The Traveler (by Mustang Sallie)

The Traveler

Summary: Slim Sherman arrives home one evening to find his entire family gone, vanished. Sick, alone and mystified, he racks his brain to discover their whereabouts. Will he find them or will they find him? Or Is it all a horrible dream?  No character death, just a lot of angst and as you are aware by now, a good ending.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rating:  T
Word Count:  13,566


Chapter 1

He was hanging onto his horse by a thread. He knew it and somehow his faithful horse Alamo knew it too. He should have stayed at the doctor’s office a while longer but the intense longing for home had pushed him out the door to his mount and down the long trail home. Twelve miles never seemed so long before. ‘ But,’ as he thought about it, ‘he usually had Jess or the rest of his family accompany him’ He certainly needed Daisy’s help this night. The wound in his side was bleeding again, despite Dr. Sam’s best stitches. He knew there would be a scolding from Jess in his future but he would welcome it. The posse he had been on, split before they reached Laramie’s border and he had reluctantly headed for town. The gunshot wound in his side ached. He’d been lucky. The outlaw’s gang had sprung an ambush for them but one of the outlaws’ shots had gone wide and he had been lucky to get away with the scratch.

A Welcome Home pat on the back from his Pard, a hug from Mike, a gentle scolding from Daisy, a cup of warm coffee and his bed in that order was what he needed, and then all would be well. But as he neared the rise, the hairs on the back of his neck rose,  prickling his skin. He raised his head higher. Something was definitely wrong.

It was dusk and high time for a fire and the welcoming light Daisy always lit in the window. There was no fire. The corral was full of horses but the yard was strangely quiet. He rode into the yard and dismounted in slow motion. He grabbed the saddle horn to steady his feet and gather his strength.

“Jess, Daisy, Mike, “ he yelled. No answer. He tried again louder this time, “Jess, Daisy, Mike”. But again, there was no answer. ‘Strange,’ he thought as he tied the reins to the hitching rail. He reached for the doorknob. The door was locked. Panic began to rise from his heaving chest. Where was everyone?

He peered into the window by the side of the house. He could see that no fire had been lit. Jess’ rocker was against the wall. Something happened here. His hands were sweating in his gloves now and getting the door open took more time than normal. The front door opened with a creak as if it hadn’t been oiled in some time. The quick glance around the room confirmed that no one was there. Jess always left a quilt on his rocker but the rocker was pushed against the wall and empty. The checkerboard was not set up and Daisy’s sewing basket was not on the table. Walking into the eating area, he did not see a note telling him where his family was. No flowers were in the little pot Mike had made for his beloved Aunt Daisy’s birthday last year. The kitchen was neat and tidy. Perplexed, Slim took off his hat and laid it on the table.

He walked to the shared bedroom. The two beds were there but Jess’s bed, although made, held his clothes upon it. He pulled out the drawers of the chest. He expected to find Jess’ spare gun belt in the top drawer but it was empty. He swiftly opened all the drawers. They held the rest of his clothes but nothing more.

‘Think,’ he told himself. ‘Maybe Daisy is doing spring cleaning early and that’s why everything is gone. Maybe Mike is visiting a friend and maybe Jess had to go somewhere.’ None of this made any sense. He decided to visit Daisy’s room next. He hadn’t had any cause to be in the room since he and Jess had hauled out the old washstand and Jonesy’s chest of drawers so that all of Daisy’s trunks would fit so long ago. But what greeted him was another mystery. He sunk down onto the bed. The walls were whitewashed not the cheerful yellow Daisy had painted. There was a mirror above the washstand and a comb sat forlornly underneath. He turned over the comb and there on the handle was his old friend’s name, “Jonesy.” He made his way to Mike’s room next, expecting to see the squirrel’s cage at the bottom of the bed but it wasn’t there. All of Mike’s clothes were gone and his toy soldiers were absent.

Suddenly, he stood up and wiped the sweat from his forehead. There was one last place to look. He strode to the fireplace. Each step he made felt like he was walking in quicksand. He moved the brick aside and reached inside the cubby hole for Jess’ gun. The Sherman Harper safe was empty. It was the last straw. Tears streaming down his face, he turned, jammed his hat onto his head and staggered out to unsaddle Alamo and feed and water him.

**********

Chapter 2

He woke slowly the next morning. The sunlight streamed through the threadbare curtains. He turned over carefully. The blood on the bandage was dry and crusty It would need to be changed.  He grimaced. ‘That would not be a pleasant task.’ He glanced over at Jess’ bed. He half expected to see his Pard snugly tucked up in his blankets but the bed was empty save for his shirts neatly folded upon it. The yard was quiet. He struggled to get up, leaning onto the dresser as he did so.’ Was there a stage today?’ he wondered. He shrugged on his shirt and walked slowly out to the main room. He needed coffee. He put on his jacket and went out to the well. The spring sunshine danced around him. Suddenly he grabbed the bucket. His world dipped and swayed. He heard himself saying one word “6” over and over again before he fell.

He had no idea how he had managed to get back in bed, yet there he was when he woke again. He was sweaty and much too warm for the time of day. He struggled to get up again. ‘Medicinal Whiskey would go down real good this time’ he thought. He walked better this time and slowly lifted the curtain by the front door. It didn’t appear as though a stage had come yet. He threw some logs on the fire and some smaller ones in the cook stove. While he might like a glass of whiskey, coffee was better. As he waited for the water to boil, he pondered his situation.

He was not the type of person given to panic. He always, well almost always thought things though. Jess was the impetuous one. He fought hard and then thought of the consequences. They made a good team because they trusted each other and they had each other’s back. ‘But if that was so, where was he?’ They normally left notes for each other when one was going to be away. This whole thing made no sense.

He poured his coffee and waited till it cooled down. He supposed that he had to feed the chickens and see to the horses.

Much later, still sweaty, he made his way back to the porch. He wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve and sunk into his chair on the porch. Sooner or later, he would have to either get to town for supplies or go fishing. He dozed in the early afternoon sun. As he awoke, he heard voices and playing possum, he listened intently to the men talking around him.

“What does the number 6 mean, Jake?” one of the men asked.

“Could be there’s 6 signers or 6 copies or maybe he was supposed to write it on the sixth. Hell, I have no idea! And he ain’t waking up to answer us is he?”

“So, how long are we supposed to wait here?”

“Another week, boss says.”

The voices faded and left Slim reeling. What did the number 6 mean and where was his family? He cautiously opened his eyes. He was alone. No-one was in the yard. He went inside and strapped on his gun belt. Better to be safe than sorry. He walked unsteadily to the barn. All was quiet and as it should be except that the only horse there was his. He reached for the familiar currying brush and began the steady, calming comforting strokes. His eyes misted over. He legs suddenly felt very weak and he sank down onto the nearest bale of hay.

