Reprisal (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG  (Warning some adult themes, violence and strong language)
Word Count:   42,200


 

 

The members of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station were sitting around the breakfast table and all eyes were focused on the youngest member, Mike Williams, who was holding his stomach and groaning loudly.

Slim Sherman, the tall blond rancher, had a look of frustration on his face, while his friend and business partner, blue-eyed, black-haired Jess Harper, looked sympathetic. However, it was Daisy Cooper, the kind elderly housekeeper and surrogate mother to the group, who spoke out first.

“Mike dear,” she said patiently, “this is the fourth time this week you have complained about tummy ache, and when we keep you away from school, it miraculously clears up. Doc Sam says there is nothing wrong, so will you please stop this play acting and tell us what the matter is? “

The boy stopped moaning, but just sat looking down at the table and refused to look Daisy in the eye.

Jess exchanged a look with Daisy, and then looking at Mike, said softly, “Hey Tiger, I know school ain’t much fun, but you gotta go, so there is no point in all this frettin’ and fussin’.” Then he said thoughtfully, “Is there someone upsetting you there, Mike?”

“No, no there ain’t,” Mike yelled angrily.

“OK, calm down, buddy,” said Slim gently.

“Is the work too difficult? Do you need a bit of extra help with it?” Slim asked. “‘Cos I can give you a hand; that isn’t a problem,” said Slim.

“No, I’m fine,” said the boy sulkily.

“Well, in that case, go get your bag. Mose will be here in a minute and he won’t hold the stage for you, you know that.”

The boy slowly left the table and did as he was bid.

Later, as the stage disappeared in a cloud of dust, Jess turned to Slim and said, “Something has upset the boy, that’s for sure, and I aim to get to the bottom of it. Guess I’ll take him down to the lake for a spot of fishing on Saturday, just the two of us, see if I can get him to talk about it.”

“Good idea,” replied Slim. He knew there was a special bond between Jess and Mike as the young rancher had also had a very difficult start to life when all his family were burned to death in a fire deliberately set by the Bannister gang whereas Mike had witnessed his parents killed at the hands of an Indian raiding party.

Jess was only fifteen when his family was wiped out, and following that, went on the drift for many years, gaining a reputation as a fast gun and eventually falling afoul of the law. It hadn’t been until he fetched up at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station and started working for Slim that Jess gave up his old gunslinger ways for good and was now a partner in the ranch.

Jess never forgot his past, though, and on more than one occasion, it had come back to haunt him as one or another unsavory character sought him out. It was probably because of all the scrapes and trouble he had often found himself in that Jess could recognize trouble instinctively, and he had a gut feeling that little Mike was in big trouble of some sort. He was determined to find out what it was.

They walked back into the house and Daisy stopped clearing the dishes as they entered. “Did he get off all right?” she asked with a worried look.

“Yeah,” said Slim, “bit tearful, but he went OK”.

“I just don’t understand it,” she said, “Maybe he is sick — all those falls he has been having lately — or maybe there is a problem with his eyes. He seems to be walking into things or falling over them. He had that nasty bruise on his face last week and said he fell in the yard at school, and that isn’t the first time, either.”

Daisy had been a nurse during the war and used her skills around the ranch frequently as one or other of the members of the household were often in need of her help or advice. They all looked up to her for her medical knowledge and plain old-fashioned common sense.

“I wonder,” she said softly. “Maybe I’ll have a word with Doc Sam, get an eye test. Could be he can’t see the blackboard.”

As Mike had been adopted by the two ranchers a few years ago after his parents were killed, they knew nothing of his medical history and agreed that poor eye sight might indeed run in his family.

“Well, there ain’t nothing wrong with his appetite that’s for sure,” said Jess grinning. “He’s been eating supper like he’s been starving all day, so reckon his health is OK generally.” Daisy nodded in agreement.

With that, the two ranchers went about the business of the day and Miss Daisy set about doing the weekly wash. It wasn’t until the afternoon stage arrived that they were once more confronted with Mike’s problems.

As he jumped down from the stage, instead of running off to find Jess and Slim and regale them with the day’s news, Mike ran straight to his room and didn’t even come out when Daisy called that supper was ready.

After a few minutes, Jess got up from the dinner table where Daisy had started serving, and after tapping on the boy’s door, he went in, closing the door quietly behind him.

Mike had drawn the curtains, although it was early summer and still light outside, and he was lying on his bed with his back to the door.

Jess came into the dimly lit room and sat down on the edge of the bed. With a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder, he pulled him around to face him and was shocked to see the tears streaming down the child’s face. “Hey Tiger what’s up?” he said softly.

The little boy just sat up and threw his arms around Jess and continued sobbing, but said nothing.

After a few minutes, Mike finally stopped and Jess said, “Come on, it can’t be that bad; just tell me about it.” But the boy remained stubbornly silent, no matter what Jess said, and so Jess decided to give up for the present and change the subject.

“Supper is ready,” Jess said, deciding to change tack. “Fried chicken and beans and pie after.” He looked hopefully at the youngster.

“Not hungry,” whispered Mike.

Jess gave him a concerned look and felt the boy’s forehead, but it was cool and his eyes, although red from crying, looked bright enough; Jess figured he wasn’t sick. “I’ll get Aunt Daisy to keep something for you in case you change your mind,” he said quietly and rose to leave. He paused at the door. “Just come and find me when you’re ready to tell me,” he said softly before returning to the main room.

Slim and Daisy looked up, concern in their eyes when he returned to the table alone.

“Not hungry,” Jess said quietly.

“Oh, he must eat,” said Daisy, starting to rise from her seat, but Jess caught her hand and pulled he gently down again. “I should just leave him for now,” he said. “He’s kinda upset; figure he’d rather be alone.”

“Are you sure?” she asked looking worried.

Jess nodded. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow,” he said. “Leave it for now, Daisy.”

They continued their meal in silence, preoccupied with what could be the matter with their usually cheerful and philosophical young charge.

The following day was Saturday, and Jess took off for the lake with Mike directly after lunch. It was a very hot day and a long hot ride, so when they arrived Jess suggested a swim first to cool off.

Mike had been more his old self on the ride over, but at the idea of swimming he looked worried again. Jess started to strip off to his cut off long johns and dived in, and a few minutes later Mike joined him and was soon having a wonderful time splashing about.

It was some time later that they finally came out of the water and flopped down near the bank to dry off in the sun. Jess lay on his back enjoying the feel of the sun beating down, and after a little while he got up and pulled his denims on. He was just reaching down to get his shirt when he glanced over at Mike, who was also stretched out in the sun, and what he saw made him reel back in shock.

Mike’s skinny little frame was covered in bruises, some dark purple and others fading to yellowish brown. Jess just stared, his mouth suddenly dry. He swallowed, and then flopping down beside Mike, said in a voice husky with emotion, “Who did this to you, Tiger?”

The boy was obviously relaxed and had forgotten to hide the marks. His eyes shot open and he made a grab for his shirt to cover up, but Jess was too fast for him and he grabbed it first. The boy looked down and then across at his friend, his lip quivering as he tried to control the tears.

“Come here,” said Jess softly and the boy came and sat next to him as Jess threw a comforting arm around him. After a little while, Jess said, “So tell me all about it.”

Finally Mike opened up and told him all about the new boy at school, Josh Deacon, and how he started off by making fun of Mike, saying he was odd because he didn’t have a proper Ma and Pa.

At this, the boy could hold back the tears no longer. “He said I was a dumb little orphan who lived with an old lady and a boring rancher and a no- good gunslinger, and as how I shouldn’t be in school with decent God-fearin’ folk.”

Jess took a deep breath, trying to hold it together, although he was already shaking with anger. He said quietly, “Then what happened?”

In between sniffs, Mike continued his tale. “Well I said as how I’d tell you and the teacher…and that’s when he started hitting me and taking my lunch. Said if I told, he’d do worse, much worse — get his Pa to shoot you and Slim –stuff like that,” he finished softly.

“So where does this kid live?” asked Jess

“They’ve just bought the old Benson place at the back of us,” he said, “But Jess, you can’t say anything…you just can’t.”

“Oh can’t I?” said Jess a look of grim determination on his face. “So how old is this Josh?” he said thoughtfully.

“I’m not sure about 15 I think”.

“And how big is he?”

“Well, he’s real stout and about this high,” said Mike, gesturing with his hand to about a foot taller than himself.

“So this kid is almost twice your age, definitely twice your weight and a good head taller?” finished Jess angrily.

“I guess,” said Mike. Then, with a gleam of hope in his eyes, he asked, “Could you teach me to fight, Jess, the way you do? I bet I could beat him if you showed me real good.”

To be honest, Jess had been thinking the same thing, but on reflection thought maybe his opponent had way too much of an advantage. “Well, you know as how Slim and Daisy don’t want you to learn to fight the way I do,” he said quietly.

“Why not?” asked Mike.

“Well, I guess I fight dirty and it’s something Slim doesn’t want you to learn.”

“But you always win, Jess,” said the lad in consternation. “I don’t understand; that’s what counts.”

“Yeah,” said Jess, thinking the exact same. “Anyway, Slim is going to teach you proper boxing when you’re older, but even so, Tiger, I guess this hombre is way too big for you to take on.”

“So what can I do?” asked Mike, looking at his friend in despair

“Well I’ll tell you what you’re gonna do,” said Jess with an encouraging smile. “You’re gonna walk real tall and you’re gonna look this kid in the eye and tell him to get lost and then you’re gonna walk away.”

“But he’ll think I’m a baby if I walk away,” said Mike. “I’ve been trying to fight him trying real hard, but he is way too big, you’re right,” he finished sadly.

“Mike, look at me,” said Jess. “You’re not a baby to walk away; sometimes it takes more courage to walk away than to stay and fight,” he said sincerely. “But what I will do is just show you a couple of moves that should help to get you out of trouble if he attacks you again, but you don’t start it, you understand?”

“Yeah, Jess, I understand,” said the boy, grinning for the first time that day.

So Jess went ahead and showed him a few moves that certainly weren’t in the Queensbury rules, but had served him well over the years. “Remember,” he said firmly, “That is just to get you out of trouble if he attacks you first.”

“Yes sir,” the boy said looking decidedly more cheerful.

“And,” said Jess, “I will be calling on his folks and have a word or two to say to them and this Josh too. That’s my job, Tiger, to look out for you. OK, you understand?”

“Sure, OK, thanks, Jess. I just know it will be alright now,” Mike said with a big sigh.

Jess wasn’t quite so convinced, but he sure was going to do his best to beat the problem, no matter what it took.

After that, they concentrated on their fishing, and when they got back to the ranch Mike ran in waving his catch and saying he’d had a real good afternoon.

Once he was tucked up in bed, Slim looked over at his partner as he poured a last cup of coffee, before retiring, and said,” So what happened, buddy? Did you find out what’s buggin’ the little fellah?”

Jess looked across at his friend and then over to Daisy and said, “Yeah, guess I did.” He went on to tell them about the vicious bruising to the boy’s body and the terrible taunts and bullying he had suffered.

Daisy gave a sharp intake of breath, her hand shooting to her mouth. “Oh, I should have noticed,” she said, “but he’s got so shy about undressing in front of me lately, I just thought he was growing up and it was natural modesty.”

“It’s OK, Daisy,” said Jess. “None of us noticed. It was just luck today and only because he’d been swimming and was relaxing in the sun and I guess he just forgot about it all for a few minutes.”

“What are we going to do about it?” asked Slim, looking anxiously across at the other two.

“Well I’ll tell you,” said Jess at once, “I’m riding over to the old Benson place first thing tomorrow and giving them a piece of my mind!”

“Now Jess, don’t go stirring things up and making it worse,” started Slim.

“Makin’ it worse!” exploded Jess, “How could it be worse? The poor kid has been scared out of his mind and is black and blue. The only person things are about to get worse for is that Josh Deacon.” With that he strode off to bed, leaving Slim and Daisy looking anxiously after him.

*****

The following morning, Jess rode out after breakfast, and taking the back track to the old homestead, he was there in ten minutes. Reining Traveler in, he hitched his mount to the corral fence and looked around him.

Old man Benson had died several years ago, and since then, the place had stood empty and it was a mess. The fences were down, the vegetable patch neglected and overgrown, and the house itself in obvious disrepair.

He was just going across to knock on the door when a sulky-looking boy with dark greasy hair and wearing filthy denims walked across from the barn, a scowl on his unprepossessing face. “What do you want?” he said, looking over to Jess and slouching against the corral fence.

“You Josh Deacon?” asked Jess equally frostily.

“Maybe…who’s askin’?”

Jess had had enough of the boy’s attitude, and striding across to where he lounged against the fence. He went and stood really close. Glaring down at him, Jess said in a menacing growl, “I’m Jess Harper, the no-good gunslinger from the Sherman Ranch. Figure you’ve met my ward, Mike Williams.”

The boy turned pale and stood up straight, casting his eyes around him for a means of escape.

“Guess your Pa never taught you it’s not a good idea to mess with a gunslinger,” Jess said very quietly, bringing his face down to Josh’s level and giving him a hard look.

The boy whimpered but said nothing.

“You seem to know a lot about us over at the Relay Station,” Jess continued, “so I guess you’ve heard all about my quick temper? “

The boy nodded almost imperceptibly, like he was terrified to move a muscle.

Jess pushed him none too gently in the chest and the boy fell back against the corral fence and this time cried out, “Don’t hurt me, mister, please don’t hurt me.”

Jess loomed over him and said sarcastically, “Yeah, it ain’t much fun being picked on by someone, bigger and stronger and tougher, is it, Josh?”

Josh shook his head. “No sir.”

Jess eased back and said, “I’m gonna talk to your Pa and Ma, and I guess it’s up to your Pa to tan your hide for what you’ve done, not me.” Then leaning forwards again so that he was inches from the boy’s face, Jess said in a menacing whisper, “But if you ever so much as harm one hair of that boy’s head again, I’ll come after you and you’ll wish you’d never been born…understand?”

“Yes,” stuttered the boy, tears now streaming down his face. “I understand.”

Just then the ranch door swung open and a woman in her late thirties with dark hair tied back, wearing a shabby dress, stood there, a double barrel shotgun in her hands aimed at Jess’s belly.

“What do you want, mister, and why have you been upsetting my boy?” she said harshly.

Jess walked towards her, ignoring the gun, and said, “I’m Jess Harper from the Sherman Ranch just over the ridge and there is no need for that,” he said gesturing at the gun. “I ain’t about to do you no harm, Ma’am.”

She put the gun down and ran over to her son, throwing a protective arm around him. “So why have you upset my boy?” she said again, looking over at Jess angrily.

“Well, I’ll tell you as to why,” said Jess equally angrily. “Your boy there has spent the last few weeks bullying a terrifying a little kid half his age and half his size. Been kicking him and punching him and stealing his lunch everyday…and that’s got me kinda annoyed,” he finished glaring at the woman.

She turned to the boy and said, “Is this true, Josh? “

He hung his head in shame. “I guess.”

“Why?” she asked, looking shocked.

“I dunno. I’m sorry, alright,” the boy shouted before turning and running into the barn.

She turned back to Jess, all the fight gone from her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what’s got into him lately. I’ll talk to him.”

“Talk to him!” Jess exploded. “He needs a trip to the woodshed and his Pa needs to do a hell of a lot more than talk to him.”

She looked down sadly. “Well, that isn’t going to happen, Mr. Harper. Josh’s Pa is away at present…on business. I’ll tell him on his return of course.”

“Of course,” muttered Jess darkly.

“In fact, it is probably his Pa being away that has made him rebel this way. It’s been hard for him with his Pa gone these last few weeks; he’s had a hard time,” she finished lamely.

“Oh no,” said Jess furiously, “that ain’t a hard time. I’ll tell you what a hard time is, lady. It’s being a six- year-old kid, hiding in the bushes and watching your Ma and Pa slaughtered and scalped by Indians and then the same to the rest of the people on the wagon train and being left alone there to wander around until someone finds you. Then eventually you pull it all together again and start a new life with your adopted family, only to have some brat of a kid come and put the fear of God in you again.”

She had been watching him a look of increasing horror on her face.

“Yeah, that’s what happened to Mike before we adopted him,” Jess spat. “Now that’s what I call a kind of  hard life….but I don’t see him turning round and  bullying the other kids”, he finished, shaking with anger.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” she said softly, and turning from him, brushed a tear away.

Jess hadn’t missed the simple action, though, and suddenly his anger evaporated. “No, how could you,” he said softly.

She turned back with a grateful smile. “And I really am sorry for what Josh has done. It’s unforgivable and I understand why you are so angry,” she finished.

Jess looked down and said, “Yeah, well, I don’t think we’ll have any more trouble from the boy,” and turned to go.

Suddenly feeling sorry for the woman stuck out on the run-down ranch with nobody but the surly boy for company, he turned back to her and said, “Is your husband due back soon? Because this place could sure use a man to work it.”

She shook her head. “I’m not sure,” she said. “He’s away on business,” she repeated. “It will be a few months, I think.”

“A few months…” Jess echoed. “He…. I mean, heck, you can’t survive out here for months with no one working the land. What do you aim to live on?”

“Oh I’ve some savings,” she said defensively “and I intend to dig the vegetable patch, so we won’t starve. Maybe get a few chickens,” she said vaguely.

“Well they won’t be hanging around long, state of your hen house,” he said. Then with a big sigh, he declared, “I guess you’re in need of a bit of help, Ma’am.”

“Oh no, Mr. Harper, I don’t want to be beholden to you, especially after what Josh has done,” she said quickly.

“What about Josh? Why hasn’t he done anything to help you?” Jess said with a flash of anger.

She just shook her head, looking defeated. “I have asked him to help, but he always seems to come up with some excuse,” she finished lamely.

Jess looked out at the distant vegetable plot and then, shaking his head sadly, said, “Guess I’m not doing much this morning, with it being Sunday, I’ll make a start on your vegetable garden.” Putting a hand up to stop her refusal, he said firmly, “But I won’t be doin’ it alone; the boy will help me.” Before she could say anything, he pulled his hat down firmly and walked purposefully off towards the barn.

The woman never knew the conversation that passed between the two in the barn, but the outcome was that her son worked alongside the rancher the whole of the morning without protest. In fact, by the end of the morning, the youngster seemed to have acquired a grudging respect for their new neighbor and did everything he was asked without argument.

As she watched them working together from the cover of the porch, she saw Jess had stripped off his shirt in the heat of the noon day sun. He wandered over to the horse trough and dunked his head in to cool off before pulling up and shaking it like a dog, droplets of water sparkling in the fierce sun.

She left the porch and walked over to him, carrying two glasses of cool lemonade, and as she approached, he looked up and grinned at her, his black hair still dripping water down his bare chest, his deep blue eyes twinkling with mischief. “Got the boy doin’ a man’s work,” he said cheerfully.

As he spoke, her stomach flipped and she couldn’t remember the last time she felt so attracted to a man. Blushing, she handed him the cold drink, and gathering herself, said lightly “Well, thank you. Mr. Harper; I guess he is in need of a man’s influence.”

“Jess,” he said quietly, “the name’s Jess.”

She smiled at him and the smile lit up her face. Looking over at her, Jess was amazed at the transformation and the tired, anxious woman was suddenly changed into a beautiful one. Jess stared, keeping eye contact for a moment too long, before turning away and calling Josh over for his drink.

“In that case, you must call me Victoria, well, Vicky really, if you’d like to,” she said shyly.

Jess just nodded and then Josh joined them. As Jess made a joke teasing the boy about his hot sweaty appearance, she was amazed to see her son grin back and couldn’t remember the last time he was in such good humor.

Shortly afterwards, Josh took Jess off to show him a mustang he had managed to catch the week before, but had no idea how to break.

Jess looked at the wild, prancing animal that had trouble written all over him. “You got yourself a mess of trouble here, boy,” he said, admiring the very pretty Palomino, but knowing the beautiful appearance probably hid a will of iron. “Know anything about horse breaking?” he asked looking down at the boy.

“Nah,” Josh said, “You?”

“Do it for a living,” replied Jess, giving him a speculative look.

“Would you……”

“Would I what?” asked Jess

“Nah, it’s OK,” said the boy. “I shouldn’t ask you.”

“Well, I guess you’re not in a position to be asking me any favors,” Jess said, giving the boy a small smile. “But I figure your Ma has got enough on her plate trying to run this place single-handed without you sitting that bronc and breaking your neck in the process. So yes, I will break him for you, show you the ropes and all, but you, young man,” he said firmly, “will start pulling your weight around here and doing exactly as your Ma says. Deal? “

The boy gave him a broad grin, and taking the offered hand, they shook on it. “Deal,” he said happily.

Shortly afterwards, Jess rode out, promising to return and do a few more jobs fixing up the place and also to make a start on breaking the Palomino later in the week.

When he got back to the ranch, Jess showered and got changed into his best clothes ready to spend the afternoon with his current girl, Suzy Morgan. She lived on a ranch a several miles away with her folks and Jess had been seeing her on and off for e a few months. They shared a sense of humor, but had a somewhat volatile relationship at times, as she had an eye for the men and occasionally gave Jess the run around. He refused to stand for that and just left her to her own devices, but she always came back to him and would beg to be forgiven.

Slim thought the relationship hilarious and was secretly surprised that Jess hadn’t dumped her before now, but then again, she was incredibly beautiful, so he figured his partner would forgive a lot before he was finally pushed too far.

As Jess dashed out of the ranch, wearing a smart frock coat, his best trousers and a pristine white shirt and black necktie, Slim was just coming in. Leaning forwards, he tipped Jess’s Sunday best hat down over his eyes, and asked, “Where are you off to, looking like a dog’s dinner?”

“Oh ha, ha,” said Jess sarcastically. “Seeing Suzy and I’m late.”

“So how did it go with the boy?” Slim called after him.

“All sorted; tell you later,” yelled Jess over his shoulder. Hopping up on Traveler, he left the yard at a gallop, leaving Slim grinning at his hasty exit. “Sure got you hog-tied, partner,” he said softly before turning and entering the ranch house.

*****

 The following week when Mike came back from school, he was his usual cheerful talkative self and was full of how Josh had apologized to him and even given him his beloved pocket knife to seal their friendship.

Jess was a bit apprehensive of this newly-formed liaison and wondered as to how much was genuine affection and how much just keeping Jess happy so that he would break the mustang. However, as the days passed, Josh visited the ranch on several occasions. They could see that the feelings he had towards the younger boy were indeed genuine and they seemed to have forged a good friendship.

Jess remarked upon the change in the Josh’s general behavior to his mother a few days later.

She smiled back at him. He’s a changed boy,” she said smiling up at Jess. “And it’s all down to your influence. He still gets angry and surly at times, but not nearly as much,” she said happily.

“Well, I guess that goes with the territory, of bein’ a young man growing up,” Jess said lightly.

“Were you like that at fifteen?” she asked casually and was surprised as Jess took a deep breath and looked very uncomfortable before saying quietly, “I had a hell of a lot more anger in me than Josh, but then I guess I had cause.”

“Why is that?” she said softly, seeing that Jess was obviously upset.

There was a long pause when he said nothing, just looked down.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, “I shouldn’t have asked. It’s none of my business.”

“It’s Ok,” Jess replied, and went on to tell her how the Bannister Gang had deliberately burned down the family homestead  killing his Ma and Pa and most of his siblings and how he had gone on the drift, with hate in his heart, searching endlessly for the gang, but never finding them. And then how he had got a reputation as a fast gun and had been in trouble with the law before settling down at the Sherman Ranch.

Her eyes became huge with shock as he told his tale and she was obviously extremely moved. When he had finished, she said, “Oh, Jess,” very softly and gave him an intense look.

Conscious of the new intimacy between them, he tried to lighten the atmosphere and said jokingly, “Well, before that all happened, I guess I was just your regular young lad, only thing on my mind was girls.”

She smiled across at him. “Is that still so?” she asked flirting a little.

Jess put his head on one side and gave her a grin. “Guess so, only I do have one or two other things to think about as well,” he finished laughing.

“Anyone special?” she asked casually.

“Yeah, sort of.” He nodded. “I’m seeing someone.” Then changing the subject, he said he was due back at the ranch and left soon after.

As he rode back, Jess played over the conversation in his head time after time. Had she been flirting with him or had he just imagined it?

He knew he felt attracted to her, and he guessed she had been making a real effort to look good for him. Only that day, she had been wearing a new low-cut dress and said Miss Daisy had been helping her with some sewing.

