The Wedding Quilt (by Barbara A. Taylor and Effie Taite)

Summary:  A deadly epidemic hits Laramie and the surrounding territory.  Dedicated to the memory of Effie Taite.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count: 90,542


CHAPTER ONE

Using the mirror was useless as it had a star-shaped crack in the middle. It had suffered during one of Jess and Andy’s rough and tumbles. Slim smiled sadly as Andy was becoming a teenager, and the trial of the outlaws had been his first, and Slim had not been convinced that his brother was ready to witness men being condemned to die; but that was another tale.

His pretend fights with Jess were becoming more serious as his kid brother goaded Jess into treating him like a man and fighting properly. Jess would never do that as he it felt it was Slim’s place to slap his brother down and make him know exactly where he stood in the pecking order.

Slim finished adjusting his tie; he always had trouble tying a decent bow and now the mirror was less than useless. He was also getting annoyed at Jess, as the way the time was passing; they were going to be late. Slim was impatient to get to the dance as he was longing to meet the girl who had swept him off his feet. She was unaware of this, but tonight he wanted to spend the evening with her, and really get to know her and to make plans to steal her heart.

He had not told Jess yet; because he knew that he would be the target of his new friends’ wicked sense of humor. He deserved Jess’ mockery as he had enjoyed poking fun at Jess whose romantic efforts always seemed to end in disaster. Slim had brought Jess back, wounded, ill, his heart in shreds from previous romantic encounters, and it had taken all of Joneys’ doctoring skills and Slim’s gentle cajoling and support to give the damaged ego back to the vibrant youngster that Jess was. He coped with Slim’s laughing comments more easily than he did his sympathy. Laughter made him fighting mad and sympathy dragged his spirits down, as Slim had found out.

Slim wondered what was taking Jess so long, he knew that he had bought himself some new ‘going to town duds’, and he wondered what was keeping his pard. At last the bedroom door opened and Slim had to smile.

“What’s making you look like a Cheshire cat? Never seen smiles as wide as that before.  You’re showing all your teeth and  you look like a damned mule.” Jess grunted, as he self consciously adjusted his string tie. He was pleased with his new duds which he had got at a knock down price for the guy who had ordered them had not lived long enough to pick them up and must less wear them. Jess thought that this was one time that his leanness and lack of gangly height had paid off, as he had got a bargain, for there were very few in Laramie who could have fitted into them. For Jess they fitted like a glove and he cut a fine figure in them which would cause many heads to turn and hearts to flutter.

“It’s just that you look like a gambler. That frilled shirt, draped jacket and pin stripped pants. You look like you have just stepped off a river boat.”

“What would you know about river boats, you’ve been nowhere, ‘cept the army, been nowhere with any class, you are a real small-town hick.” Jess pointed out as he himself had briefly seen the glories of the highly-civilized south as he had marched past the magnificent rich estates with their grand pillared houses. He had seen the elaborate and graceful buildings of the beautiful southern towns, and he had never forgotten that brief glimpse of the courtly, gracious world that was to be smashed and destroyed forever by war.

“I know enough to spot a dangerous hombre when I see one, even if he has his hair slicked down with axle grease, that’s one way of getting rid of your curls.” Slim laughed as he watched his pards faces darken with temper.

“You’re just jealous; you know you are going bald. Well are you ready? Are you going like that? Don’t know if I want to ride in with you, you look a mite ruffled.” Jess growled.

“Harper if we had time I would make sure that you were ruffled as well, I have been waiting for hours for you to dandify yourself, slicking down that buffalo pelt that you call hair, and I am not going bald, it’s you that’s going blind. Well, are we going to get out of here or do you want to continue to give me a lesson in gent’s wear?”

“O.K. then boss, lead on. I’m right behind you as usual.” Jess finally relaxed with his lopsided country boy grin. “We’re out of here.”

“At last, you sure you are ready?” Slim laughed again risking getting decked.

“Shut up, and let’s go.” Was all his young ranch hand said, who was all duded up as if he was going to a gambler get together. He turned to pick up his new hat with the silver hat band, which he had won on a risky bet. He had not told his boss as he knew that the stiff backed man would not approve of his wild and dangerous behavior.

“Whoa, howdy stranger, ye stayin’ for supper?” It was old Jonesy who had just come in from gathering eggs, he had had to hunt around the yard as some of the younger hens liked to make their own nests; hidden away from marauding foxes and rats.

“Don’t start Jonesy,” Jess growled.

“Oh; it’s you boy, hardly recognized you, not dressed properly.” The old man said with his usual wry smile.

“Don’t you worry Jonesy; you don’t think that he’ll go to town without his gun. Will you fast draw? Do you not think you should go in peace for a change?” Slim continued to torment Jess, who had his head down as he strapped on his iron.

“Don’t worry Jess, I’ll get the liniment and bandages ready for when you come home, I bet they will be lining up to tear that frilly shirt of your back.” Jonesy said seriously.

“I ain’t looking for any fight, I have only just got myself some decent duds, I don’t aim to get them mused up so soon. It is Slim you are going to watch out for; he’s going courting, so he might have to do some pushing.”

“Now why am I the last to know? You never tell me anything. You would think that you do not trust me.” The old man complained.

“You got that right, if you knew, you would have to tell Mose, and that would be like putting it in every news sheet on the frontier. I want to go courting without an audience,” Slim said with a wry smile.

“We ready then, Slim? We will have to get going if we don’t want to be riding in the dark.” Jess pointed out as he glanced out of the window and saw that the sun was westering, and already the light was becoming soft as the sky lost its blinding glare and gave the land a golden glow.

The two friends finally arrived at the hotel after they had left their horses at the livery stable, they had decided to take two separate rooms, as they never knew how things would turn out, and Jess liked to leave his options open. They quickly had a bite to eat and it was then that Slim told Jess about his dreams of living out his life with the beautiful girl who he had occasionally met in and around the town. Jess could not place her, as Slim had always been on his own when they had met. Slim had told him that the family was new to Wyoming and although they were from the eastern freeboard, they were actually English. They were a large family who wanted to farm, they intended to grow crops like wheat or maize, maybe some barley and oats, Eve had said, it all depended on how successful the planting went. Her father had left the old country, as he felt that his big family would have more chance of becoming prosperous in a land where gaining acreage was still easy and cheap.

He was also a skilled blacksmith as his eldest son Rob and he had been Glasgow studying engineering before coming back home to rejoin the family in their farming venture. They hoped to branch out into agricultural engineering in the future when Rob had finished his studies and returned home. Slim’s head had buzzed at the family’s plans that Eve had described, and he had loved her drive and enthusiasm.

He had never given any thought how the steam engine was going to change farming and the land for ever, and Eve’s family were planning on leading the coming revolution. The whole future seemed so exciting and Slim realized how the old West was slowly slipping away, and soon he would feel like a stranger in his own land, and he wondered how Jess would fare.

The family lived just a few miles to the south of the Sherman ranch, on low lying land, a rich area where the soil was well watered by the river which flooded the low-lying pastureland and spread rich alluvial river debris onto the flood plain.

Jess listened and was taken aback at his boss’ description of the girl. He had never thought of the future, as he did not think that, with his lifestyle, there would be much of a future for him, however he had become more settled, and was fast hammering down stakes in the ranch, which he was beginning to think of as his home.

He hated himself for thinking as he did, but would Slim’s future plans of taking this girl for his wife mean that he would be forced to ride on? Jess was a proud young man and was sensitive to how people viewed him. Slim had rarely alluded to Jess’ dark past, and even the sheriff had come to accept Jess’ longing to leave the past, in the past and try to carve out a place for himself in the close-knit community. Jess would not stay on the Sherman Ranch when Slim’s new wife finally came to stay, if his presence was going to cause his boss any problems or embarrassment. The two young men were fast developing a close relationship, almost like brothers, and Jess was more than aware that there was not room for a third party. He did not know how Slim felt, but he knew that he was very protective of Slim, Andy and Jonesy, and although Jess had never met this English girl, he felt his guts knotting with anxiety, as he felt that her coming could destroy their close little family group.

Maybe not, but Jess always felt that women when they landed a man, were selfish and wanted a man’s one hundred percent attention, and were not prepared to accept a man’s way of life and his friends without changing it to suit their own ways. He gave a quick shudder, as he felt a coldness take a grip of his very bones and he began to cough.

“Where did you get that from Jess? You hanging around the saloon and stables so much, you are bound to pickup whatever bugs are going about.” Slim exclaimed, irritated at being stopped by Jess’ sneezing and coughing, as he told him about Eve.

“Yeah, I know, I also look after your stagecoach passengers, and they all cough and puke all over me.” Jess retorted angrily at Slim’s taunt, that if he was getting a cold; it was his own fault, and even as he said it he felt his throat begin to feel as if it were red raw

“Don’t worry boss, I’ll still be standing, taking care of your business, even if I am coughing my guts up.” Jess went on, his eyebrows now almost forming a straight line across his forehead as he felt his temper rise.

“Quit that Jess, I am worried, you know I do not like anybody being ill. We have nothing in the way of real doctors out here, and even less in the way of medicines. It is only when we need them that we realize how much on a limb we are out here. I was only thinking of you pard, I hate seeing you ill, as your head has to be falling off before you will admit you are sick. Come on, let’s forget about it and go and enjoy ourselves. I cannot wait for you to meet her. Please do not tell me if you think she looks like the backend of a mule; I think that she is adorable. She is for me everything I love in a woman.”

“OKAY, Slim,” and Jess coughed again, “I’ll do my best to lie with a straight face.”

‘Well; that is all I can ask for pard.” And with that Slim gave Jess a friendly punch, which set Jess of to cough and sneeze again.

“You wouldn’t have a handerkerchief I could use? Would you Slim?” Jess wheezed at him.

“I’ll give you one, but do you think that I would want it back when you have finished with it. You normally fetch up cleaning your boots with them.” Slim grumbled as he handed over the gleaming white piece of linen that Jess suddenly needed, as his nose was starting to trouble him.

*****

Jess sat in the corner at the dance. He was surrounded as usual by the young bucks who always followed Jess as much as they could, as there was always promise of some excitement and action if he were around. Tonight, however he did not feel up to listening to their wrangling nonsense, because he knew he was getting a cold to end all colds.

But what was worse, he had met Eve, and had recognized her immediately. She had not remembered him, but why should she? His own mother would not have recognized him.  He was falling apart at the time and she had taken care of him and he had fallen in love with her, and he had never forgotten her.

Finally, Jess had had enough, Slim had spent his whole evening with Eve and Jess had had to cope with having to dance with all their friends’ sisters. He now had no more energy left, and he felt his joints and muscles beginning to ache. He couldn’t stop the deep rasping cough which had started to stab a pain through his chest, and he felt feverish and although he was sweating, he was freezing cold inside.

He asked one of the youngsters to tell Slim that he had gone back to the hotel, and with that he had ghosted out and made it back to the hotel, where after a quick whisky night cap he had made it to his room, dragged his clothes off, and had collapsed on to the bed.

“What has happened to Jess?” Eve asked Slim as they were waltzing around the dance floor. She looked up into his face, and Slim melted when he saw how soft and caring her face was as she talked of his best friend.

“He was not feeling so good as we rode in, it is nothing. He’s got a chill or a cold. He was not having such a great time so I reckon that he would rather be in bed than hang around here. He was probably bored and having no fun, besides if he’s got a cold he’s better off away from us healthy folk and keeping his germs to himself.” Slim explained cheerfully.

He was however more than a little surprised and hurt at the way his friend had deserted him. It was not like him, Jess usually stuck to him like a flea, watched out for him; and stood by him as they stood by each other.

Slim hoped that he was not feeling neglected and abandoned as he knew he had paid little attention to Jess all night. He had introduced him to Eve, and although he was friendly enough he showed little interest in her. In fact he was so off hand he was almost insulting, and that was very strange behavior for Jess.

Slim smiled ruefully to himself, he could not believe that Jess was feeling that his nose had been put out of joint, and he was jealous of Eve. He would be annoyed if that was the case, as he had never ever criticized Jess and his choice of girls when he had ridden off to woo them, often with disastrous results.

Eve gave his arm a squeeze as if to remind him that she was still there, and he smiled and with a laugh, and a peck on her cheek he swung her round. She threw her head back and laughed, her cheeks were glowing and her sky-blue eyes were shining as she drank in the handsome face of her partner.

*****

Jess lay sweating in bed and tossed and turned as he thought back to his meeting with Eve. He had been a prisoner of war at the time, wounded and captured along with his comrades. Their lives had been saved by a Union officer and they had been imprisoned. He had spent some time in the cramped and stinking prison hospital, but he had been treated and had survived, to be at last discharged. He had been returned to his old unit and was relieved to join up with his comrades again. He was still weak and found that much of his energy was spent just trying to survive, so when he was asked to help in an escape plan, he could not resist. He was not as strong as he would have liked yet, but neither were the others. They had all been starved and it was their will to survive that drove them on with their mad scheme. His comrades remembered Jess’s fearsome aggression and were in awe of the youngster’s ruthless ferocity when he had fought hand to hand, bayonet to bare flesh. The plan was a bit chaotic, as so many of them wanted to go and take a chance, and so he had been chosen to hold back and cover and try and guard their escape with a young boy called Newt. He knew that he might have to fight if they were discovered, so as to allow the others a chance to make their escape. Jess knew that their plan was risky, but he would do his damnedest to make their risky plan successful.

All that he remembered was that everything seemed to be going smoothly. The sky had been dark, as they had waited for a night when there was no moon. The late hours before star set found them shivering in the damp and cold, listening to the rustle of leaves in the night wind and the hair-raising screech of a hunting owl. At last they had heard a whistle which was their signal to move through the hole they had made in the fence, and men began to silently stream past them in a never-ending line. Jess could not recall what had happened, he just knew that there had been a brief struggle, and he had ripped his hand open taking a homemade knife of Newt. He had turned and there was a blaze of light from a torch which blinded him, and then all feeling was smashed out of him; when a soldier came up behind him and felled him with his rifle butt. Jess slumped to the ground, with an ugly gash to the back of the head and all his senses knocked clean to hell.

For some time he only felt hands bathing his fevered brow, and trying to get some broth down him, which usually finished spewed up and on to, and down his chest as his stomach rejected it. At last he was aware of someone trying to shave him; he moved his head which made him break out into a cold sweat. He daren’t open his eyes, but he tried to run his hand over his roughened chin only to find that his right hand dragged his left hand upwards. He was manacled, and immediately he cringed as he knew that he was surrounded by many other men, who must have all seen him being chained up like a wild animal. He could not understand what the reason could be until sometime later that day; he had kept his eyes closed as he overheard a voice with a Boston accent saying.

“We’ll keep him shackled, his next move will be the scaffold if the guard he stabbed; dies, if he lives this murdering piece of southern scum will be transferred up north to the military stockade to live out his days. I want him to get what’s coming to him. We’re still after his friends; got some of them, but there are still 40 or so on the loose. Damn his eyes. Keep him secure.”

Jess shivered as he remembered those nightmare days. He could still feel the relief, which had caused tears to well up, but mercifully he managed to stop them from spilling down his cheeks, when the orderly had told him that the guard was going to live.

It took some time to get stronger, but at last the day came when his ragged and dirty uniform was thrown at him. He got dressed as ordered, shivering and wet from having a bucket of cold water thrown over him.  He had been hustled out, and across the open parade ground to where a column of ragged scarecrows were being pushed into some kind of order. They were chained in twos, with a long linking chain connecting them all from the first group until the last man. He turned out to be a large shaggy man, built like a grizzly and almost as hairy. A large beefy sergeant dragged Jess and shoved him into position alongside the giant man. His wrists were unshackled, but within seconds his wrist was held in a rough vice like grasp as a second cuff was snapped on; and the cold unyielding steel dug into the thin flesh of his wrist. He was now chained just a foot apart from a man, who had such an animal presence and whose body odor made Jess want to spill his guts out. His stomach heaved as he was pulled along as the column trudged off towards the gates of the camp and the road north.

Jess stumbled along as fast as his weakened body would allow. His head pounded as the blistering glare of the burning white-hot sun blinded him, and caused his head to throb with every heart beat.

The big mountain man from Tennessee was called Jake, and he proved to be a gentle giant as he did his best to support the ailing youngster who was chained to him. He tried to make sure that Jess had some where comfortable to sleep each night. He shared his flea invested blanket with him and unbeknown to Jess gave him more than his share of the meager rations which were thrown at them.

Jake also verbally fought with the guards for not doing enough to help the young Texan, whom Jake was convinced was dying. He did not know Jess that well, for he might have been dying, but Jess had a will of steel; and a stubborn streak which willed him on when he had no strength to go on, and more importantly he knew he was not going to die, not while he could put one foot in front of the other.

The situation changed on a day when the heat was unbearable, it was humid and there seemed to be no air. Jess’ head was pounding and knocking him sick, and he fell and dragged Jake down with him. The big man cussed and called to the guard to unshackle him so he could throw Jess over his shoulder.

His request was of course denied, and so the column went on slowed up by Jess who staggered, and was booted and kicked up, and pushed along with a rifle butt or the sharp end of a bayonet.

At last they came along to a sprawling farmhouse with a huge red painted barn. The sergeant came back with some good news that they were going to be billeted in the barn for the night, and it was at this point; that Jess finally passed out.

The farmers’ wife watched all this and came out and insisted that they bring Jess into the house. Jake carried him into the darkened cool living room of the farmhouse which was pungent with the smell of new bread and fresh coffee. She was a spare bird like woman, who had a shrill voice which demanded attention and obedience.

She immediately made the soldiers who gathered round, to unshackle Jess, and she set about redressing his head wound. She lashed them with her tongue at the savage way they had treated the youngster, who was only a few months older than her eldest son.

The bandages had not been changed since he had left the prison camp, and some of the drying blood had stuck to the bandage, and the housewife had to cut it away. She sucked her breath in and tutted when she saw the state of his shredded wrist.

She had him washed down with cool water and had had his bruises and other wounds dressed with some kind of salve. Jess would always be grateful to the solemn servant who had carried out the lady’s orders and had finally produced a shirt that fitted him. At last he drifted back to dream of the horror of his world of starvation and chains but when he awoke he found himself lying on a soft couch; in a fragrant room which had rich curtains on the windows; and a carpet which fascinated him; as he had never seen a carpet with such an elaborate pattern upon it.

He drifted off to sleep again to be awoken by a young woman whose head was out lined by the sunlit window behind her. The sun which shone was softened by the elaborate lace curtains which hung like gossamer against the windows and made her pale silver hair shine like a halo around her head. She smiled slowly and with a gentle voice offered him some broth. He did not understand what she wanted him to do, until she helped him to move further up the rich cushions which were supporting him. He tried to hold the bowl she offered him, but his hands were shaking too much, so she eased it off him and slowly fed him the broth.

She gently wiped his mouth and he lay and watched her move around the room, tidying it up. It did not need any attention, but she wanted to stay and watch the young soldier who was so sick.

He stayed there for two more days, in heaven or so it felt.  Jake had taken his chance to escape while the soldiers were preoccupied with Jess and the handsome farmers’ wife and her beautiful daughter.

The time was then taken up with trying to chase him down and Jess found himself still kept comfortable in a small room up in the rafters, with one wrist cuffed and locked to a long chain which was padlocked to the iron bed frame.

The wonderful girl waited on him hand and foot as far as she was allowed. Jess just lived and counted the seconds until she could be with him. They did not talk much; as she and her family were newly arrived in America from Boxford, England and like the rest of their race were reserved and did not indulge in mindless chatter. It was enough; as Jess was just happy to have her with him, tiding up his bed clothes, helping him to eat and bringing him fresh cookies and fruit, with the most wonderful cold creamy fresh milk to wash it down.

He was devastated when he found that they were going to be moved on the next day, and he was dreading being dragged along again chained to someone who this time would probably kick him along as much as the guards did.

It was all washed away, because as the dawn was breaking he awoke to find her in his small room, she had brought him some fresh rolls, butter and jam, with a pot of coffee she had begged of the blue bellies. She did not speak as tears were streaming down her face. She arranged his breakfast on the small table within his reach.

But before she left him she bent over him and kissed him so softly, like a butterfly floating across his forehead, a kiss like his mother would greet him with, and he closed his eyes as her lips brushed his and she was gone.

He had fallen in love with her, and his world turned into a black soulless place without her. He never forgot her, even though he never knew her name.

He remembered little of the rest of his journey north; they had made him replace the shirt he had been given by the good housewife, with his old, thin thread bare uniform jacket. He remembered that they had had to commandeer a mule to get him to the army stockade, and he remembered little of the journey, except that he was now mocked by the other prisoners, who at first thought him to be a hero, as they had thought that his swooning fit had been planned to help Jake escape. Now they laughed at him and called him a weakling, a puking cry baby. He slowly recovered and the war ground on, grinding the youth of both sides into the blood drenched ground. At last it ended; and he was offered a way out of prison; by volunteering as a civilian dispatch rider for the Union Army out on the Great Plains as the blue bellies took on Yellow Knife and the Sioux. He was not expected to survive as few dispatch riders lived, but he did; and then he went on the drift and he found his life falling apart, as he was forced to live by his wits and his gun.

Jess coughed into the night and relived the dark days before he fetched up on Slims Ranch. He realized that the few months he had been there were some of the best of his life and now his silver haired angel had come back into his life, but in the arms of his best friend.

He could not stay, he knew that now, he could not share the life on the ranch with anyone else other than his new little family. He could not bear to be near Eve, he wanted her in his arms, and he knew he could not stay and see her in Slims’.

Jess woke in the predawn grayness and turned over. He threw the remaining covering blanket of himself as although he was cold his body glistened with sweat and he began to shiver. He lay propped up against the pillows and clothes as he could not breathe properly if he lay down flat. He began to cough as he did, so he became aware of the tightness in his chest and pain in his lower back. He knew instinctively that he was ill, he had been feverish many times in the past and knew all the signs of what lay ahead. He knew that he needed to get back to the ranch whilst he still had the strength to stay in the saddle. He was worried that he had heard of some illness that was sweeping through the territory like wildfire, decimating the Arapaho and Sioux peoples who were always so susceptible to the European man’s ills. He thought that he may be suffering from the same contagious infection.

He slowly dragged his now crumpled finery on and dismissed all thoughts of his friend Slim. His head was still filled with thoughts of Eve and the love and memories he had carried for her all these years. Life was cruel and unpredictable, and he had been dealt some disastrous cards in the past. He knew that he had never ever had a winning hand; he had always loved and lost. Jess was not known for his pursuit of women. Many laughed at him as he always seemed unsure and shy around them. He was always more at ease amongst men or horses. He did not have to pursue the girls, they hunted him unmercifully, found him to be a slippery one to corner, and impossible to tie down. Even so, every young girl wanted him as her brother, the older ones their beaux, the rest as their ideal husband, and their mothers and grannies wanted him as their son to mother and spoil him. He treated them all with caution, he knew the girl he wanted, was still in love with, but he had nothing to offer her expect his fast gun and his boyish easy smile.

He coughed and doubled up in agony again, he clung to his jacket and pulled it tightly across him as he made his way up to the livery stables to collect Traveler and make his way back to the ranch and Jonesys’ care.

*****

CHAPTER TWO

Slim walked behind Eve and her parents back to the lodging house where they had spent the night. He had been invited to join them for breakfast at Julie’s eating house and had enjoyed a quiet meal and was made to feel welcome by the reserved English family.

He was fascinated at how they used a knife and a fork to eat their meal, and how they shunned fresh biscuits, preferring thick day-old bread toasted and spread thickly with butter.

The three youngest children Caroline, Rafe and John both drank milk, and the rest of the family drank the expensive brew called tea.

Caroline, the youngest sister was another silver darling, who danced around them like a leggy yearling ignoring her brothers’ constant demands that she behave like a young lady. Finally her joyful scampering was brought to a halt by one dark disapproving glance from her father.

Slim thought about Eve and what she had coyly murmured when she had agreed that their attraction was mutual. She had said that their relationship could only develop with her father’s permission. He had readily agreed as this was the norm when a young man wanting to come courting in the manner of the times.

He grinned to himself, as he could already hear the hoots of laughter from his family and friends back at the relay station. He would have to suffer their mocking laughter as he bathed himself thoroughly even though it was not a Saturday. He would be obliged to wear a white laundered shirt, the one normally saved for weddings, funerals and christenings. He would have to wear a tie which he hated and worse to would have to polish his boots. He would be forced to pick flowers in secrecy as he did not want to give them even more ammunition for their mocking taunts. It was going to be hard, and he would have to ask Jess, Andy and Jonesy to cover the work he would have to leave, as courting Eve was going to be hugely enjoyable but was going to consume much of his time and all his thoughts.

He would yet again ask the Baxter boys if they could help, they were usually very keen to earn a few extra dollars, and he would also spread the word in Laramie that he was looking for hired help. He dismissed any thought of Jess being awkward and annoyed at being left in charge of the ranch. He thought that after all he was the boss, and Jess, even though they had become friends he was still very much a drifter at heart, who had still not shown any signs of hammering in stakes and committing himself fully to the ranch. He would have to risk Jess’s reaction and he hoped with all his heart that his pard would stay. He could feel already that he was being torn apart by his friendship with Jess, and his longing for the silver haired girl with the eyes the colour of a summer sky. They were of the softest cerulean blue, fringed with honey-coloured lashes which all toned with her sun kissed pale golden peach complexion. Even as he thought of her and looked at her tall willowy body which moved ahead of him with all the graceful undulation of a water anemone swaying, in the fluid tourguise current of a moss fringed pool. He found himself becoming enthralled by her beauty, gentle modest grace and accent, which caused her words to be spoken in a crystal-clear precise way. She had an English tonation and natural reserve, and the birth right of the Saxons meant she was not given to birdlike mindless chatter. He loved her stillness and silence which he could feel filling his spirit and calming his fears and anxieties.

He felt his body become inflamed with his need for her, and his heart began to thump and flutter. He felt nervous, excited and felt he could fly. He was in love and embraced the feeling with wonder and hope for the future.

*****

CHAPTER THREE

Slim finally rode down the hill towards the ranch; he had made good time as he had breakfasted with the Deere Edgerton family. He had been overwhelmed with the friendly welcome he had received when Eve’s father had said that he looked forward to Slim visiting the lazy E whenever he wished.

He had promised that he would be visiting soon and had smiled and felt a thrill of pleasure course through him when Eve had blushed prettily as he had raised her small sweetly smelling hand and had brushed it with his lips.

He neatly swung into his saddle and tipping his hand to the brim of his Stetson in good bye; rode away, blissfully happy as it seemed all his dreams seemed to be coming true.

He had admired Eve from afar for some time, and had breathlessly watched her as she had gracefully glided along the sidewalk, happily and graciously greeting the ladies of the town with her reserved charm and shy friendliness.

The only cloud on his horizon; and he felt his face harden at the thought of the strange behaviour of his pard. He had disappeared from the dance almost as soon as he had been introduced to Eve. He had never known Jess seem so uninterested and so unfriendly towards any female. He usually enjoyed their company and could be at his most devastatingly charming and flirtatious best; especially when they were on Slims’ arm. The young devil loved to torment Slim, and him being the sensible one of the two realized Jess’ vulnerability, and the hard shell his friend had created to protect himself, and so he allowed his pard to take advantage of him, in his usual calm and compassionate way.

He rode into the yard and smiled as he was greeted by Andy who came joyfully bounding up to him, calling out in the excited way that Slim loved about his kid brother.

Andy led Alamo away towards the stable to tend to his brother’s big horse, while Slim strode over towards the ranch house unsure what he was going to say to his pard. He hung up his hat, jacket and gun belt on the wooden pegs on the wall beside the door, and called out for Jonesy, who came around into the living room beating a bowl of butter and sugar.

“Hi, Jonesy, everything Okay? Am sorry I’m a mite late, you been able to cope?” Slim brightly asked.

“Yup; nothing wasting, the next team is tacked up. Andy and I have just finished; we expected Mose sooner than this.” Old Jonesy replied as he continued to cream up the contents of his bowl.

“Where’s Jess; did he not help?”

“No, he’s up at the line camp, the one on the north ridge.” Jonesy said his face suddenly looking grim as he saw the darkening expression on Slim’s face.

“Now don’t you start, he’s got some kind of heavy cold, feeling feverish, with bone aches the likes I have never seen before. I’ve heard of some kind of infection that is sweeping like wildfire through the tribes. Jess and me thought it would be better if he sweated it out on his own up there. He has got plenty of supplies, grazing and water to hand. He has a signaling mirror, so he can keep in contact, if he misses a day you can go and check him out.”

Slim stood and listened and felt his stomach churn and knot up as he thought of his pard, ill and on his own. He knew what he was like, he would have stoically talked Jonesy into thinking he was not as bad as he seemed and get him to readily agree to him going up to the line camp until the infection had passed. He would want to protect them all from this mysterious infection which was sweeping through the county. He shook his head this was not the first time that Jess was prepared to sacrifice his life for them all. No one could have done more, and yet he never asked for anything for himself. He was content with the meager pay which Slim afforded him and he relished Jonesy cooking, but Slim knew, as he knew a little of Jess’s tragic family history that Jess was looking for stability, maybe a home which he was slowly finding with Slim and all that was to offer on his ranch.

“I will go tomorrow morning at first light and check him out you hear me good? I’m not taking a chance on him dying up there on his own.” Slim finally said, beginning to feel his throat close up with emotion as he thought of the ranch and the emptiness of the place if Jess were gone.

The next morning Slim was as good as his word as he set of for the far north rim just as the sun was hauling itself over the far rolling plains to the east. He carried fresh supplies, all packed with the food, clothes and the things he knew the young wrangler would need, and tempt him to eat, Jonesy’s pies, and the drink kept for medicinal reasons and of course fresh socks.

Normally Slim would enjoy the ride through the awakening day, as often the world was at its best, shining with renewed promise, but this morning he saw nothing of the aspen leaves dancing in the golden sunlight. He pushed on for the line camp and his head was full of what he might find; and even more he wondered what the problem with Eve was, for Slim knew that Jess did have a problem with his blossoming relationship with his silver darling.

Finally the small, logged cabin, with its lean to shelter on the south side for a horse hove into view. It was in the high country and protected from the ravages of the north easterly winds by a stand of trees. The wind never stopped moaning and he was relieved to see a whisper of pale blue smoke swirl and bend away in the windy gusts, and he suddenly felt more comfortable as to what he would find. He urged Alamo on and when he was within a few hundred yards of the cabin; the door swung open and there was his pard dressed in jeans, shirt and with a blanket around his shoulders. Slim was alarmed as Jess was casually leaning against the door frame with his Henry cradled in his arms.

“It’s me Jess!” Slim shouted, his words were snatched away by the wind.

“Yeah, what you want?” Jess’s reply came back faintly, his usual deep baritone whisky voice sounding even more raspy.

“Come to see if you’re okay Pard.”

“I’m fine, don’t you come any closer,  you don’t want a bellyful of this.”

“So you are suffering?”

“Nothing to fuss about, I’ll be back in a couple of days. Don’t worry the Baxter boys know I am here, their crew swing by all the time, I don’t get a minute’s peace. Just you keep yer distance; I don’t want you all getting it.”

“Well, I’ll leave you this gunny sack Jonesy has made up for you, got some of yer favourites, some extra socks and stuff.” Slim, said as he swung down, untied the sack and began to carry it closer towards the door.

“That’s far enough Slim, you’re crowding me.”Jess growled.

“Sorry I will get back, you sure you are okay?” Slim still called out anxiously.

“Yeah, pard and thanks.”

Slim sighed, he had tried to check out his pard, but it had been difficult as his face had been in the shadow. Jess could be very difficult to handle at times, and this was one of those times. He felt helpless, he had tried his best, but at least he knew that his friend was able to dress himself and light a fire, so he was not in any immediate danger of dying, so he had to resign himself to allow the situation to develop and all he could was to wait.

*****

It was a number of days later, and Slim had been kept informed by the Baxter boys and their wranglers as to what was happening on the North rim, and it seemed Jess had managed to fend for himself in as much as he always kept the fire going, and recently there were signs that Traveler had been curried combed. Slim had slowly stopped worrying as everyday their midway mirror signal had always been answered. Jonesy had wisely announced that the bad penny would be walking through the door any day now.

It had been supper time and Jonesy had just dished up an old favourite at the ranch, it was a concoction of chopped up beef slices, fried onions and beef dripping all put in a large pot and covered with potatoes. It was then left with the lid fastened down tightly on the top of the stove, to cook away very slowly until all the potatoes had turned to mush and the whole mixture could be stirred together. Jonesy would give it a liberal seasoning of salt, pepper and homemade brown sauce. After a day out on the range polishing a saddle or hammering in fence posts or fighting to green break some deranged mustang, what Jonesy called Stovies, tasted like nectar and ambrosia, the food for the Gods, or a half starved drover.

“Yippee stovies, my favourite.” Piped out Andy as Jonesy put the big, blackened pot onto the wooden pot stand in the center of the table. Slim lifted the lid of and the aromatic steam filled the room with the mouth-watering aroma of the rich beef mixture.

It was at that point that the door slowly opened and Jess stood in the doorway almost unsure of his welcome. His face was pale and honed to a fineness which chiseled out his jaw line and accentuated his high cheek bones, and his clothes hung from his gaunt frame. He was never a thick set man, but he was well muscled and strong; and his was a whip cord strength, wiry, well coordinated and like a coiled spring his actions were hard and rattler fast, but the man who greeted them was a shadow of his former self.

Slim quickly stood up and went forward, his hand outstretched to greet his pard, shocked at the physical change in him.

“Welcome home pard, good to see you, glad you’re back.”

“Glad to be back,” and Jess gave them his boyish smile which they all loved.

“What’s for supper? Enough for me?” And the young gunfighter laughed when he noticed their shocked expressions.

“You all look as if you have seen a ghost.”

“We have,” Slim smiled, “You look like one!”

“Sit yourself down son, you need some of this……will stick to your ribs. How d’ya feel boy?” Old Jonesy fussily asked, happy that his favourite rebel was home.

“Thanks Jonesy, been better. Don’t know what was wrong with me, but it laid me low, was as sick as a dog and as weak as a kitten.”

“Well, glad you are back Jess. Jonesy will enjoy feeding you up, and we can all keep an eye on you as you recover.”

“Yeah Jess!” Andy excitedly chirped away, “ we can go fishing.”

“Don’t know about that Tiger……..Hard Rock here might have words to say about that.”

“No he won’t. I’ll be glad to eat fish pie, am sick of beef stovies, meat pies and Mulligan.” Slim muttered.

“Well you can cook yer own from now on if that’s all the thanks I get.” Jonesy grumbled as he laid a plate before Jess.

“You can starve old Hard Rock, not me I’ll eat anything you can dish up….it all tastes good to me.” Jess went on happily and gave Jonesy a friendly nod.

“So you like stargazy pie.” Slim grunted.

“Yeah! My favourite.” Laughed Jess.

“You’re such a liar, I’d forgotten what a torment you can be.”

“So you’re not glad I’m back!” Jess said with a mouth full of beef.

“Of course I am, place ain’t the same when you’re not here.” Slim grinned at his pard and gave his pard’s shoulder a friendly punch.

“Stop that Slim, I’m not a well man.” Jess mumbled his mouth still full of food.

*****

CHAPTER FOUR

The golden couple had arranged to meet up again at the stand of trees which bordered their land. He watched and gently smiled as she walked through the flower strewn meadow grass towards him. It was as if she floated as her graceful fluid movements barely disturbed the jewelled vetch, poppies and blue bonnets. She slowly brushed her flaxen hair from her face, as the breeze had wafted it across her sun kissed features, and she nervously ran her moist pink tongue over her lips and smiled. A broad open smile which filled him with the warmth of longing, as she held out her arms to him and he gently enfolded her lithe slender body into his all-engulfing embrace. She lifted her face towards his and her sky-blue eyes were soft as an early morning mist. He bent down and kissed her honey tasting lips, and their breath was swallowed by their passion. At last they parted and breathlessly he held her close and she became kitten soft in his embrace. She breathed slowly and softly until she whispered in a voice which trembled through the air she breathed.

“Slim, I love you.”

His heart began to hammer and thunder in his chest. He could not breathe; she had taken his breath away.

They lay beside each other lost in the long golden grass which covered the prairie for as far as the eye could see; on into the hazy distance ending with the soft outline of purple mountains on the misty horizon. Above them two eagles quartered the skies, and their mewing screeches filled the crystal heights as they hunted for any small creature that dared move in the long grass.

The sky was clear and the light intense which made Eve say.

“It is so clear; you feel that you can see to the ends of the earth.”

“Yes my darling, I always feel that if I gallop far enough, I am going to fall over the edge, but I feel that way just being with you. I am in a magical place, out on the edge of heaven. I am so full of you, I feel that I am going to lose myself in you, just tumble into your arms and be lost forever.”

“Oh Slim, what can I say, I can never have enough of you. I live in every breath you take and feel as if I melt into your arms and become one with you.” She gently murmured as she snuggled closer into his arms and pressed her face against his woolen shirt. She smelt his odour which besides his maleness, she caught the smell of leather and the tough scratchy wool. It made her blood pound, and her body became so soft and warm she felt suddenly boneless as if made of the sweetest jelly.

He listened to the dark, drowsy voice which was breathless as she sought for the words to express her love.

Slim looked down at her as she lifted her face towards him. Her eyes were dreamy soft like pools from which the morning haze had just lifted, yet at such times they were shadowy and full of the mystery of a woman. He gazed at her tempting, soft mouth and he slowly drew her even closer into his arms. She responded and he found himself falling into the arms of an angel. He pressed his lips against hers and her softness opened, and she flicked his tongue with hers, and then she pressed her body with its firm hard nippled breast against his.

He felt his blood rush hot through his veins, causing all his muscles and nerves to tense. He was finding it hard to breathe as his passion held him and caused his heart and head to pound. In a second it flashed through him that he had found what he had sought for since he became a man, all his dreams and ambitions for his future life.

“Oh Eve my darling, my love I need you. I would give up all my tomorrows just to be and stay with you, but we have to go soon, and already I am being torn apart at the thought of us parting.”

“Slim it is the same for me, I’d give everything I have just to stay and be with you today.” Eve breathed in her passionate voice, “But you know we cannot, but soon we will be together again, even with this dreadful illness which is threatening everybody I will always be watching and waiting for you. I cannot tell you how I feel when I see you come riding over the ridge with the sun behind you like a golden sun God out of the old stories. I am so blessed that you have found me.”

“Oh Eve; it is me that has been blessed, you must know how I feel, I love your patience, gentleness and compassion. I know I feel love more from you than from anyone else I have ever known. You are my silver darling, when I am with you I find it hard to breathe, you are so beautiful in an easy, simple way and just being with you is a dream.”

She remained silent her soft body which was closely engulfed in his powerful bronzed arms, vibrated with a wavering trembling, and he could feel all the burning mystery of womanhood aching in her, and a longing as strong as his own.

He nuzzled her hair and his lips gently nibbled her shell-like ears. She gave a laugh as soft as a sigh, as his tongue traced its way down her chiseled soft, downy jaw line, and finally explored and found its way to her moist lips which were still swollen from their earlier love making. She readily opened her lips, and he drank in her nectar and explored the mystery of her. He felt on fire consumed with agony and ecstasy and he knew that from this moment of his life, nothing would ever be the same.

The afternoon was almost gone and the fiery glow in the west was darkening into the emerging purple twilight. Birds flitted in the dying rays of the sun as they swooped towards their roosts in the darkening woods, and the demure elk soundlessly made their way towards the weedy fringes of the river. The prairie dogs reared up and checked the quiet still landscape one last time, and in the silence Slim breathed.

“Eve, will you marry me please?”

Eve lowered her head and then looked up into his eyes.

“Slim my love, I have dreamed of hearing you say those words from the time you first danced me around that tiny church hall.”She whispered in her silky voice.

“Is that yes?” he asked anxiously.

“Yes!” was all she breathed.

*****

CHAPTER FIVE

Slim’s head was full of plans for the future. His heart sang and his life stretched out ahead of him golden and blissful. He imagined and had discussed his plans with Eve whose laughter had trilled shyly when he had mentioned children. They had both giggled at the thought of a house full of little people whose childish clamour and needs would fill their days with the joy of being able to share childish play again. Slim was already planning on first ponies, teaching them to swim, fish, hunt, build dens, camp, stalk and hunt.

Eve spoke of all the clothes, curtains, pretty dresses, knitting and the collection of china, furniture and all the do-dahs that went to making a home.

Slim listened to her, he put his arms around her and nuzzled into her neck as she excitedly chattered along. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and he found himself forgetting all about the ranch, cattle, stage line, Andy, Jonesy and Jess. At last he would have a life, one that lay ahead uncharted and uncluttered by the responsibilities he had inherited and the vulnerable and needy folk who clung to him like limpets. He felt guilty of thinking of Andy and his friends like albatross that hung around his neck stopping him from freely following his heart and dreams. He hoped that when he introduced Eve into the household they would realize that his taking a wife was going to change everything yet nothing. He hoped that they would realize that he and his wife would share their lives with them, and they would accommodate his love and his wife, Eve. He had never felt this way about his family before, but then he had never felt as he did about anyone else as he did about this wonderful girl………..his beloved Eve.

*****

CHAPTER SIX

Jess stopped chopping wood and arched his back to try and get rid of the ache. He was getting tired; it had been a long day and yet again Slim was away over the hill down to the stand of trees that looked over towards Eves home. He tried not to resent his pards regular absences, as he knew that he was guilty of disappearing as well, sometimes for weeks at a time. Slim had always been delighted when he had welcomed him back. It was the increased responsibility and workload that was grinding him down, and more over he was missing Slim, and dared not think of him being with Eve. He was still suffering the effects of what ever had put him on his back a few weeks ago, and he was lucky as he found Jonesy to be constantly supportive. However he found that Andy’s attitude was becoming a problem. The youngster was no longer a boy and he was taking advantage of his solemn big brother’s absences. He was flexing his muscles and pushing Jess with the aggravation common with teenagers. Jess could well remember those days, but his rebellion was curbed by an increased workload and his father’s enthusiastic use of his belt. The fire that had destroyed his home and had wiped out his family meant that he had to grow up almost overnight. Jess found he was constantly irritated by Andy’s behavior as the boy had to be chased to do his chores, and then he failed to do them properly. Jess found himself having to feed and clean out Andy’s critters almost on a regular basis. He sighed and picked up the axe and continued.

Finally he swung the axe into the block of wood and left it in the stump. He picked up his jacket and put on his hat and walked wearily towards the corral, where he had to get the fresh team tacked up ready for the next change over. He called for Andy as he went, but as usual there was no sign of the lad. When he was needed; he was nowhere to be found.

Mose, his fresh four up and passengers had been taken care of and had finally left in clouds of choking yellow dust up the trail towards Cheyenne. Jess turned his attention to the exhausted horses; he finally finished grooming, feeding, watering and bedding them down for the night. He turned towards the ranch house and made his way across the yard towards the warmth of the place he was beginning to think of as home; he hoped that Andy had fed his pets as he had not had time to check them out today. He opened the door to be suddenly challenged by Andy who was fanning Jess’ gun fighter’s gun at him. Jess roared at him and like lightening sprung at the boy, wrenched the gun from his hand and slapped the boy hard across his face. Andy reeled back, tripped up, fell and caught his face on the side of the table.

Jonesy heard the shout and scuffle and came charging through from the kitchen to find Andy pulling himself up from the floor and rerighting the table which he had knocked over.

Jess’s face was dark with anger and set as if carved from granite. He turned away and wrapped his gun up in its oily rag and put it back in its hiding place in the chimney breast.

“What the hell happened?” Jonesy demanded to know. “Let’s see your face Andy; you do this Jess?”

The boy stood and allowed the old man to check him out. He was trembling, tears were running down his face and he was as white as a sheet.

“I caught him waving my gun in my face. I have told him; I am sick of telling him to leave it alone. I am sick of him not pulling his weight and now ignoring me. He’s got to learn it is not a toy.”Jess mumbled darkly in explanation. “I’m sorry I just lost it, maybe he’ll leave it alone now.”

“You okay Andy?”

“Yes I’m sorry.”The boy sniffed.

“Come on Andy with me,” said Jonsey.

The evening meal was a silent affair, Jess could not bear to look at Andy as he had a glorious black eye, which was half closed and looked very painful.

Andy said nothing; but Jess noted that he ate all his supper, and then meekly gathered up the plates, cutlery and took everything through into the kitchen. Soon there were the sounds of rattling dishes being washed and Jonesy caught Jess’s eye and gave him a nod and a smile.

“What you gonna tell Slim?” Jonesy asked.

“The truth; what else, he’s been out of line for a bit. Slim should have dealt with him before now. I’m sorry I shouldn’t have hit him so hard, but I’m tired, Slim needs to be here. I have enough to do running this place without having to deal with a teenager who thinks he can do exactly want he wants.”

“Just hope that Slim agrees with you,” said Jonesy shaking his head sadly.

“Too bad, he can please himself.”Jess replied. He then got up and went out to the stables; he needed a long talk with Traveler.

*****

CHAPTER  SEVEN

The coach came rumbling down the hill; swaying wildly as the horses knew that they were on the last lap and food and rest lay ahead, this was the changeover. It finally came to a halt amongst the scattering; squawking chickens with Mose yelling at his team as he heaved back on the reins, and the sweating plunging horses, their eyes rolling, and their chests foam flecked finally came to a shuddering stop.

‘What’s chasing you Mose?” Jess shouted up at the whiskered old teamster.

“Where’s Slim, he needs to know this.” Mose called out, “Got something to tell him he’ll not like.”

“Someone cut a cow’s head off cos it got its fool head stuck in Slim’s new gate.” Jess laughed delighted with his own dark sense of humour, “Some one out to save the new gate?”

“Ah, naw, Jess, listen good, this is the last stage to Cheyenne, this here influenza is raging across the territory like wildfire, so the mayor and town council want folks to stay on their own spreads, ride it out. Maybe stop it spreading and save some lives.”

“So that was what it was, I was laid low a few weeks back. I was weak as a kitten, had bone ache and bringing up my lungs, was real bad; so it is called influenza.”

“Yeah you were lucky Jess, a lot of folks have died. I’m going to leave the change over horses with you, if that’s okay. I’ve got family out near Cheyenne am going to stay with them till this is over. The team will be fine, you’ll look after them Jess, I know you will.”

“Yeah, I’ll see to them, they will enjoy the rest. Now get inside and have a word with Jonesy, we’ll tell Slim. He’ll be upset it’ll slow up his courting.” Jess muttered darkly.

With that Mose went into the ranch house and Jess set about changing the team. Slim had been gone for two days now, and Jess was torturing himself thinking about the two of them together. He could not bear it and did not know how he was going to live with it.

Jess also had the problem of Andy to sort out; Jess felt that their relationship could be damaged, maybe forever. Andy was still in many ways a young boy, who felt such things very keenly, but he was fast becoming more mature and he was disappointed and was desperate that Jess should treat him more like an equal, and not like a child. Best thing about it all was Andy’s eye did not look quite as bad as it did.

Later on that day just as the evening crept in and dusk lay heavy, and the last light shone out along the skyline, Slim rode into the stable yard. He swung down from Alamo and led him into the stable block. He started to groom him, fed him and settle him down for the night. He worked quickly and hummed to himself, his head was bussing with plans. He was excited about telling his brother and pards about all his plans, his marriage and the house he was planning on building. Eve and he had talked of nothing else, about the wedding and how they were going to build their ranch house. She was enthralled by the description of the meadowland that was fringed with the protection of the woodland, and had the deep dark lake where fish leapt high after flies. Her father had gladly given his consent; and her whole family was so very happy for Eve and her handsome rancher.

At last he turned and headed towards the house and it was only then when he wondered where Andy and Jess were, they usually met him with news, demands and complaints. Slim had hopefully eased the problem by getting the Baxter boys roped in to help out when he was away. His conscience was clear, the whole place looked clean and businesslike; so it was obvious that Jess could easily handle the load when he was away.

He opened the door and the first thing he saw was Andy, blinking at him with a spectacular black eye.

“What happened? You been trying to ride that iron jawed paint again? Slim asked anxiously as he strode across to his brother; and examined his bruised face.

“No,” said Andy.

“I did it!” Jess said as he got up and kicked a log back into the fire.

“What the hell Jess, you gotta be more careful.”

“I slapped him, and he caught his face on the table. He was fooling with my gun again. I’m sick and tired of telling him. You need to take him in hand, he is no help around the place. I have to fight him over every little thing.”

At that Jonsey came through from the bedroom. “Your supper is on the stove, Slim. Andy, come in with me, get yer coat, we’re going outside to see that everything’s been fed and is bedded down for the night.”

Andy still had not said a word; he just gathered his books and meekly went into the bedroom.

“I cannot believe you hit him deliberately just for playing with that damned gun. It’s about time you were getting rid of it.”

“You want rid of me too, cos I’m sick of carrying this load and am sick of pussy footing around a defiant, disobedient teenager, who resents everything I say. I’m sick of you and the darned decent folk around here, they never ask me to visit. I only go when you go. I don’t belong in Laramie, have never really been wanted, and Mort cuts me no slack,” Jess said, his blues flashing as black as gun bores. He stood tense, his fists clenched and his jawline tight with suppressed rage. All the frustration of the past week and the haunting memories of Eve were about to erupt like vomit into the open.

“I don’t mind your words, as they are probably true, but I don’t like the way you say them. You and your temper and pride makes everything at times tough around here. You’re wrong, look at Mort, he’s your friend, you’ll not find better. You forget you’re a hired hand, one I have leant over backwards for, as you went up the trail for days, weeks and months at a time. I held things together and always welcomed you back.”

“Yeah! And why not? It’s your ranch, your relay station,   and now your girlfriend that fills your time. I’m a hired hand that you pay in peanuts. I could earn in a couple of minutes with my gun, what I earn of you in a month of Sundays!” Jess growled.

