel up to a walk?” she asked. “I usually go for one about this time, down to the stream.”

 I agreed, and as we set off, I saw Stu notice and figured he would be keeping a close eye on the only pass out of the camp. We wandered off, and after half an hour or so, came to a deep ravine with a stream running through and we settled in the sunshine, backs to a large boulder, looking out at the stream and the high mountains beyond.

It was a beautiful warm afternoon, and again I couldn’t help but contrast it with last year when we had lost some stock through early snows. Thinking about the ranch made me feel real bad again, and Becky tuned into my feelings just like she always could all those years ago.

“What is it, Jess? Please, you have to be straight with me. Why have you left your home and all you hold dear to join up with Wes again?” she asked as we wandered along hand in hand.

Looking over at her, I knew I had to be honest and taking a deep breath, I said, “Wes took my adopted son, Mike, hostage to bargain for me comin’ back to join the gang. Says he’s slowing down some, wanted me to watch his back. “

She looked upset. “Yes he is,” she said. “He’s sick, you know, Jess. We saw a doctor last year; says he’s only got a couple of years left, if that.”

“How so?” I asked, feeling shocked.

“He’s real sick, caused by the heavy drinking; even if he stopped, he wouldn’t get better. That’s why he’s the way he is, Jess, killing, shooting, robbing, like he don’t care, because he simply don’t,” she finished sadly.

”I figure there is another reason he forced you to come here, though, isn’t there?” she said, giving me a sideways glance.

I felt myself blushing, I wanted to deny it, but knew I couldn’t.

”I guess he was thinking of your future too,” I said eventually. “Figure he sees it’s with me”.

She looked really upset and turning to me, said quite sharply, “And do you, Jess?”

“Not at first no, but now we are getting to know each other again, well, I guess the love I felt for you could still be there, Becky.”

Reaching over, I took the hand I was holding and turning it over kissed the palm. It was the first intimate gesture I had ever made towards her all those years ago, and by the look in her eyes, I could tell she remembered.

I reached up, and putting my hand under her chin, tipped her head back a little, and leaning over, kissed her very gently. I felt her tremble and then begin to respond, kissing me back. I moved my hand round to her back, pulling her towards me in a close embrace, kissing her more firmly, then I felt her body tense and she pulled away from me. I stopped immediately and looking down into her troubled eyes, said, “What’s wrong, sweetheart? I thought you wanted this?”

“I did, I do……..oh Jess, I don’t know. You are so different.”

“Well sure I am, honey,” I said softly. “I’m not that shy, hesitant, 16-year-old boy anymore, I’m a grown man; I’m bound to have changed. “

“I know. I can feel it in the way you kiss. You’re experienced with women, aren’t you, Jess, real experienced.”

I looked down, saying nothing.

“Do you remember my friend Ginny? I think you met her not long after you left me. She told me how upset you were and you were asking after me”.

“Yeah, I remember her,” I said. ”Becky, I’m just so sorry about that. You know why I had to go, don’t you?”

“Yes, yes I do, Jess and I don’t really blame you. Your life would have been so different if you had stayed. As it is, you’ve done well, made a good life for yourself, a partner in the ranch and all”.

“Hey, how do you know all this?” I asked looking at her quizzically.

“I was just going to tell you,” she replied. “It’s all from Ginny; she married a man from these parts about six years ago and they have a spread about ten miles north of Laramie. We write regularly,” she finished.

I looked over. “Is that how Wes found me?” I asked

“Oh no,” she said quickly. “Honestly no; that was just a lucky coincidence. He was held in the same jail cell as Williams and they got talking, that’s the truth.”

“So what has Ginny been tellin’ you about me?” I asked with a lazy smile.

“As how you got yourself engaged to a beautiful Irish girl and she was shot down and died in your arms,” she said, looking at me, pity in her eyes.

I sucked in a sharp breath, as the pain of losing Maria hit me again. I looked down and closed my eyes struggling for control.

After a few minutes, she reached out and ran a finger down my cheek. “Oh Jess, I’m so sorry I’ve hurt you. I shouldn’t have said anything”.

I opened my eyes. and giving her a hard look, I replied, “No, you shouldn’t have.”

Then seeing the pain in her eyes, I said, “Sorry, Becky, I just don’t like talkin’ about it. Still hurts like hell.” Changing the subject, I smiled weakly at her. “And so what else has Ginny told you?”

Sensing that I had forgiven her, she smiled back. “ Oh just that you’re very much liked and respected in town, and that you are part of a lovely adopted family with a cute little son and you run the Relay station  with your best buddy…” She looked over at me and stopped in mid-sentence.

I had turned pale and was looking out to the distant mountains and it must have been the look in my eyes that stopped her from continuing.

“You miss it all so much, don’t you, Jess?” she finished sadly.

I turned slowly back to her, and without answering, bent my head and kissed her again and this time she didn’t pull away.

*****

We lay in the warm sunlight by the stream, our bodies entwined fast asleep. I finally woke up, and looked down at her sleeping in the crook of my arm. As I watched, she awoke and looking up into my eyes, gave a lazy smile and reaching up kissed me gently. “Love you,” she whispered.

But I just couldn’t return those special words, the ones I had reserved for Maria alone, not yet anyway. So leaning down, I kissed her, whispering her name and started to make love all over again.

Much later, we returned to the cabin hand in hand and were greeted by Stu lounging on the cabin porch. He gave me a lecherous wink. “Had a nice ‘walk’ you two?” he drawled.

 I tensed and glared at him, but Becky just whispered, “ignore it,”, and being satisfied with another hard look, I entered the cabin with her, closing the door firmly behind us.

I spent the next couple of days, while Wes was still away, in her company, getting to know everything about her.

On the last evening before his return, we were sitting together on the sofa in  front of the fire and Becky turned to me and gently unbuttoned the first couple of buttons on my shirt, and bending across started, kissing my chest, working her way up to my lips and then pulling back to give me a knowing look.

 I grinned down at her. “For someone who said I was the experienced one just a few days ago; you’re sure catching up fast,” I said.

She gave me a wicked grin and I found her actions to be an incredible turn-on and I pushed her down on the sofa and started kissing her passionately, suddenly wanting her urgently.

 I was so preoccupied that I didn’t hear the cabin door open, and then a large hand grasped the back of my shirt and dragging me off Becky, turned me around and  landed an almighty punch to my chin, which sent me reeling across the cabin and I hit the wall hard cracking my head.

 I crumpled to the ground and just looked up in time to see a giant of a man bearing down on me. Before I had a chance to get to my feet, he dragged me up by my shirt again and landed another crashing blow to my belly which hurled me back against the wall.

This time I was completely winded, and  as I lay there on my side, he kicked me hard, first in my chest, then my belly and finally a viscous kick to the groin which sent such a searing pain through me that I lay there, groaning and retching, in agony. Through the mist of pain, I saw Becky run over and drag the man away, shouting, “No, Cal , leave him, it’s Jess. He’s my friend; he’s  in the gang. Leave him please.” He looked across at her, then back down at me, and without a word turned and marched out. She knelt down beside me, tears streaming down her face. “Oh Jess, I am so sorry,” she said, but I couldn’t respond; the pain was just too much and I passed out. The last thing I remembered was her tear-stained face and troubled eyes  peering into mine, looking absolutely devastated.

I was out of action for the next three days and Becky never left my side, caring for me in a very loving way. It turned out some ribs were cracked and she bound me up real good and the rest was just down to bad bruising. I coughed up some blood the first couple of days and then that seemed to settle, so I figured there wasn’t too much lasting damage done

 Wes returned and was real mad at Cal, and they had a set too and a little later that day. Cal entered my room and stood looking down at me, a huge giant of a man. I was in no mood for round two and glared up at him and so I was surprised when he gave me a friendly lopsided grin and said, “I’m real sorry for what I did to you Jess. Can you forgive me? “

Well, I sure as hell didn’t feel like forgiving him, seein’ as I was still feelin’ shit awful, but there again he had apologized and it seemed kinda easier right then to not rock the boat, so I gave him a brief nod. “I guess,” I said gruffly.

“I suppose it was just seeing you two together that way, Jess,” he said, suddenly opening up and taking a seat on the edge of my bed. “See it’s this way. Guess I fell in love with Miss Becky the moment I clapped eyes on her, but hell, I didn’t stand a chance. Guess it’s always been you,” he said, giving me a mournful look.

I didn’t know what to say. I felt real sorry for the guy now. “Does she know?” I asked.

“Guess she must; she’s always been right kind to me. I had hoped…. But then you showed up and I guess that’s the end of it.” And with that, he stood up to leave. At the door, he turned and gave me a real sad smile. “Sorry again, Jess,” he said and left, closing the door quietly behind him.

By the third day, I felt well enough to sit out on the porch; my ribs seemed to be healing well, but I was in a lot of pain from the bruising lower down. I still felt pretty bad, certainly wouldn’t be makin’ love anytime soon and I didn’t relish the idea of sitting a horse either.

Wes came and plonked himself down beside me in the other rocker and I figured he could read my thoughts as he said, “Figure you’ll be well enough to sit a horse by the end of the week, Jess?”

