Price of Honor (by Mustang Sallie)

Summary:  He had done the right thing, the only thing he could do to protect his family and his country. The Price of Honor takes place in my own version of Laramie after season 4, episode 27 (The Last Battleground) and attempts to answer the unspoken question “what happened next?”
Genre:  Western
Category:  Laramie
Rating:  G
Word Count: 14,583


Chapter 1 – The Alley

Awareness came in infinitely slow moments. He was lying on something hard and unforgiving. He lifted his head slowly but froze when the stampeding cattle inside his brain caught up to him. One eye was definitely swollen shut and the other could only make out blurry objects in front of him. It was dark and quiet, but he heard in the distance music and raucous laughter. “Ok then” he thought to himself, “I’m not on the prairie. I must be in town.”

His arms were tied behind his back with rope and his wrists were bound with leather strips. His gloves were gone, and he tried to flex his fingers, but they were numb. His legs were free though and he had this incredible thought that if he could just stand up, he would be fine.

He opened his one good working eye and saw the building to the right of him. There was a puddle of something he did not want to guess what it was so that left the building on his left. As he squinted in the darkness, he could just about make out the fence. It looked sturdy enough. “I could just roll towards the fence and stand up,” he thought as he took a deep breath. He instantly groaned. “Bent or broken ribs” he thought irritability.

He had been in a lot of fights these past few years but this one was so out of the ordinary. For one thing, his attackers (and he seemed to think there were five) had draped a hood over his head and beat him.  He had tried to defend himself, but he couldn’t see where to strike back and when he fell onto his knees, they pushed him down continuing their taunts and fists. As he slipped into oblivion, he thought he heard one of them say in his ear “your brother is next.”

‘I can’t stay here’ he thought to himself and so slowly he swallowed back the bile in his throat and rolled to his left. It was a small movement, but he ached all over. The fence looked about a mile away, but he gritted his teeth and rolled again.

Finally, he reached the first rung. He shivered. The cold dirt-packed alley was seeping into his bones. Using the fence pole to prop himself up, he managed to raise one knee and gagged. The world around him swung in dizzying circles. He pushed and pulled his other leg up and finally he found his feet and leaned heavily against the fence. Success was short-lived. His back was bleeding and the blood seeped down his arms and spilled over his wrists. He was losing his grip and in one gigantic desperate move he heaved himself over the top rung.

“OH, God!” he moaned. “No one will ever find me!”  As he swung precariously, he ran his tongue over his teeth (all of them, thank goodness) and his parched lips and in one last coherent moment, in a voice strangled with pain he yelled, “Jess!”

*****

Chapter 2 – Missing

Mort Cory stood in front of his desk the night of the Laramie Social and folded his arms across his chest. Each time the Town Council decided to hold a dance, they asked for volunteers to keep the peace. In the past, the only incidents were men sneaking whisky into the affair when only punch was to be served or more recently fists flying when one man refused to give up his dancing partner. The only problem Mort had was that 90% of the men in Laramie attended these events leaving the town wide open to would-be robbers and fights in the saloon and since he couldn’t be everywhere at once, he was forced to deputize some of the town folk for the said evening. The latest bunch were mostly ranchers along with Jed Benson of the General Store and Billy Johnson from the Print Shop. He had a feeling that money had been the lure but here they were waiting for instructions.

Mort held out the 6 Deputy Badges in his hand, turning them to catch the light and his newest recruit’s attention.

“Now, all you have to do is…” his memorized speech was halted abruptly when the front door was suddenly flung open, and a blast of cold air swept into the room. Someone yelled “close the door” and as the men stared, the unmistakable wavering figure of Jess Harper came into view.

“He’s missing! You have to help me find him!” Jess pleaded and then promptly fell forward into Mort’s arms.

Within a matter of seconds, a chair appeared behind Jess and Mort slowly lowered the ex-gunslinger and his friend into it.

“Coffee,” he snapped to no one in particular and again, within seconds a steaming cup appeared along with six genuinely concerned deputies each familiar with the now rancher and partner of Slim Sherman.

“Alright, Jess, “Mort said gently as Jess gulped the hot liquid, “start from the beginning.”

Jess nodded and held the warm cup in his gloved hands feeling grateful and comforted all at once. “The plan this morning was for Slim to take the buckboard and drive into town for supplies, pick up some material at the dressmakers for Daisy and drive home. Then we had some chores to do and one of us was gonna take Mike fishing. Then we were gonna have an early lunch and get ready for the dance.”

Jess took a deep breath and continued. His eyes never leaving Mort’s face. “When he didn’t come home, I figured he got way-layed with your sister,” he nodded to Jed, “or you Mort. But then he didn’t come home for lunch either.  I can’t find the buckboard; Mrs. Williams, the dressmaker never saw him; he wasn’t in the saloon.” Jess’s voice had risen to a fevered pitch. “Mort, we gotta find him!” Jess clutched the cup so hard that Mort thought it would break.

Mort ran a hand over his face and sighed. Something wasn’t right about this whole story. He looked down at the panicked face of his friend. “Jess, anything I should know about. Any problems with anyone?”

Jess shook his head and stood up. He handed the empty cup to Jed. He knew most of the men surrounding him. They were good men. Some knew Slim longer than him. Some he had played cards with and some he had drunk with. He could trust them.

“We’ll find him,” Mort promised and turning slightly stuck his hand out with the badges to the men. “Your job tonight has just changed, boys.” He faced the young men. “Now, I’m going to split you into two teams. Tom, you Jeremiah and Rory go across the street. Check every door and window and alley. When you get to the hotel, talk to the clerk only. Search every room. When you leave the hotel,  keep walking to the end on that side of the street then cross over to this side. You see something, suspicious or you find Slim, find me. Now,” he leaned towards them to prove a point, “no talking while you’re walking and don’t draw attention to the fact that you are looking for Slim Sherman. Got it?” They nodded and grabbing their hats left the room.

*****

Chapter 3 – Found

What do you want us to do, Mort?” asked Jed as he slipped on his gloves.

“You and Billy come with Jess and me. We’ll start at Stockmen’s and check all the buildings ’til we get to the livery. Then we’ll cross the street and hit all the buildings to the hotel. Gil, I want you to take Jess’s Traveler to the livery. Take care of him. Also, as you go along, keep an eye out for that buckboard and horses. The brand you’re looking for is “SR”, right Jess?”

Jess nodded briefly. He knew Mort would leave no stone unturned, but time was flying by and he fairly itched to be on the hunt.

“Come on, son” Mort said as he swung an arm across Jess’s shoulders and gently propelled him out the door. The parade of law-abiding citizens made their way down the street. Mort sent Jed and Billy into the saloon while he and Jess waited outside. Jess was visibly shaking. Mort had seen Jess in agitated states before, but this was a state of him that completely unnerved him.

Jed and Billy swung out of the door and shook their heads silently. Mort sighed. ‘This whole turn of events was exasperating’ , he thought as he contemplated his next move. He felt a chill across his shoulders and suddenly motioned Billy closer. “Billy, go to the Doc’s office. Tell him to expect an injured man that will be with us. We’ll come in by the back door.”

Jess started to say something. Fear was written all over his face. Mort swallowed hard. He had to remain calm. “Something is definitely wrong here, ” he whispered. “Slim is probably injured and that’s why we can’t find him.”

The trio continued their silent mission but just as they were passing the alley between the blacksmiths and the livery, Jess stopped mid-stride and held up his hand. “Did you hear that?” He asked, his voice hoarse. He looked at each of them. Mort frowned as he wondered if Jess was letting his fear get the best of him.  He started to walk away but Jess continued to stand at the entrance of the dark and silent alley. Jed put a hand onto Mort’s arm and motioned in Jess’s direction.

“It wouldn’t hurt to look, Mort,” he said softly. Mort nodded and handed the lantern to Jed.

“Go with Jess all the way to the end. You find Slim, come back for me.” He watched them leave. Jed was swinging the lantern back and forth. The light bounced off the dark and eerily silent alleyway. This was going to be a long night. Mort bent over and stretched his back. He stamped his boots. ‘Darn, it’s getting colder’ he thought. This whole incident made no sense. Everyone liked Slim Sherman. He was honest, trustworthy, fair-minded. He and Jess were ranchers who operated a stage stop twelve miles from town. Their family consisted of a young boy they had adopted and their second mother, Daisy Cooper. Slim’s younger brother was in St. Louis studying to be a doctor. They were a close-knit family that had seen their share of hardships, but the very same hardships had only strengthened the brotherly bond between Jess and Slim. Mort knew that Slim tended to over-protect Jess and he also knew that Jess both admired and respected the bedrock of his life. Long ago, he had given up the notion that those two friends were two different people. They were one unit and if one were to lose the other, he shuddered to think what could happen. The absolute best of Slim’s soul would leave him and Jess would become a hollow man.