“Jess,” he whispered. “Where are you? “ He looked down at his wrist where the fading brotherhood scar still lay. Absentmindedly, he began to rub it gently. Sometimes, in the past, when they’d been separated, they could “feel” each other; know when one of them was in trouble. But there was no feeling this time. Slim suddenly felt alone and very vulnerable. “Jess, I need you!” he cried.

He heard rather than saw the stage as it lumbered into the yard. He slowly walked out to the corral to the horses.

“Need some help, Slim?” a stocky grizzled man yelled to him.

“If you wouldn’t mind,” Slim replied. ‘Maybe I can get some answers now,’ he thought.

“When is Andy due back?”

This was not the question he expected. Scrambling for an answer, he mumbled,” sometime soon, “ hoping he was right.

“It’ll be good to see him, I reckon,” the driver said. “Must get lonely out here, all by yourself, “ he continued in a conversational tone.

Slim almost dropped the harness he was holding. ‘I’m alone?’ ‘Since when?’

“Well, see you next run!” the man slapped the reins and the stage rumbled away towards town, leaving a very confused Slim Sherman in his wake.

**********

Chapter 3

Fear gripped him. For the first time in a long time, he felt utterly alone. “No!” he cried out. “That’s impossible! “   A kaleidoscope of memories assaulted him. He remembered Jess accepting his offer of a job, watching him vault the corral fence to tame a scared mustang, cradling young Mike when he suffered his nightmare. Memories of family dinners and swimming lessons. All the porch talks, secrets, fears and dreams shared. Watching young Mike growing up and thanking God that he and Jess had been blessed with such a loving child. There were other painful memories too, but somehow with sheer guts and determination they had both survived the harsh winters, droughts, gun fights and the myriad of illnesses.

“No!” he shouted again. “It’s not possible! They are real! “ How could they not be?  He stumbled into the dark, cavernous barn and found his way into Travelers stall. As he sank back against the unforgiving wall he angrily rubbed the tears from his cheeks. He pulled up his knees and rested his crossed arms over them. “I didn’t make them up! They do exist!” He angrily argued with himself. A horrible thought occurred to him. What if I am alone and I made up my family to keep me company and then I started to believe they were real?  No answers came to him.

Much later, he was brutally awakened by a fierce shake. He opened his eyes to a group of trigger-happy gun slingers crowed around him.

“What do you want?” he managed to croak.

“We want the deed to your ranch, Mr. Sherman.” The man in front of him grabbed his shirt and hauled him to his feet. He was a common thief and yet he looked like a rattler ready to strike. The men drew closer, preventing an escape.

“Why?” Slim asked hoping for time.

“The man laughed. His grimy, sweaty hand slapped Slim across his face. Slim tasted blood from his split lip.

“We represent the railroad and we’re gonna run our tracks through your land. The boss said to offer you money but we’re taking it and your land instead. We can do this the hard way, if you wish.”

Slim swallowed hard. His arms were pinned behind him and his wound was bleeding again. He was pretty sure that the men would kill him to get the land, his land. The land that his father found. The land that he and Jess had sunk their blood, sweat and tears over. But it wasn’t home, really if there was no one there but himself. Maybe there was a way to stall them until he could get help.

“6” he mumbled, as he sank into oblivion.

He was alone when he woke up. It was deathly quiet. He listened with his whole battered body but there was no sound. Would they just go away? He wondered. He clutched the stall and stood up. He waited until the dizzy spell passed. Slowly, and with great care he made his way to the house and his bed. He fell onto it boots and all. Daisy would have a fit, he thought to himself. A paralyzing thought jabbed him square between the eyes. If Daisy isn’t real, why does it matter?

It was early morning and the air was crisp and clear. A perfect autumn day. He was driving the buckboard and a young boy with blond tousled hair was perched behind him in the wagon bed. He was chattering about his dog and Slim half listened as he clicked to the horses and slapped the reins. Everything was right with his world.  Without warning, the idyllic picture changed, yanked from his life like a waterfall cascading down a mountain. In utter dismay, he watched the picture fade away under the mountainous weight of water. The droplets getting larger and larger and his life streaming into nothingness below him.

“Jess!” he screamed. He fell head over heels trapped by the water. As he reached out for a hold, he saw his wrist. The brotherhood scar was gone.

Is this how it ends? he wondered. He heard voices swirl around him but he couldn’t make out who they belonged to.  Maybe it’s the angels from the Bible stories his Ma had read him as a child. He listened more closely.

“We can’t wait around here much longer!”

“Why isn’t he awake yet?”

“We need that deed!”

And then, through the tumultuous rain he heard the anguished cry “Please Pard, come back to us;  we need you.”

His heart started beating wildly. He wanted Jess to know he was there; that he heard him. But as much as he tried, his eyes remained shut and his voice was still. He reached out his hand, searching for his brother but all he felt was air.

**********

Chapter 4

“You didn’t have to hit him so hard, Jake!” The man accused his friend.  “Now he’s out of it again! I’m getting tired of this. All he ever says is 6!”

“Yeah, and what does “6” have to do with anything?”

The angry voices swirled around him. Maybe all I have to do is wait them out, he thought to himself. I sure can’t shoot my way out. I’m weaker than a newborn colt.

“Aw hell,” the leader of the group snarled. “We’ll go to town. Maybe the dimwitted clerk will just hand the deed over to us.”

“What happens if there’s more than one signer?”

One of the motley crew asked anxiously.” Will we have to get them to sign over the land to us and then gun him down too?”

Slim inadvertently shuddered when he heard the conversation. What had they planned for him?

The voices faded and he was alone. He looked up and saw through the haze of his confusion blue eyes peering down at him. He snapped his eyes closed. Maybe they would think he was conscious and start beating up on him again. A hand reached out and gently touched his forehead, sweeping the golden strands away from his eyes. Strangely, the touch was gentle and not at all intimidating. He was aware of the bed beneath him dip with the weight of something. He flinched when he felt something cool against his skin.

“You’re safe, No one is gonna hurt you.”

The voice spoke gently as the cloth gently skimmed over his heated body. He wanted to open his eyes; he really did. But he knew, in his heart of hearts, that he was dreaming or what was the word, delusional. There was no one here. He had created the perfect family but they weren’t real. He was alone.

“What else can we do?” Jess Harper asked his second Ma, Daisy Cooper. He had been sitting by his Pard’s side for days now. “He seems like he wants to wake up, but he doesn’t.”

Daisy sighed and handed him another moist cloth. She was so worried. Her beloved older ‘son’ was still unconscious and still fevered after more than 10 days. Dr. Sam had been out to the ranch and checked on his condition. The wound in his side was healing. All they could do was keep him cool and wait for the fever to break. He had explained, as gently as he could to the overanxious Jess, that head wounds were hard to treat. Slim could wake up in a week or never. Jess was beside himself and yet he still had a tight rein on his emotions for Mike’s sake, if not his own.