That was in just a couple of days’ time and I thought I might be able to get out of whatever he had in mind for me. I shook my head gravely, “Sure doubt it. Wes,” I said. “Got banged up pretty good, by ol’ Cal there.”

“Come on Jess,” he said grinning over at me. “You forget I know you of old; takes more than a bit of a kicking to keep you down and we both know it”.

I looked back at him, resignation clearly in my eyes. “What’s the plan then, Wes?” I asked.

“Stage job; we’re doin’ the Laramie run. Hear tell there is a big wages delivery on board. Guess we’ll just relieve them of it.”

My heart sank, I knew this run, and I knew Mose would be driving too.

“Come on, Jess,” he said cheerfully, and pouring a glass of his hill whiskey for me, said, “Get this down your neck. Ain’t the end of the world, you know.”

It might as well be, I thought bitterly as I sank the rough liquid, looking over at Wes, a sad smile on his face. Guess it will be the end of yours sometime soon, I thought and felt something akin to pity for him.

I kissed Becky briefly before we rode out and she patted my arm. “Keep safe,” she whispered.

 As we neared the spot where the robbery was to take place, Wes reined in his horse and said, “This one is down to you, Jess; want to see some commitment from you. Guess you know Mose will be driving. Just you make sure you get the money, Stu, Billy and the rest of us will be right behind you , so don’t even think about making a wrong move…savvy?”

I nodded, despair in my heart. I knew now if the chance arose, I would do what I had thought of on that first night when I couldn’t sleep — I’d simply get myself shot and the whole sorry business would be over for me. Better that than take an innocent life, particularly a friend, and I felt sick at the thought.

After a while, we heard the rumbling of the approaching stage and I hid behind a boulder, waiting for Mose to rein the team in as he saw the log we had dragged partially across the road. Then I pulled Traveler  out in front of him and yelled, “Throw the cash box down, Mose.”

He looked bewildered. “Jess? That you?”

“Sure it’s me,” I yelled. “Will you just throw the money down, Mose?”

He looked stubborn. “Well, I can’t do that, Jess boy,” he said.

“For God’s sake, Mose, this is no time to be a hero. Will you just throw the goddamn money down,” I yelled.

“You’ll have to shoot me first,” he said and our eyes locked and I shook my head slowly. “Please, Mose,” I said quietly.

“What the hell’s the hold up?” yelled Wes from the rocks behind me. I turned to look at him then back at Mose; suddenly we heard riders galloping in and the sound of gun shots, and looking down the road I could see a small posse of men lead by Mort and Slim, advancing at speed.

Quick as a flash, I grabbed hold of the lead horses reins and guided them around the obstacle in the road and then looking up at Mose, I said urgently, “Tell Slim I’m doin’ this for Mike. That bastard Williams will take him off, kill him even ,if I don’t do exactly as Wes wants. Make sure he keeps Williams away from Mike, please Mose, make sure he knows that.”

He nodded emphatically. “Sure, Jess, sure I will”.

“Now get outta here,” I yelled, and slapping the lead horse firmly on the rump, I fired a couple of shots in the air for good measure and the team took off like the devil himself was after them, to Laramie and safety.

Wes and the gang had holed up in the boulders behind me, and Mort and Slim and the posse had dismounted, and a free-for-all shoot out was going on. Deliberately steering Traveler towards the gun fire, I rode right through the crossfire and just prayed somebody would get a clean shot at me and I would die instantly.

My prayers were not answered, as I felt a searing pain in my shoulder and I slumped forwards across Traveler’s neck. That stupid ol ’horse did what he had always done, got me outta trouble pronto and bolted for the blue yonder, taking me away from the gun fighting. I was halfway back to the cabin before the other gang members  eventually caught up with me. Apparently they had hit a member of the  posse and they had backed down. I just prayed that Slim and Mort were OK,  at least.

Wes had a face like thunder. “What in hell do you think you playin’ at, Jess?” he yelled. “First you help that old fool on the stage to escape and then you try and get yourself killed. Plumb loco you’ve gone, boy, plumb loco.” He rode off angrily.

It was Cal who came to my rescue, and seeing I was almost out of it, took me on his massive stallion to ride double, and gently held me and got me safely back to the camp and then helped Becky tend the gunshot wound.

I was out of it for the best part of a week, and Becky, with the help of Cal, tended me and helped me through the sickness and fever that followed the removal of the bullet.

 Once I was on the mend some, I spent long hours talking to Cal. He seemed fascinated by my life, and the way I had turned things around and was disgusted by the way Wes had used my relationship with Mike to his advantage.

“Don’t hardly seem right, using your feelings for your boy like that,” he said thoughtfully. Then turning sadly to Becky. “Guess I’m gonna be outta here soon, Becky. Can’t stomach the way they’ve treated Jess, and I never really had my heart in this whole set up, you know that.”

“So why did you get involved Cal?” I asked, really wanting to understand this big giant of a man who was fast becoming a friend.

“I got myself into some trouble back in Texas, just silly stuff, then I met up with Wes; said he could make me rich real quick…and I guess I was just greedy, Jess. Needed a stake quick and took the easy way”.

“Stake for what?” I asked.

“Wagon train out West and a piece of land to farm included. Guess I’ve just about got enough now.” Turning to Becky, he gave her a sad look and then back at me. “So maybe  I’ll be off soon.”

I could see Becky was upset, but she said nothing and then the subject was changed as Wes barged in wanting to know how I was — there was another job planned.

The following week, as I was recuperating out on the porch, I spent a lot of time with Wes. He looked terrible, real sick with a ghostly pallor tinged with yellow, and the whites of his tired, sunken eyes looked yellow too. He was hardly sober day or night for the whole week and I really thought he wouldn’t be well enough for the planned raid on the Laramie Bank the following Saturday. Truth be told, I sure didn’t feel well enough myself, with the pain I was still getting from the shoulder wound.

The night before, he seemed to rally, though, and looked sober enough, but his mood was somber. “I’m on the way out, you know, Jess,” he said, turning to me, a sad smile on his face. “Still holds true, though, I want you and Becky to make a go of it.”

I said nothing, and then looking over at me again. he said, “It will be a real bad death for me,  you know, boy. The Doc said, real painful; I guess when the time comes , well, I just hope a bullet finds its target…maybe on a job. Go out fightin’, eh, Jess?”

I was really moved, couldn’t say anything. I knew what a bad lot Wes was, but he had helped that poor, bitter young boy I was at 16 and I couldn’t forget that, no matter what he had put me through since. When I joined the gang all those years back, I was still grieving for the family I had lost and had a deep anger that had taken me over body and soul. All I could think of was getting my revenge on the Banisters. Wes helped me through that time, bringing a bit of fun back into my life with his wild mad cap ways; until, that is, the drink took him over and the fun turned to danger and dark evil deeds I wanted no part of anymore, and I had to leave.

Shortly after our chat that night, he retired to bed with a bottle, and much later I checked on him and he was out for the count. I turned him on his side in case he chucked up the whiskey and choked, and covering him over with a blanket, left him to sleep.

As I left his room, Becky was standing there waiting for me. We  hadn’t made love since I had suffered the attack by Cal and the following gunshot wound, and now she stood in front of me in her revealing  night dress, and I felt my stomach flip. Reaching out, I gently pulled her towards me and softly  kissed her lips. Pulling back, she said, “How are you feeling, Jess?” raising a quizzical eye brow. “Are you still feelin’ sick?”

“Never too sick for you,” I said, and reaching out, I pulled her towards me again. Kissing her deeply, I picked her up and carried her to my bed.

The love making was very special and I sorta had the feeling it would be the last time I would see her and I guess that added to the passion we both felt. I knew that whatever happened in Laramie the following day, it would be the end for me. I would either be shot, or arrested and hung; it made no difference. I wouldn’t be coming back to Becky; I figured, couldn’t. Like last time, I just couldn’t handle the lifestyle, I knew sooner or later, an innocent person would die from my gun and I refused to be a party to that; better sacrifice my own life, I thought than that. It just seemed the only way out.

As ever, she was tuned into my feelings. We had made love and she was lying in my arms when she turned and looked at me. “This is the end, isn’t it, Jess?” she said. “It’s too risky; you’ll not be coming back again, will you?”

I couldn’t answer, just looked deep into her eyes, and she saw the truth there and wept. I held her close all night long and knew that, come dawn, everything would be ended, I felt like weeping myself, but kept strong for Becky. I think she knew in her heart that the raid had failed before it began, and she, like me, had tried long and hard to talk Wes out of it, to no avail. She knew the likelihood of any of us coming back was practically nil and she was sick with fear and worry.

All I could wish for was, come the end, Slim, Daisy and Mike would learn the truth — I only did what I did to keep Mike safe and I never lost my commitment to, and love for, my adopted family, not for one minute.

I was still worried sick about Mike, even though I had given that message to Mose. Supposing Slim didn’t believe me, I thought, Williams sure was a good actor; maybe they would all think I was just using it as an excuse. Whatever happened, I couldn’t risk Mike’s life and I figured with me  out of the picture, then Wes would lose interest in the boy.