Then he remembered the occasional intense gaze when she had held his look longer than necessary and the perfume she had started wearing and it all started adding up.

“No,” he said to himself. “Back off, Harper; you ain’t travelling down that road again”

The last time he had been attracted to a married lady, she had made all the running but eventually he had succumbed to her charms, only for the allegedly estranged husband to turn up and beat the living daylight out of Jess. “Oh no,” he said again firmly. “I ain’t goin’ there again,” and spurred Traveler on to the sanctuary of the ranch.

He didn’t visit for over a week, and then he started feeling guilty, imagining the boy trying to break the mustang alone and inevitably falling and hurting himself. Even Jess with all his skill was having a hard time staying on the beast, and he knew that the young boy would have no chance at all.

So the following Saturday, he returned, but took Mike with him as a sort of chaperone, smiling at himself at the use of the old fashioned word. But there was no need, and although Vicky seemed genuinely pleased to see them both, she just treated them like the good neighbors they were and there was no hint of intimacy in her looks or words. Jess began to think he had imagined the whole thing.

He continued visiting on a regular basis and spent time working on the house and outbuildings as well as attempting to break the recalcitrant, Palomino. One evening, he was up on the bronco and the beast was doing his best to chuck him off again when the prancing and bucking suddenly became even more aggressive than normal, and on galloping full tilt across the corral, he stopped and Jess was hurled off and came down hard, cracking his head on one of the fence posts.

Josh, who had been seated on the fence watching, leapt down and ran over, pulling the rancher to safety out of the corral and then peered down at him in shock, as his friend lay there motionless and white as a sheet.

Josh ran to the house calling for his Ma and the couple returned just as Jess was coming around. He struggled to sit up, but fell back down again as Vicky knelt beside him her eyes wide with fear.

“Jess, what happened?” she asked.

“Fell, kinda badly,” he whispered, swallowing deeply before continuing. “Caught my head on the post.” He couldn’t go on as he suddenly felt sick to his stomach. His head was aching really badly, and as he attempted to sit up again, everything spun around and he had to lie back again.

Finally, after a few minutes, he felt a little better, and with the help of Vicky and Josh, was able to stagger to the house and collapsed on the couch.

Vicky fetched a bowl of cool water and some bandages and carefully cleaned the dirt out of the deep wound on his temple. As she did so, Jess sucked in a harsh breath, in obvious pain.

” I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I must clean this well, Jess; it’s very deep.”

He closed his eyes and said, “Yeah, it’s Ok,” and with his mouth set, he gave in to her ministrations without further sound.

Once she had finished, he attempted to stand up, but just collapsed back again, the whole room spinning.

“You must stay here for the night,” Vicky said, looking anxiously at him, “I think you may have some concussion. Do you feel sick, Jess?”

“Yeah, a little,” he said quietly, “and real dizzy.”

“Well, there is nothing for it,” she said firmly. “You are not to move again tonight. Josh will ride over and tell them all at the ranch, and if you are no better in the morning, we’ll ask the Doctor to come and visit.” With that, she gently removed his boots went and found a blanket to cover him with.

Much later that night, she was woken up by Jess calling out in his sleep. She hurriedly tugged a shawl over her flimsy night dress and ran from her room next door to the main living room where Jess was still lying on the couch.

She had left a night light on, and walking over, she looked down at him, illuminated by the dim light.

He was thrashing about and crying out, although she couldn’t tell what he was saying, but he was obviously having a nightmare.

Leaning over him, she gently shook him awake and he sat up with a start, looking fearfully around him for a minute trying to remember where he was. Then he looked up into Vicky’s worried face and flopped back with a sigh of relief, “Sorry,” he said weakly, “bad dream”.

She sat down on the edge of the couch and pushed his unruly dark hair back from his forehead, and after a second said, “You’re awfully warm, Jess. Do you feel alright?”

He was suddenly aware of her closeness and state of undress as the shawl had fallen back exposing the thin night dress. Trying not to think about it, he said softly, “I’m OK.”

 But she could see he wasn’t.

She left the room and appeared a few minutes later with the bowl of cool water again and bathed his damp forehead, looking deep into his eyes. “Better?” she asked.

He nodded and gave her a small smile. “Yeah,” he said quietly, “sorry to be a nuisance.”

She was seated on the edge of the couch again really close to him and she suddenly reached across and caressed his face gently, before saying very softly, “You could never be a nuisance.” Then after a short pause, she looked intently into his eyes and said, “I think I love you, Jess.”

He stared back at her his eyes opened wide with shock.

He felt a longing for the woman and admitted to himself, at last, that he was deeply attracted to her. It would be so easy to just pull her down to him in an intimate embrace, to kiss her passionately. Carry her back to her bed… He made his thoughts stop there. No, he had promised himself he wouldn’t do this; he had to be strong.

After a minute, he took her hand and removed it from his face, but keeping hold of it, looked down intensely to where it was clasped in his.

 Eventually he tore his eyes away and looked back up at her and replied, “No, you don’t, Vicky. Guess you’re just lonely…missing your husband.”

She shook her head vigorously. “Oh no,” she said bitterly, “You’ve got that wrong, Jess, I don’t miss him one little bit. In fact, I hate him with a passion.”

“What?” he stuttered.

“He beats me, Jess, and the boy. He’s usually more drunk than sober and the only reason we are having a bit of peace now is because he is languishing in the Cheyenne jail. So no, guess you’ve got that real wrong.”

He looked back at her in amazement. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he said softly.

“What good would it have done? You would have just felt sorry for me and I didn’t want that,” she replied sadly.

He thought about that for a minute, but said nothing.

After a while, tears welled up in her eyes and rolled down her cheek. Looking at Jess, she said, “Is it because I’m so much older than you, that you don’t want me?”

“Hell no,” said Jess at once. “And I do…want you that is, but it’s wrong, Vicky. You’re a married woman, no matter what, and I won’t be party to coming between a man and his wife.”

“Even if the wife hates the husband, wishes he was dead?” she said harshly.

“Even then, I guess,” he said softly. “You’re still married, ain’t you?”

She nodded, and then a thought struck her and she gave him an anxious look. “Jess, please, please don’t make this change anything…your visiting I mean. You have made such a difference to Josh and he really looks up to you.”

Jess said nothing for a moment, just looked down, an unfathomable expression on his face.

“I promise to forget this conversation ever happened,” she continued. “I shouldn’t have said anything anyway, with you having a girl friend and all. I’m really sorry, Jess. It was just seeing you laying there looking so vulnerable, like a little boy… I’m sorry. Can we just go back to how it was?” she finished urgently.

Jess gazed across at her a look of confusion on his face as he suddenly realized he had hardly given Suzy a thought over the last couple of weeks. All he had been thinking about was his next visit to see Vicky, and Jess realized with shock that he was in deep already without even realizing it. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if I can do that, Vicky.”

He didn’t know if he could trust himself, working along beside her, without taking the inevitable step which would set their relationship on an entirely different footing.

She could see he was wavering. “Please Jess,” she said, “I don’t know how you have done it, but you have managed to turn Josh’s life around. He would be devastated if you left now”.

He thought about it for a few minutes and then said very softly, “You know, Vicky, there was once a little fellah living out on the panhandle, and his Pa was too fond of the bottle too. Beat the boy black and blue most days — and there wasn’t nobody around to help.” He lapsed into silence, looking intently at her.

“That was you, wasn’t it?” she whispered.

He just nodded and then said softly, “So I guess I’ll stay around if you need me”.

“Thank you so much,” she whispered. Leaning over, she kissed him very gently on the cheek, and with that, rose and left the room, closing her door quietly behind her.

To save her embarrassment, Jess decided to ride out at first light. He felt a lot better the next day as he left the homestead, quietly closing the door so as not to wake Vicky.

He had left a note for Josh, saying he would be back the following week for round two with the mustang, and giving strict instruction not to tackle him. The he put a small PS for Vicky: ‘feeling much better, see you next week, as ever, Jess’.

When he arrived at the ranch, the others were still sitting around the breakfast table and Daisy leapt up when he walked in and said, “Oh Jess, your poor head. How are you feeling? We’ve been so worried.”

“I’m fine Daisy,” he insisted. “Much better now, really; just needed a good night’s sleep.”

Slim gave a smirk and said quietly, “So where did you sleep, buddy? On the couch?”

Jess gave him an angry look. “Sure, on the couch. Where do you think?”

“Slim,” said Daisy in a shocked voice, “what are you implying?”

“Oh nothing, Daisy, nothing at all,” Slim said with an innocent look in her direction and a secret wink at Jess.

“What does implying mean?” piped up Mike.

All three turned on him and said, “Just eat your breakfast, Mike!”

Later that day, as Jess and Slim were taking a break from their chores and were sitting out on the porch, Slim cast a glance behind him to check the door was shut and Mike and Daisy were out of earshot before looking over at his best friend, saying, “So what really happened last night, Jess?”

“Nothing,” he said angrily. “I told you. That no-good mustang pitched me off on my head and I felt real bad and spent the night on the couch, that’s all,” he finished, looking down.

“Come on, Jess, that’s not all. I’ve known you too long to know when you’re stretching the truth. So….she came on to you, didn’t she?”

After a moments silence, he said softly, “Yeah, I guess.”

“I knew it, I just knew it,” said Slim, grinning at his friend. “Beats me how you do it, Jess,” he finished in wonder. “So what…er, I mean…”

“Whoa, there,” said Jess quickly. “Nothing happened; she’s a married lady, for God’s sake.”

“Well, that sure hasn’t stopped you in the past,” said Slim, his grin growing wider.

“Aw Slim, you know that last time well, she did all the running in that relationship; a man would have to be made of ice to have resisted her,” he said. “Anyways, look what happened. I sure as hell ain’t about to get into that situation again.”

“So, you’re not visiting anymore then?” asked Slim.

“Didn’t say that, did I?” growled Jess. “Just not taking her up on the offer, that’s all.”

Slim guffawed. “Oh really?” he responded.

“Yes, really. I’m just goin’ to help her with the boy, that’s all,” he finished.

Slim seemed to change the subject. “Saw old man Morgan in the saloon last week,” he said conversationally. “Said you’d not been by to visit his Suzy in a while; he said she was mighty sore at you.”

Jess’s head shot up and he glared at Slim. He was about to open his mouth and say something, but changed his mind.

“Seems she saw you in town at the mercantile with Vicky and Josh last week; seemed a mite annoyed about it. Said you passed her in the street, but you were too busy laughing about something with them that you never even noticed her. Guess you’ve got a few fences to mend there, buddy,” he finished quietly.

Jess said nothing, but he had gone very pale and Slim figured he had hit a nerve.

The following Sunday, Jess rode over to the Morgan ranch and Mr. Morgan answered the door. “She doesn’t want to see you, Jess,” he said sorrowfully.

“What am I supposed to have done?” growled Jess angrily.

“Well, seems you only had eyes for Mrs. Deacon the other day; never saw our Suzy,” he said gently.

“Well, she’s got a tongue in her head, ain’t she?” yelled Jess. “She could have said something.”

“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger,” said Mr. Morgan stiffly.

Jess apologized at once. “I’m real sorry, Mr. Morgan. I’m just kinda upset. Please ask her again. I’ve ridden all the way over here. Surely she’ll see me?”

Mr. Morgan went back in, and after about five minutes, Suzy finally marched out to where Jess was leaning on the hitching rail, scratching Traveler behind the ears.

He stood up straight when she came over to him and said quietly, “Suzy.”

“Well,” she said, folding her arms angrily and tapping a neat little foot. “This better be good. Managed to drag yourself away from MRS. Deacon?” she asked sarcastically, stressing the Mrs.

“Now hold on a minute,” said Jess crossly, “just what do you mean?”

“Oh, I think you know very well what I mean. You’re seeing her, aren’t you, Jess?”

“No, not the way you mean, anyway, I’m just helpin’ her out a bit. It ain’t easy for a woman alone, working the land and bringing up a headstrong boy,” he replied.

“So you’re saying there is absolutely nothing between you?” she asked, arching an eyebrow and giving him a hard look.

Jess paused just a fraction too long before opening his mouth to reply, but she jumped in before he could do so.

” I knew it,” she screamed and ran into the house in tears slamming the door behind her.

 He turned to follow her and then thought better of it. Hopping up on Traveler, he left the yard at a gallop, muttering, “Women!”                                                                                     

*****

Jess rode back in a real temper, and after rubbing down Traveler, he stormed into the ranch house. Making straight for his room, he barged in, slamming the door behind him and threw himself on his bed.

Daisy and Slim, who had been sitting at the table in the main room enjoying a cup of coffee, exchanged a look. Then Slim got up and said quietly to Daisy, “I’ll see to him,” before entering their shared room and closing the door quietly behind him.

Jess was lying on his bed looking up at the ceiling; he turned as Slim came in and sat down on his bed looking across at his friend.

“Don’t start,” growled Jess, giving him a hard look.

Slim raised his hands in an act of surrender. “Hey, buddy, I’m on your side. Just thought you might want to talk about it.”

Jess said nothing for a while, just continued to stare at the ceiling. Then he turned and said quietly, “Suzy seems to think I’ve got something going with Vicky Deacon.”

Slim paused for a moment before replying, “Well, she’s kinda got a point,” he said softly.

Jess said nothing.

“You can’t deny you have feelings for her Jess. I’ve seen you two together. Hell, anyone could tell, and I’m hardly surprised that Suzy noticed it.”

“Slim, you’re really not helping,” said Jess crossly.

“Guess you’re just going to have to face up to it, Jess. Suzy deserves more than you two-timing her.”

“How many times do I have to tell you there is nothing going on!” yelled Jess angrily. He jumped off the bed and went to look out of the window.

“Well, if there is nothing going on, why was she here with Daisy half the afternoon, breaking her heart?” said Slim in frustration.

“What? She was here?” asked Jess looking surprised.

“Yeah, brought Josh over to go fishing with Mike in the creek. Soon as she heard you’d gone to Suzy’s for the afternoon, she got in a huddle with Daisy and they were jabbering away all afternoon in Daisy’s room. You’ve only just missed her.”

“What did she want?” asked Jess, looking decidedly ill at ease.

“Dunno. Daisy wouldn’t say. Said they’d talked in confidence and she couldn’t repeat it, but she sure looked worried.”

Jess stormed out of the room and threw himself down on a chair at the table. Looking across at Daisy, he said, “What did she want, Daisy?”

Daisy gave him her firm, no-nonsense look. “I can’t tell you that, Jess. She has told me things in confidence and asked me not to repeat them. I’m sorry, dear, but I have to respect that, no matter how upset you are with me.”

Jess leaned forward and buried his head in his hands for a moment before looking up at his friend and confidante. “Please, Daisy. Is it something I’ve done? I didn’t mean to hurt her. I just…..”

“Jess, I think you should talk to her yourself. That is all I’m going to say on the subject.” With that, Daisy got up and went into the kitchen to start preparing the supper.

As she did so, Daisy thought back to the conversation she had had with Vicky that afternoon and her heart bled for the woman.

They had become firm friends over the past few weeks, and Daisy was well aware of  the woman’s feelings for Jess, although this afternoon had been the first time she had really opened up to her friend. Vicky had come to drop Josh off as he was to go fishing with Mike, and then they were camping out the night in the home pasture. However, as soon as she knew Jess was out, she asked to speak to Daisy in private.

They had entered the older woman’s room and Vicky sat on the bed while Daisy made herself comfortable in her rocking chair. “So tell me, dear. What seems to be the problem?” Daisy asked kindly.

Vicky looked across at the older woman as if trying to make up her mind, then said softly, “I did a very foolish thing last week Daisy; I told Jess I loved him.”

Daisy tried not to look shocked and said, “Well dear, if that’s the way you feel, maybe you did the right thing. What did he say?”

“That he didn’t want to know. Said it was because I was married, that it was wrong, Oh Daisy, I feel so ashamed. He is right, of course; I committed myself to Jed and I should stand by that, for better or worse.”

“Yes, dear, but if he beats you as you have told me before, and the boy too, well, you just can’t stay with a man like that.”

“But what can I do? I have no money; my savings are almost gone now, and so I can’t go back home to my folks. Anyway, he would track me down. He is so jealous, he terrifies me Daisy. It’s just easier to do as he wants.”

“Do you want me to talk to Jess for you? Is that it?” Daisy asked softly. “I know he is very fond of you, and Josh too, but you know he is seeing Suzy Morgan, don’t you. He has gone there this afternoon”.

“Yes, I know, Daisy; he told me and no, I don’t want you to say anything to Jess. He has agreed to forget the whole business and still visit and help me with Josh. No, it’s something else…something terrible.” Then she bent her head and started sobbing uncontrollably; it was some time before she could speak coherently again.

Eventually she calmed down, and taking a deep breath, she said, “The thing is, Daisy, well I’m pregnant and I want to get rid of it. “

This time, Daisy looked deeply shocked and finally said softly, “Is it Jess’?”

“Oh no, no Daisy, you’ve got it all wrong. Jess and I, we haven’t…well we haven’t been intimate. No, it is Jed’s. Must have been conceived about two months ago, just before he was caught after the bank robbery. He has been in prison ever since. He doesn’t know about it, though. Doc Sam only confirmed it yesterday.”

“So Jess doesn’t know anything about it?”

“No, and I don’t want him to, either. I don’t want anyone to know. But you were a nurse, Daisy, and I wondered, well, if you would help me get rid of it?”

Daisy didn’t even consider it. “No, dear, certainly not. This is a new little life and it isn’t the baby’s fault if it has a disreputable father. Anyway, it is far too dangerous; so many women die in the process. Please promise me you won’t do that, please dear, especially as you are an older mother> How old are you? Thirty-seven?”

”No, thirty-nine next birthday, and I know the pregnancy is difficult at my age anyway. I just thought…oh, I don’t know. I think I’m going crazy with worry.”

Then Vicky had broken down in tears again and asked Daisy to forgive her for having such wicked thoughts. “I’m sorry,” she said sadly. “I am just so desperate; I don’t know what I’m doing.”

This had all been several hours ago and now the three residents of the Sherman ranch sat around the supper table silently eating their meal.

Daisy and Slim made a valiant effort to eat at any rate, but Jess just pushed his food around the plate before giving up completely. After a while, he excused himself from the table and said he was going to check on the boys.

He walked out to the small patch of pasture land at the back of the ranch and quickly saw where the boys were camped out with a fire merrily crackling away, their bedrolls beside it. He walked over and squatted down beside them. “You two OK?” he asked grinning.

“Sure are,” smiled Mike, looking up at his best friend. “Josh is gonna tell me some ghost stories.”

Jess glanced across at Josh. “Don’t make ‘em too scary, huh, buddy,” he said softly.

 Josh exchanged a grown-up look with Jess and said, “No, don’t worry.”

Jess stood up, ready to go, and then turned back. “Your Ma Ok, Josh?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure,” grinned Josh. “Probably glad of some peace and quiet.”

“Yeah. Maybe I might just pop over and check on her, though,” said Jess, “It’s a mite lonely over there.”

“OK,” said Josh happily. “Sure she’ll be glad to see you.” With that, the boys resumed their campfire stories and Jess went off to saddle up Traveler.

Dusk was drawing in as he arrived at the old ranch, and there was a light shining out of the window.

 Jess tapped gently on the door; Vicky answered it almost at once, and holding the door open, invited him in.

Under the lamp light, she looked pale and drawn and she had obviously been crying.

Jess walked towards her and put a gentle hand on her arm. “Hey, sweetheart, what’s the matter?” he said softly.

“Nothing, I’m fine,” she said, giving him a small smile. “Just starting with a cold that’s all,” she finished, turning away from his intense gaze.

“Slim said you were crying in Daisy’s room this afternoon,” he said. “Now are you going to tell me what all this is about? Is it me? Have I upset you?”

“No, really it’s nothing,” she said. “Just women’s troubles; I needed some advice from Daisy, that’s all.”

“Are you sick then?” persisted Jess.

“No, not really. Jess, will you please just leave it.” She started to cry softly.

He took her in his arms and she rested her head on his shoulder, luxuriating in his comforting embrace.

After a few minutes, he pulled back and looked her in the eyes. “You would tell me if any of this is my fault, wouldn’t you?” he said softly.

“Yes, of course. I’m fine, Jess, really; just being silly. I’ll be fine in a few days. Now just forget it please. I appreciate you coming over, but I’m real tired. I was just going to have an early night, if you don’t mind.”

Jess stood back, feeling slightly hurt. “Oh, sure, I’ll go then,” he said quietly.

She could see she had upset him, but she knew if he stayed any longer, she wouldn’t be able to hold out and she would end up telling him about the baby and she really couldn’t face that. What would he say, what would he think of her, saying she loved him and carrying another man’s child?

He turned to go and walked out through the door, but stopped on the step and looked back at her. Leaning forwards, he took her in his arms and hugged her again. Then as he pulled back, he looked deeply into her troubled eyes before reaching down and kissing her very gently on the lips. He stood back, looking down at her. “I’m here for you if you need me. You know that, don’t you?” he said softly.

She nodded and gave him a wistful look before going back inside and closing the door quietly behind her.

He stood for a moment looking at the closed door, his heart hammering in his chest, his frame shaking with emotion, and it took all his resolve not to go back inside and kiss her again.

Backing off, he went and jumped on his horse and left the yard at a fast trot.

When he got back, the house was in darkness save for a small night light left on the bedside table for him. He entered the bedroom softly and began undressing quietly before climbing into bed, suddenly feeling weary.

Slim stirred and then woke up. Looking over at his friend, he said quietly “Been to see her, then?”

Jess nodded. “Yeah.”

“So what’s it all about then, buddy?” Slim said sleepily.

“Beats me,” said Jess softly. “She wouldn’t tell me.”

“Maybe it’s her no-good husband. Could be he’s getting out soon? “

“Yeah, could be. Figure I’ll go and see Mort and find out if he knows anything about the guy,” Jess said.

Mort Corey was the Laramie Sheriff and good friend of the two ranchers; they knew he would help if he possibly could.

“Try and get some sleep, buddy,” said Slim softly. “It probably ain’t as bad as you’re thinking.”

But he couldn’t have been more wrong, because things were set to get a whole lot worse before they got better.

*****

The following morning, the two youngsters joined the adults for breakfast and were full of the night’s adventures.

“We stayed up real late tellin’ stories by the fire and drank some of Aunt Daisy’s special cocoa and we had a real fun time,” said Mike, his eyes sparkling as he looked around the table.

“Well that’s great,” said Slim. “But I hope you’re not too tired to do your chores, Mike. Those eggs won’t collect themselves and then there is your pony to tend to and….. “

“OK,” said the boy quickly, “I know and the wood to bring in.” With a huge sigh, he got up and left the table. “See you at school on Monday,” he said, grinning across at his friend as he left the room.

“You bet, kid,” smiled Josh. Looking back and then turning to Daisy, he said, “Thank you for breakfast, Ma’am,” and then to Slim and Jess, “and for letting me stay over.”

“Hey,” said Jess, grinning back at him, “who are you and what have you done with that ornery Josh Deacon?”

“Aw Jess,” said the boy laughing, “I wasn’t that bad…was I?”

“And then some,” replied Jess, giving him a playful cuff. “If you’ve finished eating us out of house and home, I’ll deliver you back to your Ma on my way to Laramie,” he continued.

“Oh, are you going to town, dear?” asked Daisy.

“Yeah, just got some business,” said Jess quietly, hoping she wouldn’t enquire further as he didn’t want Josh to know he was visiting Mort to check on the boy’s father.

Josh never mentioned his Pa and Jess figured it was probably a rather sensitive issue and didn’t want to upset the boy by prying into the family’s problems.

“Could you just get a few things from the store?” Daisy asked, giving him her best smile.

Jess grinned back. “Sure, I’ll hitch up the buckboard. Probably need it knowing you and your few things.” With an arm slung casually around Josh’s shoulders, they both went off to prepare the wagon, laughing at some private joke as they went.

Daisy turned to Slim. “He’s worked wonders on that boy. When I think what he was like, how cruel he was to Mike, well, he is like a different child. Treats Mike like a little brother,” she said fondly.

“Guess Jess understands ornery young men, having been one himself not so long ago,” said Slim, laughing.

“Oh Slim,” she said with a playful slap, “you are very unfair to poor Jess.”