It was a good five minutes before he heard the panting breaths and saw out of the corner of his eye a very frightened Jed Benson.

“It’s Slim! We found him! Come with me quick!”

“How is he?” Mort jerked his head towards the darkness.

“About as bad as you can imagine,” Jed answered grimly and lifting the lantern led the way for the two of them to find their friends. Mort’s first glimpse of Slim was a sight so awful, he just knew that it would haunt him all his days. Blood from a bruised and beaten head and face trickled down his cheek. His once blond hair was matted with dried blood and dirt. One eye was swollen shut and Jess was frantically trying to hold his friend upright while cutting the rope around his upper body with the other. Mort reached for the knife in his boot and with several swipes managed to cut through enough strands to loosen its grip on Slim’s body. Gently, with Jed’s help, Mort managed to lower Slim’s arms. They hung loosely by his sides. Mort noted that Jess had clasped his arms around Slim firmly, tears filing his eyes.

“We have to lay him down,” Mort said drawing out each word slowly as if it pained him to speak.

“Jed,” he instructed the tall shopkeeper, “hold Slim while Jess sits.” Jess frowned and Mort realized that Jess was overwhelmed with Slim’s injuries and motioned to the ground. When he next spoke, he kept his voice soft and gentle.

“Jess, we have to lay him down. Jed is going to get two blankets so that we can cover and carry him to the Doc’s office. You sit down and take care of Slim.”

Jess nodded and sat with his legs out and gently Jed and Mort lowered Slim into Jess’s waiting arms. When they came back, Jess had covered Slim with his jacket and was whispering something in his ear.

*****

Chapter 4 – No News is Good News

If anyone were to ask him, Jess would say that the chairs in Dr. Sam’s office were the most uncomfortable in the territory. At a time when one needed a place to lay their head against worrisome thoughts that threatened to overcome them there was none. The top slat came up to his shoulders. The arms were spindles, and the seat was lumpy. So, he did what he did best -he paced. Back and forth, his steps took him in a tight square and all the while he listened intently. There was no moan or groan from Slim and every time Carrie, Dr. Sam’s daughter opened the door he jumped up only to be met with the gentle shake of here

He had no idea what time it was or how long Slim lay beyond his reach, but he was sure that if someone didn’t tell him something soon, he was gonna break down the door. He went back to the chair and as memories assaulted him, he stared a hole into the middle of the square. He remembered Slim once asking him why he paced a square and had to admit, even though he thought it was funny, that he always knew where the beginning and end were. A circle had no beginnings and no ends. Now, as he sat on the lumpy chair, he knew that back when he was just drifting it didn’t matter about beginnings and endings but now, so many years later his real beginning began when he met Slim, and he sure didn’t want to face an ending like this. From their very first meeting at the lake to just this morning, so long ago now, it seemed, Jess had been struck by the fact that the tall lanky rancher was a kind man. Oh, he could get riled for sure, but he was a fair man willing to give someone a second or even a third chance. The two of them had bonded against a shared enemy very quickly and had become friends. By the time they’d chosen to become brothers they’d shared more than blood. Jess knew he could carry the load for both of them as long as it took.

Unbidden, a memory skirted by in his jumbled mind. He’d been shot and left for dead and as he felt his life blood seeping out of him, he thought he heard familiar footsteps and as he looked up, he saw Slim’s worried face. He remembered asking him if he was getting tired of coming after him and Slim had replied that there weren’t that many Jess Harpers around. But much later, during a porch talk on a hot summer night, Slim had confessed that their relationship meant so much more. So deep in thought, Jess never heard the front door open and close, and Mort Cory enter the room.

“Jess.”

Startled, Jess raised his head and stared at the door.

“Jess,” Mort spoke again. “I came to see how Slim was.” Jess turned and acknowledged Laramie’s sheriff and his friend with a nod.

“No news Mort,” he spoke wearily. “Dr. Sam has not come out not once. Carrie comes out to get water or cloths. She never says anything. Mort, what if?” His voice trailed off.

Mort frowned. This was taking too long. As if on cue, the surgery door finally opened. Carrie nodded to both men and told them that her father would be out shortly.

“Would you like some coffee?” Even though she was offering Jess a cup of his favorite brew, he scarcely reacted.

“Jess,” she spoke gently, “you need to wash up. Your shirt is covered with blood and you have to be clean if you touch Slim.”

Jess went off to wash as Mort sipped his coffee. Carrie left him and Dr. Sam soon joined them both.

“How is he?” Jess asked, fear lacing every word.

Dr. Sam shook his head. He’d seen his share of wounds in his day, but this was Laramie -a quiet little town. He wondered who could have so many hatreds as to beat a man half to death. Was Slim targeted? Was the attacker someone in town? All he could do for the rancher and his friend was to give him the best medical care he could.

“Gentleman, he’s got a long recovery in front of him. He’s got three broken ribs, a broken right arm, both wrists were scrapped raw and infected. He’s running a fever, which is to be expected. He’s lucky, though. The person who carved up his back used a dull knife, but I still had 30-40 stitches to make to repair the damage. I’m worried about lung fever ’cause we have no idea how long he was on the ground. But the worst of it all is his head.” Dr. Sam paused and glanced at Jess who was clenching his fists. He sighed. One of the things he hated was telling the patient’s family the bad news. “We have no idea yet on how to treat head wounds, Jess. I can’t tell you when or if he’ll wake up. He could come to tomorrow, next week, or next month or never. He might survive all his injuries only to never be able to speak or see or walk or remember who he is.”

Sam was fairly sure by this point that Jess was losing control.

“I’d like to move him to a sick room down the hall. Would you help me?”

Forewarned, Jess was able with Mort’s help, carry a very bandaged Slim to the sick room at the end of the house. There were several reasons why Sam wanted to use the room. It was at the end of the house; there was no windows to peek into from the outside; there was no separate source of fire for warmth, and it was not easily accessible. Several other patients had occupied the room before Slim and used when the person needed to be protected. Sam decided to share this information with the sheriff and figured that Mort would tell Jess if and when he needed to know.

“We’ll get whoever did this,” Mort promised Jess in a hushed tone as they looked down at Slim. Normally, Jess would be on fire to avenge the attack on his Pard but compassion for Slim was the foremost emotion. He struggled to control the tears streaming down his face.

“I’ve got to get back to the office, Jess. I’m going to send out some deputies to your ranch to protect Daisy and young Mike. Any message for them?”

“Tell them I love them and I’m with Slim. I’ll get home when I can. Oh Mort, make sure you only talk to Daisy. Mike will be scared especially since I’m not there.”

You gonna be okay?” Mort glanced at Jess who nodded and mumbled “Thanks for all your help, Mort.”

Alone with his best friend, Jess sank down to his knees besides the bed. The enormity of their situation loomed over him. He knew he was up to the task, but he was torn. Daisy and Mike might be safe now with Mort’s deputies, but they needed his presence. Mike was young and bound to be very scared. When they were reunited, he was sure that Mike would attach himself to him and not want to be separated. Basic ranch duties would not suffer with both of them gone but even if he left for a short time to direct Ben on chores, they still might not be safe. Slim could still slide down hill and he knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if Slim died alone. He rested his right hand on Slim’s bandaged chest and lowered his head. “Get well Slim. We all need you, especially me.”

*****

Chapter 5 – Sliver of Hope

Jess Harper closed the door of his shared bedroom gently and walked into the main room of the ranch house. His steps were muted, not just because of his exhaustion, but for the overall concern of his best friend who lay in his sick bed behind the door.

After six long weeks of nursing, Dr. Sam had concluded that maybe if Slim were to be surrounded by his family and the regular noises of his ranch he would wake up. His injuries were healing nicely. Although he had suffered from several fevers, Jess had been at his side and had managed to lower them with little help from himself or Carrie.

So, without anyone noticing, the Sherman-Harper buckboard had carried Slim Sherman home. He was carefully laid upon a mountain of hay and bedding, his body protected from the bumps and ruts of the Laramie roads. Jess had sat in the back cradling his friend’s head with Mike proudly driving. Jess had carried his best friend into their house, another worry added to his already full plate. Slim was awfully thin and frail. If he coulda stood on his own two feet, Jess was sure if a strong wind blew Slim woulda fallen over. It had been ceremony of sorts, although Jess never acknowledged it. Daisy Cooper immediately turned from “second mother” to “Mother Hen.”