The following day, Wes was up early and looked surprisingly fit, and we got ready to set out on the mission at first light. Before we left, Wes came to me and said, “I’m really relying on you today, Jess; we are a man down as Cal is sick.” He gave me a hard look. “You are gonna behave today aren’t you, Jess?” he asked.

“I guess I’ll be behaving as you want me to,” I replied, hoping that would be what he wanted to hear.

“Umm…” he replied, “OK, see you do,” and with that he went to saddle up.

I stood looking after him, shaking my head slightly, as Becky came over. “Guess this will be his last job,” she said quietly.” I don’t think he’s got long  now.” Then looking up into my face, she whispered, “Please try and look after him today, for me, Jess.” I said nothing but just nodded, and leaning down, I kissed her one last time before striding away without looking back.

*****

Slim

As the days turned into weeks after Jess’s leaving and joining the Hardy Gang, I became more and more morose. I had got into another fight in town in the saloon as some stupid drunk started taunting me about Jess being a no good saddle tramp turned killer again, and I just let loose and flattened him.

Mort was called for and he took me to his office and had a quiet word with me.

”Slim, this ain’t the first time you’ve been in a bit of a ruckus these last few weeks,” he said

“And by God it won’t be the last,” I butted in, “as long as stupid idiots like that bad name Jess.”

“Hold it right there,” he replied. “I‘ve been real understanding so far, Slim. If it were anyone else, well, they’d have spent the night in my cell. You’ve just gotta get control, Slim, and until you can do that, well, I guess you had better stay out of town for a while.”

I turned angry eyes on him. “You’re just like the rest aren’t you, Mort; you believe Jess’s turned bad, don’t you?”

“No, I told you, I just don’t know either way, but after the evidence from Pete saying as how Jess was there when the stage was robbed… Well, what am I supposed to think?”

“You’re supposed to think Jess’s is one of the best damn friends you’ve got and be asking yourself how you can get him outta this mess he’s got into,” I replied angrily.

He looked over at me thoughtfully and finally said, “I guess you are right, Slim. Look, I  could use your help. Well, I wasn’t going to ask you this, seeing as how personally involved you are, but well I guess Jess could do with some support.”

“What are you talking about Mort?” I replied

“There is the usual wages delivery due day after tomorrow and there is a possibility that the Hardy Gang will make a play for it. I intend to have a small posse ready in town; we figure they’ll hit just outside town like last time. We’ll be riding out to escort it in and hopefully catch the gang red-handed in the process. If Jess sees you, then maybe he’ll come to his senses and remember which side of the law he wants to be on,” he finished quietly.

As it turned out, the posse was real small; Mort just couldn’t get any takers. The Hardy gang had sure gotten everyone in town spooked. Wes’s reputation as being an out-of-control killer had travelled far and wide, and nobody wanted to take him on. In the end, it was just a neighbor of mine, Pete Jackson; Lon, Mort’s deputy; and me ready to ride out.

We rode out as planned to meet the stage, and as we turned a bend in the Laramie road ,we suddenly saw it at a standstill, a large log partially blocking its passage and Jess mounted on Traveler, obviously deep in conversation with Mose. Mort gave a warning shot, but Jess still continued his conversation with Mose before suddenly taking the lead rein and negotiating the team around the log in the road. He then slapped the lead horse and fired some shots and Mose took off at speed.

It was so damn good to see him after all this time I just wanted to run over and grab him, but by this time the rest of the gang had opened fire on us, so I was kept pretty busy returning their fire. Then Jess did a crazy thing; he deliberately spurred Traveler into the cross fire. “You stupid fool!” I yelled. “What the hell are you doin’ ?”

He obviously couldn’t hear me over the gun fire, which was continuous and then as he came closer, I had a good view of him and was shocked by his appearance. He looked real pale and sick and he had obviously lost a lot of weight, and there was something in his expression, sort of grim determination as he kicked his horse on in front of the flying bullets.

Suddenly one found its target and I saw him lurch forwards in the saddle, clinging onto Traveler’s neck to stop himself falling. Then good old Traveler got him out of trouble as he high- tailed it away from the shooting and down the road. Shortly after that, Lon was wounded and Mort called a halt, and the gang disappeared after Jess. I longed to follow them, to try and help my buddy, but Mort wouldn’t hear of it. said I’d be shot down before I could get anywhere near him and sadly I had to agree with him.

We got Lon off to Doc Bakers and then we went back to Mort’s office. He poured me a coffee, one for himself, and then went and sat at his desk looking into the cup, a real troubled expression on his face.

 I slumped down in the chair opposite, and taking my hat off, ran my hand through my hair in exasperation. “Why…why did he do that dadgum stupid thing?” I asked, looking over at Mort.

“It was almost as if he wanted to be killed,” I said, then the realization hit me. “Oh God, he did,  didn’t he, Mort; he was trying to end it…” I finished in a hushed voice. “Mort…..? “

He’d turned ashen and he looked up at me with a haunted expression on his face. “It was me, Slim,” he said quietly.

“What?”

“It was me that hit Jess. I wasn’t aiming at him, you know I wouldn’t; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught the crossfire. Hell, I’m so sorry,” he finished quietly, looking over at me.

I looked back at him in disbelief, and then gathering myself, said, “It’s OK, Mort; it could have been anyone of us. Such a dang stupid thing to do. Surely he can’t be that desperate, can he?”

“I guess so,” he replied. “You know Jess; he’s worked so damn hard to get where he is today, a partnership in the  ranch , my deputy often as not, respected by everyone. To have all that taken away — or to have thrown it away — then  sure he’d feel that bad, I guess,” he finished sadly.

“If only I knew why, maybe I could help,” I said almost to myself.

“No idea at all as to what could be keeping him there?” he asked.

“No, none…although there was a girl…..”

He gave a faint grin. “There usually is where Jess is concerned,” he said. “But I thought he was more the love ‘em and leave ‘em sort …since Maria anyway,” he continued.

“Yeah, well, this one was sorta special,” I replied. “First love and all that”.

“Ah,” said Mort, reflectively and we both looked into space with silly smiles on our faces, remembering the girls we had first loved.

Suddenly the door crashed open, dragging us out of our revere as Mose dashed in. “Where in tarnation have you two been?” he asked. “Been looking for you for ages.”

“We got a little tied up back there keeping the Hardy Gang busy while you made a timely escape,” said Mort somewhat sarcastically

“Yeah, and it was thanks to Jess that I got away too,” he said. “Got the team up and moving again and got us safely outta there.. Where is he? Did he come back with you?” he asked , looking over at me.

I looked down and biting my lip looked over at Mose. “Got shot; stupid idiot rode into the crossfire,” I said.

“Is he…”

“No, he was OK last I saw him,” I said softly. “Just wounded — shoulder. I think”.

Mose took this in, then said, “I’ve got a message from him for you. Slim. He said, all this –riding with Wes again — is because of young Mike. “

“Mike? “

“Yeah, Jess said to tell you that Wes has got a deal going with Williams. If Jess doesn’t do Wes’s biding , then young Mike will be hurt  bad…or worse. Jess just couldn’t take that risk, so he’s been going along with what Wes wants. He said especially to tell you, Slim, keep Williams away from the boy, says he’s real bad news.”

“I knew it,” I said leaping out of my chair. “I knew there had to be a reason, Mort.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Mort said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Guess we’ll go over to Mr. Williams’ hotel room, pay him a little visit, eh, Slim?” he suggested,  raising a quizzical eyebrow.

“You bet,” I said, grinning back at him and we left hurrying across the road to the Laramie Hotel.

We ran up the stairs, and rapping on the door, I burst in, closely followed my Mort.

“What the…” muttered Williams, getting up from the bed where he had been playing Solitaire.

Then realizing who it was, he pinned an insincere smile on his face and said, “Ah, Sherman, I was just thinking of riding over to your place. Thought I’d take the boy fishing this afternoon, if that is OK with you.”

Striding across the room and grabbing him by his shirt front. I threw him across the room and he fell against the wall. “No it isn’t alright with me,” I yelled. “This afternoon or any other, you’re not going anywhere near Mike ever again.”

 I leaned forwards and grabbed his shirt again. “Now start talking, Williams; I want to know all about this deal you’ve got going with Wes Hardy.” He blinked furiously but said nothing.

I balled my fist under his chin. “Are you  goin’ to tell me or do I have to knock all your teeth down your throat?” I asked. “My best buddy is out there more dead than alive, his whole life in tatters because of you, you two bit bastard,” I shouted.

“Sheriff, this man is assaulting me do something,” he yelled.

Mort whistled and looked up at the ceiling. “I can’t see any assault,” he said .

“Get your hands off me, Sherman; I’ve nothing to say. You’re talking gibberish.”

Suddenly Mort was there. He pushed me gently to one side, and taking a firm hold on Williams’ shirt himself, he started talking in a low menacing voice and I had never seen him so angry.

“Now this is how it’s gonna be, Williams,” he said. “You’re going to tell us every last detail of this whole sorry mess, and if I’m satisfied with what you say, then I may just put you in my jail to keep you safe until your trial. But if I don’t think we’ve had the full truth, well then, I’m just going to walk out of the room and leave you to Slim for an hour or so. Now Jess and Slim are two of my best buddies, and I don’t appreciate what you’ve done to them, so you ‘d better get talking real quick before I run out of patience…you understand?”