“Poor Jess my foot,” Slim said, grinning at her before going off to help Mike with his chores.

As Jess drove Josh home, he turned to the boy and said, “Thanks for being so good with Mike. I appreciate it and I know he really looks up to you, you know?”

The boy blushed with pleasure. “Well, he’s a great little kid,” he said softly, “kinda like a little brother, I guess.”

Jess gave him a quizzical look. “Would you have liked brothers and sisters?” he asked.

The boy pondered the question and then said, “Yeah, I guess I would, but it ain’t ever gonna happen.”

“Oh?” said Jess softly.

Josh looked over, like he was considering whether he should confide in Jess, and then said, “Ma and Pa don’t get on too well, haven’t for a long time. Pa got hurt real bad, shot up in the war…and well, he started drinking to ease the pain, he said. But that was a long while ago and he got better, but he just never stopped the drinking, I guess”.

“I’m sorry about that,” said Jess quietly. “That war ruined a lot of good men.”

“Yeah, well, you were in the war, Jess. Mike told me all about it, that prison camp and how you still get nightmares, but you don’t hit the bottle…”

Jess stayed silent but gave the boy a comforting smile.

Josh looked away to the distant horizon. “I hate him, Jess. He beats me, which is bad enough, but the worst is…”

“What, boy?” asked Jess gently.

“When he hits Ma and stuff, she screams and cries and I try and stop him. I swear one day, when I’m grown, I’m gonna get a gun and kill him, Jess.”

“Hey, whoa there,” said Jess firmly. “There are other ways to deal with him, Josh, and anyways, I guess he’ll be banged up in jail for a while yet. Time to think of a way out.”

“You know about that?” said the boy, looking at him in surprise.

Jess just nodded. “Your Ma told me.”

“You get on well with Ma,” said Josh thoughtfully. “You like her, don’t you, Jess.”

“Sure,” Jess said, smiling across at his young companion. “I like you both.”

“I don’t mean that,” said the boy looking at him intently. “I mean you really like her. I….”

But Jess cut in quickly and said firmly, “Like I said, I like you both.” Then they were entering the yard and Jess pulled the horses to a standstill.

Josh jumped down. “Come in for a coffee. Ma will want to thank you for having me an all,” he said quickly.

Jess hesitated; he hadn’t planned on seeing Vicky that morning, as his emotions were still all over the place after that oh so soft kiss of the night before. He could still feel the gentle pressure of her lips on his, smell her perfume and his pulses started racing again at the thought of her.

“Come on then,” said Josh as he made for the front door, and against his better judgment, Jess hopped down and went inside with him.

To his surprise, Vicky was seated in the rocking chair by the fire and she was still in her night dress, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. She looked terrible, white as a sheet and shaking.

She jumped up from the chair as the two entered and said,” Oh Jess, I wasn’t expecting company. Excuse me, I must look awful.”

He smiled gallantly and said, “You look just fine, a mite pale maybe. Are you feeling OK?”

With that, she suddenly put a hand to her mouth and dashed from the room.

Jess and Josh looked after her in consternation and then Josh shook his head and looked really worried. “Not again,” he said softly. “I thought she was over this”.

“What is it?” asked Jess, looking equally concerned.

“She keeps being sick in the morning,” said the boy. “Doc said it was a stomach bug, I thought she was better, but guess I was wrong.” Then excusing himself, he went out the back to check on her.

A few minutes later he said,”Ma is lying down in the back room, says will you pop in for a minute.”

“Sure,” said Jess, and knocking on the door, entered the bedroom, leaving the door open behind him. He walked over to the bed where she was lying against the pillows looking deathly pale, a slight sheen of sweat on her face,

Sitting down gently on the edge of the bed, he said,” Hey, sweetheart, are you OK?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said quickly. “I saw the Doc the other day; it’s just a bug I’ve picked up.”

“You sure?” he said looking concerned. “Would you like me to fetch Daisy? “

“No, really, I’m fine and I want to thank you for having Josh. I know he loves spending time over there at the Relay Station with you all.”

“Yeah,” said Jess absently and then, “Are you sure it’s nothing serious?”

“I’m sure. Now I’ll just take a nap and be fine by lunchtime,” she said, giving him a brave smile.

“OK,” he said softly, “I’ll call back later, check you are alright.”

She just nodded and closed her eyes. Jess left, promising Josh he would return later in the day.

Jess worried about her all the way to Laramie, and when he arrived, instead of going directly to see Mort as planned, he parked the buckboard by Doc Sam’s office, and jumping down, went inside.

Carrie, Sam’s pretty daughter and nurse, was sitting at the desk, filling in some forms, but when she looked up and saw Jess, her face was suddenly wreathed in smiles. “Well, hi there, cowboy. How are you?” she said cheerfully.

Carrie and Doc Sam were very good friends of his and often visited the ranch for picnics and fishing trips. Sam always said Jess was very good for business, the amount of times he got himself beat up or shot and needed Sam’s care.

Jess returned her smile and said, “I’m fine thanks, sweetheart. Is your Pa around? “

“Sure,” she said, and after calling her father, disappeared to go and make Jess some coffee.

Sam came in and beamed over at Jess. “Hey, how are you doing?” he said, “and more importantly, how are the fish biting in that creek of yours?”

Sam was a very keen fisherman, so the men exchanged fishing stories for a few minutes until Jess could contain his impatience no longer.

“Sam,” Jess suddenly burst out, “I’m worried about Vicky, I mean, Mrs. Deacon. She seems real sick. Have you been treating her for something? Is she bad, Sam? “

“Hey, hold up there partner,” said Sam softly. “You know I can’t tell you personal details about a patient unless you’re close family.”

“Please, Sam, I’m…well, I’m real worried about her.”

Sam gave him a speculative look, and then said, “So it’s true what they’re saying in the saloon. You are seeing her, Jess.”

“What!” Jess yelled. “Since when have you paid any credence to what they say in the saloon, Sam? She is a respectable married woman. Of course I’m not seeing her. I’ve just been looking out for her and Josh. It ain’t easy for a woman alone around here, you know that.”

“Hey, Jess, this is me you’re talking to. Don’t give me that rubbish about not seeing married women. Don’t forget, I was there last time; it was me that had to patch you up, if you remember.”

“Aw, Sam, will you and Slim never let that lie?”

“Ok, fair enough, but as to Mrs. Deacon, you may not be seeing her now, but you sure as hell want to, don’t you, Jess?”

Jess said nothing, just looked down.

“I suppose you know her husband is a drunk and a damn dangerous one, by all accounts,” Sam continued.

“Well, I would have thought that was all the more reason as to why she could use a friend,” spat Jess angrily.

“This business has got you real fired up hasn’t it, Jess?” Sam said softly.

“I’m just worried about her as a friend, that’s all, Sam.”

“OK, then as a friend, I’ll tell you she has no major health issues, but if you want to know more, you will have to ask her yourself.”

Jess gave his friend a weak smile. “Thanks,” he said “and I’m sorry to put you in a difficult spot there, Sam. It’s just…”

“Just that you are a caring neighbor, I know,” said Sam with a broad grin.

 Just then, Carrie entered with their coffee. “What are you two grinning at?” she asked.

“Nothing,” they replied, in unison, before laughing at the look of disbelief on her pretty face.

A little while later, Jess crossed the street and entered Mort Corey’s office.

 The Sheriff looked up from where he was pouring himself a cup of coffee and, grinning at Jess, he gestured to the pot, asking if he wanted one.

Jess shook his head. “No thanks, Mort; just had one over the street with Sam.” He plonked himself down in the chair opposite Mort’s desk.

Mort came over and sat down. “I’m glad you’ve popped in, Jess,” he said. “Wanted to ask a favor. Wonder if you could cover for me? “

“I thought Slim was doing that,” Jess said, looking surprised.

“Yeah, I know, he was, but I just need someone for tomorrow. This dang trial in Cheyenne has been brought forward by a day. Apparently one of the key witnesses is real poorly. Judge doesn’t think he’ll last so……”

“OK,” said Jess. “I know Slim can’t do tomorrow — got the Stage Line boss visiting — so guess I’ll do it for you and he can ride over Friday morning and take over.”

“That sounds fine to me. Thanks, Jess. Now what can I do for you?”

“Well I was wondering if you knew anything about a hombre called Jed Deacon, banged up in the Cheyenne jail for armed robbery and assault. Just wondered if you knew when he was due out?”

“That wouldn’t be Vicky Deacon’s husband that has just moved in at the back of your spread, would it, Jess?” Mort asked, raising an eyebrow.

Jess nodded.

“Ah,” said Mort reflectively. “So the word on the street is right: you’ve dumped that pretty little Suzy Morgan in favor of an older woman then?”

Jess jumped up, his eyes blazing. “Goddamn it, Mort, what in hell is wrong with the people of Laramie? What’s so dang interesting about my personal life that every man woman and dog seems to want to discuss it?”

“Calm down there, Jess boy, I’m only repeating what I’ve heard.”

“Yeah…well you’ve heard wrong. Now are you gonna tell me about Jed Deacon or what? “

“Sure,” said Mort, giving him a placatory smile. “He’s real bad news, Jess. Beat up a couple of innocent cashiers when he turned over the bank in Rawlins. He was drunk and foul mouthed; miracle he escaped state he was in. Anyway, the Sheriff caught up with him holed up in a shack in the hills with his wife and boy”.

He was silent for a while, then turning serious eyes on Jess, said quietly. “They were a real mess; he had beaten them both real bad. She was crying with relief when he was carted off.”

Jess swallowed deeply, his hand clasping his gun butt in its holster, like he wanted to draw and shoot someone. He took a couple of deep breaths to steady himself. “Then what happened?” he asked softly.

“Well, it was obvious they had been held there against their will, and so they weren’t implicated in the crime at all. So…I helped her get the Benson place real cheap. Guess she aimed to work it with the boy and hoped that her old man wouldn’t find her, but, well, I figure he will sooner or later. She seemed…well, I don’t know, sort of resigned to her fate. Said she’d married him and had to pay the price. Didn’t have enough money to go back East to her kin anyway, so guess she had no choice but to stay around here.”

“Guess not,” said Jess thoughtfully.

“So,” said Mort looking over at his good friend, “Just between us, what is the deal between you two?”

Jess shook his head sadly. “She is just a friend right now, Mort, and things are kinda complicated you know?”

“Sure,” Mort said softly. “Anyway, Deacon isn’t due parole for another twelve months. Guess a lot can happen in that time, eh, buddy?”

Shortly after that, Jess went over to the mercantile to collect Daisy’s supplies and then after looking over at the saloon, decided against a drink. He walked back to the buckboard and hustled the team out of town at a fast trot.

 He figured if he went into the saloon, there would have been some wise-cracker asking about his love life, and the way he was feeling right now, he would probably have ended up knocking him into next week. He gave the ghost of a smile. Hardly the behavior of a deputy sheriff, he thought to himself. Yeah, better altogether not to risk a confrontation right now.

Jess arrived back at the Deacon’s place shortly after lunch and saw Josh busily digging the vegetable patch. He walked over and, looking anxiously at the boy, said, “How’s your Ma, Josh?”

The boy answered with a big smile. “She’s fine now, Jess. Ate a good lunch and workin’ in the barn.”

Jess returned the boy’s grin. “That’s great,” he said. “I’ll just have a quick word with her before I take Daisy’s shopping home.”

On entering the barn, he saw Vicky with a pitchfork in her hand busily cleaning out the stalls, and as he got closer, he noticed   she was looking prettily flushed from the effort.

 Her dark hair was loose and hung in damp tendrils around her heart shaped face and she wore a man’s shirt, the first few buttons left open exposing her tanned cleavage;  she looked incredibly appealing.

 Jess stood still, and as she looked up and saw him, their eyes locked.

He felt a sudden thrill of pleasure as he looked deep into her grey eyes. “Josh said you were feeling better,” he said softly, breaking the silence at last.

She put the pitchfork down carefully before walking towards him and smiling. “Yes, I’m fine, sorry about before. I…”

She stopped something in Jess’s eyes arrested her in mid-sentence.

“What is it?” she whispered.

He stared at her a look of awe in his eyes and then stepping forwards, he very gently put a hand on her belly, before looking at her again and saying softly, “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”

She stared at him, her mouth dropping open in shock. “How did you know?” she stuttered.

“I just figured it now,” he said quietly. “Been to see the Doc… “

Her eyes opened wide in shock. “He didn’t tell you?” she burst out.

“No, he wouldn’t. Just said you weren’t real sick, I was to ask you, said he couldn’t tell me. Then the boy said today how you kept bein’ sick in the mornings, and now you look so…. “

“So….. what, Jess?” she asked, looking up into his deep blue eyes.

“So goddamn beautiful,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.

Suddenly he pulled her to him and, leaning down kissed her, hard. She responded and he gave a soft groan as they embraced passionately.

After a while, she pulled gently away and said, “Jess, aren’t you mad at me? I should never have said what I did to you, said I loved you, when I was carrying another man’s child. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s alright,” he said softly. “I’m just glad I know now, can be here for you. Have you known long?”

She said quietly, “I’ve only just found out. It must have happened just after the bank raid. Jed had forced us to go with him and we were staying in this dreadful old cabin. One evening he was really drunk and he sent Josh out to cut wood, told him not to come back until he called him in, and then….”

She had tears in her eyes and Jess immediately took her in his arms again. “What?” he said softly. “You can tell me.”

“He…he forced himself on me Jess, he raped me, and this…” she said, putting a hand on her belly, “this is the result.”

He closed his eyes, shaking with anger, but forced himself to keep calm for her sake.

“Oh sweetheart,” he said softly. “I swear as God is my witness I will never let that man near you again.”

Then she started crying, in relief, and Jess held her close, stroking her hair and whispering soothingly to her.

That’s how Josh found them when he entered the barn, much later.

 He stood transfixed for a moment watching them. Then Jess saw him and very gently pulled away from the embrace.

“Come here, Josh,” Jess said softly. “Your Ma has something she has to tell you.”

A little later, Jess left mother and son together to get used to the idea of a new family member, with the promise that he would visit as soon as his Deputy duty in town was finished.

 Josh had taken the news well and been surprisingly grown up about it all, immediately telling his mother she must take things easy and let him take more responsibility.

However, before Jess drove off, Josh said anxiously,” This won’t make a difference, will it? You’ll still be here for us. You won’t leave us?”

Jess had responded with a shy smile. “No, I won’t leave you. I’ll be here as long as you both need me, I promise,” he said before heading the team for home.

*****

The following morning, he was up at first light and rode straight to town as Mort was catching the early morning stage.

As Jess entered Mort’s office, Mort gave him a welcoming grin. “Well, you’re looking a bit more chipper today,” he greeted him. “Everything OK?”

“Sure,” said Jess smiling over at his old friend, “things are just fine.”

“Well, that’s a relief. So I can leave my town in your capable hands then, can I?”

“That you can,” agreed Jess cheerfully.

After Mort had sped off in the stage, Jess did a tour of the town, and finding all quiet and peaceful at the still early hour, settled down with a cup of coffee and the Laramie Sentinel, feet up on Mort’s desk.

That set the pace for the rest of the day. He enjoyed an excellent supper at Miss Molly’s Café opposite and apart from being called to the saloon to dispatch a rather sad drunk home to his querulous wife, nothing else occurred.

The following morning, he was up early, and after a tour of the town, he set the coffee pot on the stove ready for when Slim arrived to relieve him.

 As promised, Slim rode in shortly after the early morning stage, and on breezing into the office said, “Howdy, Jess, coffee on?”

Jess looked up grinning from where he was sitting at the desk perusing some old wanted posters.

“Sure, help yourself,” he said, nodding towards the pot and then holding up a poster said laughing, “Mort has got posters dating back to the Ark here. Guess if we looked long enough we’d find one of me.”

Slim poured his coffee, and turning back to his friend, settled himself on the chair opposite the desk. Putting his feet up on the desk, he took a long drink of the coffee, inhaling its strong aroma.

“That old, eh?” he replied smiling back. “Guess Mort hates to throw anything out.”

Just then, there was a tap on the door and the telegraph messenger stood there looking from Jess to Slim and back and then said,” Deputy?”

“Him,” said Jess firmly, jabbing a thumb in Slim’s direction. “I’m off duty as from now.”

The boy handed Slim the envelope and left. Slim ripped it open and started reading.

After a minute he frowned and looked over at Jess with a shocked expression on his face, then said quietly,” You ain’t gonna like this, Partner.”

Passing the note across, Jess read it: Deacon escaped jail week ago stop believed to know where abouts of family stop only just informed hence delay stop advise check family immediately stop Mort Corey.

Jess had turned deathly pale, and leaping up from his chair, he grabbed his hat and made for the door.

Slim grabbed his arm and stopped him. “Do you want me to go with you, buddy?” he asked giving Jess a searching look.

“No, you can’t leave town. Anyway, we don’t know he’s there. Look, I have to go. I’ll be in touch OK?” With that, Jess ran out of the door and down to the livery to collect Traveler; a few minutes later, Slim saw him galloping hell for leather out of town.

When Jess arrived at the ranch, it looked totally deserted. There was no sign of Josh or Vicky doing their chores in the yard as there would usually have been at that time of day, and there was no smoke issuing form the cook stove chimney either.

Jess tethered Traveler to the corral fence, and then drawing his colt, walked softly across the yard and was about to peer in the window when the door crashed open and Josh stood there with the shotgun  in his hands aiming it at Jess.

As soon as he saw who it was, Josh dropped the weapon and ran into his friend’s arms, looking distraught.

Jess held him close for a minute and then said, “Steady there, buddy; it’s OK now.”

The boy finally managed to speak and in a hoarse whisper said, “It’s Ma. Oh God, Jess, see what he’s done to Ma.”

Jess ran into the house and stopped on the threshold as he surveyed the scene before him. The whole place was a wreck, with furniture turned over and glass and chinaware smashed on the floor. The drapes were still drawn and the room was dim, but as his eyes gradually adjusted to the light, Jess was able to make out the still form of Vicky lying on the couch. He walked across and fell to his knees beside her, staring down in shock at her battered, tear-stained face and ripped clothes.

For a minute, Jess thought she was dead, and his hand shot to his mouth to stifle a sob and then he gently touched her face. It was warm, and on closer inspection, he was able to make out the gentle rise and fall of her chest.

Jess felt Josh’s presence behind him. “Get the drapes,” he said quietly, “and then some water and a cloth.”

The boy obeyed, and as light flooded the room, Jess was able to see the full extent of her injuries. She had a vicious cut to her cheek bone, and various cuts and bruises to her arms, face and neck; her night dress had been almost ripped off her.

Jess immediately went to her bedroom and came back with a blanket to cover her.

Once Josh returned, Jess started bathing her wounds gently. Looking down at her poor battered face, he felt sick to his stomach at what she had suffered and thought he would lose his breakfast. He took several deep breaths and then carried on cleaning her up. Although she groaned once or twice, she remained unconscious.

After a little while, Jess turned his attention to Josh. “Are you Ok, buddy?” he said softly.

Josh just nodded. “I guess so. I only just came round a few minutes before you rode in. He hit me with his rifle butt”.

Then Jess could see Josh too was in was in need of help.

“Come here,” Jess said gently, and sitting the boy down, he began tending his wounds. He bathed the cut on the boy’s face, and cleaned a nasty gash on the back of his head. After a while, he sat back. “That better?” he asked softly.

The boy nodded again. “Thanks, Jess.”

“So what happened?” Jess said quietly. “I take it your Pa was here?”

The boy just stared at him for a full minute and then said, “It was awful, Jess. He was so drunk and angry, I really thought he would kill us this time”, Josh said in a harsh whisper, hanging his head in misery.

Jess looked back to Vicky, who still hadn’t stirred, and then turning to Josh, said, “Look, we need to get some help for your Ma. Can you ride over to the Relay Station, hitch up the buckboard and bring Daisy and Mike back here?”

The boy nodded.

“And one more thing. The stage is due in. Tell Mose we need Doc Sam out here too.” Then looking deep into the boys eyes, Jess asked, “Can you do that, Josh? Are you sure you feel up to it? Only I can’t leave your Ma just in case he comes back, understand?”

“Yeah, Jess, I’m fine; I can do that,” said the boy suddenly seeming to rally. “I’ll be as quick as I can.” With that, Josh ran out to the barn to saddle his pony, and a few minutes later Jess heard him galloping out of the yard at breakneck speed.

Jess turned back to Vicky and was relieved to see her eyes flickering and then opening; she peered around her in bewilderment. Jess grabbed hold of her hand. “It’s Ok,” he said quickly, “your husband has gone.”

She stared up into his concerned face and caught her breath. “Jess. Oh thank God.”

“I’m sorry, so sorry I wasn’t here,” Jess said, looking anguished.

“Hush,” she whispered, “you’re here now that’s all that matters…” and closed her eyes again.

After a few minutes, she opened them and said, “He heard a rumor…about you and me. Someone visiting the jail told him you had moved in here.”

“What?” exploded Jess. “Why would anyone say that? “

Vicky shrugged. “Just like causing trouble, I guess. Anyway, he managed to overpower the guards and escape, made for the cabin in the mountains and then came here late last night. He was drunk and abusive at first. I told him, Jess, there was no truth in the rumor, and how you were just a good friend. Then I told him about the baby, thought it might calm him down but…. “

“But what?” he said softly.

“But he thought it was yours. He wouldn’t believe me, and that’s when he started hitting me. He punched me and I fell to my knees begging and begging him to stop and then he kicked me, Jess, real hard in the stomach. I’m so afraid he has hurt the baby. Josh tried to stop him, but his Pa is a big strong man; he didn’t stand a chance,” she finished, sobbing softly.

Jess was white and shaking with rage, and couldn’t hide it from Vicky; he stood up and paced the room, looking out of the window, obviously agitated.

She called him to her. “Jess, you are scaring me. What are you going to do?”

“What do you think,” Jess spat. “I’m gonna kill the bastard.”

“Jess, please, don’t go after him. He’ll kill you. He’s a mad man. He told me last night he killed two guards making his escape. He’ll hang for murder, Jess, so one more killing won’t make any difference to him.”

She had pulled herself up to plead with him. Now she fell back exhausted. Seeing her drained, pale face, Jess was filled with compassion and ran to her side, kneeling beside her again and pulling her into his arms. “It’s Ok,” he said softly. “I ain’t goin’ anywhere right now; I won’t leave you.” She relaxed back into his embrace with a sigh of relief.

Sometime later, Jess heard the buckboard drive into the yard and Daisy, Mike and Josh were suddenly in the room. Daisy took in the situation in a moment and quickly dispatched the two young boys outside to get on with the days chores.

Then smiling down at Vicky, she said briskly, “We need to get this young lady into her own bed. Jess, can you carry her?”

Jess picked her gently up and carried her through to her room, and then Daisy bustled him out again.

“Go and keep an eye on the boys, Jess,” she said softly. “I’ll call you back in when I have examined her and cleaned her up a bit,” He reluctantly left them to it and wandered out to the yard to help the boys.

After a while he heard a buggy approaching and saw Doc Baker haul into view. He ran over to meet him and said, “Thank God you’re here, Sam. It’s Vicky; she’s hurt real bad.”

Sam jumped down and entered the house with Jess just as Daisy emerged from the bedroom, looking distressed.

”She’s bleeding. I think she’s losing the baby, Sam,” she said softly before turning to look into Jess’s anguished eyes.

Sam rushed into the bedroom. Daisy paused and patted Jess lightly on the arm. “I’m so sorry. Please try not to worry, dear; she’ll be alright,” she said softly, before joining Sam.

Jess sank onto the couch feeling that his legs would not support him any longer and buried his head in his hands.

Then the screaming started; Jess heard Vicky crying out in agony. He leapt up and strode towards the bedroom door before stopping outside. He knew there was nothing he could do, no help he could offer, and he would probably only be in the way, but part of him just wanted to be with her.

Jess stood there for a few minutes, listening to her suffering, until he could stand it no longer, and turning on heel, he marched from the house, jumped up onto his mount and spurred him out of the yard at a fast gallop.

Jess knew the boys would be safe now Sam had arrived, and he guessed Josh would know where he was heading, so he didn’t stop to tell them. Such was his rage, he couldn’t face them anyway, afraid of what he might say in front of the impressionable youngsters.

Jess headed straight for the ranch where he picked up supplies for several days and then called at a neighbor and arranged for his two sons to take care of the Relay Station and feed the stock until Slim came home.