*****

It had been two long weeks since then with little change. Sam had come out several times and left with “he’s coming along nicely” or “his arm has healed” comments that left Jess too numb to even care. Each time Dr. Sam visited, Jess would ask when Slim would wake up, and each time, Dr. Sam replied “As I told you in the beginning, we just don’t know how to treat head wounds like this. This condition is called a coma. Slim’s brain is asleep. He suffered a severe injury. He could wake up tomorrow, next week, next month, we just don’t know. Some doctors have had success when the patient heard noises, he was familiar with. That’s why I suggested you take him home.”

Ranch life went on as usual. Mike, wanting Slim to wake up, took extra care to slam doors more forcibly until Jess told him to stop. Daisy went about cooking and cleaning with a perpetual cheerful countenance. Jess had taken over nursing duties and shaving Slim every other day. Mike went back and forth to school on the stage with a deputy for company and took over some of Jess’s yard chores,. Wanting to make up for the door slamming, he started reading books to Slim at night, and Jess longed for the day when Slim woke up and was whole again.

Mort still hadn’t found any suspects in Slim’s brutal attack. The deputies Mort had hired the night of the social had been diligently turning the town upside down, but no one stood out to draw their attention.

“Jess, would you like some coffee?” Daisy asked as she poured milk in a cup for Mike.

“Maybe later,” Jess replied., She meant well he knew. They all were trying their best to help each other. It wasn’t easy on any of them, and they had no idea how much longer this was going to last.

“I’ll be in the barn,” he muttered and grabbing his jacket he yanked open the door and went outside. He was met with an inky black sky full of bright stars. “Slim,” he whispered as he felt his world tilt around him, “I need your strength.”

In the past, whenever he’d been away from the ranch or this family, he’d always counted on and perhaps taken for granted his connection with Slim. He’d always had problems trusting people. When most folks discovered his past, they’d turned him away but Slim had offered him a job, a home, his family and a part of his heart. He never knew when it happened but sometime between the disastrous Rony Bishop affair and the Sherman feud with Parkison he’d surrender the tight grip on his heart and told Slim that he placed absolute trust in people he knew by heart.

He wanted to trust Daisy when she insisted that Slim’s head was catching up to his healing body, but the sliver of hope was so thin he had no faith in it. Mike had said that Slim’s legs had moved when he was reading Robin Hood, but Jess still thought Mike was wishful thinking.

He walked back to the porch and sank into his rocker. He needed to sleep for a week or more, but he needed to be vigilant especially at night. He took the responsibility seriously, but he needed his Pard. He was alone in his thoughts and he didn’t hear Daisy open the door behind him.

“Jess,” Daisy’s voice was breathless. He looked up into her loving eyes.

“Slim’s awake! He wants to talk with you!” Jess blinked. ‘Am I dreaming?’ he wondered.

“He said to tell you that it must be cold and lonely on the porch and you would be warmer in your room.” Happy tears slid down her cheeks as he grabbed her and held her close.

“Thank you for loving us,” he whispered. He had no idea how he made it through the door and across the room but when he opened the bedroom door, he met a smiling Slim Sherman propped up on pillows, hair falling over his forehead and his blue eyes fixed on him. Finally, Jess found his voice and was able to triumphantly say, “Welcome back Slim!”

*****

Chapter 6 – What Do You Know?

The calendar on the wall proclaimed in large bold letters that it was autumn, but nary a colorful leaf was to be found. The breezes were cooler, especially at night but there was still suffocating heat that sucked Jess’s breath away. He was teaching Mike how to stack wood but sweat kept his palms wet and when caution tapped him on the shoulder once too many times, he called it a day.

Taking off his hat, he wiped his forehead with his bandana and told Mike to wash up for supper in advance of Daisy’s ritual.

“Jess,” Mike called to him from the pump, “‘ain’t that Sheriff Cory?” Jess looked up and over the rise and saw Mort riding in.

“Best tell Daisy to get out another plate,” he told Mike who splashed some more water over his head and ran into the house with the exuberance of youth.

“Hi ya, Mort,” Jess grinned as he squinted at his favorite sheriff, “what brings you out here? Checking on your deputies?” He teased.

Mort Cory dismounted and handed the reins to Jess. A small smile danced around his lips. Jess always had a way about him. He sighed. “I’ve got something to share with all of you,” he said finally.

Daisy poked her head out the door. “Jess, are you going to invite Mort into supper, or am I?”

“Oh, no, Mrs. Cooper. Please don’t trouble yourself. There’s just a matter I need to talk to you all about,” Mort was never one to have difficulty speaking but here he was stumbling and stammering.

“Oh, nonsense! Please come in. Mike, set another plate for the sheriff.” Daisy took charge and ushered them into the house. Slim was in a chair by the fire and Mike was dutifully setting the table when he entered into house. He handed over his hat to Jess but left his gun belt on

“I still don’t understand,” Mike said looking from Slim to Jess. He was seated between his two ‘fathers’ at the table. Mort wiped his mouth and pushed his now very empty plate away from himself and after glancing at Jess, rose and looked around the cozy room.

“Mike,” he said arms crossed in front of his chest, “it’s like this. Suppose you had a friend who had done something wrong, and they were afraid to tell their parents or teacher or me. The secret was becoming too big for them, so they told you. If what they told you was against the law what would you do?”

Mike sat up straight. “Why, I’d tell Slim and Jess of course!”

Jess slid his arm around his ‘son’. He and Slim were always teaching Mike about honesty and values and at that moment they were immensely proud of him.

“Well, that’s what Billy Bob did. He told Jed.” Mort continued

“Can we trust him?” Slim asked.

“I believe his story,” Mort told them, “remember boys, he’s really only a child, not much older than you Mike. He trusted that side winder because he’d rescued him and gave him shelter and food. Besides that, he promised him gold and fame and all he had to do was watch the horses and do some odd chores around their camp.

“Mort, ” Jess interrupted angrily, “he did more than that. He hit Slim!”

“Yeah, I know Jess. But even you, Slim said he pulled his punch.”

“What do we know about this gang, Mort?” Daisy asked as she poured them all more coffee and milk for Mike.

“Well, Mrs. Cooper,” Mort said as he fumbled with his bandana, “the leader is the son of a reconstructionist.” Mike frowned and tugged at Slim. “I’ll explain it to you later,” Slim promised Mike and nodded to Mort to continue.

“He himself was too young to go to war but he heard enough stories about the southerners. One of the gangs is kin to Ellis’ partner, maybe a brother. Billy Bob thinks that he was only after the gold. Then there’s the man, Billy Bob is afraid of. He’s like a bounty hunter -a killer on demand. The last one they call “Skinny” was a prisoner of war who hates all Yankees. I know the war has been over for a long time but the idea of all that gold hiding somewhere on your ranch, well it’s a temptation.”

Daisy raised her head and stared at Mort. She had that determined, courageous glint in her eye that he had seen before. “So, they thought that by beating up my boy, they’d get the gold that doesn’t exist.”

A long silence followed Daisy’s remark. Mike clutched Jess’s arm and snuggled closer to Slim needing protection against the unseen enemy. Daisy studied her cup of tea as she felt her family drown in the sea of emotions swirling around them. Jess, once again, berated himself about bringing the wagon remnant to town instead of Slim and Slim, somehow knowing Jess’s thoughts, reached a long arm out to him.

Mort cleared his throat again. The family probably wasn’t going to like what he next had to say.

“You have to know the whole story to understand what we think should happen next.”

“Alright, Mort, let’s hear it,” Slim said exasperated. His headache was coming back. The sooner Mort was finished, he could lie down.

*****

Chapter 7 – Billy Bob’s Story

Mort pulled a sheath of paper from his saddlebags and once again wondered if he should have waited for Jed. He knew that both Jess and Slim trusted the young owner of Benson’s. He’d been so helpful when looking for Slim and driven out several times with extra food and supplies for the ranch.

“Jed couldn’t leave Marcie alone, so he wrote everything down.” Mort said as he unrolled the pages.

Slim stood up suddenly and then gripped the table as he swayed. Jess was at his side an instant later.

“Dizzy?

“Yeah.”

“You want to lie down?” Jess asked anxiously.

“I want to hear what Mort has to say,” Slim said irritability.

Mort started to walk around the table, but Daisy caught his eye and shook her head.  She knew that Jess could handle the situation. So, within a few minutes, Jess had steered Slim across the room into their shared bedroom, removed his boots and had him propped up on several pillows at his back. Mike perched by his feet and Jess had dragged two chairs into the room.

“Okay, Mort,” Jess said, “go ahead.”