“So you hanker after your old life? You have never really given up you’re gun man ways. You still practice, constantly clean yer rig, wear your skintight black gloves, sit with you back to the wall. You have not changed. I don’t want to see you, and I don’t want my wife to have to see you lying face down in the dirt with the wind ruffling yer hair, yer hat rolling away down the street, and a gun in your outstretched hand. No, I don’t want that for Andy and Jonsey either.”

“Would you really care?”

“You damn well know I do.”

“So you gonna marry her. You didn’t think we’d like to know, but we don’t count anymore, do we.”

“You sound so bitter, Jess. What is your problem?” Slim asked quietly, shocked at Jess’ outburst.

“I ain’t got a problem. I don’t have a brother, ranch, wife, relay station and Lord knows what else. I’m just a no-good drifter who will probably die with a bullet in my back.”

“That’s your choice. I’m building our new house up by the lake. You can stay here and make it your home, you know that,” Slim said and Jess looked at his friends cold hard face and realized that something had gone forever in their relationship. He kicked the log back into the fire causing sparks to shoot out like ting comets. He then stood straight and his arrogant and pride shone from every pore. Jess looked at his pard and quietly said “I remember you once said something I’ll never forget, it wounded worse than any Apache arrow. It was worse than always being reminded of my past and my dark reputation as a gunfighter. Maybe you don’t recall what you said. I was a man without a place or folks, friends or even a purpose. Always like tumbleweed, content to drift. You were right, I do not belong with folks, they never accept me for long. They hire my gun, but in the end it is you decent folk who win. You always win. It’s us that do your dirty work, your killing, that lose. We always lose. I always lose. I’ll be gone tomorrow. I’ll take what bit of pay I have coming and take my gun and go.”

Slim looked at his pard who was suddenly so far beyond his emotional reach. Perhaps this finally was the end of the road for them.

“Where will you go?” Slim asked, “You gonna go back to living by your gun?”

“Cheyenne, Rock Springs, maybe just follow the sun over the divide. You’ve got what you wanted, and you’ll not need to worry about me. I’ve Traveler and my guns, I’ll be okay. Anyway, why should you care?”

“You damned fool, you know I care; just say sorry to Andy, give him a hug and we can get back to normal,” Slim pleaded, suddenly devastated that Jess might really go.

“I ain’t sorry I hit him.  He’s been asking for it for weeks. I’m just sorry he tripped and hit his face on the table. It’ll be easier for him if he hates me; and you, Slim , you’ve already got a new ready-made family with the Edgerstons. I don’t belong, would never fit in, its for the best.” With that Jess moved slowly to the corner of the fireplace and lifted the gun that was wrapped in oilskin out of its hiding place. He then went across to the bedroom, went in and closed the door.

Jess quickly pulled the few belongings he had from the battered old pine dresser, and he found his hands trembling. His throat tightened with unshed tears. It was for the best. He knew his words  and actions had been brutal; better by far the seeming agony or betrayal without Eve being involved. Jess knew that would kill his pard, if he knew that there was a time, and in fact there still was a time for love, marriage and children for Jess and Eve.

Jess still longed for the pale girl who shone so transparently that you could almost see through her frailty. She was like wood ash,  so silvery grey that she would be gone in a breath of wind from the white north. He remembered her closeness to him when she had leaned across the bed he was chained to. He had felt her warmth and freshness. Her breath had been so sweet and the memory of her first fond embrace had been burned into his soul. He shook his head savagely as he remembered the haunting promise in her eyes.

No, he would go. He could foretell his end, it was common enough, the end of a gunman or outlaw was always the same. Sudden death and the body left for buzzards and the carrion crows. His time on the Sherman ranch had been a brief happy time before the inevitable happened. Perhaps then he’d trail west into a world of crystal light, a land with no horizon that sprawled like a sleeping giant in the malevolent, violent rays of a blistering sun. He would make his saddle and his blanket his home, and the faithful Traveler his family.

Slim watched his pard disappear into their bedroom. He sat down heavily into the chair and put his hands to his head and leaned forward. He felt suddenly lost and he did not know how he could save Jess and himself. Later he spent the night tossing and turning in the now silent and empty bedroom because Jess had gone.

The next morning, before cock crow, as the moon set and just as the immense sun was hauling itself into the sky, Slim quickly mounted Alamo and rode up into the hills bare back to see if he could see his pard. He sat at the top of the hill for what seemed an age and finally saw Jess as he wandered along the trail as it crested over the hills and down, until he merged into the shimmering distance and was gone.

Slim sighed and he felt a shiver rack through him. His friend was gone and Slim suddenly felt so alone as he turned Alamo towards the ranch house.

*****

CHAPTER EIGHT

Jonsey walked out from the kitchen into the yard as he hung the washing out on the line. It now contained none of Jess’ usual battered clothes. His heart went out to Slim when he saw him slowly ride Alamo down the hill towards the corral. Jonsey could almost smell the misery and despair which radiated from the young rancher and which, from a distance, made him look like an old man.

The old family retainer quickly slipped into the kitchen and busied himself with the stove. He heard the door being opened but with a lifeless silence which Jonsey did not recognise. The old man picked up the food he had quickly prepared and went through to the living room where he found the young rancher sitting at the dinner table staring into space.

“So he’s gone,” Jonsey quipped.

“For good this time, Jonsey. He’ll not be back,” Slim muttered so quietly Jonsey had to strain to listen.

“Bet you a month’s pay he will when he thinks you need saving or something murderous is going to happen. He’ll be like a bad penny, he’ll turn up, you mark my words good,”

“You really think so,” said Slim, sounding suddenly hopeful.

“Yeah, I think so. Now get this down you, it will make you feel better,” with that Jonsey smiled and got up to get the brewed coffee.

“How come, Jonsey, you think freshly baked bread, butter and blackcurrant jelly is the cure for everything and will make me feel better?”

“Yeah, Slim, just about everything. Don’t tell e you don’t feel better when you get it down you.”

“I suppose so. Is this the widda woman Fletchers famous prize-winning jelly?” Slim asked as he relished the great tasting treat, one of Jonsey’s cures for everything.

“Yeah! Great ain’t it, just as it comes, water, sugar and fruit.”

Slim tried to think of the immediate future as he chewed his way through the bread and jam.  The workload for the ranch was going to fall onto him and Andy even more than it did before, if everyone was going to agree to stay on their home ranges and try and control the spread of this ‘flu’ bug which showed no sign of burning itself out.

Eve and he would have to meet on the ridge where there was a natural vantage point. The boundaries of the two properties met there and it afforded a breath-taking view across the huge prairie from mountain to horizon to the deep azure blue and beyond.

Eve and Slim were going to meet this evening down by the river that ran alongside the trail for a short time, and they could talk about it all and make plans. In the meantime he decided to try and concentrate on Eve, Andy, the ranch and his coming marriage. He would try and put the problems he was having with his maverick friend out of his mind. He had often laughed and described his friend as an outlaw stallion and for now his pard was certainly living up to his description. But that was Jess: if there was danger to the ranch and his friends Jess stood like a wall, he never took a step back.  He fought like a cornered wild beast to protect his own, however when any trouble involved himself and his relationship with Slim arose, his first move was usually to pick up his gun, throw his leg over Traveler and high tail it over the hill.                             Slim smiled and remembered the times he had been left on his back after his hellion pard had decked him. Nothing changed, the only problem was the changing relationship with Andy and Slim could not understand Jess’ strange and unfriendly attitude towards Eve. He rarely spoke to her, never looked at her and slipped away if he could, whenever she visited.

Slim bristled slightly as he thought how Jess’ behaviour bordered on downright rudeness and was so very different for Jess’ normally treated women like little pieces of delicate china. They could normally twist him around their little fingers, cause him to blush and become incapable of speech and lead him a merry dance; so Slim wondered what the problem with Eve was. It was a mystery, and he did not want to perhaps pry. Jess would tell him eventually Slim hoped when Jonsey’s words would prove right and Jess would come cantering down the hill some day soon.

*****

CHAPTER NINE

Life continued on the Sherman ranch as best it could, the work made harder by there being no Jess with his boundless energy and thirst for life and laughter. Slim tried to forget about the problem with Jess and he concentrated on his plans for the future.

Slim had never planned to share the ranch house for very long after he had married. He had dreamed of building his own homestead up near the lake where the grass was lush, and the aspens forever moved in the breeze. The woods up there grew down to the fringe of the perfect meadow land and the view across to the south west where the trees heaved their majesty into the crystal-clear sky, always caught his breath. He always loved being up there as it was so unspoilt and untouched as from the time when God had waved his creative hand over it.

In the spring and summer the land was jeweled with wildflowers. The game was plentiful and unafraid of man, and Slim had prized the area, and he had even gone to court when a neighbor had tried to claim it.  It was his jewel, the prettiest place on the ranch and he was excited as he made plans for it. He knew that Eve would love it, as it some how suited her natural simplicity and sensitivity for the beautiful and precious.

A few days later Slim once again escaped from the ranch and went up to meet Eve at their secret place where the two ranches met. He helped Eve into the saddle of his horse and swung up behind her. He kneed Alamo forward and they slowly rode through the rolling prairie into the foothills.

They talked quietly as they made their way through the woodland, the trees creating sunlit patterns and purple shadows on the lush undergrowth. There was a gentle sighing and pattering in the leaves as the wind whispered through the cloud canopy. At last Slim’s valley with its lake and flower strewn meadow stretched before them.

Slim whispered in Eve’s ear and she quickly turned and softly said

With a smile that melted his heart, “Oh Slim. Its beautiful.”

“Yes, Mrs. Sherman, and you will make it perfect.”

“Yes, Slim, but you know it will be perfect only when this dread influenza has gone. My parents are so worried about the way it seems to be spreading like wildfire,” Eve said, suddenly becoming tense and serious.

“What can we do?”

“We must not meet again.”

“But Eve?” Slim said, his words choking him.

“I do not know what else to do, ”she said.

“I will ride out every day to our stand of trees up on the ridge – you know our place, where the lands meet.”

“I can not be there!” she answered.

“No, but you can leave a note; I will find a tin box, Jonsey will have an old baccy one—I will mark a stone with the box by it; we can leave a letter each day.”

“Oh, Slim! That is a wonderful idea, perfect.”

“No, Eve, you make it perfect, always taking care and thinking of others, keeping us safe.”

So from then on they continued their loving from a distance. Slim always found time to ride over to the stand of trees, where he always found a letter in the old, battered tin box. Sometimes there was a poem, another time a lock of hair, another time a ribbon which was his favorite color. Yet another time a lace edged handkerchief which carried a whiff of her perfume.

He left her one of his bandanas, and Jonsey sent them pies, in return Eve backed cakes, the likes of which he’d never tasted before.

Slim longed to see her, but he knew she was right. No-one in the country was moving, they saw no one. Occasionally Mort would come out to the top of the hill and wave. Slim would return his greeting and sometimes they came within hailing distance. Mort had heard that Jess had reached Cheyenne but had no further news of him. Slim tried not to think too much of his pard. He knew that Jess was able to look after himself, and he sighed, it was after all, his choice. He had ridden away, and he knew he was welcomed to ride back. Slim also knew that Jess’ pride and stubbornness would stop him, even more than a bullet. He would just have to wait and hope his friend would come back where he belonged and was loved.

Slim finally rode back down the hill. It was a cold night, already there was a threat of frost, an early taste of autumn that already was turning the leaves crimson and gold. It would not be long before the skies would echo with the clamor of skeins of geese winging their way south and soon the dawn chorus of small songbirds would be silenced as they followed the Canada and greylags to warmer climes.

He took the latest loving letter from his chest pocket and re-read it. He smiled fondly and kissed it. He put it back safely, he had quite a collection of them now, all kept safely locked in an old wooden box his grandfather had made to keep important family documents in.

After he had groomed the sweat off Alamo and given him some bran mash and a hay net, he had closed the barn door and made his way across the yard towards the ranch house. As he did so he found himself having difficulty getting his breath.  Must be the cold making him gasp for breath he thought, and he opened the door of the ranch house. The sudden heat from the blazing fire caused him to start to cough and gasp for breath and he found himself shivering.

*****

CHAPTER TEN

Cheyenne

Whiskey Bob fumbled with the sheriff’s door and when he finally managed to open it, lurched and stumbled into Pete Spencer, the sheriffs office.

“Okay Bob, what you want? Some where to get your head down or a coffee? It is newly brewed,” said the kindly sheriff, who peered over his glasses and pushed his paperwork away.

“No, thank ye sheriff,” Bob rasped in his deep whisky voice. “Got ye some news. That Jess Harpers in town and there’s be trouble at the saloon already.”

“Anyone killed? Didn’t hear any shots!” the sheriff sighed as he stood up and went towards his gun cabinet.

“Ney! Some kinda grudge from auld land syne. The Bar T boys told him to get outta town, said he wasn’t needed as no one needed killing, asked him how much he charged for killing in self-defense.”

“We’re they drunk? They were lucky, Harper is mighty sensitive, and he has a short fuse,” Pete Spencer said as he headed for the door. “Keep the fire stoked. I know Harper, he rode in my posses enough. He has never seemed to like killing, always went out of his way to avoid it. You stay here Bob, tell Mitch when he comes in.” With that Pete Spencer banged the door behind him and headed down the street towards the saloon.

He pushed through the bar room doors and looked around. There were a couple of broken chairs and a table that had been flattened, stacked against the wall. The bar was quiet, there was a low murmur of conversation, and the air was thick with the smoke of cheap cigars and cigarettes. He walked slowly to the bar, alert and his rifle cocked.

“Howdy Gil, want to tell me about it,”

“Sure Sheriff.  Happened fast. You know Harper being back? Well he walked in and Stu, Kevin, Dave Ashurst and a couple of the other Bar T boys, told him to get outta town. Told him he was a hired gun, a killer and wasn’t wanted. Dave went on a bit more and tried to get hold of Harper. Well he got his nose broken for his trouble. Harper went for them just like crazy. He got a bit of a kicking as well and ended up on the floor. I got my cudgel out, cracked a couple of them, they stopped kicking Harper. Anyway, they left, and Kevin left me $20  for the damage. They’ve all gone over to the Docs.”

“That all? You did well Gil, thanks. Where’s Harper?” the sheriff peered through the thick murky smoked filled room. He had difficulty seeing into all the alcoves but finally he saw a figure tucked well in with his back to the wall. He looked like any other drover who had been on the trail for some days, his cloths stained with dust and dirt.

Spencer immediately recognized the tight black leather gloves, the sweat stained black hat  and the well-worn jacket which wore the signs of many fights. Jess Harper was the only one he knew who did not throw a jacket away because it had a rip or two and a couple of bullet holes in it.

He slowly went over. Jess sat hunched up, he had a hand round a glass of whiskey and a bottle of red eye on the table.

“Hi, Jess! Can I join you?” Spencer said in a low voice.

Jess slowly raised his head. Spencer held his breath as he hardly recognized the bruised face with the startling dark blue eyes that looked up at him. The face had deep lines of suffering etched into it, and what was worse was the haunted look of vulnerability and loss.

“Sure, Sheriff, can’t stop you,” Jess said so quietly that Pete Spencer had to strain to listen to him.

The sheriff sat down, and Jess lowered his head and stared at his drink.

“You hurt, son?”

“Just the usual, can’t ride for a day or two. You want me gone too?”

“No Jess, why would I want you to. You’ve done a lot for me in the past, you are always welcome as far as I’m concerned. Besides your ugly mug ain’t on any wanted posters.”

“Thanks, Sheriff,” Jess replied with a wry smile.

“What brings you over here? We’ve got this sickness as well you know,” the sheriff said.

“I’ve left Laramie, I’m moving further west but I need to get over this first and find a job, get a few dollars together for the trail.”

“You ready to work for me yet; will always need a gun like you. Cheyenne is a tough town,” Spencer eagerly asked.

“No Sheriff, I don’t want to live by my gun. I’ll find something else,” Jess said softly.

“You got money for a room?” the sheriff asked.

“No , sheriff. Have checked in with Ben down at the stables, am gonna bunk down with Traveler.”

“Don’t need to, son. I’ve got an empty jail, your welcome  down there.   It’s warm, plenty of coffee, what you say?”

“No, thank ye kindly, don’t like jails, even when I’m only a guest, hate bars   and the smell.” Jess murmured with a shake of his head. “Well come home with me, can offer you a bath and couch in front of  the fire,” the sheriff continued,  suddenly sorry for the young man who  has always seemed so full of life and now looked so worn out, torn up and weary.

“No thanks, Pete, I’ll be okay. I need to be on my own for a while, but thanks again. I will take you up on your offer of a meal sometime,” Jess said and slowly raised his glass and tossed the rot gut down his throat. He grimaced and then said, “You join me to finish this bottle, Sheriff?”

“No, son, my innards won’t take that stuff anymore. You take care now. You know where I am if you want or need anything.”Pete Spencer said as he slowly got up and pushed the chair away.

“Thanks. You don’t need to ask, sheriff. I’ll be here for you as well.”

“Thanks. You take care now, son,” he finally said.

“Always do, and thanks Pete,” Jess wearily said and then poured out another shot of whiskey.

*****

Laramie

“Come on, Slim, you can’t go out like this. If you pass out, out there, I can’t get you up. You’ll lie out there and by the time I can get help you’ll be dead. You hear me good,” an anxious Jonsey admonished.

“I got things to do, and places to be,” Slim said weakly, his face glistening with sweat, and his eyes bright with fever.

“You need to get to bed,” Jonsey insisted.

“I need—what I need is help,” Slim gasped

“Yeah! I know son. We’re lucky we got Andy to his cousins over Casper way. The Baxters are doing their best. Things aren’t perfect, but we’re holding on.”

“Yeah! Jonsey I know, but I need to get out of here and help!”

“No Slim, you’re not resting so you’re not getting better, dragging yourself around, trying to work, exhausting yourself. Jess stayed up at the line camp and was back within three weeks. It’s getting on for five weeks and you’re not getting better. You know I’m right.”

“I know, Jonsey, and I’m going out of my mind over Eve. I don’t know if things over there are okay. They are too far out on a limb. Ort can’t go out that far. I need to go.” At that Slim dragged himself out of the chair and made for the door. Before he got there, as he put his hand out to get his coat and hat he staggered. He managed to get himself on to the couch which was under the window. He collapsed down on to it and started coughing uncontrollably.

“Guess you were right, Jonsey.”

“Yeah,  son. We need to work on getting you through this. If I cook, will you promise to eat?

“I’ll try,” said Slim with a ghost of a smile, and then he lay back and closed his eyes. At last he passed out.

*****

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Cheyenne

He felt that he was on a fool’s errand, but he had promised Jonsey to try his best, but he was dreading the outcome. Everything was falling apart at the Sherman Ranch and Mort knew that Jonsey was right. There was only one way of saving Slim and his family and ranch.

Mort sighed as he rode down the main street into Cheyenne. He finally brought his tired mustang to a stop outside of the Sheriffs office. He wrapped the reins around the hitching rail and went into Pete Spencer’s office. He found Pete doing the usual paperwork for the day. The Sheriff looked up and saw his old trail dust pard Mort wearily closing the door.

“Howdy, Mort, coffee’s fresh and I’ve got some flapjacks in a tin over there. What blows you this way again?”

“Same thing, Pete, hunting down that maverick Harper. He still around?” Mort asked his tiredness making him short of breath, as he poured out a scalding tin cup of coffee and put six spoonfuls of sugar into it.

“Yeah, Mort. He’s down at the stables; you can spot the horses that have been through his hands. He seems to bring any old nag back to life; they come out looking like high bred steppers. He has got himself quite a few happy customers. Lots of well-heeled men, their wives and daughters bring their horses over.”

“Been in any trouble?” Mort asked anxiously, shaking his head.

“Not so much now, was at first. A few of the town’s rowdies tried to go a few rounds with him. I guess he got sick of it as he was taking a lot of punishment. Anyway, he’s toting his iron again. He gets left alone, seen nothing of him. He lives, works, eats and sleeps up at the stables. He in trouble with you?” Pete Spencer said.

“No, but I need to see him. Can I bunk down again at your place, Pete? I ain’t  as keen on sleeping with my horse as that fiddle foot up the street,” Mort asked as he pulled himself out of the chair.

“Fine, Mort,” Pete replied. “Will enjoy some fresh company.”

*****

Next morning Mort felt like a new man: he’d enjoyed a great dinner, Pete and he had drunk their way through a stone jug of Pete’s red eye. Mort has slept like the dead and was now on his mustang which had been groomed and fed plenty of oats. Both man and horse were ready for anything.

Mort arrived at the stables just as the sun was well clear of the blue horizon to the east, and as he went towards the door he coughed and whistled tunelessly. He did not want to take a chance of surprising Jess and his hair trigger.

It took time adjusting his eyes from the bright morning glare to the stables shadowy gloom. He did not need to rely on his eyes because out of the gloom came the dark rich tones that Mort recognized instantly.

“Heard you coming five minutes ago Mort,” Jess said as he stepped from behind a big quarter horse. “What brings you over these parts? Found another old poster with my name on it,” Jess continued as he slowly walked towards Mort with his hand out-stretched.

“No, Jess, nothing like that: If I had I would have come with Pete Spencer and his troops,” Mort Laughed as he and Jess shook hands.

“You ready for a coffee?” Jess asked as he nodded towards the corner of the stable which showed signs of some one making a living place for himself.

“Yeah, but only if you make mine weak, can’t drink that devils brew you like.”

Jess and Mort finally settled down on two old Windsor chairs that showed their age but were still very comfortable.

“Well, Mort, you gonna tell me why you’re here, or have you just missed me, Laramie boring without me,” Jess asked with a boyish grin lighting his features.

“You’re right on , Laramie’s not the same place without you; but, no, I’ve come because Jonsey has asked me to,” Mort replied.

“Why, what’s wrong?”

“Just didn’t know how to tell you this, but Slim is very ill. Jonsey is doing his best, but Slim is slipping away. He is fretting about his girl Eve; and all the other stuff he worries about, Andy, fences, cattle, you know what he’s like.” Mort tried his best to explain to Jess, but he did not really know what to say.

“Has Slim asked for my help?”

“No Jess. But Jonsey has.”

“Well things cannot be that bad. Jonsey will be just panicking,” Jess said, his face suddenly looking dark and hard. “Slim would ask if he needed me, I ain’t putting my head into the lion’s mouth again, once was enough.”

“What happened?” Mort asked, “Slim has never said, and Jonsey still cannot believe you went.”

“It was me. I just got fed up with being left all the time to sort everything out. Andy was driving me mad and I just think I’d not got over the flu, that had knocked me side-a-ways, and I was just tired. Slim is set on getting married, and things were going to change and, well, I just wanted space. I felt there was no place for me anymore. We had words and things were said that I do not know if I can ever forgive. I felt that I wasn’t wanted, pathetic I know, but I needed to go; so here I am. I like working with horses, but I do not want to always be a stable boy for the rest of my life. I will go, I miss the open range. I know I will never be able to breed horses and have my own place, that was a dream, but maybe I will find a stable yard that does, and I can get a job with them.”

“So you’re still going to California?” Mort asked.

“No , Mort, I’m going East. I’ve heard of the racing stables and the sport and the breeding that surrounds them.”

“What about Traveler?”

“Yeah, I know. What do you think keeps me here? I think of him all the time, I’m saving up for the rail fare, me and him are going east by train. I’ll travel with him, that’s got to be cheaper.”

“It’s a long way, boy,” Mort murmured, taken aback by Jess’ plan.

“I guess so, Mort, but it will be a new start, and I need that, well away from here.”

“What about Slim?” Mort decided to ask.

“What about Slim?” Jess said sharply.

“He needs you.”

“He’s never asked, if he really needed me he’d say.”

“I told you, he is very ill, slipping in and out of consciousnesses. He can’t ask for anything. I told you, Jonsey needs you, he wants help with Slim.”

“Why didn’t you say, we’ve wasted all this time,” Jess said as he knocked the chair over as he sprang to his feet. “Will you saddle Trav for me and empty that cupboard into my saddle bags. I need to see Ben, who owns this place. I need to get my money outta the bank. Be back soon,” Jess said over his shoulder as he ran for the door.

“You, with money in the bank?” Mort shouted.

“Yeah! Real respectable ain’t I,” then Jess was gone.

If Mort had felt the journey from Laramie to Cheyenne had been a hard ride that had left him exhausted and trail worn, then the return journey was nigh on likely to kill him. Jess led the pace, riding like the devil was on his tail, which , in a way, Mort reckoned he was. Jess may have had a hot temper and a hair trigger, but those aspects of his character where tempered and balanced by his sense of honor and responsibility, especially to those he considered friends. Whatever had happened between the two erstwhile best friends, had been set aside by Jess, whose only goal now was to get back to the Sherman ranch and make sure his adopted ‘family’ and their home survived this current assault on its integrity.

They rode through the night, with only a short break to rest the horses, which spoke volumes about Jess state of mind, as the young man usually valued a horse’s welfare above his own. Luckily it had been virtually a full moon, rich and round and high in the sky, a true harvest moon to help light their way safely back to Laramie, and the Laramie Cheyenne road was a good one, as far as these things could be judged out west.

They had ridden into Laramie about mid afternoon the following day, and Mort had virtually had to hog tie Jess down long enough for him to check in at his office and catch up on events. Jess also saw reason enough to check Traveler into the stables for some much-needed rest and attention, picking up another mount that he promised to return in a few days time when he collected Traveler.

That proved to be a lucky occurrence as Mort was able to catch up with him again before he left town heading for the Sherman ranch. As it was Jess almost ran him down as he rode from the stables straight into Mort who was about to step inside into the gloom.

“Woah, there, fella,” Jess admonished as he pulled back sharply on the reins and the startled horse  reared back and pawed the air. “What the heck, Mort, you try’n to get yerself killed?”

Mort had side stepped quickly as his eyes had discerned the shadowy bulk of horse and rider bearing down on him. He tipped his hat back and glared at Jess. “Weren’t planning on it, son, but seems you might have other ideas. A few minutes either way isn’t going to change things at the ranch, and you breaking something in your hurry to get there ain’t gonna help them any.”

“Sorry,” Jess replied sheepishly, the skittish horse still prancing from leg to leg, picking up on the anxiety its rider was exuding from every pore. “ You looking for me, Mort, or was this just a ‘lucky’ accident,” a small grin lifted the sides of Jess’ mouth as he spoke, breaking the otherwise grim set of his features.

“Thought you might want to take this with you,” Mort responded, unthinkingly waving a piece of paper in the air, and causing the horse to toss its head in response.

“Whoa, boy, no cause for this,” Jess reached down to take the paper from Mort who had now walked up to the side of the horse, determined to avoid its more active front half. “Reckon he ain’t no Trav, but my old horse gave me his best and he needs to rest a day or so. This one’s fresh and will get me to the ranch a mite faster.”

“That he will, son, if’n he doesn’t throw you at the first bird that flies across his path,” then Mort nodded at the paper still clutched in Jess black gloved hand. “Ain’t you gonna read it?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s addressed to Slim though.”

“It’s a telegraph, so it ain’t exactly private. Half of Laramie probably knows it’s content by now, if old Bert at the telegraph lives up to his reputation. Besides, Slim isn’t likely to be reading it himself anytime soon and it’s something you , Slim and Jonsey need to know. It’ll take a little of the weight of your shoulders and Slim’s.”

Jess studied the words on the brief missive and now allowed a full smile to grace his handsome face. “That is a piece of welcome news, for sure. Andy’s safe and well at his cousins and there is no sign of this influenza around that area. Least Slim had enough sense to send Andy away to safety.  Thanks, Mort, it’ll be a welcome piece of news for the two of them.”

Once more Jess went to push his mount forward onto the trail, but this time Mort put a restraining hand on the reins. “One more thing, I reckon this will be a welcome addition to the larder at the ranch. They must be getting mighty low on some supplies.” With that he passed up a burlap sack bulging at the seems.

Jess peered inside and drew in a deep breath, his nostrils widening at the rich coffee aroma that greeted him.”Thanks, Mort. At least I’ll be sure of a good brew when I get there.”

“And there is a few other things to supplement the larder as well,”

“Thanks, Mort. I’ll square up with you when I come back for Trav,”

“No need, its from the Dents at the store and a few other folks who were there when I went in for the coffee. It ain’t nothing you and Slim haven’t done for the folks in and around Laramie in the past,” with that, Mort removed his hand from the reins and stepped back away from the horse and rider.

“Jess tied the sack to the saddle horn and giving a brief nod of thanks in Mort’s direction, kneed the horse forward into a fast canter towards the Sherman ranch.

The horse may have been nervous, but it soon burned of its nervous energy as it kept up with the fast pace set by its rider. As he rode, Jess found himself thinking on Mort’s words. He was very relieved to hear that Andy was safe and well, at least for the time being, and he knew that would help Jonsey and the ailing Slim in the battles ahead. But he was also aware of how his own heart has lightened at the news and how warm he had felt at the gift from the town’s folk. Perhaps he had been harsh in his judgments of Mort and the other folks in Laramie when he had parted with Slim. Maybe his perception had been partly colored by his own anger and frustration at the whole situation. Maybe, just maybe, he had overreacted to it all. But Jess wasn’t ready to let go of all his angst just yet and pushed the enlightening thoughts to the back of his mind. Right now he needed his anger and frustration to help drive him hard over the weeks ahead if he was to save the Sherman ranch and the family that he had tried to make his own for a brief time. He focused his mind on the road ahead and drove his mount at a mile eating pace towards his goal.

*****

CHAPTER TWELVE

The old man’s back straightened imperceptibly as he heard the door open slowly behind him. He was standing hunched over the stove, poking the fire into vigorous life and causing the coffee pots contents to hiss like an aroused rattler.

“Come in, Jess, pull up a chair. Coffees ready, hot and strong, just as you always liked it.”

The dusty tired figure in the doorway outlined against the sinking sun remained where it was. “How’d you know it was me?” he questioned, his voice rough and dry from the trail dust.

“I’d like to say it was my intuition, or even that I heard that ghost soft tread of yours, but I’d be spinnin’ a taller tale then usual. Truth is I was lookin’ out for ya, and I recognized that silhouette of yours up on the ridge before you took the fork down to the ranch, even with you forkin’ another broom tail.” Is Traveler alright?”

“Just fine, Jonsey, but I ran him pretty hard. He’s resting up in the Laramie stables. I’ll return this nag and pick him up in a day or so.”

“So you are planin’ on stayin’ a spell.” Jonsey said softly, more as a statement than a question, his back still towards the younger man as he continued to fuss with the coffee pot.

“Depends,” was the curt response.

“On what?”

“Lots of things, I guess, but right now I’m here to help keep this place going until Slim can pick up the reins again. Speakin’ of which, where is he? How is he? Does he know you asked Mort to fetch me?” Jess blurted out the last questions like rapid gunfire, his stress and exhaustion getting the better of him.

Jonsey heard the change in tone and turned to face Jess, sympathy and understanding clouding his eyes.  “Well, you’re here for now, and that’s good enough. Sit down, get this coffee down you and I’ll answer your questions as you drink,”  He placed the steaming cup of coffee on the stained old wooden table that Jess had come to feel comfortable with, and then returned to the kitchen to rescue a slice of fresh apple pie which he had cooked earlier in a vane attempt to tempt Slim to eat. He placed it next to the mug of coffee. “Here, it’s better than it being wasted.”

Finally Jess actually stepped into the room, placed his hat and coat on the standby the door, after making an attempt to shake at least some of the dust of them.  Slowly he pulled out a chair and then finally sank down onto it, a small sigh of appreciation escaping his lips as the familiar aroma of Jonesy’s extra strong special brew assailed his nostrils. Even sitting in the old hard chipped wooden chair felt familiar, like coming home, and Jess felt himself relax for the first time in what felt like an eternity.

As he sipped the brew between bites of the tart pie, he listened as Jonsey outlined the tragedy of the past weeks since Jess had ridden away. “He’s missed you, ya know,” Jonsey ended his telling.

“Doubt it,” Jess responded, “other than having to do all the work himself.” He didn’t mean it to sound as harsh as it did when he let the words come out, but it was enough to cause Jonsey to bridle.

“Don’t really know what went on between you two, and I don’t think I want to, but I ain’t no liar, and Slim missed you as a friend, a pard to share his worries and his good times with, not just as a ranch hand. So don’t you go thinkin’ otherwise.”

“Yeah,  well maybe so, maybe not. But I ain’t here to stir up the past. I’m here to ensure the future. What’re the first things on this long list of chores you two have been pile’n up fer me?”

Jonsey looked like he had just swallowed a bite of very bitter lemon but decided not to push Jess further. The fact that Jess had turned up and was willing to help belied his bitter words, so he held his peace and let the matter of the bitterness between the two previously inseparable pards go for the time being. “ I ain’t been able to do anything but feed the chickens, milk the cow and take care of things here. Couldn’t leave Slim unattended and you know horses and I have long ago agreed to disagree. The Baxter boys helped for a time, but as more folks fell sick, they had to turn their attention to more pressin’ family needs. I ain’t seen them in over a week, hope they are doing okay, but  I don’t know fer sure. This influenza is taking down young and old, fit and unwell alike. It don’t seem to be particular who it attacks. I guess you could make a start at the fences and checkin’ on the cattle and horses. It’s all gone to Hell and Back, so it don’t make no difference where you start, just start.”

Jonsey stood and picked up the now empty mug in front of Jess.  “Don’t make no never mind. But right now, I’ll give you a refill and make up the bed in Andy’s old room for you. You look fit for nothin’ and I ain’t seeing you keel over with exhaustion like Slim.”

“Thanks, Jonsey, but I’ll use the bunk house, that’s the place for hired hands.”

Jonsey turned back to the table and slammed the empty mug own. “You’ll do no such thing, you stubborn mule. You weren’t never thought of as a hired hand, ner’ even treated as one most of the time. You always slept in the house.” Jonsey’s face hardened and his stance became stiff and straight. “Side’s,” he added a practical argument into the now one-sided discussion, “It’s just creating more work for me, with two fires to keep going, two rooms to warm, besides” he held up a hand to stop Jess’ counter argument that he would take care of the bunk house himself, “I need to rest to ya know, and you can spell me at night caring for Slim’s needs.”

Even a testy Jess could not argue against that, and instead he gave a brief nod of acquiescence. “ Speakin’ of a certain Hard rock, how is he doing, and give me the truth, not the Jonsey colored version.”

Deciding that it was wiser to accept Jess’ agreeing to stay in the house, Jonsey did not rise to Jess’ baiting. Besides he was bone weary himself, and deeply relieved to see the dark-haired cowboy standing in the Sherman ranch house again. He only wished it was under better circumstances. He refilled the coffee pot, this time filling up a cup for himself, and sat down across from Jess. “He ain’t good, Jess. He hardly eats, worries about everything, including you! And that’s when he is conscious enough to be aware of his surroundings. His fever keeps spiking, and old Doc can’t offer any help other than to make him rest, get some food and plenty of water down him. I thought you where the patient from Hell, but Slim’s out classed you easily this time.”

“How long’s he been like this?” Jess asked, at last the worry sounding in his voice.

“He fought it for five weeks, getting more tired and weaker, until he collapsed just over a week ago. Doc says if’n he had slowed down, given his normal robust health, he’d likely have been over this influenza in a couple of weeks. But he just kept goin’, sent Andy away, and tried to run it all be himself, as well as going up to the high ridge to meet his girl every day,”

“What?” Jess couldn’t believe he was hearing this, “He risked spreading this thing further afield just for a romantic tryst?” Jess’ heart hammered in his chest, concern for both his foolhardy pard and his erstwhile love. Then he recalled that he would likely have done the same, had he been lucky enough to have wooed and won Eve. “Sorry, but it’s just so unlike practical, by the book Slim.”

Even the weary Jonsey had to crack a smile at that. “Guess you are right Jess, but when love flew in Slims window, his common sense ran out the door. Anyways,  when the epidemic started becoming real close to home, they stopped meeting face to face, but every day , at different times, they have been leaving little love notes  for each other to find up there on the ridge. Come rain or shine, before he collapsed, Slim rode up to the ridge to find her message and leave one of his own. That was a two or more hours round trip each day he could have done without.”  Jonsey paused to sip at his own coffee, taking the brief respite to collect his thoughts before he spoke again. “Anyway, it all fell apart completely when he collapsed over a week ago. Doc came out and said he had pneumonia as a secondary infection from being so weak from the influenza, and that all we could do was what I had been doin’ and throw in a few prayers for good measure. And talkin’ of Slim, I’ve let him sleep long enough. I need to try and get some of that broth down him, if’n you’re done jawing for now.”

Jess decided it was time to swallow his pride and at least try to speak to Slim, to see if he could at least gleam some information about what needed to be done first at the ranch. “You sit and finish your coffee. I’ll go. He in our old room?”

“Yeah, but Jess,” Jonsey tried to prepare the young ranch hand for what he would see; “he’s a shadow of his former self. Try not to let your shock show.”

Jess suppressed the shiver that ran through him at Jonsey’s ominous words and reminded himself that Jonsey was prone to exaggeration at times. He hoped this was one of those times. In the kitchen he filled a tin mug with the steaming broth that smelled richly of beef and root vegetables but was mostly fluid so as to sit easy on the ailing mans stomach. As an after thought he picked up a spoon in case Jonsey’s words had a ring of truth to them.

He was more nervous entering that darkened room that smelled of sweat and sickness, than he was when facing down a killer with a gun in hand. He and Slim had been good together until the sickness and a beautiful girl called Eve, had come into their world. He may have left in anger, but he bore no ill will to his ex best friend.

Snatching the chair from behind the door, Jess placed it next to the first bed in the too familiar room. The huddled shape in the bed was facing away from Jess, and somehow it looked small and vulnerable, so unlike the vigorously robust man Jess knew. He placed the mug on the bedside table and sat down heavily, feeling every weary mile of his journey pressing down on him. Slowly Jess reached out a trembling hand and shook the figures shoulder.

“Slim? Come on Slim, got some broth for you,”

Slim had been in and out of fever driven dreams for several days, at times unable to distinguish reality from hallucination. Now he heard a voice he had been hearing in his dreams, missing when awake, and longed for in reality. He shook his head and pulled away, curling further into a ball, in denial and determined not to allow his fever to raise his hopes and then snatch it away again. But this time the voice did not disappear, as it had on all the other occasions. This time it was steady and insistent, demanding he pay attention.

“Slim, ya gotta wake up. Ya gotta fight this thing. I got some broth fer ya, and Jonsey’s gonna have my hide if’n ya don’t take it,” Jess continued to speak quietly, unsure of the reception he would finally get from Slim, and still Slim remained back to him, denying the hope that much missed voice was lighting in him.

Behind the two figures in the room, Jonsey stood quietly in the doorway, the flickering fire in the room behind him, casting a fiery glow around his silhouette. His fists where clenched as he watched the drama in front of him. He hoped that Jess return would spark life back into the fading body of the eldest Sherman brother, whether from renewed self-righteous anger, or hope of mending the rift with his best friend. Jonsey hoped for the latter, but would except the former, he didn’t care, as long as it roused Slim into fighting back against the illness that ravaged his body.

Jess decided that a firmer approach was needed and let some of his frustration; fear and concern drive his voice louder. “Slim, quit lazing around, ain’t ya got the guts to face me. I’ve come back to help, if’n you’ll have me.”

Slims eyelids shot open. That really sounded like the Jess he knew, a pissed off, wound tight as a coiled rattler, ready to strike Jess Harper. His best friend really was here. He was here and going to help. Shaking of the lassitude caused by the fever and exhaustion, Slim turned his aching body to face Jess Harper. “Jess? Jess, it really is you?”

“Sure it is. Who were you expecting, President Grant?” Jess quipped, relieved that he had gotten through to his old friend, and that there was no anger in the voice that questioned his presence. As his eyes raked over the emaciated with the too big fever glazed eyes that stared at him, Jess tried hard to suppress the shock he felt at seeing his previously sturdy friend reduced to a skeleton like eighty-year-old man. He glanced quickly over his shoulder at Jonsey for reassurance that he should continue, and received a brief nod of encouragement, and saw the light of relief and hope flare up renewed in the old retainers’ eyes.

“So I hear you’ve been your usual stubborn self, and look where it’s got you,” Jess continued. “Jonsey’s fit to bustin’ over  you runnin’ yerself into the ground, and he’s had Mort drag me back to sort things out.”

A shaky hand slowly moved out from under the blankets and sought to reach for Jess’ hand. Jess was taken back by how Slims arm trembled and reached out to grasp Slim’s hand in his own steady grip. “You, you came back?” Slims voice was so faint Jess had to lean in close to here the soft words.

“Yeah, fer now at least. So how about you tellin’ me what needs doin’ first and I’ll set to it,” Jess said, suppressing his concern at the boney frailness of Slims hand in his. He had a fleeting vision of times past when Slim had took his own hand into a firm handshake of welcome, and his fear for his pard doubled. “I reckon the fences must be in need of repair before winter sets in for a start.”

Slims fever driven mind was still several steps behind in the conversation. He recalled that Jess had been away for a good length of time, and was puzzling on why, when he suddenly recalled how they had parted. “Guess, Jonsey was right” the words escaped Slim before he thought of the consequences.

“Right about what?”

“’said you’d be back if’n we really needed you.”

“He did , did he.?” Jess turned to throw a scowl in Jonsey’s direction. “ Guess he knows me better than most then. So where do I start, hard rock. Anything ‘specific you need, boss man, or, just fer once you gonna rest up and do as yer told and trust me to get on with it?”

“A wan smile touched Slims dry lips, “ I missed you and that ornery sense of fun around here.”

“Guess that’s as close to an apology as I’m likely to get. So you gonna have some of this beef broth Jonesy’s made you? I’ll help you sit up and you can drink it from the mug. Otherwise it’ll be back to baby ways fer you and I’ll spoon it in,” Jess leant forward and hooking his hands under Slims shoulders, hauled the ailing man into a more upright position. Jonsey rushed forward to place some pillows behind Slims back. Slim reached out and wrapped both hands around the warm mug but he shook so much he threatened to spill more of the broth than he swallowed, so Jess wrapped his own hands over Slim’s and guided the mug towards his friend’s mouth.

“After a few swallows , Slim seemed to rally a little, and again his mind caught up with the conversation. “ Apology? What am I apologizing for?”

“Reckon that apology cuts both ways. Here,” Once more Jess guided the mug to Slims mouth, hoping to divert the conversation away from a still very open wound. At some point the two of them would need to sort out their differences, and he would have to decide where his future lay, but now was not the right time for either of them to be thinking on it. The ranch was falling apart and Slim was closer to dying than to living. Jess had other things to think on and Slim needed to rest, assured that the ranch was in good hands.

As Slim pushed the now half empty mug away, Jonsey took it from Jess and smiled. “That’s more than I’ve got down him in two days. Good job, Jess,” Then he thrust the telegram into Jess hands. “Jess brought some other good news to.”

Pale blue eyes flicked up to meet Jess’ deep blue ones, hoping he brought news of Eve or Andy.

“Picked up a telegram in town from Andy over in Casper. He’s well and seems like this influenza has bypassed them. They are all doing well,” Jess supplied.

Though disappointed there was no news of Eve and her family, Slim felt part of the weight of worry lift from his shoulders. “Thanks,” he managed to force out as his strength started to leave him again, and he sank back against the pillows.

Jess noticed the change again and stood up, pulling the blankets back up around Slims shoulders. “You get some sleep. We’ll speak again tomorrow, before I head out to check the fences,”

Slims eyes had closed, but as Jess moved away he forced them open again and spoke urgently, “ Wait Jess, there is something I need—Eve. I need to know she and her family are alright,”

Jess stiffened at the mention of the name of the woman he had loved and lost to Slim but forced himself to reply. “How am I supposed to do that? It’s a full day’s ride, and there’s  more important stuff to be done. I’m sure they are fine, if’n they bin’ keepin’ to themselves as we where all told.”

“N—no, Jess, you don’t understand.” Slims fatigue was catching up fast, but still he fought it, “ Jonsey’, he’ll explain. Eve will be worried sick. She won’t have had a message for days. Please, you—you must—-“

Jess lips pressed into a hard thin line. He didn’t want the raw pain of seeing Eve again, even if he could spare the time from the job ahead. “Leave it be, Slim, there are more important things need doin’.”

As the look of despair swept across Slims haggard features, Jess started to turn away. A memory forced itself unbidden into his conscious mind. He recalled the delicate beautiful girl and her kindly mother who had risked everything to care for an ailing confederate boy soldier. He owed them his life, and no matter how much it would hurt to see her again, he owed her some peace of mind over Slim. He may feel betrayed that she had given her love to another, but in truth he had changed so much, how could he have expected her to remember the boy who having lost his heart forever, had vowed to return for her after the war.  Guilt swept through him and he turned back. “All right, reckon I can get a message to her somehow. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

“Good, Jonsey, you tell him how we have been ‘talkin’, please,” then once more Slims eyes closed and he allowed himself to drift of.

*****

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Before he had retired into Andy’s old room Jonsey had explained the system of message passing that Slim and Eve had employed up until Slim had collapsed over a week ago.  Jess had a poor night’s sleep wrestling with his conscience over his behavior towards Eve and had come to  recognise that some of his anger had been jealousy over what Slim now had with the woman Jess had lost his heart to as a youth.  He would make the trip up to the ridge at first light and retrieve any message left there, as well as leaving a small note that stated Slim  had hurt his leg and couldn’t ride. Jonsey had felt that Slim would not want Eve any more upset than she must already be, and Jess had to agree with that logic. He still had deep feelings for the girl that had saved his life, and he owed her much more than he could ever repay. His one consolation was that at least he would not have to meet her and talk with her at this time. That would come later, if he stayed.

Jess shook his head and splashed ice-cold water from the bedside basin onto his face. His poor nights sleep had also been punctuated by Jonesy’s frequent visits to check on Slim who, until only a few brief hours ago, had spent a restless night, calling out for Andy, his parents, Eve and even Jess.  Slims mind obviously agitated about the previous night’s events, Jess’ return and his chance to get a message to Eve.

Finally, all had quieted, and Jess managed to doze for a few brief hours as well. Now, dressed and dripping water from his wet hair and face, Jess opened the front door quietly and looked out at the yard. The Autumn mists drifted across the ground, hugging it closely, as if reluctant to release its nocturnal hold on the land. The moon that had guided him home the previous night, although still almost full, was now low on the horizon, its light weak, as it prepared to give way to the sun which would soon breach the opposite horizon and bring energetic life back to the still dozing world.

Turning, Jess snatched up his Jacket and hat from the hook behind the door and strode to the table where the note devised by Jonsey was waiting for him. It had amused Jess to see how deftly the older man had been when copying Slims neat script and forging his signature. He wondered just what other skills the taciturn housekeeper had tucked away from his misspent youth. Jonsey had turned to glare up at Jess as he had completed the missive, with steely eyes that threatened dire consequences if Jess ever mentioned it again.

“Don’t ask, and I’ll not have need to lie,” Jonsey had said curtly, before pushing the short note into an envelope.

Now Jess placed the note in his jacket breast pocket, strapped on his gun belt and wrote a hastily scribbled note of his own, advising Jonsey that he had left early to get the message delivered before starting to check the fence line. He had promised he would be back for dinner, all things going well.

With one last look behind him at the dark still room, and Jess stepped out into the mists, quietly shutting the door behind him.

Two hours later, the sun having fully risen over an hour ago, Jess reached the designated trysting point for Slim and Eva. He tied his mount to a near bye tree branch, not trusting his rented mount to behave as he would have his own horse Traveler. He looked around himself, his eyes straining to make out the rock Jonsey had described, in the shifting shadows of the breeze blown trees. Stepping deeper into the shadows, he finally spotted a flash of light as the sun’s rays bounced of the metal tin the two lovers used to hold their offerings to each other.

He strode over confidently, but then hesitated to pick up the tin when he finally stood over it.  It seemed wrong some how, as if he would be intruding into something very special and unique, and also there was a feeling of dread, like a rock settled deep in the bottom of his stomach. What if there was no message, or, worse still from Jess point of view, what if there was a message of undying love and promises that would bite deep into his heart, one more blow to his misplaced affections for Eve?

It was only a minute that he stood there, but it felt like an eternity on indecision. Finally the sharp call of a bird in the tree above him cut through his reminiscing, and Jess shook himself out of the doldrums and picked up the tin. It felt light, but on opening it he found three notes, each carefully folded and signed with the date it was left. Each smelling of the evocative perfume he associated with Eve.

Resisting the temptation to read them, Jess pulled the forged note from his breast pocket and placed it in the tin. He then stuffed the three notes into the now empty pocket, replaced the tin quickly and hastily remounted his horse. He did not know for sure at what time Eve would return to check for messages, and he did not want to be around when she did. He did not know if he could trust himself not to let slip about Slims true condition, or worse, as far as Jess was concerned, about how he really felt about Eve.

He rode away back down the ridge without looking back and spent the rest of the day pushing all thought of the beautiful woman, or he love messages meant for another, out of his mind.  By the time dusk was falling and he was heading down the branch road to the ranch, he had checked the upper pastures fencing and moved the herd from the high pasture down to better grazing on the lower slopes. It was a physically tired and mentally drained Jess Harper that bedded down his mount for the evening and slunk back into the ranch house, uncertain what he would find, but hoping Slim had roused a little and improved now that he knew the ranch work was being done.

As a bone-weary Jess sank down into the old rocker by the fire, Jonsey emerged from Slims bedroom, a small smile playing across his otherwise tired features.

Looking up at the noise, Jess said “What’s with the grin, old Hard rock taken a turn for the better?”

“Don’t want to raise false hope, but that’s the third mug of beef broth he’s taken today. That’s more’n what I’ve gotten into him in days. He even roused enough to ask if’n you where back yet,”  Jonsey spoke quietly, not willing to alert Slim to the fact Jess had returned at last.

Pushing up from the chair, Jess started to move in the direction of the bedroom, “Reckon I’d better go into him then.”

“Not so fast, young un,” Jonsey said.” Sit back down and have something to eat, you look done in.”

Jess did as instructed, warmed by Jonsey’s show of concern, but aware that the wily older man probably had ulterior motives to his generosity of spirit, and would no doubt share them shortly.