“Yes, yes I understand, Sheriff; of course I’ll tell you everything,” he said turning ashen. “Just keep me safe< please; I hate violence.”

“Ha,” I spat, “That’s good coming from someone who’s just done a deal with one of the most violent men in the territory.”

“Come on then, out with it,” drawled Mort and the whole miserable tale came out — how Williams had met Wes in jail and told him of the whereabouts of Jess and  the devotion he had to his adopted son; how Williams intended to get the boy to use as free labor on  his own ranch but how he was offered a better deal, trading Mike for Jess and then staying on the payroll to ‘take care’ of the boy should Jess not do as Wes wanted.

“What do you mean take care of?” I asked furious again.

“Take him off somewhere, make Harper think he was dead, that’s all,” he replied

“That’s all?” I yelled. “Have you any idea what that would do to him?. No, you really haven’t, have you,” I concluded sadly. “Guess you don’t care for anyone except yourself, do you?”

He ignored my comments and continued telling Mort everything he needed to know, even as to how he had bribed the judge .He finally agreed to make a statement, saying everything he had told us.

I turned to him before Mort led him away. “Do you know why Wes wanted Jess back?” I asked.

“He’s dying; said he wanted Jess to look after the gang, help him out some and to take on his little sister after he died. Said she was real sweet on Harper, Wes reckoned he’d see them married before he died.”

I took a deep breath; this was worse than I thought. Knowing my partner, I wondered if he would feel morally obliged to do just that.

“Do you know where they are holed up?” I asked, exasperated, wanting to talk everything through with Jess, help him see sense.

“No, no I don’t,” he said belligerently.

I went to grab him again but he pulled away and moved towards Mort. “Really, Sheriff, I don’t; they blindfolded me on the way to camp and back, I promise you.”

Mort gave him a speculative look. “If I find out you have lied….”

“Really, it’s the truth. Please, Sheriff, take me to your office,” he said, cowering back as I walked past him.

I figured my partner was in real deep and I just didn’t know how to help him; I didn’t know how to get in touch, and until I did, he would still assume Mike was in danger as he couldn’t be sure the message was delivered by Mose. I knew he wouldn’t take any chances where Mike was concerned. He might even think I didn’t believe him.

Later on, I sat in Mort’s office, drinking more coffee and talking real low so Williams, who was now ensconced in a cell, couldn’t hear us.

“It’s worse than I thought, Mort,” I said. “You heard what that bastard said. Wes wants Jess to marry Becky, and with his misguided sense of loyalty, he might just do that. Think what people would make of that — Jess and Wes Hardy’s little sister. Sure wouldn’t do his reputation any good.”

“Umm,” he said. “To be honest, Slim, I’m more worried as to what will happen short term, Wes is still very much alive and I figure he’ll go on hell-raising until he drops. If Jess is involved in any of that, well, he’s in real danger. He nearly died today…well, next time he may not be so lucky.”

“But what can I do?” I said, turning anguished eyes on my friend. “We have no idea where he is, and even if we did, odds of us making it into camp in one piece are pretty low”.

“Yeah, I know,” Mort said. “Guess we’ll just have to lay low and wait for them to make another move.”

“You think they will?” I said, looking aghast.

“Sure. Figure Wes is pretty damn annoyed at losing that wages snatch; guess he’ll be pulling something else real soon.” Then he looked at me seriously. “Slim, could I ask you to be deputy  for me, just until Lon is back on his feet? I know it’s a lot to ask, but with the Hardy gang at large, well, I’d really appreciate your support. “

“Sure, Mort,” I said grinning back at him. “I’ll move into the hotel tomorrow.”

 Little did I know then that I would be helping Mort out for the best part of a couple of weeks, as Lon had complications with his injury. I had to hire a neighbor’s son to run the Relay for me, but I knew I couldn’t let Mort down.

 Anyway, if anything else kicked off involving Jess, I wanted to be around, and it was at the end of the month that exactly that thing happened. Afterwards, I was sure glad I was around for him.

*****

Jess

As we rode out together, I looked across at Wes and saw he had lost the healthy look he had fleeting had previously, and figured it was the shot of spirits he had imbibed before we left that  had given him a sparkle in the eye. Now a few miles down the line, he had reverted to his usual sick look; in fact, he looked worse than usual on closer inspection.

“You OK, Wes?” I asked, giving him a concerned look.

“Sure, boy, why shouldn’t I be?” he asked, giving me a hard look.

“No reason; I just thought you were maybe a bit tired. You hit the old bottle something fierce last night,” I said, trying to make light of it.

“Maybe I did,” he responded, “but guess we’ve only got our allotted span, Jess. Figure I need to make the most of mine now; days are numbered, boy,” he said. With a sad look at me, he spurred his mount on to ride alone.

The nearer we got to the town of Laramie, the more my spirits sank, I kept wracking my brain for a way out and I just couldn’t see one. Wes was all set to rob the bank and there was no changing his mind. He seemed to be completely closed to any rational argument; I knew…I had tried a few.

 Riding into town on a Saturday morning to rob the bank was a complete suicide mission and he surely could see it. He was so damn proud of his reputation he figured everyone would be shivering in their boots and offer no opposition, but he hadn’t taken into account Mort Cory, and I knew, sure as hell, Mort wouldn’t let any gang raid his town and that we were in for trouble.

We rode in fast and we rode in hard and were inside the bank before anyone could do anything. The manager was out having coffee — at least Wes had done some research — but that still left two bank tellers — a new young man I didn’t know, and Jenny, who I did.

Looking up at me, she looked surprised and then shocked as Wes pushed me roughly aside and said to the male teller, “Open the safe, boy, and make in damn quick”, pushing his colt .45 at the  tellers  belly.

The man froze and then tried to make a dash for the door, and Wes shot him down in an instant, a bullet in the leg making him yell in pain. Jenny screamed and looked over at me, fear etched onto her face.

“It’s down to you now, honey,” Wes drawled. “Get that safe open pronto”.

“I don’t know the combination,” she said, and turning to me, repeated, “Jess, I don’t know it, really.”

Quick as a flash, I vaulted over the counter and placed myself between Wes and Jenny, and shielding her, said, “The lady says she don’t know it, Wes; now let’s just get outta here while we still can”.

Billy and Stu were exchanging worried looks, “He’s right,” said Stu. Let’s just get going. Wes”. Suddenly we heard a commotion and gunshots coming from outside; as one, Billy and Stu ran out of the door, to where Chas and Pete were standing guard, leaving Wes and I facing each other, our eyes locked, neither of us willing to back down. The rapid fire continued outside and then there was complete silence; out of the corner of my eye, I could see Slim and Mort standing in the shadows   by the door.

“Wes, will you  go? Get out the back,” I said urgently.

“Sorry, can’t do that,”  he said, backing away from me a gleam in  his eye. “Reckon I can’t let you go either, Jess. Figure it ends here, boy. Guess you’ve just decided which side of the law you stand on …and it ain’t my side.”

He slowly holstered his gun, and gesturing at me, it was obvious he expected me to do the same. “Guess we’ll make a fair fight of it,” he said. “Draw when you’re ready, Jess.”

“I ain’t drawing on you,” I said, knowing damn well I could out-draw him easy.

He flushed with anger. “Goddamn it, Jess, you said you would behave today. Do as you’re told and I’m tellin’ you, I want to finish it now.”

There was suddenly a look of pleading in his eyes and I remembered what he had said about not wanting the long painful death awaiting him. ‘Like to go out fighting’ he had said.

He glanced to the side and saw Slim. “Guess it has to be now, boy,” he said.

I pushed Jenny hard out of the line of fire and she ran sobbing to Mort, who was still by the door. watching our every move.

I looked back at Wes and saw he was going to draw on me and instinctively I had my colt in my hand and shot him through the heart before he had even leveled his gun at me. He dropped like a stone, dead before he hit the floor, his eyes still open wide in shock.

I stood still, head bowed; a wave of nausea swept over me. and I felt real dizzy. I went and stood beside him and then fell to my knees, leaning over to check the pulse in his neck, although I knew he had gone. Behind me, I could hear Jenny sobbing and then suddenly, Slim was there, kneeling beside me, a comforting arm thrown around my shoulders. I dragged my eyes away from Wes and looked into Slim’s kind, concerned eyes. “Hey, you OK, pard?” he asked.

I shook my head slightly, and as another wave of nausea struck me, I closed my eyes tightly and swallowed hard, feeling sick to my stomach.

“Easy, buddy,” Slim said softly, and suddenly his strong arms were around me; he pulled me to my feet and helped me over to a chair where I collapsed, head in hands, shaking and sweating.

 Sometime later, I could hear Mort and Slim talking softly and then Doc Sam came back from tending the wounded bank teller and crouched down by me. “How are you feeling, Jess?” he asked kindly.

“Felt better,” I muttered.

“I think I need to look you over before Mort talks to you,” he said quietly, and with that, Slim and Mort helped me over to the Doc’s office.