They had been through too much together to lose each other now, he thought.  “It wasn’t fair,” he murmured as he rung out the cloth and bathed his friend ‘s arms. “If only I hadn’t had to move those blamed cows!”  He thought back to the men that Mike had faced so courageously alone. The one day that he had left his friend’s side, a gang of men had ridden into the yard and demanded to see Slim. Mike had stood his ground and refused them entrance but they had pushed past him and tied him up. Striking Slim repeatedly they had demanded the deed to the ranch and steadfastly all Slim said was “6.” Even now, days later, no one knew what “6” meant. They had come back once more, threatening Daisy and hurling insults at Slim but left frustrated when all Slim repeated was “6.”

The evening meal was over and Mike went out to do the evening chores and button up the barn. At 13 almost 14 he was a big help around the ranch and had a definite feel for the work. Unlike Andy, who had been born at the ranch, Mike took a keen interest in the stock and often pitched in doin’ the logbooks for Slim which had certainly helped them now. Jess stood by the window of their shared bedroom and watched the boy they loved so much. He was hurting and it was his turn to sit with his father when he returned to the house. Jess turned and looked down at the still form of his brother.  “ Please wake up, Slim. We all need you.” He said aloud hoping his voice would penetrate the cloud surrounding his best friend.

**********

Chapter 5

Something woke him. He listened intently. On the trail he always counted on his “sixth sense” to keep him alive. He cursed under his breath. His gun belt was across the room. He slowly turned and to his surprise saw two light blue eyes staring into his.

“Slim!” he breathed exuberantly. But something wasn’t right. With reluctance, Jess realized his mistake. Slim’s eyes were unfocused and glassy. He still was under the fever’s spell as his Pard’s face was pale and there was a sheen on his forehead. Two bright spots were shining on his cheeks.

Slowly, so as not to startle him, Jess rose and walked the four steps from his bed to Slim’s. He sank down onto the vacant chair. Slim watched him warily, as if he didn’t know him and was unsure of his intentions.

“I bet you’re thirsty,” Jess said softly, “want some water?”

Slim nodded and Jess poured some water from the pitcher into the cup on the table. “Want some help?” He wasn’t sure if Slim would accept his aid but he did and Jess leaned over and pulled his brother into a sitting position in front of him. He braced his thin shoulders against himself and held the cup while Slim gulped the refreshing water.

“Do you feel like talking?” he asked the reticent Slim.

Slim had watched his every move with an expression on his face that Jess had never seen before. ‘Maybe he doesn’t know me’ he thought to himself.

“Who are you?” Slim asked, his voice quaking with fear.

‘I was right,’ Jess acknowledged to himself reluctantly. He hoped that the amnesia would disappear soon.

“My name is Jess Harper and you are my best friend. You were injured some time ago and you’ve had a really high fever. You are in your own bed on our ranch.” He stopped then; afraid he had said too much.

Slim opened and then closed his mouth. This man seemed so sincere and honest. ‘He genuinely cares about me’, Slim felt as he listened. He so desperately wanted the man to be real so he took a chance.

“Are you real?” he asked.

Jess nodded and slowly extended his left arm. ”A long time ago, we became blood brothers,” he murmured. “If you give me your right arm you will see the jagged wound that my knife made.”

Slim remembered the brotherhood scar he had counted on that had disappeared. To his astonishment, the scar had reappeared.

“We also had a sign we made in case one of us was hurt. The one who is well, takes the other’s arm and crosses their arms along the chest.”

Slim’s eyes filled with tears. The created man never did that. This was Jess. He reached over his arm and Jess took it, noting his Pard’s tears.

“You are safe, Slim. Nothing and no one is gonna harm you least ways while I’m alive. I am real and so are you.” He rubbed the tears away and after holding their arms together for a brief moment against Slim’s chest, put his hands on his now alarmingly thinner shoulders, said “when you’re ready, we’ll talk.”

Slim cleared his throat and looked intently at Jess. He was real, he knew that now. The hurtful memories were slowly fading but he still had many questions. “Jess,” his voice sounded scared to his ears, “will they be back?”

“Don’t you worry about those land grabbers, Slim. Mike and I have a plan.” And Slim smiled.

**********

Chapter 6

“I won’t allow it!” Jess was adamant. The argument had stalled but neither side was giving in. “I won’t let you use him as bait.”

Lon, Mort’s deputy, stood his ground. He wished fervently that he had not volunteered to this meeting. Mort needed to find the outlaws that were terrorizing the local ranchers of his town. He had checked with the newly appointed railroad representative and there was no deal to buy up land to put tracks on. If people wanted to leave Laramie of their own accord it had nothing to do with either of them. The outlaws had killed once already. Mort knew that Slim’s ranch might be targeted and had warned Slim weeks ago but had been away when they struck. The gang was still loose and still after the Sherman deed.

Jess glared at Lon. He shook his head and wiped the sweat from his face with his bandana. Slamming his hat back on his head he leaned against the house.

“Slim is too weak to be of any good to anyone. He’s still out of it. He’s still recovering from the gun shot and the beating they gave him, not to mention that he doesn’t know who we are.” He knew the last part was a lie, but he didn’t want his brother to tip and fall back into the hole he had just crawled out of and one more threat could tip the scales.

“At least let me talk to him; hear what he thinks, “ Lon pleaded.

Jess shook his head. “He’s sleeping,” was all he said.

“He wouldn’t be alone,” Lon tried again. “We’d protect him.”

“What part of ‘NO’ don’t you understand? He’s not strong enough to stand on his own two feet and he could never handle a gun in his condition. “

“There’s other ways to defend yourself, “ Lon shouted in frustration.

Jess smirked. “You ever heard the Texan slogan ‘Don’t bring fists to a gun fight?’

Lon threw his hands in the air. He gave up. There was no reasoning with the stubborn partner of Slim Sherman. He wondered how the two of them ever got along. He hadn’t known Slim and Jess long but while he admired the ranchers for their tenacity and determination in forging a life in Laramie, he often wondered what life was like when no one was watching. He walked dejectedly towards his mount. Maybe Mort would have better luck.

Jess walked slowly inside the house. He needed a stiff drink but aside from lemonade that was going to be the closest thing he would get to alcohol. He opened the door to their bedroom and saw Slim smiling at him.

“You sure put Lon in his place, Jess.”

“Yeah, well,” Jess started to say as he walked towards the bed. He froze. Did Slim just say something?

“Slim, did you just say something?” he gulped.

Slim smiled and nodded. “Although I don’t understand what you were arguing about.” he said.

Jess stared hard at Slim gauging his condition. If they were gonna have a long conversation, he needed to eat and drink something. He still wasn’t sure how much Slim would remember but just having a talk was a miracle in and of itself.

“First things first,” he said. “Do you want some of Daisy’s broth in the dining area or your bed?”