Then Jess turned Traveler in the direction of the distant mountains towards Rawlins. He had no problem picking up Jed Deacon’s tracks, as the man was riding the heavy cob with very distinctive large hoof prints that was used to pull Vicky’s buggy. Jess figured he was holing up back in the cabin in the foothills and was soon on his way there.

*****

Jess rode up to the cabin as dusk was approaching, and tethering Traveler some distance away, removed his rifle from its scabbard and walked stealthily towards the ramshackle building. There were no lights showing and he crept towards the nearest window and peered inside. The place looked totally deserted. Jess made for the door, and kicking it violently open, ran inside, his rifle at the ready, but the place was completely empty — nothing but an old whisky bottle on the table and ashes in the grate to show of any recent occupancy.

Jess cussed long and loud before turning on heel and checking the area for tracks. After a while, he discovered the prints of the heavy horse disappearing up a steep track behind the cabin. It was almost dark by now and impossible to follow them, but Jess figured he could be no further than half a day’s ride ahead of him, so he decided to spend the night in the cabin and push on at first light.

While he had been tracking Deacon, Jess was able to contain his feelings, as he knew he was doing something positive, gradually closing in on him. But now he had a whole night ahead of him with nothing but his anger to keep him company. He lay on his bedroll in front of the fire in the small shack and played over and over the horrifying revelations of the last few hours.

How could he have done that to his wife, Jess wondered. Fear, drunkenness, jealousy…none of those factors could begin to be a reason for his monstrous actions.

 It was totally abhorrent to Jess and against everything he believed in.

Even though he was shocked at the news that Vicky was pregnant and how the baby had been conceived, it was still a gift to be cherished.

Then he got to thinking, what would have happened if Vicky had delivered the child? Could he have raised it as his own?

Jess shook his head in bewilderment. They had only known each other a few short weeks, she was a married woman, they weren’t even lovers, and he wasn’t the settling down type. So why in God’s name was he asking himself if he could raise another man’s child? And then he remembered that wasn’t an option anymore and felt totally desolate.

That was when he finally admitted to himself that he was committed to Vicky and Josh and was prepared to do pretty much anything to keep them both safe and happy. ‘When had that happened?’ he asked himself.

Just a few short weeks ago, Jess was totally besotted with Suzy Morgan. ‘Well, I must have been,’ he thought, ‘or I wouldn’t have taken her messing me about for so long.’

Then there had been that moment in the barn with Vicky, and he knew, just knew, she was pregnant, but it didn’t matter, he still saw his future with her. Then that night Deacon had arrived.

Jess’s thoughts returned to Deacon and the retribution he wanted, no, desperately needed.

How was that going to work out? The way Jess was feeling, he could strangle the man with his bare hands. He turned over on his bedroll, trying to get comfortable and something dug into his chest. Sitting up, he realized he was still wearing the Deputy badge pinned to his vest, and he smiled at the irony. Maybe he should just arrest Deacon and take him in for a fair trial. As he finally fell asleep, he prayed he would have the strength to do just that — but he very much doubted it.

Jess slept badly and awoke at first light, still hearing the echo of Vicky’s screams which had haunted his nightmares. He felt a surge of white hot anger, so strong it took his breath away, and without waiting to even brew some coffee, he left the shack, saddled Traveler and followed the tracks up the mountain.

He had been travelling for about an hour, through dense pine cover, when he was suddenly aware he was not alone. He heard voices and then saw wood smoke from a fire in a small clearing just ahead of him.

 Jess reined Traveler in and looked warily ahead at the small group of mountain men sitting around the fire, who had yet to notice his approach.

Jess new some of the mountain men — or fur trappers — by name and some by reputation alone, but none of them would you want gracing your table, he thought, a wry smile on his face.

 At best they were rowdy and unpredictable, and at worst downright hostile and corrupt, in Jess’s opinion, so it was with some unease that he rode into the camp.

As soon as the three men heard him, they arose as one, their hunting rifles aimed at him and a look of alarm in their eyes. The older man came forward and then gave a grin on recognizing the lone rider,  put his gun down, and turning back to his two sons, called out, “OK, boys; its Jess Harper from the Sherman spread.”

Jess gave a faint sigh of relief, slid down from his mount and went to meet the old man.

The mountain man had a long straggly beard and was dressed in buckskin, topped off with a mangy looking fur hat. He gave Jess a toothless grin and said, “Morning’, Jess. So what brings you so far up the hill at this time of day?”

Jess smiled to himself at the euphemism used to describe the tough mountain trail he had just struggled up.

Before Jess could answer, old Denver James said, “Come, sit awhile, and iffen you ain’t breakfasted yet, we got some real good Appalos on the fire [a mixture of meat and fat skewered and cooked over the fire]. Jess suddenly realized he hadn’t eaten in over twenty-four hours, and thanking Den, he went and joined the others by the fire.

 Cody and Mick James tipped their hats and said, “Howdy Jess,” before offering him a plate and tucking into the food. Jess was surprised at how good it was, and after he had drunk a couple of mugs of strong coffee with what he suspected a dash of moonshine in it, he sat back replete.

“Well then,” said Den giving him a speculative look, “see you’re wearin’ a badge, boy. Here on business?”

“Yeah,” replied Jess, “I’m trackin’ a bastard named Deacon, Jed Deacon, wanted for murder. Escaped from the Cheyenne jail. He’s kinda fond of the hill whisky and I’ve tracked him this far, and I wondered… Have you seen him at all?”

Den exchanged a look with his two boys and then decided to comply with the law for once, especially as it was manifested in the form of Jess Harper. He held a grudging respect for Jess, having seen his fast gun in action more than once, and knew he was completely loyal to his friends, and fearless — traits much admired by Den and his kind. “Well, that I have, boy,” he said. “Bumped into him yesterday, wantin’ some hill whiskey, but we ain’t in that business no more, no siree,” he said giving a nod to Jess’s badge, “not for a long while.”

Jess gave him a skeptical look but said nothing.

However, Den obviously noticed this and raising his hands in supplication, said, “Well, a man’s gotta have a few comforts up here in the hills, Jess boy. I didn’t say we ain’t got none; I just said we don’t trade it no more.”

Jess gave him an easy smile. “So where would he find some up here?” he asked.

“We sent him over to Cougar Jack’s place,” piped up Cody, the younger of the two boys.

His father glared at him. “No call to go getting Cougar Jack in bad with the law, boy,” he snapped.

Jess sprang up, his eyes flashing, black with rage. “Look, I ain’t bothered about the Goddamn bootlegged whisky. I just wanna find him,” he yelled.

Den looked up at Jess in surprise. “OK there, boy, simmer down. Seems to me there is something more than just looking for a jail breaker here Jess. Seems to me like there is something personal going on?” he finished giving him a speculative look.

Jess sank down onto the log he had been sitting on and looked defeated. He stared at the ground for a moment before apologizing. “Sorry Den. Yeah, I guess it’s real personal. Now can you tell me where to find this Cougar Jack, please?” he said, feeling suddenly weary.

“Sure, boy”, Den said, “if it’s that important to you,” and proceeded to give Jess directions. “Carry on through the pines, and then in about a mile, there is a turn off; takes you down through a narrow pass. Then it opens out and Cougar Jack’s place is down a narrow track just on the left. Blink an’ you will miss it, though, boy. But there again, I guess you can smell ol’ Cougar’s place a couple of miles before you get there anyways,” he said laughing.

 Then more seriously, he added, “But you watch your back up there, son. Ol’ Cougar don’t take kindly to strangers and would be just as happy skinning a two-legged visitor as one with four, if you get my drift?”

 Jess nodded. “Well, thanks,” said Jess, standing up and pulling his hat down hard. “And thanks for the grub too; it was real good.”

“Yeah,” replied Mick. “Shot him myself. Best bit of ‘coon we’ve ate in a long while, weren’t he, Pa?” The old man nodded in agreement.

“‘Coon?” said Jess, swallowing hard and thinking of Mike’s pet raccoon at home, Bandit, and decided that he wasn’t going to be recounting this part of his adventure to the boy.

“Yeah” said Den, “I always say you can’t beat a ‘coon, iffen you ain’t got bear, of course,” he finished, giving Jess his toothless grin.

“Yeah,” said Jess weakly, “say the same myself.” With that, he gave the company a little salute, mounted up and spurred Traveler on up the track, shaking his head slightly in bewilderment.

It was almost noon by the time Jess came to the narrow turn off to Cougar Jack’s place and the sun was beating down relentlessly.

He stopped and took off his hat, raking his hand through his black tousled hair and wiping his face with his shirt sleeve before jamming the hat back on his head. He could feel the sweat running down his back and his shirt was drenched and he felt hot tired and decidedly bad tempered.

Kicking Traveler on to a fast walk, he turned a bend in the track and Cougar Jack’s place lay before him; as Den had said, the smell was appalling.

 Jess gagged at the stench of death and rotting flesh, and on closer inspection, he saw a pile of animal remains alongside the shack and a variety of skins stretched out drying in the sun.

Jess was so preoccupied at looking at the carnage and trying to keep his breakfast down that he didn’t notice the gaunt, seedy looking middle-aged man, dressed in the usual buckskin, appear from behind the shack, until he shouted at him. “What do you want stranger?” he yelled sullenly, waving an ancient hunting rifle at Jess’s belly.

“I just need to talk to you,” replied Jess firmly, stepping down from his horse.

The man looked like he was going to object, but as Jess came closer, he spied the Deputy badge and appeared to change his mind and said gruffly,” I ain’t done nothin’ wrong, Deputy.”

“Didn’t say you had, did I?” replied Jess aggressively.

“What is it you’re wantin’ then?” he said grudgingly.

“I’m after a man as escaped from the Cheyenne jail a while back, killed two guards. Traced him up this far. Have you seen him?” Jess said, trying to keep calm, although his heart was thumping and his mouth dry in anticipation of at last finding his quarry.

“Maybe I have…and maybe not,” said the man, giving Jess a mocking sneer.

Suddenly it was all too much for Jess. He launched himself at the filthy-looking man, and grabbing him by the front of the buckskin top, lifted him up and threw him against the shack wall.

Keeping hold of him, Jess put his face  close, and trying to ignore the stench emanating from the mountain man, said,” Look, Mister Cougar Jack, I’m hot, I’m tired and I’m getting just a mite annoyed here. So I reckon you tell me what you know or your head and your body will be parting company. Now let’s try it again. A man called Jed Deacon is believed to have been here for some moonshine, so you just tell me where he went afterwards and then and you and I can part friends…OK?”

“OK….OK, no need to get yourself in a state, boy. Yes, I let him have a couple of bottles of my home brew, as a gift you understand. Left about an hour or two ago; said he was heading for the cave up at the back of the black rock, behind my place, about half an hour away. Said he was holing up there a while. Now will you put me down, boy? I’m kinda uncomfortable here.”

Jess let him go and the man crumpled to the floor.

“Thank you,” Jess said quietly, looking down at the man. “See easy wasn’t it?” He started to walk away.

As he left, the man struggled to his feet. “So, after the bounty, are you, Deputy? Should be substantial, I imagine?” he called.

Jess had already mounted Traveler and was about to ride off, but he turned back. “Dunno,” he said. “I guess there will be a bounty, yeah.” Then he added bitterly, “Don’t really care too much about that, Mister; I just wanna see the bastard hang.” With that, he spurred Traveler on up the track towards the caves.

Jess finally arrived at his destination, the cave behind the black rock, about twenty minutes later.

He walked Traveler the last few yards until he was within a short distance of the cave and then he jumped down and continued on foot.

He walked in through some more dense cover and then the trees opened out and the rocky outcrop and the cave was suddenly in front of him. Jess paused, holding his breath as he saw Deacon sitting just by the cave mouth, resting his back against the rock, the whiskey next to him. Deacon’s eyes were closed and he appeared to be dozing in the heat of the day.

Jess moved stealthily towards him, his Colt in his hand, until he was just a few feet away. Deacon still appeared to be fast asleep, although Jess noticed he had only taken a small amount of liquor as the jar next to him was almost full.

Looking down at the big rough-looking man with his black greasy hair and week-old beard, Jess was suddenly filled with such a feeling of fury he could hardly breathe and all he could see was Vicky’s battered and bruised face before him. He raised his gun, and taking a deep breath aimed it at Deacon’s head. Sweat ran down his spine and across his brow so he could hardly see. After a minute, he slowly altered the aim of the gun and leveled it at the jar of whiskey at the man’s side, finally firing his Colt and shattering the jar into a thousand shards of glass and waking Deacon instantly.

Deacon’s head shot up and he glared up at Jess and then at the broken whisky jar; he was up on his feet in a moment.

Jess stood there, still staring at him, his gun in his hand, waiting to see what Deacon would do and shaking with anger.

“What the hell,” swore the man peering at Jess and then back at the broken whisky container again, in shock.

 Then he saw Jess’s Deputy badge.

Jess gave him a hard look, and putting his gun back in his holster, said, “So, I’m here to arrest you Deacon. What are you going to do about it?”

Seeing Jess had put away his gun, the man frantically dived at him and threw a punch, just as Jess had anticipated; he neatly side-stepped the bigger man, watching him lurch clumsily. Then Jess delivered a punch to the man’s jaw which sent him reeling and followed through with another to the belly, making him keel over and fall to his knees. Dragging him up, Jess gave him another haymaker which sent him sprawling.

Deacon picked himself up and suddenly seemed to go berserk. He threw himself upon Jess punching, kicking and even biting. Jess fell back and received a black eye and blooded nose in the skirmish. However, Jess was no stranger to fighting dirty himself, and although the other man had a good few pounds weight advantage, Jess was much faster and fitter. Jess punched him in the stomach hard and he was again on his knees coughing and retching, obviously a broken man.

Deacon looked up at Jess from where he was kneeling, his voice shaking, and said, “OK enough.” But Jess wasn’t nearly finished and advanced on his adversary the gleam of revenge in his eyes. Sweat and blood were running down his face in equal proportions, but he just brushed them away with his shirt sleeve before pitching in again.

Jess grabbed hold of Deacon’s shirt front, pulled him up and hit him so hard he sent him flying several feet away, landing hard on the ground, all the fight knocked out of him.

The man put his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Ok,” he yelled, “you win, so arrest me.”

“Oh no,” said Jess grimly, “it ain’t that easy.”

“What do you mean?” pleaded a now terrified Deacon. “You are the Law and I surrender; now just arrest me and take me back to jail. That’s your job.”

Jess ripped the Deputy badge from his vest and threw it on the ground. “Well, I ain’t the Law anymore,” he yelled, and with that attacked Deacon again, dragging him up and punching him hard with  a left and right and finally another punch in the belly.

“Please,” Deacon said, on his knees, bleeding and almost crying in his distress, “for God’s sake, man…” Then he stopped and looking up at Jess, realization suddenly dawning in his eyes. “Who are you?” he asked

“Harper,” spat Jess, “Jess Harper, the man who allegedly lives with your wife and is the father of her child. Only you see, Deacon, none of that is true, because, I don’t live with your wife and I ain’t the father of her child. You are…at least you were…until you killed it,” he finished, looking at the man with utter contempt.

“No,” Deacon cried, “No, Oh God, no”

“Come on, Deacon. I thought I was the reason you killed two guards, escaping jail so you could finish it with me. So what are you waiting for?” Jess taunted him. But Deacon gave him one more agonized look before falling forwards in a dead faint.

Jess looked down at him for several minutes before going and fetching a length of rope from his saddle bag and tying Deacons hands tightly together. Then he stood there, appraising the situation, swaying, blood streaming from a wound to his head, shaking and feeling sick to his stomach. Finally he walked down to the small stream flowing a few feet below the cave, and kneeling down, bathed his face in the cool water and then squatted by the edge looking off into space, feeling completely exhausted.

Jess was shaking with emotion and knew it had been a close thing as to whether he had finished it there and then with Deacon. He knew he had only been a whisker away from the brawl continuing until he had finally killed the man.

 But no, he thought, that was way too easy, for him to die here. No, let the bastard undergo a trial and then be hung. That seemed like much better justice.

Jess finally returned to his prisoner, needing to start on the journey home and set the law in motion.

Jess stooped and picked up the Deputy’s badge, and wiping the dust from it, pinned it back on his vest and said quietly to himself, “Guess we’ll do it your way, Mort.”

Jess fetched his canteen and emptied the contents onto Deacon’s head, and after a minute, the man came to, choking and shaking his head violently. “Get off,” he yelled as Jess hauled him up.

“Shut it, Deacon,” rasped Jess, “unless you want me to start on you all over again?”

Deacon shot him an agonized look and held his tongue.

Jess went and refilled their canteens, and after watering the horses, hauled Deacon up on the Cob and tied his hands to the saddle horn and his legs to the stirrup leathers so he was completely immobilized, unable to move from the saddle no matter what occurred. Then figuring he could relax some, he sent Deacon off in front of him down the mountain track.

*****

They had come past Cougar Jack’s place and were heading through the narrow pass when someone opened fire on them.

The first rifle shot spooked the horses, and Deacon and the Cob took off at speed; the second shot whistled past Jess’s ear. He dived off Traveler and hit the ground rolling and returning the fire, before lying flat as he knew his quarry was out of range of his Colt and his rifle was fast disappearing on the back of Traveler.

There was no discernible cover in the pass save for some scrub land a few yards away. As another shot missed him by inches, Jess decided to make a break for it and ran as fast as he could for the scrubby bushes, but the rifle exploded again and this time the marksman found his target. Jess felt a shattering impact and then searing pain in his right thigh and fell to the ground rolling in agony as the bullet found its mark.

He lay still, and after a while he heard someone approaching stealthy, With his last ounce of energy, he rolled over onto his stomach and fired his Colt at the approaching stranger and saw him  lurch and fall from  his shot.

Very slowly, Jess pulled himself up. The wound to his leg sending white hot spasms of pain through his lower body. He dragged himself over to where the rifleman had fallen and looked down at the body of Cougar Jack.

Jess fell to his knees beside him and was surprised when the mountain man’s eyes opened and focused on him.

“Well then, Deputy,” the man sighed. “Guess it’s gonna be you that picks up the bounty after all,” he whispered.

“What,” gasped Jess in amazement. “Is that what this is all this is about? You wanted the Bounty?”

“Guess so. Figured I’d never had any money. This was my last chance.” The man sighed and then his head fell to one side and his eyes closed for the last time.

“You stupid bastard,” said Jess sadly. “What in hell did you want with money, the life you led?”

Jess knew he couldn’t bury the man, Hell, he could hardly walk and then he thought that Cougar Jack would have been happy enough being buzzard bait. After all the critters lives he had taken, it seemed kind of fitting, to Jess anyway, as he stood up and walked away.

Jess was surprised to see Deacon sitting the Cob, Traveler just a few yards away, and he staggered over to him. He gave Deacon a questioning look.

“Well, what was I gonna do?” Deacon said. “I’m hog tied to this horse. Guess I need you to get me back in one piece.” Then taking a long hard look at Jess, he saw the blood soaking his denims and continued, “That’s iffen you make it back.”

Jess looked up and gave him a hard look. “Oh, I’ll make it back OK,” he said, removing his bandana and tying it tightly round the wound. “Don’t you worry about that.” With that, he hauled himself up on Traveler, but Deacon could see the pain he was in and secretly didn’t think he would even make it through the night.

They rode on down the track and arrived at the shack where Jess had spent the first night and where Deacon had holed up with his family after the bank raid.

It was almost dusk when they got there and Jess had been losing blood from the gunshot all the way back and was feeling weak and dizzy. However, he cut Deacon down from his horse and told him to tend to its needs, but looked after Traveler himself. He never let anyone else ride or care for his mount, and with typical Harper grit, he wasn’t about to start now, particularly the way he felt about Deacon.

As soon as the horses were cared for, the two men entered the cabin and Jess immediately tied Deacon to a chair. He had seen the looks the man had been throwing him and knew Deacon thought he was done for; he wasn’t taking any chances.

Jess had laid a fire when they first arrived, and now sitting down before it, he started to remove his denims and look at the damage to his leg. He could see the wound was bad and still oozing blood, although at least it looked like the bullet had passed through. The bleeding was the thing that worried him, though, and he knew there was nothing for it but to cauterize the wound and do it quickly while he was still able.

He had been feeling weaker and weaker during the ride back, and now he felt hot and dizzy. He took a long draft of water from his canteen and poured some over his head and face in an attempt to cool off. Then taking his hunting knife from the top of his boot, he plunged it into the red hot ashes of the fire.

All the time Deacon had been watching Jess’ every move like a hungry cat sitting at a mouse hole. Jess glanced across at him and Deacon smirked back. “You’re looking a mite pale there, Harper,” he said.

Jess chose to ignore the man, but he seemed intent on riling the cowboy and continued. “So you like my little lady then, do you, Harper? She’s a pretty little thing, ain’t she, and mighty good in the sack, iffen you get my drift?”

Jess was suddenly pushed too far, and leaping up, ignoring the agony that shot through him, he advanced on Deacon and gave him a hard backhander across the face. Deacon’s head shot back so quickly he nearly fell from the chair.

“Don’t push it,” snarled Jess. “Way I’m feeling right now, a dead prisoner would be a hell of a lot easier to deal with, and I’m warning you Deacon, you so much as breath her name again and I won’t be held responsible…understand?”

Deacon shrank back in fear. “I guess,” he said softly, his eyes on the ground.

Jess nodded and returned to the fire. Sitting down his back against the wall, he removed the now white-hot knife, and bracing himself, he held it down on the open bleeding wound. The smell of burning flesh filled the small shack and he swore loudly as the pain engulfed him before falling back unconscious.

When he came around a little while later, Deacon was still tied to the chair, but Jess felt there was something amiss. Returning to his task he rummaged in the bottom of his saddle bag for fresh bandages, and after he had bound the wound tightly, he looked back inside the bag and found what he had been looking for — a pair of Mort Corey’s old handcuffs.

Jess remembered Mort giving them to him last time he had deputized him. “They may come in handy,” Mort had said, and then laughing, knowing what a little rascal Mike was at bath time, had continued, “Guess you can hog-tie Mike to the tub with them.”

Jess gave a faint smile remembering the conversation. By God, I wish catching Mike for his bath was all I had to worry about, he thought to himself. Then using all his strength, he hauled himself up and advanced on Deacon to check his ropes. As he leaned over to check the man’s tied hands, Deacon suddenly lurched forwards, head-butting Jess in the stomach, sending him sprawling. The pain shot through his injured leg again, but quick as lightening his Colt was in his hand and the bigger man stopped in his tracks as soon as he saw the gun.

“Guess you didn’t believe me when I said you’d be easier dead than alive,” spat Jess, dragging himself up and standing staring at his prisoner.

Deacon turned deathly pale and started shaking. Jess found himself pointing his gun at the man’s head for the second time that day and making the same decision: should he just shoot the bastard where he stood?

Jess had never killed in cold blood before, but there again, he could hardly remember feeling this angry.

He must have stood there for a good two minutes a look of indecision in his eyes before finally taking the handcuffs and roughly pushing Deacon towards the window and cuffing him to the metal bars at the window. He kicked the chair towards the man and barked, “Sit,” and Deacon sat.

“Don’t you so much as breath loudly,” growled Jess, “because you are on your last warning, Deacon. So help me, I will finish it right here and hang you out for the buzzards if I get anymore shit from you.” With that, he lurched back to the fireside, and sinking down on his bedroll, closed his eyes and fell into an uneasy sleep almost at once, weakened and exhausted from the blood loss.

The following morning as soon as he awoke Jess knew he was bad, real bad.

His head was aching something fierce and his wound throbbed, but at least it appeared to have stopped bleeding and Jess gave a sigh of relief. He reached out, and grabbing his canteen, took a long drink and then looked over to where Deacon was still slumped on the chair chained to the window.

Jess pulled himself up with care, and picking up a canteen and some jerky from his saddlebag, walked across and gave the food and drink to his prisoner, who received it gratefully.

“Don’t thank me,” snarled Jess. “I’m only keepin’ you alive so I can have the pleasure of seein’ you hang.”

“You really do hate me, don’t you?” replied Deacon. “Sure can’t figure why. Ain’t done nothin’ to you.”