Firstly he checked out the gunshot wound and said there was still some infection there; he cleaned and re-bound it, but he was more concerned with my pallor and weight loss and the injuries I had received at the hands of Cal. He was mostly concerned about the kicks I had received to my stomach. The ribs and other bruising had healed OK , but then he asked me about  coughing up blood after the attack.

“Have you had anymore bleeding?” he asked. I nodded. “Have been sick a couple of times, brought up blood then,” I said. He looked very concerned.

“Have you been drinking quite heavily too?” he asked.

I thought about it. “Well, more than normal, that’s for sure,” I agreed. “Guess you can’t go around with Wes and not have a few drinks with him. Takes it as a personal insult if you don’t,” I said with the glimmer of a smile, then corrected myself. “TOOK it as one,” I whispered.

Slim was sitting in the Doc’s office and they exchanged a glance. “You’ve taken this whole business real bad, haven’t you Jess?”  said Sam quietly.

Suddenly I lost my temper. “What? Havin’ Mike abducted and then not knowing if he was alive or dead, then keeping him alive being down to me, joining a no-good gang of violent thugs, and throwing every last thing I value away, losing my friends , my family and damn near ending it all because I couldn’t see any other way out…” I paused for breath, then, ‘Yeah< I guess you could say I’ve taken this business pretty badly,” I concluded sarcastically.

He looked down at me and flushed slightly. ”I’m sorry, Jess; guess that was real insensitive of me.”

 After a few minutes, I replied, “No, I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have sounded off at you like that Sam. Guess  I just feel pretty much done in right now.”

“Yes,” he said gravely,” looks to me like you’ve had some internal bleeding  from that kicking you got, then the heavy drinking of that rough hill whiskey, well, that’s stopped the lesions from healing.”

“Will he be OK?” asked Slim looking anxiously down at me.

“Sure….. in time. Rest, quiet, a light healthy diet and no fighting,” he said, giving me a firm look. “And he should heal up completely. But lay off the drink, Jess, for at least a month. Just take it real easy, no riding or work for at least a week; otherwise, the bleeding could continue and cause you to be real sick. You listening, Jess?”

I smiled up at him. “Don’t have a problem with that Doc,” I said. “I just want some peace and quiet and no bank robbin,’ that’s for sure.”

“Speaking of which, I think Mort needs to see you before I get you home,” said Slim. Thanking the Doc, we went over to Mort’s office right away.

I had expected to see some of the gang in the jail, expected to be joining them to be honest, so I was surprised when I entered  the office to  find it empty except for Mort who, seated at his desk, beamed up at me in greeting, gesturing to a seat in front of him.

“You Ok, Jess?” he asked.

“Sure…look I need to explain a few things, Mort.”

 He  leaned forwards and clapped me on the shoulder. “No you don’t, son; it’s all sorted out; We apprehended Williams and he sang like a birdie….after Slim  and I had put a little pressure to bear.” He smirked, exchanging a look with my partner. “You are completely exonerated, Jess,  and I will be writing an article in the Laramie Examiner saying exactly that,” he finished.

“Thanks, Mort,” I said softly.

“ And there is something else,” he said, again looking at Slim and then back to me, a real worried look in his eyes. “That gunshot wound…well, I’m real sorry, Jess, but guess that was down to me. I’m so sorry, son; you just rode straight across my line of fire — nothing I could do.”

“What the hell were you playing at?” said Slim looking at me angrily. “You could have got yourself killed.”

“Yeah,” I said quietly looking down. “I figured something like that might have happened, Slim”.

He gave a low whistle. “You did, didn’t you. You did it deliberately. Why Jess? Nothing can be that bad.”

 “Nothing else I could think to do, Slim. I figured with me out of the picture, Mike would be safe, and I sure as hell couldn’t see my way back, not after my reputation had been shot to bits that way, and couldn’t see a life with the Hardy gang either, ” I finished. Closing my eyes for a moment, I swallowed, trying to keep the emotions at bay.

“Oh buddy,” Slim whispered and squeezed my shoulder gently, giving me a concerned look.

Mort lightened the moment by offering us a coffee.

“He can’t have any of your gut rot stuff,” said Slim. “Got a bad stomach; Doc says he’s to have a healthy diet.”

“Aw, Slim,” I said.

Mort grinned over at us. “Just a small one then,” he said, winking at me and pouring one out.

Later, as we were leaving, I suddenly remembered. “Where are the rest of the gang?” I asked innocently.

 Mort looked down and then up at me. “I’m sorry, Jess, but they were all shot down as they tried to escape; killed all of them. They didn’t give us any choice. Came outta that bank shooting  indiscriminately;  had to just down ‘ em as fast as we could. Four of them, that’s the whole gang, isn’t it?”

I looked down quickly and then back at Mort. “Yeah, that’s right,” I said, “that’s the whole gang wiped out now.” I thought of Cal back at the cabin, too sick to ride with us. I had got to know and like him, considered him a friend, and I knew he had only been involved in a couple of raids, had only been in the gang a few weeks and had never in that time gunned anyone down. I figured his one mistake had been signing up with Hardy and he freely admitted that. Hell, we’re all allowed one mistake, I thought, and kept quiet.

When we got back to the ranch, Daisy made a big fuss over me and started responding to Sam’s orders right away by giving me a diet of scrambled eggs and just milk to drink.

“Aw, Daisy,” I said, “a man could starve to death on these rations.”

“Looks like you’ve done a pretty good job of starving yourself to death already,” she replied tartly.

And then smiling over at me, she added, “Finish that milk and you can have some apple pie. Guess that won’t hurt you .”

Mike grinned over at me. “Sure is good having you back, Jess. Meal times have been no fun without you.”

“How  so, Tiger?” I asked smiling across at him.

“well, nobody shouts or yells or knocks things over. Real quiet it’s been,” he said, giggling.

“Think it’s time you were in bed, Mister,” said Slim, clipping him gently around the ear.

“Aw, Slim, can’t I stay up with Jess a little longer?” he asked.

“Off you go, Tiger,” I said. “I’ll be going to bed myself soon.”

The boy went off to bed and Slim and I took our coffee out onto the porch so we could chat together as we usually did at the end of the day. We’d already discussed most things, including how Cal had laid into me so fiercely, causing the internal injuries. Suddenly remembering about Cal again, my heart missed a beat knowing what I had to do… and how hard it would be with Slim around.

I knew I had to ride out at first light to warn Cal and to tell Becky about her brother and the rest of the gang dying. Mort had asked me to show him where the camp was in a week or so, when I was fit to ride, just in case there were any proceeds from previous raids hidden there. I sat with my coffee looking out at the distant horizon, wondering how I was going to broach it with Slim that I was about to go off again so soon. I knew he would be real mad and try and prevent it, especially as I was feeling — and I knew looking — pretty ill.

Looking over at me with a troubled look on his face, Slim said, “Why did you lie to Mort, Jess?”

I looked at him innocently. “Lie?” I asked.

“Come on, Jess, I’ve known you long enough to know when you’re lying,” Slim said impatiently.

I looked down into my cup. “Maybe I was, but for a good reason,” I said, giving him a challenging look.

“Who are you protecting?” he asked.

“Cal, ” I said.

“What!” he exploded. “That hoodlum that nearly sent you to your Maker, half-kicking you to death. Hell, Jess, you’re still in pain now from the beating he gave you. Why on earth would you wanna help him?” he asked , looking astounded.

“Because he’s basically a good man who made a bad mistake, signing up with Wes, but I guess we’re all allowed one mistake, ain’t we?” I asked looking at my friend quizzically.

“Doesn’t sound like he’s that good,” he said. “Nearly beat you to a pulp. What was that all about anyway, Jess?”

“Jealousy, I guess,” I replied. “He’s sweet on Becky.”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “so how did it go with you and Becky?”

“About as well as it can go between a man and a woman,” I said, giving him a cheeky grin.

“How did that happen?” he asked, looking shocked.

“Well, I guess I explained all that bit about the birds and bees to you years ago,” I said laughing.

“I don’t mean how,” he said in exasperation. “I mean, why did you rake up all those feelings with Becky when you weren’t planning on staying around?”

“Well, if you remember rightly,” I replied, “I didn’t have a lot of choice, Wes expected me to be romancing’ his sister or, well…something bad was gonna happen to Mike. And maybe, just for a while there, I did figure on staying around.”

“What?” he said in a hushed voice clearly shocked.

“I guess I lost my way for a while there,” I said softly. “Figured once I got my face on a wanted poster, there was no way back. And I kinda felt I owed Wes something — commitment to Becky, at least. Wes looked out for me like when I was a young boy. I was so damn hurt and lost back then, I didn’t know where to turn, Slim; just 16 and all my family gone, Wes kinda took their place for a while. Guess that’s why I found it so hard having to kill him at the end. I knew he was a bad lot, but still…”

 “Then the whole thing with Becky… Guess all the old feelings came back. She was so beautiful and she wanted me, had waited all those years for me, Hell, what else could I have done? We were thrown together by Wes; all he wanted was for me to make a move on her and then make an honest woman of her….and well, I guess I could have made a go of it with her if things had been different. Now Wes is gone, I figure maybe I should,” I finished quietly.

“Do you love her?” asked Slim.