However Jonsey set a plate of beef stew in front of Jess, accompanied by a mug of coffee that looked strong enough to dissolve the mug it stood in, then sat down opposite him. He watched Jess devour the offering in silence, appreciating how tired he must be.

It was jess who finally broke the silence, “Aren’t you eating?” he asked.

“I ate earlier, when Slim was sleeping, like he is again now. He’s been asking about you, when he was awake. Like he couldn’t believe you’d come back.”

“Sure he was, likely wanting to make sure I was nose to the grindstone,” Jess retorted, unwilling to accept Slim would care about Jess’ return other than rescuing the ranch.

“You’re doing him an injustice son, he’s missed you fer yerself, for the friendship you shared.”

Although hearing Jonsey’s words melted a little more of Jess’ hardened heart, he refused to admit it. “Maybe, maybe not. Time will tell. How is he doing, really?” Jess nodded toward the room in which Slim slept fitfully.

“Better, I think. Oh, and he’s been asking about Eve and the messages. Did you manage to get there? I noticed you’d left before dawn, so I figured that may have been part of you’re plans for the day.”  Jonsey lifted up Jess’ empty plate. “Want some more?”

“Maybe later,” Jess reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the somewhat crumpled notes. “ There where three messages. Reckon I’d better take ‘em into him then.”

“No, wait a spell. He needs all the rest he can get. What do they say?” Jonsey asked innocently, mistakenly assuming the younger man would have looked at them.”

“What do you take me for,” Jess responded, affronted that Jonsey would have thought him capable of reading another love letter. “There are three of em, the last dated a couple of days ago.”

“Got a conscience all of a sudden,” Jonsey responded, then relented his words. “I’m just joshing son. I know you have strong scruples, but in this case, I’ll read them then, to save you the embarrassment.”

“Why, Jonsey. Just hand them over when Slim wakes up. He’ll likely jump up out off that bed like a spring chicken when he reads them.”

“That’s the problem, Jess. He has improved a little. What if the content of those notes send him straight back down again,” Jonsey spoke as he picked up the notes from the table and started to open them, starting with the oldest first. He read them quietly, respecting Jess’ wish not to know the words of love the couple had shared. “ Hummph!” Jonsey groaned, as he finished the most recent note and carefully refolded them all.

“Well?” Jess questioned. “Do we give them to him or not?”

“It should be alright. Basically she’s saying that she’s worried as she hasn’t heard from him, but otherwise everyone seems fine, and she’s missing him.” Jonsey summarized the notes.“Sounds like they should help not hinder his recovery. You can give them to him when he wakes up. You left that note I wrote up there for her to find?”

“Sure, I left it in the tin, right where I found the others. That should ease her worry,” Jess still found it difficult to say Eve’s name out loud.

Jonsey passed the notes to Jess, “Here, you can take them in to Slim, and take some more broth to him while you’re at it. After that, there’ll be more fresh coffee before you retire. It’ll likely be another full day tomorrow.”

Slim was rousing as Jess walked in, and a smile slid across his pale features at the sight of his friend. “Didn’t believe you had come back. Thought it was all in my imagination last night, even though Jonsey kept saying different. Glad you’re here, Jess,” Slim rasped out dryly.

Sitting down on the chair Jonsey had left by the bed earlier, Jess placed the mug of broth down and leaning forward help Slim to sit higher in the bed. “Get this down you, Slim, and then we’ll talk,”

This time Jess noted that Slim was able to hold the mug unaided and waited patiently as Slim sipped the warm contents.

“Jonsey needs to try another broth recipe,” Slim quipped. “So, how is it.”

“I’ll tell him to go sacrifice a chicken or two if’n you want. But you know how it is just now, kinda hard getting’ in supplies,” Jess responded, suddenly realizing how much he had missed the verbal sparring the two men had often enjoyed. “I got most of the high pasture fence checked. There are a couple of spots I’ll need to go back to re-enforce them ready for the winter, and I moved the cattle from the high pastures down to the better grazing. They should be fine there for the next month until they can be moved to the lower-level winter pastures by the lake.”

Jess went on to describe what jobs he planned to address next on the long list of chores that went with the day-to-day running of a cattle ranch. At least for now, since the stages where suspended, he didn’t have to deal with changing teams and maintaining coaches. Still the horses needed caring for and kept in good form ready for the day the world got back to normal and the stage-line started up its routes again.

Throughout all this, Slim fought to stay awake and listen to what Jess was planning, nodding occasionally in agreement with Jess’ evaluation of the situation. Jess suddenly realized he had been rambling for the last few minutes, subconsciously avoiding the subject of Eve and the letters. He stopped talking and looked at Slim, locking eyes with his ex-friend.

“I made it up to the ridge first thing today,” he stated simply

“You did? Course you did,” Slim corrected himself, knowing Jess would never break his word. “ Well, was there anything left for me?”

“Sure, here,” Jess handed over the three notes, and Slim clutched them close to his chest for a moment, before bringing them to his nose to breath deeply of the perfume he had grown to love. Jess waited patiently as Slim made no move to read them. “I ain’t read them, ya know,” Jess said to break the tension.

“I know. It isn’t that, Jess. Its just, well, I’m dreading what they say. This last one’s dated over two days ago,” Slim replied, the returning weakness vying with his need to read the notes.

“A man could grow old waitin’ on you. Sides, read em’ now or later, reckon it ain’t gonna change what they say.” Jess encouraged his friend. “Look, I’ll leave, If’n you want some privacy.” Jess stood to leave the room.

“No, Jess, stay put. I’d appreciate the company, whatever the news,” Slim’s adrenaline was now flowing and he had livened up again. Starting with the oldest note,  Slim slowly read them, savoring every word. He was relieved to know they were all well but upset that his not being able to leave messages had distressed Eve so much.

“I need to get a message to her, Jess. I’ll write a note now, and you can take it up tomorrow,” Slim said, his voice tight with concern.

Hoping Slim would not get upset at his next words, Jess responded. “Already done, Slim.”

“What?” Slim was unsure of what Jess meant.

“Jonsey wrote a note last night, didn’t want to wake you, but knew you would want her to know you were safe,” Jess explained.

“He didn’t tell her I’ve been ill did he? It’d worry her to death,” Slim pushed himself up onto his elbows, anxiously awaiting the reply.

“Nope, he said you’d hurt you’re leg and couldn’t ride for now. Said you were sorry fer worrying her and signed it real romantic like.” Jess couldn’t resist poking fun at Slim.

“He—He signed it, from me?” Slim stuttered in surprise, then sank back down, a smile on his lips and a chuckle in his throat. “Why, that old sea dog. I thought he’d sworn off forging signatures and such. He wasn’t always the law-abiding man you know, Jess. He’s got some tales to tell, if’n you stay around long enough you may get to hear them.”

“You ain’t mad?” Jess asked, surprised.

“No, Jess. The two of you acted out of concern, you did well.” Slims voice was fading again, and this time Jess stood purposefully. “Wait, Jess, please, will you go back tomorrow and take another note. This time I’ll write it.”

“I dunno Slim. There’s a lot to be done, I can’t promise that.”

“Well, if not every day, then at least every couple of days,” Slim pleaded. “Please, Jess. I need to know Eve’s all right.”

“From what Jonsey says, it was this darn stubbornness of yours that landed you in that bed,” Jess stated as he started to leave the room. Then he recalled the Young Eve as she cared for him and the pleading in Slim’s voice further melted his reservations to stay away from any involvement in the lover’s affairs. “Alright, I’ll try, but the ranch comes first, and it won’t be a daily trip, maybe every couple of days.”

Slim was wise enough to take what he could get.”Thanks Jess, ‘preciate it.” Then just as Jess stepped out of the room, he heard Slim’s last words before he slipped into a much-needed healing sleep.  “You’re a good man, Jess. I’ve really missed you. I’m glad you’re back.”

*****

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The next day Jess was again up before dawn, but this time as he wandered sleepily around, he almost knocked Jonsey over as the older man was heading into Jess’ bedroom with a steaming mug of extra strong ‘wake you up’ coffee.

“Whoa there. Didn’t expect you up at this time, old man,” Jess quipped as he recovered his balance.

“Less of the old, you young whippersnapper, else you make me regret bringing you this offering.” Jonsey spoke as he thrust the mug at Jess. “Sides, I’ve been up hours before dawn most mornings, longer than you’ve been alive.”

Having now taken several sips of his revitalizing brew, Jess grinned back. “Thanks, Jonsey. I needed that. There’s a long day ahead, fences to fix and the rest of the herd to move from the upper pastures.”

“There’s some flat bread over by the stove, and I’ve scrambled a few eggs. At least the hens are laying well. That’s something I guess. There’s a lot you can do with eggs, If’n you’ve a mind to.”

Jess moved over towards the stove, picking up a plate and preparing to shovel a heap of the hot breakfast onto it. “Mind you leave a bit for Slim and I,” Jonsey admonished. “Since he kept down that broth yesterday, I thought I’d try him with something a little more solid today. He really seems to be rallying since you returned and then when you gave him those notes, he really turned the corner.”

“Maybe, but he needs to pull back, no good him over doing it. You make sure he stays in bed and restin’,” Jess said between mouthfuls of egg.

“He’d likely fall over if he tried to stand up. He’s got a way to go yet. Speaking of which, you gonna go up to the ridge today?” Jonsey had now sat down with his smaller plate of eggs, opposite to Jess.

“Nope,” came the short reply.

“But Slim—” Jonsey started to interrupt.

“But Slim, nothin’, Jonsey. There is way too much to do around here to waste time on lovers’ trysts,” Jess voice sounded harsh, even to his own ears.

“That ain’t what you agreed with Slim last night,” Jonsey shot back.

“You listening in then?”

“Kinda hard not to as the door was open when it was said,” Jonsey had stopped eating and was meeting Jess look glare for glare. “What is it with you and your reluctance to have anything to do with Eve. One would almost think you where jealous.”

That barb hit home, and Jess stood, pushing his plate away. “ Don’t talk rot, old man. Oh. And by the way, Slim knows you forged that note,” he threw out in challenge.

“Why’d you tell him that?” Jonsey replied, surprised by Jess’ sudden change in mood.

“He asked if’n I had left a note and what it said. What was I to say, add another lie to the heap a lies we got piling up around us,” Jess suddenly softened again. “Anyways, reckon the old Slim is hiding back there somewhere cause he saw the funny side. Said it was for the best as it would stop Eve worrin’ and then he said I should get you to tell me some of the tales from your misspent youth,”

Jonsey saw the humor now dancing once again in Jess’ eyes and wondered at the constantly changing moods that made up Jess Harper. “It’ll be a cold day in Hell before I tell you anything. It would be all over Laramie before a day had passed.”

“Sure you will Jonsey, when I buy you a few shots of whiskey the next Saturday night we’re in town,”

“Say’s you. You know I don’t take whiskey ‘ceptin’ for medicinal purposes. Tell you what, I’ll swap tales with you. You tell me what’s been going on between you, Slim and Eve, and I’ll tell you how I come to be so good at copying signatures.”

By this time Jess had now buckled on his gun and was now dressed in his jacket and hat. “Might take you up on that one day, but not today, Oh, and Jonsey,  I intend to keep my word to Slim. I will check on the messages and leave some for him, but it can’t be done everyday. I may be the best ranch hand you’ve ever seen, but even I can’t run the ranch single handed and take half the day out to ride to that ridge and back.”

“Hold on, Jess,” Jonsey re-appeared from the kitchen, brown paper bag in hand, “Lunch.” He explained thrusting the bag into Jess hands. “Figured you’d be gone most of the day with no time to come back here. It’s fried chicken. One of the older ones stopped laying and I figured Slim could do with a change from beef jerk broth.”

“Reckon Slim might agree with that statement. Anyways, thanks Jonsey,” Jess waved the bag in the air. “’preciate it.”

“You’re welcome, son.”

Then Jess was gone, closing the door behind himself to keep out the autumn mists and the cold bite they brought with them.

Jonsey was left alone, still puzzling on the obvious issue of Eve, as her presence seemed to be the cause of the wedge between Slim and Jess.

As he finished his own plateful, Jonsey heard the muffled sounds of a man waking from a deep sleep. Putting the last of the still warm eggs into a bowl and snatching up a spoon, Jonsey headed in to help Slim eat his first solid food in over a week.

It took a few moments for Slim to clear his still fever fuzzy thoughts but Jonsey placed the plate of eggs on the small table and sat down next to his charge, patiently waiting for the younger man to focus. When he did speak. Jonsey was taken back by his first words.

“Where’s Jess?” he questioned in a voice roughened by inflammation and a long night without water

“Here,” Jonsey fielded the question by thrusting a mug of water into Slims hands. “Drink up and eat up, and then we’ll talk.”

Slim knew arguing with Jonsey in doctoring mode did no good, and besides, he would get answers soon enough if he did as he was told. So he sipped at the water, feeling it ease his dry throat and free up his tongue. With half the glass gone, he pushed it back at Jonsey and tried again. “He having his breakfast?”

“He who? You mean Jess?”  Jonsey responded

“Corse’ I mean Jess, Quit fencing around Jonsey.” Slim glared at his housekeeper.

“Eat these eggs and then I’ll spill the beans.” Jonsey thrust a spoonful of  eggs at the younger man who obediently took them and savored the new flavor. After a few mouthfuls he spoke again. “ This makes a change from beef broth,”

“Yeah, Jess said it might. I even have chicken broth for later. Store cupboard may be low, but I figured a chicken that had stopped laying could be sacrificed if it got you back on your feet. So finish the plate of eggs up so I can get on with the chores,” Jonsey encouraged.

A minute more saw the plate empty and Jonsey stood to make a quick get away. Slim snaked out a hand and managed to grab Jonseys apron, cutting of his escape.

“Not so fast. You promised to get Jess,” Slim said around the last mouthful of eggs.

“I made no such promise,” protested Jonsey, tugging at the apron while juggling the empty plate and mug.

“You said you’d answer my question about where Jess was,” Slim argued back

Jonsey decided to give a little, losing a battle to win the war. “ Well, I might have said that,” he conceded. “He’s headed out, just before you woke up. He’ll be long gone by now.”

“B—but I was going to give him a note to deliver to Eve,” Slim protested.

“Slim, I know, darn it, Jess knows, Eve is important to you. But so is this ranch. You know full well it takes half a day to get to the ridge and back. You darn near killed yourself trying to do both jobs. Don’t ask Jess to do the same,” Jonsey vented his concerns.

“Jonsey, she means everything to me. I need to know—“ Slim started to protest but Jonsey cut him off.

“You need to rest and get well, then you can ride up to the ridge yourself. You know that is what Eve would want.”

Slim looked like he fully intended to argue, but Jonseys logic rang true. He looked so down cast that Jonsey threw him a bone. “Look, Jess did say he would try and get up there again in the next couple of days. He only left the note I wrote yesterday, so it may be a few days before it is picked up and a reply left.”

“I guess,” Slim said reluctantly.

“ Look Slim, Jess seemed none to pleased to be acting as messenger boy, and I don’t think it was just about the work. What is it between you two? I know it has something to do with Eve and her family?” Jonsey sat back down again, making it obvious to Slim he was in for the long haul and had no intention of moving until he had some answers.

Silence settled on the small room like a heavy blanket was smothering all sound and thought. Slims eyes remained fixed on the bed cover, studying the worn threads as if the old worn fibers could give him all the answers he needed.

“Well?” Jonsey prompted. “I ain’t got all day. There’s chores to be done. Darn chickens don’t collect their own eggs, and the dust don’t jump onto the brush of its own accord.”

Slim chuckled at Jonsey’s wry humor. Looking up to meet Jonsey’s concerned gaze, he finally spoke. “I truly don’t know. Far as I can remember he ain’t ever really objected to any women friends I have taken an interest in. “ The Slim corrected himself, “Well, if you don’t count that Macinlass girl, and he had good reason for that. But he just seemed to back away from Eve and her folks, from the first time he saw them, and they haven’t done a thing to deserve his dislike.”

Jonsey was about to challenge that, as he knew Jess always had a good reason behind his actions, even if he and Slim didn’t always understand them, but the look of honest confusion in the younger man’s eyes stopped the words in his throat. Instead he said, “Well he was very tired, and just getting over the influenza. And you know how bad it makes you feel. Maybe that was behind it all. Maybe he just couldn’t cope and didn’t want to let us down by saying so.”

Slim thought back to those last days before Jess and he had finally had the threatening argument and recalled how tired his best friend had looked at that time. “Maybe,” he responded pensively, then with a sudden lifting of his mood he added “I guess he will tell us when he is good and ready and then maybe we can sort all this mess out and move forward. So, Jonsey, which chicken have you got your eye on for tonight’s feast?”

“You sure must be picking up if your stomach is making all the conversation around here,” Jonsey responded with a twinkle in his eye. “Anyways, I’d best be getting on with the chores and you need to get back to resting up. As for supper, it’s likely to be chicken broth and root vegetables unless Jess spots some poor critter out there willing to donate itself to the larder. Right now I need every egg laying hen I got.”

“The sooner this influenza epidemic burns itself out, the happier we will all be, for more reasons than one,” Slim said, his somber mood re-establishing itself as his mind drifted back to Eve again, as Jonsey left the bedroom, closing the door behind him quietly.

*****

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

It had been a long hard day out on the range, a day where an oppressive silence seemed to surround Jess as he worked. Even the normal chatter of birds and soft scurrying of the smaller animals seemed to be absent as Jess worked, enforcing a sense of isolation both physical and mental..

In truth, Jess was missing the general banter and camaraderie that he used to share with Slim when the two friends had worked side by side on repairing the fences in Autumn and branding the cattle in spring roundup. It had been hard, back breaking work, but the effort had gone unnoticed and the time had passed quickly in each others company, the work halved by their friendship.

He found himself thinking about those good times and how much he had really missed them since he had left the ranch in a fit of temper and, if Jess would allow himself to accept it, jealousy. The dull repetitive work of riding the fence line did little to distract the dark-haired ranch hand from his contemplative and self analyzing thoughts.

Finding a downed section of fence, Jess had welcomed the distraction, and had put the full force of his frustration and self depreciation behind the swing of the hammer as he drove the  repaired fence post back into place. Four replaced fence posts later, Jess had worked up a sweat and was no closer to resolving his feelings about Slim and Eve. He knew he still thought he was in love with her, but he also knew he should not resent Slim or Eve the happiness they had found in each others’ arms. He also knew he had been deeply unhappy and even acted in a self-destructive manner after he had severed his friendship with Slim and left the ranch.

As he packed away his tools and prepared to re-mount, a loud grumbling sound filled the air. Jess lifted his head and looked around himself expectantly, then as the sound repeated itself, his face broke into a grin and he rubbed his stomach. “Wow guess I forgot to stop for lunch. Oh well, Traveller old pal, now might be a good time to take a rest, huh?”

Looking around Jess spotted a grassy bank that looked both dry and soft. It was sheltered in part by a small willow tree and close by there was some deeper grass that traveler had been eyeing appreciatively. Taking up the horses reigns he led his willing companion over to the grass and ground tied him, confident in his relationship with the horse that the faithful animal would not stray. He untied his flask and the burlap sack containing the lunch Jonsey had prepared for him, and his goodies held firmly in hand he strode over the bank and dropped down onto the soft mossy grass.

A soft groan escaped him as he felt the tension drain away and he became more aware of the general aches and pains his days exertions had produced.

He drank deeply of the cool water in the flask, allowing it to ease his dry throat, and berated himself for becoming so bound up in his dark thoughts that he had even neglected to address the very basic need for water.

As he alternated mouthfuls of food with swallows of water he gradually relaxed. The sounds of life in the meadows and woodlands re-established themselves. Once again Jess mind turned to Slim and Eve. Slim was his best friend, his Pard. They had both on occasion been prepared to sacrifice themselves to save the life of the other. In fact, as he thought about it, Slim was closer to him than a friend, he was the brother he had missed since the fire that had taken his family. Slim was closer to him then anyone had been since that fire, closer, in fact, than his sister, the one other surviving member of the Harper clan. Slim , Jonsey and Andy had become his family, and he had thrown it all away, and why? Jess found himself analyzing his actions over the time since he had found out that the woman Slim planned to marry was in fact the Eve that Jess had loved since the day they had met, and she had nursed him back to a semblance of health when he had been a prisoner of war. He had loved her with all his heart, and he had always planned to return to claim her after the war. So why hadn’t he done exactly that?

The more he thought about Eve and her family, the more he questioned his own actions, and he became plagued with self doubt about his feelings and motives behind his recent actions. Was he still in love with Eve, or was he in love with the memory of a beautiful girl who offered him tenderness and support when he most needed it? Had he confused his feelings of gratefulness and relief for love? Was it a case of puppy love, a fixation on an ideal that did not exist anywhere except in his memory? And worse still, had he misread the young woman’s compassion and sympathy for reciprocated love.  The thoughts kept circling around in his head, stirring up dusty memories that carried more reality than the fantasy events he recalled.

“Damn it all to Hell!!1” Jess exclaimed so loudly that even the gentle Traveller sidestepped in nervous response. “Sorry, old fella. I guess maybe thinkin’ too much isn’t right good for a fella. Leastways not for me.”

He stood up slowly, stretching out the kinks in his spine. “Come on, maybe getting back in the saddle will shake some sense into me.” He re-enforced his decision by tying the canteen and sack back on the saddle and swinging up with practiced ease, snagging the loose reigns as he did so. A gentle squeeze of his knees on the horse’s sides sent Traveller moving forwards, and Jess tried to lose his tangled thoughts by concentrating on the fence line.

So it was somewhat of a surprise when a few hours later he looked up to take stock of the time of day, and just where his riding had taken him. He realized he was only a half hour’s ride from the ridge that Slim and Eve had agreed to make their special place. It would be dark in a few more hours and diverting up to the ridge would mean riding part way home in the dark. He turned Traveller towards the downward slope, in a direction that would see him home just as dusk gave way to full night, but after only a few steps he sighed and tugged on the reigns to turn the horse around. “Sorry, boy, reckon you didn’t deserve that, but I guess I can at least check if there is a message. I owe Slim and Eve that at least.”

When he reached the ridge line, it was a matter of mere minutes to locate and rescue the tin from its hiding place. He had been telling himself that it was a matter of conscience and he truly doubted there would be a message there anyway. But at least he could tell Slim and Jonsey he had checked.  As he stood over the tin, his heart dropped. He was sure the tin had been moved since he had placed it there. Hesitantly, Jess looked around, and seeing no other evidence of visitors having been in the area, he stooped and picked it up. Prizing the lid open he found a carefully folded note and a small locket. A gentle smell of lavender drifted from the contents. It was a smell that brought fresh memories to Jess. He lifted the locket and for a minute studied it, wondering if it contained a picture of Eve, then he stuffed it into his shirt pocket and the folded note joined it also untouched. Whatever they contained, it was none of his business, and the sooner he accepted that, the sooner he would be able to get on with his life and try and mend the rift between himself and Slim.

*****

Back at the ranch, Jonsey had been growing concerned at the lateness of the hour. He knew Jess had left with a full day of chores ahead of him and had expected not to see the ranch hand until dusk. But it was now at least an hour past that time, and despite the moonlit landscape, Jonsey was worried that Jess had met with an accident. He reasoned it was either that or Jess had relented and diverted up to the ridge to check for any billy do’s left by Slim’s intended. Slim had eaten earlier, as had Jonsey, and now Jess’ supper was drying out on top of the stove, despite Jonsey’s best efforts to keep it edible.

Now Slim was agitating about Jess anxious for his return for more reasons than one. “Any sign of him yet?” came the shout from the bedroom for what Jonsey thought was the tenth time by his count.

“It’s early yet, Slim. And you know Jess, that boy don’t like to be beaten. He likely found another section of damaged fence or a couple of strays and that has delayed him.”

“I’m not stupid, even if I have been ill. It’s at least an hour past dusk,” came the aggrieved response. “Maybe he’s working late, or maybe he’s been hurt.”

This last statement was followed by muffled banging and swearing from the backroom.  Enough of a disturbance that Jonsey slammed down the coffee pot he had been refilling and rushed into the bedroom. “What in tarnation are you trying to do?” Jonsey demanded angrily.

“Whats it look like?” came the equally waspish reply. “Some-one’s gotta go search for Jess.”

Slim was sat on the edge of the bed, one leg into his jeans. Jonsey took in the tremor in the body that was struggling to lift the other leg into the jeans. Beads of sweat had appeared on Slim’s pale forehead and the hands that held the offending garment shook visibly. “You ain’t going anywhere. Look at you. You can’t even stand up, let alone fork a horse.” To emphasise his words, Jonsey reached out and pushed back on Slims shoulder.

Despite his best effort to resist, Slim found himself sinking back against the pillows again. “B—but, Jess, he—“

“He’s fine. Don’t you think I would be out there myself if I though otherwise. He’ll likely come riding in here in less than an hour from now, demanding his supper and his brew.” The old retainer had lifted Slims legs back into the bed as he talked and was now wrestling the pants legs back of Slims unco-operative legs.

“You can’t abide horses and your sacro-illiac won’t take to the saddle,” Slim rallied to argue back, genuine concern for his pard lacing his voice.

“If’n the need is great enough, a man can do a lot of things,” Jonsey retorted, rapidly trying to find a plausible and safe exclamation for Jess’ absence that Slim would accept. Then it hit him, like the veritable bolt out of the blue, and the words escaped him before he had a chance to consider the consequences. “Anyways’ I recall he said he would check up on the ridge for you, and you know from your own experience how much time that adds to your day.”

“H—he did? How come you didn’t mention it earlier?” Slim queried, his voice softening as hope replaced worry in his thoughts.

“It slipped my mind, it’s not like I don’t have enough to deal with around here” Jonsey lied, then added, “Besides, I didn’t want you getting all hopeful and then disappointed if he didn’t get the chance to do it.”

The blonde head in the bed nodded agreement as it sank deeper into the down pillow, Slim’s recent exertions taking its toll. “I guess so. Look, I’ll try and get some rest now, but promise me you will wake me the moment he gets back.”

“All right, just as long as you settle down again now.” Jonsey was already regretting his rash statement. What if Jess hadn’t gone to the ridge, how disappointed would Slim be, or worse, what if Jess was hurt and needing help. There was nothing the old housekeeper could do about it now that he had let the veritable cat out of the bag and he would just have to wait to see if he could rescue the situation later.

He left the bedroom and shut the door behind him, returning to the empty coffee pot on the stove. After that, a worried Jonsey found himself pulled between listening at the bedroom door to ensure Slim was in bed and resting and peeking out the front room curtains every few minutes for any sign of a returning Jess.

*****

It was full dark by the time Jess arrived back at the ranch house. Fortunately, in contrast to his dark mood, the moon had shed its silvery light over the ground, creating a magical landscape of sparkling diamond drops of moisture on the grass, silver edged leaves and grey shadowed tree trunks. This had helped Traveller to place his hooves with confidence and eat up the miles with confidence. Not that his rider had noticed any of this beauty around him. Despite his best efforts, Jess’s hand had strayed repeatedly to his breast pocket and the note secreted there. I was not that he wanted to read the endearments it no doubt contained, but more a nagging worry that it might contain news that would upset Slim and set his recovery back. He pushed away his morbid thoughts and dismounting, headed straight towards the barn, only to be intercepted by Jonsey, who had been anxiously looking for his return.

“For an old man, you sure can move quick when you have a mind to,” Jess quipped, as he heard the hurried footsteps behind him.

Ignoring the jibe, Jonsey blurted out “Where the heck have you been, Slim’s been fit to bust worrin’ over you.”

“Well, where do ya’ figure I’ve been? Sittin up in the hills with a fishin’ pole and enjoying a Sunday picnic?” Jess snapped back as he led Traveller into the stable and proceeded to unsaddle him.

“Don’t get sassy with me, young un’. I’ve pulled more moves than you ever dreamed of.” The older man snapped back, and then softened his attitude a little. “Besides, you know what I mean. It’s been full dark for well over an hour now and Slim was concerned for you.”

“Sure he was,” Jess’ voice held an edge of sarcasm. “More’n likely he was fretting over if I had done all the chores.”

“You know better than that.” Jonsey’s eyes narrowed in challenge and indignation, making Jess realize he had overstepped the mark.

“Sorry,  Jonsey. I’m just a mite tired.” Deep inside Jess found his determination to keep his distance from Slim fading as he realized Slim had indeed been worried about him. “So what did you tell him.”

“I told him you where too stubborn to come back until the job was done, and as there was a near full moon and clear sky, he shouldn’t be worrin’ over you.”

“And that worked?” Jess asked as he rubbed Traveller down and filled his hay rack with a good supply of feed. “There you go, boy. Reckon you deserve that and more, the miles you’ve covered today.”

“What do you think? Of course it didn’t, Slim aint’ no fool. He was tryin’ to climb out of bed and go looking for you. That’s why I’m out here now, before you go inside, and he starts to grill you.”

Turning around slowly at Jonseys last words, Jess fixed him with steely blue eyes. “So just what did you tell him?”

Jonsey had the good grace to break eye contact and look away guiltily. “I told him you had planned to go up to the ridge and Slim knows how long that ride is,”

“Jonsey, I told you I wasn’t planning on heading up there yet,” Jess said, exasperated.

“I had to tell him something. Besides, all we have to do is stick together and tell him there was no note this time. That’s reasonable isn’t it?” Jonsey tried to rescue the situation.

Jess finally allowed a small smile to light his eyes, and then it became a full grin as he watched Jonsey’s response to his next words. “Reckon it sure is a good thing I did ride up to the ridge then, I don’t know if I could abide outright lying to old hard rock seeing as he’s laid up an’all.”

As Jess’ words sank in, Jomsey’s eyes widened, before he to smiled. “You did go up to the ridge. You changed yer mind after all.”

“Don’t get all,’I told you so’ on me. I was riding back, and it was on the way, so I thought it would save me time to do it now rather than tomorrow.”

Nodding sagely, Jonsey waited for more information. He knew Jess had choosen to go to the ridge for Slim’s sake, but it would not do to challenge the younger man’s pride further at this time. When Jess returned to packing away his gear, and did not seem inclined to give more information, he prompted the younger man again. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“Was there a note?”

“Oh! Yeah, there was a note and a locket,” Jess patted his shirt breast pocket as he spoke.

“So what’s it say?” Jonsey prompted again

“Dunno. It ain’t mine to read, now is it,” Jess finished up his work at last and turned to face Jonsey, “What’s for supper?”

“Don’t go changing the subject. Here, give me the note so I can read it before we go back into the house,” Jonsey thrust his hand out towards Jess.

Jess teasing stopped and he became serious. “It doesn’t seem right to read her private letters to Slim, Jonsey.”

“You’re right son. But to my mind it would be far worse if we gave him the note and it contained bad news. If it does, then we are back to telling him there was no note there, I guess.”

Hesitantly, Jess pulled the note and locket from his pocket and handed it to the old retainer. He was puzzled and also relieved that he felt no jealousy about the note, just a genuine concern for Slims continued return to health. “Jonsey’ I don’t want to know what it says, it wouldn’t be right, just if there is anything about problems out at Eve’s family ranch in case they need help.”

“Okay, son. I appreciate your candor. But If they have problems, I don’t know what we can do about it, and Slim must not find out.”

“Depends on what the problem is, I reckon,” Jess said quietly, as Jonsey scanned the note, “So what’s the verdict?”

“Seems like everything is fine. She just says she is relieved that Slim is okay apart from a busted-up leg and—“

“No , Jonsey, I don’t need to know more. The rest is Slims business and his choice to share , or not.”

“But–”

“ Nope, that’s enough, old man. Reckon we had best get inside cause if old Slim is awake, he’ll be fit to busting and likely halfway dressed by now.” Jess headed towards the barn door. “You coming?”

Jonsey rapidly re- folded the note and hastened after Jess, who shut up the barn after Jonsey passed through. A minute later the two entered the by the kitchen door, just in time to hear a bellow from the bedroom “Jonsey, is that you? Is Jess back yet?”

“Sounds like the Slim we know and love is back with us,” Jess said softly as he placed his hat on the hook by the door, followed by his gun belt in deference to Slims choice to not have weapons strapped on in the house.

Jonsey hurried over to the bedroom door and on opening it, was greeted by the sight of Slim once again sitting on the edge of the bed. “Keep your hair on and get back into bed. Jess is back but give the boy a chance to have some coffee and a hot meal before you start in on him.”

“Is he all right?” Slim insisted, refusing to lay back until he had an answer.

“He’s just fine. Tired , hungry and onery, the Jess we know and love. So settle back and he’ll come in a talk to you after he’s eaten and rested up.”

Slim’s light blue eyes shone with relief and a smile crinkled the corners of his eyes as he took in Jonsey’s words. He settled back against the pillows, content to wait now that he knew his friend was safe.

Sitting in the rocker next to the fire, Jess found himself warming from the inside out, as he realized Slim really had been worried for him. Perhaps there was a real chance that the two of them could repair their friendship.

*****

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The coffee had warmed his gut, aided by the chicken stew Jonsey had  heaped in front of him, but the warmth that had flooded through Jess in the past half hour was more to do with what he had overheard in the exchange between Jonsey and Slim.  He had wanted to go Slim immediately, but it had been at the insistence of Jonsey that he had delayed to eat his supper.

As he had chewed the tough old bird he had contemplated his relationship with Slim. It had been rough at times, since the two of them seemed to be poles apart in their outlook and approach to life. But that difference had been the true cement in their relationship. They fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, apart they where just puzzle pieces, but together they made up a picture. Jess realized he did not want to walk out on his friend and home; he needed to stay and make it work, despite Slims new plans for the future. As for Eva and how she would fit in remained to be seen, but maybe she would be good for Slim, and even Jess, if he could just put away his jealousy and realize puppy love was not a thing to base a future on. At least he was now moving in the right direction, by acknowledging his love for Eva was based on old, embellished memories, and not on the reality of here and now. He could make this work.

With those satisfying thoughts warming his soul as much as Jonseys stew was warming his body, Jess stood and pushed himself away from the table and headed towards the bedroom door.

“That was mighty fine Jonsey, but maybe you could cook that chicken a while longer, it was a mite tough to chew.”

“And maybe you could find me a younger hen to slaughter. Just be thankful for what you get. The stores are running low. I hope this epidemic burns itself out soon.”

“Reckon you called that right,” Jess nodded in agreement.

“Here, you should give this to Slim,” Jonsey thrust the note and locket back towards Jess.

“Huh” I thought you had given that to him while I was eating.”

“Nope, you did the deed, so you get the honors,” Jonsey pushed the note and locket into a protesting Jess’ shirt pocket.

Cocking an eyebrow suspiciously Jess responded, “A case of shooting the messenger huh? Is it that bad then?”

“What?? Oh, now I understand,” Jonsey caught on. “ No, son, it ain’t bad news at all. I just thought you’d want to give it to him, seein’ as how you did the ridin’.”

Dipping his head in acceptance, Jess opened the bedroom door and stepped inside quietly. All he could see was tousled blonde hair sticking above a huddle of blankets. Thinking his Pard was asleep he turned to go out but was stopped by a soft raspy voice emanating from beneath the blankets voice. “Shut the door and pull up a chair, Jess. You don’t need to wait for an invitation you know. I’ve been waitin’ on you. What kept you?”

“Jonsey’s cooking,” came the short reply as Jess pulled the chair up to the bed and Slim turned over to face him.

Slim chuckled at the response. “Yeah. I can’t tell if it’s Jonsey, the food he’s got to work with, or me, but it isn’t up to much lately.”

“I heard that!!” Jonsey shouted from the other side of the door.

“Guess he ain’t exactly got the freshest of food to cook right now, but that chicken was sure hard to chew through.” Then Jess turned towards the door, “Come in and join us, then we can insult you to yer face” he invited.

“Nope, thank you very much. Iv’e got all the dishes to do, and then I aim to set to sewing all those holes in your socks Jess. You sure haven’t been taking care of yourself when you where away.” Then Jonsey moved away from the door, this time shutting it properly, satisfied that the two men where on amicable terms.

“You had me worried, Jess. What were you thinking of riding the trails after dusk?” Slim asked, his blue eyes radiating concern.

“Needs must,” Jess replied, while secretly relishing the fact Slim had been genuinely concerned, “’Side, it is a clear night with an almost full moon,” he added to ease Slims concerns.

“Still, there ain’t any job worth breaking your horse’s leg or your thick skull for”

“Now there’s the Slim I know. Welcome back hard rock. I reckon yer feelin better,” Jess allowed himself a small grin.

“I guess I must be. So just what have you been up to that was so important and it better be good for me to excuse you causing us to worry?”  Slim doggedly pursued the issue.

Fishing into his shirt pocket, Jess pulled out the note and locket. “This a good enough reason?” he asked, opening his palm so Slim could see the goodies resting there.

Slim recognized the locket from one that Eva had worn on several of their trysts. She had told him it had been her grandmothers.

Part of him wanted to snatch up the offering and the note, but part of him was very worried about what the note may say. He hesitated to take either of them from Jess. Instead he thanked his pard for fetching them, and added, “What’s it say?”

“How should I know?” Jess responded, a momentary anger flashing in his eyes at the thought that Slim expected him to read the note.

Slim realized his mistake even as he had said it. “Woa down Jess, I didn’t mean it that way. I am real grateful you went out of your way to fetch them It means a lot to me, really it does. I just thought maybe Jonsey would have had you check it out for bad news, knowing how he’s been mother henning me these past weeks.”

Snorting with a suppressed laugh Jess responded, “You sure know him well. Yeah he did look at it. But I didn’t. I ain’t no saint, but I don’t reckon a man should have his private messages to and from his future wife being read by any Tom, Dick or Harry.”

“Did he do anything with it?”

“What? No, I don’t think the old rogue could forge a whole letter from a woman he hardly knows, Besides, that there note still smells of the perfume that was on it when I picked it up, so there is no way he’s forged it.”

“Thanks, Jess. I know he means well, but I can handle any bad news, despite what old Jonsey thinks,” Slim re-assured his friend.

“Try tellin’ Jonsey that,” Jess stated sagely.

Slim didn’t respond immediately as he was busy studying the note he had taken from Jess. Jess found himself holding his breath and studying his friend for any signs of distress. He was relieved to see a smile spread from Slims mouth into his eyes, and as his features relaxed, Slim also sank back against the pillows, a picture of contentment and relief.

“Good news, then?” Jess asked before he could stop himself.

“Given the circumstances, it’s as good as it gets,” the blond responded, a lovesick smile still fixed on his face. Next he picked up the locket that Jess had now placed on the bed. Fumbling slightly with the catch with his bigger hands, Slim finally managed to open the locket. It clicked open to reveal a small picture of Eve. Slims smile spread wider as he looked at the small sepia image of his future wife.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Slim half stated and half questioned. He found that he really wanted Jess to approve of the woman he loved with all his heart. He held the locket out to Jess to inspect.

Jess hesitated, unsure of his ability to look at the picture of Eve and not reveal his own feelings for the woman who had claimed his heart years before.

“It wont bite, you know” Slim prompted, again offering the locket to his friend.

Jess forced a smile onto his features and finally took the locket, handling it as though it would break at his touch. When he dropped his eyes to look at the image, he took in the features of an attractive woman in a formal pose for the camera. He studied it for a minute and found himself feeling nothing other than the normal response of a man looking at an image of an attractive woman. The feelings of undying love he had previously felt far less consuming. There was no longer an intense feeling of need, or loss or jealousy.

“Hey! Snap out of it, Jess. I know she’s beautiful, but she’s taken,” Slim prompted, giving Jess’ shoulder a light punch. He was secretly pleased that at long last Jess appeared to be willing to talk about Eve and Slims plans for a future with her.

Jess realized he had been staring for longer then would appear natural, lost in his analysis of his own changed feelings. “Sorry, Slim,” he passed the locket back. “She is a real looker for sure. And if I recall correctly from what you had been saying before, well before—“  Slim coughed and interrupted him. “Hey, you okay?” Jess changed the subject rapidly, before he could say too much more.

“I’m fine. This darned cough just keeps lingering.” Slim rasped out.

“Maybe I’m tiring you out. Tell you what, how’s about I get Jonsey to fetch you a coffee, you can write a reply and then you can rest again after that.”

“That sounds mighty tempting, Pard. And thanks for fetching this.”

“Your welcome. You need anything else?”

“No, I’ll be fine.” Slim responded, then as Jess turned to go he added, “I know you don’t want to know what Eve’s written, but there is one thing you should know?”

“What’s that ?” Jess asked, worry waking in his gut again.

“Just that she wants me to thank you for acting as a go between while I’m laid up with a busted leg,” Slim managed a slight wink at their shared deception. “ She says you’re a real gentleman and a good friend, and she’s told me not to worry and not to have you running too many messages for me as you will have enough to do as it is.”

“Now there is a woman who understands the situation and really knows you, Slim Sherman!” Jess quipped, as relief and pride replaced his anxiety.

As Jess exited to get Jonsey, Slim finally gave in to the weakness that had been overtaking him the past few hours. He had refused to sleep properly until he had known Jess was safe, and then he had continued to stay awake until he had spoken to his best friend himself and confirmed there where no problems. Now he was ready to rest, and he found that the tight knots of worry that had been a part of him for these past weeks where slowly beginning to unwind. Perhaps there was a way that Jess could accept Eve and stay at the ranch and remain part of all their lives.

*****

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Over the next few days Jess found himself the acting courier between Eve and Slim. The reply to the letter with the locket was placed in the tin the very next day, and surprisingly there was another lavender smelling note already waiting collection when Jess opened the tin. True to his sense of honor Jess never read the letters from either of the two lovers, and refused to let Jonsey tell him either, since the wily old man still insisted on checking them for bad news. Yet he knew just what was being said for the most part because Slim unabashedly shared the contents with him, eager to involve his friend now that he seemed happy to accept his feelings for Eve.

Each evening Slim and Jess talked about how the work had gone and planned the work schedule for the next day. Slim thrived on the company of his friend, and slowly he turned the corner. A pink color returned to cheeks that had been as milk white as alabaster less than a week ago, and once again, his light blue eyes sparkled with returning energy and life.

On this particular evening, Jess had returned as dusk settled in to find a smiling Slim sitting in the rocking chair by the fire.

“Well, look at you. How’d you get your jailor to let you out of your bed?” Jess teased.

“If I hadn’t been so strict, he wouldn’t likely have been here to sit in that there rocker,” Jonsey shouted from the kitchen, the added,” Side’s I thought it would be nice for us all to sit at table together.”

“To what do we owe this honor?” Jess persisted.

“I cooked up that bush turkey you brought back yesterday and made a blackberry pie with the blackberries you brought back at the same time. With such a feast for the first time in weeks, it’ll be better digested sittin’ at table.” Jonsey replied before returning to the stove and leaving the two friends to chat.

Slim had been wearing a small grin as he listened to the familiar banter between the two men. Now he final joined in. “You found blackberries, Jess? I didn’t think there where any bushes around here.”

“Neither did I, but I spotted some up on the ridge when I left your note.” Then Jess suddenly changed the subject from the blackberries.  “It sure is a nice view up there. I never really stopped to look before, but it caught my eye while I was putting the berries into my saddle bags. You can see clear down to the lake and there is a meadow down there, where there are still a few wildflowers blooming , despite the season.”

Slim rocked in the chair, and nodded, a dreamy look in his eyes. It was a minute before he replied, and Jess was unsure if he had upset his friend. He needn’t have worried, because when Slim did look up at him again, he was misty eyed and wore a whimsical smile. “That’s where I always planned to build a house for myself and my future family. I took Eve up on the ridge to show her it and my heart was in my mouth in case she didn’t like it.”

Slim stopped speaking as he recalled that moment, so Jess prompted him,

“And did she?” he asked.

Smiling widely, Slim responded. “She loved it Jess. We talked and planned just how we where going to build that cabin . She is going to have a little flower garden in front and grow vegetables at the side of the cabin,” Slim went on to describe the plans he had made with Eve, not waiting for a response from the other man who sat across from him at the fire.

Jess was recalling that Slim had mentioned his plans for a new home with Eve once before, but Jess had been so blinded by jealousy and exhausted from over work, he had not listened. Instead the two of them had found themselves in a heated argument that had cumulated in Jess leaving the ranch for what he had intended as forever. His thoughts where pulled back to the present by Jonsey putting the plates down on the table none to quietly.

“You two finished reminiscing? I won’t be happy if after all my hard work you two jawing so much causes my meal spoil.”

Standing up, Jess lent forward and helped Slim from the rocker. He was please to note that his friend did not need too much support and made it to the table under his own steam. It re-assured him that Slim was indeed on the mend.

For the first five minutes, no one spoke as they chewed the food Jonsey had set before them. It may have just been a scrawny bush turkey and wild blackberries but given the meager supplies lately it tasted like a feast fit for a king.

Finally it was Jonsey that broke the silence.”I think I recall the spot you’re talking about, Slim. Your father thought about building a new house there when you were born, but you’re Mother would have none of it. She wanted to stay here, in their first house together.”

“Lucky for me, I guess. What do you think, Jess?” Slim turned to Jess, genuinely hoping that this time his friend would support his decision.

“Like I said, it’s a real nice spot,” Jess kept his voice neutral, as while he was now willing to accept Eve and Slim as husband and wife, the idea of Slim moving on left him with the negative thought of where he, Andy and Jonsey would fit in this new geography.

It was Jonsey, astutely picking up on the direction of Jess thoughts,  that prompted Slim to explain his plans further. “Well, I doubt Andy will want to settle here as a rancher Slim, and I’m getting older. Much as I hate to admit it, a few years from now, the Good Lord willing, I plan on moving back east to enjoy my remaining years staying with my sister. So what are you planning in that lovesick mind of yours, for this old place?  It may not be the Ritz, but it ain’t exactly a hovel either. It would be a shame to abandon it, and I know you wouldn’t approve of homesteaders on your land.”

Looking from one man to the other, Slim realized that apart from when he had thrown it out at Jess when they argued, he hadn’t really said what he hoped would happen in the future. “I thought, well I kinda thought, you would have known —“

“Known what, Slim,” Jess was vaguely recalling the last conversation they had on the subject of Slim and Eve’s future plans.

“I thought I had told you. This place, the ranch house is yours for as long as you want it. Yours, and your families in the future if you want it. You and I, our families, could work this place together, build it into something special. You could be a real partner if you wanted,” Slim stated, so matter of fact, Jess had a problem accepting what he had just heard.

“Did I hear you right?” he questioned

“What do you think you heard,” Slim asked obtusely, playfully teasing his best friend and enjoying the moment of fun after what had felt like months of angst and worry clouding their relationship.

“You’re offering me a share in the spread?” Jess voice was soft, uncertain.

“Don’t you think you deserve it? The ranch would have collapsed these past weeks without your help. Course you’d have to invest more than time in it when you can but think of what we could do. You always talked about wanting to breed horses, Jess. This is good land—it could be a cattle and horse breeding ranch.” Slim was really getting carried away now, and then realized that Jess was staring at him open mouthed, and even though Jonsey had an inkling that this had been Slims intention before he and Jess had argued, he to was looking bemused at Slim as he let his ideas and dreams flow forth. “Sorry, Jess, guess I got carried away. But promise me you would at least think about it, huh?” Slim reigned himself in as he took in the astonished stares of his adopted family.

Silence settled over the table as the immensity of Slim’s offer sank in. When Jess did not reply, Slim became anxious that he had pushed too hard, too fast. The blond rancher glanced quickly at Jonsey, seeking both support and guidance. All the wise old man did was nod briefly in Jess direction. Slim again turned to Jess, to find himself looking into two watery glazed eyes.

The younger man was never one to show emotion very much and was embarrassed by such open displays. He swallowed hard, fighting back the relief and gratitude that the enormity of the offer had induced. “ Sure, Slim. I’ll give it some thought,” was all he trusted himself to say.

Slim was wise enough not to push his friend further at this time, but also he suddenly found himself feeling emotionally drained. He tactfully changed the subject. “Say Jonsey. I’m feeling a mite tired now. Think you could save me a piece of that pie for later, with a coffee.”

“I told you not to over do it, Slim. Jess, you finish up your pie, and I’ll get old Bull-headed Slim back to bed. Leave the dishes, you’ve had a hard day. I’ll do them later,” then Jonsey was gone, trailing after Slim who was making an unsteady pathway towards his bed.

Alone at the table, Jess’ head was buzzing.

*****

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

That night, Jess reasoned he would sleep poorly, his mind overwhelmed by the immensity of Slims words. Jonsey had tried to push him for an indication of his answer before he to retired to bed and left an emotionally vulnerable Jess to process his churning thoughts.

Initially he had difficulty processing the very idea itself. Could Slim really have meant what he said? Had Jess heard and understood him correctly? Sitting alone by the fire , as it settled to a dull glow, left to burn down without further fuel, ready for being stirred to life again with the coming of dawn.

He rewound Slims words in his head, and eventually came to accept that Slim had indeed offered him a partnership in the ranch, closely tied to achieving his dream of breeding horses. Here was his chance to build the life he had only previously dared to dream of in his most lighthearted moments.

His previous confused emotions regarding Eve and Slims relationship had fully resolved, and Jess nodded to himself as he recognized that he no longer had feelings for Eve, other than being thankful for her kindness during the war. He now regarded her as a potential friend, someone he felt he could trust with Slims heart and future. He would be happy to see himself as a partner and accept Eve as Slims wife.

As he sat deep in thought, his own exhaustion crept up, and spurred on by the gentle glow of the fire, his heavy eyelids closed and his chin, unbidden, dipped to meet his chest.

The room was dark when he jerked awake, instantly alert, but unsure of what had woken him. His right hand, driven by habit, reached for a gun at his hip that was now, at Slims insistence, resting in its holster, hung by the door.

“You’d, better not be thinking of using that on me, if’n you want any coffee and breakfast in the morning,” a sleep roughened voice cajoled him from the bedroom door.

“Jonsey?” he asked, sheepishly, “Is it morning already?”