Slim frowned. He wasn’t sure he could walk. “Maybe here,” he spoke hesitantly, “ if you help me?”

“Of course, I’ll help you, “ Jess frowned. Didn’t he know that? But then the thought struck him. Slim had woken up last night and was still teetering between what was real and what wasn’t. He smiled.

“Daisy’s famous chicken broth comin’ up. Be right back.”

They didn’t speak much after that. Jess was intent on making sure he didn’t spill the broth down Slim’s chest and Slim was concentrated on the spoon going in and out of his mouth. Finally, when he had consumed the entire bowl, Jess handed him a napkin to wipe up.

“Thank you,” Slim said.

“You’re welcome. “ Jess felt extremely awkward. ‘How to start the talk they needed to have,’ he wondered.

“Jess, what does the number 6 mean?” Slim asked.

“You mean you don’t know?” Jess was sure his friend must know. He’d been saying it, yelling it and moaning it for days now.

Slim shook his head in dismay. Nothing made sense and the recent memories of life on the lonely ranch were still vivid.

“Okay,” Jess asked gently, “what do you remember from the time you were on the posse?”

**********

Chapter 7

Slim leaned his shoulders back against the pillows on his bed. Jess reached down and pulled the bed covers up to his shoulders and tucked the ends around his body.

“I remember riding along and we saw the tracks veer off to town, which puzzled all of us but Mort split us into two groups.”

“Let me guess,” interrupted Jess. “You took the trail to town.”

Slim nodded. “You know that tree covered hill on the right side and the mountain on the left that we always try to avoid?”

“Yup,” replied Jess. “Ambush,”  was all he said.

“Yeah,” Slim sighed. “We were so bent on finding the bank robbers that we just kept going and sure enough, they were waiting. The bullets flew left and right and I caught one. I don’t remember how I got to Sam’s though.”

“Someone must have brought you,” Jess murmured.

“Yeah, well anyway when I woke up, I saw Carrie leaning over me and I knew where I was. Sam wanted me to stay in his office for another few hours and so I reluctantly agreed.”

“But you decided to follow my example?” chuckled Jess. It was a well-known fact that he was a difficult patient and always got up sooner than he should.

Slim grinned. “Well, I guess I did at that!”

“Why did you come home?”

“I lay there and suddenly realized that you were still at the Fort and I was there. Daisy and Mike were alone with the rest of the gang we hadn’t caught and the land grabbers so I left.”

“Say, who exactly were the land grabbers?” Jess had heard part of the story from Lon but he needed to know if Slim remembered.

“I thought you knew?”

Jess shook his head. “Lon tried to convince me that you were the only one who could identify them and knew the whole story.” Jess was thoroughly confused.

Slim ran one hand behind his neck. This was going to be a long story and he felt himself fading fast.  His memories of the events were hazy at best.

“You’ll have to fill in the blanks, Pard. I’m not sure I can remember everything. “

Jess reached out and grabbed Slim’s arm gently. “Don’t apologize, Slim. You’ve nothing to be ashamed of.”

Slim took a deep breath. “When you were away several weeks ago, I had gone to town for supplies and Mort stopped me and asked that I see him before I went home. He and I met in his office. He warned me that there was a gang of men who were going around to various ranchers and telling them that they represented the railroad. The story they spun was that the railroad was going to lay tracks on their land and the ranchers had to give up their deeds and move away. They were offered money to do so.”

Jess exploded. “What!” he yelled, startling Slim.

Slim waited for Jess to calm down. His memory of what he did next was clear as day. “Pard, if you would please calm down, I’ll tell you the rest.” He spoke so quietly that Jess had to listen. Reluctantly he sat back down again.

“Now, as I was saying, Mort checked and the railroad representative said that the idea was unthinkable. They thought that the idea came from a man who later was fired from the railroad. They weren’t even close to figuring out where the lines were going to be laid.”

“So it was a trick to get land cheap.” Jess said.

“Right. Now I knew that in order to make the gang’s idea work they needed the signatures of the signers who were named on the original deed and not only that, they needed their copies of the deed itself. “

“So, they needed not just the original but my copy and Andy’s copy and…” his voice trailed off.

“Exactly.” Slim cleared his throat. “Can I have some water, Jess?”

Jess gladly poured the water from the pitcher into a cup. Slim was more confident now and held the cup himself.

“So, I decided to change the deed.”

“Without telling me?”

“I was going to tell you all about it but there was a bank robbery remember? “

“Oh, yeah.”

“So anyway, I added two more names.”

Jess’ eyes narrowed. “Who?” he breathed.

“Mort and Violet.”

“Who’s Violet?”

Slim grinned. He knew Jess wouldn’t pick up on that name. ” I made the name up.”

“You what? Were you out of your mind? “

“Listen to me. I needed 6 names on the deed. They might come after you or Mike and I knew finding Andy would take time. And besides they probably were desperate enough to have someone copy signatures. So, I needed more people on the deed to make it harder for them. So, I made copies of the deed and hid them. That’s where the number 6 came from.”

Jess got up and paced the room trying to understand what Slim had said. “You were trying to protect us, right?” He now understood what “6” meant and that Slim remembered too.

Slim nodded. “They could get to me easy. They probably didn’t know that our Mike was the Mike on the deed because he’s a child. You were away. Andy would have to be found. Mort was difficult to get and then there was a lady named Violet.”

“So what happened when they came to the ranch?”

“Here’s where it gets fuzzy, Pard.

**********

Chapter 8

Slim paused. He was growing tired but there was still so much to be shared.

“Hey, you look a bit peaked. Why don’t you take a rest and I’ll wake you in an hour or so,” Jess suggested precipitous as always. Slim nodded gratefully and Jess left the room taking the cup and bowl with him.

Slim closed his eyes. Jess was a compassionate man. He seldom showed this part of himself except to his family. Slim seemed to think it had something to do with the way he was raised. Growing up hard with a father who drank, lots of children, a hardscrabble life, the fire, the war, drifting, hell, it was a lot of things. But the one thing that Slim believed about Jess was that despite his wandering with unscrupulous men and his bitterness and seeking revenge he was saved from a life of despair when he met up with his family. Jess had said once during a porch talk that he’d been searching for a place to belong and even though time and again he was betrayed and thrown away when people discovered what he had done, he kept searching and he had found a home with Slim. “The best time of my life”, he had earnestly told Slim once and Slim knew, without a doubt, that the characters in that dream he had found himself in, could never come close to the real people in his life. He was absolutely sure now that it had been a fever dream. He couldn’t figure out the reason why the outlaws kept popping into his life though.

Awareness came slowly and Slim opened his eyes to see Mike staring down at him. “Hey, Mike,” he said.

Mike smiled. “I hope I didn’t wake you, but I wanted to be sure you were warm enough. “

Slim nodded. “Jess made sure of that a bit ago,” he replied. “So, what’s this I hear about you defending our home?”