“Dear Slim, Jess, Mike, and Mrs. Cooper,

I am sorry for not telling you all in person. I did not feel that Marcie was safe left alone like she is. About three or four days after Slim’s attack, the town gossips were wondering where he was. I thought at the time that it was unusual that they should wonder about you that way, but the talk died down and I forgot about it. 

Then just after Mike and Jess drove Slim home, another rumor started. This was more harmful than you’re not being in town. They started saying you were dying. Our little loyal group of six, as we called ourselves, dismissed this idea, saying of course, we would know about it – respected rancher, family person, partner to Jess. We had no idea where the rumor started, we were only glad that ‘ole Parson’s at the Laramie Gazette didn’t print any of it.

Along that time, a young lad I’m going to say about 14 or 15,walked into the store one morning. Marcie was in the back of the store when she saw him. He had dark hair, brown eyes and limped. She was struck by his dirty, dusty shirt and pants. His boots were worn and badly scuffed and he had no hat. It was his voice that stopped her from shooing him out of the store right away. He asked if he could work for a meal. Marcie asked him if he could read or write or do arithmetic. The answers were no. So, she said she was sorry but there was no need for help because her brother would be back soon. I was out making a delivery. Anyway, he left but not before he stole two apples and a can of peaches.

Of course, she told me all about this strange visitor and I reminded her to keep the pistol I had bought her handy. Then he came in again. This time, Marcie was out, and I saw him. Again, he asked for a job. I asked if knew arithmetic and of course he said ‘no’. I almost asked him to leave, but he looked so hungry that I said he could sweep the front porch and help load packages for customers and I’d pay him minus the apples and the can of peaches. He looked surprised and ashamed. I told him that my sister had a sharp eye. He’s been here at the store every morning now. I’ve been trying to find out more about him, but he doesn’t say much about his past except that he’s from Kansas and his parents are dead. He got hurt in a plowing accident and he’s on his own. Oh, and his name is Billy Bob.

He didn’t seem to be much of a threat until one morning he asked if it was true that there was gold in the hills around Laramie.”

Mort paused when he heard the collective gasp of the family he knew so well. He put up his hand against the on-coming questions and gesturing to Jed’s letter said evenly, “Jed explains more. Do you want me to finish or leave?”

“Finish the letter,” Jess growled.

“Jess!” Slim reached forward towards Jess’s arm.” Ease off!”

Jess folded his arms across his chest and sank back into the chair. Mort picked up the paper and began reading again.

“I managed to control myself and told Billy Bob that the gold story was made up by an outlaw who wanted all the citizens to leave town so he could rob the bank. I think that’s when Marcie realized that she wanted to know Slim better what with him trying to save the town and all. Anyway, Billy Bob seemed to understand and didn’t say another word about gold. I made it a point to tell Sheriff Cory the next time I saw him.”

Mort stopped reading then and took a gulp of coffee. “He did talk to me and I realized that this boy, innocent- looking as he might be, might be the lookout for the gang that attacked you” he spoke liking directly at Slim. “I figured that if Jed was to get closer to him, maybe give him more jobs, offer more money, a place to stay, maybe he would tell Jed more. My gamble worked. It turns out that Billy Bob had been rescued by the leader of this gang, whose name is Tanner, when he was found on the prairie half-starved. Billy Bob was cared for by three other men. In exchange for his share of the gold, all he had to do was take care of the horses and do some odd jobs around the camp.”

“Excuse me,” Mike interrupted, “if he didn’t know what they planned, what and how did he know about Slim?”

“Good question, Mike,” Mort smiled. “Jed explains that part in the rest of the letter.”

*****

Chapter 8.   The Approaching Storm

“So, he watched and said nothing!” Jess sputtered, anger seething out of every fiber of his body.

“What could he have done, Jess?” Mort asked, “he was one young boy and there were four angry men.

“Can we trust his story?” Slim asked quietly.

“I believe him. I think they thought that if they hurt Slim, they would get you, Jess off the ranch. The old lady, sorry Daisy,  his words not mine, would leave and the boy would go to a home. Then they could search the ranch for the gold.”

“So again, Mort,” Daisy spoke “they beat my boy to find gold that doesn’t exist.”

“Yeah,” Mort sighed.

“So, did you put this Billy Bob, or whatever his name is in jail?” asked Jess.

Mort shook his head. “Nope, because there’s more to this story. Someone in Laramie Is the real head of this gang. He’s the one who started the rumors and left money for Billy Bob to live in town.”

“What!” Jess exploded his fists clenching. “You let him go! What’s the matter with you?”

“Jess! Calm down!” Slim admonished, trying to settle him.

“No! I won’t calm down!” Jess shouted. Pent up fear and anger washed over him. He was unraveling and for once he didn’t care. “They almost killed you” He exclaimed shaking a fist at his best friend “and you want to play games with this boy! What are you thinking? Have you lost your mind?”

“Jess!” Even though his head was pounding, Slim managed to grab one of Jess’s arms and pull him down so that they were eye to eye. Pinning him with an icy glare, he spoke to the visibly shaking man. “Listen. To. Me.”

Jess shook his head and tried to get away from his best friend but Slim’s grip was tightening and forcing him to look into his eyes.

“Stop!” Slim’s tone spoke volumes. For a long moment no one said anything. Both men had a silent yet loaded conversation and finally Slim let Jess go.

“I’m sorry Mort,” Jess said softly, “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Mort let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding and rubbed his forehead with his sleeve. “It’s alright, Jess. I understand. I probably should have said this all better. No harm done. But I’m sure glad you’re on our side.”

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and Daisy took that moment to leave the room and return shortly with coffee for the men.

“So, what is next?” Daisy asked.

“I’d like to try and get the gang to show themselves. This leader of theirs is someone who is from Laramie. He would know, for instance, when you came into town and about the gold. He also knew what you looked like.”

Jess, looking more than ashamed, wrinkled his forehead. “So, we’re going to wait for them to make a mistake.

“Yeah, only we’re going to make it easier for them to do so.” I want to leave my deputies in place, boys.” Mort continued. “Slim, you have to stay inside the house mainly because you still have dizzy spells, and you can’t ride. Daisy, you have to also stay inside because of danger lurking outside. Oh, and I want to tell you how proud I am of you.” He paused and she blushed. “You washed everyone’s clothes except for Slim.

“Why is that so good?” asked Mike.

“Well, Tiger,” Jess said gently, “Slim is not supposed to be here, remember? Also, he’s taller than me, so his pants are larger and if someone were looking at our clothesline, they would see the wash drying on the line.”

“Oh, “Mike grinned and nodded. “You’re smart, Aunt Daisy.” Everyone chuckled then.

“Jess, it’s time to check stock and fencing. You go out with a deputy and go about your work, Mike, you’ll continue to go to school with a deputy. If anyone wants to make a move, now they will.”

*****

Chapter 9 – Simon Ellis

“Hold it right there!” The three would-be gold prospectors froze when they heard the clicks of the guns behind them.

“Put down those shovels and picks real slow,” Jess growled low and menacing to the trespassers. He had been warned this would happen but so soon? “Now lay down your guns, real slow,” Johnny ordered.

Disarmed, the men shuffled their feet and looked around. Jess fixed his eyes on the taller of one of the men and poked his gun barrel at his prey. “You’re gonna be the one to fill in all the holes. Now get to it,” he ordered. Jess motioned to the dark haired brown eyed man warily. He looked familiar but Jess couldn’t place him. The man grunted and began to fill in the holes with dirt and grass. He was clearly not a man accustomed to working hard. His hands were smooth, not calloused and his fingernails were clean and cut. His companions, on the other hand, looked like cowhands, dirty and unshaved.

“So, ” Jess spoke again, keeping his gun firmly placed dead center against the outlaw’s chest, “what we’re you digging for? You know you’re trespassing right?”

For the first time, the man lifted his head and stared defiantly at Jess. “If you hadn’t stopped us, we’d have found your reward, Mr. Harper.”

“So, you know me.” Jess stated. “What’s your name? And what do you mean, “my reward?”

“Well, you see Mr. Harper, we figure you’ve been workin’ on that ranch for all this time gettin’ them people to liken’ you and trust you and you could get the gold anytime you wanted it.”

The reasoning was hard to follow and Jess suddenly felt as though he’d been part of their plan all along

“Oh, and if I look familiar it’s ‘cause my name is Simon Ellis.

The ground beneath Jess’s feet shifted. For the first time, in a long while, he felt icy-cold fear splitter along his bones, threatening to swallow him whole. He opened his mouth, but no words came out.

“Ha, ya didn’t think we’d find out, did ya?” One of the men chortled.