“Nowhere near,” the older man replied. “ Got woken up by a mountain lion roaring, then when I came out here for the rifle, I realized it was you, snoring fit to bust,”

Rubbing sleep from his eyes, Jess stood, stretching his back, trying to ease the cricks caused by his hunched position in the chair and muscle fatigue after a day in the saddle. “You sure it wasn’t yourself you heard?,” he quipped back at the older man. “Reckon I’ll head to my bunk and get myself a few hours shut eye before dawn.”

Jonseys voice suddenly took on a more serious tone. “Jess, you given Slims offer any thought?”

“Some,” Jess responded, none committedly, stepping towards the bedroom.

“Well?” Jonsey pushed.

Turning on his heel to again face Jonsey, Jess replied,” Slim made the offer, Jonsey, and he’ll be the first to know my decision,” then he turned again towards the bedroom.

“ You’d be a fool not to accept, Jess” Jonsey threw at his retreating back.

Mumbling under his breath, Jess spoke to himself.” I may be many things, but I reckon I sure ain’t no fool. Leastways, not now,” Then aloud, for Jonsey to hear, “See you in the morning, old man, and remember, I like my coffee strong and black,” then he was gone, away to his bunk.

Behind his back, a small smile touched Jonesy’s lips, under his breath, he spoke to himself, “I may be old, but my hearing ain’t given up yet. Guess that’d be a yes then.”

With lighter steps than he had taken in weeks, Jonsey practically skipped back to bed.

*****

CHAPTER NINETEEN

For what remained of that night, Jess slept well, his dreams filled with pleasant scenes, the comfort and security of having a place to call his own, horses bred to his own standards, a friend at his side to work with him towards a shared goal. For the first time since he was sixteen, there were no nightmares of fires, death and betrayal. No specters of loss and pain woke him in a cold sweat, with his body tense searching for the threat he sensed, real or imagined.

As the warm pinks of dawn lit the sky, Jess awoke, feeling more refreshed than he had in months if not years. Taking care not to wake Slim, he slipped from his bed, washed, shaved and dressed, before walking into the kitchen, drawn by the fresh smell of coffee.

Jonsey chose not to attempt to draw him again on the subject of the partnership. He reasoned he knew the answer already, even though Jess had not voiced it aloud. Instead he handed the younger man a mug of black coffee and a plate of biscuits and eggs. “Here, best get that down you while it’s still warm.”

“Thanks, Jonsey,” the younger man replied, taking the offering and sitting down at the table  “ I don’t reckon I’ll be back till late. I need to head down towards the far lake to repair fences. Think you can pack me some food?”

“Sure, son, but are you going to speak to Slim before you go? Jonsey enquired as he started to rummage around the kitchen to put together some food for Jess.

“He’s still asleep, Jonsey, and you’d be the first to say he needs his rest.”

Returning to stand in front of Jess,  Jonsey quirked an eyebrow at Jess as he devoured his eggs and biscuits with gusto. “In other words you don’t feel like answering any awkward questions,”  he stated.

“I ain’t justifying that with an answer,” Jess spoke around his last mouthful.

“Are those victuals ready?”

Jonsey thrust a small package under Jess’ nose.  “Here. It’s the last of the biscuit batch. And before you ask, I’ll make fresh for Slim. I’ve put some coffee makings in there too, to help keep you awake.”

This time Jess smiled as he took the offering.” You sure know me well. Thanks Jonsey.”

The younger man stood and grabbing his hat and gun belt, headed for the barn and his waiting horse. As he went through the door, a pang of guilt caused him to pause. Turning he graced Jonsey with a cheeky grin. “I’ll talk to him tonight, Jonsey. Stop your fretting. I really do have a heap of work today, and no time to divert with billie do’s. Slim’s bound to ask if’n I see him, and I don’t want to disappoint him.”

“Fair enough, son. But you make sure you have that talk with him tonight. If’n you don’t he’ll likely bust a gut worrying on your decision along with everything else.”

As he exited the ranch house, Jess replied, “All right, you win old man, I wouldn’t want to set old hard rock back again and give him an excuse to pine in bed any longer than necessary.”

He was gone across the yard before an aggravated but secretly pleased Jonsey could splutter a reply.

*****

It did prove to be a long day, fixing fences that proved to be more damaged than first thought, and herding cattle back to the safer areas, away from the crevice crossed scrub land that they had strayed to.

“Ornery critters seem hell bent on breaking legs and starving to death. Beats me how such stupid critters can always manage to find the parts of the fence that are weakest.” Jess spoke to no one in particular as he lent forward in the saddle and rubbed his horses sweating neck. “Its all right , Traveller. I’ll make sure you get some extra hay tonight and a good rub down.”

The horse gave a soft whinny and tossed his head as if he understood and agreed with every word his rider spoke.

The horse now stood atop a rise, and Jess stood up in the stirrups to survey the work he had done. The fence stretched into the distance, straight and strong, and the cattle were wandering away across the richer Sherman grass lands, heading towards the lake and relative safety.

During his time in the ‘Great Open’ Jess had often kept his own company, sometimes by choice, but most often due to necessity and circumstances. He had experienced betrayal and disappointment; sometimes by people he had considered close friends. He had learnt hard lessons that taught him that he could only really trust his own judgment and never place himself at the mercy of another. Throughout the day, as he worked, his mind kept revisiting Slims offer. If he had understood what was on offer correctly, then it would seem to be a chance he would be foolish to turn his back on. The hard lessons of the past were not easily forgotten, and yet, in his short time at the Sherman ranch and relay station, he had found stability, security and a feeling of belonging that he had not experienced since he had been a child at the shareholder cabin his birth family called home.

“So what do you think, Traveller? Is it time to put down roots and take a chance?” again the horse seemed to toss its head in a positive response.” If’n I keep on riding the big open, the way things have been going, I’ll end up either an owlhoot or dead, cause there is always some one faster out there looking to make a name for themselves.” His dark head dipped as he reached up and readjusted his dust covered hat, to give better shade to his eyes. The horse stood still as Jess again ran through all the thoughts that had been running around his head like stampeding cattle for most of the day. It wasn’t that he doubted Slim Sherman’s offer, or the fatherly concern that Jonsey delivered, albeit in a gruff and sometimes abrasive manner. He knew he could trust them. Should he choose to take up the offer, they would have his back. He knew with a certainty that despite any disagreements that may happen, and he acknowledge that they would happen, given his own volatile nature and Slims stubborn streak and strict sense of right and wrong, those at the ranch would still stand by and support him. For the first time in his troubled life his future could be secure.

But his old life came with its own payload of problems,  that sometimes seemed determined to catch up and take him down, along with any that stood with him. “And that’s the problem, isn’t it Trav? If I stay, I may put them at risk too.” He turned in the saddle, his piercing blue eyes focusing on the herd of cattle heading deeper into the ranch’s territory. “Those critters sure seem to know the way back home, after their little adventure. The ranch feels like home to me now, too. I want to stay and take up Slims offer, but he needs to understand the risk to him, Andy and Jonsey first. I can’t risk them and losing more family.” As he said the words, he realized that family was exactly how he now considered them all.

Gently he pulled on the reins and turned Travelers’ head towards the ranch house. “Reckon I can’t put this off any longer. I need to talk to Slim and then let him know my decision”

As the ranch house came into view, Traveller lifted his head and his pace quickened.  “You feel it to, don’t you, old pal. That call to come home.” He pushed his knees gently into the horse’s side and let him gallop forward to the yard.

*****

CHAPTER TWENTY

In the ranch house, Jonsey heard the fast-approaching hooves, and the chickens clucking in distress at being disturbed. He stepped out onto the porch and threw a scowl in Jess’ direction. “Don’t you put those hens of laying, you hear,” he stated. Then he allowed himself a smile as he continued, “There’s a fresh pot of coffee on the stove and supper will be on the table in ten minutes, so get yourself cleaned up.”

Giving a mock salute, Jess dismounted and led his horse towards the stable. “Got to rub Traveller down first and give him some well-earned feed. He’s earned his keep today.”

Jonsey turned back into the house, nodding to himself. He acknowledged that it was a good man that put his mounts needs before his own. Jonsey may not like horses, but he knew that a horse could mean life or death out here.

The moment Jonsey re-entered, he was greeted by an eager Slim Sherman. The blond had been sitting dozing by the fire. Jonsey had allowed him to get up for an hour in the morning and then again this afternoon, so that he could join Jess at supper and catch up on the news himself.

All day he had badgered Jonsey to see if Jess had hinted at any decision regarding the partnership Slim had proposed, and when that hadn’t gotten any answers, the ailing blonde had wanted to know why Jess hadn’t woke him before he left to see if Slim had any messages for Eve.

Finally, exasperated, Jonsey had told Slim to pipe down or he would put himself at risk of a relapse and be confined to bed even longer. He had told Slim that Jess had left early as there where fences down and stray cattle dangerously close to the ravines. The rancher in Slim, lovesick as he was, at least acknowledged that the cattle were a priority, especially when Jonsey had angrily defended Jess, admonishing Slim for expecting too much from the already overworked younger man, in pushing him to act as a courier everyday. Slim had hung his head guiltily, acknowledging Jonseys words.

Now, however, Slim had also heard the commotion in the yard and he was eager to speak with Jess, and to hear if he had made his choice. In Slims mind, the choice was made, Jess would become a full partner, putting down roots and driving in stakes at the Sherman ranch, finally accepting he was part of their family.

He looked up expectantly but as Jonsey re-entered alone, his bright smile slipped from his face. “Where’s Jess?” he asked, his irritation showing in his voice.

“You know how Jess is about horses, especially Traveller. He’s getting him settled in the barn. He’ll be in soon enough.”

Once more a smile touched Slims face. “Of course, that’s part of what I admire in him. He puts his horse’s welfare before his own.”

With a short hurrumph of acknowledgement, Jonsey returned to setting the table, and then helped Slim stand and move to take a seat at his place in the table. He had placed a steaming mug of coffee in front of Slim, and then returned a few minutes latter with a plate of chicken and dumplings, which he also put in front of Slim.

“Aren’t we waiting for Jess?” the blond head swiveled between the plate and the older man.

“He’ll be in shortly, and he eats twice as fast as you even when you’re fit, so he’ll soon catch up.” Jonsey quipped as he returned to the kitchen.

Slims handsome face split into a grin.” Reckon he does at that. Guess we’ll need to start buying extra rations when he becomes a partner.”

“Been doing that already, Slim. But I got to admit he works hard enough to build that appetite.”  Just at that point the front door swung open and a tired and dusty Jess stepped through.

He hurriedly placed his hat on the hook by the door, and then his gun belt shortly joined it, in deference to Slim’s house rules.

“Looks like I’m just in time. I washed most of the dust of in the trough outside,” he stated as he stepped towards the table and pulled out a chair. Jonseys eyes swept over the still dusty man, but seeing his hands at least looked clean, he said nothing. Instead he went back to the kitchen only to return with another mug of black coffee and a plate heaped with chicken and dumplings.

Jess pulled out a chair and sat down opposite Slim. “Looks good, Jonsey. I gotta say you make a good chicken and dumplings. Which of your prized egg layers paid the ultimate price? I thought you wanted to keep the flock intact for now on account of the eggs being a good source of food.”

Jonsey was back in the kitchen at this point, filling his own plate. He turned slightly to address Jess, observing that the dark-haired man already had a mouthful with a second fork full heading in the same direction.

“ I did, but there was a critter, likely a coyote, nosing around these last few nights and that there meal you are enjoying likely upped and died of a heart attack some time last night. I found it when I was out collecting the eggs early this morning, and there where some animal prints around , but the carcass was fresh and hadn’t been touched. Waste not want not, is what I say.”

Speaking around his third mouthful, Jess mumbled his agreement. Slim poked his fork in Jess general direction but turned towards Jonsey who was now also sitting down with his own, less full plate in front of him. “What’s this favoritism. He’s got twice as much as me.”

“If’n you clear that plate, there’s more in the pan, but that’s more than you have eaten in a week,” Jonsey admonished, before returning his gaze to his own plate and starting to eat.

Slim glanced at Jess and raised his eyebrows, about to comment further, but instead thought better of it and instead returned to eating. Silence reigned for a few short minutes, and Slim had managed to chew his way solely through half his plate before he looked up again to see Jess place his fork onto the plate and push himself back in his chair, a contented sight escaping his lips.

“That was sooo good,” he sighed. “Remind me to thank that coyote or whatever next time it comes nosing around.”

“You want some more?” the provider of the feast asked, pleased that his efforts where being appreciated.

Jess shook his head in the negative, his black hair falling across his eyes. With a lazy movement he raised his hand to push it back. “Nah, but more of that coffee would sure be welcome.”

Jonsey went to stand but Jess placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and spoke again. “You stay put and finish up. Reckon I can manage to pour myself another cup of the good stuff. How about you, hard rock?” he questioned, looking directly at Slim.

“Coffee, yes. I guess that I have to admit I’m struggling with the chicken though,” the blonde replied, lifting his mug towards Jess, who took it from his grasp. As Jonsey shot him a sharp glance, Slim hastily added, “ Nothing wrong with the chicken, Jonsey, its just that my stomach seems to have shrunk.”

Jonsey nodded sagely tempted to say ‘I told you so’ but instead simply tried to encourage his charge to at least finish his current plateful. “Just eat that last bit. I can’t abide wasting food when currently it’s a struggle to make it go around. What’s left in the pan can keep till tomorrow and I will make a broth from the bone and left overs.”

At that point Jess returned with the coffee and place a second mug in front of Slim. “Didn’t think I’d see the day when ol’ Slim here failed to clear his plate. You got to be careful, Pard, you get any thinner and you’ll earn the name ‘Slim’” he teased.

“You stick around for a while, Jess, and with your appetite, I will be Slim, compared to you,” the weakened man managed to tease back. It was a sure sign of some returning strength, when he could push back against the younger mans teasing. Then his face became serious as he decided it was time to ask the question that had been at the back of his mind all day. He knew that it wasn’t always wise to push Jess into a corner, but he had struggled with the idea all day, and could not, to his way of thinking, find a reason for Jess to decline the offer of a partnership in the ranch and a chance to succeed in his dream of breeding horses.

Slim had some insight into Jess past, perhaps not in as much detail as he would like but getting Jess to open up was never easy. Slim was perhaps one of a few men , if maybe the only one, to get this close to the man that was behind the persona Jess presented to the world. To Slims way of thinking, he was offering Jess his dreams, and, even allowing for the others reluctance to commit, surely by now Jess could see he belonged here, and Slim regarded him as a brother. Slim had waited long enough, his excitement and need to push forward in his plans for the future, would wait no longer.

“So, Jess, are you ready to give me an answer regarding the partnership,” he prompted.

Jonsey paused, a forkful of chicken midway between plate and mouth, as he joined Slim to look expectantly at Jess. He hadn’t expected Slim to jump in with both feet in the midst of dinner, but he had, so now there was no way of going back.

Two pair of blue eyes locked together over the table, as Jess slowly lowered his coffee mug back to the table.

“I’ve thought of nothing else since you brought it up last night,”  came the quiet reply.

“And?” prompted Slim, a trace of his former strength and determination in his voice.

Jess hesitated, his worries about his past still haunting him. “Look, Slim, it’s everything I’ve ever wanted, but—”

“No buts, Jess, just say yes,”

“Slim, it ain’t so simple, you have—”

“Jess, are you happy here with me, Andy and Jonsey? I know Andy adores you, and to me, well you have become the best friend and brother I could have wished for. I trust you with my life. In fact I have trusted you with my life, several times, as I recall. Even Ol’ Jonsey , though he wont say it, thinks of you like a son. Just say yes, and we can all relax and get on with life. I cant think of any valid reason for you to hesitate about this, unless its—“ Slim hesitated, and then drew a deep breath , before continuing, “ unless you have doubts about us, about me, after all that’s happened recently, with me and Eve.”

Jonsey sensed the desperation in Slims last words and was also aware of Jess rising tension and anxiety as he watched the tell tale flex and release of his long fingers as his hands rested on the table. He spoke across the rising tension of the two men. “Maybe Jess needs longer to think on it, Slim and maybe it would be better for the two of you to discuss this in private.” Then he turned towards Jess specifically, before continuing. “Jess, for what its worth, I would be happy to welcome you here as a partner. I’ve seen the positive effect you have had on Andy and Slim. The ranch has improved with your help. But, I understand you may have your reasons for hesitating. I’ll go lock up the hens for the night and leave you two to talk about it.”

Jonsey stood to leave, but Jess reached out and took hold of his arm. “No, stay. I reckon what I have to say involves you as well. After I’ve spoken, Slim, you may want to reconsider your offer.” Jess let out a deep sigh and his shoulders dropped. After a few seconds to allow himself to gather his warring emotions, Jess started to speak.

*****

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Once the flood gates had opened, Jess had found himself unable to stop, and the two listeners had wisely chosen to keep quite and let him open his heart, uninterrupted. The dark-haired gunfighter with a troubled past and emotions he kept deeply buried, finally let out the angst, concerns, regrets and, yes, fears, he had about his past, and how it could possibly impact drastically on his future. More importantly, on how it would, in Jess’ perception, negatively effect the future of those at the Sherman Ranch that he had come to feel so protective of, and close to.

Finally, with a heavy sigh, he dropped his head towards the table and concluded,” So, you see, I can’t stay here, no matter how much I want to take up your offer. I can’t, won’t endanger any of you.”

A sudden scrapping of chair legs on the rough floor made Jess look up. As he raised his head he found that Slim had pushed himself up onto his feet, his fisted hands pushing heavily against the tabletop. Slim’s light blue eyes, burned with a fierce intensity as he stirred at Jess. When he spoke, his voice was tight with suppressed anger.

“How dare you?” Slim spoke, his voice belying his bodies weakness.  “How dare you make a decision for Jonsey, Andy and me. Last I looked we where all consenting, intelligent adults, even Andy is mature for his age.” His eyes now locked onto Jess deeper blue orbs, holding them in a fierce gaze. “You don’t get to make that call. We know a lot about your past, and your reputation. Some from what you told us, some from hearsay, Mort and those troubles from the past that have come calling. I know the man you really are Jess Harper. You’re a man I trust to have my back, to protect Andy and Jonsey with your life.” At this point he glanced at Jonsey for support and received a nod of agreement and a gesture to carry on. “Look Jess, this wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. I had thought about offering you a partnership even before I met Eve. You helped pull the ranch out of a tight spot with the bank by using that reward money you got a few months back to pay a large part of the loan. And I know you said you didn’t like blood money, so it was best that way, but to my mind that bought you a stake in the ranch.”

At this point, Slim wavered on his feet, staggering to the side slightly as the adrenaline that had spurred him on began to burn out, along with his indignation. Both Jonsey and Jess jumped up to catch him, but the younger man reached him first and gently guided Slim back down into his chair.

Jess took the opportunity to speak as Slim struggled to regain his composure and Jonsey looked on with concern, observing both men. Spots of red burned on Jess cheeks, and yet his complexion was pale. Jonsey was unsure how the often-volatile Jess would respond to Slims harangue, and stood ready to intervene for the sake of both men. He was totally surprised at Jess’ next words.

“I—I didn’t realize, Slim. I—I never even thought that you had planned the partnership for so many months. But it doesn’t change how I feel about putting your lives at risk with my troubles.”

Seated, and recovering some of his strength, Slim responded, his voice now softer. “Stop right there, Jess, and think. Sure, there have been problems that came calling after you, but there have been just as many ‘troubles’ from Jonseys, and my own past, even from Andy’s need to show us he was an adult.  My mother used to say you couldn’t enjoy the sun without experiencing some rainstorms. The rain makes the warmth of the sun all the sweeter.”

“He’s right, Jess. Remember when you had to come find me when I ran of to try and find a fortune in gold. I was a fool, and at my age should have known better, but thanks to you, it worked out in the end.”Jonsey chipped in helpfully.

The red spots on Jess cheeks where cooling, and his breathing slowed as he considered the two men’s words.

Seeing the emotional storm pass, Slim continued.” The way I see it Jess, you have saved our butts more often that you have placed any of us at risk. I can’t think of anyone I would rather have at my side, like a brother, to make this ranch one of the best in the territory. Jonsey can’t keep up these days with the range work and Andy’s made it clear he wants to go back east to study and doesn’t really have an interest in ranching. As a matter of fact it was Andy that first suggested I offer you a partnership.”

“He did?” escaped a surprised Jess.

“He sure did,” Jonsey affirmed, “and I told him it was a darn good one.

“You did?” Jess mouth was hanging open in surprise that even old Jonsey had approved the offer.

“Yeah, well, just close your mouth and stop looking like a fish out of water. Even I could see you where good for this ranch and for Slim. I just ain’t inclined to go bragging on it.” Jonsey admonished.

Jess closed his mouth rapidly as Slim again spoke, his voice now weaker as his recent brush with death wore him down. “So what do you say Jess. It will mean lots of hard work and commitment, but I know you aren’t afraid of that. We will take on whatever comes together, no matter whose past comes calling, or whatever the future throws at us. I believe, no, I know, that together we will overcome it. We’ll have each others’ back, and there is nobody I would trust with the ranch or my life, more than you.” Slim paused and again locked eyes with Jess, “So what do you say , Jess, you and I, as partners, building up this ranch to be one of the best in the territory.”

Uncertainty hung in the air as all three men sat in silence for what felt like an eternity. Finally Jess looked from one to another, seeing the trust and caring intensity in their eyes. His face serious, he spoke “ I’m sorry, Slim” both Slim and Jonsey lifted their heads, the worry lines increasing as Jess continued to speak. “I really am sorry for all the concern I’ve caused, but if you mean what you say, I guess the answer has to be yes.”

At his words, a heavy weight seemed to lift from the room and all three men released the breaths they where holding.

“Good,” Slim was the first to respond,” Now, before I relapse, Jonsey will you pass me that old tin I keep on the desk.”

Jonsey stood and headed to the desk, returning promptly with a battered old tin Slim kept papers in.”You mean this one, Slim?”

“Yep, that would be the one,” the blond rancher fumbled to open the tin, but finally managed it. He removed a carefully folded paper, which he removed with a florish, and pushed across the table towards a bemused Jess.”Here.”

“What’s this? I can’t promise to deliver your love note tomorrow, but I will try,” Jess stated, confused by the sudden change in subject matter.

For a brief moment, Slim also looked confused, and then realized what the misunderstanding was.”Oh, no, it’s not my letter to Eve, that’s on the bedside table, since Jonsey’s practically kept me prisoner in there all day. This one is for you. Well, it’s two actually, one each, we’ll need to go to Laramie and visit the bank and the solicitor to fully ratify it, but these will do for now.”

Jonsey noticed how Slim was beginning to slump more, his exhaustion becoming more visible as the adrenaline and urgency of the situation began to lessen.

“Slim, maybe we should get you back to bed now,” the old retainer suggested.

“Thanks Jonsey, but not yet,” he turned towards Jess, whose dark head was dipped to study the two identical papers. “What do you say, Pard. They are identical and straight foreword agreements on a partnership of the ranch. Do you want more time to read them, or are you ready to sign?” Slim was eager to get the deal sealed before Jess could find any more reasons, no matter how genuine, to refuse. Of course he knew Jess could still turn tail in the future if things got too much, but he knew that would not be Jess’ way. Once he committed, he would see it through, and not let them down.

Although Jess could read and write, he was not much for legal jargon and complicated wording. For this reason, Slim had ensured these initial documents where straightforward and simply worded.

Jess looked up from the documents, “Seems straightforward enough, Slim. You already had these drawn up?”

“Months ago, like I said. This wasn’t a spur of the moment choice. I was waiting for the right moment to broach the subject.” Slims eyes got a glazed look. “It was before I met Eve, actually, but then all plans sort of got lost, what with the influenza, and things.”

Jess knew that the ‘and things’ referred to how their relationship had soured due to his own confused feelings over Eve, and his past history with her. But all that was in the past, and the issue resolved. It was time to look to the future. However, he could not help one last doubt. “You really sure about this, Slim?”

“As sure as I am of the plans I have for this ranch and my future with Eve. One day you will meet the perfect woman for yourself, and our two families will build a ranch to be proud of, one of the best in the territory,” Slim’s eyes got dreamy again as he started to expound on the future as he saw it.

“Well, I guess that’s something only time will tell. I ain’t met the woman yet that can tie me down. Where do I sign?”

Jonsey had briefly returned to the desk, and now stood next to Jess, ink pot and quill in hand. “Here, I guess you’ll be needing this.” He placed the objects in front of Jess.

Slim reached across the table and pointed with a shaking hand to the two spaces at the bottom of the pages. “Right there, I’ve already signed them.”

For a totally different reason to Slim’s, Jess hand also shook as he picked up the quill, dipped it in the ink and signed his name on each paper. He passed one copy back to Slim , who placed it back in the tin. The other Jess folded neatly and placed in his jacket pocket. “I guess that’s it, then, no going back. I ain’t much good at speechifying, so best I just say thank you.  You have changed the direction of my life.”

Slim gave a gentle laugh, “That works both ways, Pard. Thank you for helping me move forward with my dreams.”

Seeing the emotion about to overwhelm both men, Jonsey broke the tension.

“Right, now that’s finally put to bed, lets get you back to bed.” He moved to help a physically and emotional exhausted Slim back to bed to rest.

“Wait, Jess, can you give me a hand? I have that note to give you , If’n you could manage to deliver it tomorrow, and I don’t want to fall asleep and forget to give it you before you head out tomorrow.”

Jess nodded and stood to help Slim. He took his arm over his shoulder and practically lifted him as he helped the weakened man move on heavy legs back to his bed. He sat him down as Slim said, I’ll just sit here for a few minutes, Jonsey will be in to help me change. You look about done in to.”

“I plan on sticking close to the ranch tomorrow, to do some of the chores around here, but don’t worry, I’ll find time to get your love note up to the ridge. We can’t have you going down hill due to being lovesick now, can we?” Jess teased.

Thrusting a carefully folded note into Jess hands, Slim quipped a reply, “Very funny.” Then he went serious, “Thank you, for the note and for all you have been doing to keep us from going under.  Oh, and Jess, one last thing. Although that agreement didn’t state it, I expect my business partner to be my best man at my wedding.”

Both embarrassed and pleased, Jess stammered a reply as he left the bedroom, Slim’s love note tucked into his pocket alongside the partnership agreement.

“I’d be honored, Pard,” and even as he said it, he accepted it as true, with any of his last feelings for Eve finally set to rest.

*****

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

The next day, after cleaning the barn and replacing a rotten coral post, Jess did indeed find the time to take Slim’s note up to the ridge and place it in the tin. The last note from Eve had contained a locket with her picture, but this time there was no note. That wasn’t surprising as she would be awaiting a note from Slim first. Jess carefully placed it in the tin and headed back down to the ranch with a light heart. Despite the horror of the situation around him, life was looking better than it had done for a long time.

A few miles out from the ranch, Jess noted that Traveller was favoring his right foreleg. Dismounting, he lifted the offending limb to inspect it.

“Darn it, Traveller, you’ve got a shoe loose.” He spoke gently as he stroked the horses flank, soothing the animal. Taking the small pocketknife he always carried, he gently pried the shoe free completely. “Guess I’d better let you rest that leg.  It looks a little bruised.” He raised his head, his sharp blue eyes scanning the clear sky.” It’s a nice day for a walk, luckily, and only a few miles to go.”

Picking up the horses trailing reins, he started to walk at a steady pace towards the place that he now accepted was his home, after the events of the previous night. As he walked he continued to talk to his horse, as was his habit after years on the trail with only his mount for company.

“So, Trav, how do you cotton to the idea of us settling down in one place. Reckon it ain’t gonna be easy at first, after all this time it’s just been you and I,” The horse’s head dipped as if to acknowledge this statement. Jess remained silent for a short while and then spoke aloud again as another thought surfaced from the many he was processing through.  “It’ll be scary at first. It’s been a long time since I had a family and a place to call home, but the more I think on it, the more sure I am of signing that there contract. Think of it, Trav, I am a partner in a ranch now, and my partner is the one man I have met that is as honest as the day is long. He’ll always have my back and likewise I’ll have his.” Jess face broke into a gentle grin, “Don’t tell anyone this, old friend, but I’ve finally found a place I’m proud to hang my hat, and a man I’m proud to call a brother as well as friend.”

The horse gave a soft snicker, and despite its sore hoof, actually started to pick up speed. “You feel it to, old friend, the pull of home. Come on, lets see how fast we can get there. No doubt ol’ Slim will be fretting and waiting on our return.” Jess started to walk faster, as the road to the ranch came in sight. “He sure is a worrier, but, you know, it’s kinda nice to know there is someone waiting on us, and worrying on our safe return”

Then Jess stopped talking and quickened his pace further as the ranch house came into view.

Back in the ranch house, Slim had slept in late, and accepted the scrambled eggs and biscuits Jonsey had brought to him in bed. Knowing that Jess had his note for Eve and intended to deliver it had put his anxiety about that to rest. He didn’t expect a reply for at least another day, as no doubt Eve would want to read his reply first. Now, throughout the afternoon, he had sat in the rocker by the fire, occasionally dozing, but more often awake as the afternoon wore on, as he listened for the sound of hooves that would signal Jess’ return.

Earlier Slim had discussed the previous evenings revelations with Jonsey.

“I knew that boy had a tough history,” Jonsey had commented first,” But I hadn’t suspected it had been as tough as that. I can kinda understand some of the way he has reacted over these past months, given the way he always seems to have found the bad apples in the barrel, and even been fooled by them, even if only temporarily.”

“Truth be told, Jonsey,” Slims blue orbs held a wisdom and understanding beyond his years, “I’m surprised he even told us what he did. He’s a man who keeps his emotions deep within and values his privacy. Given his history, that doesn’t surprise me.”

“When he first came here, he seemed like most saddle tramps, perhaps worse, given his skill and rep wit a gun. He had trouble riding his back and I didn’t trust him or the baggage he brought with him,” Jonsey confessed. “ I wasn’t sure you where in you’re right mind when you asked him to stay on and help at the ranch.”

Slim gave a soft laugh. “That sure was how he looked on first impressions. It was only Andy who was able to see through the façade he presented to the world. It took him saving my life and the payroll from the Carling gang, for me to see his true colors.”

Handing Slim a cup of coffee, Jonsey added his thoughts.” I’ll admit, even after that I wasn’t quick to warm to him. He was just a mite too reluctant to give anything away about his past. That changed though, over time, and although until last night we still didn’t know much about his past, I liked what I saw in the man as he worked here. I liked how he brought you and Andy closer together, and he has been the only person I know who has been able to get you to let loose and stop being so straight laced.”

Slim lifted his head from his coffee cup,” What do you mean, I’m straight laced. I can let loose and have fun with the best of them,” he said indignantly.

With a wise shake of his head, Jonsey responded, “ Sorry to pull the rug out from under that idea Slim, but you where as stiff as a starched shirt, and no fun at all. I can’t say I blame you for it. You suddenly had Andy to raise and a ranch to run after your parents died, it couldn’t have been easy.  Many a man would have cut and run with all those responsibilities, but you took them on and stood tall. You’ve done a fine job raising Andy and keeping this ranch going. Its just that a man your age needs to let loose occasionally. It ain’t normal to be so up tight.”

Slim kept silent for a few minutes, thinking on what Jonsey had said. Finally, having sipped his way through the coffee, he spoke again. “Well, Jess sure has a way of getting the most fun out of life when the opportunity occurs, and I’ll admit I’m looking forward to our trips into town, when things settle back to normal.”

“Eve, may have a few words to say about that, Slim,” the older man said sagely.

“It’s okay, Jonsey. We already talked. She knows Jess needs someone around to rein him in and have his back, she’s okay with me riding herd on him on any forays into town, within reason of course.”

“She sounds like a mighty fine understanding woman, Slim. Beats me what she sees in you,” Jonsey teased, “To agree to letting you have a few drinks in town with a trouble magnet like Jess. Speaking of that dark-haired saddle bum, I think we still have a lot more revelations to come from him, when he is ready.  Those still waters run mighty deep.”

“I’m just glad he opened up last night and we were able to talk him around. This ranch and partnership is heading for great things in the future. Did you know I discussed my plans for the partnership with Eve, after she had agreed to marry me, cause in a way, he would be a partner with her too. I was getting worried about how he seemed to avoid her, but all that seems to have resolved now, thank the Lord. I wonder if we’ll ever find out what that was about.”

“Dunno, Slim, but whatever it was, it seems to have resolved itself. We may never find out, and its best not to poke the sleeping dog. So, what did Eve say regarding the partnership?” Jonsey queried from the kitchen where he was preparing a fresh pot of coffee for Jess return.

“She said she thought it was a grand idea, and she wouldn’t dream of coming between me and Jess. She even said she felt she knew him from sometime in her past but couldn’t recall. Only said that she had a good feeling about him and could see he was good for me.”

“You hang on to her, Slim. There aren’t many women around like that. Most I’ve found always want to change you and make you cut of all your old ties. Why do you think I never married?They are too darn interfering as a rule.”

Slim burst out laughing, “You sound just like Jess,with his fast horse and a quick get away, as far as women are concerned. You mark my words, the right woman will come around for Jess one day to. That’s how I see us, our two families working the ranch together.”

In the kitchen, Jonsey stirred the revitalized stew left over from the night before. “Well don’t push that idea too much on Jess, or he’ll be tearing up that partnership agreement and high tailing it for the big open.”

Slim was beginning to feel tired now and stifled a yawn. “So how long till supper, and what is it anyway. Its smells a lot like last nights left over’s?”

“That’s cause it is left overs. The larder isn’t as well stocked, and I cant just take a trip into Laramie right now, can I, least not till Mort says the people have stopped getting sick, and opens up the town again.” Jonsey responded.

“I may need to ask Jess to butcher a beef, if this keeps up much longer.”

“I’d rather we didn’t lose another head of cattle. We’re going to need all the money they will bring in when we can take them to the rail head. Anyway, when do we eat? I’m feeling kinda tired now,” Slim admitted.

“Glad to hear you at least admitting it. I’m waiting on Jess, then I’ll serve up. But you can eat now, and head to bed if you want,” Jonsey offered.

“No, I’ll hang on. And before you say it, I know there won’t be a reply from Eve, but it’s getting kinda late, and Jess should be back by now,” came the determined reply from Slim, who was fighting to keep his head up.

“There you go again, worrying on every little thing. You know Jess, something will have distracted him. He’ll be back soon enough,” Jonsey stated adamantly.

As if on cue the two men heard the sound of horse hooves entering the yard. The sound seemed to invigorate Slim, who had stood and gone to the door before Jonsey could intervene.

The tall blonde lent heavily against the door post as he watched Jess enter the coral, leading a hobbling Traveller. The dusty Jess glanced towards Slim and tipped his hat, shouting across “I’ll be in soon as I’ve seen to Traveller, okay hard rock, and then you can lambast me for being late.”

Then he headed straight into the barn. He knew Slim was only at the door out of concern for his welfare, and it warmed his heart to know he had a friend and family that cared, but there was no way he was going to let on about his feelings, covering his vulnerability with bravado.

Relieved that his new partner and best friend was home safe, with nothing worse than a slightly lame horse to account for his lateness, Slim returned to settle at the table and await supper, feeling more relaxed.

“You ready to eat now, Slim?” Jonsey asked.”Then you can head to bed.”

“No, I’ll wait till Jess joins us,” came a slurred reply.  “I want to catch up with him.”

Jonsey harrumphed from the small kitchen as he stirred the stew he had made from yesterday’s left overs.  “You’re hoping on a billi do from Eve. Don’t get your hopes up.”

Slim rallied enough at the tart comment to snap back.” Nope, I just want to get some real man’s conversation, instead of an old woman moaning on about chores and supplies”

Jonsey stormed in to slam down empty plates on the table and waved a stew covered spoon threateningly in Slims direction. “Where’d you two be, huh, without this old woman’s lollygagging.”

Another voice joined the bantering, “Whos’ lollygagging? Jonsey, is Hard Rock giving you trouble today? Just say the word and I’ll hog tie him and return him to bed.” Jess spoke as he hung his saddlebags and hat, along with the requisite gun belt, by the door.

“Makes a change for it to be the other way round then,” Slim quipped back, then added,” I was getting worried. Trouble on the trail?”

It warmed Jess’ heart to know his delayed return had been noted, and even worried on, but he wasn’t going to let on. “ Nope, Traveller through a shoe. Ive settled him down for now and rubbed some horse liniment on his bruised foreleg. I’ll go out after supper and make sure he is properly seen to.” Pulling out the chair opposite to Slim, he sat down. “I’ll re-shoe him tomorrow morning, but I will have to take another mount out for a few days, so he can rest up.” As he spoke, Jess was mentally thinking through the merits of the few spare horses they had available, mainly the ones they had for changing out the relay teams, when the stage had been running before the epidemic. They were not the most ideal candidates for herding cows and riding the fence line, but they would have to do. He was sure going to miss Traveller over the next few days.

As if reading his mind, Slim spoke up,” Take Alamo, he could do with a workout. Other than in the coral he’s been confined to quarters for a good time now.”

Jonsey almost dropped the pot of coffee he had been carrying to the table in shock. Alamo was a one-man horse, big and strong willed, but he was Slims pride and joy.

Jess looked up, equally surprised.”B—but he’s your horse, Slim.”

“Yeah, and I know he can be a handful, but he’s a good horse and you’re one of the best horse men I have ever met. If anyone can handle him, it’d be you,” the blonde smiled across at his new partner, “and besides, you’d be doing me a favor. If’n he doesn’t get a good workout soon, he’ll be kicking down the barn door, and that’ll mean more work for you to do.”

A wide grin of appreciation spread across Jess face, “Well sure, if’n you put it like that, I can do you that favor. I’ve ridden him before, that time when he came in spooked after throwing you, when I used him to back track to find your ornery carcass. Reckon he sure will be the pick of the bunch until Traveller’s fit to be ridden again.”

“Good, that settled then, now lets eat.” Slim concluded as he tucked into the plate of stew Jonsey had placed in front of him as he and Jess had talked.

Jess dipped his head and plunged his fork into the rehashed stew. He looked at the forkful with a degree of distaste. “Chicken minus the dumplings this time” he stated grumpily.

“Eat it and be grateful. I ain’t sacrificing any more chickens if’n I can help it. If this carries on much longer though, you two ranchers may have to consider losing some of your anticipated profit and slaughter a beef.”

“Maybe I can help,” Jess pushed his chair back and fetched his saddle bags to the table. Like a veritable magician, he pulled two rabbits out of the bags.” These two where running around up on the ridge when I went to deliver your note.”

Jonsey hurriedly took the offering and left the table to place them in the cool cupboard in the kitchen. “Well how about that. Bunny mulligan tomorrow, then rabbit pie. May even get a good meaty soup from them.”

It was a happier looking Jonsey that returned to his meal at the table.

“Just you wait till you taste his Bunny Mulligan, Jess. Its one of his few true culinary masterpieces,” Slim announced.

Jonsey knew Slim was baiting him but was just so pleased to have some extra rations for his larder that he returned to eating the chicken stew without further comment.

Slim’s blue eyes fixed on Jess expectantly, as the younger man once again started to eat. He became aware of Slims stare, and looked up, his fork paused halfway between plate and mouth “What?” he queried.

“You mentioned you’d been up to the ridge to deliver my note. Was there anything for me?” Slim asked, hoping against hope that Eve had made it back to their rendezvous twice in just a few days.

“Sorry , Slim, I thought I’d said. There was nothing in the tin, so I just left yours. I’m sure there will be something next time though,” he glanced at Jonsey for support, but he was too busy eating to comment.

“Yeah, its okay, Jess, I wasn’t really expecting anything but, well, ya know—,” his voice trailed of and he turned his attention back to his plate.

The rest of the meal passed quietly, but then as Jess pushed his now empty plate away, he looked up and spoke again, realizing how Slim would be feeling about not hearing from Eve. “Look, tomorrow morning I have to shoe Traveller. Probably I will need to do all four shoes. Then there are the other yard chores to do, so tomorrow is pretty much written off, but I plan to check the fence repairs the day after. If’n I get the chance, I’ll ride up to the ridge then.”

“Thanks, Partner, and I may have another letter for you to take by then. I appreciate it,” Slim turned to Jonsey, “Think I’ll pass on another coffee , Jonsey. You’re right, I’m a mite more tired than I cared to admit. I’ll head to my bunk now, if you’ll give me a hand Jonsey,” Pushing himself wearily to his feet, he smiled at Jess, “You go take good care of your horse, and give him and Alamo a sugar lump from me. Be sure to drop in and say Hi before you get too wrapped up in chores tomorrow.” Then Jonsey placed his arm over his shoulder and helped him to the bedroom.

*****

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Sticking to his rough plan, Jess had spent a hot, sweaty morning at the ranch forge, hammering and molding four new horseshoes for Traveller. Since he was already soot covered and hot, he also checked the other horses and found one other gorse in need of re-shoeing.

After cleaning up he had shared a coffee with Slim, who was lay in bed that morning as he was exhausted by the previous day’s activities. Chopping wood for the stove, cleaning the barn and preparing Alamos tack for use took up most of the afternoon. He also decided to check around the area after Jonsey had again mentioned the cougar sign he thought he had seen a few days ago. It was possible, as human presence was considerably less due to the epidemic in the area, that the wild animals were getting a little more adventurous than normal.

Jess doubted that the horses wherein danger, but Jonsey was fretting about losing more hens, so he ensured he had a good look around. He found no recent evidence that a big cat had been prowling around but staying close to the ranch meant that he could pop in and enjoy some extra mugs of coffee and jaw with Slim, when the latter was awake.

The day after that, as they had discussed and planned, he had ridden out early, mounted on Alamo, to check the fences he had repaired previously. He had Slim’s latest note tucked into his shirt pocket. In anticipation of a response from Eve, and also eager to tell his intended of Jess agreeing to be his partner, Slim had written several pages and it made quite a bulge in Jess breast pocket as he rode out.

Finally able to stretch his long legs, Alamo had been feisty at first and despite his excellent skills as a rider, Jess had struggled to control the big horse, and had briefly wondered at the wisdom of agreeing to ride him. However, he decided to give the horse some freedom and encouraged hi into a full gallop across the open range to wards th fence line. It was what Alamo had needed, and once he had worked out his high spirits he calmed down into a gentle, obedient ride.

Truth be told, Jess had enjoyed the wild ride as much as his mount, feeling the freedom of the wind blowing through his hair and whipping his hat back behind him. Now, replete, both horse and rider moved at a slow pace along the fence line.

“Looks good, Trav–,” then Jess corrected himself as he realized his long-time traveling companion was absent. “Doesn’t look like any damage. The repairs are holding strong.” He patted Alamos neck affectionately. “Reckon you are missing your boss, huh? I’ll let you into a secret; I kinda miss him on the trail to.”

Lifting his head he glanced at the sun, noting its position in the sky. Jess pulled gently on the reins, turning Alamo in the opposite direction. ”Come on. Reckon we have time to take this note up to your bosses trysting place. Think I’ll keep an eye out for our prowler to.”  Patting his breast pocket, Jess urged Alamo into a trot.

Two easy riding hours later he dismounted by the tree at the base of which the message tin was placed. As he dismounted , he could see that it had been moved, and despite himself, on Slim’s behalf , he found he was anxious about any content it might have.

Kneeling, he carefully removed the small lavender smelling note he found inside and replaced it with Slim’s veritable volume. With a bit of pressure however, he managed to fit it in. Jess was aware that Slim had written copiously about the new partnership on the Ranch, wanting to share with Eve even more of his plans now that Jess had officially agreed to the partnership. But he had not attempted to even glance at it as he was also aware it was private and likely contained messages that should be kept between the two lovers only. Just as he had refused to read Eve’s letters to Slim, despite Jonsey’s urging.

As he was leaving the ridge he noticed spore and prints of a large cat. Dismounting, he again knelt to inspect  the area more clearly. Straightening, he re mounted. “Looks to be at least two days old. Still I didn’t notice them the other day.” He patted Alamos neck. “You seem calm enough old boy. You can’t sense a cougar around  here now, can you. It’s getting late, lets head home.”

It was a tired Jess Harper that arrived back at the ranch around dusk. This time Slim had eaten earlier and had retired to bed to await Jess return. True to his word Jonsey had prepared rabbit pie, but before he would serve up Jess’ supper he demanded the note.

“Aw, come on Jonsey, Slim’s improving each day, I doubt there is any bad news in the note, and anyway, Ol’ Slim would cope. He’s a big boy.” Jess cajoled.

“He’s come along way. True, but if there is anything in it that worries him enough, he’s likely to try and ride out to the Lazy E. Now hand me that note.” Jonsey kept his voice low, so as not to alert the man in question.

Jess kept his hand firmly over his pocket, all the while his mouth watering in response to the tempting smell of rabbit pie. He tried distracting Jonsey instead, while edging to wards the bedroom.” Did I tell you I saw signs of a big cat on the ridge? They where a few days old. Probably the same one spooked your hen.”

Not to be easily deterred, Jonsey continued to stand between Jess and Slims room, his hands crossed across his chest.”Hand it over”

Jess was about to give in, taking the note from his pocket, when another voice joined in,” Hand what over, what you got there, Jess?”

Jess looked over Jonsey’s shoulder, and saw Slim leaning , bleary eyed , against the door post. Caught in the act, Jonsey had no choice but to let Jess give Slim the letter.

“Jess was just telling me about the cougar sign he saw up on the ridge,” Jonsey tried to cover for himself.

“Oh, not too close to the Lazy E?” Slim enquired, accepting the note from Jess. “This was in the tin. You left mine there didn’t you?”

“Oh, yeah, once I managed to get your book into the tin. And the cougar sign was at least two days old. So it’s probably long gone by now,” Jess quipped.

In a few short steps, the now more alert Slim stepped to the rocker and sat down, preparing to read his letter. He gave Jonsey a sharp look, not at all fooled by the old mans machinations.

“I’m a big boy now, you know. I appreciate what you’ve been trying to do, but it has to stop.”

Jonsey had the good grace to look sheepish, and instead of arguing further, he fetched Jess pie from the kitchen and placed it on the table. “Here, eat up.” Then he hovered around the room, trying to look busy but all the while keeping a wary eye on Slims reaction to the letter.

Although his own observation was somewhat more discrete, Jess also watched his best friend as he made short work of the rabbit pie.

Slim read and re-read the message, a smile flickering across his face at his fiancé’s words. Finally he glanced up and took pity on his friends. “She says everything is okay at the ranch. There is a lot of work to do, but they are managing. The ranch hand they had taken on before the sickness is helping, but her Pa says he needs pushing to do some of the work. He keeps finding him shirking, but  Pa says we cant fire him. We will look for a new hand once we can go into town again.” A momentary frown of annoyance crossed Slims face, but it softened again as he went on. “The rest is about our wedding. Eve says her Ma is helping her alter her wedding dress that she brought over with her from Europe. She won’t tell me anything about it other than it is white lace and satin. Apparently its bad luck for me to know too much about it. She’s made a list of her favorite hymns and asks which ones I approve of for the wedding.” Slims face radiated happiness. “Honestly, Jess, I really don’t care what hymns we have, just as long as she says yes on the day”

“You are a lucky man, Slim.” Jess said, meaning every word.” Think maybe, she will have a friend for me that comes to visit for the wedding?” he half joked.

“She’ll make a good wife, and I’ll be able to take that trip at last to see my sister back East,” Jonsey contributed.

Once the dishes where cleared, the three friends sat and drank coffee, ruminating over the events of the day, Eves letter, and the work plans for the next few days. Eventually seeing Slims head droop, and feeling the edge of sleep themselves, all three men retired to bed.

*****

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Life at the ranch fell into an uneasy routine over the next few days, with Jess choosing to alternate his ride between Traveler and Alamo. When working close to the ranch, he even rode the two stage line horses to give them a change of scenery from the coral.

Slims health improved slowly and steadily, until he was able to do some of the lighter chores around the ranch house and even brush down the horses and replenish their feed. But he still did not have enough strength to sit in the saddle. He had tried on Alamo in the coral, secretly saddling him when no one was around. Even lifting the saddle onto the horse had proven a struggle. But the big horse needed a strong rider to control him, and it took only a minute for Slim to realize his leg and arm muscles, those used for sitting in the saddle and guiding a horse, had weakened considerably during his illness.

Both Jonsey and Jess had cursed his stubbornness but relented when Slim had seen reason and swore he would not try to ride again for at least another week.

As Slim slowly regained his strength, Jonsey and Jess fell into a routine. Jess managed to retrieve another letter from Eve a few days later and had placed Slims message into the tin. This time Eve’s letter was accompanied by a few scraps of different colored materials.

That evening Slim chose to read his fiancés letter to his friends.

“She says she is really pleased that you agreed to the partnership, as she knows you will work real hard to help me make this ranch great.”

Then Slim went quite as he scanned the next piece, his lips drawing into a thin angry line.

“Whats up?” Jess prompted, “don’t keep us in suspense, Unless that’s something a bit private,” he teased.

“Come on, Slim, is something wrong?” Jonsey lent forward towards the blonde as he rocked slowly by the fireplace, the letter gripped in his hands.

Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Slim then proceeded to read the next section of Eve’s letter.”She says she is having to do some of the work with the horses to help her Pa and brothers.”

“I thought they had a ranch hand?” Jess asked.

“They have,” Slim returned to reading the letter. “Apparently he’s slow to get up and being surly with them. He’s not sick, but then they isolated themselves at the start so they should all be okay. He just seems to resent being at the ranch all the time and Eve doesn’t feel comfortable around him on her own.” At this point Slim broke of reading to add his own thoughts. “I need to get over there, try and help.”

“You can’t even sit your ho—”  Jess started, only to have Jonsey’s anxious voice cut in.

“You could give them the influenza, Slim. That would make the situation worse”

After a moment’s hesitation Slim nodded and continued. “Yeah, well once I can visit again, I’ll help them find a good ranch hand, one that they can count on.”

“Sure. More than likely that’ll be me and you,” Jess teased, then changed the subject before Slim could dwell more on the errant ranch hand. “So what’s with the fancy material bits. I thought she didn’t want you knowing anything about her wedding dress?”