“Aw, shucks Slim, “ Mike mumbled embarrassed. “I just did what you and Jess always do!”

Jess slipped into the room then, catching the tail end of Mike’s statement.

“Mike, I’m proud of you,” Slim said.

Mike beamed happily. “Can I get you something Slim? Maybe some water or something to eat?”

Jess moved into the room and put a hand over his shoulder. “I think, Tiger, that ‘ole Hard Rock needs some beef stew. Why don’t you dish up some for him while he tells me the rest of his story.”

Mike smiled and went out. Jess sat down on the edge of the bed. “Good nap?” he inquired.

“Yeah.”

“So what happened when you got home?”

“You know how we always look down at the house when we reach the rise? “

Jess nodded. “Making sure everything is okay,” he agreed.

“Well, I knew something was wrong because it was dusk and there was no smoke coming from the chimney and no light in the window. The horses were in the corral but there was a strange sort of quiet about the place. I tied up Alamo and called everyone’s name but no one answered. Then I peeked in the window. There was no fire and your rocker was against the wall.”

Jess straightened his shoulders. He could only imagine Slim’s distress.

“I went into our room and though your bed was made, my clothes were folded on top of it. Your extra gun belt was gone as well as everything else of yours. I started to get worried. Then I went to Daisy’s room. I hadn’t entered it since we moved out Jonesy’s things. The walls, which she wanted to paint yellow were whitewashed and there was no quilt on the bed. I was getting more and more concerned so I went to Mike’s room.

“Let me guess,” Jess interrupted, “ no toy soldiers and no squirrel. “

“Finally, I went to the fireplace and lifted the brick. The cubby hole was empty.” He paused and swiped his forehead.

“I knew I needed to take care of Alamo so I went outside and took him to the barn. Travelers stall was swept clean like he’d never ever been there. I have no idea how I made it back to the house, but when I awoke, I was in bed. I got up, thinking about the stage and went out to the well for water. I don’t know what happened. I just remember saying 6 over and over again. When I woke up again, I heard voices. The men surrounding me didn’t know what 6 meant. They were going to hang around the ranch for another week. Then I heard the stage come in. I didn’t recognize the driver. But what he said next sent shivers down my spine.” Slim looked up at Jess hoping he would understand. All he saw was brotherly love shining in his deep blue eyes. Taking a deep breath, he continued.

“He asked me when Andy was coming back. And then he said that it must get awful lonely living out here by myself.”

Slim heard Jess’ sharp intake of breath and felt his hand on his shoulder. “Oh, Pard,” was all he said.

“I think I started to fall apart then. I was so confused. I knew you and Daisy and Mike were real. I had memories of us as a family. I remembered you when we fought Carlin, when Mike first came to us, family dinners, Andy teaching you how to swim, all of it. I even remembered how you used to cuddle Mike when he had a nightmare and the stick figure picture, he made of us.”

Jess looked surprised. “You remembered that?”

“Yeah, it happened about a month after he landed with us. He was drawing on the back of the newspaper and we asked him what he was drawing and he said that the guy in the picture was his hero. He had your shoulders and my long arms and that he always felt safe and cared about. I remembered that I told him that it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to us.”

Jess took his bandana and wiped his eyes. “ Daisy is always saying that we are blessed. What happened next, Pard?”

“I began to wonder if I had made up the family. If I was truly alone, did I make up you and Mike and Daisy to keep me company and so wanted to believe you were real. And then I think I was in the barn and some men I never saw before wanted the deed and threatened me. They hit me in the face and I think I must have passed out. Then I fell down a waterfall. I kept calling for you but I couldn’t find you and then I woke up and saw you.” Slim heaved a mighty sigh.

“No wonder you didn’t know who I was! “ Jess whispered and then he did what Slim never expected. He got up and flung his arms around Slim and held him in a loving bear hug. For a long time, they just sat there on the bed, feeling their bond getting stronger and the wounds healing. Mike, who had heard some of Slim’s dream, silently closed the door and left them alone.

**********

Chapter 9

Two long weeks later, Sheriff Cory or as Mike called him, Sheriff Mort, rode towards the Sherman Harper Ranch. He wanted to make sure that Slim was recovered because there was trouble brewing in Laramie. Another rancher had been attacked, oh not as brutally as Slim, but this time the outlaws had pulled a gun on the rancher’s wife and threatened to kill her if her man didn’t hand over the deed. Something had to be done! He hoped that together, his two friends could come up with a plan.

Slim was sitting on his rocker with a warm quilt covering his legs. It was a cool day and he relished the breeze and sunny sky. He really thought he was a cured man but Dr. Sam insisted that he stay low for another week or so. He felt guilty every morning, wishing he could be up and about helping Jess and Mike. He had no dizzy spells and the memories of the fever dream had not lingered. Instead, he had been left with an overabundance of caution and more importantly, an appreciation for his family and the life they were carving out of the Wyoming land. He heard hoof beats and looked up.

“Howdy, Slim!” Mort exclaimed.

“Mort, what brings you out this early? Can I get you some coffee?”

Mort shook his head. “Slim, is Jess around? “

Slim sensed that the reason his old friend was here was not a social call. “Why?” he asked cautiously.

Mort took off his hat and leaned against the porch railing. “He’s not in trouble, Slim. I just need the two of you to help me out.”

“Neither of us can leave right now,” Slim began. “According to Sam, I still have another week or so of living in the house and that means Jess has to do the heavy lifting.”

Mort understood of course. “Well, if it makes you feel better, you look a whole lot stronger than before.”

Slim smiled his thanks. “What do you need from us, Mort?”

Just as Mort was about to answer they heard Jess and Mike riding in. They both looked tired. Mort shook his head in wonderment. Mike was no longer the young boy who he had made a “special deputy” so long ago. He was coming into his own and was being guided gently by two men he admired. He hoped that whatever came next to challenge them would keep him safe, heck all of them!

Mike went into the house to get them all some coffee and Jess sat down in his rocker next to Slim. “What’s up, Mort?” he asked gruffly.

“You boys remember Bob Iverson?”

Jess frowned slightly and turned to Slim. “Isn’t he that rancher who has a wife and five boys?”

Slim nodded. “What happened, Mort?”

“Iverson’s wife was threatened. One of the outlaws held a gun to her head and said that her man had 24 hours to give up the deed to their ranch or they’d come back and let her watch them kill all her children!”

Mike’s horrified gasp startled all of them. The cups of coffee sloshed onto the tray he was holding. Jess grabbed the tray and Slim grabbed Mike pulling him into a tight embrace. All of them stayed quiet for a long time.

“We gotta do something!” Mike shouted.

“We will,” Slim murmured as he unwound his arms from around Mike. Mike continued to stand close beside him, watching Sheriff Mort as he wiped his face with his sleeve.