“Shut up!” Simon yelled at his partner. “The boss has it all figured out, Mr. Harper,” Simon Ellis continued as he leaned his weight on the shovel’s handle and spoke like he was having a conversation about the price of beef. “You come by the barred windows of the jail later and we’ll tell you what to do. Boss has it all planned, ” his voice trailed off as he winked at Jess.

Jess and Johnny,  Sheriff  Cory’s nephew,  swallowed hard and managed to control their anger. They bound their prisoners and started riding towards town. A mile or so, towards town, Jess suddenly leapt off Traveler and disappeared into the brush. Fighting the nausea and pent-up rage had become too much for him. Johnny instinctively knew that Jess would follow when able, so he continued the trek with the prisoners.

Daisy Cooper wiped her hands on the towel by the sink. Supper had been quiet with just Slim and Mike. Jess was very late.

“When is Jess coming back?” Mike asked Slim. His beloved father was staring out the front window at the darkening shadows of their yard.

“I don’t know, Mike, ” he sighed. “He’s late, that’s for sure. But you know Jess can take care of himself,” He nodded to the boy and slipped a hand over his small shoulder.

“Did you finish your homework?”

“Yup,” Mike replied and then sighed. He knew what Slim was going to say next. “I’ll get ready for bed now.” Eyes downcast, he started shuffling to his room

Slim looked at him and for the briefest of moments “saw” Andy standing in the exact same spot, wanting to be grown up and yet still a young boy. “Mike, “he said softly, “It’s hard for me to keep standing here. Why don’t you stand guard for a while?”

Mike’s grin was wide, and he immediately knelt on the cushioned sofa and opened the curtains. Daisy nodded to Slim in gratitude as Slim sank into the chair by the fire. It would have been a cozy picture of a loving family except for the one that was missing.

Sometime later, Daisy turned in as well as Mike, leaving a lonely and somewhat worried Slim to lie in bed staring at the ceiling. There were so many things that could have gone wrong. He was just drifting off to sleep when he heard the horses pull up near the barn. Mike must have been awake because he came out of his room in a flash, his too-long sleep gown waving reminding Slim of Angel wings.

“Don’t open the door to someone we don’t know,” Slim yelled

“I won’t!” Mike yelled back.

Being in the shared bedroom, close enough to the main room had never really been a problem until now. Slim could hear voices and then nothing. Clad only in his long John’s, still-healing right arm and off and on dizzy spells left him in a very vulnerable state. He swung a leg over the bed and his foot connected with the cold floor. His gun belt looked a mile away, hanging off of Jess’s bedpost. “Mike!” he called to his son, just out of reach. “Is everything alright?” He took a step and felt the floor shift beneath him. “This is going to hurt,” was his last coherent thought as he fell onto the floor.

*****

Chapter 10 – Treasure Means Something Different

The water was warm against his skin and the touch was soft as a feather. He could hear voices above him floating in and out. He wanted to sink back into the darkness that had enveloped him, but the voices were becoming clearer and louder

“Am I doing this alright?” The boy’s small voice asked hesitantly.

“You’re doing fine, Mike. When someone is unconscious, ya need to wake ’em up slowly. Now, don’t rub ’em just pat. That’s it. He’s comin round.”

Slim smiled inwardly. Trust Jess to make his falling what he called “another life lesson for Mike”. Groaning, he slowly turned his head and met two sets of worried blue eyes.

“Slim, how ya doin’”?

Slim grimaced. He felt really dumb. “I fell. I heard Mike at the door and went looking for my gun. Why did you put my gun belt on your bed post, Pard?”

“When I brought you in here, you weren’t really needing it right then. So, what happened?”

“I got up. I got dizzy. I couldn’t get my gun and I fell,” Slim said clearly irritated now.

“Well, it doesn’t look like you did any more damage to yourself. Why don’t you go back to sleep?”

“Why were you late?”

“It can wait,” Jess replied and then gently steered Mike out the door. “Time to go back to bed, Tiger.”

Mike glanced at both of his fathers.. One was back in bed where he belonged and the other was not to off from it. With an obedient nod, he walked back to his own room.

“Jess, what’s wrong?” Slim asked as he winced slightly as he settled against the pillows.

Jess shook his head, “Nothin’,” he mumbled, not looking at Slim. He hated lying to Slim; in fact, he rarely did but he had just picked him off the gol-darn floor.

“Jess?” There it was again, the soft, pleading voice that nudged at his heart.

You’re not gonna like it,” he finally spoke.

“I already don’t like it, but it can’t be that bad.” Slim waited. Jess was sitting next to him, his head was down, hands clutched together in his lap. Slim sighed. Jess could be so stubborn. He tried a different tack.

“Jess, ” a small smile tugged his lips, “if I promise to stay in bed, will you tell me what’s wrong?”

“Nothin’ to tell. Will you just leave it!” Jess started to rise but Slim’s hand reached out to him and clasped itself onto his arm.

“Pard, we can get through it together.”

Slim’s confident tone broke the shell around Jess’s heart. He sighed and took a deep breath and told Slim the whole story. When he finished, there was silence. Jess peered into the darkness and saw Slim’s pale face. His lips were caught in a tight line. “What does Mort suggest we do next?”

Jess wondered how his friend could be so calm when his own heart was racing. The fear of losing everything and everyone he loved was almost too great to bear. In a voice full of anguish, he spoke.

“He wants me to go along with it. Get close to the gang. Pretend. But Pard, how can I? You know I never would, I never came here to steal from you. This is my home. You’re my family.”

Tears streaming down his face, he wrapped his arms around himself and tried to control the moisture falling down his face. But Slim had other ideas. It wasn’t easy, but he managed to bring Jess closer to his shoulder and wrap both arms around his sobbing friend.

“Jess, I know this is hard. It’s been hard for all of you. You have to go about pretending that I’m not here; not to mention taking care of me. I know you still blame yourself for bringing the wagon remnant to Mort instead of me, but I forgave you then. I’m not mad anymore.”

Slim heard Jess’s breath hitch. “If this is the only way to stop this then we have to do it. Sides, you don’t have to go looking for treasure, you already found it,” Slim continued.

Jess picked his head up and looked at his ‘brother’ through wet eyelashes.

“Wadda you mean? “his voice slurred, and his breath caught.

“Didn’t you once tell me that treasure meant something different to every man and that you’d found it when you found us. We’re your treasure Jess and you’re ours.”

Jess thought about that for a moment and realized that he wasn’t alone in this battle they faced. “I’d be playing a game?”  he asked.

“Yup, ” Slim nodded and Jess whipped his eyes and moved away from him. “And don’t forget you’re not alone. There’s Mort and Gil and Rory and the Benson’s -all helping you, ” he added.

“Oh, and one last thing he said softly. “If you’re thinking that you’re ashamed for crying remember what Jonesy once said. He told us that it did a body good to let go once in a while cause if we didn’t, we would get sick. It wasn’t unmanly to cry -we were just being human and even God’s son cried, and you have to reckon that if he did, he was just teaching us a lesson in how to love our fellow man.”

*****

Chapter 11 – Coming Together

“Mike, this is the third time in a week that you don’t want to go to school!” Daisy Cooper wiped he hands on her apron. She peered down at her normally obedient youngest ‘son.’

“Why did you leave the stage before Charlie reached the school?”

Mike shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. He really liked school and his teacher, Miss Mason. He didn’t like his school mates saying that Jess was a thief. The problem was, as he saw it, was that all the grownups in his life were all too busy to deal with the situation. He really needed someone to talk to.

“You go to your room right now.” She pointed towards his bedroom. “You’re to do the assignment for the day you missed and tomorrow you and I are going to school.”

‘What was I thinking?’ She berated herself. She desperately wanted Mike in school, but she couldn’t leave the ranch. ‘I need to talk to Jess or Slim,’ she thought in frustration. Then in an answer to her silent prayer, her eldest called to her from his sick bed.

“Daisy, could you make a special dinner tonight?”

Daisy’s surprised eyes gazed at him. “Whatever for?” she asked finally.

“This family has gone and is still going through a lot. We need to come together,” he paused and shifted his shoulders to ease the tension. “Daisy, Mike’s probably afraid of what his school mates are saying about Jess. Jess is doing his best with trying to keep up with the work around here and is upset with what he must do and you’re going around here trying to keep our spirits up. We need to be a family and,” his voice trailed off.

He did not know how to voice what they all needed but Daisy, bless her heart, did.

“How about chicken with apple pie for dessert?” Her eyes twinkled.

“Perfect.” Sim smiled thinking of Jess’s delighted face when he saw all the supper fixin’s.

Much later, stomachs full and contented, Slim looked at his family seated around him. For once, Jess looked calm and relaxed.