As intended, that brought a smile back to Slim’s face. “Even an ignorant saddle bum like you knows wedding dresses are white usually.” He brandished the small brightly colored scraps. “ No, she says theses are left over from the quilt she is making. Eve wants to know if I like the colors.”

“Quilt?” Jess asked, unsure of the significance.

“Yeah, apparently she has been collecting small pieces of materials for her wedding chest for years, and the day I asked her to marry me and she agreed, she started to make them up into our wedding quilt”

Jess eyebrows had drawn together in puzzlement. This was something he had never really come across before. But then why should he have. Having been without his family from age sixteen, he had not been aware of his sisters collecting items for their wedding chest in the hope of a home of their own one day.

Glancing between the two men, Jonsey came to Jess’ rescue. “It’s a custom in some parts, brought over from Europe, for young women to start collecting items for when they marry. A lot of them collect materials that represent special, happy times in their lives, and memories. Scraps from dresses, clothes and curtains. Some even have bits that belonged to their grandmas, part of their family for generations.”

“Sure, but what good are old bits of cloth.” Jess was still puzzled.

“When the time is right, they start to sew them together to make a wedding bed quilt. In some families the quilts themselves are passed on to the oldest daughter when they marry, a genuine family heirloom. That thick quilt on Andy’s bed was the one Slims Ma made when she married his Pa.”

“Oh, I get it. So these bits of cloth are part of what Eve’s been collecting,” The penny finally dropped with Jess.

“Yep,” Slim now joined in again, “Eve says she has been working on the quilt  in any spare moment she has had, and it is almost ready, and these are a few bits left over. She wants to know if I approve of the colors.”

Taking the patches from Slim, Jess inspected them more closely, feeling the texture between his fingers, “and do you? Seems kinda bright to me. I’d manage with a few old blankets and, as they say, my love to keep me warm.”

Catching the mischievous glint in his partner’s eyes, Slim had burst out laughing. “Seems that would be how you would think. Remind me to warn any girl that you decide to court not to expect any finer things in life.

“Nope, that day is a long way off.  I’m too fast on my feet to get caught.” Although Slim remained unaware of Jess’ history with his future wife, the dark-haired cowboy had moved past his memory driven idealistic love for Eve and was back to being ready for his normal easy going relationships with the saloon girls back in Laramie, and deliberate avoidance of the more respectable elements of Laramie’s available females.

That night Slim slept well, the scraps of material placed carefully under his pillow, carrying the lavender scent he associated with his fiancé.

*****

It was two days later that Jess again found signs that the cougar had been on the prowl close to the ranch. As he had pretty well caught up with the chores, and the new fencing was holding up, Jess decided it would be better if he tried to track down the big cat, before it did anything more than scar the chickens. Slim was in agreement with him but wasn’t too happy that his Pard would be out tracking a potentially dangerous animal without him to have his back. Jess had assured him he would only stay out one night and would not stray far. He just wanted to make sure those who lived at the ranch and its stock was safe. If the cats trail led away from the ranch, then he would return shortly, but if the animal was hanging around and was a danger, he would have no choice but to hunt it down.

This time Jess was able to take his beloved Traveller as his horse of choice, although Alamo seemed mite disgruntled at being left behind. As he was about to mount, Slim appeared at the door, a note clutched in his hand.

Leaving Traveller ground tied, Jess climbed the steps to his friend.” I aint sure I’ll be heading towards the ridge, Slim. The last signs I saw of the cat where over by the lake.”

A look of disappointment briefly crossed Slims handsome face, and Jess relented and took the note. “Thanks Pal,” Slim stated softly.

“I ain’t making any promises, Pard. But if I do go anywhere near I will put your note in the tin.” Then Jess turned on his heels, remounted Traveler and headed out of the yard, towards the lake, leaving a hopeful Slim behind him.

He rode at a gentle trot towards the lower lake, to the spot where he had last seen evidence of the cat. It was a clear morning—the sun was out and even the air itself seemed to sparkle.  ‘It’s a good day to be riding the range on a good horse,’ he thought, ‘especially when you have a stake in the land you’re riding across.’

The depth of the warmth that he felt as he considered that idea surprised him. Since he had accepted Slim’s offer, a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and at sudden, unexpected moments he had found himself contemplating a future very different from the unmarked grave in an unknown town that he had come to accept as the only future he had.

By noon, Jess had not only picked up the big cat’s sign, but had been following a day-old trail back from the lake towards the high pastures and the Sherman ranches border with the Lazy E.

After a brief stop to eat the jerky Jonsey had packed, and take a cooling long drink of water, Jess had continued on. He found himself wanting to get the job done and be back in his own bed for the night after discussing the day’s events and plans with Slim.

Ensuring he kept his eyes down on the ground, only occasionally lifting his head to look around to ensure the cougar had not back tracked and was hunting him, Jess rode on. When he next stopped again in the late afternoon, he realized he was only a few minutes ride from Slim and Eve’s trysting point.

“Reckon I’ll be camping out tonight, Traveller. Just like the old times. Funny though, it sure doesn’t feel as tempting as it used to be ol’ Slim will just have to make do with Jonsey’s chatter.” He rubbed the horse’s neck. “What do you say I deliver Slims note, and then we can head down the other side and set up camp in that nice spot Slim is planning on building his new home on. At least being able to tell Slim I’ve delivered his note, will be some compensation for me staying out, and the old worry wart wont moan so much.”

The faithful horse made no comment, being used to Jess gravelly voice as a constant companion on the long trails they had ridden together.

A small smile touched Jess face, “Hey, there may even be a note for him. Now that really would stop him from nagging on me.” Strangely, Jess actually was always pleased when Slim nagged at him for unexplained absences. Probably because he had come to realize, as Jonsey said, it was because he cared.

Lady luck must have been smiling on the two men, because as Jess approached the spot, he could see that the area had been disturbed, and the tin moved. In fact he could make out the imprints  a small  boot around the area, a sign he took to show that Eve had been there not too long ago.

Retrieving the folded note inside, he replaced it with Slims note. As he started to turn away, another thought hit him. If the cat was still around, The Deere Egretons needed to be warned, unless they had also spotted the signs. He quickly retrieved Slims note and using the small pencil stub he carried in his saddle bags, scrawled a small note of his own on the folded blank side. It simple warned that there where signs of a cat in the area, and to be watchful.

Satisfied with his actions, Jess headed down again from the ridge and set about setting up a meager camp for the night. Tomorrow he would try and pick up the trail again, and then, successful hunt, or not, it would be time to return home.

*****

Back at the Sherman Ranch, as the evening drew in, Slim had finally accepted that Jess was unlikely to return for the night. He knew they had discussed that possibility, but dadgum it, he actually hadn’t thought that would be the case. True to form, he had eaten his supper in silence, his mind running through all the worse case scenarios he could imagine. Now he sat in the rocker, staring at the fire that Jonsey had poked to life to off set the colder evening air.

He finally spoke. “It sure is getting cold out there. Are the horses all in? Is the barn locked up?” he questioned the room in general.

“I’ve done all that’s needed. Horses are safe and fed.” Jonsey sounded offended at the idea Slim thought he couldn’t cope with those simple jobs.

“Yeah, yeah. I know,” Slim spoke almost dismissively. “Any sign of that big cat?”

“He’s long gone, Slim. Now stop fretting. You want another coffee?” Jonsey tried distraction tactics, taking the almost empty mug from Slims hand, as he continued to stare at the leaping flames in the fireplace.

“Can’t be too sure, Jonsey. I’ve known some cunning ones to double back and take the hunter by surprise.” Slim continued to worry.

“So that’s your gripe!” Jonsey stepped back from the kitchen to glare at the blonde. “Jess’ is a big boy now. He can take care of himself. Now stop your fretting. You’ll worry yourself into an early grave.”

I know he’s good, but he’s been working real hard. Tiredness can get the best of any of us. Maybe I should have gone with him?” That last was more a statement than a question from Slim.

Slamming the refilled coffee mug down on the mantle, Jonsey glared at him.

“Start talking sense, Slim. The only way you could have accompanied him was if he tied you in the saddle. Jess is right about you,” Jonsey added.

“What’s that mean? Right about me?” the worry was making Slims voice sound querulous.

“He calls you an old Mother Hen, and says you worry more than an old woman,” Jonsey stated.

“He did, I mean, he does? Well someone has to act responsibly around here.” Now Slim sounded offended, his handsome face marred by a frown.

Jonesy huffed his annoyance and then gave a rare smile.” Ease up, son. I know you worry about that boy. I do to. But this time I don’t think there is a reason to worry. He’s one of the best trackers I know, and a darn good shot to boot. He’s no fool when it comes to hunting. You just got to trust in his skills. Besides, he told you he would likely be away two days.”

Slim considered this, not speaking for a few minutes. When he did speak again, it was to make an admission.

“He’s right, you know. I do worr,. about you, about Andy, the ranch, the future, marrying Eve, and, inevitably about him.” Again the blonde was silent. Then he added softly. “It’s only because I care. I didn’t think he would come to mean so much, but he is like another brother now.”

“He knows that. He may not say it in so many words, but he knows how you feel, because he feels the same way.” Jonsey said wisely. “It wasn’t the temptation of a partnership in a ranch that got him to sign those documents. It was the idea of a partnership with you, of belonging, and being part of your family. You’ve become a brother to him to. He’s not about to risk that by being careless or reckless. You mark my words, he’ll be back tomorrow as promised, with or without bagging that cat.”

Slim lifted his eyes from the flames to meet Jonsey’s “I know your right. I’ll try not to worry so much. I guess I just miss his ornery company when he’s not here.” Then as an afterthought, “You did make him take that extra blanket?”

Jonsey gave an exaggerated sigh and sat down with his own coffee. He didn’t even attempt to answer. He’d encourage Slim to bed soon, and in the quite of the house without a boisterous Jess and a worrying Slim he’d set about the makings of tomorrows meals, all the while trying to settle his own worries about both the men he considered his responsibility.

*****

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

The early morning dew had settled over the camp site, and although Jess had intended an early start to the day, it was the heavy dampness soaking through the two blankets that Jonsey had insisted he take, that had awoken him.

He had poked and prodded the glowing embers of the previous nights fire back to life and re-heated the dregs in the coffee pot he had left hanging over the fire. It had proven to be a powerful brew that had chased away the last of the sleep fog from his brain. The hard tack biscuits had filled his growling stomach but had left him dreaming of the gravy and soft biscuits Slim would be enjoying in an hour or so when Jonsey would wake him up.

As he ate, squatting close to the fire to allow the heat to drive away the dampness in his cloths, he ruminated on the best way to proceed. Should he continue to track the big cat, or head home, pretty certain that the beast was heading well away from the Sherman ranch.

A sudden though struck him and as was his habit when alone in the big open, he tossed the thought out for Traveller to consider. “That cats kinda close to the Lazy E’s homestead, can’t have it causing problems for Slims future in-laws. Reckon I’ll track it for a mite longer, just to make sure it is moving on out of the territory,”

Traveller pawed the ground, having grazed on the lush damp grass while Jess had eaten, and enjoyed the oats Jess had given him from the bag he had been sure to bring with him. Now he was ready to move on, hopefully back towards the stable he now thought of as home.

Ensuring that his campfire was out, and having cleared all evidence of his overnight camp, Jess saddled his mount and hopped up into the saddle. “Reckon we can pick up the trail easily enough. Let’s see if’n we can ensure this is one cougar that doesn’t get a free meal on us.” He urged the horse gently forward towards the spot he had last seen any signs of the cat. “We’ll give it till noon, and then head back. Even Jonsey’s cooking beats my trail rations.”

He picked up the trail easily enough, and once again resumed the slow and painstaking pursuit.

After his early start, and a meandering trail, by noon he found himself up in the foothills, below the canyons. He had observed plenty of small game around the foothills and had been tempted to bag a few to replenish Jonsey’s diminishing larder. Even squirrel stew would be a welcome change these days. However, as he had pulled his rifle from its scabbard, he remembered the purpose of his sojourn away from the ranch and its duties. A rifle shot could be heard a long way out here.  With a sigh he carefully replaced the rifle. If the cougar was nearby, he didn’t want to startle it into an attack.

After a cold meal of water and hard biscuits’, Jess decided to go a few miles further on and then , if he did not come across the cat, he would turn back, and this time take a more direct, shorter, and quicker route back to the ranch.

An hour later he sat in the saddle and wiped a hand across his sweaty forehead. The sun was hitting the mountainside and it was warmer than he would have expected. As he raised his canteen to his mouth, a low growl made him freeze. Traveller was a well-trained horse and didn’t spook easily, but the big horse shifted uneasily, sensing another’s presence.

Jess stood in the stirrups and looked around slowly, before he cautiously pulled his rifle out and placed the stock against his shoulder. Looking down the barrel he again scanned the area, sensing the cat was close. It took a minute, but then up on a ridge above and to his right, he saw a glimpse of tawny hide.

Jess willed himself to stillness, as he placed the cougar in his sights and his finger tightened on the trigger. As he was about to make the shot, the big cat moved a few steps further, and then turned to look over its shoulder.

Again his finger tightened, as he realigned his line of fire. He  had caught  a glimpse of a jackrabbit in the cougar’s jaws, and then just behind the cat, he saw what it had turned to look at. Trailing behind her, and he now knew it was a female, where two small cubs, possibly only a few months old.

He hesitated, unwilling to make the choice of orphaning the newborn, or killing all three. At that moment the cats big head swung back towards Jess, its tawny eyes fixed on him.

Jess was not a wanton killer, considering all life sacred. But he had killed, in self defense, and even in his dark past, he had killed for less acceptable reasons. But he did not kill innocents.

The big cat would not make good eating, and, he reasoned, the cat was leading its family up into the canyon lands, and likely would not return. Letting the rifle drop to rest in his lap, Jess watched the majestic animal continue on, moving deeper into the mountains. He watched for a few minutes more, before turning Traveller around and heading back down the trail.

*****

Back at the ranch, Slim had eaten a somewhat better lunch than his partner, but he was starting to fret again, anxious to see Jess return so he could know he was safe. He had pottered around the ranch house, doing small chores that Jonsey reluctantly allocated to him. After the meal at noon, Slim had ignored Jonseys warnings, and had walked out to the barn, to spend some time with Alamo. Jonsey had followed him like a shadow, and only finally returned to the ranch house and his cleaning duties when Slim had promised not to do anything stupid.

Once the older man had left, Slim had continued to gently rub down Alamo, waiting a few minutes to ensure the wily old retainer did not return. Once he was sure he would be alone for a time, he lifted his saddle rom the rack, and struggled with it towards the waiting Alamo. It took three attempts to throw it onto his back, and by the time he managed it, he was sweating profusely and struggling to catch his breath.

Slim could be as stubborn as the next man, more so at times, hence why Jess had called him Hard Rock on many an occasion. But at this point, even he had to admit defeat. If he was to try and ride Alamo anytime soon, someone else would need to saddle him up first. With a sigh he sat down on a nearby hay bale to recover his energy before attempting to remove the saddle.

An hour later it was a weary but wiser Slim that shuffled back into the ranch house from the barn.

“Well, you learnt your lesson?” Jonsey asked from the kitchen.

“What—what do you mean?” Slim had the good grace to look embarrassed.

“I’ ain’t as green as I am cabbage looking. I didn’t think for one minute you wouldn’t try and mount your horse.” He placed a mug of coffee in Slims now shaking hands as fatigue set in. “You won’t be told anything. The only way for you to learn you ain’t ready to ride yet, is for you to try. I bet you couldn’t even get him saddled.”

The weary blond head lifted in defiance momentarily. “I got the saddle on, at least.”

Jonsey relented a little, “I know you want to get out there and do your share. I know you want to see Eve again, but none of that is going to happen anytime soon, Slim. It’s just the way it is.”

Slims face dropped, as he accepted Jonseys words.

“You will get stronger, but it takes time to come back from deaths door, Slim. You have to be patient. And now ain’t the time to be fretting on seeing Eve. We don’t know much about this here influenza, but once you are fully well, and people start to recover themselves, you’ll be able to see her without risking her being ill. Jess and I have been around you, and neither of us have been sick again. I think you can only get real ill with it once.” Jonsey mused aloud. “You just got to be patient a while longer, Slim.”

As Jonsey focused on Slim, he saw that the younger man’s eyes where drifting shut. Gently he lifted the half-drunk mug of coffee from his hands and placed it on the table, leaving him to sleep.

*****

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

It proved to be a relatively quick and pleasant ride back to the ranch for Jess. No longer having to keep his eyes doggedly fixed to the ground searching for signs of the cat, he took a relative straight line, barring natural objects, to return home. Sure now that the cougar was not a threat and was looking like it was heading away from the territory, Jess felt light at heart, content in his current situation.

He had even spotted a wild turkey as he crossed the lower foothills. Now this bird he considered fair game and would provide a meal for the people he now thought of a family. He had brought it down with one clean shot, and having retrieved it, he placed it in his now empty provisions sack. Fortune must have been smiling on him, because not long after he also spotted two squirrels, and they to, quickly joined his growing bag of provisions. He would never kill for sport but bringing down an animal for food was a necessity.

Traveller was familiar with his way home, seeming to have a sixth sense for finding his nice warm stable and food. So Jess’ dark head dipped, his chin touching his chest as he sat, almost asleep in the saddle, letting his trusted horse choose the path. The next time he glanced up, bringing his wandering thoughts back into focus, he had looked up to find he was close to the Lazy E ranch house.

There was no way he would visit, unsure of how the influenza spread, but acutely aware it appeared to pass directly from person to person, and he would hate to think he was responsible for bringing the deadly illness to the family who had saved his life, so many years ago. However, he had made good timing, and he reasoned it would only add a few minutes to his time to divert to the ridge to the west that overlooked the ranch. He perhaps would catch a glance of one or more family members and be able to assure Slim that all was well with them.

He gently pulled on Travelers’ reins and turned him towards the ridge. A few short minutes later he sat in his saddle and looked down on the Lazy E ranch house. The yard looked neat and tidy, hens wandered around the yard, a milk cow stood munching hay in the coral, and the barn door stood open. He was about to turn away, satisfied that all seemed well, when the homesteads door opened and Eve moved out onto the porch, closely followed by her mother, who came up behind her and placed a loving arm across her shoulders.

From this distance he could not make out their faces, but they looked well enough. They appeared to be looking toward the barn, when Jess observed a tall older man come out leading a heavily burdened horse. The grey hair would indicate it was likely Eve’s father. There was no sign of the shiftless ranch hand, nor Eve’s siblings, but they where, at this time in the afternoon, probably out on the range, riding fence or finding strays.

It was at times like this he wished he had thought to pack Slim’s telescope souvenir from the war, but still, even without it, he could see that all appeared normal at the homestead. Satisfied that he would be able to give his best friend some good news verified by his own eyes, he guided Traveller back to the trail and headed home. He was eager to have a hot meal and decent coffee after less than forty-eight hours on the trail. He shook his head in self deprecation as a soft smile touched his lips. He considered that he was either getting old, or soft, and, strangely, he found the idea oddly warming and comforting.

*****

Back at the Sherman ranch, the man in question had recovered from his exertions, and once again sitting in the main room, driving Jonsey mad by repeatedly expressing his concerns regarding Jess whereabouts and safety.

Jonsey was not always as tolerant as he should be, and after the weeks of worry about all the people he considered his family, his patience was wearing thin. “ Goldarn it , Slim. Constantly asking if there’s any sign of Jess in the yard ain’t going to make him appear any sooner,” the frustrated housekeeper responded for what he felt like was hundredth time. “That boy can take care of himself. He said he would be back before evening, and he will. Lets face it; he enjoys his food, and my coffee far to much to miss out on it for too long.” Jonsey add the last comment to soften the edge of his admonishment to Slim, seeking to alleviate his worry by humor.

Slim had the good grace to look guilty. He knew he had caused his father’s friend and his childhood mentor a lot of worry over the past weeks, and his escapade that very afternoon had only increased it, but he was desperate to be able to be back on his feet and working the ranch again. He practically ached with the need to see Eve, and wanted this whole illness put firmly in the past for all of them. The future was calling, and it looked so promising, but also so distant right now. Despite his frequent lectures to Jess to calm down and wait before jumping into things, he was now having difficulty following his own advice.

The sound of hoof beats entering the yard and the familiar whinny from Traveller had him pushing up to his feet.

“You stay put!” Jonsey ordered, fixing Slim with a glare that said he would not tolerate any arguments. “He’ll be in soon enough.”

Slim remained seated but was squirming around and drumming his fingers against the table by the time Jess did enter the house, having seen to his mount, as was his habit, before seeking to see to his own needs.

Having hung his gun belt and hat by the door, Jess spun on his heel to find himself pinned by Slims intense and expectant gaze. “What?” he questioned. It may have been a pleasant ride home, but he had still spent long hours in the saddle and was ready for a good meal and his bed. He was’nt thinking clearly, nor was he ready for any deep conversation.

Slim bit down on his urge to ask about Eve’s message in the first instant. Instead he changed his initial statement to, “Glad to see you home. Any trouble with the cat?”

“Nope, I picked up the trail easily, and tracked it back to the canyons?”

Jonsey joined the conversation. “You got it then. What did you do with the carcass?”

“Don’t worry , Jonsey, you ain’t got a hide to cure.”

“So you didn’t get it.” Slim added,” You lost the train up in the canyons. Slim sounded surprised, and rightly so, as he knew Jess was one of the best trackers he had met.

“Nope, I had it right in my sights, my finger was tightening on the trigger,” Jess paused, hesitant to reveal his conscience and reticence about killing the animal. He could make up a lie to cover what might be perceived as a weakness, but as he looked at the two men, leaning towards him, eager to hear his response, he decided that he could trust these two with his thoughts and why he had spared the animal.

Sitting down at the table, Jess described the winding trail across the Sherman lands, that the cat had taken to get to the canyons, “I never found any evidence of the cat killing our animals. When I had it in my sights, I swear it knew I was there and what I as going to do. It turned and looked at me directly. It had a fresh killed rabbit in its mouth, probably taking it somewhere safe to eat, then it turned and looked behind and I saw two cubs. Maybe a few months old, trailing behind her. She had young ‘uns to feed, and hadn’t done anything to us, apart from scaring your chickens, Jonsey. She was just being a good mother. If I killed her, it was likely I couldn’t get both cubs. I’d be leaving them to die slowly of starvation. Cats aren’t good meat for eating, and she was leading her family away from us and the Lazy E. I let her go. I don’t approve of senseless killing.

Jonsey nodded, seeing and understanding another facet to the rough diamond that had become part of his adopted family. Effectively being orphaned due to raiders at his home when he was in his teens, Jess likely felt a kinship with the lioness and her cubs.

Likewise, Slim smiled.  “I would have done the same, Pard. No sense in useless blood spilling.” Then the rest of Jess’s statement registered. “Say, you must have rode pretty darn close to my meeting spot. Was there anyt–?”

Without thinking, eager to clean up and eat, Jess cut in. “ Yeah, I sure did, here.” Even as he drew Eve’s note out of his pocket to hand to Slim, he caught the disapproving glance from Jonsey, who still liked to ‘vet’ the notes in an effort to ensure Slim did not suffer any setbacks.

But it was too late to take the note back. Slim practically snatched it from his hand. The tall blond had been aware of Jonsey’s protective habits and had tried to tactfully tell Jess not to let Jonsey interfere, but without sounding accusatory to either man, he had not found the right opportunity to stop the collusion.

Before he read the note, however, Slim did speak up to prevent Jess being on thee receiving end of Jonseys tongue lashing. Now, Jonsey, I’m a big boy now. I know what you have been up to. I’m on the mend and I don’t need you trying to ensure I have no bad news. Besides, what bad news could there be in a love letter,” he added the last admission with a guilty smile at both men.

Jess shoulder relaxed as he recognized Slims attempt at diffusing Jonseys anger. He really didn’t feel up to dealing with a moody Jonsey and a reduced portion of whatever it was he could smell cooking in the small kitchen.

Thinking of food, Jess suddenly remembered the contents of his saddle bags.

“Say, Jonsey. I have a gift for you.” He spoke as he lifted his saddle bags from the floor by the door, where he had dropped them on entering

“Humph—So your little trip wasn’t a total waste of time,” Jonsey spoke grudgingly, taking the pro=offered bags.

“A message exchange, and a few morsels for the larder, I wouldn’t call that a waste of time,” Slim added for good measure, before proceeding to shut out the general hubbub in the room and concentrate on Eve’s note.

Jonseys scowl softened as he pulled the two rabbits, a wild turkey and a couple of squirrels that Jess had bagged on his way back to the ranch. “Say, now, I know a really good recipe for squirrel. Some people call them vermin, but with a few wild herbs and a long cooking time, they make a good meal. Looks like our diets going to improve for the next week, boys.” The now placated Jonsey headed into the kitchen with his prizes.

Jess glanced across at his best friend to see he was carefully unfolding his letter and was now oblivious to the rest of the world. He stood and entered the kitchen intending to clean of some of the trail dust from his hands and face before dinner.  Jonsey stared at him with a raised eyebrow, seeming to question the man’s earlier actions with his eyes. Jess lifted his shoulders in an apologetic shrug, He hadn’t deliberately intended to hand the note directly to Slim, but the situation had taken the decision from him.

Unable to say more, without alerting Slim, Jonsey just nodded and instead moved away from the pump and bowl to allow Jess access.”He’s been on edge all day waiting for your return.” The older man stated simply.”Reckon he was waiting on that note. More likely,” Jess nodded briefly in Slims direction, but deep inside he was secretly pleased to know he had a family who cared about his welfare.

Jonsey gave a weak smile,” Well, yeah, that too I guess. Here, if’n you’re finished cleaning yourself up, take these plates to the table.” He thrust two full plates into Jess hands, “I’ll bring in mine and the bread.”

Taking the two plates to the table, Jess then moved to help Slim, but the Eve’s letter, and waved him away, irritably. “I’ll be there in a minute; I just need to finish this.” There was a note of concern in Slims normally calm voice that alerted both Jess and Jonsey to the possibility of a problem.

The two men exchanged worried looks, but it was Jonsey who spoke up.

“ Something wrong , Slim?” he asked bluntly. He watched a Slims brow creased into a frown and his knuckles whitened as he gripped the paper tighter.

This time it was Jess who spoke up. “Come on, Slim, Jonsey don’t like his food getting cold. It may not be perfect, but it tastes better hot.”

“Hey, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with my cooking,” Jonsey joined in, both men trying to distract Slim from the letter.

Finally, Jess spoke again, “Slim, what is it, what does Eve have to say? Is everyone okay at the ranch?”

This time Slim did look up and shook his head. “Eve and the family are okay, for now,” he stated.

“For now?” echoed Jess, “What’s that supposed to mean?” He had only seen  most of the family, all be it from a distance, that very afternoon. There couldn’t be anything wrong, surely.

In his concern, Slim had started to screw up the paper into a small ball. He suddenly realized what his agitated hands where doing and smoothed out the paper guiltily. This was a letter written to him from his future wife, a memory he would take out to show to his children and grandchildren, when they asked about the family history in the future. Later, he would place it in his mother’s jewelry box, treasured for many years since her death. There it would join Eve’s other letters, protectively wrapped in a square of linen and lace, also one of his treasured remnants of his mother.

“Slim?” Jess prompted, becoming more concerned by Slims lack of response.

Suddenly realizing the other two men were anxiously listening, intently waiting on his reply. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to ignore you. It’s just I’m so frustrated.  Eve writes that her father has fired that no good, low down, excuse for a man that they had hired before this illness hit. I don’t know how they will manage now”

“Slim, Eve has brothers. I am sure her father and brothers will manage. It may be difficult, but they’ll cope. I’m sure they will,” Jess tried to ease his best friends worries.  “ Reckon I understand you want to go and help, but you sure aint able to even mount a horse and it ain’t as if any of us can go calling to help, leastwise not without risking them.”

“ I know, Jess, I know. But that isn’t my main concern.” Slim stated bleakly.

Jonsey caught on faster than Jess at this point. “Why’d he fire him, Slim?”

“That’s the problem. He caught him, drunk as a skunk, sneaking back into the barn with his horse, in the early hours of the morning. Seems he’s been into town,  meeting up with some old cronies of his.” Slims face was bleak as he spoke. “That aint the worse of it. He’d apparently been doing it several times over the past few weeks.” Slims face was contorted with worry and rage, competing for dominance on his handsome features.

“The  idiot. He could have brought the contagion back to the Lazy E,” Jonsey stated what all three men where thinking.

“Does Eve say anything else?” Jess prompted,

“Not about that. She just says they are managing, but she may not be able to get a message out to me as often as she’d like. The rest is just personal stuff,” Slims cheeks turned pink as he recalled her assurances that they where all well and that she missed him so much. Her soft words of love were not something he cared to repeat to his friends. They were his alone to treasure and hold in his heart.

Jonsey took the initiative to change the subject. “Jess , you get Slim to the table, I’ll get the coffee and bread. There ain’t no point in wasting good food, and it wont taste good if its stone cold.”

Taking the hint to bring Slim out of his worry, Jess teased,” Aw, come on Jonsey, it ain’t much better when it’s hot.” He helped a reluctant Slim from his chair to the table.

“Don’t you go criticizing my cooking, you young whippersnapper. Otherwise you can forget getting a piece of apple pie for dessert,” Jonsey snapped back from the kitchen.

“Apple pie? Didn’t think we had any apples left,” Jess could feel his mouth watering at the thought of Jonseys apple pie. It felt like months since he had tasted the treat.

“I found two at the back of the store cupboard when I was trying to see what we had left.”

Now Slim roused enough to join in the banter,” Two, ain’t hardly enough to make one slice for me.”

“Why you? I’m the one who’s been working,” Jess admonished.

“Yeah, sure, but I’m the one who’s been ailing and needs building up,”

Jonsey and Jess were relieved to see Slim cheer up a little and join in the conversation.

“As it is,” Jonsey explained, “I have enough for all of us. There’s a few things I know about cooking that you two haven’t learnt yet. Back in the war, I learned a trick or two. Apple pie was something to cheer up the troops, but there weren’t many apples around then.” Jonsey sat down at the table to join the others eating, and didn’t say anything else, leaving it to them to take the bait.

Finally it was Jess who spoke. “Go on then, I’ll bite. How do you make apple pie without apples?”

“Thin, hard, day old biscuits, soaked in vinegar to soften them, and then they taste pretty much like apples, maybe a bit tart,” Jonsey told his secret.” In this case though I did add the two apples I found.”

The face Jess pulled pretty well said what he was thinking. “Reckon I may miss out on that pie, Jonsey. You can give Slim my share,”

Looking up from his plate, which he had barely touched, Slim joined the conversation. “I’ve tasted it a few times on trail drives with Pa and Jonsey when I was young. It’ ain’t half as bad as it sounds. I’ll take that offer of Jess’ slice, unless he changes his mind, Jonsey.” Then he dropped his head and returned to moving his stew around on the plate listlessly with his fork.

This did not go unnoticed by the other two. Jonsey tried to prompt the conversation again.  “Say Jess, you know what this stubborn partner of yours tried while you where away?”  When his statement did not get a desired response from Slim, he continued without further preamble. “I only caught the stubborn fool trying to saddle and mount Alamo in the barn.”

“Dadgum it, Slim. I thought I was the one with no common sense.” Jess  scolded, then he relented saying anything more as he saw the concern in his friend’s pale blue eyes. “What’s the hurry, Pard? You’ll be up and running around soon enough, and then I’ll be having to drag you out of your bunk, and you’ll be wishing you could stay in bed for longer.”

“I need to be able to do something, rather than just sit around worrying. And now, more than ever, I need to be able to ride over to the Lazy E, if only to see for myself she’s okay, even from a distance. No offence, Jess, but I just want to see her. Call me a lovesick fool, but that’s the way it is.” Slim glared at Jess, daring him to say something sassy.

However, the younger man knew when his friend needed support, and not banter, to help him out.  “S’s okay, Slim, sure reckon I would be the same.”

“Speaking of someone who has nursed you in the past, Jess Harper, I can confirm you are made of the same kind of stubborn,” Jonsey stated.

A sudden thought hit Jess. “Darn it, I clean forgot. On the way home, I passed the Lazy E ranch. I was up on the high ground in front of the ranch, Don’t reckon they saw me, but I saw them.”

Slim immediately perked up. “Who, who’d you see?”

“Mr. and Mrs. Deere Edgerton and Eve. Her Pa was leading a horse out the barn, looking pretty laden. I couldn’t see her brothers, but it looked like he was heading out to do some fence repairs, probably going to meet them. Eve was on the porch with her Ma seeing him off.” came the easy reply.

“How’d she look, Jess?” Slims eyes bored into Jess, wanting the truth.

“She looked fine, Slim. They all did, leastways the three I could see. So stop your worrying. She is fine.” Then another thought struck Jess.”Tell you what, Hard Rock, you write another letter for your lady love, and add in it that I will keep checking the fence line that adjoins ours, and will do any repairs needed, including herding their cattle back onto their land. That should take some of the workload from them.”

“Surely you have enough to do, son?” Jonsey admonished. “ Appreciate  the kindness, but your running this place practically alone, you don’t want to exhaust yourself.”

“No problem, Jonsey. I have to check that fence line anyway, so it’s not that much more effort.”

Slim appreciated the kind help Jess was offering his fiancés family, but even he had to reluctantly shake his head at Jess.  “I appreciate it Jess, but don’t exhaust yourself.”

“Hey, I got to help out my partner’s future in laws. Consider it my wedding gift as the best man.” Then yet another inspiration came to the dark-haired man. “Tell you what, Slim, you behave for Jonsey, and I promise that each night, when I come home, I will go out to the barn with you and you can practice mounting and riding Alamo. You’ll be able to sit a horse and have your strength back before you know it.”

“You mean that?” Slim said, both grateful and incredulous at the same time.

“Sure I mean it,” the Jess turned to Jonsey, “and don’t you plan on stopping me, old man.”

Jonsey was old enough and wise enough to know when not to argue back and was pleased to see that Slim was now eating his stew with enthusiasm.

The three friends lapsed into relative silence as they ate, and later that night, it was a happier Slim that retired to bed ahead of the others.

As Jess and Jonsey had a last coffee before retiring, Jonsey spoke gently to Jess. “Thanks, son. Your offer to help both Eve’s parents all be it indirectly, and then help Slim build his strength to ride again, has done more to help him heal than anything I could have done.”

“He’d have done the same for me,” Jess said, simply.

“No doubt he would,” Jonsey said as he retired to his room, “But don’t exhaust yourself trying to do it all, son. We don’t need you sick again.” Then he was gone to his bed, leaving Jess to finish the dregs of his last coffee of the day.

*****

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Over the next week, Jess kept his promises, twice checking on the adjoining fence lines and doing some minor repairs. Each evening he had returned home, and after supper had gone to the barn with Slim and helped him work on saddling and mounting Alamo. By the end of the week Slim could saddle the big horse unaided, but still needed a helping hand to raise himself up into the saddle. The slowness of his recovery was frustrating him, but, as Jess pointed out frequently to him, he was a lot better at this time than he had been a week ago.

As he had promised, Jess had taken a note from Slim back to the meeting point. In it Jess had assured Eve and her family that Jess would indeed take care of the adjoining property line, and it there was anything else they could do, without breaking the quarantine and placing them at risk, they would endeavor to do it.

For once, the fates had been kind to those at the Sherman ranch, apart from fining one small part of the fence down and a stray cow and calf marked with the Lazy E brand, there had been very little extra work over the past week. Jess had quickly herded the mother and calf back to the lazy E pasture and returned to re wire the broken fence. Fortunately it had only required the re- setting of one post. A job that he had done easily and quickly, allowing him time to check the drop of point for messages, and return home early to spend extra time helping Slim work out.

It was just less than a week after he had collected the last letter from Eve that Jess had found a return note from Eve. Slim had been anxious as he opened it, but at least now he received his notes firsthand, with no prior viewing from a mother hen called Jonsey.

Both Jonsey and Jess had watched Slim anxiously, all the time trying not to make it obvious, looking for any signs that the letter may contain bad news. When Slim read it quietly and without comment, they both released the breath they had been holding without realizing it.

Finishing up his coffee, Jess approached Slim, “Reckon you can break yourself away from daydreaming and head out to the barn with me. I figure that if you are up to it, if your steady enough in the saddle, you could try riding around the coral.” What Jess really wanted to ask was what news the letter contained. Whilst any romantic feelings he had held for Eve had long since disappeared, the family still held a special place in his heart. After all they had saved his life back in the war, and Jess was fiercely loyal to those he felt obliged to. However, he reasoned that if there was anything that they needed to know, Slim would tell both of them in his own good time, and anything else was personal, and none of his business.

Slim looked up, excitement dancing in his eyes, “You bet ya,”  he folded the note, placing it in his vest pocket, to be re- read later, when her words of love could be studied and embedded into his heart, without the risk of the two other men in the household picking up on them and ribbing him about it.

‘It’s a darn good job Old Jonsey isn’t reading my letters anymore’ he thought to himself and pushed himself up onto his feet, feeling more energized than he had all day. The letter from Eve had managed to placate his worries since the previous note, and her words of love had filled his heart, giving him the will to try harder to achieve his goal.

Jess observed that there even appeared to be lightness to his friend’s steps as he followed him out to the barn.

Without help from Jess, Slim saddled Alamo and placed the bridle in place, the big horse dancing from hoof to hoof in excited anticipation of being ridden. Slims arms had improved in strength, both from the previous sessions trying to take the saddle on and of the big horse but also by him doing a set of exercises to help. Slim had figured out that if he repeatedly lifted the saddle from the ground to shoulder height and then carefully placed it back down again, he could build up his shoulder strength. Initially just one lift left his short of breath and his shoulders aching, but now, he could do it ten times, without needing to sit and recover.

Slim stood by Alamo, about to place his foot in the saddle, when Jess spoke up.” Hold on, Pard. I’ve been thinking, Alamos a might frisky at the best of times. Even I can have trouble with him. I know he’s your horse, but maybe you should try one of the others, this first time,” he suggested.

Slim was silent for a few seconds and then his blonde hair shook in the negative. “No. He’s my horse, we have an understanding. He’ll behave for me, and besides, I reckon he’ll sulk if I mount another horse in front of him,”a small smile tugged at Slims lips.

“Reckon its your funeral, then,” Jess shrugged, but he was careful to stand close by the big horse’s head, holding the reins steady as Slim swung up into the saddle.

Bending his neck backwards, Jess was able to look up at his friends face as he sat atop the big horse. “Looking up at the two of you is likely to give a man a crick in the neck,” he joked.

Slim didn’t reply. He was lost in the feeling of sitting tall in the saddle again and focusing on holding steady and keeping his balance. Despite admitting the weakness in his arms, he hadn’t really appreciated that his leg and body muscles would also have weakened with disuse. After a minute he gave a squeeze of his thighs to the horse’s sides. This was his usual signal to tell Alamo to move forward steadily. The pressure was so weak; it failed to register with the horse.

Jess had observed Slims movements’ and realized what was happening. Again he came to the rescue, trying not to embarrass his best friend. “Reckon this old horse of yours had gotten lazy, he’s ignoring you now, wanting to stay in his stable and enjoy the hay. Lets give him an extra incentive.”

Taking a firmer grip on the reins, Jess delved into his jeans pocket with his free hand, producing a sugar limp from its depths.

Slims eyes narrowed,” So that’s what you have been doing while I was laid up. Spoiling the horses rotten,” but his voice held humor, rather than criticism.

As Jess held the sugar lump in front of Alamos nose, and gently tugged on the reins, Slim again pressed his thighs into the horse’s sides. This time, the added incentive of the treat encouraged Alamo to move forward, and once he was in motion, it was easy for Jess to continue to encourage him further out into the corral.

Looking up Jess saw that Slims face was pale and his eyes where narrowed in concentration. Every fiber of his being focused on staying in the saddle, as he swayed with the movements of the big horse. A few steps more, and Jess brought Alamo to a halt, He had seen the pain etched on Slims fine features, even though the tall man had tried to hide it. Instead of commenting, he turned Alamo back to the barn, and using the sugar, guided him back inside, finally giving the patient horse his well-earned treat.

Slim suddenly realized he was back in the barn. “Hey, I thought we were going to try a circuit of the corral?” he sounded irritable, driven by both the pain he had just been attacked by, and also his disappointment at not achieving his self set goal.

“Sure didn’t take you for a fool, nor a liar, Slim. I saw the look on your face. It was either come back in and help you down gently or carry on and let your darn fool hard head take a knock as you fell of the horse.” Jess cajoled.

“I was fine, Jess. Just getting settled in, s’all” Slims voice was slurred with discomfort.

“Oh, sure you where, and I’m a monkeys uncle,” Jess shot back.

Seeing the concern in his friend’s face, Slim bit back on his sharp reply, relenting on venting his temper and disappointment on his friend. Instead he took a deep calming breath and said,” Sorry, you are right. I didn’t think my legs would be so weak. The moment Alamo started to move, I could barely stay in the saddle, and then my thighs started to cramp up. Darn it, Jess, I need to be able to ride. I need to get out there and help you and Eve’s family.”

“Come on, Hard Rock, lets get you down,” Jess spoke as he reached up and helped ease Slim down from the horses back. He lowered Slim down to sit on a bale of hay, and then giving Alamo another sugar lump, he unsaddled the horse before returning to sit opposite Slim.

“You ready to head back in?” he asked.

Waving a weak hand in the general direction of the house, Slim replied. “Not yet. My legs feel like jelly. I’d rather not let Jonsey see me like this. I couldn’t take any more coddling.” Slim fixed a steely glare on Jess. “Don’t tell him, okay?”

“Your secrets safe with me, and don’t fret. We’ll work on getting you riding Alamo, strengthening those legs, just like you did with your arms.” Jess went quite for a moment and then spoke again. “Say, speaking of secrets, did Eve have anything to say?” Jess had enquired regarding the ranch, but realized his mistake as Slims cheeks colored to a rosy glow. “I ain’t nosing into your personal life, just the ranch and family in general, so calm down, hot shot.”

Recovering quickly, Slim gave a slow smile, thinking on the words of love he had just read. His mind drifted to more tender moments, recalling the feel of her soft supple body molded to his. He thought of her full soft lips moving against his as he held her close, their deep kiss sealing their promise to marry. His body ached to hold her again, and he longed to hear her sweet voice and gentle laughter as they planned their future together.

“Hey, you still with me,” Jess voice interrupted his reverie, and Slim looked up to see Jess sitting across from him, idly chewing a piece of straw.

“Sorry, I was just–” but Jess interrupted him.

“Don’t need no explaining, Slim. I was just enquiring as to the family. Are they managing with being one hand down?”

With a conscious effort Slim refocused his thoughts on the here and now, “They are managing. Her brothers are having to take on a man’s workload, and they are tired, but they are doing what’s needed. Why, Eve says she has learned to chop kindling and can wield an axe better than any of them. She says she is worried I won’t recognize her when we meet again, as her arms are developing muscles she didn’t know she had.”

Jess gave a soft laugh at his friends last statement. “Reckon there’s little chance of that, Pard. But she’s going to make you a good rancher’s wife. In fact I’d say she could have done better than you,” Jess shrugged, his eyes glinting with mischief.

Slim glowed with the compliment but then the insult that followed registered as well. However, instead of rising to the bait, his voice quite, he agreed with his friend.  “Sometimes I can’t believe my luck either. She had her choice of men, but she said yes to me.” He raised his head to look Jess squarely in the eyes.  “I miss her so much, Jess. I need to get stronger, so I can ride to see her. She’d be so worried if she saw me like this.”

“You’ll get there, Slim. Besides, what’s the rush, we don’t know much about this illness, cept’ it spreads quickly when people meet up? I know Jonsey says he doesn’t seem to be able to catch it since he had it real bad all those years ago, and I don’t seem to be sick again since I was ill when I was away from the ranch. Until you are totally well and maybe can’t pass it to anyone else, and we get news from Laramie, I guess we are all stuck at home, waiting for the all clear.”

Slims response was a slow nod.

“So, you think you can make it to the house now?” Jess prompted.

“Yeah, I reckon so, but let’s go slow. I don’t want Jonsey seeing me weak, or he’ll put a stop to my freedom,” Slim pushed up to his feet and stood shakily for a moment before heading towards the house, Jess walking alongside, ready to give extra support if needed.

*****

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

For Jess and Jonsey, the following days passed quickly, trying to ensure all the chores were done, and still allow time for Jess to help Slim improve his stamina.

For the other man in the household, however, time seemed to drag, as he waited for Jess return and the start of their riding sessions together.

Twice more Jess had returned to the drop of point. On the first visit he had place a note from Slim. He didn’t ask details but Slim told him willingly enough that he had expressed his concern over their situation, and how he was hoping to soon be well enough to help from a distance.

Initially Slim did not worry about any other notes from Eve, recalling how she had warned him that she had a lot of work to do, but by the end of the week, he was starting to worry, and even though he could only ride Alamo for a few minutes before needing to rest, he was threatening to try to reach the meeting point himself if he did not hear from her soon.

Six days after Jess had left Slims last note, he acquiesced and took a further note from Slim up to the ridge. When he discovered that there was a small note inside, dated just the day before, Jess had released the breath he had been holding. Now maybe Slim would settle down, at least for a few more days. Knowing Eve and her family were very busy and love notes were likely the bottom of the list on Eves  must do list, hadn’t done anything to stop the blonds head from filling up with all sorts of worries.

Other than scanning the date, Jess did not read any further, trying to give the couple some privacy in their communications.

Slim heard him coming into the yard, and by the time he had rubbed down Traveller and settled him for the night, an impatient Slim had joined him in the barn

Foregoing any of the normal pleasantries, Slim let his anxiety show as he spoke. “Well, did you leave my note? Was there anything left there? Did everything seem okay?”

“Yes. Yes and how the Hell should I know,” Jess snapped back, tired from a busy day, and then seeing the hurt and anxiety in his best friends face he relented and backed down a little. “Woa down, big fella. Give a man a chance.”

Slims looked down at the ground, realizing how his actions had appeared.

“Sorry. I’ve been cooped up with Jonsey all day and things just kinda got to me.” He backtracked a little in his conversation. “ How was your day? You look  done in?”

“Reckon if the truth be known, I am feeling a little the worse for wear. I checked all the lower fence lines and then doubled back to check the fencing bordering on the Lazy E. So, in answer to your last question, everything on that stretch of their ranch looks fine, so I reckon everything is okay with them.”

With that little bit of positive news, Slim’s eyes lit up a little, and he made a peace offering to his younger friend. “Do you want to miss my riding lessons tonight? Maybe you should hit the hay early?” Slim was anxious to keep at his work outs, but he could at least recognize that Jess was not superhuman and a night of would do them both good.

Jess could see that what Slim really needed to hear was if there was any news from Eve. He took pity on his friend as the two walked together back to the ranch house. “‘Preciate that. Here, this may help your mood a little.” Jess handed Slim the lavender smelling note and was please to observe Slims face practically radiate happiness.

“Thanks, Jess. I owe you one,” he quipped, the strain now absent from his voice.

“You’re welcome. And, for the record, you owe me a lot more than one,” he teased his friend as the two entered the home together.

“There you are. Dinners on the table, it’ll be cold and spoiled if’n you don’t eat it now and that ain’t gonna sit well with me after I spent most of today preparing it.” Jonsey cut across any further conversation, and his tone did not sound too happy about their tardiness.

Slim and Jess looked at each other, exchanging looks that said that they both should just hold their own council until after they had eaten. Slim placed the note in his jacket pocket and sat down in his usual chair at the table, with Jess joining him immediately after removing his gun belt.

As Jonsey came in from the small kitchen, carrying the coffee, he looked at the two friends who where already eating their meal. “Good, thats what I like to see,” He joined them at the table and the conversation petered out as all three set about cleaning their plates.

As he finished, Jess started to stand to take the plates through to the kitchen, but Jonsey placed  gentle hand on his shoulder.  “Leave it be. You look done in son. I’ll do the dishes then you and Slim can go for your work out in the barn.”

Slim spoke around his last mouthful of food.  “Not tonight, Jonsey. Reckon I’ll have an early night.”

Jonseys eyebrows lifted at that statement, but then following Slims intense stare and picking up in his subtle nod, he observed Jess tired features. “It might be a good idea for you to have a night off. You have been making yourself a mite more useful around here during the day. What do you say, Jess. Should you give ol’ Slim here a night off?”

Jess knew when he was being given a way out, and he took it willingly. “Yeah, old Hard Rock and I already agreed to take it easy tonight. On account of his extra years, ya know.”

“Hey, I ain’t that much older than you,” Slim railed at the dig, then he smiled.” I’m going to sit on the porch for a time and read Eves letter.”

Jonsey looked at Jess in surprise,” You’ve a letter. I didn’t know.” He tried to suppress the worry in his voice.

Slim came to Jess rescue, knowing full well Jonsey still tried to pre read them when he could. He knew it was done out of love, but even so it rankled him.”Yeah, I saw it in sticking out of Jess pocket and made a grab for it. Otherwise I reckon Jess here had forgotten about it and I may not have received it till morning.”

Jess said nothing, simply shrugging apologetically.

As Slim took himself out onto the porch, he helped Jonsey clear the table, and then lifting his gun from the holster by the door, he picked up some cloth and told Jonsey he was going to clean his gun as he had neglected it of late, being to busy. Jonsey knew it was an excuse to join Slim on the porch to keep an eye on the tall blonde as he read his letter. He nodded his approval and went into the kitchen to do the dishes.

Sitting alongside Slim, Jess focused on his gun, occasionally casting a sideways glance at his friend. Apart from a brief frown, Slim seemed calm enough. When he had apparently finished reading he folded the letter and sat looking out across the ranch yard, the letter held lovingly in his hands.

After a few minutes had passed, Jess decided to break the silence. “So how’s your future wife doing? She been making any more do-dads for your future home?”

Slim had been daydreaming on exactly that, imagining sitting with Eve of an evening on their own porch, discussing their day and their plans for the next day. His friends question brought him back to the here and now.” What? Oh , sorry, my thoughts where else where.”