I looked at him, then away to the horizon. “just three little words, Slim,” I said after a while, “but I just couldn’t say them to her.”

“Maria?” asked Slim gently.

“I guess so; guess it will always be Maria. God, Slim, will I never get over that?” I asked, turning anguished eyes on my partner.

“Guess it will take a bit longer,” he said quietly. “Maybe when the right person comes along.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said softly. “Anyways, things went well between us, we got real close…and then….”

“And then? asked Slim

“And then, I went on the first raid, held up  the stage, robbed all the passengers. Hell, this wasn’t a game, Slim; this was real and I remembered why I had left before. That’s when I decided I just couldn’t live like that. Figured everyone here would have given up on me and I just couldn’t see a way out,” I finished sadly.

“Well, you did find your way out, buddy,” he said lightly. “Come on, now; guess you should be hitting the sack, get some of that rest the Doc was talking about.”

I took a deep breath ready for the explosion which would doubtless erupt from Slim when I hit him with my latest plan.

“Yeah,” I said quietly, “better get some shut eye. Got an early start tomorrow.”

He reacted exactly as I had predicted. “What!” he yelled. “And where in hell do you think you takin’ off to this time?”

“I’ve got to go and tell Becky about Wes and the others,” I said firmly. Then more softly, I added, “And to warn Cal the law will be visiting, make sure he gets away”.

“Goddamn it, Jess, you can’t do that. Aiding and abetting an outlaw — even Mort would have to lock you up for that. For God’s sake, do you never learn? The number of times I’ve had to haul you out of trouble because of your damn misplaced sense of loyalty, helping some stray, no good saddle tramp. Are you mad, Jess?” he finished angrily.

“Seem to remember you helping some stray no good saddle tramp a few years back,” I said giving him an intense look. “Figure you made the right choice then, didn’t you?”

He shook his head slowly and then looked over at me a faint smile on his face. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “So what time do we head off?”

“No…oh no,” I said firmly, “you ain’t coming. I sure as hell aren’t dragging you into this sorry mess, Slim. If anyone’s head is going in the noose, it’s mine, not yours.”

“Well, that’s just where you’re wrong,” he said, “because  either I ride out with you tomorrow or I ride to town and tell  Mort exactly what you’re up to. Choice is yours buddy.”

My head shot up and I gave him a hard look. “You wouldn’t,” I said.

“Try me,” he answered. “You ain’t the only one that can be stubborn, Jess.” With that, he stood up, stretching and making for the door, before turning. “Well come on then,” he said. “Early start, remember?” He went off chuckling to himself.

We set off at first light, and both decided to take the cowardly way out and leave a note for Daisy,  knowing she would be furious at me taking off, as I was far from well, and even madder at Slim for not stopping me. We told a bit of a white lie saying that I had asked to camp out and go fishing for a few days to aid my recovery, just in case Mort visited .We both felt real bad at lying to her, but couldn’t really see any other way;  we convinced ourselves we would make it up to her on our return.

“Guess we’d better get the paint brushes out when we get back,” I said mournfully.

Slim turned and gave me a faint grin. “Yeah,” he said, “guess that should do it. Just the house, though; I ain’t doing the barn roof again.”

“Hell no,” I agreed and we rode on in a companionable silence.

*****

We arrived at the cabin by mid-morning, and as we reined in our mounts, Becky came running out. I dismounted  and she ran into my arms, holding me tightly without speaking. Then after a few minutes, she looked up at me. “Thank God you are alright, Jess. Where are the others?”

I saw Cal walk out behind her and look at me enquiringly, and from my expression he knew the news wasn’t good. Looking down at Becky again, I whispered,  “I’m so sorry, sweetheart; none of the others made it back.”

“Dead?” she whispered.

I nodded.

“Wes  too?”

“Yeah, Wes too.”

I felt her tremble and she buried her face in my shirt as the tears began to fall.

I held her closely and waited for her to finish.

After a little while, she pulled back and gave me a weak smile and then looking across to Slim, who had been standing holding the horses. “I’m so sorry; you must think me really rude. You must be Slim. I have heard so much about you.” Leaning across, she shook his offered hand.

Looking behind her she said, “And this is Cal.”

 The big man came forward and pumped Slim’s hand enthusiastically. “A real pleasure to meet you Mr. Sherman,” he said. “Ol’ Jess here puts a lot of store in your friendship. It’s a real honor to meet you.”

 Slim looked a bit surprised, but grinning across at Cal said, “Well< I’m real pleased to meet you too, Cal.”

“I’ll make some coffee,” said Becky, turning to go in, but Cal stopped her.

” No, honey. Guess you’ve got things to discuss with Jess. I’ll make some coffee for me and Mr. Sherman here.” Turning to Slim, he said, “And I’d like a little chat with you, if that’s OK?”

“Sure,” said Slim. Looking across at me and giving me a sly wink, he said, “See you later, partner,” and disappeared into the cabin with Cal.

Becky turned to look at me again. “Shall we go a little walk?” she suggested. We wandered off to a small clearing in the woodland about five minutes from the cabin, a quiet private place.

We sat with our backs against a fallen log and surveyed the view of woodland and distant mountains in silence for a few minutes.

Then turning to me, she said, “How did it happen, Jess?”

I had been dreading her asking me that, but I knew I couldn’t lie to her. “It all went wrong from the start,” I said. “One teller wouldn’t open the safe. He tried to escape, so Wes shot him and then he was about to shoot the other one.”

 I turned to look into her sad eyes. “She was just a kid, Becky, panicked, didn’t know the combination. I jumped the counter, shielded her from Wes, told him to make a run for it, but he was so dang stubborn, he wouldn’t back down. He called me out instead. “

She sucked in a breath a hand, shooting to her mouth. “Oh God, it was you, wasn’t it; you shot him.”

I looked down and nodded.

She was silent for a long while and then said, “I’m glad it was you, Jess.”

“What?” I asked amazed.

“The other evening, he was watching you groom Traveler as we sat on the porch together. He was a little drunk, as usual, and he was saying how he wanted to go down fighting. He was so scared at the thought of the pain of dying from that illness, Jess,” she said, turning troubled eyes on me.

I just nodded again. “Go on,” I said softly.

“He said if he ever got into a shoot-out, he hoped it would be with you. Said you were the best damn shot he’d ever seen and it would be a good clean shot through the heart. Was it, Jess?”

“Yes, it was,” I answered. ”He knew he couldn’t out draw me, you know,” I said quietly.

“Yes, I know,” she replied, and with her head on my shoulder, quietly started weeping again.

After a while, I turned to her and gently kissed the tears away. “I’m so, so sorry, sweetheart, “ I said. “I sure as hell didn’t want to do it. He was good to me all those years ago, looked after me. If only he hadn’t let the drink win and turned into the killer he was,. then I guess we could have stayed friends.”

Then turning to look at her, I said,” Why, Becky? Why did he go that way?”

“It was a woman,” she said. “Wes fell for this beautiful girl. He had brought up me and my sisters, after Ma died, and I figured it was his turn for some fun. She was lovely and they were so in love, and then she was killed, shot in the cross fire of a Banister raid. You especially must understand what it is like to lose someone in a violent way like that,” she said, looking over at me.

 I gave a brief nod but said nothing.

”When she died, that did something to him, Jess. He was never the same again. All that anger, and then he started drinking, and his whole life went out of control. That was just before you met him, Jess; that’s why he was gunning for the Banister gang, just like you”.

I shook my head looking into the distance. “I never knew,” I said.

“He never spoke of it,” she answered. “I guess he felt a real bond with you because of that, though. He was real cut up when you left, you know, and not just because of you and me.”

I turned, and leaning down, kissed her very tenderly. Then pulling back, I looked deeply into her eyes. “What about you and me…now?” I asked.

“That’s what Cal meant when he said I wanted to talk to you,” she said calmly I’m marrying Cal; we’re leaving tomorrow,” she finished.

I was absolutely amazed. “Why? Don’t you love me?”

She looked into my eyes and I could see the tears welling up again. “I love you more than life itself,” she said, “but I can’t be second best.”

I gave her a puzzled look but said nothing.

“That first time we made love, I told you I loved you…but you couldn’t say it back, could you, Jess?”

I looked down, ready to deny it, but then looking into her kind honest eyes, I couldn’t do that. So I just looked out to the horizon and gently shook my head.

“You are still in love with Maria, aren’t you?” she whispered.

“I guess,” I said. “I’m so sorry sweetheart. I tried, thought maybe we could make a go of it…”

“No,” she said more firmly. “I have made a commitment to Cal and I couldn’t do that to you, Jess. You would be miserable. It couldn’t work; I see that now.”

Then looking lovingly at me, she said softly, “Kiss me one last time, Jess.”

I leaned over and kissed her gently, meaning to pull away. Heck, she was committed to Cal and I liked the guy, but something in  her kiss made me carry on and we were suddenly in a real passionate embrace. I  knew I should stop and was just about to pull back, before the point of no return, when I suddenly felt a hand grabbing the neck of my shirt and was forcibly dragged off Becky.

Before I could turn, I said, “Cal, I’m real sorry, we were just…” and then I was spun around and a fist hit me full in the face sending me flying.