“You know, Pard, we could form a group like that there one you belong to The Cattlemen’s Association, right?”

“Is everyone who belongs a rancher?” asked Mike who had recovered his senses.

“Everyone who owns cattle, Mike,” answered Slim. “Say, that’s not a bad idea, Pard.” He said thoughtfully. “We could have everyone who owns land that’s been threatened and form a group.”

“You gotta have a fancy name!” Mike said excitement evident in his voice.

Slim didn’t bother to correct his grammar. He simply ruffled Mike’s hair.

“What do you suggest?”

“Laramie’s Land Association” of course. “ Mike nodded, pleased with himself.

“As good as any,” said Jess.” Who should we invite to join and where should we meet?”

“Anybody who’s been threatened and maybe an abandoned ranch?” Slim was really getting into the idea now.

“What happens if the bad guys join the group? We don’t know who they are,” Mike spoke up.

“That’s the best part,” Jess said with a devilish smile. “We watch the men when we have the first meeting, especially the ones who just watch and listen. Then when we have the next meeting, we don’t tell them.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier if we had someone on the inside, like a spy?”

Mort asked. Lon, his deputy, had suggested that idea not long ago.

“Take too long,” Jess said thoughtfully. “We don’t want any itchier fingers, and besides they’ve already killed a rancher. Who knows what could trigger them next?”

They all got very quiet thinking about the families they knew.

“Sheriff Mort,” Mike asked in a small voice,” is Slim a target?”

Slim and Jess exchanged a look and Jess reached for their son. “Well, he might be, Tiger,” he replied for Mort,” we have the most land around here and the lake belongs to us. We also don’t know what they said to Slim when he was sick or what they threatened him with either.”

Mike squared his shoulders. “Then we have to fight back!” he said firmly.

**********

Chapter 10

The first meeting of the Laramie Land Association came to order on a Monday night two weeks later. Jess had suggested that they put an article in the Gazette and post notices around town. The air in Windy’s back room was thick with smoke. The meeting was called to order by Slim and as he began to outline the meaning of the meeting and what they needed to do; Jess began a mental count. To his astonishment, there were over twenty men in attendance! Some might have been relatives or partners, like him and Slim, but still it was great to see that many men.

Jed Benson, the co-owner of Benson’s General Store was chosen to take notes. Mort was chosen to keep the peace and Slim, was chosen to be the leader. Jess, for his part, had decided to watch the men. Most of them he had known for years. Some he even played poker with but he still kept his eyes open for someone that might be there for other reasons.

A lot of ideas flowed back and forth among the men ranging from taking up arms to hiring extra deputies or gunslingers. The mood ranged from resignation to fever pitched anger at what had happened to some of the ranchers. Slim was pleased that the men agreed to take up a collection for the Johnson children who were now orphans.

When the meeting broke up, two hours later, with the men agreeing to meet the following week, Slim felt greatly relieved. He wasn’t the only one who had been threatened and felt that together they could put up a united stand.

The family talked about the problem over dinner the next night. Both Slim and Jess wanted to send Mike and Daisy into town but Daisy stood her ground with some solid arguments. She mentioned that the ranch had to look as normal as possible and they still had a stage stop. They still needed to eat. Mike felt that he could help too with the smaller chores indoors and so the two ranchers agreed. The remaining problem was where on the ranch would they be safe. Once the shooting started, there would be no time to leave in a buckboard and even though Mike could ride, Daisy couldn’t. The last thing they wanted was to have either of them captured and used as a bargaining chip. Slim thought that they would be safe in the root cellar but Jess pointed out that while getting in would not be a problem, getting out was as the door was really heavy. Mike suggested the hay loft but that idea was also rejected as being too dangerous.

In the end, they decided to have them hide under or near Daisy’s bed. They would bolt the door and Mike would slide under the bed with a blanket and pillow and Daisy would lie down beside him with a pillow and shawl. They were both instructed not to make a sound or open the door except to one of them. Slim and Jess fumed about the problem for another day or two and finally realized that Slim was going to have to be the bait in the dangerous game the outlaws were playing.

They thought that the outlaws might make a run on the bank, forcing Mort to either leave on a posse or hire Jess as deputy leaving Slim alone. It made sense, only this time, Jess would only pretend to ride to town. He would double back and enter the house through the kitchen door. Lon and Ben would stay in the barn. If and when trouble came, they hoped to catch the outlaws in the middle of the yard. It would work, provided everyone did their part.

As luck would have it, the outlaws hit a ranch in Cheyenne and killed some cattle. They threatened the rancher just like they did in Laramie. It wasn’t until the sheriff rode out that he discovered the remains of the rancher’s oldest son. Seems the boy was defending his ranch. The sheriff sent a letter to Mort asking what the Laramie Land Association was going to do. Needless to say, the men were very upset and decided to hire gunslingers to help restore peace and keep the ranchers safe.

When news of this new development reached Slim and Jess they both decided that there was strength in numbers. While they didn’t like the idea of unknown gunslingers in their town, they understood the need for more reinforcements. They both informed Mort that if trouble came to their doorstep, neither one was going to go to town without the other and they would defend their ranch to the best of their ability. “It’s called ‘taking a stand,’” Slim had explained to Mike one night after supper.

“It’s just like I learned in school Slim,” Mike exclaimed. “The settlers didn’t want the British to tax them or live in their homes.”

“Slim nodded, proud that Mike was learning to relate historical events to the things going on in their town.

Mike was quiet for a moment and then he said thoughtfully, “it’s like we’re travelers. We read about what happened a long time ago and we take those lessons and make them work now.”

“So, Tiger, what did the travelers of that time do that we can do now?” Jess asked, impressed that Mike knew so much.

“They stood together against the enemy like we’re doing! “

“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens next,” Jess said frowning.

“What are you worrying about?” Slim asked him.

“Oh nothin’, just one of us getting shot, having to replace the window glass, you know, little things like that!” Jess fumed.

Mike stood up from the porch step and gave Jess a hug. “When it happens, we’ll be ready, Jess”, he spoke softly and then after gathering up their cups left them alone on the porch.

**********

Chapter 11

Some people, when they first arrived in Laramie, might remark that it was a quiet town almost dull in comparison to the bustling and thriving town of Cheyenne. They might even assume that the people who rode down the dusty streets were too quiet for their own good. Maybe they were just dumb old farmers or washed-up drunks. A lawman in the town had it good. No major crimes just an odd gun fight or two. The Parker Gang certainly thought as much. They had been having a real good time of robbing ranchers of their lands, threatening women and children and robbing a bank or two. Hell, if someone got shot, well it was the price of doing business, their Pa used to say. Little did they know however, they would meet their match when they pushed the good honest folk of Laramie too far and their luck would run out when they met the full fury of the team from the Sherman Harper Ranch.