“Reckon I know where your thoughts were,” Jess teased.”I was asking if everything was okay at the Lazy E.”

“Appears to be” Slim smiled gently. “Since that idiot ranch hand left, they have been working real hard, and it is beginning to show now. Soon as I am able to, I am going over to help.”

“No can do, Pard. Not until you are fully well. You can’t be sure of not giving them this illness,” Jess advised seriously. “Don’t go undoing all this effort to keep them safe, just because you are concerned about them having to do extra work.”

Nodding slowly, Slim had to admit his best friend was right. No one really knew much about this illness, except it seemed to spread by close contact, and if’n you had it bad enough and lived, then a few months afterwards you didn’t appear to catch it again. “Its just that Eves writes that they are all so tired. Her youngest brother is trying to do the work of a full-grown man, and he fainted the other day, from sheer exhaustion.”

Jess tried to keep his concern from his voice, “Is he alright now?”

“All Eve says is that her Pa ordered him to stay home for a few days and rest up. I’m sure he’s okay or she’d have said more.”

Jess was sure Eve would not want to worry Slim, knowing he had been ill, and so may have kept things vague, but he kept his opinion to himself. “Doesn’t  sound too bad. I kinda know how he feels. She say anything else? And I don’t mean any of the lovey dovey stuff,”

Slim huffed a laugh, “Strictly not for your ears, Partner. Do you remember her younger sister, Caroline?”

Jess hesitated. All those years ago when he had met Eve, he recalled a small girl, barely five if a day, but slim didn’t know of his past association with Eve and her family. He struggled to recall that child as she would be now. “I think you may have mentioned her, and she was at the dance wasn’t she. All giggles, energy and mischief.”

“That’d be the one,” Slim laughed. “Well. Anyway, Eve says she thinks all this is making Caroline sad. She seems to have lost her bounce and is a lot quieter than normal. Eve seems more worried about her than anything else. She even asked her to be her bridesmaid, and that barely raised a smile.”

“I guess being tied to her home, with only her family to talk to would dampen anyone’s spirits, and a girl her age craves some adventure. Boy or girl, around that age ranch life can be pretty boring. Think of Andy.” Jess added wisely.

“Reckon your right, Jess. Say, it’s getting darker out here, time for that early night I promised you, I think.”

The two men stood and headed in, to find that Jonsey had prepared a last mug of coffee each, in preparation for a much-needed early night.

Part of Eve’s last letter had said she doubted she would be able to get away to leave any other notes for a time, but that Slim should not worry about that. For Jess that meant he needn’t worry about any detours up to the ridge for the next few days at least.

It was four days after that last note that Mort came calling. He had tried to keep an eye on outlying ranches as well as the town, but with so many people dying or ill, he had found that his time was best spent in Laramie itself. However, those who lived at the Sherman ranch and Relay station where special to him, so when a telegraph arrived from Andy for his brother, it was all the excuse he needed to call on them and ensure himself that Slim was indeed on the mend.

Sitting astride his horse at the top of the track that led down to the relay station, Mort watched as Jonsey stepped out of the house, and wandered round the yard searching for any errant eggs he had missed in his early morning search.

“Jonsey, Hey , Jonsey,” he bellowed, in an attempt to get the older man to notice him.

After taking a moment to recover from the shock of a voice suddenly yelling his name out of nowhere, Jonsey covered his eyes from the late afternoon sun, and peered up the road. His shoulders relaxed and the tension drained from his body when he recognized the familiar outline of Mort Corey, Laramie’s sheriff. It was a very pleasant surprise to see another person’s face, after so long in self inflicted isolation. He waved back enthusiastically, then he started to walk up the hill. Jonsey knew he was not likely to get the influenza, and also that Mort had confided in him that he thought he had also appeared immune to its lethal effects, so he saw no reason why he should not get close enough to at least chat, without cause for concern.

As he saw the paper Mort was waving in the air, he hesitated, and his enthusiasm waned at the thought that it may be bad news that brought Mort out to see them. He mentally shook himself and braced himself for the worse. Not going to talk to  Mort would not change the news he brought, good or bad. At least this way, he got to ‘vet’ it prior to passing it to Slim.

Still taking care not to stand too close to Mort, Jonsey tipped his bowler hat in greeting. “Nice to see ya, Mort. I take it that’s what brought you out of town?” Jonsey got straight to the point, giving a curt nod towards the note in Mort’s gloved hand.

“Do I need something specific to come calling?” Mort quizzed, and then continued,” But given the circumstances these days, it’s reasonable to assume I do. It’s a while since I enquired about Slim, last time was just after Jess returned and you said he seemed to have improved.”

“He’s back to his old stubborn self. Weak as a kitten and muscles like wet rags, but he’s well on the mend. He can’t sit a horse yet, but Jess is helping him work on that,” Jonsey stated, all the time his eyes on the letter in Mort’s hand. “How are you, and everyone in town?” he added, courteous despite his anxiety about the letter.

“My wife and I are fine, Jonsey. Its strange really, most of us older folk are untouched. It’s the young and healthy that it seems to be decimating. There’s a lot of grieving in town, when you do come back in, you will find it a changed and more somber place. But no one has fallen ill for two days, and the last death was four days ago, so I’m hoping it has done its worse and moved on.” Mort’s face briefly reflected the pain and loss he had witnessed over the past months. He forced himself to focus on more cheerful thoughts.  “So are Slim and Jess back on speaking terms?”

“Back to normal and more so. Whatever was going on with Jess seems to have disappeared into the air, and he and Slim have forged a friendship that is stronger than ever.”

“Good to hear,” Mort smiled, happy at some good news at last. Then he remembered the note in his hand.”Sorry, I almost forgot this. It gave me the excuse to come out here, otherwise I’m pretty much tied to town lately. I’ve not even had a chance to check on the other local ranches.”

“Jess has been keeping an eye on the Lazy E. Apart from being down their ranch hand, they are tired but managing.”

Mort nodded, then reaching out, he passed the note to Jonsey. He noticed the frown of concern on the older mans face.”It’s nothing to worry about. There ain’t no stages running as you know, so letters have stopped coming in mostly. That’s a wire that came in this morning.” A slightly guilty look flitted across his features. “Couldn’t help but see its from Andy and he says they are all well. The infection seems to have passed them by.”

“Hummph, taken to reading other peoples mail, now,” Jonsey said grumpily, and then felt guilt as he recalled that was exactly what he himself had been doing with Eve’s letters”

Fortunately, Mort was used to the old man’s mannerisms, and knew he did not mean it offensively. “It’s my job to know what’s happening in town and hereabouts. Besides, old Smithy was on the telegraph when it came in, so everyone knows about it by now.”

“So that old gossip is doing okay?” Jonsey stated, happy to here one of his confidents from town was alive and well.

“Like I said, this illness seems to hit the youngsters hardest. But that doesn’t mean we old uns are getting away with it. Say, did you say the ranch hand from the Lazy E had left?”

“Mr Egerton ran him of. He found out he had defied his orders to stay on the ranch and had been going of to drink with his friends at night.”

“I thought I had caught a glimpse of him with some other fellas on the outskirts of town a few weeks ago. Some people don’t have any common sense or any thought for others.” Mort hesitated, before continuing, “One of the jobs I have to do tomorrow is to try and identify the remains of some bodies I found at a camp site a few miles outside of town. The bodies look like they had been there for around a week or more. Animals had got to them. From the look of the site and the empty whiskey bottles, they had been having a good time, then between the drink and the illness they quickly became too incapacitated to move. Doubt it would do them any good even if they could. Only reason I found them was one of their horses came wandering into town alone. I back tracked and found their camp. The other horses had been tethered close to a stream and so hadn’t fared too badly. There at the stables now.”

“Dad gum fools.”Jonsey shook his head.

“Still, fools or not, they lost their lives to this illness. So, Jonsey, give my regards to Slim and Jess, I’ll call again when I can.” He started to turn the horse around back towards town, his shoulders hunched against the worries he carried on his back, then he turned back, “Any reply to the wire before I go?”

Jonsey had almost forgotten that maybe Andy needed to know how everyone was. “Ahh, yes, sorry. Just tell Andy we are all fine. Oh, I ain’t got any money on me, so maybe next time. Sorry.”

“I’ll pay for it. You can buy me a drink next time you or Slim are in town, whenever that may be.” Then with a tip of his hat, Mort was gone, heading back to Laramie.

As Jonsey walked back down the hill, he hummed a little tune. He glanced up to see that Slim was sitting on the porch. He wondered how long he had been sitting there, and if he had seen Mort give him the letter, but it didn’t matter anyway, as this note only contained much awaited good news.

Shading his eyes against the late noon sun, Slim fixed Jonsey with a hard stare. “Now don’t you go trying to hide anything from me? Who was that? I thought it was Mort but I kinda couldn’t see clearly against the glare”

“It was Mort. He came to check on us,” Jonsey replied casually.

Slims eyebrows rose questioningly, “I thought I saw him hand you something,”

“Ain’t nothing much wrong with your eyesight, bright sun or not. Here,” he thrust the note towards Slim, “and I wasn’t hiding it from you, before you even suggest it,” he complained.

Slim took it from him and found himself hesitant to open the folded paper. He both hoped for good news but feared the worse.

“Well, go on. It won’t bite ya, If’n that’s what’s worrying you. It’s from Andy and its good news.” prompted Jonsey.

“Been reading my letters again, Jonsey?” Slim teased, feeling easier now he knew that it was not bad news.

“Nope. No need. Mort told me the contents mostly, and as it was Smithy on the telegraph when it came in, most of Laramie knows its content.” Jonsey retorted.

Only momentarily distracted by this fact, Slim opened the telegraph and read over the few brief lines. “Andy says they are all well. No one got ill by them and he wants to know when he can come home,” he gave Jonsey a brief synopsis of the wire, then continued “We need to send him a wire to let him know  how we are. He must be real worried, but we can’t let him know I’ve been ill, or he’ll try to get back here before its safe.” Slims handsome face creased with a frown as that thought entered his churning mind.

“Taken care of Slim. I ain’t so green as I am cabbage looking. I asked Mort to send a reply and tell Andy we are all well, but basically no one is travelling at present, so he needs to wait.”

“Thanks Jonsey. Say, did you pay him?” Slim was as honest as the day was long, and didn’t like to be indebt to anyone, even someone like Mort whom he considered as close as family.

“Didn’t have my wallet on me. But don’t worry on it, Mort says to buy him a drink when you get to town next, and he’ll call it quits,” then Jonsey headed inside, leaving Slim re- reading the wire. He didn’t think to give Slim any of the other news, and , with Slim, lost in happy thoughts of Andy’s eventual return and everything he would have to tell him about Eve, Jess and the new partnership, Slim did not think to ask.

When Jess arrived home in the early evening, Slim had already eaten, his appetite revived even further by the wire he had received.

As Jess sat at the table, his fully laden plate in front of him, he glanced worriedly across at Slim, who remained sat on the couch. “Are you okay? You’ve not been overdoing it, have you? Why ain’t you eating?”

Before Slim could reply, Jonsey ambled in from the kitchen with coffee for both men. “ By over doing it, you mean the two plates full he ate just ten minutes before you came home. His stomach was growling like an angry grizzly, and I couldn’t take the complaints of starvation any longer, so I fed him.”

Slim smiled guiltily and rubbed his bulging stomach. “ So hurry up, I need to work off this food and want to practice riding a bit further, maybe up to the road today.”

“Woa down, partner. Ain’t you just full of beans. Some of us have been working all day.” Jess replied around his first forkful of dinner. “Anyway, what has got you all fired up and rearing to go?”

Hand on hips, Jonsey looked between the two friends. “Slim has something to show you, haven’t you, Slim.” he prompted the blonde, who was obviously enjoying teasing his friend.

“Well?” Jess paused, his third mouthful suspended between plate and mouth.

With a wide smile, Slim produced the folded wire from his vest pocket. “ Mort brought this earlier. It’s from Andy.”

Jess hesitated as he reached for the note, worried briefly about what it might impart. Then reasoning that Slim would not have been so happy if it was bad news, he snatched it from his friend’s hand. “Well why didn’t you say so straight of,” Jess admonished. In between mouthfuls of food, Jess read the note. His face radiated his relief as he smiled broadly.”Sure reckon that is good news. I hope you told him to wait a mite longer before coming home. I mean , I sure do miss his mischief and company, but around here, people still seem to be ill.”

“Already sorted, Jess. Jonsey asked Mort to send a reply telling him we are fine and to wait till we give the okay. Besides, stages still aren’t running, hence the telegraph rather than a letter.” Slim elaborated.

“Oh, Slim, I should have said straight off, I passed the ridge today but there weren’t any messages.”

Determined not to have his good mood broken, Slim nodded and simply stated, “Well, guess Eve did say it would be a time till she could reply. Perhaps you can take another note from me and check again in another few days.”

Nodding agreement, Jess continued to devour his food, a day on the range having given him a powerful appetite. Then another thought struck him. “Mort say how things where in Laramie?”

Slim suddenly realized he didn’t really know, as he had failed to ask Jonsey for more details after receiving the note. “Jonsey?” he questioned.

Accepting that what he said was not likely to break the relaxed mood in the room, Jonsey briefly advised them of what Mort had told him, ending with the positive thought that the number of new people falling ill had dropped to zero. He didn’t mention the group of saddle tramps that Mort was trying to identify, from the mauled remains he had found. Since they had been alone at the ranch for an eternity now, it was extremely unlikely they would know these sad victims of a killer disease. Rightly or wrongly, Jonsey decided it was prudent not to shatter the feeling of happiness that pervaded the ranch house.

“Sounds like it won’t be too long before people can start to move around and life can get back to normal,” Jess commentated.

“Yeah, and then I can go see Eve again and we can finalize our arrangements,” Slim added, his eyes sparkling in anticipation.

“You’ll need to be able to stay in the saddle for more than five minutes first, Slim,” Jess brought him back to reality.

“Yeah, and Mort says to wait till he gives the all clear. Apparently the Doc is monitoring the situation and giving him advice.” Jonsey clarified.

“Good to hear the Doc is alive and kicking,” Jess added, recalling how frequently he seemed to end up under the good Doctors care.

“Hurry up and finish up, Jess,” Slim stood as he spoke. “I’ve got me a date with a horse and then a date with my future wife to keep.”

“Hold your horses, Slim. Let me finish up, then I’ll be right out,” but his words where lost to the ether as Slim, filled with the renewed vigor the news had given him, was already out the door and heading towards the stable.

*****

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Buoyed up by Andy’s telegraph, and the thought that things where slowly but surely improving, both men worked hard to achieve their self-imposed targets. As Slims strength improved, he was able to do small jobs around the ranch, which helped Jess out, and also gave Slim exercise. He was able to chop firewood for Jonsey, albeit in small amounts with rest breaks every five minutes or so.

With the routine jobs around the ranch house being taken care off, Jess was able to concentrate on maintaining fences and checking on the herd. He was able to return home by mid afternoon and dedicated his ‘spare time’ to helping Slim regain his horsemanship. The time passed quickly and pleasantly, and neither man mentioned checking on any message from Eve. Jess had no doubt that it was on his friend’s mind, especially when he caught him staring in the direction of the Lazy E, unaware that he was being observed. Eve has said she would not be able to leave many messages now, so Jess reasoned that Slim had decided to focus on recovering his strength, to be ready for the day he could safely visit his love.

It was five days after Mort’s visit, and Jess had finished checking the fence line between the Lazy E and the Sherman ranch. He had promised to do this some time back and had stayed true to his word. Seeing no issues, and it being a pleasant, warm afternoon, Jess decided to detour up to the ridge and check on Slim and Eves drop of point.  He reasoned that if there was a message, Slim would be over the moon, and if not, then his partner would be none the wiser regarding Jess’ visit to the trysting point.

His heart jumped to his throat when he approached the tree and saw that the ground had been disturbed and the tin was only partially buried. ‘Of course’ he thought, ‘an animal could have dug it up, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a message’.

Dismounting, he approached the tin almost reluctantly. Things had been going well, and he fervently hoped this was not bad news. “No good delaying the inevitable” he spoke aloud to the world in general. Stooping he retrieve the tin and reluctantly opened it. Folded neatly inside was lavender smelling note. The date on the exposed surface, written in Eve’s now familiar hand, was two days ago. He sighed, releasing the lung full of air he had been holding in, “Well, I reckon at least this means she is fit and well, so that ain’t bad news. Maybe our luck really is changing for the better now.”

Traveller gave a soft snicker, turning his head to watch as his master remounted, tucking the note into his jacket pocket in the same smooth movement.

As he turned Travellers head towards home, he stopped briefly to look down on the spot Slim had told him was the site of his future home with Eve. He had to admit, as the afternoon sun filtered gently through the trees , making the lush grass practically glow, that his best friend had good taste.

A small rabbit hopped towards the stream that sparkled as it ran over the stones in its shallow bed. Jess quietly pulled his rifle from its sheath and raised it to his shoulder. As if sensing the presence of a threat, the rabbit sat upright, its ears twitching, and then glance behind itself towards the tree line. Raising his eyes slightly, Jess saw four small rabbits hop out of the tree line to join their parent. He dropped his rifle and replaced it in its sheath.”It’s too nice a day to ruin with death. Let’s leave them to their meal. C’mon, Pard, lets head home. Slim sure will be happy to see this.” He patted his pocket, and rode of, content in with his world.

It was supper time, after helping Slim work out in the barn and after accompanying him on a short ride to the top road and back, before Jess remembered the note. On returning to the barn from the ride, Jess sent a happy but tired Slim back to the house to rest, while he took care of the horses and settled them for the night. As Slim was about to leave, Jess finally recalled the note. Feeling guilty at his tardiness in giving it to his friend, he called out to Slim. “Hold on , Pard. I picked this up on the ridge earlier,” He held out the note.

“And you didn’t think to say till now?” Slims tiredness showed in the irritated note in his voice.

“Aw, I’m sorry, Pard. You practically roped me into the barn to help you ride when I got in. Didn’t even give me time for a coffee,” Jess complained, by way of explanation for forgetting the note. “A man’s barely got time to think, when you get a bee in your bonnet about something.”

Now Slim dipped his head, also feeling guilty about the way he had been pushing Jess, in his own personal need to get fit.  “Yeah, sorry Jess, it’s just that I want to be able to ride out to see Eve, once Mort says its safe for folk to move around. She’ll be worried otherwise. Anyway, thanks for taking time out to go check for messages.” The blonde started to walk back to the house again, intending to sit quietly and read the note. It seemed like it was ages since he’d last heard from his beloved.

“It’s dated two days ago actually, Slim, so I reckon a few hours more shouldn’t make any difference,” Jess advised him, but Slim was already halfway across the yard, and gave no sign he had even heard him.

Half an hour later, Jess finished up in the barn and headed back to the ranch house, intending to eat supper and spend an hour or two exchanging pleasantries with Slim and Jonsey over a fresh mug of coffee, before retiring to his bed.

As he crossed the threshold, the somber atmosphere in the house hit him like a physical blow. Looking from Slim, slumped in his chair by the fire, the note crumpled in his hands, to a sour looking Jonsey, he said nothing, instead waiting for one of them to explain the feeling of worry that was in the room.

When Slim didn’t even lift his head to acknowledge his entrance, he walked into the small kitchen to pour himself a coffee.

He raised a dark eyebrow at Jonsey, in a silent question. Speaking in a soft voice, Jonsey tried to explain. “ It’s that note you brought. I know I shouldn’t have stopped vetting them. Now look what’s happened.” Jonsey nodded briefly in Slims direction.

“Jonsey, you know Slim told us he didn’t want any more mollycoddling. Besides, he’s almost better now, we ain’t got any right to read his mail. It didn’t sit right with me even when he was very ill, and it certainly isn’t right now.”

Before Jonsey could say more, Slim raised his head to intervene, and stop Jess being on the receiving end of Jonsey’s sharp tongue. “Jonsey, leave Jess be. I know you mean well, but I can handle my own problems.”

“What problems?” Jess asked, his gravelly voice laced with concern.

Not one to beat around the bush, Slim waved the note briefly.” Eve says her youngest brother has fallen ill and so has Caroline. She fears it is the influenza but can’t see how they caught it. She’s really worried about them, and she and her Ma are nursing them, while her Pa and eldest brother do what they can to run the ranch. She wants me to know this because she may not be able to get anymore letters out to me for quite some time.”

Eve’s letter had expressed how much she loved Slim and missed him. She was frightened for her siblings, and was especially upset at seeing her younger, lively and mischievous sister laid low. However, Slim didn’t speak of these more private musings. They were for his ears only.

Jess could tell there was more Slim needed to say, watching his friends face contort and change as his emotional turmoil churned inside him. “What do you want to do?” he prompted.

The younger man was nobodies fool and knew Slim should not go to the Lazy E, both because of the risk of taking the disease to them, but also because Slims health was still not ready for that sort of journey.

“I need to go to her!” Slim practically bit Jess’ head of, and then relented.  “I need to help her, Jess.”

“Reckon I can understand that, but you got to know it’s not possible right now. You aren’t able to travel that far, and even if you could, you’d be breaking Mort’s and even your own directive about not spreading the illness by travelling around.” Jess knew his friend had a very strong moral sense of right and wrong, and he hoped that moral code would make Slim see sense now.

As he watched, he could see Slims emotional war on his friend’s face. Slims strong sense of justice and need to follow the letter of the law, was in conflict with Slims need to see the love of his life, and make sure Eve and her family were all right. When Slim did not respond, Jess spoke again, hoping to snap his best friend out of his morose thoughts. “ Did Eve say how everyone else was, apart from taking care of those who are sick and managing the ranch?”

“She says she is well, as are her Ma, Pa and eldest brother, but they are tired. She says it probably isn’t the influenza, despite her fears, as they haven’t been to town since before we last met. Jess, she tells me to stay away, and not to worry. How can she ask me to do that, Jess?”

“She’s asking you because she loves you and knows you have been ill. Eve needs to know you are okay. She’s saying it because she doesn’t feel ill and isn’t worried too much. She’s saying it because she knows you for a strong, God fearing, law abiding man,  and she trusts you to do the right thing by staying here and not running off in a panic to check on her.” Jess concluded, hoping he had said the right thing, especially when he himself was fighting the urge to go to the ranch. He owed them a big dept, and even if they did not recall that long ago time, he did, and he was a man who paid his depts.

At this point Jonsey added his ten cents worth. “It pains me to say it, but Jess is right, for once. Listen to him, son.”

His lips pressed into a thin line, Slim stood and re- folded the note, then he walked over to carefully place it with the others that where kept safely in his treasure box. “Alright, I’ll stay away for now, but, Jess, I don’t care if the fences go to ruin, I need you to spend more time with me. I need to be able to stay in the saddle for longer than five minutes. When Mort says it’s safe to do so, I want to be ready to go to Eve.” Slims spoke softly, but emotional pain was causing his voice to catch in his throat. “Jonsey, Jess, I’m heading for that early night we talked about.” Then Slim retreated quickly to the bedroom. He wasn’t quick enough however, to prevent the other two men seeing the moisture gathering in his blue eyes. Neither commented as they saw him swipe angrily at his eyes, in a futile attempt to wipe away the tears of loss and frustration that were starting to fall.

Once the bedroom door shut behind him, Jonsey turned to Jess. Coffee in hand, Jess mentally braced himself for Jonsey’s angry tongue.

Surprisingly, Jonsey lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “What do you think? Is there anyway you can check up on them?”

“If we can still give them the illness, then I can’t physically call on them, but maybe, I was thinking I could mosey on over to that hill that I was on the other week. It overlooks their yard, and I may be able to catch a glimpse of them, at least enough to ensure Eve and her family are alright. That would help Slim, and maybe stop the dang fool working himself to death in an effort to get fit enough to ride.”

Jonsey nodded thoughtfully, “Yeah, that may help.” He stopped and Jess hoped that perhaps he had gotten away with his perceived mistake in giving Slim the un-vetted note, but then Jonsey spoke again. “And this time, speak to me before you say anything to Slim, good or bad news. In fact, don’t even tell him you’re going to do it.”

“Despite what you think, I ain’t a fool, Jonsey. But Slims a big boy, he wont thank us for wrapping him in cotton and both of us acting like a mother hen.”

When the older man spoke again, his voice was soft with emotion. “I know, son, but sometimes I have to protect you two from yourselves. Now if I was you, I’d take that coffee you’re nursing and have an early night. Sounds like Slim will be expecting an early start for both of you.”

“Thanks, old man, and for what its worth I know you have the best of intentions,” Jess threw over his shoulder as he also retreated to his bed.

“Hummph! I’ll give you old man. Let’s see if you like your biscuits burnt and your coffee cold tomorrow, when this old man oversleeps,” he said gruffly, but if Jess heard him at all through the bedroom door, he gave no reply.

*****

CHAPTER THIRTY

Slim was both an honest and determined man. Some would say he was stubborn, and true to his nature for the next few days he worked out with Jess, dismissing any ranch work that took Jess away from the ranch house as being irrelevant, and able to wait for a few more days.

The younger man didn’t mind, if it helped Slim deal with his concerns and fears for his future wife and family. By the third day Slim was able to sit in the saddle and ride at a trot for fifteen minutes at a time. It was nowhere near long enough for him to be able to go to the Lazy E, even if the restrictions on moving around where lifted.

But it was enough to mean that at the end of a third day of sweat and pain, Slim had to admit when he awoke on the fourth day, that he needed to rest.

Jess jumped at the chance to get out on the range and check the stock. For Jess it was a chance to escape Slims constant pushing. He hated seeing his Pard pushing himself to the point of collapse, but wisely kept his own council after his first suggestion that Slim take a break for a few hours, had resulted in a heated argument . They had been in the barn and their voices had become loud enough to reach Jonsey, who had been on the porch. He hurried across and told the two of them to cool off and remember why they were doing this. He pointedly told Slim Jess was right, and Slim needed to stop pushing too hard, but then the wily old man told Jess he needed to show more patience and control his temper.

Jess started to show his temper again, refuting Jonseys comment, but then a guilty smile turned up the corners of his mouth and calmed down.  “Sure, I reckon I can be hot headed, but its only ‘cause I don’t want to see this hardheaded fool relapse.”

It was Slims turn to feel guilty, “Sorry, Jess. I promise I’ll take it a bit slower.”

“So are you two all good now?” Jonsey asked, then continued before either responded, “So, there’s fresh coffee in the house, if’n you would care to join me.”

The two friends had exchanged a quick look of apology with each other and followed Jonsey into the ranch house.

With an unplanned free day, Jess chose to ride towards the Lazy E. He did not tell Slim of his intentions, but his first call was to check if there were any messages he could retrieve. Unfortunately the tin remained un-disturbed.

He was then about to go check the shared fence line when another thought struck him, and he turned his horse towards the Lazy E ranch house. He hoped he would catch another glimpse of the family from the hills above the ranch, and then could at least tell Slim the family was safe. If he saw nothing, then he would say nothing, and Slim would not be any more worried than he currently was.

The day had been cloudy from the onset, with rain always threatening. By the time he reached the hills overlooking the Lazy E ranch house, the sky was a dull grey and the light, despite it being early afternoon, was dull and heavy, as if it was approaching dusk. Jess, looked up at the sky, hoping the rain heavy clouds would not release the threatened deluge before he returned home.

From his vantage point above the ranch house, he could see the front of the house, and the door to the barn, but in the dull light everything was cast in shadow. At first there was no movement visible within the area he could see. He had sat patiently for ten minutes, toying with the idea of firing his gun as a signal to get the attention of anyone in the house and bring them outside. In the end he decided against it, as he doubted that the occupants would be able to see him in the trees at this distance and he worried that if the women where alone there, with the men and boys working on the range, the women may become fearful.

When a further ten minutes passed with no movement, he found himself almost drawn to head down into the yard himself. Just as he was about to turn away and direct Traveller down towards the ranch house, a movement to the side of the house caught his eye. He stood tall in the stirrups as he saw Eves, parents come around the side of the barn, Mister Egertons arm affectionately  around  his wifes shoulder. He couldn’t make out faces, but the grey hair of both figures identified them. Before he could worry where the other occupants where, another figure came out of the house and headed to the water pump in the yard. There was no mistaking Eve’s tall and shapely figure, as the filled two buckets and then waited for her parents to join her. With her father helping with the now full buckets, the three re-entered the house.

Jess stayed watching for another few minutes, hoping to see more family members, but reasoning that Caroline was probably in the house helping with the cooking and the two brothers would likely be out working the range, he was not too concerned.

He shuddered as the first fat droplets of rain fell, and somehow managed to run down his hat and drip onto his neck. Again looking at the darkening sky, he decided that he had seen enough to re- assure Slim and it would be sensible to head back. Getting soaked through was a sure way of becoming sick again himself. He turned Traveller’s head towards Sherman land, and as fast as was safe to do so, he headed home.

*****

It was a cold to the bone and very wet Jess that finally made it back to the Sherman ranch. After settling Traveller he headed into the house, hoping for hot coffee and dry cloths before speaking to anyone. Despite Jonsey’s forewarning about speaking to him first, he could see no reason to not come right out and tell Slim what he had seen. However, as he entered the ranch house by the front door, Jonsey intercepted him, having been alerted to his arrival by the sound of Traveller and Alamos nickering to each other in greeting.

“Coffee’s on the stove and piping hot, come through and get it,” Jonsey instructed. “You look wet through.”

“I am. I was going to change into some dry duds first, as much as a hot coffee is tempting,” Jess responded, trying to unsuccessfully sidestep Jonsey and head to the bed room he now shared with Slim.

“Slims resting up. Coffee first,” Jonsey insisted, almost forcibly pushing Jess towards the kitchen.

Digging his heels in, Jess turned to Jonsey. “Its all right, Jonsey. There was no messages, so nothing to report there,” Jess stated.

Jonsey stepped aside and Jess moved once more towards the bedroom, before mischievously adding, “Course Slim will be eager to know I did go see the Lazy E ranch.”

When he wanted to, Jonsey could be as fast as any of the other occupants of the relay station. He imposed himself infront of Jess again, as the younger man was forced to stand still, dripping water all over the floor. “Why you young whippersnapper. Why didn’t you say so straight of? Well. What happened?”

“Cant let you have all the fun, Jonsey,” Jess teased, and then relented, knowing that he need to tell the older man what he wanted to hear, if he was to stand any chance oeaching the bedroom and dry cloths.  “ I couldn’t see details, since I couldn’t sneak out Slims spy glass without likely giving the game away, and you insisted I shouldn’t tell him I was going to try and check on them one way or another. But I did see Eve and her parents outside the ranch house briefly. No sign of her brothers and sister, but likely they where busy either inside or out on the range.”

As Jess paused for breath, Jonsey eyebrows raised as he prompted him to say more, “Well?

“Like I said, I couldn’t make out faces or details, but they seemed well enough. Eve was collecting water, and her Ma and Pa came around from the back of the barn to help her. They went inside then. I stayed a mite longer but no one else came in or out and the rain started so I reckoned it was time to head home.” Jess once more started to head to the bedroom. “ Now its yur clean floor I’m dripping all over, and if’n I catch my death standing here wet to the bone, you aint gonna use any of that horse liniment of yours on me if’n you have to look after me as well.”

Jonsey finally stepped aside to allow Jess past.  “You’d best stop lollygagging around then and go change. If Slims awake, it will do him a power of good to hear what you just said.” Jonsey finally cracked a smile, “And, Jess,”

The dark-haired long-suffering cowboy looked back at Jonsey, waiting for the next issue, but he said nothing as Jonsey continued “Thank you, son”

Giving a brief nod and smile, Jess disappeared into the bedroom.

He was stripped to his long Johns and struggling to put on his only spare jeans, when Slim woke up. Glancing out the rain-streaked window at the cloudy sky, Slim cocked a questioning eyebrow at his friend. “Early retreat from the rain, huh?”

“Reckon you could say that. Checked the fences though, and sure didn’t find any problems.

Sitting up and swinging his legs over the edge of his bed, Slim pushed his blonde locks back from his eyes and peered through the storm induced gloom.

“Good, and I gotta admit I feel a hundred percent to. Tomorrow we should be able to get right back at it.”

“Sure we can,” Jess voiced a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “Providing I ain’t laid up after the soaking I got.”

“Why didn’t you take your rain slick with you?” Slim stood and stretched, cat like, “Better yet, you should have headed back the moment it looked like rain”

“ It weren’t as easy as that. I was too far out to make it back before the heavens opened. And I had other things on my mind this morning, other than packing my rain slick,or heavey jacket.”

Having now pulled on his boots, Slim sat back down on his bunk. “Ya did? What’s got you so hot and bothered that you didn’t think to check your saddle pack or pick up your jacket?”

Once more dressed in warm dry clothes, Jess sat down on his own bunk before answering. “I diverted and went to check on your message drop, just in case, since it’s been a time.”

A sparkle of anticipation lit Slims eyes. “You did. Well, don’t keep me hanging on,” Slim prompted. Torn between wishing for good news but fearing the worst.

Shaking his head in the negative, Jess felt guilty for telling Slim there had been no messages.

Forcing himself to keep a smile on his face Slim tried to calm his own fears by repeating the mantra he kept in his head whenever he started to worry re Eve. “She did say in her last message that she was unlikely to be able to leave the ranch for quite some time,” His shoulders slumped, and his clenched fist showed the frustration he had been trying to hide. “Darn it, Jess. I hope she is okay.”

Now Jess’ face split into a wide grin. “I can help with that. I detoured up to that hill that overlooks their ranch from a distance. I couldn’t make out details of faces, but I could recognize Eve as she filled buckets from the yard pump, and her Ma and Pa came round the corner, arm in arm,” Jess smug look reflected how he felt as he watched his friends face light up.

“How did she look?” Slim asked, his voice tight with emotion.

“I couldn’t see clearly from that distance and the sky was grey and dull. But she looked well enough to be pumping water vigorously

“You should have taken my spy glass, Jess,” Slim suggested.

“Oh, and how was I supposed to do that? First off, I wasn’t sure if’n I would get to go there, and second off, how was I supposed to get hold of your spy glass without alerting you and you getting all hot and bothered about my going.” Jess pointed out.

“Ahhh. So Old Jonsey swore you to secrecy then.” Slim said wisely.

“Kinda. He said he’d feed me hard tack and dry biscuits for a week if I let you know I was gonna try to check on them, and worse, there’d be no coffee for a month if I told you any bad news.” Jess replied. “Anyways, the news ain’t bad at all, so I shouldn’t starve to death.” Slim laughed out loud. “His bark is worse than his bite, Jess. And if he didn’t feed you, I’d have sneaked you some of my plate,”

“Oh, so I’m a charity case now, am I,” Jess joined in the laughter. “Her ma and Pa where looking real close. Guess it’s nice that after all those years as husband and wife they can still hold each other, all snug like.”

“When I think of Eve, that’s how I sometimes imagine us, years from now, still hugging, holding hands and stealing kisses when we think no one is looking.” A wistful look crossed Slims handsome features.

Jess felt heat spread up his face, as he turned beet red with embarrassment at the intimate picture Slims words put into his head. “Reckon I can hear Jonsey calling us to table,” he said, rapidly changing the subject matter.

Slim gave his best friend a gentle pat on the back as he stood up as well. “You look about ready to kill for a coffee, come on. Tomorrow, with your help, I’m going to recover some more of my strength and before we know it, I’ll be back in the saddle doing a full day’s work.”

“Sure will be looking forward to that,” Jess quipped, all the time secretly happy that his news had lifted Slims spirits so much. Jess followed Slim out to the main room, his stomach growling in anticipation of a hot meal and coffee.

*****

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Five days later, with Jess sharing his time between the ranch work and helping Slim improve his horsemanship, saw Slim able to ride for up to an hour at a time, even managing to gallop over short distances. Slim was no longer worrying about Eve and became even more focused on regaining his former strength.

By the fifth day Slim was now riding out to help Jess monitor stock, but only within a couple off miles of the ranch, needing to come home and rest for an hour around lunch, before trying his hand at chores around the house. He knew he was not quite ready for the trip to message point and back, and certainly not up to the round trip to the Lazy E yet, but he was content that he was getting better and closer to his goal with every passing day.

It was a bright clear morning, with all signs of the  rainstorm that had soaked Jess dissipated. The warm sun had warmed the three men’s spirits, and at last they felt things where getting back to normal. Laughter and joking around was more prevalent, and even the normally dour Jonsey had joined in.

That morning Jess had set about mending the coral with Slim helping with the lighter aspects of the work.  Jonsey had been forced to be creative with the limited rations they had left, and his small vegetable patch had been virtually stripped bare. Even his precious hens had been under threat, as both Slim and Jess had stated they could not eat any more eggs, whether they were scrambled, boiled or fried. With their now limited menu, Jess had said he would go hunting in the afternoon, looking to augment their meat larder. Slim had suggested he ride with him, as a test of his stamina and as an excuse to escape the boredom of the enforced isolation at the ranch.

As Jess dropped the last new cross pole into place in the coral, he heard a familiar voice shout his name. Despite the months since they had spoken, he could not mistake the familiar tone of Mort Corey, Laramie’s Sheriff.

Mort was driving a wagon and was guiding the team down the hill from the top road. Emerging from the barn with the last of the nails they had, Slim came to stand by Jess, and both men stood transfixed watching as Mort brought the wagon to a stop directly in front of them.

Jess removed his hat and swept a hand through his unruly black hair.”Sure is nice to see ya Mort, but—”

He was interrupted by Mort before he could say the obvious. “Likewise , Jess, Slim. I’ve come to say that there have been no more new cases or deaths from the influenza in Laramie or thereabouts for at least a week. I can’t speak for all the surrounding areas, but those I have been in touch with seem clear as well. A telegraph from the Cheyenne Sheriff confirms the same for his jurisdiction. The general feeling is that people can travel again, and if we are sensible, we should be able to return to business as normal.”

Slim was almost jumping on the spot with excitement, his mind racing towards visiting Eve, but at that point, Jonsey joined them, having been alerted to Mort’s arrival by the sound of a wagon trundling into the yard.

“Simmer down, Slim. Don’t go running off at the first drop of a hat. No matter the situation, you ain’t able to ride all that distance yet, never mind getting back here.”

Shoulders dropping in disappointment, Slim’s face morphed into a frown. He knew Jonsey was right, but it didn’t stop him wanting it, and he was about to argue back. Slim may be the normally logical and law abiding , sensible part of the partnership, but, as Jonsey would frequently say, when love stepped in the front door, common sense ran out the back.

Thinking quickly, Jess tried to sidestep the argument by deflection. “Say, Mort, how come your driving a wagon?” then Jess appeared past Mort to see the fully laden wagon base. “What’s that you’re toting?”

“It’s been a long time for a lot of folks, not to be able to get to town to buy supplies,” Mort replied with a gentle smile. “I’ve been letting folk take a few supplies from me, on behalf of Mister Jackson at the store. He is happy to take credit notes for relatively small amounts to, trying to help out. He’s got a good heart, as well as being a businessman, and I think he is kinda relieved that he and his wife, although they became ill, managed to recover. You could say he’s become a little more God fearing and a little less money grabbing.”

“A lot of folks are likely to be attending church soon, that never really made it before,” Jonsey nodded sagely. “Say, my supplies are running mighty low. Does that good will and credit extend to the Sherman ranch?”

“Your credit is more than good enough, both at the store and the bank. If you haven’t got cash, like I said, Jacksons offering credit, which he hasn’t done before. Even if he wasn’t, I’m happy to sub you folks,” Mort smiled.  “What do you need?”

Jonsey started to list of basics “Flour, sugar, all the basics,” he said as he moved to the back of the wagon to get a better look. “Just enough for a few days, then Jess can head in and get the rest, when I’ve had a chance to make a list. This is like manna from heaven,” he continued as he started to lift some of the small bags of the wagon and motioned to Jess and Slim to come and help.

“Say, you don’t happen to have nails and wire back there, do you?” Jess prompted.

“Nope,  strictly food items.” Mort laughed. The he noticed Slim hadn’t moved to help.” You okay, Slim?”

“What? Oh yeah,” he final looked at the Sherriff. “I’m feeling much better, back to normal.”

“He thinks he is,” Jonsey interrupted. “He just can’t sit a horse for long enough to reach the Lazy E.”

“Ahh!” Mort responded. “A lot of folk have found out that even when you recover, it’s taking a long time to get back to normal.”

Ignoring Jonsey, Slim looked keenly at Mort. “Do you think I can take some basic supplies to the Lazy E? It’s a lot further out than us, so it would save you the trip. I can do a credit note for them to, If’n you’d accept it.”

“No problem with that Slim. There credit is good at the store, and a credit note signed by proxy from you would be good.£ he winked at the younger man.

“Most everyone in town knew you and their eldest daughter where sweet on each other. We expected a wedding date set long before now,” Mort teased.

Now Slim smiled back. “It would have been, except for this influenza. Soon as I see her again, intend to remedy that.” Then Slim turned to Jess and Jonsey. Take the same as us for the Lazy E, Jess, but we can put it in the barn.

“Sure thing,  Slim. What are you thinking?” Jess replied as he took the large bag of flour Jonsey had chosen to the porch.

“We can load up the wagon, and take it to the Lazy E,” Slim stated firmly, “and Jonsey, no argument. I can drive a wagon, and if Jess comes with me, he can take over.”

Jess had returned, ready for another load, as this was said. “It’s all right Jonsey, he can even rest up in the wagon if it proves too much. But somehow I think seeing Eve will remedy that.”

Jonsey knew when he was beaten. “All right, but I’m holding you responsible, Jess.”

Jess shrugged and passed Slim a sack of flour. “Take this one to the barn then, Partner, and we’ll load up the wagon as soon as we are finished here.”

Slim smiled, content that he had won this battle, and was going to see Eve after so long a separation.

*****

As soon as Slim was out of ear shot, Mort turned serious. “I didn’t want to say this with Slim here, but we identified a couple of those bodies I found outside of town. It was hard after the animals had finished with them, but one of them had an I.O.U note for the bank for wages due from the Lazy E. It’d be a fair guess it was the ranch hand they had hired.”

“Yeah, and fired according the Eve’s letters. Her father suspected he’d been leaving the ranch to meet his drinking buddies.” Jonsey confirmed. “Don’t say anything to Slim. No point worrying him now. Jess saw them from a distance less than a week ago. They seemed fine.”

Mort nodded, then changed the conversation rapidly as Slim re-appeared. He pulled a wad of paper and a pencil stub from his jeans pocket. “Okay, tell me what is booked to the Sherman ranch, and what I list for the Lazy E.”

In a few more minutes the Jess and Slim had taken the required supplies, carefully dividing them between the kitchen and the barn. Jonsey finished listing what that they had taken, and Mort handed the lists to Slim to sign.

He glanced back at his wagon bed, noting that they had left a good amount for the other farms. He raised his eyebrows in question “You sure you took enough for here and the Lazy E?”

“It’s enough, Mort. Thanks.,” Slim replied. In a few days, we can head to town and buy whatever else we need, but there are others out there who may not be able to make it in just yet.”

“That’s good thinking, Son. I’ll be heading on then. Thanks for saving me a trip out to the Lazy E.” Mort gently flicked the reigns and the horses started to pull away.

The three men stepped back. “No, thank you, Mort. Take care,” they chorused together.

*****

The moment Mort’s wagon disappeared from sight, Slim turned on his heel and headed to the barn. “C’mon, Jess. Stop dragging your feet,” he called back over his shoulder.

“What? Woa down, Slim, where’s the fire?” Jess called back.

“Places to go, people to see,” stated Slim, fully energized by the news Mort brought.

Given his age, and his sarco-illiac back problem, as he frequently reminded the men about, Jonsey could be quick on his feet when the situation called for it. He placed himself between Slim and the barn door. “Where do you think you are heading?” he demanded of Slim.

“I don’t want any arguments about this, Jonsey. I’m going to load the wagon and take the supplies to the Lazy E.”

“Oh no you don’t, son. You wouldn’t make it.”

“Jonsey, I ain’t riding, and Jess will be with me. He’ll do most of the driving, won’t you, Jess?” Slim threw a look at Jess that was part begging and part insistence that he should agree.

Looking between the two men as they faced off, Jess shrugged. He felt like he was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. However, when needed, the often hot-headed younger man could keep a cool head and be tactful. “Look, I will go along, and do all of the driving if need be. Jonsey, I will make sure Slim behaves. If not, old hard head here is just gonna try to ride out there anyway.” Jess looked at Jonsey hoping he’d see reason, as he continued. “Least this way, I’ll be with him, and he can rest up in the wagon if he needs to. I’ll even pack some straw and blankets, just in case.”

Jonsey seemed about to object, then taking in the hard set of Slims jaw and the determination in his eyes, he slowly nodded. “All right, Jess, but you’d best make sure he rests up, like he has needed to most afternoons. I’m holding you responsible if he relapses.”

“Hey, Jonsey, I’m a big boy now. I don’t need baby sitting,” Slim objected.

“Reckon you are, but I ain’t planning on crossing Jonsey and having to carry you home. So we do this my way, or we don’t do it,” Jess insisted. “But before we do anything, we need something to fill our bellies and I need coffee to keep me sane.”

Driven by adrenaline and hope, Slim was eager to get going. You can eat as we go, Pard,” he argued back, not wanting to delay any further on seeing his beloved.

“Slim, I need a hot meal and you need to clean up.” Jess argued right back.

“Clean up? What’s that supposed to mean?” Slim scratched his head in puzzlement.

“It means you smell like a well used horse blanket and you’re covered in saw dust and dirt. Eve may be fool enough to love you, but after all this time, she won’t recognize you looking like that.” Jess waved his hands at Slim, indicating his dirty work cloths and dust covered dull hair. A shower might be a good idea first. I promise I’ll have eaten and loaded the wagon before you are good to go.”

“You don’t look so chipper yourself,” Slim retorted, even though he knew Jess was right. He wanted to see Eve again desperately, but he also wanted to hug her and kiss her and not worry about covering her in dirt and dust.

Jess picked up on that fact as well. “I ain’t the one whose arms she’ll be falling into, Pard.”

Finally Slim nodded. “Okay, I’ll take a shower and change. Jess, if you load the wagon, and hitch up the team, I’ll join you and we can both have a coffee and some grub. Does that sit well with you, Jonsey?”

“I’ll take it as it’s probably the best I’m going to get from a lovesick mule like you,” Jonsey said reluctantly and headed back inside to re- heat the coffee pot and fry some eggs.

Slim headed of to his room for clean cloths and a towel, while Jess, as he had promised, went to the barn and loaded the wagon, He ensured that there was a layer of straw and a blanket in case Slim tired and needed to rest, especially on the return journey. He wasn’t too happy about Slim undertaking that length of a journey right now, but he understood his best friends need, and knew he wouldn’t be able to dissuade him, so this was the best compromise he could make.

By the time he had finished and returned to the house, he was just in time to meet a much cleaner Slim on the porch. As they entered, the smell of fresh coffee and eggs and biscuits was strong enough to even tempt Slim to delay for ten minutes to enjoy the nourishment.

“Don’t forget we need some meat, Jess. Unless Slim here is prepared to let you slaughter on of his precious herd,” Jonsey reminded Jess, as he filled his mug for the second time.

“I’ll do my best, Jonsey, even if its just a couple of squirrels. The way you cook it, squirrel stew can taste like caviar. Then when I go into town you can add salt beef, and a slab of bacon to the list.” Jess mouth watered at the thought.

“When did you eat caviar, son? Although I appreciate the compliment.” Jonsey teased back.

“Hmm, well you two don’t know diddly squat about my history,” Jess eyes twinkled with mischief, “but it aint that tasty, its an acquired taste, shall we say.” Then he laughed as the other two sat opposite him, their mouths open and jaws slack in surprise.

It was Slim who recovered first. “Come on, Jess, times a wasting,” then he was up and out the door, leaving Jess to hastily put on his gun belt, pick up his rifle and snatch the parcel of rations Jonsey handed him, before he to headed out the door.

Slim was sat on the wagon, reins in hand when Jess jumped up on the seat beside him. “You sure you want to drive this thing, the teams feisty, having not been hitched up in a while?” Jess asked.

On an emotional high, Slim flashed him a grin. “I sure do. Besides, it’ll give Jonsey a conniption fit, seeing me take the team.” Then he flicked the reins and the horses surged forward, leaving Jonsey shouting reprimands at them from the porch.

“See what I mean?” Slim laughed, feeling free and fully happy for the first time in what felt like an eternity.

Even the sun seemed to be shining extra brightly for him, and he found himself whistling a tune that he had danced to when he had experienced his first dance with Eve.

Giving his friend a sideways glance, Jess shook his head in amazement at how a day could change so suddenly. Then he returned his gaze to the road ahead and started scanning the woodland in the hopes of a wild turkey or rabbit to appease Jonsey.

Although the two ranches where only a relatively few miles apart as the crow flies, due to natural hazards, the road a wagon needed to take meant a journey of several hours. The road took them through some denser woodland, as it wound around some of the steeper hills and ridges that separated the Lazy E from the Sherman ranch. It was here, in a quite section of the road that Jess urged Slim to pull over. Impatient to get to see Eve, Slim did as requested, but his voice sounded peeved when he asked why they needed to stop.

“Quite your voice down, Pard,” Jess practically whispered. “Firstly, lets rest the horses for a few minutes, secondly, we should change over. You can rest up before we reach the ranch. You don’t want to arrive there all hot and bothered and collapse into her arms,” then Jess gave a mischievous smile. “Then again, maybe that’s your plan.”

Over to the right, the trees had thinned a little, and an area of verdant grass seemed to sparkle as the sunlight through the trees cast dancing patterns over it. Jess gaze ws drawn to a slight movement over on the far side of the glade.

“I’m fine, Jess, I don’t–” Slim started to say, but Jess hushed him with a shake of his head and a soft “sssshhh”.

Jess pointed to the far side where he had seen the movement, and as Slim peered in the direction he had indicated, he reached behind the seat and retrieved his rifle. As quietly as he could, and with as slow and unobtrusive a movement as possible, he raised the rifle to his shoulder and sighted down the gun barrel.