I lay on the ground for a minute getting my second wind and then looking up, looked into the eyes of a strange ugly man. Surprised, I looked around for Cal, but there was no sign of him. My attacker was a complete stranger.

He looked real rough and was dressed in traditional Mountain Men clothes of ragged furs and a tall hat and a rifle in his hand. He glared down at me and then across at Becky. “Who the hell is this, Becky?” he growled.

“It’s none of your business, Denny,” she replied. “And you’ve no need to call here anymore. Wes is dead.”

“Yeah that’s why I’m here,” he drawled. “Me and Wes talked some; guess he would want you to move up the mountain with me, Becky”.

“I’ll do no such thing,” she replied and started to turn away.

He marched over to her, and grabbing her arm, began pulling her away to his waiting horse.

All this time, my addled brain was trying to take in what was happening. First the unexpected passion with Becky, then I assumed we’d been caught by Cal, and now this confrontation with a perfect stranger. I lay there dizzy from the haymaker he had laid on me.

 As soon as he started manhandling Becky, though, I instinctively sprang into action, and hurling myself at him, brought him to the ground. We rolled over, wrestling and punching. I hit him hard in the stomach, winding him and then dragged him up and landed another couple of punches, and he went down hard. I figured he was out of it and turned to comfort Becky who was looking dazed.

 That was a big mistake because he came round and attacked me from behind, sending me sprawling, I got up again and landed another couple of punches, but I was tiring and then he suddenly launched himself at me and landed a violent blow to my stomach. The white hot agony seared through me as I fell to my knees, clutching by belly and groaning.

 Quick as a flash, Becky grabbed the Mountain Mans rifle from where it had fallen when I attacked him, and aimed it at his chest. “Get outta here now, Denny, or by God, I’ll shoot you where you stand,” she screamed.

He turned pale. “Now come on, Miss Becky that was all just a bit of a misunderstanding,” he said, “No need to get yourself all riled.”

“Just go,” she spat, and with that, he turned and mounted his horse. “Guess I’ll be callin’ again when you don’t have company,” was his parting shot as he spurred his horse off in the direction of the mountain range.

Becky ran over to me and said, “Jess, you’re hurt. Real bad, aren’t you?”

I shook my head. “Nah, just winded some,” I said with a weak smile. “I’m real impressed, Becky. Guess you can look after yourself,” I said, smiling at her in admiration.

“Oh, that was just ol’ Denny, one of Wes’s drinking buddies, harmless enough,” she said, grinning at me.

“Sure he is,” I said faintly, holding my belly and breathing deeply.

“Oh Jess, let’s get you back to the cabin and I can tend to you,” she said, looking worried.

“No,” I said quickly. “I’m fine, really, Slim and I need to head off…and Becky, don’t say anything to him. He tends to fuss, you know,” I finished lamely.

I knew what the Doc had said about fighting, and the last thing I wanted was Slim fussing and taking me off to the Doc in Laramie. Then the fact that we’d been up to the cabin would come out and Mort would find everything out. I figured I wasn’t hurt too bad and I could hide it from Slim.

She looked a bit surprised but agreed. “Do you have to go so soon?” she asked, looking deep into my eyes. “I’d sort of hoped we could spend a little more time together, before I have to go with Cal”.

I gave her a sad look. “Doing what, Becky? What we’ve been doin’ just? We can’t do that to Cal, wouldn’t be right. “

Then,  seeing the hurt in her eyes, I said, “Sweetheart, this is real difficult for me too. I want you, God knows I do, but it ain’t right and it’ll be easier for us both if I head out now. You’ve made your choice to go with Cal, and so that’s the end of it. You understand, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she said, “of course you’re right.” We walked back to the cabin hand in hand. As we approached it, I removed my hand gently from her grasp and said, “You will be happy with Cal, won’t you?”

  She turned and gave me a solemn look. “Yes, he’s a good kind man and I know he loves me. And, in time, I will get to love him too,” she finished quietly. “But I will never forget you, Jess,” she finished, and with that, ran ahead of me and entered the cabin.

*****

 Slim

We said our farewells to Becky and Cal as they stood by the cabin door, Cal’s arm slung possessively around Becky’s shoulders. But he didn’t see the look of adoration she shot Jess as he said goodbye, grinning and giving her a cheeky wink before touching his hat and riding off.

Once we were out of sight of the cabin, I turned to my partner and said,” How do you do it Jess, get all these women falling for you?”

He shrugged. “Dunno,” he said modestly.

“Well, is it your amazing wit and repartee?” I asked

“Huh?”

I smiled inwardly, Jess always got a bit confused when I started spouting the dictionary at him.

“Is it because you’re good at sweet talkin’ them?” I asked, re-phrasing my question.

He considered for a moment and then said, “Nah… I’m  just good at kissin’.” With that, he spurred Traveler on to a brisk trot heading for the lake.

We had decided to add a bit of authenticity to our trip by actually camping out at the lake and doing some fishing on the way back home.

I spurred Alamo on and caught up with him. “We lit out of there a bit quickly,” I said conversationally. “Thought you’d want to stay a while and catch up with Cal…and er…Becky,” I said, giving him a speculative look.

“Think I caught up quite enough with Becky,” he said gruffly. “Figured it was time to get goin’.”

“What happened?” I asked inquisitively.

“She just told me she was marrying Cal,” he replied.

Yeah, I know that,” I said. “Cal told me; he’s real happy…and a nice guy,” I finished.

“Yeah, that’s why I needed to get out,” he said quietly.

Suddenly I put two and two together. “Guess you did a bit more than talk about her up and coming nuptials,” I said, giving him a cheeky grin.

He just gave a brief nod but said nothing.

I shook my head slowly. “Beats me,” I said in wonder. “Beats me how you do it.”

We rode on towards the lake and he was a little ahead of me and I figured there was something wrong. Jess sits a horse with skill and grace, like he was born in the saddle, but today he was leaning crouched forwards, and  as I rode parallel with him I saw he had got a couple of his shirt buttons undone and his hand was inside holding his belly like he was in pain.

“Jess,” I said, and he immediately moved his hand and sat up straighter in the saddle.

“Huh?”

“You OK?” I asked

He looked over and just nodded, but I could see how pale and drawn he looked, his eyes glittering a little as if he had a fever, “You aren’t,” I said. “Do you want to stop for a while?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “Stop your fussin’, Slim; you’re getting’ worse than Daisy,” he finished, giving a little grin to take the sting out of the words.

“Maybe I am,” I said, “but I know when you’re sick, Jess, and you sure in hell don’t look too good right now.”

He insisted he was fine, though, so we rode on and arrived at the lake in the early evening.

I figured we were getting to the end of the Indian Summer we had been enjoying and the nights were drawing in chilly, so we opted to sleep up in the cave, just a little way from the lake up, a short stony track.

We took our bed rolls up and set a small fire and then went back down for our saddles and to settle the horses for the night, intending to hobble them by the lake where there was ample grazing. I went to tend to Alamo, and glancing across at Jess, saw him reach up and begin  to pull his saddle off Traveler and then he let out a loud groan and clutching his stomach fell to his knees.

I raced over, but he fell on his side, coughing and retching before I could reach him. He was curled up in the fetal position, obviously in great pain. I knelt beside him and gently turned him onto his back and reeled back in horror at the bright red blood splattered across his blue shirt. As I watched, he began to cough up more blood and I could only hold him and gently rub his back until the spasm passed.

I guess I panicked some, seeing the blood and swore. “Goddamn it, Jess don’t you go an’ die on me now.”

 After  a few minutes, he squeezed his eyes open and through the slits, I could just see the deep blue as he peered up  at me. “Don’t fuss,” he said in a weak voice. “I’ll be OK in a minute. I ain’t  goin’ nowhere.”

“Sure buddy, sure,” I said, and after a few minutes, he seemed to rally and tried to sit up.

 I gave him a hand and got him to his feet, and we made it slowly up to the cave, where he slumped down by the fire, his pallor shocking. He began to sweat and shake.

I looked down at him, feeling worried sick. “I’m going to have to ride for Doc Sam,” I said. “You need some help, Jess.”

He sat up straight and got real agitated, “No Slim, no you can’t…”

I knelt down beside him again and squeezing his shoulder said, “hey buddy, calm down. What’s the matter?”

 He sank back down, exhausted. “If you go to town, Mort will get to hear of it. He’ll go over to the cabin early and catch Cal and Becky,” he said urgently. ”Can’t let  that happen Slim. Can’t let them down….”

“Jess, will you behave and see sense. Mort needn’t know .You’ve gotta  have something for that pain and to stop the bleeding.”

“Have you ever known Mort not know what’s going on in the town?” he said weakly. “he’ll insist in riding over here with you and then he’ll want to know how I got this way, where we’ve been”.

“He’ll want to know,” I said. “I sure want to know too”. Then looking down at his ghostly white face, I could see a shadow across his cheek and then I realized it wasn’t a shadow but a fast forming bruise.

 I leaned over and started unbuttoning his shirt. He tried to stop me. “Hey, what you doin’?” but I was too fast for him. I knelt back on my heels in shock as I pulled his shirt open and saw his whole chest and stomach were covered in new black and blue bruises.