“Ain’t done nothin’ to me,” agreed  Jess, “but what about your wife and child, Deacon? Or had you conveniently forgotten about  stovin’ your son’s head in with your rifle butt and viciously attacking your wife, beating her so damn hard she lost her baby. Because I sure as hell ain’t forgotten. Guess I’ll hear her crying out in agony to my dying day, so don’t you play the innocent with me, you bastard.”

Then more quietly, Jess said, “Sure you done something to me. You damn near made me commit cold blooded murder, which I guess would have made me as bad as you if I hadn’t come to my senses in time,” he finished angrily.

Jess sat in front of the fire shivering, and yet sweat was pouring down his back and he felt sick to his stomach. He had brewed some coffee, but the first sip made him gag and he threw it on the fire, dousing the flames. Dragging himself up, he made for the door and went to prepare the horses for their journey.

When he returned, Jess was sweating even more profusely with the effort of saddling the animals. Staggering over to Deacon, he removed the cuff from the window, and after replacing it on the man’s wrist, took out his Colt and gestured towards the door, watching as the big man staggered and then walked out and mounted the Cob. Jess lashed him to the saddle horn again, and once he was sure he was tied tightly, he turned to his own mount.

Jess stood beside Traveler, steeled himself to get up in the saddle and finally he managed it, dragging the injured limb over the saddle and into the stirrup. The pain made him retch and he breathed deeply, trying to evade the darkness that was threatening to envelope him again and the nausea that he had been with him since awakening that morning.

Jess sat the horse uncharacteristically awkwardly but Traveler seemed to sense his rider’s pain and moved off at a sedate walk, treading carefully across the rough terrain.

Deacon was again out in front, but Jess had tied him tightly to the saddle and knew he had no way of escape. Jess felt that if he should decide to make a run for it, well then, a shot in the back would be more than justified. However, as they day progressed and they made their way across the open terrain on their way back to Laramie, his prisoner’s escape was the least of Jess’s problems.

As the heat of the noon day sun beat down, he found himself floating in and out of consciousness and really began to think he wasn’t going to make it after all. Finally he felt himself slipping from the saddle, and this time he couldn’t do anything to prevent it; he fell hard onto the dusty trail and passed out.

When he came to a little while later, Deacon was peering down at him from the height of his mount, a mocking look on his face. “Don’t think you goin’ to last, Harper,” he sneered. “Better cut me free and I can help you.”

Jess squinted up at the man and gave him the ghost of a smile. “I might be sick, but I ain’t completely crazy,” he drawled, “Guess you’ll be stoppin’ at the Church and offering a prayer for my speedy recovery too, iffen I let you free,” he growled.

Something about the other man’s attitude made Jess suddenly furious. How dare he sit up there mocking him after what he had done? From somewhere deep inside, Jess found the strength he needed to drag himself up and mount his horse again.

 Grabbing his canteen, Je took a long drink and then poured some of the water over his head and neck, and taking a deep breath, turned back to Deacon. “Ride on. We gotta a long way to go before sunset,” he said quietly and the big man spurred his mount on in defeat.

 ******

Dusk was just drawing in when Jess and Deacon finally rode into Laramie. Mort had only returned a couple of hours ago, and Slim had been filling him in on all that had happened over the last few days, including Jess heading out to try and apprehend Deacon.

They had been sitting in Mort’s office until they heard some noise in the street, and on rushing out, saw a good proportion of the town had turned out to witness Jess riding down Main Street, Deacon Hog tied to his mount, looking surly and beaten, riding in front of him.

As they arrived at Mort’s office, Jess and Deacon drew in their mounts. Slim saw at once that Jess was in a bad way, and rushed to his side.

Jess looked down at his partner, and with his last breath, said, “Guess you’re on duty again, Deputy. Figure I’m just about finished.” With that, he fell forwards in a dead faint.

Slim caught him, and along with a couple of bystanders took him across to Doc Sam’s office, while Mort dealt with Deacon, pushing him none too gently into the Laramie jail.

Sam took one look at Jess and hurried him through into the surgery at the back of the building. After shooing all the helpers away, apart from Slim, he stripped off Jess’s denims and looked at the wounded limb. The leg was very swollen, and at the site of the wound, the flesh was angry and hot. Sam gave a soft whistle. “It’s real bad,” he said to Slim, who was standing looking anxious. “He’s got some nasty infection from it, hasn’t been helped by riding out in the noon day sun. Figure he’ll need some careful nursing over the next few days.” With that, the doctor went and called Carrie, his daughter and trained nurse, to come and help.

On his return, Sam gave Slim a serious look. “I need to operate,” he said softly. “Remove all the infection and I need to do it right away or……”

“Or what. Sam?” said Slim urgently.

“Or he’ll lose the leg….or worse. Slim, if this infection gets into his blood stream, it could kill him.”

At that point, Jess’s eyes flickered open and he tried to speak. Sam brought him some water, and supporting his shoulders, he helped him drink.

After a minute, Jess started coughing and sank back against the pillow. “I ain’t dead yet,” he whispered with the ghost of a smile.

Sam returned the smile. “You’ll be fine, Jess,” he said confidently. “Now I’m just going to have to put you out for a while and then…..”

“Aw, Sam,” broke in Jess, “not that chloroform, please. It makes me sicker than a dog.”

“Sorry, Jess,” said Sam firmly, “if you want to keep that leg, I have to do some mighty handy surgery on it and I can’t do that on a moving target, which is what you’d be if I didn’t put you out.”

Jess opened his mouth as if to complain again, but Slim forestalled him. “Jess!” he yelled.

”Goddamn, it will you behave!”

Jess looked up at Slim in hurt bewilderment and then saw how upset his buddy was and figured he really was in trouble. Maybe he should just give in gracefully. “OK,” he said softly, “bring it on, Sam. Guess ol’ Slim here has no need for a one legged ranch hand, so you’d better get to work,” he finished, giving Slim a cheeky wink.

Slim gave him a gentle punch to the arm and said softly, “See you later, hotshot,” before leaving the room as Carrie entered with the anesthetic.

The surgery went well, but as Jess had predicted, he spent the next twenty-four hours throwing up and couldn’t even keep water down.

Carrie was patience itself, and as Jess recovered from yet another episode of sickness, he fell back exhausted onto the pillows white and shaking.

 Carrie gave him a reassuring smile and wiped his forehead with a cool cloth. “Just take it easy,” she said softly.

“I’m so sorry,” Jess mumbled in embarrassment. “I sure don’t get along with that ol’ chloroform”.

 Carrie grinned down at him. ” Pa says you have an amazing reaction to the drug, says he’s thinking of writing a paper on you.”

“Oh good,” said Jess dryly, “I’ve always wanted to be famous.”

She smiled back at him and said, “You know you really are my favorite patient, Jess Harper.”

 He looked back at her in amazement. “How so?” he asked with a puzzled look on his face.

“Well, no matter what, you never lose your sense of humor” she said thoughtfully. It is rare in our patients. They usually feel sorry for themselves, but you…well, you just get on with it.”

“Well maybe that’s because I’ve got such a lovely nurse,” he replied, grinning up at her.

“Jess Harper, you wouldn’t be flirting with me, would you?” she said, beaming at him.

He flung his hands up in surrender. “Oh no…no I ain’t,” he said firmly and they both burst out laughing.

When Carrie was just fifteen, she had nursed Jess through a serious operation and developed a massive crush on him, with the result that she nearly drove him insane constantly scheming to involve him in a romantic relationship. Jess knew she was far too young for him and eventually, to the relief of both parties, she grew out of the notion.

Now they were extremely good friends and could look back at that time and joke about it. Thank goodness, thought Jess to himself. He was very fond of the girl and he was just sorry he was making so much extra work for her.

Later in the week, Sam came in to check on Jess, and Carrie, who had been nursing him day and night, went off for a break. After Sam had inspected the wound, he said, “As soon as we can get that sickness sorted out, I guess you can go home and I’ll leave you in Daisy’s capable hands. I figure Vicky will be coming back to town sometime soon.”

“How is she?” asked Jess softly. He had asked several times before but Sam had been evasive. Now Sam sat down on the edge of the bed and gave Jess a serious look.

“I didn’t want to say anything to you while you were so sick,” Sam started, “but, well, we nearly lost her the day you rode out after Deacon.”

Jess took a sharp intake of breath and sat up looking shocked.

“Steady,” said Sam gently, “take it easy now, Jess.”

“Tell me,” he said looking deathly pale. ”Please, Sam.”

“Well I guess it’s no secret, she’s been staying at the ranch while you’ve been away and Daisy has been nursing her. She was a few weeks further on than we thought and she lost one hell of a lot of blood, and well, if she were to get pregnant again…Well, she just wouldn’t survive it. As it is, she is sick Jess, real sick. Bottom line is she needs major surgery.”

All the time Sam had been speaking, Jess had been feeling more and more agitated. Now he burst out, “Well, can’t you do it, Sam?”

“No, it’s far too specialized; needs a top surgeon from back East. She is going to move back to town, can’t run that ranch the way she is now. I’ll keep an eye on her and I’ll contact a man I know, see what he can do, but it will all cost a lot and I don’t even think she has the fare out there,” he finished shaking his head sadly.

Jess wished he could help her but knew his meager savings wouldn’t go far. “How has she taken it?” he asked.

“Badly, real badly Jess. She’s trying to keep it together for the boy but…well, guess you’ll see for yourself when you go home. She’s been staying in Daisy’s room and the boy bunking in with Mike, but I’ve managed to get her a room at Widow Brown’s place. She can take in some sewing, should help pay the rent,” he finished.

Jess nodded. “I need to get home,” he said urgently. “Please, Sam, I need to talk to her.”

Sam nodded his head, knowing it was useless to try arguing with Jess’s stubborn streak. “I’ll drive you in this afternoon,” he promised, “if you can keep some lunch down…deal?”

Jess nodded. “Deal.”

Miraculously, Jess somehow managed to keep his end of the bargain. Sam hitched up the buggy and drove out to the Relay Station just before supper.

As he helped Jess down from the buggy, Slim and Daisy emerged from the house and ran to him delight in their eyes.

“We weren’t expecting you back so soon,” said Daisy, beaming at him. Then turning to Sam, she asked, “Is he alright? He looks awfully pale.”

Jess grinned at her. “I’m fine Daisy, really”.

Slim slapped him on the back. “Sure good to have you back, Hotshot; place hasn’t been the same without you.”

Then the ranch door opened again and Vicky stood there looking uncertainly at Jess.

Jess looked across at her and their eyes locked; she looked so thin and frail, her hair tied severely back, her face pale and eyes lifeless.

Jess tried to ignore the feeling of shock at seeing her that way and walked towards her smiling. “Hi, Vicky,” he said softly, “it’s good to see you.”

Suddenly the others melted away and they stood there staring at each other.

Then collecting his wits, Jess held out a hand to her. “Shall we go for a little walk?” he said softly.

“Can you manage?” she asked, looking doubtfully at his leg which was heavily bandaged.

“Figure I can make it as far as the creek,” he said grinning. She came and took his offered hand and they walked slowly off together.

When they arrived, Jess slumped exhausted onto a log and Vicky sat next to him looking out across the water.

Turning to look at her Jess said softly, “I’m so, so sorry about the baby, sweetheart.”

At the mention of the baby, her eyes filled with tears. “She was perfect, you know, Jess,” she said, “just perfect.”

He swallowed hard. ”A little girl?”

She nodded. A tear escaped and rolled down her cheek and then she started sobbing uncontrollably.

He stood up at once and pulled her into his arms, held her tightly, stroking her hair, until the sobs subsided.

After some time, she pulled free gently and said, “We should be getting back; I have to pack. Josh and I are going back to town tomorrow.”

Jess looked shocked. “No,” he said loudly and then more quietly. “I mean, I don’t want you to go; I want you to stay here at the ranch, with me. I want to look after you and Josh; I want to be with you…for always, Vicky,” he said, his voice thick with emotion,

She moved away from him and stared across the creek. Then she shook her head. “No, Jess, it’s not right between us. I’m way too old for you.”

He started to shake his head in denial, but she broke in, “How old are you 26….27? I’m nearly 39. Jess, when you are in your prime, I will be an old woman.”

He shook his head, and walking to her, placed his hands on her shoulders and looked deeply into her eyes. “I don’t care,” he said softly. “I just want you, want to care for you.”

“No,” she said again, “I can’t give you children, Jess. You need a young healthy wife who will give you strong sons to work alongside you on the ranch, not an old wreck like me.”

“Don’t talk that way!” he exploded angrily. “Please ….please, Vicky, I want to care for you. I know you’re sick, but I’ll save up pay for the operation…then you’ll be fine again.”

He pulled her close, and looking deeply into her eyes again, leaned forwards and kissed her gently. As she returned his kisses, they became more and more passionate.

He tangled his hands in her hair, undoing it so it framed her flushed, pretty face and she was suddenly transformed into her former self. “You look so beautiful,” he whispered.

She looked up at him. “Oh Jess,” she said, “I missed you so much. I was so worried. I….”

“It’s alright now,” he said softly, “everything’s gonna be alright.”

 Then, he leaned in and kissed her again and the kissing became more and more abandoned until his breathing quickened and Vicky  felt him trembling as he pulled her closer and was suddenly aware of his escalating desire. She knew then that she had to stop things before it was too late and she pulled free and looked deeply into his eyes, shaking her head slowly.

“What is it?” he asked softly.

“I can’t do this, Jess,” she said her voice breaking with emotion. “Can’t you see where this is heading? I can’t be your lover, Jess. I can’t risk getting pregnant again; I could die next time. I can’t risk that I have to be here for Josh…don’t you see?”

“It’s OK,” he said softly, “it doesn’t matter. I can wait until your better. I just wanna be with you.”

She looked into his hurt blue eyes and thought she would never love anyone as much as she did him at that moment — and that was why she had to leave him. She couldn’t bear the thought of him being tied to her when she was old and sick, maybe even starting to resent her. She had no doubts that his feelings for her were genuine, but she couldn’t put him through the uncertainty of a life with her. She also knew how passionate he was and how difficult it would be for him not to consummate their relationship. No, she said to herself, I must get away and let him find someone more fitting.

Turning back to him, she said firmly, “I’m sorry, Jess, I just don’t love you enough. I have to put Josh first. I’m leaving for town with Slim first thing tomorrow and I don’t want you to visit. It’s best we have a clean break”.

 With that, she ran back in the direction of the ranch.

Jess looked stricken and then went to follow her but his leg suddenly gave him such a severe spasm of pain, it took his breath away.

He collapsed back onto the log, breathing deeply as he tried to fight the agony. Sweat broke out on his face and he felt sick to his stomach. He sat there for a long time until finally the pain subsided and he was able to stand.

It was getting dark when he finally made it back to the ranch and he saw Slim sitting out on the porch. As he came and collapsed on the chair next to him, his friend gave him a concerned look.

“I was just going to come looking for you,” Slim said. “You missed supper, but Daisy has kept something hot for you.”

Slim rose to get it but Jess pulled him back into his seat, “Nah,” Jess said softly, “it’s OK;  I’m not hungry.”

Slim gave him an anxious look. “Vicky said you were a bit upset, said to leave you a while or I’d have come out before,” he said. “Hey, you look really rough, Jess. Are you OK?”

Jess shook his head almost imperceptivity. “No,” he said very quietly, and then looking across at his best buddy, said in an anguished voice, “She doesn’t want me, Slim.”

Slim looked at him in surprise.” I didn’t realize it was that serious between the two of you,” he said gently.

Jess shook his head. “Neither did I, until just before I took off after Deacon. What happened to her, I guess it made me realize how much she meant to me,” he said. “I guess I love her. I was gonna take on the baby too, Slim. I just don’t get it; she says it’s because she can’t give me children, but we’ve got Josh and Mike…it would have been OK.”

Slim said nothing for a while and then quietly replied, “Maybe she’s got a point there, buddy. I know how good you were with Mike, when he was just a little kid; it was always you he wanted when he was sick or afraid, and you’re a natural, Jess. I always kind of figured you’d have a whole mess of kids once you found the right woman.”

Jess nodded. “Yeah, me too, but I guess things change….and, well, a man can’t help the way he feels, who he falls in love with.”

“Give her time,” said Slim softly. “She’s been sick and losing the baby…well, it’s really troubled her something fierce. Maybe in time she’ll change her mind, huh?”

“Yeah, maybe,” said Jess. “I just can’t figure her right now. I thought she’d want some support. Hell, I just wanna help her, Slim,” he said, giving his friend an anguished look.

“Yes, I know, buddy, but women, well, they are different from us — see things different. I think she’s feeling real vulnerable. You know, this whole not being able to have kids thing, well, I guess it kind of makes a woman feel….well, less of a woman. I remember my Ma lost a baby when Andy was little, and it sure took her a long, long time to bounce back.”

“You think that’s what it is? “

“I dunno, maybe. You could talk to Daisy; she might understand it all better.”

“Aw, Slim, I couldn’t talk to Daisy about that sort of thing.”

“Why not? Daisy is just like a Ma to us; it’s only like talking to your Ma.”

“Slim, my Ma died when I was only 15 years old, and that ain’t the sort of conversation I’d have thought of havin’ with her. Trust me, if I’d started talkin’ ladies and babies, I’d have gotten my ears boxed!”

“Yeah, well, I can understand that,” Slim said giving his friend a small smile. “Anyways, let’s sleep on it. You look about done in, Partner”.

Jess nodded. “I think I’ll head out first thing, make a start on checking the fences on the North pasture.”

“Jess, you don’t have to do that. I don’t think you should be sitting a horse just yet a while.”

“Well, it beats walkin’; anyway, I figured I’d kinda make myself scarce until Vicky has gone. She said she wanted to make a clean break of it, so I figure that’s what we’ll do, for now at least. So say goodbye to her for me, will you, Slim?”

“OK, if you’re sure that’s what you want to do.”

“Yeah, guess it will be easier all round. Tell the boy as soon as this leg is fixed, I’ll finish breaking the Palomino, though. If he has his own horse, maybe he’ll ride out and see us once in a while.”

Slim looked over at him, sympathy in his eyes. “You’re going to miss having that boy around, aren’t you, Jess?” he said softly.

“I guess,” said Jess quietly ducking his head. “Well, I’m off to bed. Night, Slim.”

 “Good night,   Partner.”

The following morning when Slim awoke, Jess’s bed was empty and he figured he had done as he said he would and headed out at first light. He dressed and went through to breakfast and was surprised to see Vicky and Josh already up and sitting at the table where Daisy was dispensing coffee, eggs and ham.

“Where is Jess?” Daisy asked, “Is he staying in bed this morning?”

“No, Daisy, he set off at first light; got some chores he needed to tend to over on the North pasture.”

“Oh Slim,” she admonished, “how could you let him do that. He is still far from well; anyone can see that.”

“I’m sorry, Daisy, but you know Jess; once he sets his mind to something, that is it.”

“Oh yes,” she said sighing deeply, but with a twinkle in her eye. “I know Jess and his stubborn streak all too well.”

All this time Vicky had been silent and Slim looked across at her and was shocked to see tears in her eyes. “Jess said to tell you goodbye,” he said softly.

She just nodded, and then jumping up from the table, said, “Excuse me; last minute packing to do” and left the room quickly.

Slim and Daisy exchanged a concerned look but said nothing.

Then Josh said, in a small voice. “Did Jess leave a message for me?”

“I’ll say he did,” said Slim and told him as how Jess hoped to finish breaking Josh’s horse as soon as he was well enough so that he could still visit.

The boy’s face lit up at this. “You mean he still wants to be friends with me?” he asked.

“Sure he does,” said Slim softly. “He’s real fond of you, you know that. Says he’ll make a rancher of you if it kills him.”

The boy grinned and said, “I sure wish he was my Pa, Slim; that would be so good, you know?”

“Yeah, I know Josh. Go on now, go and help your Ma. We’ll take off just as soon as you’re ready, OK?”

“OK,” the boy said and ran from the room.

As soon as he’d gone, Daisy looked over at Slim. “Is Jess OK?” she asked.

“No, not really. He wanted to try and make a go of it with Vicky, but she turned him down. He’s real cut up about it.”

“Oh dear,” she said shaking her head. “I know Vicky really loves him, she told me so, but……well with losing the baby and everything, I think she just feels terribly worried about her health and her future. She could still die, you know, Slim, if she doesn’t have that operation. And if she were to get pregnant again…..well, that could prove fatal. I should imagine that is what she is thinking. If she married Jess, well she just couldn’t be a proper wife to him and she wouldn’t…….couldn’t, do that…do you understand?”

“Sure I do, but I don’t think Jess will; he loves her and wants her, under any terms…..or he thinks he does. I don’t know, Daisy. What should I tell him?”

“Just leave it for the moment, dear; let him lick his wounds and give Vicky time to come to terms with things and maybe in a few weeks she will see things differently.”

“I hope so,” replied Slim, “because I sure can’t see Jess changing his mind about her any time soon.”

Shortly afterwards, Slim drove the buckboard to town.

 He had lent Josh one of the ranch horses for the journey as space was pretty limited on the buckboard with all their worldly goods stashed away, and so he was able to speak to Vicky in confidence without the youngster overhearing.

Vicky took advantage of their time together without Josh in earshot and as soon as they were underway said to Slim, “Is Jess alright?”

Slim turned to her and said, “No not, really. He’s real upset, can’t figure why you don’t want his help just now”.

“It’s not that I don’t want it,” she replied, “It’s just really complicated, Slim. I …well I want him so badly and I know what a good father he would be to Josh too……but…….well ….I can’t be a proper wife to him just now and he deserves better.”

“Don’t you think he should be the one to decide that?” asked Slim gently.

She thought about it for a few minutes and then said, “No…I don’t think so. He isn’t making any logical decisions right now; he’s too emotional. I guess we just have to let it lie for a while…see what happens and maybe once I am feeling better….well, who knows.”

“Well, I guess it’s down to you,” said Slim softly, “but you know he’s my best buddy and I hate to see him hurting this way, so please if you decide ….well, to move on, will you try and make it as easy as possible. Because I know he’s had a real hard time lately — and I know you have too — but well, I guess he deserves to know what’s on your mind. Guess you owe him that at least.”

She nodded. “Yes, you are right, Slim. I do, and I will talk to him once I decide what is best for us all, I promise.”

He gave her a broad grin. “That’s good enough for me,” he said lightly and clicked the horses on to a swift trot on their way to Laramie.

******

It was late when Slim finally drove the buckboard back from town and all the lights were off in the ranch house.

 On entering the room he shared with Jess, he was pleased to see a nightlight had been left on for him in there, and glancing across the dimly lit room, he was surprised to see that Jess was still awake. He sat down on his bed and looked over at his friend. “Hey, what’s up, buddy? Couldn’t you sleep?”

“Nah, this dang leg is aching something fierce,” he replied quietly.

“Want a shot of Red Eye?” asked Slim going over to the dresser where he kept a half bottle for medicinal purposes, or so he told Daisy. He picked up the bottle, and after leaving the room for a moment, returned with the shot glasses and poured out a couple of generous measures.

Jess was sitting up, lying against his pillows when he returned and he looked pale and drawn as Slim passed him the glass over.

“So how did it go at ol’ Ma Brown’s place?” Jess asked giving him an enquiring look.

Slim gave a deep sigh. “That woman sure hates men something fierce,” he said. “She keeps that place like a nunnery, didn’t want me there that’s for sure, but I persuaded her in the end and we got all Vicky’s stuff up in the back bedroom. Guess she’ll be OK there; won’t be troubled by any gentleman callers, that’s for sure, not with Ma Brown on duty.”

Jess gave him a weak grin. “They do say old man Brown, quit this life as he figured he’d have a more relaxing time in the Devil’s company,” he said chuckling.

“Could be so,” said Slim, “and the way that woman gossips, guess she’ll be down in the warm place too when she goes; hell, that woman has got one evil mind”.

“Poor Vicky,” said Jess softly, “did she seem OK?”

“Sure,” said Slim. “Said she’d just keep to her room, won’t need to see much of her land lady and Sam said he’d have her and Josh over for supper often, so guess she will be fine. Got Josh sorted out at the Livery too; old Bill is giving him room and board in return for the boy working after school, so they should both be fine.”

“I sure hope so,” said Jess softly, before putting his empty glass on the night stand. “Thanks Slim,” he said quietly before turning over and closing his eyes, but whether it was for the words of comfort or the drink Slim wasn’t sure. But he knew it wasn’t just Jess’s leg that was keeping him awake and he felt a surge of pity for his friend as he got into bed and tried to sleep himself.