The way Frank Parker saw it,  they needed the Sherman land. He was determined to get it anyway he could. It was the ultimate prize of a lifetime of robbing banks and shooting up towns. Their reign of terror was going to end with the biggest prize of all and then they were going to split up the money and fade away. They were going to start by robbing the Laramie Bank.

Mort Cory had a date with destiny although he didn’t have a clue about it. He had risen early, taken care of his morning ablutions, ate his solitary breakfast at his own table and made his early morning rounds. Nothing was out of place. He walked back to the office. The normal sounds of the town merchants opening up their shops and cheerful conversations filled the air. He got up to make himself another cup of coffee. Mr. Botkin, the Bank manager, was out front smoking his cigar. Mort checked his pocket watch. It was a quarter to nine. Fifteen minutes to opening the town doors to customers. The minutes sped by while Mort continued his paperwork. He looked at his watch again. It was after nine but strangely the curtains were still closed at the bank. Mr. Botkin was a fastidious man. He was obnoxious to be sure, but he knew banking and he knew how to cater to the town. He wouldn’t forget to open curtains. Mort was just about to go and investigate when one of the bank clerks came running out onto the street yelling, “help, the bank’s been robbed!”

If one were to ask him, Mort would have said that his first thought was anyone hurt. But, deep in his heart he acknowledged that his first thought was Slim and his ranch. As he ran towards the bank, gun drawn, he spied Jimmy Martin, a friend of Mike’s crossing the street.

“Jimmy, can you help me?”

“Sure Sheriff, what do you need?” Jimmy asked eager to help.

“Go on down to the Overland Stage office and ask the clerk to tell the next driver who goes by the Sherman Harper Ranch to tell them the bank was robbed and to be on the lookout. They’ll know what to do.”

Jimmy nodded and scampered away. Mort entered the bank slowly. He knew he might be walking into a trap but what he saw was a few scared clerks and the remnants of Mr. Botkin’s office door lying in shambles on the floor. Mr. Botkin followed his gaze. “I had that door made especially for this bank in Denver, “ he mourned. “Now look at it. It’s only fit for kindling!”

“How much was taken?” Mort asked trying to steer the conversation back to the present dilemma.

“Oh, about $10,000 dollars, “ murmured Mr. Botkin who was now gathering up pieces of his door.

Mort sighed. “I don’t suppose you could identify them?” he asked hopefully.

“They were wearing masks,” a young pretty girl answered. “I can tell you that they all had dark hair. One of them stuttered. One of them walked with a limp and one was called Jake.”

‘What an amazing woman!’ Mort thought. “Thank you so much for the information, Miss.”

“Dobson,” she supplied to Mort. “ My father was a lawman and he taught us to be mindful of our surroundings. “

“Well, he taught you well, Miss Dobson,” Mort said gratefully. He then suggested that they close the bank for the day as everyone was probably too shook up to work and went back to his office to check through the wanted posters. No doubt it was the same gang that had been responsible for the ranch problems and other bank robberies. Sure enough, after looking through the posters, he found a description of Frank Parker. He went out to the town square and rang the bell summoning the good citizens of the town.

“I need 10 men to form a posse, “ Mort spoke authoritatively without preamble. “We’re going after the Parker Gang. They are armed and extremely dangerous. We all know that they have been threatening and beating up and, in some cases, killing ranchers all for the deeds to their homes. Their next victim is Slim Sherman and you all know what happened to him. You need a gun or rifle, see my deputy. Pay is $1 a  day.  Keep your guns handy. Don’t kill them unless absolutely necessary. If you find one, be sure to disarm them and tie them up. Be ready to ride in 30 minutes.”

As the men scattered to assemble their gear and say goodbye to loved ones, Jimmy Martin rushed into the jail. “Sheriff,” he exclaimed, “there’s something you gotta know! “

Mort sighed. ‘One more thing! He couldn’t be in two places at once.’ He thought irritability. “What’s the matter?” he asked the panting boy.

“When I was coming back from the stage office, I saw a man I never saw before watching the street. Then when you had the meeting by the flag post he walked closer like he was listening. I heard some men saying that Mr. Harper would probably come to town to be the deputy now. Well, the man smiled and rode out of town. I thought maybe you would want to know.”

Mort patted him on the back. “You did good, Jimmy. Thank you. I believe you just met one of the outlaws!”

Jimmy stare at him. “Can I help you catch the gang, Sheriff? Mike Williams is my friend and he loves Mr. Harper.”

Mort smiled at the young boy’s enthusiasm. “ You did good, Jimmy. Why don’t you go home now and take care of your chores. Your father is on the posse and I’m sure that he would want you to be the man of the house while he was gone. “

Jimmy nodded and left. “Ya think that man was one of the gang, Sheriff?” Asked Lon as he packed up the ammunition.

“Yeah, I do.” Mort rubbed his forehead. “ Hey, did that stage leave yet?”

“Not that I know of. Why?”

“How would you like to ride the stage to Slim’s ranch? You could stay low and then get out when you get to the ranch. It will help even the odds for those boys.”

“Sounds like a plan, Mort. Let me get my rifle. “

**********

Chapter 12

The Parker gang pulled up at an abandoned ranch just outside of town. They tied up the horses behind the house and burst through the front door. The family hadn’t left much but the gang found enough loot to barter with if the need arose. Jake’s plan was working perfectly. The Overland Driver would tell the Harper fellow and he would ride to town. That would just leave Sherman and maybe that pesky boy and old lady. They’d storm the ranch, demand the deed and threaten to kill the boy if Sherman didn’t produce the deed. It was all so simple. Timing was everything. They watched as the stage rolled by on its way towards the relay stop. They decided to wait until noon. While Frank paced, Jake counted out the money.

“$2000 apiece. Not a bad haul, hey Frank!” Jake said as he slid the money across the table to his fellow comrades.

Frank spat out a wad of chewing tobacco onto the thread bare rug. He slammed his fists on the table so hard that the jug of stolen whiskey jumped. “It ain’t nothing’ without that deed!” “That ranch is worth a pretty penny and I am gonna live like a king when I get it!” he boasted.

Freddy, who had watched the conversation from his perch by the window, rose to take his share of the money. “B-boss,” he stammered,” C-cann I ha-av a new horse?”

Jake looked at him hard. Freddy was a pain in his butt but he was loyal and he never balked at doin’ the hard stuff. “Sure kid,” he nodded. “Soon as we get that deed you can have any horse you want!”

Gil  pulled the stolen pocket watch from his pocket. He’d lifted it off the kid they had killed. ‘Darn fine watch’ he thought to himself. ‘Keeps good time.’

“Boss, shouldn’t we start riding?” Jake asked Frank. “It’s about 11:30.”

“We haven’t seen Harper ride by yet.” Frank groused.

“Maybe he wasn’t there,” Cole said softly.

“Whaddya mean?”

“I mean,” Cole stood up straighter, “maybe he’s away, mustangin’ or driving cattle.”