“What the hell…” I said. “I thought Sam said no fighting.”

“Didn’t have much choice,” he said. When I was out with Becky, this guy jumped me, never saw him until he was laying into me.”

“” So, why  didn’t you see him?” I asked. “It’s not like you to get caught out that way.”

“I was kinda busy at the time…with Becky,” he said, looking a bit embarrassed.

“Doin’  what exactly?” I   asked.

“Damn it, Slim, what do you want me to do? Paint you a picture?”

“Sorry,” I said quickly, “Wasn’t thinking straight. So what did this hombre want?”

“Becky. Figured now Wes was dead, he had  first claim on her. Mountain Man, drinkin’ buddy of Wes’. Reckon he thought he’d found himself a wife,” he finished dryly.

“I still think you need a Doc,” I said.

“Slim , please will you leave it? I’ll be fine in a day or two. This ain’t no worse than I’ve been before,” he insisted.

That night, he was real sick, had a high fever, and every time I tried to get some water down him, he threw it back up with more blood. I was getting so as how I didn’t know what to do anymore. I knew  he needed the Doc, that was for sure , but he got so upset when  I mentioned it, I figured it wasn’t going to do him much good and  I kinda felt I didn’t want to leave him either, state he was in.

The following morning, he seemed little better and he slept most of the day away, with me tending to his fever, washing him  down with cool water from the lake and trying to get him  to drink some too.

By the day after, he was more his old self, and although he still didn’t want to eat, he felt well enough to come down to the lake while I did a bit of fishing. He sat with his back to an old log, in the sun dozing. I figured he was right and it was only a matter of time before his stomach started to heal; I thought probably just sitting around quietly was the best medicine. He still looked pretty bad and was in some pain I could tell, but as usual, he made light of it.

I was sitting at the edge of the lake, fishing,  and I glanced back at Jess, who was propped up against a fallen  log and  I saw him suddenly sit up straight, shading his eyes and focusing on  something in the distance. As he did so, I heard him let go an angry expletive.

“What’s up, buddy?” I asked , turning to look in  the same direction and then I saw who it was — Mort Corey, advancing on  us at a fast trot. At least, Cal and Becky would be well on their way by now I thought, but I was worried that Mort would find out the part we had played in warning them. Jess must have read my mind as he said, “it’s OK, Slim; don’t forget he doesn’t know Cal exists. Just leave any awkward questions to me”.

A few minutes later, Mort reined in his mount and hopped down grinning at us both. “Miss Daisy said you’d skipped jail and gone fishin’, so thought I’d find you here,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied. “Ol’ Jess here was getting a bit stir crazy with all Daisy’s  fussin’, so we thought we’d take off for a few days .”

Mort looked over at my partner and gave a low whistle. “Gee, Jess, can’t say it’s done you much good; you look real sick, boy”.

“Oh I’m fine,” he said jumping up and clapping Mort on the shoulder. “Just a mite tired. Old Slim here snores something awful when we’re in the Great Open,” he finished, laughing.

I was amazed at his acting ability and he sure seemed to convince Mort, who sat down with us, and I poured him a coffee from the brew we had going on the camp fire.

“So what brings you over here?” asked Jess, smiling across at him.

“Well, it’s like this Jess. Don’t worry but young Mike is kinda sick again and he’s asking for you, Miss Daisy wondered if you could cut your trip short.”

Immediately, we both looked at each other and were about to stand up and start  to clear the camp when Mort spoke up.

“ Hey, easy there,”  he drawled. “Don’t think it’s anything to worry about/ Sam’s had a look at him, said it’s just  a real bad summer cold or dose of the flu, but he’s real unsettled and wants you guys around, I guess,” he finished, smiling at us.

We relaxed some after that and finished our coffee and chatted with Mort.

As he  stood up to go, he turned to Jess and said, “Seein’ as I’ve come this far out, figured I’d ride on  and take a look at that  outlaw camp, if you could give me directions, Jess.”

Jess went a shade paler, but figuring it was probably safe now, he directed Mort as to how to find the cabin. Mort took off, promising to call in on us on his return.

As he rode off, Jess sank back against the log giving a deep sigh and closing his eyes.

“That was some acting,” I said. “You had Mort convinced.”

He opened his eyes to slits and looked across at me. ”What acting?” he said

“Come on, buddy you can’t fool me,” I said. “I’m the one that’s been nursin’ you these last few days, remember?”

He ignored my comment and sat up, opening his eyes properly. “We’d better break camp and get home,” he said.

“You ain’t well enough to ride,” I growled. “Hell, Jess, you’re weak as a kitten. You couldn’t even get in the saddle unless I gave you a leg up.”

He looked down, considering what I’d just said and then he nodded in agreement. “Guess you’re right,” he said. “I’ll need a hand up”.

“Jess,” I said in exasperation, “you’ll kill yourself trying to ride state you are in.”

“I’ll be OK. Stop yer  frettin’,” he said.

I went off, shaking my head. ”OK , you win , but you sit there and don’t move, I’ll break camp and saddle the horses.” Turning to glare at him,  I saw him back down. “OK,  call me when you’re ready,” he said with a cheeky grin, pulling his hat down over his eyes and lying back against the log.

The usual half-hour journey back to the ranch took a good two hours as we had to go so slowly, and a couple of times I had to reach over and stop him falling from the saddle, although he point blank refused to ride double, saying he was fine.

When we arrived back, Daisy came running out and Jess tried his acting skills out again, but got nowhere with Daisy. He backed down and let me help him from the saddle and supported him as we walked inside. As soon as we were in, he asked, how Mike was.

Daisy’s face clouded. “Not too good,” she said. “Sam has been today and it is just a bad cold, he thinks, but the he seems really  poorly to me”.

“I‘ll go and see him,” said Jess and went quietly into the boys room.

After a while I went and joined them.

“How you doin’, Mike?” I asked

“Feelin’ a whole lot better now,” he said, grinning up at me before letting rip with a huge sneeze and blowing his nose loudly.

Once he had recovered, he looked over at me and Jess. “Sure is good having you both back,” he grinned, “Aunt Daisy is great and I really love her, but she can’t do stuff like us men folk — wrestling and ridin’ bare back and spittin’ and stuff,” he finished.

I turned to Jess. “Wrestling, bareback riding and spitting… Like you said, pard, it’s good to see we’re giving him a good start in life”

Jess beamed back at me. ”Sure is!” he agreed.

*****

EPILOGUE

Jess

It was a while since all the business with Joe Williams and Mike and the Hardy Gang, and things had settled back to normal. My stomach healed up pretty quick with Daisy takin’ charge of me, and Slim and I painted the house as we had promised.

The corrupt Circuit Judge was imprisoned for gross misconduct, and the judge that had signed our original adoption papers was fit and healthy again. When he visited Laramie, he asked especially to see Slim and I to confirm that we were the legal guardians and always would be, and also endorsed his commitment that I was indeed a suitable person for the role, which made me feel a whole lot better.

Williams was also given a prison sentence and was told he would never have access to Mike again without consent from Mike himself.

A few weeks after Cal and Becky had headed off, I received a letter containing nearly 800 bucks. It was Cal’s proceeds from the two robberies he had taken part in, and he said he just couldn’t keep it and would I see it went to the charity that had been set up for robbery victims. I was pretty shocked, I must admit, as I knew it was his stake on a wagon train heading West, and knew he and Becky had their hearts set on a new life out there.

 Later that day, Slim and I were sitting out on the porch talking about it all.

“Guess it was the chat we had, while you and Becky were out, um…..walking,” said Slim. I shot him a dirty look at that but said nothing.

“Yes,” Slim said. “He was really impressed with our friendship, how you said I’d helped you make a fresh start, and that it was possible to turn a life around, even when you are at rock bottom.”

 I turned and looked at my partner. ”Yes, I guess that’s true,” I said. “You know how much I appreciate all you have done for me, Slim.”

“Yeah, but that’s not what I’m getting at,” he said. “What Cal said was that you showed a similar trust in him, and that’s what made him go for a fresh start. I figure that’s why he has returned the money. And you also gave him confidence to tell Becky how he felt too.”

“That was sure a wrong move, then; lost her to him, and all my own fault. Guess I’m losin’ my touch, pard,” I said, grinning across at him.

“Oh…. I very much doubt that,” he said laughing. “Anyway, I thought you said you didn’t love Becky?”

As we sat on the porch, I looked out at the horizon, and said, “What I said was I couldn’t say those words to her.”

Then quietly, I continued. “Maybe I did love her, Slim; I was just too scared to admit it. I guess I was in such a bad state after Maria, maybe I just don’t dare risk it all again.”

We sat in silence for a while and then he looked over at me smiling. “No, I don’t think that’s so, buddy. I guess you’ll know when the right girl comes along, and knowing you, you’re so damn stubborn nothing, will put you off!”

I smiled back at him. “Maybe  you’re right there. Sure hope so anyway,” I said. Then Daisy called us in for supper and Mike was begging to go fishin’ the next day and life went back to normal. But a little part of me still thought, what if……..?

***End***

Thank you for reading!

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One thought on “An Exchange (by Patty W.)

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