The following day Jess had decided he should get back to work breaking the Palomino and completely ignored all Daisy and Slim’s protests that his leg was not healed sufficiently.

“Aw, stop your fussin’ Slim,” Jess said angrily as he headed for the corral. “If I wait till this leg is completely better, that ol horse will be ready for the knacker’s yard. Besides he’s pretty much green broke now; it’s just a case of teaching him some manners and common sense.”

“I wish someone would teach you some common sense,” said Slim darkly.

Jess turned on him angrily. “Look, maybe I just need to do this for Josh, need to do something to help, and so will you just leave it please, Slim.”

Slim looked down and then said softly, “OK buddy, just take it slow an’ easy; you get pitched off on that leg it really won’t do it any good. “

“Yeah, I know and I’ll be careful,” promised Jess as he went to tack up the big animal.

True to his word, he took things slowly and the horse responded well. After half an hour or so, Jess rode him over to where Slim was perched on the corral fence and said, “See, he’s a pussy cat. Guess I can start riding him out soon and once he is reliable, I’ll take him over to Josh.”

“Do you think Bill will let him keep the animal at the Livery?” asked Slim.

“Yeah, I figure he will; Bill owes me big time.”

“How so?”

“Just a little matter of me dispatching that gang of horse thieves that were making his life a misery; said he’d never forget what I did.”

“Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that,” said Slim with a mischievous look in his eye. “Guess you ain’t gonna let Bill, though.”

“Well, I’ll give him something towards the feed bill as long as the animal has a roof over his head,” said Jess chuckling.

Just then they heard a rider approaching, and a few minutes later, Mort rode into view. He rode over to the corral, and jumping down from his horse, said, “Howdy,” and turning to Jess said, “Good to see you up and about again.”

Jess smiled down at him from the back of the big horse and said, “What brings you out here, Mort?”

“I just got the date for Deacon’s trial, set for next week. Guess you don’t have to attend, Jess; written evidence will be fine. It’s a foregone conclusion, anyways; the murder of the two prison guards was witnessed by a Federal Marshall. Just unfortunate that he was tied up at the time,” he said ruefully. “Anyway he’ll hang the following week if there is any justice in this world at all. I just thought you’d like to know.”

Jess was looking tense and pale. “Is Vicky going?” he asked.

“No, I told her about it and she figured it would all be too distressing for the boy.” Then looking intensely at Jess, Mort said, “She said as far as she was concerned he was already dead to her; he died in her heart the moment he first assaulted her.”

Jess looked down and took a deep breath before looking back at Mort, “How is she, Mort?” he asked softly.

Mort shook his grey head sorrowfully. “None too good Jess boy, she looks real sick to me. I know Sam is doing all he can for her….but well…..” and he lapsed into silence.

The following week Jess figured the Palomino was ready to go, and so early one morning, he saddled up Traveler, and with the big stallion on a lead rein, headed out to town. It was a Saturday and he knew he would find the boy working in the Livery.

The place was surprisingly quiet for a Saturday morning and Jess soon found Josh cleaning out a stall at the back of the stable.

“I see you are preparing a stall for this big fellah,” said Jess as he entered leading the Palomino.

 The boy gave a yell of pleasure as he saw Jess and then his eyes lit up even more as he looked past him to the big golden horse.

“You broke him, Jess. He’s ready to ride?” he asked in excitement.

“Ready and waiting,” beamed Jess, “and I’m not kidding about that stall. Bill says you can keep him in here.”

Josh leapt at Jess and gave him a big bear hug. “Jess, you are the best,” he said happily. “Thank you so, so much…he’s the best thing I’ve ever had.”

“Yeah, well you look after him well buddy,” said Jess grinning back. “Remember a cowboy always puts his horse first.”

“Oh I’ll remember, Jess, I promise,” said the lad patting the handsome animal’s neck.

They installed the horse, which Josh insisted on calling Apollo, in his new home and Jess leaned against the stall as Josh started to carefully groom the animal.

After a while Jess said quietly, “How is your Ma, Josh?”

The boy’s face clouded. “She’s not too well, Jess,” he said softly. “she won’t eat properly and she spends time just sitting and looking into space and then, sometimes she just won’t speak for hours. Sam does his best,” he continued, “has us round at his place most days, but….” and then he paused, his lip trembling.

“But what boy?” asked Jess encouragingly.

“But I’m real worried; we’re saving up as hard as we can. I do extra jobs and Ma does dressmaking and the like, but I just don’t think we are going to get the money together in time for the operation.” Then looking at Jess with tears in his eyes, he said, “I’m scared, Jess…real scared.”

Jess patted the boy gently on the arm. “It’s OK” he said. “We’ll find the money some way or other; in the meantime, we are going to have to try and cheer your Ma up. Figure maybe I’ll call on her.”

The boy looked terrified, “No, Jess, don’t do that please.”

“Why ever not… I ain’t about to hurt her you know that,” he replied in surprise.

“No, of course I know that…… it’s old Ma Brown; she cuts up something fierce if anyone calls…especially a man. She gave Ma such a hard time after Slim moved our stuff in; she cried for days. Please, Jess, don’t call; it will upset Ma too much.”

Jess gave him a worried look, and then said softly, “OK, boy, as you wish, but reckon I’ll call in on Sam; see if maybe we can find somewhere else for her to live instead of with that old dragon.”

A little while later, Jess left the boy tending his horse and strode down the street to Sam’s office and Carrie greeted him warmly.

 “How is that leg, Jess?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye. “I heard from Mort as to how you were up on mean-looking big brute of a mustang last week. I hope you haven’t undone all our hard work.”

Jess shook his head in mock disapproval. “Can’t a man get away with anything around here?” he asked. “Guess if I so much as sneeze half the town knows and got me in bed with lung fever.”

“That’s right,” she grinned back, “talk of the town, that’s you, cowboy.”

Just then Sam walked in. “Hey Jess, good to see you. Although I really don’t think you should be sitting mustangs yet awhile you know,” he said twinkling across at Carrie.

“Oh, don’t you start,” said Jess laughing, and then more seriously. “Sam, can we talk?”

Carrie gave him a grin. “Guess I’ll go and make the coffee and leave you two to it,” she said subtly before leaving the room.

As soon as she had gone, Jess looked over at Sam and said, “I’m real worried about Vicky.”

Sam nodded for Jess to sit and then taking the other chair said, “You and me both, buddy. She isn’t too well right now, that is for sure, and I guess the results of the trail have been unsettling for her too.”

“Oh?” said Jess. “I hadn’t heard it was over yet”.

“Mort came by and told me today, open and shut case. He hangs a week today”.

Jess let out a low whistle.” Does Vicky know?”

“Yeah, but I think Mort was kinda hoping that you would break it to the boy.”

Jess raked his hand through his black hair and looked distressed before replying quietly, “Yeah, sure I’ll do that…if it’s what Vicky wants? “

“Apparently she asked Mort especially to ask if you would do it.”

“I was going to see her, but Josh said not to; old Ma Brown gives her such a hard time when anyone calls.”

“Yes that’s right,” agreed Sam. “I’ve been wondering if I should ask her to move in here. What with the hospital room and my surgery there is only a tiny guest room, but she is welcome to it, in the short term at least”.

“That sounds like a good idea, if she’ll move,” agreed Jess.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Sam. “I haven’t been over to your place fishing in a while. Why don’t I bring Josh and Vicky over next Saturday and maybe Daisy can talk some sense into her. It will be the day of the hanging too. I guess they shouldn’t be left alone to brood on that day.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” said Jess. “Thanks Sam,” he said giving him a warm smile.

After he had enjoyed coffee and some more banter with Sam and Carrie, Jess thanked them and made his way back to the Livery.

As he entered, he saw Bill and went and had a quiet word with him before seeking out the boy.

“Bill says you can have an early lunch break,” said Jess cheerfully. “Let’s go out the back and sit awhile.”

Josh was more than happy to spend some time with his friend and they went and leaned on the corral fence out the back of the Livery and watched Apollo prancing around and getting to know his new stable mates.

After a few minutes, Jess said softly “I need to talk to you about something, Josh; I’ve got some news for you.”

The boy shot up from where he had been leaning on the fence and looked panic stricken. “Is it

Ma?”he whispered.

Jess leaned forwards and held his arm protectively. “No, it’s Ok; it ain’t your Ma. There is no easy way to tell you this. Your Pa, he was convicted yesterday…hangs on Saturday.”

The boy took a deep breath and turned deathly pale.

Jess patted his arm gently, “Josh, you OK?”

The boy shook his head and then the tears came and he ran into Jess’s arms and he held him close until the sobs finally subsided.

He pulled back after a little while and said in a muffled voice, “I’m sorry Jess I guess I’m acting like a baby…don’t know why I’m upset anyways… ….I hated him, things he did to me and Ma … I hated him, Jess.”

“I know, boy”, Jess said softly, “but he was still your Pa and I guess it’s only natural to grieve for him”.

After a few minutes, Josh looked deep into his friend’s eyes. “You’re so wise, Jess, so good to me and Ma. Hell, I wish you were my Pa. Please, Jess, can’t you just marry Ma…please?”

The simple words broke Jess’s heart and he had to blink away the tears in his own eyes. “Oh I would. Josh,” he said softly. “I’d marry her tomorrow….but she won’t have me, that’s the truth of it.”

“Why?” cried the boy, “I don’t understand…. “

“You and me both,” said Jess with a sad smile. “Guess I might be wise about some things…but that don’t include women. Josh boy, it sure don’t include women.”

Sometime later, after Josh had washed his face and got control again, Jess walked him down the street to spend the afternoon with Sam and Carrie as he had arranged earlier with them, not wishing to leave the boy on his own with the sad news.

Jess left a while later with the promise to see them for the fishing trip and returned to the Livery to thank Bill for his understanding.

” He’s a good boy that,” the old timer said, “puts a lot of store in you too, Jess. Reckons it was you as turned him around and I figure he’s right and I’m real glad to help you out with him any way I can.”

“Thanks Bill,” said Jess shaking his hand. “I really appreciate it,” Then fetching Traveler. he rode out of town, pausing just briefly to look up at Ma Brown’s house before riding sadly onwards towards home.

*****

The following Saturday dawned bright and clear but it was the end of summer and there was a hint of Fall in the air as Jess went about his early morning chores. He had been up since first light, unable to sleep again, and Slim had been driven mad by his constant tossing and turning.

Slim now went to the ranch kitchen door and yelled across the yard, “Breakfast’s up, Jess; come and get it.”

Jess finished spreading the fresh straw in Traveler’s stall and, after stopping for a moment to scratch his beloved horse behind his ear, he disappeared off into the house.

Daisy was just setting down a plate full of bacon and eggs with biscuits on the side, but Jess took one look at it and passed it along to Mike who had just taken his seat opposite him. Jess turned to Daisy and said softly, “Sorry, guess I’m not hungry, Daisy. Can I just have coffee?”

Daisy turned an anxious gaze on him and said, “Are you sick, Jess?”

“Love sick more like,” said Slim as an aside for Daisy’s ears only and gave her a secret wink.

“What?” asked Jess, giving him a hard look.

“Nothing, buddy,” said Slim looking innocent and then turning to Mike said, “So all ready for the fishing party then, Tiger?”

“Sure am,” beamed the boy, “and to seeing Josh again. I sure miss him being just next door. Why did he have to move Slim?”

“Well, his Ma is none too well,” said Slim evasively. “Guess she was having difficulty running the place on her own.”

“But she wasn’t alone,” piped up the young boy. “Jess was always over there helping and all.”

“Just eat your breakfast, Mike,” said Slim quietly as he looked up and saw the look of pain on Jess’s face.

After a minute Jess got up and excused himself and left the room. Mike finished off his breakfast and went out to collect the eggs, leaving Daisy and Slim sitting over a second cup of coffee.

“He’s taken all this business badly, hasn’t he?” said Daisy nodding at the bedroom door which Jess had recently departed through.

Slim nodded. “He desperately wants to help her out financially, but the bank turned him down for a loan and he just doesn’t know where to turn. Hel, I’d pay her fare if only I had the money, but none of us here are any better off than Jess what with the poor returns we had last year, when we lost all those cattle in the drought.”

Daisy put out a comforting hand and squeezed Slim’s. “Don’t worry, dear; we’ll think of something,” she said, “and I think the important thing is that we all try and cheer her up a little. I know Sam is very worried about her mental state; she seems very depressed.”

“I’m not surprised,” muttered Slim. “Living with that crazy old woman, enough to turn anyone loco.”

“Slim!” admonished Daisy in a shocked voice, but she had a little twinkle in her eye. “But you are right; she is something of a harridan. She has a dreadful son, you know; he’s in prison over in Cheyenne, for fraud, but you’d think he was a paragon the way she speaks of him, insists he is innocent.” She finished with a chuckle.

Later that morning, Slim was just putting the box of picnic food on the buckboard when he heard Sam’s buggy rattling down the track and he called out to Jess that their guests were arriving.

He appeared from around the barn and stepping forwards as Sam drew the buggy to a halt he smiled in greeting and reached up to help Vicky down and then stood back, struggling to keep the look of shock from his face as he looked at the familiar and yet unfamiliar face of the woman he loved.

She had lost so much weight her clothes hung on her and her dark hair was scraped back giving her a matronly look, but it was her eyes that shocked Jess the most they were lifeless and held a deep sadness that rocked his very soul.

He looked up at Sam and his friend saw the look in his eye and came to the rescue at once making light conversation and generally smoothing over the awkward moment. The assembled company entered the house for coffee and Daisy and Vicky were soon in earnest conversation and it wasn’t until much later by the lakeside, where they had driven for their picnic that Jess had the opportunity to talk to Vicky properly.

They had finished their lunch, although it was noticed by Daisy that both Jess and Vicky hardly ate a thing and were unusually quiet, and then Daisy had opted for a nap in the late sunshine while Sam and Slim took the boys down the lakeside a way in search of a better place to fish.

Turning to Vicky Jess said,” would you like to go for a walk, just as far as the cave, there is a good view from up there, that’s if it wouldn’t be too tiring for you?”

She gave him a gentle smile,” Oh I think I can manage,” she said softly and he took her hand and set off along the well worn track up to the cave.

He felt suddenly shy in her company and wanted to say a hundred things to her and yet his mind had gone completely blank.

 After a few minutes she said quietly,” how are you Jess, is your leg completely healed now?”

He nodded and then suddenly grabbed hold of her by the shoulders turning her round towards him so she looked him in the face and he said harshly, “What has happened to you Vicky what have you done to yourself? “

She looked upset and then angry. “What do you mean?” she asked,” I’ve been ill that’s all.”

“But it ain’t all is it?” he growled, “You won’t eat properly; Josh says you just sit and pine all the while. You’ve just given up haven’t you Vicky….given up on life and given up on me too.”

Then getting even angrier he said, “Why…why won’t you just let me help you….Hell, why won’t you marry me Vicky?”

She looked shocked to the core and then with the ghost of a smile said,” Jess Harper is that a proposal? “

He looked at her intensely. ”Yeah; I guess it is,” he said softly.

Instead of answering his question she said gently, “why are you so angry with me, Jess?”

He stared at her for a good minute before replying. “I’m not angry with you… I’m angry with me… I couldn’t save you, Vicky. You know what I said to you that day when you told me you were pregnant …and how it happened, I swore to God I wouldn’t let that man near you again…but I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t stop him …and I’m so, so sorry,” he whispered tears in his eyes and his voice thick with emotion.

“Come here,” she said softly and he walked into her open arms and they embraced for a long while then he pulled away and looking down into her pale face he gently loosed her hair from the pins and then stroked her face before tipping her chin up and kissing her very gently.

Then taking her hand, they continued up to the cave. On their arrival he noticed how out of breath she was and immediately sat her down on an old log by the entrance and then sitting next to her they surveyed the wonderful view of the lake, set out below them.

After a few minutes he turned to her and said simply, “Well? “

She knew exactly what he meant and after a moment she shook her head very gently before turning to him and saying, “I’m sorry, Jess; I can’t marry you. You see I’m not going to be here much longer.”

“What do you mean?” he said softly. “Have you found the money for the operation, are you going back East?”

She was silent for so long he thought she wasn’t going to reply, but she suddenly took his hand and looking deeply into his troubled eyes said, “No….. I don’t have long to live….probably just weeks now, according to Sam.”

He jumped up looking down at her in anguish. “No,” he yelled, “no that can’t be true, I don’t believe it…he’s got it all wrong.”

“No….Jess, no, he hasn’t,” she said softly, before starting to cry quietly.

He held her close, and feeling her shivering, took off his jacket and put it around her, before leaning her head on his shoulder and they silently looked out to the horizon together until the sun slowly dipped down towards the lake and a chill wind started to blow.

“It will all be over now,” she said softly.

Jess knew she was referring to the hanging and held her more tightly, “Yes, it will,” he replied quietly.

Then turning to look deep into his eyes she said very softly, “Take me back, Jess; I’m very tired.”

When they got back to the Lake the others were just packing everything up.

 Slim smiled at the couple as they walked over.

 “I was just sending out a search party,” he said grinning at them and then something in Jess’s eyes made his heart stand still.

” Jess?” he said hesitantly, but Jess just shook his head gently and walked Vicky over to the buckboard and helped her up, before turning and helping Daisy and jumping up himself he headed the team for home.

When they arrived back the others went into the ranch for a final coffee before Sam drove Josh and Vicky home, but Jess felt so overwhelmed he drifted off to the barn to tend to the team. Then he went and stood in Traveler’s stall, talking softly to his horse as he fondled his nose and gave him a sugar lump out of his shirt pocket.

After s few minutes he was aware that someone had entered the dim recesses of the barn and looking up saw Sam approaching.

He stood watching Jess with the horse for a few minutes before he said gently, “she has told you, hasn’t she?”

Jess just nodded.

“I’m so sorry,” said Sam.

Jess turned and looked at him. “Does Josh know?”

“No and she doesn’t want him to, not yet anyway.”

“Is there nothing…… “

He shook his head sadly,” there is still the option of the surgery, I have contacted my colleague, he would waive his fee, but there is still the hospital bill and the travel…just can’t be done Jess.”

“Would $200 be enough, together with what she’s saved and you have offered to loan her?” asked Jess suddenly.

“Well, just about I guess, but where are you going to find that kind of money Jess?” he asked looking puzzled.

Jess patted Traveler on the neck and nodding at him said quietly,” right here.”

Sam gave a soft whistle,” Oh no, not ol’ Trav, Jess, you can’t. He means the world to you.”

Jess flinched as if in pain and then walked out of the stall, pulling the door closed behind him. “He’s just an ol’ horse,” he said harshly,” I’ll take him into town tomorrow, see what sort of price Bill can get me for him. Should take a week or so to find a buyer, is that time enough? “

Sam nodded sadly,” you sure about this buddy?”

“I’m sure, but don’t say anything, I don’t want Slim trying to talk me out of it.”

“OK, but I think…”

“No, Sam, the time for thinkin’ is over, it’s a time for doin’,” and with that he marched out of the barn leaving Sam looking sadly after him.

After a few minutes Sam followed him out and Josh and Vicky were just saying their goodbyes. Vicky came to Jess last and smiled up at him,” are you OK?” she asked softly.

He ignored the question but looked down at her, his blue eyes tormented ,” listen,” he whispered,” it’s going to be OK, I promise you,  but you have to trust me Vicky and you have to start eating and looking after yourself properly, please … you have to…….do it for me.”

She reached up and gently stroked his cheek before nodding, “Yes,” she answered “I’ll try I really will try,” and with that he helped her up onto the buggy and Sam clicked the horse off out of the yard.

*****

The following morning Jess was up at dawn and quietly leaving the house went and saddled up Traveler for the last time and taking one of the ranch horses used for the buckboard with him on a lead rein set off for Laramie at a brisk trot.

As he rode he thought back to the night before. After Sam and the others had departed he had returned to the barn and started grooming Traveler to within an inch of his life.

Slim had come in an hour later to call him in for supper, but Jess had said he wasn’t hungry.

“Jess, come on,” said Slim fretfully, “you’ll only get Daisy on your back; you’ve hardly eaten all day”.

“Slim, will you leave it,” said Jess angrily. “I said I don’t want anything OK!”

Slim still stayed there watching his friend continue to groom his horse, “you’re gonna wear that critters hide clean away if you brush him anymore,” he said with a friendly smile, but Jess just turned and glared at him.

“OK, OK I’m going,” Slim had said, holding his hands up in a gesture of surrender, “but don’t blame me if Miss Daisy starts creating.”

After he had gone Jess leaned forwards resting his aching head on Traveler’s neck, he closed his eyes and after a while he patted the big horse gently on the shoulder,” I’m sorry old boy,” he said softly.

Now as he rode along in the early morning sunshine his heart was breaking at what he knew he had to do.

Traveler had been with him for a long time through thick and thin. He had carried him through storms and blizzards and sweltering heat without complaint. He’d also carried him home on the odd occasion when he was worse the wear either from drink or wounds and Jess knew he owed the old fellah a lot. The thought of selling him off to the highest bidder was like betraying a best friend, but Jess knew what he would have to do if he intended to get the money in time to save Vicky, or at least give her a fighting chance

When he arrived at the livery it was still very early and Bill was wondering about tending to the horses in his care whistling merrily to himself.

 He greeted Jess with a friendly grin,” you’re up early son, brought ol’ Trav in for his breakfast have you?” he said looking at the gleaming horse and then at the other horse on the lead rein.

“Thinking of trading him?” he asked looking at the old ranch horse.

Jess slipped from the saddle and handed Traveler’s reins to Bill, “No,” he said quietly, “I want to sell Traveler and as quickly as you can, Bill; I need some cash fast”.

The old man just stood there and stared at his friend open mouthed, until he finally gasped, “What? You’re sellin’ ol Trav…..but why Jess? “

“Told you I need the money,” he replied harshly, “now are you gonna sell him for me or not?” he growled.

Bill gave him a hurt look, “Well, sure iffen that’s what you want Jess,” he said quietly, “What are you looking for?”

“$200, $250 if you can get it.”

He gave a low whistle. “Lot of money that Jess.”

Jess turned and patted his mount gently on his neck. “Yeah, well, he’s a lot of horse, ain’t he,” he said quietly.

“I’ve got a man might pay that,” said the old man scratching his head. “Due in end of the week.

That do you?”

“Yeah,” replied Jess,”and thanks, Bill; sorry I’m kinda…” He suddenly got a huge lump in his throat and couldn’t go on.

The old man had known Jess a long time and knew what the horse meant to him and he felt really sorry for his young friend.

 He reached over and patted his arm gently. “It’s Ok, Jess,” he said softly. “I understand and if you change your mind, just let me know, OK?”

Jess just nodded and jumping up on the other horse spurred him off in the direction of home, his heart heavy.

He arrived back just after the others had sat down to breakfast and Daisy fussed around him, watching him like a hawk and so he had to make an effort to eat,  although he felt sick to his stomach.

After a while Mike asked to be excused and ran off to the barn to groom his pony, but he was back a few minutes later with a puzzled look on his young face and looking over at the dark haired rancher said, “Hey Jess, where is Traveler? He’s not in his stall, or the corral.”

Jess stopped eating and looked at Mike, completely lost for words.

Slim looked up at him in surprise. “Jess?”

Jess finally managed to speak. “He’s in town,” he said quietly looking deep into his coffee cup.

“In town,” said Slim. “What’s he doing there? I don’t get it?”

“He’s at the Livery,” growled Jess. “I’m sellin’ him.”

Daisy took in a sharp breath her hand flying to her mouth, “Oh Jess, your beautiful horse, but you love him why on earth would you sell him?”

Jess continued to look into his cup and then finally whispered, “Vicky”, and with that strode from the room into his bedroom closing the door behind him.

Slim rose to follow him but Daisy put a restraining hand on his arm and shook her head gently.

Mike stared at the pair open mouthed, “Is Jess selling Traveler?” he finally gasped, “but he can’t…he just can’t; he’s his best friend,” and ran back out into the yard obviously upset.

“I’ll go,” said Daisy getting up from the table and following the boy out and Slim saw her bend down and start talking to the child and knew he was in good hands.

He left Jess alone for an hour or so and then finally knocked softly on their bedroom door and went in.

Jess was lying on his bed staring at the ceiling, but he turned when Slim came in and sat down on the edge of his bed.

“Want to tell me about it?” he said softly.