“That was a real fine dinner, Daisy. Did I miss a special occasion or something?” Jess asked as he rubbed his belly in appreciation.

“I think you’d better ask Slim. It was his idea,” she murmured.

” I want to share something with all of you, but I think we’d be more comfortable in our main room. Jess, could you steer me in the right direction?” Slim still had trouble walking after being in a seated position for a while.

Jess immediately got up and helped Slim sit in his chair by the fire, then sank into his rocker. Mike stretched out on the rug between them, and Daisy left the dishes on the table and joined them.

“When I was about your age, Mike,” Slim began, ” my younger brother Andy was born. Daisy, you probably don’t know this, but I had an older brother named Nate. Nate was everything to me and when he died, I felt lost and alone. I cried for days. There were other children, but they all died when they were babies, until Andy came along.”

“At first, I was really jealous of him ’cause he cried a lot, and my parents were always busy with him. One day, Andy started crying and he wouldn’t stop. My Ma tried feeding him and rocking him. My Pa tried taking him for a ride, but he continued to cry. Finally, my Pa suggested to me that I try. I didn’t want anything to do with a crying baby, but I was an obedient son, so I sat on my bed and they put Andy in my arms.”

“When I looked down at his downy blond hair which later turned to brown, I noticed that his eyes were the same color brown as our Ma’. His face was all red and wet and crinkled and tears were streaming down his face. He was waving his arms about and then suddenly his little hand latched onto my finger. All at once, the reins I had put around my heart loosened, and I realized that this crying bundle was my baby brother. He needed me. From that day forward, I pledged to always look out for him. I was responsible for him.”

“Well, in a way, I have been responsible for the ranch, Jess, you Mike, Daisy, Andy and Jonesy. All of my family is part of me. When you hurt, I hurt. We’re all joined at the heart and we’ve all been hurt these last few months. I just want us to come together as a family and to remember that all of us together make each of us stronger.”

Slim stopped then and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. Jess rose and walked behind him and leaned down next to his ear and whispered, “them stakes just got deeper, Pard.”

*****

Chapter 12 – Jail House Blues

Daisy’s hands trembled as she wrapped up the biscuits for Jess . She finished her task and went out to the main room. The shared bedroom door was open and she could hear her boys talking. Jess was tucking his shirt into his pants and Mike was helping Slim with his boots. After all this time, Slim still had trouble bending over.

“Jess, tell me again why you have to go to jail?” Mike asked.

“Well, Tiger it’s like this. Sheriff Cory and I have a plan to catch the whole gang of outlaws, but I have to pretend to be an outlaw too and the only way the outlaws will know about the bank is for me to tell them.”

“What will happen if someone doesn’t do what you think they’ll do?”

“You see it’s like this Mike, ” Slim spoke up defending Jess. ” You always have to have a plan. What will you do next, ’cause trouble can come quickly, suddenly and without warning. Now you know Jess can take care of himself.”

“But what if someone beats him up somethin’ awful?” Mike persisted, tears forming in his eyes.

“Tiger,” Slim and Jess spoke together. There was a stunned silence and then they started to laugh.

Daisy stood in the doorway. It had been a long time since there had been laughter in their home.

“Boys, ” she spoke up, ” Jess is going to be a hero today and he needs all the love you can give him.”

Mike leapt to his feet and immediately grabbed Jess around his middle and held on. Slim rose slowly and clamped a hand on his shoulder and gently squeezed.

“Time you were going, Jess. Just don’t live up to your other name, Hot Shot!” He chuckled and Jess just shook his head and grabbing his lunch, moved out of their embrace.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine, well maybe not so fine at that. I’ll be missing your cookin’ Daisy.” He grinned and swung for the door. Despite his cocky attitude, Jess was not so sure about this bit of play acting he was about to do.

*****

It was early afternoon by the time Jess finally rode into town. He and Gil had agreed to meet at the saloon at 2:00. Even though they both knew their upcoming “fight” was really play-acting Jess was nervous. He didn’t really want to hurt Gil, but accidents could happen. He had a plan though. Like Slim had said to Mike, he knew that trouble could come out of nowhere. He walked into the saloon ready for anything and looked around the nearly empty room. It was not as busy as it usually was on a Saturday, but less people could hurt this way.

“Look here boys, it’s the great Jess Harper,” Gil’s slurred voice carried over the music.

Jess froze. His glass of whiskey was clutched in his black gloved hands. He looked up and over towards Gil who was propped up by the bar. He tucked his head down, his face shielded by his black stetson. He had to ignore Gil until he mentioned Daisy and Mike. The fight had to look real. The gang’s leader would hear about it.

“You know boys, with all that gold he has hidden on that ranch we should get him to buy us all drinks,” Gil taunted.

Jess shook his head. “Why don’t you just shut up!” he snarled..

“Whoa boys,” Gil stood up, “he’s got a temper. What’s the matter, Mr. Harper, things not going your way? Oh, I know, you still have to get rid of the old lady and that pesky boy don’t ya!”

Jess slammed his glass on the bar and straightened his back. He knew they were play acting. No one was going to seriously get hurt but dadgumit, deep down in his gut he was loyal. The loyalties were his life, the ranch, his family, Slim. This fight had to look real. No pulling punches. He sighed inwardly. It was gonna look real alright down to blood spilling if need be. No one disrespected his family. He could hear chairs scraping against the worn wood floor as men began to move away from him. The bartender looked warily at him. He was newly hired, and the furniture was fairly new too.

“Why don’t you shut your mouth, Gil before I jam your teeth down your throat,” Jess threatened. He started unbuckling his gun belt and after a moment’s hesitation handed it to the bartender.

“Take care of this for me, Sam,” he said.

Gil, after handing his own gun belt over to the stunned but grateful bartender, stalked closer to Jess. Fists clenched, he growled “bring it on, if you’ve got the guts to,” and without warning slammed his fist into Jess’s chin causing Jess’s head to snap back. Jess swayed, tasted blood from a split lip and reared up and shot several sharp jabs into Gil’s stomach. Gil rose slowly, clutching his belly.

“Had enough?” Jess wiped his chin with his fist.

“I’m just getting started.” Gil’s eyes narrowed and lowering his head butted into Jess throwing him off balance. Unfortunately, someone had spilled beer or whiskey on the floor and Jess slipped and ended up sprawled on the hard floor. Gil, taking advantage of his opponent’s position, pounced and began to rain punches.

“Enough!” Mort Cory shouted as he hauled Gil off Jess by his collar. “Who started this?”

“He did,” both Gil and Jess pointed at each other. Mort, knowing this was a play and it was his turn to act, so to speak, handed Gil off to his friends indicating that he might need to see the doctor. He hauled Jess off to jail, pushing him not too gently into a cell right next to the ringleader and Skinny. Jess immediately began shouting at the sheriff and creating a fuss. Finally, when Mort refused to acknowledge him, Jess slumped onto the cot moaning how he had to get out of jail in two days’ time.

Later, around suppertime, Mort went out leaving Jeremiah to ride the desk. Tanner whistled softly and Jess straightened up. It was now or never, he thought.

“So what’s so important that you gotta get out of jail in two days’ time, cowboy?”

“I know who you are Tanner, and I ain’t splitting the double eagles with you!”

“What do you mean by that?”

‘This was too easy.’ thought Jess. “There’s a special shipment coming to Laramie from the fort. A box with Slim Sherman’s name on it and I am gonna claim it. ”

“So, that’s nothin’ to make a big fuss about,” Tanner goaded.

“One of my friends at the fort found this box in an unused room. It’s supposed to contain the other half of the map and the list of men who robbed the convoy. There’s also a bag of double eagles inside,” Jess whispered back. There was silence on the other side of the cell wall, and then Jess heard the whispering.

“If we can bust out of here, we’ll see that you get out too. We’ll help you rob the stage office.”

“What do I get besides my freedom? Jess asked.

“One half of the gold when we dig it up. Oh, and you’ll have to supply shovels and picks.; Did you ever get rid of that suspicious old lady and the boy?”

“I was workin’ on it.” Jess said softly.

The men continued to work out the details of their escape and then Jess spoke again hoping what he said next would seal the deal.

“Okay, I’m in. I’ve had enough of this crummy town. You leave the lady and boy to me. They trust me. I can get close.”

The men agreed and Jess lay down to rest until dinner came.

*****

Chapter 13 – How to rob a bank

The next morning, Jess woke to complete chaos.  Skinny had feigned an illness causing Jeremiah to unwittingly open the cell door. He’d been punched and shoved into the cell and Jess was unceremoniously hauled out by Tanner.