Both men remained virtually motionless for the next sixty seconds or so. Then the grass on the far edge of the clearing stirred and slowly, looking cautiously around it, a wild turkey strutted into view. Jess held his breath, keeping the rifle motionless, as the wild bird took another step forward. Slim glanced between the bird and Jess but knew better than to distract his friend.

The world stood still for a few more seconds and then a sharp crack split the silence. The smaller birds in the surrounding trees, took to the air with a flurry of wings and twitters, but the object of the commotion fell silently into the grass, the victim of a perfect killing shot.

Jess handed his rifle to Slim and jumped down from the wagon. He strode through the knee-high grass, to the spot where the bird had fallen, and stooped down the retrieve his prize. Straightening up, he triumphantly held his prize up for Slim to view. “This should provide for a few meals and keep old Jonsey happy,” he stated triumphantly.

He wrapped his prize in an oil cloth from the back of the wagon, and stowed it under the seat, before moving around to Slims side of the wagon, where he stood looking expectantly at his friend.

“What?,” Slim raised his eyebrows, acting dumb, “ You want me to give you a medal or something?”

“Sure I do, but right now I want you to move over, and let me take over the team.” Jess retorted. “I promised I’d look after you, and even that bush turkey won’t save my hide from Jonsey if’n you relapse. So move over, or do I need to make you.”

“You and who’s army,” Slim snapped back, then he relented a little. “Look, Jess, Eve doesn’t know how ill I have been. I need for her to see everything is fine.”

“Reckon I can understand that Slim, but it’s around another couple of hours to the Lazy E at a steady pace.” Then Jess face lit up as an idea came to him.

“Look, what say I drive until we are just outside of the ranch, before they can see us, and then you can take over. You can rest up in the back of the wagon for now, and when Eve sees you, you will look good to go”

Though Slim was loath to admit it, he was tired. Despite his high spirits, when his mornings work had combined with the past hour controlling the feisty team, his muscles now felt like he had been on the receiving end of a stampede. Grudgingly he gave in and passed the reins to Jess.

Jess took them, but when Slim remained seated he made no move to urge the team onward. “Well, come on, times a wasting,” Slim prompted.

“Ain’t going nowhere, partner. Not until you climb into the back and make use of the bed I made up,” Jess glanced over his shoulder at the straw and blankets he had laid out on the wagon bed before leaving the ranch,

“Aww, surely that was just for Jonsey’s benefit,” Slim whined.

“Nope. You know you’ve rested up in your bunk for at least an hour each afternoon. Sure don’t see why this afternoon should be any different.” Jess set his jaw in what Slim called his stubborn look and dropped the reins into his lap. “We ain’t moving till you go rest up.”

“But I don’t feel tired. I won’t sleep!” protested and equally stubborn Slim.

Seeing that Slim was not going to listen to reason, Jess switched his line of persuasion. “Care to make a bet on it. I’ve got a silver dollar piece here that I’m willing to bet on you being asleep within ten minutes of hitting the hay, literally.”

Determined not to sleep, but acknowledging, at least to himself, that his back and shoulders ached, and lying down might help, Slim reluctantly gave in and climbed over the seat into the back of wagon. To save face he fixed a knowing glare on Jess. “So, let’s see this silver dollar,” he demanded.

“Slim!” Jess face looked shocked, as he replied in mock horror,” Are you callin’ me out?”

“I know you and that two headed coin toss of yours,” came the joking reply.

“Its back at the ranch, and anyway, there’s no chance of you winning, so there ain’t no worry about me needing to produce it.”

“We’ll see,” Slim responded as he pulled the sack of flour over to rest his head on.

Seeing his friend settled, Jess flicked the reins and the wagon lurched forward before settling into a rocking rhythm as they once more headed towards the lazy E.

Despite Slims protests, it was less than five minutes before Jess heard the gentle snores that assured him his best friend had fallen into a much-needed sleep, and his silver dollar was safe.

*****

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

True to his word, after another ninety minutes traveling at a gentle pace, Jess reached the final stretch of road before the Lazy E ranch house would come into view. About thirty minutes away from the ranch house, Jess had thought he had caught a brief glimpse of a horse close to the tree line on the higher hills, but it was too far away to make out a rider. He hadn’t tried to hail them, not even get their attention by a shot. At the distance they where, his voice would not be heard, and he doubted a shot would achieve anything other than waking Slim and scaring whoever/ whatever it was he thought he had seen. He had seen no one on the road as he drew closer to the house, but that did not worry him, as he assumed they would be further out on the range seeing to stock.  Bringing the wagon to a stop once more, Jess twisted around and gave Slims shoulder a shake.

It took several vigorous shakes of Slims shoulder, and an exasperated demand from Jess to rouse the sleeping man. “C’mon, Slim. For a man who wasn’t tired, you sure sleep deep. Wake up. I can’t take much more of that earthquake rumble you call a gentle snore.”

“Mmmphh!” Slim mumbled, and rubbed his eyes, trying to remember where he was. “Jonsey’ got breakfast ready?” he mumbled, trying to stifle a yawn.

“We’re not far of the ranch, Slim. It’s time to wake up, sleepy head.” Jess laughed at his friend’s confusion.

“Wha–? Ranch? What’s going on?” then Slim ran a hand through his blond mop, pushing it away from his eyes. Lifting his head, he looked around, as his sleep clouded mind cleared, and he remembered where they where. “Where close to the Lazy E?”

“Glad you finally back with us. Open those baby blues of yours and look around. The ranch house is about another ten minutes ride, so spruce yourself up and get ready to take over the reins.” Jess scooted over on the wagon seat to make room for his best friend.

Slim stood up and brushed off the straw. Climbing into the front of the wagon, he sat down on the seat Jess had vacated. “How do I look?” he asked.

“Like a man who’s just fell into a haystack.” Jess teased. At Slims puzzled look, he reached over and plucked several pieces of straw from the tousled blonde hair.

“Thanks, Pard.” Slim took the reins from Jess but made no move to urge the team forward.

After a minute of no action, Jess gave Slim a sideways glance. “What’s wrong? You look just fine, though I doubt Eve will care how you look really, she’ll be so pleased to see you. You’ve been chomping at the bit to see her for weeks now, so get a move on, or it will be evening before you know it,” Jess urged.

Slim hesitated, and then deciding that he could trust Jess not to poke fun at him, he explained. “My stomachs churning. The very first time I saw her, I got butterflies in my gut. I knew she was the one, Jess. When I went over to speak to her, I have never been so nervous in my life. I swear I’d rather have faced down a gang of ruthless killers than risk her snubbing me that first time. ‘Course, now I know Eve would never be so hurtful as to snub anyone, but that first time I went to speak to her, I was sick with nerves.”

Jess looked at Slim with sympathy, secretly recalling his first impressions of the younger Eve that had helped save his life. He had not shared that part of his life with Slim, and currently he did not intend to do so, if ever. However, that experience enabled him to sympathize with his friend. “Reckon I can understand that.” was all he said.

Seeing no criticism in Jess face, Slim took a deep breath and continued,  “ Each time I saw her after that, I got that little flutter, never as bad as that first time, but always there, none the less. I got it now, almost as bad as that first time.”

“It’s been a time since you saw her, Slim. Reckon its only natural you’d be nervous. She won’t have changed, and judging from those letters you shared, neither will her feelings for you. If anything, as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. She’ll be overjoyed to see you.” Jess gave Slim a re-assuring pat on his shoulder.   “So, lets go, things aren’t gonna change, no matter how long you sit here hesitating.”

The smile that spread across Slims handsome features said it all, and with a light flick of the reins, the team pulled forward. Jess sat quietly, his mind ruminating over the future plans for the ranch that he and Slim had been discussing. He knew, as Slims future wife, Eve would naturally have a say, but Slim had already re-assured him that Eve had approved of the partnership, and thought it was a grand idea. He found himself looking forward to her involvement and contribution to the future developments. He recalled how intelligent and considerate she had been all those years ago when she had helped take care of him.

Slims thoughts where also full of Eve, but on a slightly less altruistic level. It had been a long time since he had held her in his arms and felt the soft pressure of her lips against his. He could almost feel her shapely body as it pressed against his, seeming to mould against him, almost like the two of them could melt into each other and become one entity. His senses recalled the smell of lavender that seemed to surround her, and the taste of vanilla when their lips met, and their kiss deepened. As his traitorous thoughts wandered deeper into his last kiss with her, he found his cheeks reddening and suspected that color was creeping up from his neck. He turned to look at Jess when he heard the suppressed snigger from his friend. “What’s so funny?” he said, embarrassed at the idea Jess could be reading his mind.

“Nothing Pard,” Jess hastened to re-assure Slim, but couldn’t resist adding,  “Penny for your thoughts.”

“Not thinking anything, just focusing on the road. There are a lot of ruts here. They probably haven’t had a chance to repair it.” Slim tried to sound innocent, but the pink color now glowing in his cheeks, betrayed him.

“Ohh. It’s the thought of all that work that making you red and sweaty,” Jess stated, schooling his face into an expression of innocence.

Slim said nothing more, instead urging the team into a faster pace. Beside him, Jess allowed himself to laugh. Both men were relaxed and happy.  Now, for the first time in what felt like an eternity, they felt life was returning to normal and the future looked bright.

As they turned the last bend and pulled into the yard, both men looked around. The yard was empty, but at this time of the day, that could be normal, before the men came in from the range. However, as he looked around, Jess felt the hairs on his neck stand on end. Something was not right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

A quick glance at Slim told him his friend felt uneasy to.

“Mister Edgerton, Eve,”  Slim shouted but there was no response. “Hello, is there anybody home?”

Jess noticed the bucket by the pump, tipped on its side, rather than hanging by the trough. The corral gate was open and there where no horses inside. Again, that could be explained by everyday operations on a busy ranch, but to Jess’ well honed instincts, something did not feel right. There was something missing. Then it hit him. Just as in their own ranch yard, most ranches kept chickens for both eggs and meat when needed. “Didn’t you say Mrs Edgerton kept hens. You said she was particularly proud of ‘em, I recall. Something about Bantams she brought over from Europe. Where are they?”

He could see the color drain from Slims face, as he too realized something looked askance. “Usually they roam the yard, but she did keep them penned up at times, if’n she thought there was any critters around after a free meal. I think she kept them round the back,” Slim replied quietly as he looked around. He was concerned not only by the chicken’s absence but also by the absence of any noise to indicate their presence.

“Reckon the family got the news already and so headed into town. They were probably low on supplies, and all of them would want to have a chance to go shopping,” Jess tried to re-assure his best friend, although he wasn’t convinced himself.

Shaking his head, Slim spoke softly, a tremor in his voice. “I think Eve would have wanted to come to our ranch first.” He shrugged, trying to shake of the creeping unease. “But she would go with her mother if she was asked to.”

“Let’s go into the house,” Jess suggested.

“It doesn’t feel right just barging in, especially it they have locked up and headed into town. Look, let’s check around outside first. I’ll check the barn, can you check around back where they keep their milk cow and her calf, and the hens I think. I’ll meet you back here and if we cant find anyone, then I reckon we try the house.” Slim jumped down, fear making him feel shaky, but he forced his long legs to carry him towards the barn, where the doors hung open.

Keeping his hand close to his gun, a habit learnt from a hazardous past, Jess climbed down and head around towards the back of the house, in the direction he had seen the Edgertons walk from when he had last looked down on the ranch, in what felt like an eternity ago now.

Stepping through the open door of the barn, Slim’s steps hesitated, and he stopped still, taking in the emptiness and the eerie silence that hung in the air.

The stalls where open and empty, with hay scattered around indiscriminately. A half-cleaned saddle and tack lay against the far wall, the bottle of oil that was being used to clean them was empty and tipped over on the floor. The only trace of its content the darker stain on the hard packed dirt. Whoever had been cleaning the equipment was either a very clumsy worker or something of great import had dragged them hurriedly away from their work.

With legs that felt stiff with tension, Slim forced himself to move around the barn, noticing the disarray and lack of any animals. The tracks of horses led out of the barn, but they where lacking any direction, instead milling around, lost, before heading out. They were at least two days old and did not indicate that they had bore riders. The few bales of hay looked like they had been torn apart, the nourishment devoured randomly.

Icy cold fingers of fear crept up and down Slims spine as he turned and headed out of the barn, He forced himself not to run, telling himself that whatever had happened had occurred a few days ago at least. Turning towards the back of the house, he went to meet Jess, rather than anxiously wait at the wagon. As he turned the corner he bumped into a grim-faced Jess.

The latter made no attempt at the usual joking banter. Before Jess could speak, Slim spoke, his voice barely a whisper, “T—The barn, it looks like the Marie Celeste. No stock, disrupted hay bales, tack left all over the floor.” Slims hands where shaking, “We need to check the house. Something’s very wrong.

Finally finding his voice, Jess tugged gently on his friend’s arm, stopping him turning towards the house. “I’ve found the chicken coop, it’s empty too, but the hens are nosing around outside. The milk cow and her calf have wandered off too, looking for fodder likely.” Jess was stalling, hesitant to say what he needed to. “ Look, I think you need to come with me first,”  He tipped his head to look over his shoulder, back the way he had come, his face marred by worry and concern for Slim.

Slim was torn, he needed to check the house, but dreaded what he would find, and now Jess was urging him to go to the back-yard area, and his friends face didn’t bode well.

Making his decision, he turned around and reluctantly trailed behind Jess. The chicken coop and small cow shed were bypassed as Jess led him to a small area further behind the house, just under the sheltering edge of the trees. As he walked he kept his eyes focused on Jess’ back, as his dark-haired friend moved ahead of him, but his mind was in shock, trying to equate the sudden change from his earlier happy thoughts and plans, to the ominous situation he was now faced with.

When Jess stopped, Slim almost ran into him. Unable to find the words to warn Slim, Jess turned and stepped aside, allowing his friend to see the sight that had so upset Jess when he had seen it.

In what could have been considered a pretty spot for a garden or flowers, the ground had been recently dug over. Three elongated mounds of earth, evenly spaced from each other, could be seen. Three crudely carved and roped together crosses had been hammered into the top end of each mound, and although unclear from this distance, names had been crudely carved into them.

His legs went to jelly and refused to carry him forward. Slim needed to know whose names where on the crude crosses, but his body refused to let him move closer. Barely able to stay upright, Slim looked appealingly at Jess. The younger man didn’t need words to interpret what Slim was asking him to do. Jess had his own pain to deal with given the debt he felt he owed this family, but Slim was unaware of that history, and right now Slim was lost in a quagmire of dark emotions. Drawing on the strength that had enabled him to carry on after his own family’s traumatic death, Jess moved forward towards the crosses.

As he read each name in turn, his heart both twisted with the pain of grief, but also lifted with the knowledge that the graves did not carry Eve’s name. He hurriedly returned to Slim, breaking the news simply. “It’s not Eve,”

“Slim released the breath he had been holding, the heavy weight on his soul lifting a little. But then his mind leapt on towards the next painful question. “Who is it?” Even as he asked, he knew that the answer would take some members of his future In-laws away from them.

Jess swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat, as he recalled the stalwart support of Eves siblings and the happy playful form of a young girl that had run to help Eve eagerly whenever she had asked, when she had helped care for a wounded Jess during the war.

“Its’ Eve’s brothers and Caroline,  Slim. I’m sorry,” he stated softly. “There at peace now. There is nothing we can do for them.” Jess paused, his deep blue eyes scanning Slims lighter blue orbs, noting the moisture that was forming there, a match for his own watering eyes. Drawing in a deep breath, Jess spoke again.”We need to check the house.” He sounded sharp, as he tried to control the emotion that threatened to close of his throat.

Slim nodded and started to turn away from the heart wrenching sight of the graves. By sheer strength of will he forced himself to walk back towards the front of the house. Each step sent an icy dagger of fear through his heart. He dreaded what might be waiting for him inside the home of the woman he loved.

His legs felt like lead weights as he lifted them up each step, until he finally stood on the porch, facing the front door. Even the strength he gained from the sense of the presence of his best friend at his side finally failed Slim. he lifted a shaking hand towards the door handle, but it refused to obey him, and traitorously hovered, inches away from the handle. The thought of what he might find behind the door caused his breath to catch and a band of pain tighten around his heart.

Understanding the agony his friend was suffering, equating it to the pain he himself was fighting; Jess stepped in front of him. “Here, let me check it out,” then he opened the door and stepped inside, leaving Slim to follow when he was able.

The first sight that greeted him was several notes, all folded and dated and neatly arranged on the table, as if awaiting delivery. After a brief glance that told Jess the letters all bore Slims name, he squared his shoulders and moved towards the first closed bedroom door. Jess noted that the fire was out, and as he passed he was able to touch the stove, which was cold and obviously had burned out a few days ago.

With his hand on the door, he turned to see if Slim had followed him into the home. The blonde had moved inside, but was now staring at the letters, his eyes drawn by his name in writing he knew as well as his own. As Slims hand hovered over the first, earliest dated letter, Jess too a deep breath and pushed the door open.

The smell of death, from bodies a few days old assailed him. Eve’s parents lay on the bed, wrapped in each others’ arms. With his hand over his mouth and nose, Jess approached the bed. The smell was only faint, and he needed to be sure that all life had left the two people who had chosen to die in each others’ arms.

A quick glance over his shoulder assured him Slim was still lost in contemplation of the neatly folded notes most likely written in anticipation of a visit to the trysting point. Moving stiffly, forcing himself forward, and being careful to keep himself between Slims view and the bodies entwined on the bed, Jess reached forward and respectfully touched the couple’s hands, as they held each other in death. He pulled his hand hastily back at the icy cold touch of them. No stranger to death in its many forms, the dark-haired cowboy knew the couple had passed away at least two days ago.

He exited the room, quietly shutting the door. They would need to be buried before this day was over, but there were more immediate and pressing matters. Fear almost froze him as he started to push open the next door. He knew that it was inevitable as to what he would find, but knowing it and accepting it were two very different things,

This time the smell was of sickness, mixed with a lavender perfume that he had become familiar with from Eves letters. She lay facing away from the door, her hair in disarray across the pillow and comforter. Jess knew what was needed, and another look at Slim, who stood white and immobile, with a letter in his hand now, told him that it would likely break his physically and emotionally fragile best friend to do what was needed next.

Stepping up to the bed , Jess gently grasped her shoulder, prepared for the icy cold feel of a dead body, the spirit of the woman both men had loved in their own fashion, long gone from her sickness ravaged body.

With a startled gasp, Jess pulled his hand back as the body beneath his fingers moved. As gently as he could he turned her towards himself. “ Eve?” he questioned.

He eyes flew open, fever clouded and unsure at first, and then she seemed to recognise him and where she was. “Jess? I–s—S -slim with you?” she managed to whisper through a dry throat.

“Yes. Hold on, I’ll fetch him.” Jess offered, but before he could turn away, she weakly grabbed at his hand.

“W—wait. P—please. I need to ask you something,” Eve hesitated before drawing a deep breath and trying again. This time her eyes cleared, and she focused intently on Jess. “ I r—remember y—you, now. I—in the war. Lying here, I—I remembered s—so much of m—my life.”

Jess nodded, his throat tightening in worry. “I-it is’nt important now,” he stammered.

“P—please, forgive me f—forgetting, all o—of us f—forgetting,” she spoke quietly.” Jess, p—please, return our care. L—look after Slim for me. H—he’ll need h—help to carry on, p—please.”

For Jess, there was no question as to supporting his best friend, even without the dept he felt he owed Eve and her family, and his soft reply told her that. “I will take care of him Eve, he’s like a brother and best friend. You don’t need to fear for him. I have his back. I’ll always have his back, no matter what. Right now we need to get you some help.”

Eves gentle smile told him she knew she was dying, but she simply said, “ I need to see Slim, p—please. C—can you fetch him now?”

Jess stood from where he had been crouching close to the bed and stood to fetch Slim. He almost bumped into the man who had entered the room and was now standing in the doorway, his eyes locked on the figure in the bed.

Now that Jess had moved, he could see it was his beloved. Until then, unaware of the bodies in the other room, Slim had been uncertain, and had experienced an all-consuming paralysis as he stood in the doorway, desperate to know who was in the bed, but terrified of the outcome of knowing.

“Slim, she’s awake and asking for you,” was all Jess said, as he fought his own grief to try and support Slim. Jess moved to give Slim space, as his best friend, stepped into the room.

Without any words, Slim knelt at Eve’s bedside, in the space Jess had vacated.

“I’ll  give you two some space. I’ll be nearby if you need me Slim.” Then Jess exited the sick room, shutting the door quietly behind himself to give Slim some privacy. Jess was no fool, he knew Eve was past any help he could give, other than making her comfortable. Right now Slim was the best person for her to be with, but there where some practical things he could do to help. He headed out to the water pump, and cleaning the upturned water bucket, he filled it with fresh water and returned to the house. He poured a mug of water and knocked nervously on the bedroom door; a trembling male voice gave him permission to enter.

“I thought Eve might want a drink,” he stated, handing the mug to Slim and not voicing his fear that it was likely she had not had a fresh drink for at least a day.

Slim took it with a nod of thanks, and as Slim held the cup to Eve’s lips, Jess exited without another word, leaving the two lovers to say their farewells.

Trying to keep his mind occupied and away from the pervading grief and worry for his friend and Eve, he busied himself by clearing out the ashes from the stove and re-lighting it. Heating water for basic needs was a priority, and he certainly felt the need for a strong coffee to help brace himself for what was to come. He doubted they would be returning home imminently and spending the night in the homestead would be sensible. That taken care of, Jess went out to release the team and took them into the barn, where he was able to scrounge enough hay to feed them. He unloaded some of the supplies from the wagon and returned to the house, noting that Slim was still inside with Eve. He hoped that meant she had rallied, but from what he had seen, she was gravely ill.

*****

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Slim was vaguely aware of the door closing behind Jess after he had taken the water from his hand. Up until that point he had simple knelt close to Eve and had taken hold of her hand as she had tried to reach out to him. His thumb had moved in small nervous circles over the back of her hand as he held it, and he worried over how hot and dry her skin felt. As his face had appeared in her line of sight, Eve had given a soft sigh, and had simple stared at Slim’s face, a small, contented smile on her own flushed face.

Slim had struggled to speak, his throat dry with emotion, but Jess returning with the water broke the spell of immobility between the two lovers. He lifted the cup of cool fresh water to her lips. “Eve, please, take a drink it will help.”

She sipped at the rim of the cup, her eyes wide with pleasure as the cool liquid loosened her throat. “ Y—you are here,” she stated. “I wished and p—prayed t—to see y—you one l—last time, and when I s—saw Jess and then y—you, I thought i—it was a dream.”

Gently brushing the damp hair from her forehead, Slim forced himself to smile, and not frown with fear. “How could I stay away. I’ve missed you so much.”

“B—but, I d—don’t want y—you ill. Y—you shouldn’t b—be here,” worry again marred Eves beautiful face.

With a shake of his head, Slim sought to dispel her fear.  “Jess and I have both had this influenza, Eve, and survived it. Now I’m here and I’m going to help you fight it.”

“I want to , Slim, but I’m s—so tired,” her face clouded. “My brothers and sisters, Slim. I—I helped Pa bury them,” Eves eyes filled with tears as the memories came flooding back.

His own eyes teared up as he recalled her brother’s cheerful welcoming and happiness when they had told them of their plans to marry. He remembered Caroline’s happy chatter and prancing around in a mock dance, when she had been asked to be Eve’s bridesmaid. These where to be his future in laws and they had been snatched away by a dreadful disease that spared no one.

He could find no words to comfort her , so instead fell back on practical help. “Eve, you have to fight this. They would want you to survive. Please, take some more water.” Once more he pressed the cup to her lips and obediently she took a few more sips.

She quieted for a minute or two as she recovered her strength from the effort expended in drinking. The another though brought her fever muddled thoughts back to sharp focus. “M—my parents, Slim? H-how are they. They weren’t feeling well. I—I cant remember, h—how long i—its been since I—I ve s—seen them.” Her face held a world of worry and pain, and Slim fought with his own guilt as to what to say.  He had recognized the smell of death when he had entered the cabin, but he had not seen the bodies of her parents, nor, in his grief and shock, had the thought to ask Jess about them. The only thing he knew for certain was that their graves had not been seen outside. He reasoned that they too where likely dead but he could not state that with certainty. In the end, he did what he could to ease her worry and avoid causing her pain, he lied. “There resting Eve, in their room. Don’t worry about them. Jess will take care of them.”

They stayed side by side in silence for a few more minutes, when a second tentative knock came to the door. “Yeah? Come in, Jess” Slim responded automatically.

Jess entered carrying a mug of coffee for Slim, and a pitcher of cool water to keep Eve supplied. “ I got the stove going. Thought you would like coffee and maybe I can get some broth for Eve,” he suggested.

Slim glanced between Eve and Jess. He appreciated the gesture, but doubted Eve would manage it, but he saw no reason not to try. “ Thanks , Pard, ‘preciate it.” As Jess turned to go, once more allowing the couple their privacy, Slim called him back. “How are Eve’s parents?” he asked, trying to will Jess to see the message in his eyes.

The two men had become experts at interpreting each other’s looks, and fortunately Jess picked up on Slim not wanting Eve to be given any more bad news. “They’re in the bedroom, resting on the bed” he said, preferring not to lie, but hoping the answer would appease Eve.

Slim saw the grim look that crossed Jess’ face and caught the subtle shake of his head. He understood from that look that her parents where both dead. Fortunately Eve could not see Jess clearly from the bed, so she missed the subtle nuances of the conversation that had passed between the two friends.

Turning to leave the room, Jess added, “ I reckon I had best go take care of things and help Eve’s parents.” The younger man was certain Slim would understand what he meant.

Jess put a pan on the stove and placed some vegetables in it to boil. That done he headed out to the barn and searched for a spade, As he glanced at the late afternoon sun, he reckoned he’s at least have time to get two graves dug before full dark.

Back in the sick room, Eve’s breathing became shallower, and her forehead beaded with perspiration. Slim soaked a cloth from her bedside table with water from the pitcher and started to wipe her face, in between encouraging her to drink sips of water.

“T—talk t—to me, S—Slim. I—I love to h—hear your v—voice,” Eve asked, her words slurred.

“W—what do you want to talk about?” Slim was lost, wanting to hold her and never let her go, but he did not know how to win this fight. He could use his fists and his gun when he had to, but this fight was not going to be won by brute force.

A soft sweet smile crossed her tired face. “T—tell me again, about o—our house y—you p—plan to build.”

So Slim started to describe the beautiful spot he had taken Eve to when he had proposed. He didn’t think he was a poetic talker, but as he let himself picture the home he had planned in his mind, the words started to come out, hesitant at first, and then faster and fuller as he saw how Eve was relaxing and had closed her eyes as she pictured the house Slim described.

Slim was hurting emotionally, but still he kept talking , as Eve lost herself in the soothing sound of his voice. He didn’t know how long he talked, but finally Eve appeared to sleep. Still he knelt by her bed, legs long gone numb. He continued to hold her hand, hoping she could feel his presence beside her, even in repose. His throat was dry from talking . Still holding her hand, he studied her face, peaceful now as she slept. He prayed he wouldn’t lose her. She was his life. From the moment he had met her, he knew they should be together, and when she had accepted his proposal his mind raced with plans for their future together. He had planned a home with enough rooms for the children he hoped would come from their union, and he pictured the domestic bliss of the laughter and happiness that would fill their home as they worked together to raise their brood.

His eyes moved over her face, trying to imprint every feature and detail into his memory. Although he prayed quietly as he knelt at her side, asking the Lord to save her and grant him the future he had planned, a quite still voice inside him kept whispering that she was close to death.

The bedroom door opened tentatively, and Jess voice softly asked if he could come in.

Brought back from his deep thoughts, Slim turned to see Jess in the doorway, a mug of fresh steaming coffee in one hand, and a bowl of broth in the other,

“I thought these would help, Slim,” he said, his eyes absorbing the scene in the bedroom.

Slim nodded and went to stand. His legs, totally numb now, failed to obey him. Embarrassed he looked at Jess. “Think you can give me a hand here?”

Jess walked over to the small table near the window and placed his burdens down, them without another word he snatched up the chair there and brought it over to the bedside. With Slim pushing up through his arms on the chair, and Jess heaving him up from under his shoulders, Slim managed to half stand and swivel around to sit on the chair.

A grateful smile briefly touched his tired features. “Thanks, Jess. I don’t know how long I was kneeling there. Guess I ain’t as fit as I like to think, and I didn’t want to move and disturb her too much.” Slim rubbed at his tingling legs as life started to creep back into them.

Jess brought the coffee over to his best friend, who took it gratefully, realizing he was really thirsty. Slim glanced at the vegetable broth in the bowl that Jess had now placed on the cupboard next to the bed. “You’ve been busy,” he commented.

With a brief glimpse at Eve to ensure she was asleep, and keeping his voice low, Jess responded. “Reckon you could say that. I’ve buried her Ma and Pa by her brothers and sister.”

Slim has suspected they had died but had not told Eve. Even so, hearing Jess confirm the reality was like a knife to his chest. “S—She doesn’t know. I told her they where in their room.”  Fresh loss and guilt flooded through Slim. “ I—I don’t think I can tell her, not now.”

Jess placed his hand on Slims sagging shoulders, trying to give him strength through his touch. “Then don’t’ tell her Slim, You haven’t lied to her, you only told her what you knew. If–” then Jess hesitated, correcting himself,

“When Eve gets better, you can tell her then. Right now she needs to fight this illness, and she needs to save her strength for that, not for grieving.”

“You’ve got a wise head on your shoulders, Pard, when you care to use it,” Slim tried to alleviate his pain with a brief flash of his old teasing self, before adding, “Thank you. Is there anything I can do?” he offered even though he did not want to leave Eve’s side.

“Thanks, but no. There is nothing more to be done for now. You’ve been here quite a time. I’ve got the fire burning and some supper heating. I don’t think we are going anywhere tonight. Jonsey will understand. I’ve brought the blankets from the wagon in and laid them out in the front parlor.” Jess brought Slim up to speed on the current situation.

Startled by Jess words, Slim glanced out the window and saw that it was almost dark. His eyes had adjusted to the gloom that had slowly crept into the room, but now he realized how late it was. “I’ll stay in here, Jess. In case she wakes and needs something.”

“I’d expect nothing less from you, Slim. I’ll go light a lamp and bring it in to give you some light. I’ll bring your supper in to. It ain’t much but its food. You’ll need your strength.” Then Jess left his friend to continue his vigil by his fiancé.

Looking at Eve as she lay in the bed, sleeping more easily than before, Slim was reluctant to wake her, even for some much-needed nourishment. He stirred the broth, noting the steam coming from it, and decided to let it cool somewhat before waking her to eat.

A few minutes later the issue was solved for him as Jess re-entered, carrying both a lamp and a plate of coarse bread and some meat, rescued from one of the small kills Jess had made the day before.

His entry into the sick room disturbed Eve on this occasion, and she squinted against the suddenly bright light to make out the figure. “W—Who–? She started to ask.

Slim moved forward into her line of sight. “ Its alright, Eve. I’m here. That Jess, he’s brought a lamp and some food for us both.2

“Jess?” she hesitated, than a smile of recognition briefly crossed her face. “ Oh! Y—yes I r—remember now, T—tell him I r—really remember now. I—I’m sorry. T—trust him, S—Slim. He’ll l—look after you if I d—don’t m—make it.”

Both puzzled and frightened by her statement, Slim put her odd statement about Jess down to her fever, and instead took her hand in his. “Don’t talk like that, Eve. You’re going to be fine. You just have to fight it.” He reached for the bowl of broth that was now at a more palatable temperature. “Please, try this. Jess made it, so I ain’t promising it’s tasty, but its food.”

“Hey, my cooking ain’t that bad,” Jess responded automatically. He placed the lamp down on the table across the room and put the plate of food for Slim on the small cupboard next to the broth. “I’ll be next door, eating my supper. If you need me, just call.”

“Thanks, Pard.” Slim turned his attention back to Eve, a spoonful of broth in his hand poised to give to Eve, but Eve’s eyes where focused on Jess’ back as he left the room. “ H–he isn’t m—much different. I—I s—should have known.”

“Eve, that’s the fever talking. Come on love, please try and eat.” Slims thoughts where totally focused on the need to care for Eve.

His soft cajoling voice brough her attention back to his face, and all thought and memory of Jess left her mind as she lost herself in the light blue eyes she loved so much.

It was a struggle , but with Slim encouraging her, she managed several spoonfuls of broth, and several sips of water. Finally she lifted her hand and pushed the spoon away. “ N—o more, p—please.” Her eyes wandered to the plate by the bowl. “I—its your turn, n—now.”

“That’s myfuture wife talking, always taking care of me.” Slim had no appetite, sick with worry as he was, but seeing her focused glare, he picked up his fork. “All right, but when I finish, you are going to try to eat some more. Its only fair.”

A wistful smile flitted briefly across Eve’s face. And she managed a brief nod.

With the first mouthful, Slim had to admit it did’nt taste too bad, but fear and worry dried his mouth, and it was difficult to swallow. He took sips of water with each mouthful, mindful of Eves adoring eyes focused intently on him.

Finally he cleared the plate and again tried to get Eve to eat. “Come on, it’s your turn,” he tried, holding the spoon to her mouth. “It’s still warm.”

Eve tried, she really wanted to make him feel easier about herself, but again only a few more mouthful where tolerated before she felt she could not take anymore. Placing the spoon back in the bowl, Slim spoke softly. “Maybe you can try again later. I’ll ask Jess to warm it up. That might make it taste better,” he tried to joke.

A smile turned the corners of Eve’s full lips upward. “T—that’s not f—fair. H—his cooking isn’t b—bad.”

Slims heart swelled, and a little of his gloomy mood lifted at the thought that she was managing to tease back. “So, don’t you think you should rest some more, now. Try to sleep,” he cajoled.

“N—not yet. P—please, Slim, there’s s—something I want you to see.”

“Oh?” Slims eyebrows rose, trying to cheer both of them up with a tease. “I’m not supposed to see the wedding dress until our big day.” Then he recalled “ Oh, and I have your locket that you left with your message.  Would you like it back now we are together?”

“N—no, the locket is for you to remind you of m—me, w—when I—I’m not there.”

“I’ll have you,” Slim said quietly, icy fear for her life clutching at his heart at her words.

“N—not always, S—Slim.” Eve saw the pain and fear her words caused flicker in his eyes. Valiantly she tried to rally her thoughts and soften her words. “S—sometimes we w—will need t—to be apart, w—with you on business trips.”

Desperately Slim clutched at the change in subject. “I’ve got Jess as a partner now. I’ll send him on all the business trips.”

“S—so you d—did offer him the p—partnership? A—and he a—accepted. I—I’m so h—happy.” Eve sighed contentedly, seeing a more secure future for the man she loved. Even if she didn’t survive, she knew Jess would always have Slims best interests at heart. She could recall the honesty and integrity of the young man who’s life she and her family had saved. Eve didn’t feel Jess was indebted to her at all, as she considered they had simply done their duty to a fellow human being. However she knew the man Jess had become and knew that the Slim and Jess where now closer than brothers. It was that knowledge that led her to trust the man she loved’s future to Jess. But right now, she had something she desperately needed to show Slim. “ I—its over there,” she instructed, tipping her chin to indicate the far corner of the room.

“What is?” he asked, partly intrigued at what was so important for him to see, and partly annoyed that agitation over it was preventing him persuading Eve to rest.

“ T—the package, Slim. I—I want you to open i—it.”

Peering through the dimly lit room, Slim could make out the shape of a parcel bundle in the farthest corner.

He stood up and stretched, cat like, to his full height. He hadn’t noticed how stiff he had become during his sojourn in the chair. Shaking the stiffness from his arms and legs he strode across the room in a few steps and returned to sit next to Eve. “ Is this what you want?,” he asked, holding the brown paper parcel up for her to see.

She nodded, “P—Please,”

Carefully, with fingers trembling with exhaustion and fear, Slim pulled at the knotted string that kept the neatly wrapped parcel intact. When it came away, he folded back the brown paper to reveal a patchwork of bright fabrics. He recalled the scrap of material Eve had sent him, and raised a quizzical eyebrow at her.

“Is this the comforter you where making?” he asked softly.

Again Eve nodded. “I f—finished just b—before t—the illness ,” she explained. “D—do you l—like it?”

Slim noticed with growing concern, that Eve’s voice seemed to be getting quieter, her sentences shorter. He tried not to let her see his worry as he spoke again.  “Don’t you think maybe you should rest again, my love?”

She shook her head to indicate no, then, with a forced breath, she spoke again. “W—what d—do you t—think?” her eyes flicked to the quilt on Slim’s knees.

He realized that if he was to convince her to rest, he needed to settle her mind. He lifted the quilt, shaking it out to inspect the bright squares, and then bringing it up to look more closely at the work. He noticed how small and fine the stitches were and marveled at the hours of work Eve had done to produce it. Turning he found Eve’s eyes regarding him lovingly. He knew she was waiting for him to say something.

“Its beautiful, my love. You must have spent every spare moment on stitching it. I am going to be a very lucky man, with you as my wife.” He forced his fear away at seeing her shallow breaths, and instead fixed a smile on his face. “Thank you.”

“I—t’s f-for our w—wedding bed,” Eve gasped, reaching out to take his hand.”I—I thought of h—how m—much I l—loved y—you with e-every stitch,” she forced out, her eyes fixed lovingly on his face. To Eve, the room was dimmer, despite the lamp, and she wanted to fix every detail of Slim’s beloved face into her mind.

His hands tightened on the cloth, aware from her letters that each square of material held a memory for Eve and her family, and now each stitch had been like her joining their lives and families together, as he hope their future would be. He fought back the tears that threatened to fall as moisture filled his eyes and uttered a silent prayer for her survival. She was his life, his reason for fighting the illness and returning to health, driven by the thought of seeing her again and making her his wife. Now fate, having failed to steal his life, was threatening to steal his future by this dreadful illness.

He pulled his eyes and mind away from contemplating the quilt and all  that it represented, and focused again on the most immediate need, that of getting Eve to rest. “Thank you,” he repeated. “We will be snug and warm with this. Now, how about trying to drink or eat a little more,” he tried to persuade her.

“L—later, my love,” she gasped out .” I –I t—think I c—could sleep n—now,” her heavy eyelids slid slowly shut, as if to confirm her statement. Then the opened quickly as she spoke more firmly. “ I’m c—cold. H—hold me p—please.”

Looking at the several blankets on her bed, dread flooded through Slim. His hand brushed her forehead, which felt icily cold. There was no place for propriety here and now. Slim stood and then sat down on the edge of Eves bed. He tried to lift her upper body into a half sitting position and rested her back against his own body, but he quickly realized that this wasn’t a position he could maintain for long. Eve moaned against him, her aching body aggravated by the change in position, and still feeling even colder. He felt her shivering and took the final step to join her on the bed.

Moving her gently across the wide bed, he swung his long legs up and settled down next to her, using his own body heat to try and alleviate her chills. Gently he lifted her head and slipped his arm beneath her shoulders, letting her head settle into the crook of his shoulders. Her sweat dampened yet still beautiful hair fell across him and onto the pillow. Then reaching back he pulled the wedding quilt onto the bed and covered the both of them with its comforting weight.

Tilting his head slightly, Slim rested his check against her head, his arms wrapping her in his love and offering her his body’s strength and warmth.

Feeling his arms surrounding her, Eve rallied briefly, and glanced up at his face, seeking and finding the love and protection reflected in his eyes. She sighed deeply, and snuggled down further into his arms, settling her head against his chest. His strong heartbeat reached and soothed her as she drifted of to sleep. Her final words , before a deep sleep claimed her where “ I love you, Slim Sherman, w—we will b—be together always.” Then, with a soft smile on her lips, she drifted of, finally at peace and willing to let sleep claim her.

“I love you to, Eve,” Slim responded, unsure she had heard him but hoping she had. For Slim, there was no instant release of his fears. He held her close, as if his own arms could keep her tied to this life. He was determined to give whatever it took to help her heal, and as he lay there, his body pressed close to warm her, he prayed. He prayed more deeply that he had ever done before. He had been raised to become a God-fearing man and attended the Laramie church when work allowed. During his life there had been times of dire need when he had prayed for the Lords help. Sometimes’ it seemed to him his prayers where answered. At other times, the solution he prayed for did not always happen, but none the less resolution occurred, and Slim reasoned that the Good Lord had his grand plan and he needed to trust in it.

Now, he prayed for Eve’s life, for their future together, and the family they had planned. He even tried to bargain his own life for hers, and then finally exhausted, he bent his head, and twisting slightly, captured her lips with his own. “I love you. Please, fight this, Eve. I need you with me.”

With those words, his mind drifted to the home he planned to build for them, and pulling the wedding quilt closer to their shoulders, he was unable to fight his exhaustion any longer and finally drifted to sleep.

In the sitting room next door, Jess had finished his meal and poured himself another strong coffee. He was both physically and emotionally drained, but he knew this was going to be a long night and he was determined to be there when his best friend needed him.

Rather than sleep on the chaise long that was in the corner of the room, and risk sleeping too deeply, he chose to sit in the chair opposite. It was close enough to the bedroom door that he would hear if he was called, but not so intrusive as actually being in the room or leaving the door open.

Letting the fire burn down to a soft glow that should last the night, Jess wrapped himself in a blanket to keep the chill of night at bay, and comforted and soothed by the soft murmuring voices in the room next door, he allowed himself to doze. He couldn’t hear the words, but the different tones told him Eve was at least awake and able to talk a little. That had to be a good sign.

His own upbringing had been around family values and a belief in the bible, so now, he added his own silent prayers to whatever angels or Saints that where listening, that they would intercede with God, and spare Eve. Finally his heavy lids slid shut and he joined the others in sleep.

Long, lonely years in the big open had honed Jess’ survival instincts, and so he was never a heavy sleeper. So he dozed, occasionally waking, disturbed by odd noises or simple just a feeling of a change around him. At some point in the early hours of the morning, with the darkness thick and heavy, Jess was aware the voices next door had stopped, but Slim had not emerged. Taking that as a good sign Jess made himself another coffee and poured a fresh one for Slim, just in case he would want one.

With mug in hand he quietly pushed the bedroom door open. The room remained lit by the dim light of the lamp. Moving closer, cat like and silent, he placed the mug on the table. By the light he could see that both occupants of the bed where deeply asleep. Eve’s breaths where fast and shallow, but at least she was asleep. Deeper snores came from Slim, his exhaustion pulling him into a deeper sleep than he perhaps would have wished.

Jess eyebrow quirked upward, amused at the sight. If the situation had been any less dire, he would have taken great delight in teasing Slim about being caught in bed with Eve before their wedding. Now was not the time for teasing, but he filed the memory away for a future time, perhaps when they celebrated Slim’s last nights of freedom before his marriage. Jess turned the lamp down as low as he could. Feeling a little lighter of heart and more at ease, Jess decided against waking his friend and quietly left the room, once more shutting the door behind himself.

He settled back into the chair, but this time slept a little more deeply, feeling that perhaps things would be better by the morning.

*****

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Soft, early morning light filtered through the curtains, replacing the dim light that the lamp had provided before it had sputtered out before the dawn.

As the light danced across his eyelids, Slim’s awareness crept back.

He had been so tired the previous night, physically and emotionally drained by the events of the day. Now, his mind was slow to grasp where he was. He couldn’t feel his left arm. It was numb and heavy and felt pinned to the bed on which he rested. Shifting his body weight slightly, he wriggled numb fingers to try and drive away the tingling feeling that was creeping from them up his arm.

Automatically, he reached over to push away the heavy weight that had him pinned, and at the same time his befuddled mind finally provided him with the details of his situation.

By turning his head and tilting down slightly, he could see Eve’s head. Her soft hair tumbled down over his shoulder and chest, and her eyes remained closed, with her lips tilted up in a contented smile. Her body was pressed against his, as they rested under the wedding quilt that Slim had wrapped them both in.

His thoughts were still befuddled and thinking of how one day soon, after their marriage, he would wake up every morning with this wonderful woman in his arms. With his free hand Slim reached up to brush a strand of her hair from her face. His fingers brushed her skin and fear immediately gripped his heart.

Eve’s cheek was as cold as ice. With a shaking hand Slim, placed his hand in front of her mouth and nose, frantically searching for the soft touch of her breathing to chase away the dread that squeezed the air from his own lungs.

He felt nothing. No movement to signify she still drew breath. He eased his trapped arm from under her head, aware of how heavy and lifeless it felt. His previous contented sleepiness was driven from him as a heartless reality crashed in upon his mind.

Sliding from the bed, he stood beside her, his eyes searched her still frame, and frantic for any sign that the woman he loved more than life itself still lived.

She lay like a statue, cold and still, beautiful even in death. Sinking down onto the chair next to the bed, Slim picked up her delicate hand, rubbing it gently as if trying to force warmth into it, would bring life back to her frame.

“P—please, Eve, please. Fight this. Come back to me,” Slim said brokenly, “W—we are meant t—to be together. Please, Eve, don’t leave me. I don’t want to go on without you.” Slim tried to cajole her lifeless form back from the abyss. “You promised me, w—we would be t—together. I pushed through it. I got better to b—be with you. Fight it, you hear me, fight it.” Frustration and anger now laced his voice as he slipped deeper into his loss and grief.

He fought hard against the tears that welled in his eyes, swiping angrily at them, yet they escaped anyway, tracking down his cheeks, to fall from his chin.  Her hand remained cold and still, no movement disturbed her chest.“Why, Dear God, why?” he glared upwards, his fists clenched. “ You gave me her.  You promised a future so bright, and now you’ve snatched it away.”

Just as suddenly as it came, his anger faded, and Slim reached out to caress her cheek. “Take me, instead,” he tried to bargain, even knowing there was no way to recall her soul. It was long gone in the still quiet hours of the morning while they slept in each other’s arms.

A numbing calmness crept over him, as he accepted that his beloved Eve was dead. With shoulders slumped, he fell forward to rest against her on the bed, sobbing.

It was then he felt a firm but gentle hand on his shoulder, offering support through its firm pressure. Lifting his head, Slim turned to see Jess standing stoically, looking down at Eve’s still form.

“I’m sorry, Slim. I—I wish I could change this for you,” Jess said softly. He had been making coffee ready to wake Slim when he had heard his best friend anguished cries.

He had stood inside the doorway, wanting to join Slim at the bed side, but understanding his friend’s need to express his grief unhindered by his presence. Jess was dealing with his own grief, as he too had loved this woman in his own way, once upon a time. But that was history now, and Jess had, from experiencing years of loss, found a stubborn determination to continue on, dealing with the practicalities and reality of the situation.

Jess had made a promise to Eve that he would take care of Slim, and even though he would have supported his Pard regardless of that promise, he felt a deep need to honor that promise and pay back a dept owed for many years.

Steadied by Jess calming presence, Slim drew in  a deep breath. “ She’s gone,” he stated softly.

“I know, Slim, I know.” Jess replied, his voice a whisper, as his own throat tightened against the loss.

The two men remained there, unmoving, offering mutual support by their close presence. Finally Slim spoke again. “ I– I just need a few more minutes alone with her, Jess, please,”

Dropping his hand from Slims shoulder, Jess stepped back. “I understand, Slim. T—there’s things that need to be done. I’ll be outside when you need me.”

Without another word between them, Jess stepped out of the room. As he turned to shut the door, he caught a brief glimpse of his friend, as, with blond head dipped, Slim returned to looking at Eve’s face, currently beautiful and peaceful, even in death.

Deeply upset by what had occurred, and very worried about Slim’s emotional state by what he had witnessed in the room, Jess knew that his friend was going to need every bit of support Jess could give. His own memories from burying his family, though many years ago, still brought a tightening in his throat and an anger that had not even been eased when he had witnessed the demise of his family’s murderers.

Downing his coffee rapidly, Jess strode out to the barn and retrieved the shovel he had placed there after burying Eve’s parents in what felt like an eternity ago. Returning to the small graveyard at the back of the house, he started to prepare Eve’s last resting place beside her parents and siblings.

With each thrust of the shovel his anger and frustration pushed forward, powering his arms. Yet with each shovel of dirt he threw to the side, it was as if he threw some small part of his pain and anger with it. It was almost therapeutic as he worked, his thoughts recalled his past. Times with his family, both happy and sad, came to him, and then his time with Eve and her family during the war. Finally his thoughts evolved to more recent times and his conflict with Slim and its resolution.

When he finally stopped, satisfied with his work, he felt both hollow and yet settled deep inside. He pulled himself up out of the hole and looked around, choosing to ignore the draw to look into the gloomy depths and instead turned to the brighter vista of the morning and the promise of a future it brought with it.  Jess knew it would be a hard rode, even harder for Slim, from his own traumatic past, but whereas Jess had been alone with his grief, Jess was determined to be there for Slim and help him through his loss towards a brighter future.

Heading back to the barn, with no sign of Slim emerging yet, he set about ensuring the horses were fed and watered, letting them out into the corral for some exercise. He was surprised to see that a few hens had returned to the yard, perhaps drawn by the activity they had observed, so he scattered some corn he found in the barn and laid a trail to the hen house, hoping to draw the majority of the chickens back to the relative safety of the coop. With still no sign of Slim, Jess returned to the coral. Traveler trotted over to him, dipping his head for a scratch. He had brought Traveler along, hitched to the wagon, in case there had been a need to ride separately from the wagon.

“Reckon the critters must have been set free to forage, when the family realized they weren’t well enough to take care of them, ol’ fella,” Jess stated to his horse. When troubled, he had found it helped to talk aloud and most times, until he had met Slim, Traveler was the only one who was around to listen. “Guess we’ll need to try and round them up soon, for their own safety, and take care of them with our own until any family can be found.”

As if he understood Traveler gave a slight dip of his head, and after a few more minutes of scratching Travelers ears, Jess turned his attention to the other horses from the team who had joined them, determined to see what was going on.

He worried that Slim had not yet appeared, and although he understood his partner’s need to grieve alone, he was aware that Slim was still recovering from the same illness, and had not yet eaten or drank since the previous early evening. Unable to suppress his concern any longer, Jess gave all the horses one last scratch, and turned on his heel to head back into the ranch house.