“Nothing to tell,” said Jess after a while. “Vicky is dying, only got weeks left, according to Sam, and Trav is all I have to sell.”

Slim raked his hand through his blond hair and said, “Oh buddy I’d no idea it had come to this. I knew she was sick, but not that bad”.

“Yeah, well I only found out myself yesterday,” said Jess,” and Josh doesn’t know, for God’s sake make sure Mike doesn’t find out, I’d hate the boy to find out in the school yard or some place,” he finished.

Slim just nodded.

Then Jess turned to his friend looking deeply saddened,” I let her down Slim, I promised to take care of her and then that low life Deacon came and attacked her,  I should have been there for her and I wasn’t.”

“But you couldn’t have known what was going to happen, nobody could have predicted it. How were we to know that some stupid gossip about you and Vicky would make it as far as the Cheyenne jail? And what’s more that idiot Deacon would believe it all and make a break for it? ”replied Slim.

“I wonder who it was that started that rumor?” said Jess idly,” they sure upset a hornets’ nest with their over active imagination. Hell, I wasn’t even seeing her and some guy had me moved in and got her pregnant, can you believe that?”

“Knowing the idle chatter that abounds in Laramie, especially about you and your love life, well yeah I can,” he replied with a faint smile.

“Um,” said Jess,” anyway I guess we’ll never know”.

After a while Jess swung his legs off the bed and with a tired smile at his partner said, “well I guess I can’t lie around here all day feeling sorry for myself, figure I’ll tack up that no good excuse for a horse I’m lumbered with now and go and check the fences, might as well have a really bad day,” he said with the ghost of a smile.

Slim slapped him on the back,” nothing like a bit of fence riding to cheer a body up,” he agreed sarcastically, with a chuckle.

Jess spent the rest of the week working as hard as he could and falling exhausted into bed at night, but his dreams were haunted with the loss of Traveler and he seemed to walk miles every night desperately looking for him and awoke weary and depressed every morning.

By the end of the week he was a nervous wreck feeling completely drained, but he knew he had to ride into town to meet the prospective buyer and to try and do a fair deal.

Slim had offered to ride in with him but Jess secretly thought he might just stay in town and get well and truly drunk after the sale and he knew Slim probably wouldn’t approve, so he declined the offer and rode out early deciding to pay Mort a call and have a coffee or two with him before he went to the Livery.

*****

When he arrived in Laramie he went straight to Mort’s office and as he entered his friend gave him a friendly smile in greeting and gestured to the coffee pot on the stove. Jess wandered over and helped himself before throwing himself down on the chair opposite Mort and taking a deep drink of the strong brew.

“You look like you needed that,” grinned Mort. “Ol’ Slim been workin’ you too hard?”

“Somethin’ like that,” replied Jess.

“So anyways you’ve finally made it in to see me at last,” said Mort.

Jess gave him a puzzled look,” well I didn’t know you wanted to see me,” he replied, then with a twinkle in his eye,” not more Deputy duty Mort, legs only just recovered from the last stint.”

Now it was Mort’s turn to look puzzled. “Didn’t you get my message?” he asked.

“No, what message?” said Jess in exasperation.

“I asked Mose to say I needed to see you, last week it would be sometime; he said he’d see you at the Relay when he drove the stage in.”

“I ain’t seen Mose in over a week,” said Jess mystified. “He’s been off sick; one of the team stomped on his foot, been laid up ever since.”

“You know I thought I hadn’t seen him around,” reflected Mort. “Just assumed he was driving another route. Well poor old Mose, will he be off for long then?”

During this conversation, Jess had been getting more and more frustrated. “Gol darn it, Mort, will you just get to the point? What did you want to see me about?”

Mort beamed at his friend and getting up he went over to the wall Safe before returning with a fat envelope. Then his smile getting even broader he threw the package down in Jess’s lap and said,” For you.”

Jess gave him an enquiring look.

“Go on, open it then.”

Jess did as he was bid and as he ripped open the envelope and pulled out the contents his face registered pure shock as he looked down at the wad of notes.

Then looking up at Mort he whispered, “Gee there must be hundreds of bucks here, Mort. What is this all about?”

“One thousand exactly”, replied Mort his face creased in a huge grin again. “It’s the bounty on Deacon; I claimed it on your behalf,” and then looking more serious. “I heard you were in need of a bit of extra cash. Bill told me you’d got Traveler up for sale and I figured things must be pretty dire for you do that.”

“Yeah you could say that,” agreed Jess quietly. He looked down at the cash in his hands and then back at Mort, “Thank you so much” he said sincerely.

“Well you sure earned it, boy,” grinned Mort. “Just don’t spend it all at once.”

Jess grinned back and then standing up he pulled on his hat and made a start for the door.

“Hey where are you off to in such a darned hurry?” asked Mort. “You ain’t finished your coffee.”

“To get my horse,” said Jess beaming from ear to ear. “Guess that flea bitten old nag and me are going to be partners for a while longer,” he said as he dashed out of the office leaving Mort shaking his head a soppy grin on his face.

When he arrived at the Livery s few minutes later he went straight to Traveler’s usual stall but was surprised to see it empty and his heart sank, ‘oh no,’ he thought,’ Bill has already sold him, I’m too late,’ and suddenly he seemed to lose all his strength and he sank down on to a bale of straw and buried his head in his hands feeling totally dejected.

After a few minutes he became aware of the noise of a horse neighing in distress and leaping up he made for the back door and out to the corral and the sight that met his eyes made his blood boil.

A hefty looking man had Traveler’s reins in one hand and a vicious looking horse whip in the other and he was laying into the horse and shouting, “I’ll teach you a few manners my fine fellow.”

 Poor Bill was ineffectually trying to pull the man away. “Please mister; he’s a real gent this horse. Reason he threw you was you hit him so hard; he ain’t used to bein’ handled rough.”

Jess sprang into action immediately and vaulting the corral fence he ran over to the man and grabbing the horse whip from him he threw it aside before landing a punch on the fat man’s chin which sent him flying across the corral.

He  looked up in pure shock, “what in Hell,” he started, but Jess was upon him again a look of blind fury in his eyes, he pulled the man up and would have laid another haymaker on him if Bill hadn’t intervened. “Leave it, son, he ain’t worth it”, he said placating.

Jess backed down, looking at Bill’s pleading face and figured the man must be an important client.

The fat man stood up and dusted himself down. “So what’s all this about?” he said glaring at Jess.

Jess glared back. “Let’s just say I don’t like cruelty to dumb animals,” he said sarcastically.

The man turned back to Bill. “Well he’s kind of an ornery beast, but I like the look of him I’ll give you $200 for him.”

Jess stuck his chin out and said. “Not for sale mister.”

The man ignored him and turned back to Bill. “OK $300 and that is my last offer.”

“I said he’s not for sale,” yelled Jess, “not for $3,000 bucks”, and then grabbing the client’s hat from where it had fallen. Jess rammed it on the man’s head and grabbing him none too gently by the shirt front said menacingly. “That’s my horse, mister, and if you ever go anywhere near him again, you’ll be truly sorry,” and then pushing him roughly away said, “now git, while you can still walk”.

The man looked like a frightened rabbit and almost ran from the corral, with Bill and Jess watching, amused smiles on their faces.

After he had left Jess turned to Bill and said. “Sorry about that, guess I’ve just lost you a rich client.”

Bill smiled back. “Oh it’s OK son; I guess I don’t need clients like that. He was a real nasty piece of work, way he laid into old Trav there.”

Jess walked over to his horse and stroked him gently and he responded with a soft whinny.

 He gave him some sugar and then carefully checked over every inch of his mounts trembling hide. “No lasting damage,” he said at last, “so what happened, Bill?”

The old man scratched his head,” it was the darndest thing,” he said, “I’ve never seen Traveler act that way before; as soon as the man sat him he acted just like a wild mustang, bucked him off straight away. I figure because you never let anyone else ride him…. well, he just can’t tolerate a different rider. I’m sorry Jess but I guess you’ll never be able to sell this old fellah. Bottom line is, nobody else can ride him but you.”

Jess grinned broadly and fondling the horse’s nose he said softly, “Well that’s fine by me because I ain’t ever going to put him up for sale again.”

Then turning back to Bill he said, “Can you look after him a while longer Bill, I’ve some business to attend to in town, but I’ll be back to fetch him home later, OK? “

“OK, son, and I’m real glad you’ve decided to keep him; he’s a real fine horse.”

“That he is,” said Jess quietly, before turning and striding off down the street.

When he arrived at Widow Brown’s house at the top of the high street, he paused and took a deep breath before knocking on the brightly painted front door.

After a little while a middle aged woman, with a sour expression answered the door and said,

” Yes?”

Jess removed his hat and with a polite smile said,” Good morning Ma’am, I’d like a word with Mrs. Deacon, urgently, please.”

The woman gave him a black look before starting to close the door saying firmly,” No men callers.”

But Jess was too fast for her and jamming his foot in the door to prevent her closing it he glared at her and said,” I guess you didn’t hear me right Ma’am I want to speak to Mrs. Deacon, right now.”

“Oh I heard you alright, Mr. Harper, isn’t it……well I don’t allow men callers and especially not ones with your reputation.”

Jess gave her a faint smile. “Well now Ma’am,” he said quietly, “which reputation would that be, the one for fast shootin’, fightin’ or womanizing?”

She gave him a shocked look, “Well I never…….”

“No, I’m sure you never… ….”said Jess sardonically. Then he caught sight of Vicky standing just behind her landlady a look of fear mixed with amusement on her pretty face.

Jess decided he had had enough of the doorstep banter.

Mrs. Brown looked up at Jess again “No, I’m sorry I can’t allow it; I never allow callers in my guest’s rooms”.

Jess looked down at her weasel like features and gave a deep sigh, before saying, “Look Ma’am, I ain’t planning on staying the night, I just want a quick word and I guess the front parlor will be fine for that, and pushing past the older woman he entered the house grabbing hold of Vicky and disappearing into the front room closing the door firmly behind him.

“Oh Jess,” she giggled,” how could you.”

“Oh real easy,” he said smiling back, then, “Hey Vicky you look much better.”

She beamed at him, “well I took your advice, I was feeling sorry for myself but you made me see sense, and as soon as I started looking after myself properly I began to feel better in myself, I can even stand up to that old harridan,” she laughed, “with your help.”

“Well you won’t have to stand up to her for much longer,” said Jess beaming at her, “because I’ve got the money Vicky, you can go back East for the operation as soon as you like”.

She turned pale with shock and sat down quickly, then after a minute she whispered, “Really Jess, you really have got it?”

“Yeah,” he said softly and squatting down beside her chair he pulled the envelope out of his vest pocket and placed it in her hands. She looked at him and then down at the envelope before opening it and looking at the bulky contents.

She took a deep breath,” Jess what did you do, rob a bank?” she said a look of mixed shock and laughter in her eyes.

Jess grinned back. “Bounty money, $1,000 bucks worth.”

“Jess, I can’t possibly take all this,” she said in shock, “it’s far too much.”

He curled her fingers around the money. “it’s all yours and Josh’s,” he said, “it’s the bounty on Jed; guess he’d have wanted you to have it too.”

She looked at him with tears in her eyes and  leaning over she kissed him gently. Then she pulled back and said, “Thank you so much, I will never forget this,” before she kissed him again, more passionately.

 This time he pulled gently away and said, “Hey steady there. I told Ma Brown, I wasn’t staying the night; you don’t want to make me go back on my word, do you?”

She looked at him knowing the banter hid his true feelings, his desperate longing for her.

“Once I’m better things will be different she said…..…will you wait for me?”

He looked deeply into her beautiful eyes,” Oh yeah,” he said softly” I’ll wait for you.”

Then standing up he walked  quietly towards the door before turning and giving her a big wink, then he leaned forwards and pulled the  door open quickly and  Widow Brown all but fell into his arms, from where she had been listening at the door.

“Well”, she blustered, “I take it your leaving now Mr. Harper, and to be honest I’m surprised that you dare show your face here, the way you’ve treated Mrs. Deacon.”

“Excuse me?” said Jess in astonishment.

“Oh you know what I mean,” she said viciously,” moving in with her and then leaving her high and dry as soon as she gets sick…… I suppose you’ll be going back to that hussy Suzy Morgan now you’ve ruined this poor woman’s life! “

Jess and Vicky stood there speechless and Jess figured it would be funny if he wasn’t so darned insulted and then suddenly the penny dropped.

“Whoa there,” he said, “why did you think I was living with Mrs. Deacon?”

The woman bridled,” well it’s common knowledge,” she said,

“So who told you?” asked Jess his voice suddenly becoming frighteningly quiet.

“I don’t know…. I can’t remember… I guess I just knew,” she stuttered.

“Oh no, you didn’t you miserable old bat,” said Jess in the same menacing voice, “you just made it all up didn’t you?”

The woman turned puce. “Well, I was right, wasn’t I, and about the baby. A man like you shouldn’t be allowed to get away with these things. It was my Christian duty to inform Mr. Deacon as to what his wife was up to,” she finished aggressively.

“You mean you actually took it upon yourself to go all the way to Cheyenne just to share your filthy gossip with a man you don’t even know?” Jess asked incredulously.

“Well, I was visiting my poor son and he happened to share a cell with Mr. Deacon and we just got to chatting,” she said,” of course my boy is innocent…. and a good lawyer will prove that one day,” she finished looking self righteous.

Jess had been growing more and more angry and finally he let rip with the full force of the legendary Harper temper.

“You meddling, scheming bitch,” he spat, “hell I ain’t ever hit a woman yet but I’m darn near it now.”

The woman shrank back, fear in her piggy eyes,” don’t you come near me,” she shouted.

He leaned forwards and said menacingly,” have you any idea at all as to what you have done?”

She said nothing, just stared mesmerized into his furious, deep blue eyes.

“Well I tell you,” he said fiercely, “you are responsible for putting the idea of escaping jail in Deacon’s mind, then he  murdered two prison staff and  went on to kill  an innocent baby, not to mention nearly killing Vicky here, and I figure without your input none of that would have happened.”

“No, no,” she whimpered, “how can that be?”

“Because,” said Jess,” when you went to Deacon with your fantasies it set off a chain reaction that just couldn’t stop. Thanks to you, Deacon’s jealousy spilled over and wrecked all those innocent lives, so yeah I reckon you’re pretty much responsible.”

Ma Brown just stood there shaking, her eyes full of fear and anguish.

“You know what,” he finished, “I guess you should have hung alongside Deacon, ‘cos in my book, you’re just as guilty.”

Then turning to Vicky he said,” go pack your things sweetheart , you can stay over with Sam until you go home, I’ll wait for you outside,” and with that he marched from the house leaving Ma Brown staring after him a look of horror on her face as she finally  realized the truth of his words.

*****

Sometime later Jess sat over in Sam’s office with a glass of whisky in his hand as Carrie helped Vicky unpack upstairs. Sam noticed that Jess was still visibly shaking and he looked across at his good friend,” you OK,” he asked.

Jess nodded,” I guess…..sorry Sam I just got so dang mad with the woman, I didn’t mean to start ranting at you”.

Sam grinned at him,” well I guess you sure put Widow Brown in her place, I figure it will be a while before she gossips again.”

“Hum, maybe,” said Jess quietly,” but I guess her sort never change.”

“I figure she’s just kind of bitter, resentful of anyone else’s happiness,” said Sam thoughtfully.

“She had a bad marriage and no children I guess she gets resentful when  she sees people like you who are popular with the ladies… and your obvious devotion to Vicky……well she can see what she has missed out on.”

“That doesn’t give her the right to tell lies about people and hurt folk, just because she’s hurting though,” said Jess angrily.

“That’s true,” agreed Sam,” but that’s what people do sometimes. That’s why Josh was the way he was with Mike, he saw the relationship Mike had with you and Slim and he was just plumb jealous of it because of the awful relationship he had with his Pa. That’s why he bullied Mike so badly. But then you stepped in and turned things around for the boy”.

“What are you saying Sam, I should start seeing Ma Brown to change her into a sweet, harmless, old lady?” he asked with a mischievous grin.

“Oh no,” replied Sam laughing “I wouldn’t go that far….but maybe you were a bit hard on her?”

Jess just shook his head sadly, but said nothing.

Not long afterwards he thanked Sam for the drink and made his way slowly back to the Livery to pick up Traveler and head for home.

 On his way he stopped outside Widow Brown’s place and looked up at the house, before shaking his head sadly and carrying on down the street, he just couldn’t forgive her for what she had done, not yet anyway.

He walked quickly on and was soon happily aboard his beloved old horse and headed out of town, “come on boy let’s go home,” he said softly and Traveler flicked an ear in recognition and trotted off at a brisk pace.

 

It was late afternoon when he returned to the ranch and as he rode into the yard Slim and Mike came running out of the barn. Mike stopped in his tracks before running over to where Jess was just dismounting.

“You’ve brought him back,” he exclaimed happily, “you didn’t sell him, Jess,” and then beaming across at the dark haired rancher, “I knew you wouldn’t sell him, I just knew it,” he said hurling himself at Jess and giving him a big bear hug, which Jess returned.

Jess handed the boy the reins. “Go and put him up for me, will you, Tiger. I’ll be in shortly to rub him down,” and the boy walked off, talking animatedly to the big horse.

Slim went over and raised an eye brow, “so you couldn’t do it partner?” he said softly.

“Not a case of that,” said Jess grinning at his friend,” didn’t have to, Mort got me the Bounty on Deacon, more than enough for the operation and to set them up with a place back East if that’s what they want.”

Slim gave him a quizzical look,” well that’s great buddy, but do you think she’ll stay out there if the operation is successful and all?”

“I don’t know,” said Jess quietly looking off into the distance. “I sure hope not…but I guess that might be best for her and the boy. She wants him to go to college and I guess if she moved back in with her folks, then there would be enough cash left over to fund that too. “

Slim gave a small smile. “You’ve got it all worked out ain’t you, Jess…but where do you fit into the picture. Are you figuring in going with them? ”he said looking at his friend uncertainly.

Jess’s head shot up and he looked at Slim and then away to the horizon before shaking his head sadly…”no I guess not,” he said.

“Then why encourage it, tell her she has a place back here with you if that’s what you want, you’re a Partner in this place after all, you have a lot to offer her” said Slim gently.

” Don’t you care, I thought you loved her?”

“I do, and that’s why I ain’t saying anything, all I want is for her and the boy to be happy Slim… and well if she feels beholden to me, thinks she owes me something, she’ll be coming back for the wrong reasons…do you see that?”

“I guess, but I figure time will tell and at least you’ve got the money to help her now, and you didn’t have to sell the horse, thank goodness,” he said with a huge sigh

“Well you seem mighty pleased about that,” said Jess giving him a surprised look.

“Sure I am I just couldn’t bear the next twenty years of you bemoaning losing Traveler and calling every horse on the ranch a no good, flea ridden bag of bones,” said Slim laughing and with that he threw a friendly arm round his partners shoulders and they made for the barn to bed down Traveler for the night, with and extra scoop of feed as a welcome home treat.

Later that night, after supper, Jess filled in Slim and Daisy on everything that had happened that day, including the set to with the Widow Brown and Daisy could see how angry Jess still was as he recounted the story.

Afterwards she said gently, “what Maud Brown did was very wrong Jess and I know she has upset you mightily, but sometime…one day will you promise me you will try and forgive her dear. I hate to see you so bitter and  I suppose she is to be pitied, after all she has to live every day of her life in the knowledge that she instigated all those terrible things, I doubt she will ever forgive herself, maybe that is enough of a punishment?”

Jess looked over to Daisy, a sad expression in his eyes,” I just want to be sure she never does anything like that again Daisy.”

 Then looking down he said very softly,” I keep thinking of that baby girl that will never know life, never see her Ma….that’s what really breaks me up Daisy… and I just can’t forgive her for the part she played in that. It was her that told Deacon the child was mine you know…..…he was so demented with jealousy he just wouldn’t believe Vicky when she told him the truth”.

With that he took a deep breath and giving Daisy a shaky smile he said,” I’m done in,” and saying his good nights he retired to bed.

After he had gone Daisy and Slim exchanged a concerned look.

“Oh the poor boy, what he has been through… and I feel I’ve just made it worse.”

“No,” said Slim kindly,” he needs to think it through and yes he is justified in being so angry, but you are right, at some stage he has to let it go…… and if the only way to do that is to try and forgive the woman…then that is what he will have to do.”

“In the meantime he has to face Josh and Vicky going back East… and I figure he’s not sure they’ll be coming back…guess that’s enough for him to deal with right now”, said Slim and with that Daisy poured them  a final coffee before turning in, both deeply concerned about their friend.

Jess was very quiet over the following few days and spent most of his time around the ranch helping Slim with all the usual end of summer jobs like making sure the house and out buildings were all safe and secure before the cold winter weather descended.

At the end of the week however they decided they were ready for a break and on the Saturday afternoon rode into town as they often did at the weekend. Slim and Jess had been invited to a game of poker in the Saloon with some fellow ranchers but Jess had opted to spend the afternoon over at Sam’s place with Vicky and Josh. Their time together was especially precious as mother and son were due to leave town the following Monday taking the Stage as far as Cheyenne and then the railroad for the rest of their journey.

Jess had enjoyed a peaceful relaxing afternoon in Vicky’s company and they had taken the time to just talk, getting to know each other better. Then he appreciated a wonderful home cooked meal produced by Carrie and Vicky.

 Later, although Vicky was much stronger, Jess could see she was tiring and he suggested he go over and have a few hands of cards with Slim while she had an early night and she agreed thankfully as she felt really worn out and appreciated Jess’s thoughtfulness.

“Slim and I have a room over at the hotel tonight, card games often  go on real late,” explained Jess,” so we’ll stay over a couple of days, I can visit tomorrow and  then on Monday see you safely off on the Stage OK?”

 Vicky nodded in agreement. “That would be lovely,” she smiled, yawning broadly. “Oh heavens I’m sorry, Jess; I think I’ve overdone  it. We’ve laughed so much,” she said looking up at him her eyes sparkling.

“You’re OK?” he asked looking concerned.

“More than OK,” she said softly and reached up and caressed his cheek.

They were standing near the front door and the others had all disappeared into the parlor and Jess leaned forwards and kissed her, “you get some sleep honey,” he said softly,” and I’ll see you first thing,” and with that he let himself out of the front door and walked across the street to the Saloon.

As he wandered in he said hello to a few friends and then went and stood at the end of the bar near where the card school was going on, gave Slim a wave and then turned back to the bar and ordered a beer from his friend Tom the barkeep..

“Good to see you, Jess,” he said. “How are things?” ”

“Oh pretty good,” replied Jess making small talk for a while before turning back and watching the game in progress.

It must have been about half an hour later when a hush descended over the place and a very tall stranger dressed in a buckskin shirt strode into the bar.

 Apart from the buckskin he had all the hallmarks of a Gunslinger from his black hat pulled down low to the way he wore his gun, low on the hip and as he lounged on the bar and threw some coins in the general direction of Tom calling for a bottle, most of the regular clients moved away, giving him plenty of space.

Jess looked on in interest as the man picked up the drink Tom had poured him and after downing it in one, he hardly paused for breath before tipping the bottle and refilled his glass and after drinking that down too, finally turned his back to the bar and surveyed the room. After a third drink, the whole bar were watching his every move and he called over Tom and said loudly,” do you have a low life called Harper in here tonight? “

Tom looked worried and glanced down, but before he could answer Jess growled,

“I’m Jess Harper. What do you want?”

The man turned slowly round to face Jess and as his hand went down to rest gently on his gun butt everyone in the bar moved away out of the line of fire and tables and chairs were knocked over in their rush.

 Out of the corner of his eye Jess could see Slim move towards him, but he turned and shook his head almost imperceptibly, warning him to move away out of danger.

“I want to kill you, Harper,” snarled the man menacingly.

Jess showed no sign of fear and after turning away and taking a pull at his beer he turned back to the stranger and said,” and why would that be?”

“Because friend, you murdered my dear old Uncle and left him out for buzzard bait, the name Cougar Jack mean anything? “

Jess gave a brief nod.

“Well I’m Indigo Jack….”

At that there was a ripple of comment amongst the bystanders, the man gave them  an unpleasant smile. “Figure some of your friends have heard of me, Harper……guess my reputation is about as notorious as yours…so figure it’s time we met. Anyways there is also the matter of leaving Cougar out there…wouldn’t have hurt to bury the man now would it Harper?”