“Get going,” Tanner ordered. “That dim-witted sheriff will be back soon. We’ll meet at the back of that bank tomorrow night at 8:00.

Jess, minus his gun, slunk behind the shops until he reached Benson’s General Store. Jed had left the back door open, and Jess quickly hid behind some boxes in the storeroom. Marcie came into the room a few minutes later, holding some blankets. She placed them on one of the tables and then whispered “Jess?”

“Yeah?” he whispered back.

“No one is here,” she continued, “you can get up.”

Jess rose slowly.  Marcie was taking a big risk in helping him, but he knew she was smitten with Slim and would do anything to help her brother and Jess’s family.

“I brought you some blankets. It gets cold in here. I also have some biscuits and coffee which I’ll get you in a few minutes.  Oh, and Sheriff Cory has your gun. He asked me to tell you that the rest of the posse will meet here around dinnertime tomorrow. Is there anything else you need?”

“Nothin’ thanks.”

Marcie brought in Jess’s breakfast and left. He spent the rest of the day hiding behind some boxes in the storeroom, always conscious of the fact that an unsuspecting customer might walk into the room. Nighttime came and the Bensons closed the store, making sure that they left the door between the store and back room open. The night passed slowly for Jess. He dared not light a lantern as the light might show through the curtained window. Nor did he move about too much.

*****

Morning finally dawned. He worried about Slim who was coming into town in the family buck board. Ben, a long-time friend and neighbor , had been recruited to drive a bundled Slim into town.  This was a dangerous game they were playing. The family lawyer had told them early on, that in order to show just cause for the gang to be charged, Slim would have to recognize their voices since he hadn’t seen their faces. Even though Jess had utmost confidence in his best friend’s abilities, he wondered if Slim could indeed remember his tormentors’ voices while losing consciousness.

Jess slept and ate and waited impatiently for night to come. The Benson’s closed up shop. Jed escorted his sister home and then traveled back to town to join the posse. All Jess had to do was make sure that the back door was open.

As the clock struck 7, Jess saw the doorknob slowly open. He anxiously readied his body to pounce if the intruder was not Mort.

“Jess,  it’s us. We’re coming in.”

Jess drew a deep breath of relief as Mort, Jed, Gil, Jeremiah and Tim filed in. Mort handed Jess’s gun to him and instructed Tim to go to the Print Shop that was opposite the bank.

Gil nodded to Jess. “How ya doin’? he asked.

“I’m fine,” Jess replied taking in Gil’s black eye.

“Glad you’re on my side.” The two men laughed and shook hands.

Mort stationed himself near the front window so that he could see Tim’s signal when the outlaws were in place. Gil, Jed and Jeremiah would follow Mort to charge the bank while Jess would hang back in case someone tried to make an escape. Slim, with Ben’s help, was to remain behind the jail out of sight.

Suddenly, Gil grabbed Mort’s shoulder. “Did you see that? Tim’s waving a white flag!”

It looked like the robbery was about to take place. “Doesn’t look like they were going to wait for you, Jess.” Mort whispered to Jess who had walked over to view the proceedings.

“Doesn’t bother me,” Jess replied as his eyes swept over the quiet street.

“Mr. Botkin left the back door to the bank open fellas,” Mort whispered, “So keep your eyes open.”

“Looks like they’re gonna walk out with the box!” Jed whispered.  “That takes guts with no horses,” he added.  “Where the heck do they think they’re going?”

“To jail,” Mort said resolutely. “Come on boys, let’s move in.”

Jess stood just inside the door and watched his friends advance down the street. They disappeared from view but a few minutes later he heard Mort’s distinctive voice “Drop your guns!” and then “Ok, boys, come on back!”

Josh, who had stayed at the hotel in case the outlaws made it that far, joined Jess and they walked to the bank. They couldn’t believe what they saw.

“Wadda ya know!” Jess exclaimed. Mr. Botkin’s long-time assistant Frank Hansen was clutching the box. “Right in the open! Right under our noses!”

Mort dispatched the outlaws to jail in record time and took possession of Slim’s box.  The prisoners’ were none too happy when they realized that they’d been tricked by Jess and loudly began to curse him and argue among themselves. Meanwhile, Jess joined Slim under the cell window and silently listened to the barrage.

“That’s him, Jess!” Slim said as Frank Hansen’s voice rose in anger.

“And the others?” Jess whispered.

“Yup, that’s all of them.”

Jess smiled happily. Their long nightmare was almost over.

*****

Chapter 14 –The Diary

On an early spring evening some weeks later, Slim and Jess relaxed on their front porch. The trial was finally over. The prisoners had been found guilty of multiple charges including the attack on Slim, causing the barn fire, threatening Mike, trespassing, destroying private property, and bank robbery. ‘The best News’ thought Jess, was ‘Slim is ‘finally fully recovered.

“It was a good article is the Gazette wasn’t it, Slim?” Jess remarked tilting his head towards his Pard who seemed deep in thought.

“Yeah, and it was the truth this time!” Slim acknowledged.

“They’re gonna be in jail for a long while now,” Jess said.

“I imagine that Major Ellis must be rather upset that they never found anymore gold,” Slim smiled. “they sure were surprised that you weren’t an outlaw!” He added.

Jess chuckled, remembering their faces. He put his empty cup on the table between them. “Well, hopefully we can get back to normal again.”

“I’m ready for bed, you ‘coming?” Slim rose and stretched.

“Might as well,” Jess smiled happily.

*****

The following day, the Sherman Harper family had an important visitor. General Taylor Roberts came riding in with news from FT Sanders.

“Would you like some coffee, General?” asked Daisy as she poured a cup each for her boys.

Thank you, Mrs. Cooper. Don’t mind if I do. I have some news for you Slim.” The family gathered at the table.

“As you are probably aware, the Government in Washington moves very slowly, which is why this matter has taken so much time. General Maxwell Hendrickson wanted me to inform you that the investigation into the convoy’s stolen gold has been resolved and your father’s part in it. The Commission concluded that your father acted honorably. The diary you found, went a long way in proving that point.   President Grant is going to be signing a Commendation in recognition of your father’s bravery and patriotism and when the General receives it, he will send you and your family an invitation to the reading.

Slim let out a long breath and smiled happily at his family. All he ever wanted was his father’s vindication. The long nightmare that had begun when he was away at war was finally coming to an end. The gang was in jail; his injuries were healed; and the town gossips were going to eat their words. He could hardly wait to write Andy.

“Has anyone seen Slim?” Jess called out as he dismounted. He had been riding fence and found several posts down. It would take the two of them some time to repair them. Although he had no proof, he wondered if the gang had damaged them. It had been several weeks since General Roberts visit. Slim had written Andy and promised to telegram him when the ceremony was to be held.

“He’s in the attic,” Mike said as he poked his head around the corner of the house. “He’s been up there a very long time today.” “He promised me we’d go fishing this afternoon and now it’s almost time for supper!” Mike grumbled.

“Tiger, he might be searching for something, ya know.  Slim always keeps his promises. You’ll probably go tomorrow. I’ll go see if I can help.”

“Hey Slim, want company?” Jess shouted from the bottom of the ladder.

“Yeah, come on up,” Slim sounded far away. Jess climbed up the steps and was greeted by a dust covered Slim who looked flushed. He was clutching a leather-bound book.

“It’s my Pa’s diary, ” he spoke reverently. “My Ma put it in his trunk, but I can’t really make out what he wrote.”

“Why don’t we go downstairs. We’ll light a lamp, ” Jess suggested.

“Good idea.” Slim smiled and follow his Pard down the ladder. They sat down at their dining table and peered at the book. Slim gently traced the front page. The pages were badly faded, but Jess made out the words “Matthew Sherman.

“Can you read any of it?” Jess asked peering over Slim’s shoulder.

“Here’s what I have made out so far, ” Slim spoke softly. “Let me read it to you.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have long to live. I knew they wouldn’t survive even before they forced me guide them. They said that they would burn the house and barn and kill my family.

They weren’t prepared for the snow and wind. They were running out of water, so they melted the snow to drink. They needed warmth and shelter but there was nothing they could use. They decided to burn the wagons, so they took the gold dust out of the boxes. The leader wanted to bury the gold, but they hadn’t brought any shovels. 

Foolishly, they took the bags of gold and tied them to tree branches. The wind comes through that Pass like a herd of buffalos on the run. It was only a matter of time before the bags would blow away.

They were running out of food, so they killed the horses. There was a mud slide three days later. Men started dying. One man found a bottle of whiskey and they started passing it around. I made my escape but not before one of them shot me in the back.

I am home now. I have a terrible pain in my chest and can’t breathe very well.