Before he had gone even a few steps, the door opened, and a bulky silhouette was visible on the porch.  Jess raised his hand to shade his eyes against the glare of the morning sun, and what he saw came close to breaking his already fractured heart.

Slim stood on the porch, his arms wrapped protectively around the bundle in his arms. Jess knew just what the bundle was but moved forward to offer his help. As he drew near he could see Eve’s body, cradled in Slims arms, her head resting on his shoulder. She was wrapped lovingly in the wedding quilt she had stitched as her wedding gift for Slim. If Jess didn’t know better, he could be forgiven for thinking she was alive, and Slim was carrying her over the threshold, in a playful rehearsal for the big day.

Jess struggled against the fresh tears that welled in his eyes, as he stepped up on to the porch. “Here, let me help,” he offered.

Shaking his head in the negative, Slim tightened his grip defiantly on his precious bundle. For a moment it looked like he wouldn’t speak, but he forced his words out through a tight dry throat. “Thanks, Jess. But I need to do this last thing for her myself.”  Blinking back the tears that once more filled his eyes, Slim stepped forward, “Which way?” he asked, his voice tight with restrained emotion.

“Follow me, Slim. Take your time. I’m here if you need to rest,” Jess offered again.

Once more the blonde head shook in the negative. “I’ll do it,” was all Slim said.

*****

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

Walking stiffly, his head bowed, and his eyes fixed on Eve’s face as her head rested on his shoulder, Slim shuffled along slowly behind Jess. Yes, he was extremely tired, but every step he took carried him closer to the moment he dreaded. The moment he would have to part with the woman he loved, separated from her for the rest of his life.

Fueled by anger and grief, Jess had managed to dig a deep and correctly sized hole next to the rest of the family. It was at the side of the grave that Slim finally stopped.

Jess made to move forward and take Slim’s precious burden from him, but the grieving man increased his grip and shook his head. Slim was unable to say the words he needed to, but the tight line of his lips, and the grim look in his eyes spoke for him. Gently, with legs that threatened to betray him, he lay his burden down by the graveside. He tugged the wedding quilt more tightly around her, and then lowered himself down into the hole.

There had been no time or supplies to make a coffin. As Jess watched his best friend lower his future wife into the cold ground, he mourned with him. He doubted given the situation with the epidemic, that many of the dead had been buried in a coffin, most would have been wrapped in a shroud as they where placed in the ground. Jess shuddered as he thought of the many bodies that may yet to be discovered that had not been fortunate to have someone to bury them. Yet still he felt weighed down with guilt over not being able to provide Eve and her family with coffins. He felt he owed them that and so much more and vowed to himself that he would fulfill his promise to her to look after Slim. Not that he needed the debt he felt he owed her to make sure he had Slim’s back. The bond the two men had forged would ensure that. He also silently promised to ensure their final resting place would be more appropriately marked in the future.

He watched as Slim reached for Eve’s body and moved to help him but was again stopped by Slim’s shake of his head. “I—I want, n—no n—need to do this.” Slim forced his dry thickened tongue to move.

With shaking arms, he pulled her body towards him, and lent forward to place a last kiss on her cold lips. Biting back tears, he pulled the quilt over her face, wanting to keep her there and look at her face forever, but knowing the harshness of nature would soon ravish and destroy its beauty. Stooping he lowered her down and turned to pull himself out of the ground.

His strength finally failed him, and he almost fell back when Jess’ steadying arms held his shoulders and started to pull him up.  Once he was sure Slim was steady on his feet, Jess reached for the shovel that was near bye, intending to refill the grave while Slim recovered, but again Slims shaking hands prevented him. Slims blue eyes pleaded with his friends, “N—No, its m—my job.”

Jess could see his partners fatigue, but he could also see the need deep inside to complete this final act for the woman he loved. Due to Jess’ own previous deep feelings and perceived indebtedness to the same woman, he understood his best friend’s emotions, as he was experiencing them himself, though perhaps to a lesser degree. He didn’t utter another word but responded by handing Slim the shovel.

With stoic determination, Slim started to shovel the dirt back into the grave. With each shovel full of dirt that landed in the hole, Slim felt another of his and Eve’s plans shatter into irretrievable fragments. As each spade full of soil covered the shroud, another part of their future was buried with it. Finally. The shroud was covered, and Slim could manage no more. He was totally drained, in mind and body. His fingers trembled and lost their grip on the shovel handle, letting it fall to the ground.

Winded and both emotionally and physically exhausted, Slim finally accepted Jess’ aid, and allowed him to guide him to a tree trunk nearby and lower him gently to the ground. He watched, his mind numb as Jess took up the spade and continued to fill the grave site. It was a long job under the sun, which was getting hotter as the morning wore on. As his labored breathing settled, he looked around himself, and his eyes settled on the crude cross that Jess must have lashed together earlier when Slim had been inside.

He pulled it towards himself and reaching into his back pocket he fished out his old army knife that he carried there most of the time.  Leaving Jess to re-fill the grave, he carefully carved Eves name, and the date into the wood. Turning the wood over, he inscribed ‘Forever Loved’. Replacing the knife he sighed deeply. It was all he could do for now, but he would return with a better marker for all of them as soon as he could.

Slim looked up as Jess stood back from the now filled grave and gave a shudder.  Slim supposed his friends deeply emotional reaction was due to reliving his own past family losses. To a degree it was, but Jess also had memories of Eve and her family that Slim was oblivious to, and just like Slim, each shovel full of dirt seemed to be a memory that he was trying to cast away and bury where it could no longer hurt.

The brief rest  had helped Slim recover and he pushed himself back up onto his feet. Stepping over he pushed the makeshift cross into the soft soil at the head of the grave. Jess cleared his throat to get Slims attention,” You want to say anything, Pard?”

Slim pulled his mind back to the here and now, and away from the grief that was once more threatening to overwhelm him. He moved to stand next to his best friend. With his head bowed, and hands clasped, Slim spoke softly about his love for Eve. He spoke of how wonderful Eve was, and of the love he had found with her. Then with a broken hesitant voice he continued,” You where my life, Eve, and I will always be grateful for the happiness and love you brought into my life. I will never forget you, Eve, and we will be together again one day. I will love you forever.”

Slim took a deep, cleansing breath and then quietly and steadily said the Lords prayer. Standing beside him, Jess quietly offered his support, and added his voice to the final prayer. As Slim finished speaking, Jess moved away from the grave, allowing Slim some private time with his memories.

As Jess wandered back towards the house he noticed that most of the chickens had returned to the coop, drawn by the food trail he had left. The few stragglers outside where easily encouraged by Jess to enter the coop. He shut it down and headed to the barn.  Earlier he had spotted several cages, obviously used to transport the chickens when they had first come to arrive at the ranch. It only took him a few minutes to place all the chickens from the coop onto the cages and then packed then onto the back of the wagon and covered the cages with an old tarpaulin to shade the hens from the sun.

The way Jess figured it was that the animals had probably been let loose by a family member when the family became ill, as that way they could scavenge for food and have a chance to survive. Jess considered that the hens where perhaps the most vulnerable of the animals and at least back at the Sherman ranch they would be relatively safe. He would have to return to try and sort out the rest of the stock over the next few days. By rounding up and packing the hens, Jess was able to keep himself busy and prevent his own grief from overcoming him.

Next he collected their belongings from the ranch house, and brought the horses around to the wagon. He was hitching them up when Slim re-appeared around the corner of the building. His face was a carefully schooled mask, refusing to show the emotional turmoil that was raging through his body. He gave Jess a brief nod before he spoke . “I’ll be right there. Just need something from the house.”

Since Jess had basically re-loaded the wagon, he was unsure just what it was Slim was retrieving, but he kept his peace and said nothing, recognizing his friend’s need to revisit Eve’s home.

As Slim stepped across the threshold, he was unable to maintain his carefully schooled composure. The pain and loss swept over him like a tidal wave and again the tears flowed. He no longer tried to fight his emotions, instead he staggered to the table and placed his hands against the wood, bracing himself against the sobs that wracked his body. To Slim it seemed like an eternity as grief claimed him. To Jess it was a few short minutes, but still he mounted the steps to the porch after finishing up with the team and bringing Traveler out to hitch him to the side of the wagon ready for the return journey. He had reached to push the door open, but as the sound of the tortured sobs reached him, he hesitated, torn between the need to comfort  his friend and the need to respect Slim’s privacy at this time.

Inside, Slim’s eyes finally dried and he drew in a last raggedy breath. Rubbing his sleeve across his eyes to remove the tell tale moisture, his glance fell onto the neatly arranged notes addressed to himself. He had forgotten about them during the fraught hours since he had first seen them. Taking a steadying breath he scooped them up. Somewhere in his subconscious he had heard Jess tread on the steps, so he scooped them up and pushed them into his jeans pocket. There would be a calmer time in the future when he could read them, hopefully without the grief tearing him apart afresh. With one last look around the room, he exited the house, to join Jess on the porch. He raised a questioning eyebrow. “Time to go?” he forced through his tight throat.

Jess dipped his head in response. “Reckon so. Should I board up the door and windows?”

Slim glanced around. “Not yet. We will need to come back to sort things out, papers and such, for Mort and the bank.” Slim found control and solace in being practical.

“Yeah, and I think we’ll need to try and round up the stock,” he threw a glance over his shoulder at the nearby wagon. “I think I’ve managed to coral the chickens. There loaded up. They’d be safer in with Jonsey’s brood, I reckon, rather than here at the mercy of any hungry critters.”

A brief smile flickered over Slims face, before it disappeared. “Thanks, Jess. Those little hens were one of Eve’s pride and joy. Bantams, she called them, imported from Europe to improve egg laying.”

That’ll please Jonsey then, if his egg production goes up, least till we can trace any relatives to claim ‘em.” Jess tried to keep the conversation light.

As Slim reached the wagon and climbed up, he looked back once more, seeing a place of shattered hopes and dreams, rather than a family home. “She had such grand plans, Jess. She and her family did. They where going to change the future of ranching and farming, and she was going to take me right along with her. She was a visionary, Jess, and I loved her for it, and for her love of life. I—I don’t know how I’ll carry on.” Slim’s voice petered out as again his emotions threatened to take over.

Urging the horses forward, and with Traveler trotting behind, Jess carefully considered his next words.“I’ll be there Slim, all the way, to remind you that Eve wouldn’t want you to give up, not ever.”

“S—She said I was to trust you. That she knew you would be there to have my back,” Slim said quietly.

Jess didn’t want that conversation about his past with Eve, certainly not right now, and maybe never. He hoped Slim wouldn’t follow through on his thoughts. “I promised I’d have your back, Slim. She knew we were partners, and that’s what partners do.”

“Yeah, I reckon that’s it,” Slim spoke quietly, and then lapsed into a silence that lasted most of the return journey.

Slim struggled with his thoughts as he sat beside Jess. Loss and pain and grief vied for dominance with self depreciation and anger. He kept trying to understand what had gone wrong, at times asking why he had lived, and she had not. He railed against the injustice, even wishing he had died, and she had lived. What could he have done differently to prevent the disease coming to the Edgerton’s home was the question that plagued him as they neared home. In his angry phase of grief he needed to blame someone and target his anger. Suddenly he remembered the ranch hand that the Edgertons had fired.

“Jess, did Mort say that ranch hand of the Edgertons was still around Laramie?” Slims mind had had suddenly dropped all the puzzle pieces into place. Before Jess could reply, he continued. “It was him.  It must have been. He’d been sneaking off the ranch and getting drunk somewhere.”

The dark-haired cowboy held his tongue, focusing on the road ahead. He knew where this conversation was headed but decided to let Slim get his anger out.

“Jess, turn this wagon to Laramie,” Slim suddenly snapped, trying to grab the reins from his friends hands. “I’m gonna kill the dirty, rotten, drunk.”

Wrestling back control of the team, Jess pulled it to a stop. Slim let lose with his anger, targeting anyone or anything nearby. He turned and tried to push Jess of the wagon, and taken by surprise, Jess started to fall, and grabbed Slim’s Jacket to try and prevent himself taking a tumble. That maneuver resulted in the two men tumbling to the dirt beside the wagon, clear of the horses’ hooves, as they stamped nervously, startled by the ruckus.

Jess was the first to his feet and stooped to offer his hand to Slim. “Calm down , Slim. There ain’t no point to this.” He had intended to try to sooth Slims anger, but instead he appeared to succeed in making it boil over. He stumbled back, caught off guard by the punch Slim threw.

He staggered back a step. Slim may have been weakened by recent illness and emotionally exhausted, but the anger behind the punch gave it an unexpected power. Although Jess’ fighting instinct was to strike back, he recognized the blow for what it was. An expression and release of the anger and grief Slim was feeling. He knew from his own experience years ago how such grief could tear a man apart.

His eyes narrowed as he pulled back his helping hand and instead shoved Slim hard on his shoulder. “Call that a punch. You couldn’t fight your way out of a paper bag,” His intention was to rile Slim up even further and he succeeded. Jess’ efforts were rewarded by another punch, this time aimed at his gut. Although he allowed the blow to land, he pulled back slightly to minimize the hit.

Continuing to play to his friend’s anger, Jess pushed and shoved, but never really landed any blows that would cause any damage. He was a skilled fighter, and Slim, equally skilled, was recuperating and fueled by grief and anger. So Jess managed to avoid any serious damage most of the time, and Slim burned hot with his anger, lashing out without thought or skill.

Finally, Slim through a haymaker punch which Jess dodge easily by stepping back. Losing his balance due to the power of the blow, Slim staggered forward and fell to his hands and knees, where he stayed, his breaths coming in pants, and his body shaking.

Standing above his fallen friend, Jess shook his head and worked at slowing his own breathing and settling his jangled nerves. “You done, yet?” he asked, his voice quiet and reasonable.

Blonde hair shook with Slims weak nod of his head, “Yeah, Reckon I’m done.”

Jess stepped in closer and stretched his hand out towards Slim again, offering help, “Here.”

This time his hand was accepted, and Jess helped him to his feet. As Slim dusted himself off, Jess spoke again, “Feel better?”

A sheepish grin settled on Slims handsome features, “Yeah, strangely enough, I do. How about you?”  Slims gaze settled on Jess jaw, where a bruise was already starting to show from the first blow that had connected properly.

Jess rubbed his jaw with his left hand, while continuing to support an unsteady Slim with his free hand.”You landed a good one, Pard. But you were lucky, you caught me off guard.”

“Sure I was,” Slim actually managed to laugh. “Good job none of your swings connected enough to cause any damage.” Retrospectively the blonde knew Jess had been avoiding delivering any real damage. “We’re going to have to tell Jonsey that you fell over those clumsy feet of yours, to explain away the bruises. With luck he might believe us, since I’m not carrying any damage.”

Jess looked pointedly at Slims cut and bruised knuckles, “And how do you reckon on explaining your hands?” he queried.

“Huh, well maybe we’d best be telling him we met some hard cases on the road, but we took care of them,” Slim guiltily suggested.

“Sure,” Jess responded, and then added seriously “Then again, maybe we tell him the truth. I have a feeling he will understand.”

The two men climbed back up on the wagon seat.  “Jess?”  Slim said, his mind returning to a sadder place, but his anger now dissipated.”I do think that ranch hand brought the illness to them. If he was in front of me before, I would have killed him. But now, well, I realize he was stupid, he didn’t think, but if I had killed him in my rage, it would have been murder. I’m still gonna beat the crap out of him if I meet him in town, and don’t try to stop me.”

“Slim, I don’t know if I’d have your restraint, in the circumstances. I understand you don’t want to hear this right now, but you need to know this.” Jess had picked up the reins again, but as yet hadn’t made any move to urge the team forward. He turned to look at his friend. “He’s dead, Slim. That ranch hand the Edgertons employed, he’s dead. Things have a way of catching up people, and his own stupidity caught up to him. Mort told me he was one of the group of bodies that had been found dead outside of town.”

“W—What did he die of?” Slim had to ask to resolve his own issues.

“The bodies had been there a few days and the animals had been scavenging,” Jess supplied. “ However, they had been in town buying supplies, mainly of the liquid variety, and they two of them didn’t appear too healthy, so Mort reckons they had the influenza by that time, but where too stupid to realize it, or where determined to go out dead drunk and oblivious.”

Slim’s shoulders relaxed, and he nodded to himself. For a time he had worried that he had somehow taken the illness to Eve and her family, even though he had avoided direct contact with them. Now at least he had his answer and some of the unjustified guilt lifted from him.

Jess observed the change in his friend as he relaxed with the news he had been given, and he urged the team forward. “Come on, Pard, lets go home.”

*****

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

The first complete day back home saw Slim recovering around the ranch house and yard, while Jess headed into Laramie to inform the Sherriff and the bank manager of the situation.

Slim, in little drips of information, was eventually able to tell Jonsey what had happened, and Jonsey, though desperate for the full story, was wise enough to allow Slim to tell it in his own time. It had been Jess who had told him briefly of the family’s fate, shortly after coming back late the previous evening. Jonsey had observed Slim indirectly, and apart from offering some ‘medicinal’ whiskey, had pressed him no further. He had been wise enough even to ignore the bruises on Jess face, and Slims knuckles, drawing his own conclusions as to their origins and understanding how grief could make a man behave in abnormal ways.

When he was in Laramie, Jess had tried to access any records that may have been available regarding the herd size owned by the Edgertons, so that he and Slim could start to try and round up the animals and bring them to safety. He had spoken to the bank manager, a kindly man in his sixties, who had only been able to give him a rough idea from the list of holdings he had been given by Mister Edgerton when he had applied for a small bank loan. At least it was a start for him to tally up the animals that they managed to rescue. The manager had said that he would try and trace any family members by using the contact details of the family’s solicitor he had been given. He also agreed to suspend all loan payments until such a time as the new owners where found or the ranch was sold. Since the bank technically had a vested interest in the Lazy E, and maintaining its value, he was happy to let those at the Sherman Ranch round up the stock and bring them onto Sherman land for care for the time being.

Jess next headed to the Sheriffs office. As he walked he was stunned by how quiet the town was. There was no raucous laughter or music from the normally bustling saloon. The café was shuttered up, and although the general store was open, there was none of the usual horses and wagons tied up outside as people bought their supplies. In the distance he could see a mother with a child in tow heading towards the Doctor’s office, but the school yard was empty, and the doors and windows boarded up.

Finally reaching the Sheriff’s office, he was pleased to find it open and the figure of Mort Corey could be seen at his desk. Jess suppressed a shudder as he glanced back down the desolate street, before entering the office. Mort had said the town had been hit hard, but until Jess had seen it for himself, he hadn’t understood the reality of Mort’s words.

Mort looked up as Jess entered, pleased to see a friendly face, and hoping for some happier conversation to lift the mood. He seemed to be spending his days compiling a list of the dead these days, although there had been some bright spots as he had visited the ranches that had managed to isolate themselves and survive the epidemic.

“Jess, sure is good to see you, boy. Nice to have someone to jaw with who has’nt come to add to or check on the list of those we’ve lost,” Mort beamed at his friend.

“Good to see you to, Mort,” Jess gave a brief smile back, before continuing, “Unfortunately, I’ve come with bad news to.”

“Oh, no. Slim hasn’t had a relapse has he?” Mort’s worry for his previously sick friend came to the surface.

“Slims fine, Mort,” Jess rapidly corrected the Sherriff. “ Least wise, physically. It’s the Edgertons. We went out to tell them the curfew was over, and they could come to town, b—but–”  Jess emotions threatened to overcome him, and Mort stood and pulled over a chair.

“Here,  son. Sit down and tell me what happened.” He pushed Jess gently into the chair.

Letting himself sink into the chairs support, Jess continued with his tale.

“They’re all dead, Mort, all of them.”

The shock of the news hit Mort, but it was the implication for Slim that sprang first to his mind. “But what about Eve, the wedding?  Surely you’re mistaken, Jess.” Even as he said it, Mort knew the truth of the situation.

Shaking his head, Jess went on to tell Mort about what they had found at the Lazy E. “Eve was alive when we found her, but only just. For a time I thought, I prayed we could save her, but it wasn’t to be.”

Mort was quiet for a moment, considering all that he had been told. When he spoke again, it was to ask how Slim was.

“He’s coping, Mort. Just throwing himself at the work and trying not to stop and think about it. For a time he wanted to kill the ranch hand as we are pretty certain he brought the influenza to the ranch, but when I told him what you had said about the bodies at the camp site, he kinda lost it.”

Mort’s keen eyes studied the bruises on Jess’ face that where becoming more vivid each day. “ I can see that. Are you okay?”

“I’ve been better, but I’ve also been a lot worse. Anyways, Slim’s less angry now, and is working his way through his loss.” Jess rubbed his bruised jaw and then cracked a smile, “Leastwise I didn’t lose any teeth,” he joked.

Nodding, Mort pulled two glasses and a bottle from his desk draw. “Saloon’s closed still, but I have my own supply.” He poured two shots and pushed one towards Jess.

Jess picked it up gratefully.  “Been a long time since I’ve had a drink.” He swallowed it down in one and as it burned its way down his throat he took a moment to appreciate its warmth. “The good stuff, huh?” he raised an eyebrow at Mort.

“Nothing but the best for my friends,” Mort quipped back. “So what else can I do for you, not that I ain’t appreciating the pure pleasure of your company.”

“They let the stock loose before they became too ill, Mort. Guess they thought they had a better chance loose than starving to death, and of course their herd is out on the range,” Jess explained.  I spoke to the bank manager as the bank has a small claim on the ranch, and he is happy for the Sherman ranch to round up the animals and look after them until another owner can be found. He’ll compensate us for our trouble, though I doubt Slim or I will accept that, as we’ll be doing it for the family that would have been Slim’s future in-laws.”

Mort nodded in agreement as Jess continued. “I just wanted you to know what was happening, so as to keep it all above board.”

“Sure thing, Jess. And I’ll wire my colleagues in some of the other towns, to see if they know of anyone by that name that might be related. It may be difficult to find anyone though. I got the feeling from them when we talked that they where the last in the line.”

“’Preciate that, Mort, although the bank manager is going to contact their Lawyer, to try and track any family down.” Jess pushed himself back up onto his feet, ready to return home, unable to settle in town with the eerie empty feeling that pervaded it. “I’ll be heading back now, Mort. It’s a mite too peaceful around here for me.”

“I know what you mean. I could be out of a job if it stays this quiet, but I got a feeling in a few more months things will be pretty well back to normal,” Mort dipped his head in farewell to his friend.

“Sure do hope so, Mort. A quiet Laramie just feels wrong.”

*****

The mood around the ranch remained somber, but things brightened for a day or so with news from Laramie carried on the first stagecoach to stop over. Mose, being, as he boosted, of strong stock, had survived the devastation of the illness, and was back in business as the local gossip and news bringer. On this occasion he announced directly to Slim that Andy was coming home . He had accidently seen the telegraph Mort had asked him to deliver to Slim and took great delight in being the bringer of good news.

Slim had momentarily felt irritated at the older man, but the news of Andy’s imminent return quelled his irate mood, and instead of reprimanding Mose, he offered him hot coffee inside and a slice of Jonsey’s freshly baked pie.

So, day by day, Slim moved onwards, never forgetting his love of Eve, but allowing himself some brief times of respite and distraction in his work.

Although Jonsey continued to fuss over Slim’s health, even he recognized the man’s need to keep active as a coping mechanism. Beside, Jonsey was distracted by his increased flock of hens, and trying to ensure the bantams integrated with their bigger range hens. He needn’t have worried, as the tough little bantams terrorized the bigger hens, and the bantam cockerel litteraly ruled the roost. Egg production was up tenfold, and Jonsey was running out of ways to cook them. He was even considering sending the eggs into the store in Laramie for sale. He couldn’t technically sell the bantams as they where part of the Lazy E estate, but the eggs were outside of that legality.

On the way out to the Lazy E range, Slim had insisted they call at the ranch house. He had picked some fresh meadow flowers from the grasslands by the lake on the Sherman range, and now he stood by Eve’s grave, flowers in hand. Jess had respectfully kept his distance, and then headed into the homestead to search through any papers there in the hope of getting accurate numbers of horses and cattle prior to trying to round them up.

Three days after their return from the Lazy E , Jess and Slim headed back to the range to try and round up the stock and drive it back onto Sherman land, where they could keep better care of it. Slim was still deep into his grief, but as a rancher, he recognized that the animals were at risk from both natural and unnatural predators if they left them too long.

They managed to round up both cattle and horses over the next several days, and each time they passed the Lazy E homestead Slim had visited the grave site. Sometimes he just stood quietly by, his eyes stirring into the distance, dealing with his inner turmoil and grief as best he could. At other times, Jess could see Slim’s lips moving, in silent communion with either Eve or God, as he tried to come to terms with his loss. Once Slim had spotted some wildflowers in a woodland meadow before he reached the Lazy E, and he had carefully picked a bunch to lay on Eve’s resting place. He had glared at Jess, as if daring him to question his actions, but Jess knew grief in all its facets, and kept his silence.

At these times, Jess wandered around the yard, doing what little he could to ensure the place was kept in good repair, giving his best friend the space and time he needed.

At the end of a week, the two men reasoned that they had rounded up most of the Lazy E’s stock, but Slim had insisted that he should check any records that may have been found in the house, since the bank’s records where not so recent.

On this occasion, Jess again patrolled the yard, allowing Slim time to control his feelings as he searched to hopefully find the paper work inside. As he looked through the desk in the living room, Slim found some notes in a very familiar handwriting.

Picking them up with a shaking hand, Slim sank down in the chair. They were lists of items and materials that Eve had considered for their future home. She had marked items with little notes, must haves and things to discuss with Slim. Once more, tears flooded his eyes and ran down his cheeks as the memories came flooding back.

Unbidden, he recalled Eve’s undelivered letters that were still secreted in his vest pocket. Drawing in a deep breath, he pulled them out, laying them on the desk in chronological order.

Slowly he read each one, the tragedy of her families and her death written in their pages. He read of her love for him and of her plans of their life together. He read of her growing fear for her family as they succumbed to the sickness, and of her fear of not seeing Slim again. He saw where she had written brief messages approving of the idea of Jess as their Best Man, especially now that she remembered him from their meeting during the war. Eve had even asked that Slim apologize for her not recalling him immediately. This had been written in a shaking hand, the second to last letter when Eve must have been succumbing to the illness that had already taken her siblings at that point.

Puzzled, Slim folded that message, to be addressed later, and placed it back into his pocket with the others. There remained only one more note, dated just two days before they arrived at the Lazy E. The normally neat writing was slurred, and the paper marked with smudges as if her hands had been slick with perspiration as she had tried to grip the pencil and paper.

This last letter spoke of Eve’s deep love for him, and her longing to be held by him again. She wanted him safe from the illness but needed to feel his arms around her keeping her safe. Her fever was obvious in her confused ramblings, as she expressed her fears and yearnings, but her deep abiding love for Slim shone through the fear and pain.

His heart tore open afresh as he read the last note from his intended. Once more his anger at the injustice of it all gripped him and he screwed up the paper and flung it across the room, the words it contained obliterating the previous notes entirely.

It was at that point that Jess had decided to enter, worried at the extended absence of his partner. The ball of paper came to a skittering halt at his feet.  Jess stood stock still, his eyes flickering between the paper on the floor and his friend.

“Least it’s not a bullet,” he quipped, “Are you okay, Pard?” Then he stooped to pick up the offending article.

Slim wiped his sleeve across his traitorous eyes and cleared his throat. “Yeah, its kinda dusty and dark in here,” was his brief response. “Come on, lets go, it must be getting late.”

Deciding it was better not to enquire further, Jess nodded, and handed Slim the paper as he strode past him, out into the late afternoon sun.

The journey home started out in a sullen silence, with Jess leading the way along the trail, and Slim trailing behind, letting Alamo follow his stable mate Traveler with no real guidance from his rider.

Jess glanced back behind himself occasionally, but made no move to engage Slim in conversation. He figured that whatever was troubling his best friend would only be revealed when Slim was good and ready, if he ever was.

Shoulders slumped, and head down, Slim looked like he was asleep in the saddle, but although his body looked relaxed, his mind was far from peaceful.

The contents of the letters replayed over and over in his mind, as grief and loss, rekindled by the letters, again tormented him. Eventually, emotions battered, he felt drained of all anger and instead brought his own strong will into play, marshalling his thoughts to recall his last loving moments with Eve. For what was probably the hundredth time since her death, he repeated her last words, like a mantra, to himself.

Suddenly, he sat up straight in the saddle. It was as if a fog had lifted in his mind and Eve’s ramblings and her last letters and her words in her last hours, slid into place. She had met Jess before, way back during the war, when Jess was barely more than teenage boy, and Eve a young girl, not yet a woman.

Then his mind was besieged with questions. How had they met, what had happened, and, perhaps most important of all, why had Jess remained silent about it? Maybe Jess had also forgotten, their past a minor bump along their diverging paths. But Slim recalled Jess’ uncharacteristic behavior and his leaving the ranch, their friendship in shreds. He had thought it was down to Jess being unwell and the stress of the extra work when Slim failed to see Jess’ struggles, and instead lost himself in his feelings for Eve and their plans together.

Now, as he thought more about it, in the light of the new information, he realized that there may have been more to the whole incident, and he wanted, no needed, to know as much as he could of the details of Eve’s past. His problem was how to broach the subject with his partner.

The tall blond sat up straighter in the saddle, and decided that maybe the best approach was the more direct one. “ Jess?” he started.

“Yeah?” Jess responded automatically, and then added, “ ‘bout time you came back to the here and now. What you want to know?” The dark-haired man remained relaxed in the saddle, at ease with the world around him, and feeling relieved that Slim seemed to be coming out of his dark world of loss that he had tumbled into at the Lazy E ranch. Slims next words hit him like a bolt from the blue.

“Did you know Eve, and her family before I met her?” Slim was going straight to the heart of the matter.

The question was one that Jess had dreaded, had hoped he would never be asked. After Eve had looked at him during her final hours and told Slim to tell Jess she remembered him now, he had hoped Slim would dismiss it as fever ramblings, or maybe even just forget it was ever said. Fate had different ideas and denying his past or lying about his involvement with Eve was something his conscience would not let him do.

His back went ramrod straight and he pulled Traveler to a halt. “You really want to do this now?” he asked, his voice a low, gravelly growl, as worry, and fear for Slim and for their friendship gripped his throat.

Alamo caught up with Traveler and Slim looked deeply into Jess eyes, searching for any sign that Jess was going to open up to him. Past experience with his friend had taught him that Jess was a very private man and some things he would forever keep to himself. He hoped that his past with Eve was not one of them, and he searched for words that he could say that would help Jess open up.

Finally he found them, “Look, Jess, in her letters and what she said at the end, its obvious you two met before. I love her,” Slim’s voice caught as he corrected himself, “loved her, most likely always will. She was to be my wife and I trusted her totally. You are my best friend and partner. I trust you completely, too. Whatever happened in the past, it was before Eve and I met. It won’t change things between us, but it may help explain a few things. It may help me to know more about Eve and her life before I met her.”

Looking at Jess as he sat rigid in the saddle, his face set in a blank expression, Slim saw a man at war with his own emotions, and likely losing his battle. He gave his Pard a small encouraging smile, “ Please?” was the last word he said.

Taking a deep, calming breath, Jess turned to look directly at Slim.” Reckon you have a right to know. Let’s sit a while,” Jess dismounted easily from his horse and indicated that Slim should do the same. He headed towards a patch of grass, shaded by trees from the afternoon sun. Sinking down to sit with his back against the tree, he waited for his friend to join him. He didn’t have long to wait. As Slim sat down alongside him, he added, “It’s a long story, we might as well be comfortable.”

Slim turned towards his friend, saw the worried look on his face and the narrowed eyes that spoke of Jess’ distress. He thought back over the early days of his relationship with Eve and again recalled how his relationship with Jess had fallen apart around about the same time. He could understand that Jess had been unwell, and that he may have felt insecure when Slim had announced his future marriage plans but thinking back he now understood that those factors alone would not have been enough to cause the massive rift in their relationship that had occurred. There had to have been something a lot deeper and now he was about to find out what, and he was unsure if he was prepared for it.

Taking a deep steadying breath, Slim spoke softly, “Okay,  Pard, shoot.”

So Jess told his story, the story of a lost and hurt young man’s first love. He described how he had been hurt in body and soul, lost, in pain, afraid and alone and in the hell that was the civil war, and on his way to a hell on earth called a prisoner of war camp.

He described how he had been left to die as he was slowing down the troop escorting the prisoners, but a caring family had offered to care for him and a young angel called Eve, their daughter, had helped nurse him back to health. Confused, in pain and close to death, he experienced a developing bond with the then young woman who helped bring him back to the land of the living. Looking back, Jess now recognized the ‘love’ he felt had been more a mixture of his first infatuation, and his bonding with his ‘nurse’ and her care when he was at his most vulnerable. But at that time, and indeed for many years afterwards, Jess had believed he truly loved her. When the next union troops came through, he had been taken to the nearest prisoner of war camp, but thanks to her and her family’s care, he survived.

The young Jess had thought Eve returned his feelings, and he had promised he would return after the war with every intention of marrying her. Indeed, Jess had returned to the homestead after the war, to find the family long gone. He had tried to track them down and had continued over the years to try to find traces of them.  Time may have faded his memories of her, but the moment he had seen her again with Slim, all of the confused feelings of love and longing had flooded back, totally overwhelming him.

Now he recognized that it was very likely that Eve had been acting as any good Christian would in caring for him, and did not reciprocate his feelings.

Slim had listened quietly as Jess told of his time with Eve and her family, but now, as Jess lapsed into silence, he finally struggled to find his emotionally choked voice. “Thank you, Jess. I know that wasn’t easy for you,”

“Looking back, my feelings were all kinda mixed up, and seeing her again after all these years, the two of you together, so happy and in love, I was jealous. I wanted what you had, but I couldn’t have it, not without hurting you.” Jess turned to Slim, “I was a fool. She didn’t even remember me. All that time it had been something I imagined was between us, nothing more. My stupidity and mixed-up feelings almost cost me the best thing that had ever happened to me, your friendship”

A gentle smile lit up Slims face. “I’m glad you figured it out in the end, Jess. I don’t know if I would have made it through these past months if you hadn’t been there. I guess we are meant to have each other’s backs.” Fixing Jess with what he hoped was his most sincere look, Slim went on, “She did remember you at the end, Jess, and she said to tell you that you didn’t owe her anything.”

“She said that?” Jess asked.

“She did. She said you where a good man and she was glad we would be there for each other.”

“That sure ain’t the way I see it. She and her family saved my life.” Jess pushed himself up onto his feet.

“I think that debt is paid now Jess, and we can both lay her to rest,” Slim responded, as he to stood up.

“Slim, do me a favor, Pard?” Jess made no move towards his horse.

“Sure, if I can. What is it?” Slim responded automatically, but already suspected what it was. He knew and understood just how private a man Jess was.

“Don’t say anything about what I told you, please.” Jess instructed, his voice holding a note of appeal.

Shaking his head, Slim responded. “ Okay, Pard, you got it. But your past ain’t anything to be ashamed of.”

“I feel like I’m admitting to being all kinds of a fool, imagining I was in love back then, and that she felt the same.” Jess said as he finally re-mounted Traveler.

As Slim also climbed back into the saddle, he turned to his best friend.”I guess there isn’t a man around that hasn’t experienced that deep attachment of his first love, myself included.”

“You did? Care to share?” Jess gently probed, hoping to lighten the mood again.

“Yep. But you’re held to secrecy too.” Slim looked at Jess who nodded his agreement, so he continued. “ Okay, like you, I was sick, and laid up with a busted leg and a broken collar bone after a tumble from a horse. She was blonde and petite and even though I was likely her first patient, and certainly her worst, I remember telling her I loved her and wanted to marry her when I could stand on two feet again. She blushed kinda prettily and accepted, providing certain aspects where agreed.”

The two friends where now heading towards home at an easy pace. They both remained silent for a few minutes, until Jess, his curiosity piqued, asked “ So what happened? How come you are not an old married man?”

“Her conditions to the marriage,” Slim replied, schooling his face into a serious frown.

“Yeah?” Jess prompted again.

“Well, her  parents had to agree, and  I had to wait a few years, at least till she was eighteen. Oh, and I had to agree to help her repair her doll’s broken leg, like she was helping me while I healed,” Slim glanced sideways and was rewarded by the sight of Jess choking up on the laughter that had bubbled up as Slim’s words painted a picture in his mind.

Catching his breath, Jess finally spoke again. “Just how old where you?”

“ Oh, about nine years old, I think. She was a neighbor’s child Ma had asked around to keep me company while I was confined to bed. But for me, back then, it was the real thing. Like I said, I do understand when I say your first love stays with you forever.”

“So where is she now?” Jess asked, mildly curious.

“Not sure, they moved away a year or so later, but it was over long before then,” Slim replied.

Jess raised a questioning eyebrow, prepared to take the bait, “Why? What broke up the big romance?”

Slim pulled a face that was practically a scowl. “When I was able to walk around again, she asked me to come over and help her set up a play area with her dolls and make some doll clothes. Well, darn it Jess, I wasn’t ever able to mend anything, let alone sew doll clothes, and she had to insist it had to be on the same day the boys from school had planned a fishing trip to the local pond. I mean, it was a difficult choice to make, and she should have understood, a boy’s got to do what a boy’s got to do, so that was the end of our big romance.”

By the time the two men reached home, the healing process was well underway, and over the days, weeks and months that followed Slim shared his letters and they both shared their memories of the wonderful spirit who had been Eve, and the influence for good that she had brought to both their lives.

*****

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

It was twelve months to the day that the two friends had buried the woman who had meant so much to each of them, and who had changed their lives in ways neither of them could have envisaged. They had visited the small graveyard, and between them had tidied it up and erected a small white picket fence to protect the area.

Slim had knelt by Eve’s grave and place a bunch of flowers that he had picked from the small plot that he had planted at the side of the Sherman ranch house. In a melancholic mood not long after burying the love of his life, he had dug over the spot and planted the flowers in memory of her. No matter the needs of the day, he always went to tend the area regularly, as journeying to the small plot on the Lazy E ranch Eve’s family had owned was not feasible on a regular basis.

It had been a rough time for Slim after her death, and even Jess, who had not been so deeply involved at the end, had grieved for the woman who, along with her family, had saved his life.  But time was a great healer, and Slim, with support from Jess, Jonsey and Andy, had begun to look forward to life again. He would always remember Eve, and hold her memory in his heart, but he was now ready to move on and look to rebuild his future.

This feeling had been especially boosted by the lifting of a worry that had haunted Slim since the day he had buried his future wife. Her family’s ranch adjoined Slims ranch, and after their tragic deaths, it was left abandoned while possible relatives where traced. The only financial interest in it had been held by the bank, and that was only a small loan that the family had taken out initially to buy stock. At the time the epidemic had hit, that loan had almost been cleared.

Slim had fretted about the Lazy E’s future, mainly because of the burial plot there. There was no guarantee that whoever bought the ranch and cleared the bank loan would leave the plot untouched or let alone grant the grieving man access to it.

Then, a month ago, it had been made known that the family had no known relatives, and the bank was happy to sell the land to recover its loan money plus interest.

Slim and Jess where well liked in Laramie, and most knew of Slim’s tragic loss. The Bank manager had known Slim’s parents and had dealings in the past with Slim. Additionally, Jess had been integral to bringing an attempted bank robbery to a satisfactory resolution. He knew them both to be honest men, and so it was that a few short weeks ago he had spoken to Slim regarding the sale of the Lazy E ranch, before he had made the sale a matter of public knowledge. Perhaps an unscrupulous manager would have opened it up for auction but given the bank manager’s relationship with the two men, and influenced by their standing in Laramie, he had decided that the bank investors would be happy with the repayment of the original loan and a small profit.

Slim had asked that he be allowed time to discuss it with Jess, who, as his partner, had as much say as anyone in the running and financial commitments of the Sherman holdings. Although Slim really wanted to purchase the land, and indeed it was a generous offer that had been made to him, he was also aware of the current financial issues they faced.

Things had improved quickly after the epidemic settled and life got back to normal. There had been an increased demand for beef, and as the stagecoaches started running again, the company had made a fresh contract with the Sherman relay station, and that included the supply of fresh sturdy horses to pull the more frequently running stages.

The discussion with Jess had been an interesting one. Slim smiled slightly to him self as he rode along side Jess back towards Laramie, as he recalled the conversation. Initially Jess had said he knew nothing about bookkeeping and figures and he would agree to whatever Slim decided. Slim had argued back that as his equal partner, he had to have a 50/50 agreement, and if that meant they didn’t purchase the ranch, then so be it. Then together they looked at the books, and Jess observed that if he left buying the prize stud he had wanted to improve their horse herd, and took on a small bank loan themselves, they could manage the purchase. Slim had argued back against the loan, and also the relinquishing, if only temporarily, of Jess’ dream of breeding horses. He had hard memories of the times when he had worried he would not be able to manage the monthly mortgage payments in the past, and he felt obliged to at least make a start on Jess’ vision for the future.

However, Jess had argued back, assuring Slim he was happy to wait another year or so, as he could see the advantages of more land. An opportunity to purchase fresh grazing land adjacent to their own, especially at such a good price, was not likely to occur again. Deep inside, however, Jess understood Slims need to ensure the future sanctity of Eve’s and her family’s grave, and was willing to give whatever it took to spare his Pard further heartache.

They had looked at the books again, and Slim noted that they had planned to purchase a prize bull to help improve their cattle, but as Jess said, like the horses, their stock was fairly sturdy already, and the improvement in their breeding capabilities for both horses and cattle, could wait another year or so. The extra grass land would allow for better feed for both cattle and horses, so they would have sturdier animals to sell anyway and they would probably make up the deficit easily over the following year. Then they could look to purchase more breeding stock, with the luxury of knowing they had better and more land to accommodate them.

So the decision was made. The two had rode into Laramie together, taking a brief respite from the ranch work. The details had been worked out with the bank, and the agreement drawn up and sent to the town solicitor to formalize it. But as the two partners had shook hands with the bank manager over the desk, and the deal was done as far as all three men where concerned.

Yesterday, Mort Corey, the Laramie Sherriff had called at the ranch, accompanying the town’s only solicitor. With Jonsey and the Sherriff as witnesses, the two men had read the final agreement and signed the documents, the bank manager having already added his name in town.

After a strong coffee and a brief chat, Jess had gone out to change the team on the stage. Old Mose was driving and contrary to his normal mannerisms, this time he was not inclined to come in and chat. He wanted to get to Laramie and the saloon in a timely fashion and was not inclined to hang around. Jess shook his head in stunned amazement, but was too distracted with what was happening in the homestead to give it much thought. He had returned to just in time to shake hands with the solicitor, an exchange farewells with Mort, as they left.

“Well, that was a short visit,” Jess had quipped. “Everyone’s in a hurry today.”

The blond had given a gentle knowing smile. “Sure seems that way.” He picked up the copy of the document that had been left on the table by the departing solicitor. “Guess I had better put this in a safe place.”

Jess had sat down as he looked around the small room. “ Never thought this day would come, Slim. Goldarn it. My stakes are well and truly driven in deep. My Ma and Pa wouldn’t know me now, the part owner of a ranch.”

“Not just any old spread, Pard.” Slim had waved the paper with a florish before placing it in the tin.  “With this all official, by my reckoning, we own one of the biggest spreads around here. I think even my Ma and Pa would be surprised by how things have changed. I couldn’t have done it without you. This time over a year ago, I even thought we may lose the spread.”

“Not a chance, Pard, your too stubborn to ever just give up,” then Jess had locked eyes with Slim, suddenly all quite and serious.” I reckon Eve and her family will rest easier knowing it’s you that has the Lazy E, and you will take good care of it.”

Slim had remained quite for a minute, a sad and pensive look passed fleetingly across his handsome face. “I guess they will, Jess. I just wish it hadn’t happened this way.” Before Jess could find the words to comfort his friend, Slim had visibly shaken himself and then spoke again. “Do we still have that hard wood and white paint left over from when we repaired the fence around Jonsey’s vegetable and herb patch?”

“Sure we do. It’s at the back of the barn. Being a rancher has taught me to be more frugal than I used to be. Why?” Jess had questioned, although he already had an inkling of what his best friend was thinking, and had carefully kept the items in question, ready for the day when Slim would need them.

“I think I’ll ride over to review our new range land soon, and well, I kind of want to tidy up their burial plot, especially now I know its ours to look after.” Slim had replied, a sad smile touching his lips.

“If’n you will allow, I’ll whittle some new markers, with their names more deeply cut,” Jess responded, a similar look on his face. Although Slim was unaware, Jess had been working secretly on beautifully carved crosses for the graves, especially one for Eve, dedicated from Slim. He had started the work just over a month ago, in the hope that this day would come.

Slim had stood and patted his friend’s shoulder.” So that’s what you’ve been up to of an evening out in the barn.” A guilty look flickered across Jess face, but he didn’t respond. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thank you. Will you do me one last favor?”

Jess had nodded a yes.

“Come with me to the graves and help me set them up. After all, they meant a lot to you as well.”

“I’ll be honored, Slim. Thank you for asking,” came the soft reply.

*****

So it was that having spent the morning at the grave site, and completing their labors of love, the two best friends now found themselves on the road heading to Laramie.

Tidying the area, building the fence, and placing the crosses had been therapeutic for both of them, and for Slim in particular. He felt he had finally been able to put to rest his past and was ready to move forward again. Eve would always be a part of him, but one that would support him and not drag him into deep remorse. His soul felt lighter than it had in months.

He turned the subject of their conversation to the reason they where now headed to Laramie.

“So, if Mort was correct, there are quite a few good trail hands still hanging around Laramie after finishing that big cattle drive. I reckon we need a few extra hands for the drive to the Cheyenne rail head, and then maybe pick the best one or two for a more permanent job as hired hands.” Slim commented.

“Reckon half a dozen should do for the drive. That’s quite a big herd we’ve got now. Shouldn’t need more than two extra permanent hands though, to ensure all the fences are ready for winter. Jonsey ain’t going to be pleased with all those extra mouths to feed though,” Jess responded, turning in his saddle to look towards Slim.

“You leave old Jonsey to me.” Slim grinned, as he slowly but surely inched his horse ahead of Jess. “Besides, the old grouch loves to have new people to bite at. He’ll love it, even if he won’t admit it.”

“Sure can’t argue with you on that,” Jess commented, recalling the times he had been on the end of Jonsey’s acerbic but caring tongue. “ Say, hard rock, how about I do the hiring this time. As I recall, you didn’t pick so good last time.”

Jess waited patiently for the penny to drop, as Slim, now a full horse length ahead, turned in the saddle. “I haven’t hired anyone in a long time. In fact, last time I took on a ranch hand, it was you. . .” Slim’s voice trailed off as he realized that Jess was kidding him.

“Exactly, and look how that turned out,” Jess quipped.

A slow, sly grin spread over Slims face as he looked straight ahead, keeping his face hidden from Jess. “Okay, Partner, you win. You get to do the hiring for the drive. We can pick the best of the bunch when we reach Cheyenne for the permanent hands. I’ll find something to occupy myself while you sort out the wheat from the chaff.”

“Good decision, Pard. I’m a better judge of men than you, leastwise these–,” then Jess voice trailed of, his teasing stopped mid line, as he realized his friend had given in way too easily. “Say, what do you mean, you’ll find something to occupy yourself?”

“Oh, nothing to worry about, just something Mort mentioned when he called the other day.” Slim threw this back over his shoulder as he increased his lead on Jess.

“What? What did he say?” Jess now needed to raise his voice in order to be heard, as Slim increased his lead further.

“He just mentioned that the last stage in from Cheyenne had brought some other new visitors, and Laramie is quite busy at the moment, what with the trail hands and the stage full of new saloon girls that have come in to work.” As he said the last words, Slim urge Alamo into a full gallop.

“Hey, wait up,” came the plaintive shout from behind. “We need to talk about this. Maybe you should do some of the hiring. You know what you’re looking for. Aw, Slim, come on now, lets be fair about this, I sure could do with meeting those new gals, I should get to choose first.”

Slim continued to increase his lead, and threw back over his shoulder,” Not if I get there first. Race you,” then he was off like the wind, with Jess in hot pursuit.

***The End***

Author’s Note:

There are two writers involved in this novel length fanfiction.  The first is Effie Taite ( R.I.P.) and the second (myself) Barbara Taylor.

This story was conceived in 2014 and it is almost like Effie and I were predicting the future that awaited us all in 2020. We have taken some liberties with the use of the influenza epidemic that ravaged the world in the 18th century, and I hope the story line does not cause pain to those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. It was because of this concern I delayed in sending this to Womens Writers Block, but now, as the vaccines offer a better future, I am putting this story out for your enjoyment.
Effie consulted with me, especially on the medical aspects, at each part of the journey. Unfortunately, Effie became ill, and although she bravely fought for her life, and continued to write this story, her health worsened and she lost her battle.
Effie was my very close friend, and we shared many traits in our story writing. As she reached chapter 14 she began to transfer a lot of the writing details to me, and as I sat with her in the hospice in the days prior to her leaving us, she gave me her note book in which she had her story plan, and asked me to promise to finish it for her and ensure its publication on the net.
I knew the story intimately so I agreed. However, after her passing, I was too emotional to start to write objectively, so I left it for a few months. Unfortunately, I too became ill with an illness that caused high calcium in my blood which caused both extreme fatigue, confusion and agitation. Several surgeries and a few years on, I am fully recovered, and with my mind cleared again, I started to work on Effie’s story.
So, at chapter 18, it became fully my work. I tried to stay in Effie’s style, but Effie, although my sister in spirit, was Scottish born and bred, and I was born in the North West of England. We thought the same, but had very different writing styles. I sincerely hope this will not change your enjoyment of the tale.
Finally, I completed it in Spring 2020, and passed it to another friend of Effie’s to read and check. Effie had written the story at her request initially, so it was only right Mary Brown should view it first and give it a name.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.