Jess showed the first sign of anger.

 “Well I would have done if your dear departed Uncle hadn’t bushwhacked me and near blown my leg off with his hunting rifle,” spat Jess.

”I was kinda having trouble staying alive at the time and so a nice burial for ol’ Cougar was the last thing on my mind.”

“Well, let’s just hope your friends do that last little service for you Harper”, said the Gunslinger backing off and flexing his hands ready to draw.

“Jess,” said Slim urgently, “don’t do it buddy, back down.”

“Your sidekick here is offering you good advice Harper…sure you’re fast, but not fast enough my friend.”

 Even though Jess knew in his heart what the man said was probably true, he stared stubbornly back,” just make your move,” he said quietly.

A nerve flicked in the tall man’s cheek and then his eyes narrowed and Jess knew he was about to draw and his hand went down to his Colt like lightening, too fast for any of the onlookers to even see, and he fired, all within the one fluid motion.

Just a fraction of a second later Indigo Jacks weapon flared. The two men were pretty much evenly matched, but Jess was more accurate and his shot went straight through the Gunslinger’s heart and he dropped like a stone……dead.

Jess lurched and staggered as bullet penetrated the muscle of his upper arm, passing straight through.

He grabbed hold of his arm, turning pale and cussing softly, but managed to stay on his feet and as the crowd watched he slowly walked over and knelt beside Indigo Jacks prostrate form and looked down with a mixture of relief and sadness in his eyes.

 After a minute he stood up and looked straight into the eyes of Mort Corey, his rifle cradled in  his arms,” It’s OK ,”he said quietly,” saw the whole thing Jess”.

Jess just nodded and walked out of the Saloon followed by Slim.

“Better get you patched up buddy,” he said softly, supporting his friend as they walked across the road to Sam’s office.

Carrie answered the door and looked from Slim to Jess and then saw Jess was clutching his arm and bleeding profusely,” Jess she admonished, we’ve only just signed you off after your leg wound…you’re not in trouble again?”

“Yeah well,” said Jess,” guess I’ve just been in the wrong place at the wrong time lately” and gave her an apologetic grin.

Carrie ushered both men in and called for her Pa , before taking Jess into the back surgery and helping him remove his blood stained shirt.

She looked at the wound and said, “Oh Jess this is really nasty, the bullet’s done a lot of damage.” and she quickly made him lie down on the couch and on covering him over with a blanket went to get her Pa.

Two minutes later Sam breezed in and was just about to give Jess some banter regarding his frequent appearances at the Doctor’s office when he saw the urgency of the situation and went into action.

After working on Jess for some time he was finally able to staunch the flow of blood without having to resort to surgery as he was loath to put his friend through a further anesthetic knowing his violent reactions to the drug.

 It was the early hours of the morning before Sam had stabilized Jess’ bleeding completely though and was happy he would be alright and he left him dozing on the surgery bed while he went for a quick break and to tell Slim his buddy was OK.

As he left the room he was surprised to see Vicky standing in the shadows at the bottom of the stairs…”.Hey,” he said softly” I thought you went to bed hours ago?”

“I awoke when Jess and Slim arrived,” she said softly…” I have been so worried, can I see him, just for a minute Sam….please.”

Sam gave a deep sigh,” he is sleeping, but you can go in for a minute… and then back to bed Vicky, you need your sleep too.”

She entered the room and sat down on a chair by the bed looking at his sleeping form. He looked deathly pale and had a bandage swathed around his left arm and her heart went out to him, looking so weak and vulnerable.

She reached over and ran a finger gently down his cheek and after a second his eyes flickered open. He looked around him in surprise for a moment before turning and finally focusing on Vicky. As he registered who she was he gave a loving smile and reached out his good hand to grasp hers.

“Hey what are you still doing up sweetheart?” he said softly,” I thought you were having an early night.”

She looked down at him smiling,” And I thought you were just going for a hand of cards…what happened to you Jess?” she asked.

“Well I guess Indigo Jack happened to me,” he said with a faint smile.

“What the Gunslinger?” she asked in amazement.

“You know him then?” asked Jess, giving her a quizzical look.

“His reputation, yes….oh Jess how did you come to tangle with him?”

Jess was exhausted and could feel his eyes beginning to close and just said softly, “Long story” ….before he finally fell asleep again.

Vicky leaned her head down on his chest and fell asleep too, her arms around him, and that is the way Sam found them a little later, when he returned to check on his patient.

He stood at the door of his surgery shaking his head, before going and waking Vicky and shooing her off to bed.

*****

The following morning Slim was at Sam’s place bright and early after also being shooed out the night before and as Sam welcomed him into the house he said, “How is he Sam….he looked real bad last night.”

Sam slapped his good friend on the shoulder and ushered him into the front parlor and after sitting him down with a coffee said,” He will be fine Slim, but the wound to his arm is lot worse than a usual flesh wound, he has lost a lot of blood and that combined with the previous injury could well lay him low for a few weeks.”

“So you want me to try and get him to rest,” said Slim with a big grin. ” Well, I will do my best, but you know Jess……” he finished.

Just at that moment there was a knock at the door and Carrie entered,” Pa,” she said urgently,” it’s Jess he is real sick I think you have to come now.”

Slim and Sam got up as one and rushed to the back surgery where Jess was struggling to get his breath and sweating badly.

Sam quickly calmed him down as best he could and ordered Carrie to get some cold water and cloths to start trying to reduce the sudden fever and also water to  increase his fluids after the heavy blood loss of the night before.

Jess was lashing around and obviously in a bad way and Slim hated to see him like that, but stayed and helped to support his buddy by talking softly to him while Carrie tried to get him to drink some water. Eventually after an hour or so he fell into a fitful sleep and Slim and Sam withdrew, leaving Carrie to watch him.

“What was that all about?” asked Slim in a shocked voice…..” I thought he was going to be OK? “

Sam gave his friend a worried look,” so did I,” he said,” but I guess the shock of that sudden blood loss was a mite worse than I had anticipated.”

Just then Vicky joined them,” how is Jess?” she asked in a worried voice ,” I heard you rush into his room and he is deeply asleep now, I don’t want to disturb him, but…Sam,” she said looking  distressed,” tell me the truth , he is really bad isn’t he?”

Sam said nothing for a few minutes before looking Vicky in the eye,” Sure,” he said, “but I can cope with it, and he really isn’t sick enough for you to postpone your trip to the hospital if that’s what you are thinking.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking,” she replied” I can wait …until he is better…..”

“No,” cut in Sam urgently,” you can’t and you know full well you can’t…if you don’t get this operation for when it is scheduled next week, then it will be another couple of months …and you just won’t last that long girl…you know it and I know it,” he paused before continuing,” and so does Jess and if you don’t go…well he’ll never forgive himself.”

Vicky gave a deep sigh and said, “Yeah, I know you are right Sam…but….”

“But nothing,” said Slim,” I know Jess better than both of you and he would be real mad if he thought you were staying just for him…you have a young boy to consider too  Vicky as well as yourself.”

She hung her head,” you’re right of course Slim”, and then turning to Sam said,” I’m not getting the Stage until noon on Monday; maybe he’ll be a little better by then?”

Sam just nodded grimly, “yes maybe,” he said softly.

*****

Jess spent the whole of that day drifting in and out of consciousness and Vicky insisted on employing all her time, along with Carrie ,nursing him through the turmoil he was going through.

 He was very restless and hardly seemed to recognize either of the women for the brief periods he was awake though, as he tossed and turned burning up with the high fever. Slim visited too and was distressed to see his buddy in such a bad state.

Sam took him to one side as Slim left the sick room and they went and sat together in Sam’s office.

 He poured Slim a strong drink and then sat back in his chair and regarded his friend, before speaking.

“What I told Vicky is true you know,” he said softly,” yes ,Jess is real sick right now , but I can cope with it and he will be OK in a couple of days Slim, I can promise that. It’s just a case of the fever breaking and getting enough fluids back into him to redress the balance of the heavy blood loss he has endured lately.”

“Is there anything I can do?” said Slim looking concerned,” I can see Vicky and Carrie are exhausted looking after him all day can I stay and look out for him tonight?”

Sam gave him an appraising look and then smiled,” I don’t see why not, I think the fever is beginning to lessen a little already, just a case of making him drink plenty of water… and don’t take any arguments either,” he said,” you know how difficult he can be,” and Slim grinned back

“Oh yeah, I know alright”, he said.

By late evening Jess had finally come out of the worst of the fever, as Sam had predicted, and Vicky who was sitting with him was relieved to see he recognized her at last and he gave her a warm, loving smile before he drifted off to sleep.

Sam had a difficult time convincing her she must go and get some rest herself, but eventually she retired for the night and Slim took her place in the chair at Jess’s bedside.

Jess had been in a deep sleep for a couple of hours when he finally stirred and on opening his blue eyes peered at Slim and said sleepily, “Hey what are you doing here, partner? It’s the middle of the night …ain’t it?” he finished, looking at the dim night light beside the bed.

“Yeah, it’s pretty late,” said Slim softly,” but I’ve strict instructions to sit up with you and make you drink a whole load of water;” he said smiling down at his buddy.

“Aw. Slim can’t I have some coffee?” asked Jess struggling to sit up.

“No, you can’t,” said Slim reaching over and putting a pillow behind his friend, you are having water so just drink it and behave.”

Jess gave him a cheeky grin and said,” OK Ma!”

Slim gave him a gentle cuff around the head, “good to see you’ve got your warped sense of humor back Hotshot,” he said chuckling.

“What do you mean, got it back…..never left me ,”he replied,” I’ve been fine.”

“What,” said Slim looking back at him in mock horror…..…”you’ve been fine have you…well I’ll tell you, for the last 24 hours you’ve hardly known which side’s up. You’ve been totally out of it buddy…didn’t even recognize your beloved”.

Jess took a deep breath,” you’re kidding me I’ve been that bad?”

“Sure have buddy” replied Slim,” but guess you’re on the mend now.”

Jess suddenly sat up, looking distressed…”I haven’t missed her have I Slim; she ain’t gone already has she?”

Slim pushed him  gently back on the pillow,” no she’d asleep upstairs, catches the noon Stage tomorrow, don’t worry.”

Jess gave a huge sigh of relief and took the offered drink from his partner without further argument, all his fight suddenly knocked out of him.

The following morning when Sam came to check on his patient he found Jess in a deep peaceful sleep and Slim dozing in the chair beside him.

He gently leaned over and checked Jess’s pulse and was pleased to see he seemed much better.

 After a minute, or so, Slim woke up and the pair of them quietly left the room leaving Jess to sleep.

The rest of the household was in pandemonium as Carrie helped Vicky and Josh pack up all their goods in a variety of cases and boxes.

Vicky also desperately wanted to spend time with Jess and as soon as all the packing was completed, she went to his room.

She sat beside him watching the gentle rise and fall of his chest as he slept, deeply, but normally at last.

 After a little while his eyes fluttered open and he looked up at her.

“Vicky,” he said softly, “I’m so sorry I’ve been ill…..there was so much I wanted to do…to say to you before you left.”

“Hush,” she said gently, “you don’t need to say anything…I know how you feel”.

“Please,” he said softly,” I have to say this, before you go.”

She looked expectant and waited for him to continue.

After a while he said quietly,” this is real hard for me”…..

Then he tried again and clasping her small hand, he looked down at it and then back into her eyes as if steeling himself, then said, “If you think it’s better for you and Josh to stay out East, then… …that’s what I want you to do.”

She gave a little gasp of shock, “Jess?”

“Look,” he said “I’ve thought about it a lot, the life here is tough, real tough, you know that and I couldn’t….wouldn’t ask you to lead that sort of life if you…well if you weren’t up to it after the operation.”

She looked sadly at him, “you have been talking to Sam haven’t you?” she said,”  and he has told you what he has told me…. I may always be very frail afterwards, never recover completely.”

Jess just nodded.

“I expect he told you that I would be well looked after by my folks, lead an easier life….well what if I don’t want that Jess, what if I want to come back here and be with you?”

Jess gave her an intense look, “all I want is for you and Josh to be happy and safe,” he said very quietly.

A tear welled up in her eye and slowly rolled down her cheek.

“Sweetheart, don’t,” he whispered. “I’ll be here for you, just go and have the surgery and see what happens…OK?” he said trying to smile although his heart was breaking, and he reached up and gently wiped the tear away with a finger.

 “OK,” she said her voice thick with emotion.

There was a gentle tap at the door and Carrie stood there,” Slim says are you ready?” she said softly,” he says Mose won’t wait…not even for you.”

 Vicky gave a watery smile, imagining the old Stage driver getting anxious if she was late,” I’ll just be a moment,” she replied and Carrie withdrew.

Vicky looked back into Jess’s concerned eyes,” I can’t do it,” she said suddenly,” I can’t leave you Jess, not like this… I have this terrible feeling, something bad will happen to you.”

“Hey, whoa there,” he said quickly,” I can look after myself, you know that and right now it’s you and that young man of yours, you need to look out for, now come here,” and with that he reached up and gently pulled her down to him in a passionate embrace. He kissed her long and hard and it was several minutes later before he was aware of Slim standing by the door.

“Vicky,” said Slim urgently, “We have to go”.

She sat up, gently pulling away from Jess and looked deep into his eyes.

“Go on,” he said softly, “and I’ll see you soon, yeah?”

“Yes, of course,” she said forcing herself to smile, although both of then knew that their future was uncertain, to say the least.

She got up and went to the door and turned one last time, Jess grinned at her,

“Go on, don’t go keepin’ old Mose waiting,” he said cheerfully and with an answering smile she turned and left the room, but as Slim followed her out he glanced back at his buddy and on seeing the look of despair in his eyes, his heart missed a beat and he watched as Jess lay back down and turned his face to the wall.

When he returned from seeing Vicky and Josh off, Jess was lying looking up at the ceiling and Slim came into the room and sat down on the chair next to the bed.

“You Ok?” he asked softly.

Jess shook his head gently and then looked over at his best friend, tears in his eyes , “No,” he replied,” but guess I will be eventually,” and Slim just nodded and sat quietly, keeping his friend company, knowing that was all he could do to support him.

Slim had to get back to the Relay Station the following morning and before he left he had a quiet word with Sam in the privacy of his office.

“When will he be OK to travel?” he asked his friend.

“Oh in a day or so, he shouldn’t really be sitting a horse but I know old Traveler is waiting in the Livery and I guess Jess will want to ride him. I’ll try and get him to stay here a bit longer, but I can see he’s getting mighty twitchy already, so I should expect him back by the end of the week,” he said giving his friend an amused look.

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” said Slim returning the amused look.

 Then he sobered,” Guess he’s taken her going, pretty bad you know Sam,” he said sadly, “do you think she’ll be back?”

Sam gave Slim a concerned look,” well then, it’s not for me to speculate, or give advice, but if she were my daughter, then I would want her to stay back East, give her all the help and support I could and I figure that’s what Vicky’s Ma and Pa will be wanting to do. You know she nearly died when she lost the baby Slim, and her parents know that, can’t see them risking her moving back here.”

“She’s a pretty determined lady though,” said Slim.

“I guess, but I figure she’ll have the fight knocked out of her some by this operation you know Slim, I have only seen a couple of cases post operative… and well, they ended up real fragile…… not  fit enough to be ranchers wives, that’s for sure”.

Slim shook his head sadly,” does Jess know this?” he asked.

Sam nodded in affirmation, “oh yes, he knows alright,” he said.

As predicted Jess expressed a wish to return home the next day, but was persuaded to stay one more night. Carrie and Sam did their best to cheer him up and Carrie especially, made a big effort cooking him a wonderful meal on his last evening. Before he turned in for the night Jess sat in front of the fire with his close friends enjoying a last cup of coffee and said looking from on to the other,” thank you for caring for me and for taking Vicky in too, I really appreciate all you have both done for us.”

“That’s what friends are for,” said Sam and Jess just nodded.

 Then looking across at him said,” it’s a funny thing, all the time I’ve been lying there, I’ve been thinking about my friends and all the stuff they do for me, and well I guess it makes a man feel kinda humble.”

Sam looked at Jess, with a raised eyebrow…”go on,” he said.

“Well, I’m lucky,” he said thoughtfully,” friends like you and Carrie to care for me, Slim and Mort and countless others to watch my back and Daisy with all her wisdom and common sense…not to mention Mike…the happiness and laughter he gives me, “he said his face lighting up at the thought of his family..

Sam nodded for him to continue.

” Well then I got to thinking about the reason how  this sorry tale started,” he said looking deep into the fire, “with Mike being bullied by Josh, because of the way he had been treated at the hands of his Pa. Then everything else that happened was the result of retribution, Deacon against me and Vicky, Cougar Jack against me because I had something he wanted and finally the shooting the other day, his nephew seeking reprisal and mostly, it all came about  because of the lies Widow Brown told Deacon in prison that day,” he finished quietly.

“And so that is why you hate her?” asked Sam softly.

“No,” said Jess softly,” that’s why I’m gonna try and talk to her…… forgive her.”

“How so?” asked Sam, heart warmed but equally mystified.

“Because if it’s right, that she is bitter because of things that happened to her in the past…..well I was pretty bitter too…about my past at one time, made me do a whole mess of stuff  I’m not proud of…that’s until Slim took me on, helped me to see sense. I guess….well maybe if I can forgive that miserable old woman, then possibly she can change too….do you think?” he asked looking soulfully at Sam.

“I think all you can do is try buddy”, he said softly,” all anyone can do is try.”

The following morning after breakfast Jess thanked his friends again and then went and visited Bill at the Livery and picked up Traveler.

“You OK boy?” asked Bill with concern,” heard how as you had a run in with a no good stranger in the Saloon.”

Jess grinned at the old timer “, yeah, I’m fine,” he said ,” how’s my old horse doin’ then Bill?”

“Oh just a rarin’ to go, boy,” he said with a gummy smile.

Jess mounted Traveler and rode him down Main Street until he reached Ma Brown’s house where he dismounted and walking to the front door knocked and stood back politely, his hat in his hand.

After a few minutes Widow Brown came to the door and to Jess’s surprise she flung it open wide as soon as she saw him and said, ”come in Mr. Harper.”

Jess entered and was shown into the front parlor and ushered to a comfortable chair and Ma Brown took the one opposite.

Jess cleared his throat,” Err.. I wanted to speak to you Ma’am,” he started.

But Ma Brown cut in before he could continue, “Please,” she said quietly,” may I say something first?”

Jess was so completely taken aback by her whole attitude he merely nodded.

“I have had a lot to think about since your last visit,” she started…”and Mr. Harper I must admit I have been tormented  by what you said to me….because I knew in my heart what you said was true.”

 Then looking deep into his eyes. Nobody has ever spoken to me like that before, Mr. Harper……nobody, made me think about what I was like…..the things I say and do…….and well I took a real long look at myself and its hard……real hard to admit, but I didn’t like what I saw…not one little bit.”

She took a deep breath and continued, “So, since your last visit, I have started to make changes, this room,” she said, gesturing to where they sat,” I now have as a meeting place where my young ladies can meet with their beau….although strictly between 7 and 10pm,” she finished with a flash of the old Ma Brown about her.

“And I have been visiting with your housekeeper this week and she has told me a few things about you Mr. Harper and I feel, well…. I feel I must apologize, I had got you all wrong and after talking to dear Daisy, well I can see just how wrong I have been on all accounts.”

After taking a deep breath she continued…” I can’t promise to turn into a Saint over night”… and then turning to give him a mischievous smile…”but then I doubt any of us can…but I will try to change my ways Mr. Harper… I do promise you that.”

Then she turned to Jess and said, “So tell me Mr. Harper, why did you wish to speak to me? “

Jess turned to her, uncertain as to what to say and then he figured honesty was the best policy and so he said, “Well Ma’am, I came here today to ask you to do just what you  …have already done…….but also to say I ….well I guess I’m trying to say…I forgive you for all that happened, I figure we should just put it behind us and start afresh.”

She beamed at him,” thank you,” she whispered,” I promise I will really try.”

“That’s all any of us can do Ma’am,” said Jess softly,” guess that’s all any of us can do.

*****

 

Epilogue

It was a few weeks before word came through via Sam that Vicky’s operation had been successfully completed. However as Sam had predicted she was very weak still, and her parents had taken her and Josh to live with them, and were doing all they could to ensure Josh was enrolled at the local college and that Vicky stay with them for the foreseeable future.

Sam had been visiting the Sherman ranch on one of his many fishing trips, when he said he had  news about Vicky to Jess. After a quiet word with Slim he had taken off with Jess alone.

They were sitting by the lake fishing when Sam broached the subject of Vicky again. He told Jess about the success of the operation and then lapsed into silence trying to find the right words when Jess broke into his thoughts.

Looking away to the horizon he said softly, “She’s not coming back is she Sam?” and then he turned to look at his friend.

Sam locked eyes with him and just gently shook his head, “No, I guess not, not for a good long while anyway.”

Jess hung his head and said very quietly, “Not ever I guess, Sam.”

“She was real worried when she was staying with us,”” continued Sam, “she thought she wouldn’t make it through the operation and if she did…well she would never really be well and she was real concerned that she would be a burden to you.”

Jess broke in angrily. “She could never be that,” he said.

“Yeah well, that’s not the way she figured it,” finished Sam softly,” so….she wrote you this,” and he handed an envelope over to Jess.

He took it from Sam and looked at it for a few minutes before ripping it open and looking intently at the contents.

As he read it Sam could see the distress on his face and when he had finished he saw him turn away and wipe a hand across his eyes before standing up and walking away down the lakeside, where he stood for sometime just looking out over the water.

After some time he returned, folded up the letter and placed it carefully in his top shirt pocket, before turning to Sam, “sorry about that,” he said.

“Nothing to be sorry about Jess, it’s difficult for you both, I know that, but maybe…her staying put that’s the best for you all in the long run”.

Jess nodded and gave Sam a weak grin. “Nothin’ ever comes right when you start messin’ with married women,” he said quietly. “Guess I’ll learn that lesson sooner or later.”

Sam smiled back and gave him a gentle punch on the arm. “Come on, Jess, get fishin’ or Miss Daisy will start creating if she hasn’t got anything to cook for supper,” and the two applied themselves to the task of catching a mess of fish.

Slim cast Sam a concerned look and raised an eyebrow at Jess’s retreating back when they returned to the ranch much later. Sam just shook his head sadly and they both went into the house for the promised fish supper.

After Sam had left, Jess and Slim sat out on the porch having a last cup of coffee.

“So did Sam have some news for you?” Slim asked casually, but Jess wasn’t fooled.

“You dang well know he did,” he responded,” that’s why you made yourself scarce this afternoon, so that he could talk to me.”

Slim nodded his head in acknowledgement,” well?” he said.

Jess said nothing just took the folded letter out of his pocket and passed it over for Slim to read.

 

My Darling Jess,

 I have left this letter with Sam for you to read once the operation is completed. I know I promised I would return to you, but unless I am completely recovered and can be a proper wife to you, then I cannot honor that promise. If you are reading this letter then Sam knows I will not be returning to you my love and I am truly sorry.

I cannot begin to thank you for all you have done for Josh and me and we will never forget you. Maybe you can find it in your heart to allow Josh to visit you occasionally in the college holidays. He misses you so much.

I would not accompany him as it would just be too painful for me to see you again, but I want you to know I will always love you and pray that you find someone special who can love you as you deserve.

God bless you,

all my love,

 Vicky.

 

Slim gave a low whistle and handed it back,” nice letter,” he said softly.

“Well she’s a nice lady”, replied Jess.

“And at least I’ve learnt something from all this. Next time I tell myself don’t mess with a married lady…well I’ll actually listen to myself……and ……”

“And what Jess?” asked Slim gently.

“And never date anyone whose boarding with old Ma Brown, because you’re only allowed use of the parlor between 7 and 10….and then she’ll chuck you out,” he said grinning across at his partner and Slim returned the smile, thinking his friend was beginning to bounce back and, thank goodness, the Harper sense of humor was still intact.

***End***

Thank you for reading!

Return to Patty W.’s home page

One thought on “Reprisal (by Patty W.)

  1. I loved the story but once again I’m broken-hearted to learn that Jess has not found a good woman and children whom he can love as his very own. I keep hoping someone will write a story or series of stories that will give love and joy to Jess’s life instead of pain and heartache.

    Like

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