Whoever finds this, please tell Slim that I love him. He did what he had to do. I was afraid for him. My brother is also in the war but on the other side. Slim is not a soldier. But I am sorry I yelled so much at him. 

“It ends there,” Slim’s voice broke and he laid his head on his arms.

Jess put his arms around his Pard shaking shoulders. Matthew Sherman’s Diary just confirmed everything they had only guessed at.

“He was a hero,” Jess spoke softly, “seems like you paid the price for his honor.”

*****

Chapter 15 – Slim’s Point of View

‘I couldn’t have gone through all this without the support and love of my family, especially Jess’s thought Slim one night not long after finding his Pa’s  diary. He turned onto his side and looked over at Jess. He was burrowed deep in his blankets with only his dark unruly hair showing. He was sound asleep but Slim knew that all he had to do was moan and Jess would be instantly awake and at his side. Jess had been at his side then and all through the trial and now with the end in sight, still faithfully present. He smiled, thinking of what his Pard had said just before drifting off to sleep, “what does one wear to a Commendation?”

‘I guess I’m a better man now,’ he thought as he looked up at the ceiling of their room. ‘I wonder what Pa would think of all this.’

‘My only regret is that someone didn’t write Andy sooner,’ he said silently. Jess had written Andy after he had come out of the coma and they had kept up a steady stream of letters since. Initially, Andy had been angry that no one had,’ what were the words he used? ‘ deemed it important to contact him!’

Smiling, he heard Jess’ voice in his ear “You paid the price for his honor.” I should have told him then that we all paid the price, he thought as he remembered Jess frantically trying to free him from the ropes that bound him; Daisy’s nursing; Mike reading, fetching and doing Jess’s chores without complaint. Jess was everywhere, always there talking, cajoling, pleading, listening and fighting.

“You may be the hero, Pa, but my family is responsible for your honor being restored. Andy was too young. He only knew that I was off in a war and might never come home and he was losing his Pa to a senseless act of greed. I came home to a still-grieving brother and a Ma that was dying. I buried all my grief and sorrow in a box and built walls around my heart. It hurt too much to love or let anyone come close again – until Jess rode into our lives.

“You were Andy’s friend first” I said very softly looking at Jess again. “You became part of my family, part of me, long before I almost lost you to Parkinson’s grief-laded duel.

I heard my Pa’s words in my heart ” tell Slim I love him. ” Silent tears are streaming down my face when I think of how many times, I shunned my Pa because he didn’t agree with me. How many times I could have said ‘I love you’ and didn’t even then that last day when I left to go to war. I didn’t know you felt that way – that you were afraid for me. All you ever talked about was the ranch and how Andy and I would run it together one day. ”  It didn’t work out that way did it?’

Ma used to say that if one had hope and faith and love they had everything. I kinda lost my hope for a while before Jess came. Then I lost my faith in my fellow man when town gossips called you a traitor and then me yellow for not fighting Parkison. I almost lost love until Andy got sick and then when Jess rode away.

‘I guess all these life trials were meant to teach me or something, but maybe I’m getting tired or too old, but all I can do is love my family, take care of our land, do the best for my town and care for my country. I think that’s probably what you wanted me to do along, right Pa?

*****

Chapter 16 – The Commendation

It was a beautiful fall day, Dr. Andrew Sherman, otherwise known affectionately by his family as Andy, looked about the land surrounding FT Sanders. He’d left a bustling, thriving city weeks before and arrived in his hometown only yesterday. His thought about the journey home to the ranch. Slim looked older now and leaner. Andy wondered if it had anything to do with the attack and his slow recovery. Slim had treated him to a meal at the diner, saying that they needed to have some time alone together before Andy was pounced upon by Jess and Mike. They talked about his life and the practice, ranch business, and finally the attack.

Slim seemed embarrassed when he apologized to him for not writing. “Jess didn’t want you to come home before you became a famous doctor!” he joked. Andy sensed the real reason and just nodded. Jess was always looking out for the family.

“It was pretty awful for you, I imagine,” he said softly.

“Yeah, but that long chapter of Summit Pass is almost over. Pa’s diary and the diary I found in that tree convinced the government of Pa’s innocence. The Commendation is a permanent way of reminding us of his bravery.

His thoughts were interrupted when a bugle sounded outside the window of the room, they were in. He took the opportunity to thrust a finger down his tight collar to release his neck from the stiffness of his new shirt. Both his brother and Jess had worn their Sunday Best and Mike had a neatly pressed suit. Daisy’s new hat matched her flowery dress. They had been waiting now for about twenty minutes in the General’s outer office. Troopers came in and out, but they still sat in impatient stillness.

Finally, the door opened, and General Hendrickson strode into the room. The tall, uniformed man was younger than Andy thought but his decorated chest spoke of his experience in battle. He doubted whether he’d ever see him again.

“My Sergeant will escort you and your family to the parade ground, Mr. Sherman. Please follow him.” Slim led the family to the patch of land surrounding the flagpole. Troopers were lined side-by-side facing each other. General Hendrickson stood on the platform and began to speak.

“It is not often that the Government of the United States acknowledges and/or rewards its citizens. However, President Grant has deemed it necessary and proper that we do so now. Mr. Sherman, Dr. Sherman,” he nodded to Slim and Andy, ” your father was a brave man. I am proud to acknowledge his contribution in the War.

THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
IN THE NAME OF THE CONGRESS

TAKES PLEASURE IN PRESENTING THIS
SPECIAL COMMENDATION

TO

MATTHEW SHERMAN

For services as set forth in the following

CITATION

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in leading the Confederate
enemy forces, in a deceptive and false maneuver, at or near Summit Pass,
away from their objective, thus enabling the
Union forces time to eventually recover stolen payroll funds.

GIVEN UNDER MY HAND THIS DAY, AT WASHINGTON D.C.

U.S. GRANT
PRESIDENT

The General finished reading and cleared his throat. “I took it upon myself to have the President’s staff make two copies of the Commendation . I felt that you, Dr. Sherman, would like your own copy as you live in another part of the country. There’s refreshments in the mess tent.”

*****

On the ride home, Slim let Jess drive their horses as he lost himself in memories. He had buried the dark memories of Summit Pass long ago, only to relive them again during his recovery. Now, finally the family had come full circle. Thanks to the whole family working together, his father’s honor was restored. He had fully recovered and the family he loved was whole and well.

Jess nudged his elbow several times to get his attention. “Say Slim, do you have a picture of your Pa?”

“Yeah, in the attic.”

“So,  I was thinking, we could make a frame, well two,” he grinned at Andy,” and put the Commendation on the wall above your desk. It would be away from the fireplace and out of the sun and people could see it every time they come here. ”

“Why Jess, ” Andy exclaimed, “that’s real thoughtful of you.”

“Well, I never knew your Pa of course, but he raised two great sons I’m proud to know.”

It took several days until the frames were finished. They stood proudly on the shelf above the fireplace waiting for the documents to make them complete. Andy, Slim and Jess had gone to town to confront the editor of the Gazette. Mr. Parson had written and printed the original article that was full of lies. They wanted the new editor to write the truth about the hero of Summit Pass. Although Jess never mentioned it, he was going to be satisfied when the town gossips realized their mistakes. Slim would be able to walk the streets of his hometown without looking over his shoulder.

*****

When they returned home late that afternoon, Daisy was dusting the frames. She had cooked a huge celebratory dinner for her family.  Slim entered first, followed by Jess and Andy. She smiled at them.

“Daisy, it’s over. The article will be printed in the Gazette on Thursday.”

“I’m so glad,” she said. “I was just thinking about the foundation of this home and our family.”

She saw the look exchanged between her two oldest sons and she clasped her hands together.

“This family is bound together in love, yes, but in faith and loyalty and courage too. You may have found the wagon remnant, Jess, and unearthed a painful chapter for Slim and Andy. But through faith and loyalty, you both survived the turmoil of events that threatened our very lives. Your father, Slim, found the courage to defeat the enemy and it was all of us, together made stronger, that gave the family back its honor.”

“Amen,” said Jess, unaware that he had said it aloud. Slim slid an arm around Jess’s shoulder, Andy leaned closer to his brother and Mike grabbed Jess’s hand. The family stood in reverent silence, remembering Matthew Sherman and the legacy he left his family.

“Aunt Daisy, why don’t we make those words part of our blessing every night?” asked Mike solemnly.

“Out of the mouth of babes,” Slim smiled at Jess. “Come on, Pard, the feast awaits.” Slim steered Jess towards the dining room and as he passed his father’s picture, he nodded his thanks to the man who showed him first how to love his family.

***The End***

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