“Then that makes it easier for us!” “Why don’t we go now?” The group crowded their boss.

“What time is it now?” Frank demanded.

Gil pulled the watch out again. “It’s close to noon.”

Ok, boys, “Frank looked hard at them. “Let’s ride.”

**********

Chapter 13

The shootout was inevitable. The small group of ranchers who were crowded around the relay’ s dining table pondered the enormity of the task in front of them. The only sound in the room was the crackling of the fire licked logs in the Sherman-Harper fireplace. All of them were friends or neighbors. Although they were ranchers and had to kill or fish for their survival, most of them had never outright killed a man, save one. They would say, years later, that the shoot out in the yard that day could not compare to anything they had ever known. The ruthlessness and ferocity displayed before their eyes lasted mere minutes but would remain with them forever.

Slim stood, hand on his hips, looking out the window, searching for any movement. The men watched him, their eyes alternatively switching from the stiff shoulders of their friend to their coffee cups. He knew they were depending on him. He kept going over the battle plan in his head, checking off the tasks one by one. He was relying on so many things. His skill with his rifle, the knowledge of his ranch, the battle plan he had drawn up with Jess and above all the willingness of the men beside him who were committed to this last stronghold. There would be no more ranchers threatened. No more killing. The Laramie Land Association was taking a stand. There were 5 men present, Caleb, Bill, Ben, John and Adam. The rest of the group was hiding in the hills above the ranch ready to swoop into the fray when needed. It was a classic battlefield maneuver, one he had studied and enacted during the war.

Jess was outside moving horses, shuttering windows and calming a very frightened Mike who had snuck out and found him on the porch. A reprimand was on the tip of Jess’ tongue but he realized just in time what Mike was going through. It was one thing to talk about being brave and grown up and another thing to actually act that way. Reluctantly, with a last hug from Jess, Mike helped Daisy bar the bedroom door and slid under the bed as he had been told.  Jess wiped his eyes and squared his shoulders. He went outside again to double check around the house and then knocked loudly on the door startling Caleb whose cup fell upon the floor. Slim let him in. “All set?”

Jess nodded. He could see the anxiety on the faces a mile away. He had to find a way to distract them. ‘At this rate, they all must have itchy fingers’, he thought. He strode over to the pot and poured a cup of his favorite brew. He turned and glancing at the men, said “Timing is everything. “

His warm, gravelly voice held no animosity or rancor to the deed they faced only a bitterness that Slim knew all too well. “Do you think we have covered everything, Jess?”

Jess studied his best friend for a brief minute. He knew Slim better than anyone there. He knew he was barely recovered from his illness. He also knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that to Slim, this wasn’t just an ordinary shoot out. This was a stand for justice, truth and his way of life on his terms on their land. He trusted Slim to have his back as he had his. The team would rise against all odds but first, he needed to share one great truth to the uneasy men beside him.

“How old were you when you first went hunting with your Pa, Slim?”

“Uh, 10 or 11, I think. Why?”

“What were you hunting? “

Slim smiled remembering. “A turkey for Thanksgiving. “

“I bet you were excited.”

The men were watching now, interested in the easy exchange, remembering their own first gun experiences.

“Yeah, I was. I wanted to make my Pa proud.”

“I bet he had to keep telling you to be quiet. “

Slim nodded. “I must have scared away all the turkeys the first time we went out.”

Jess studied the group and turned towards Slim. “Timing is everything. We have the advantage. The Parker gang doesn’t know that they will be surrounded. We have to hope that Mort and the posse he formed race out here as soon as the gang ride out of town. When the gang shows up, they’ll only be expecting you and I, Slim. When they start shooting, you all have to pick your targets,” he told the group. “ I think that Caleb would be better in the loft than me. Next to you, he’s much better with a rifle than I am. He could get on his belly and poke that rifle out without anyone seeing him.”

“Okay with you?” Slim asked Caleb who only nodded once and went out the door.

“Let’s get in position. That stage is early and the way Charlie is racing down the rise, I bet this battle is about to begin!”

Charlie Hayes, Overland’s oldest driver, tugged at the reins of the heaving horses. He stopped them right in front of ranch house. “Slim, Jess,” he hollered.

“Slim poked his head out the front door. “What’s the matter?”

“Sheriff Cory said to tell you that the Laramie bank was robbed and you would know what to do. Oh, and I have a present for you.” He hopped down and with a flourish, opened the stage door. Lon poked his head out.

“Howdy, Slim! Mort thought you might need some help.”

Slim grinned and reached for the deputy’s hand. “Glad to have you.”

Charlie looked from Slim to his stage and back again.” Mind if I stay too?”

“There’s going to be a gun fight, Charlie. Are you sure?”

“I reckon it’s safer here than out there. If you’ll have me?”

Slim clapped him on his back. “You can help Bill at Mike’s window.”

“All right men. Final instructions, “ Slim paused,” Caleb is in the Hay loft, Jess and Lon will be in the barn. I’ll be at the window, over there.” He gestured to the window above the couch and near the front door. “Adam will be at the back door. John will be in Mike’s room. Ben and  Bill  bunk house, Charlie, I think you’d be better getting us ammunition and water for us in the house. Make sure you all have plenty of ammunition and a water bucket. And one last thing,” he looked at all of them, “be careful out there.”

The men all nodded to each other and went out the door. Jess told Lon he’d be out in a minute. “I’m gonna take the traces off the stage horses, Pard,” he told Slim. “Don’t want them to make off with the stage.”

Slim put out his hand to Jess who pulled Slim into a bear hug. He whispered in his ear, “watch your back” and as they shared a brotherly hug, Slim acknowledged Jess. “You too, Hotshot!” Jess picked up the water bucket and after giving a little salute, left Slim alone in the room.

**********

Chapter 14

Frank Parker fancied himself an astute gunfighter. His skills had kept him alive after all. He surveyed the land around the ranch with eagle eyes. Everything looked normal. The relay horses were in the corral and there was smoke coming from the chimney. ‘A nice cozy scene’ he thought gleefully. ‘We’re about to change their lives forever.’

They rode into the yard almost arrogantly. The odds were on their side. Five against one sick man. How easy this would be. Parker could hardly wait for Sherman to realize that all was lost. What he failed to notice was the barn door and the shuttered windows.

Jake and he came to a stop several feet in back of the stage. Cole slipped over to the bunk house and Gil inched his way around the corner of the barn. Freddy, gun in hand, sneaked around the corner of the house. “Come on out Sherman with that deed!” Frank yelled.

“Not going to happen, Parker,” yelled Slim. “You’re trespassing. Get off my land!”

“It’s my land, you just don’t know it yet! “

Slim bit back a retort with effort. It did no good to have this cat and mouse game. “Give it up! You’re not going to take possession of my land.” Slim yelled, more agitated than before. From his angle on the couch, Slim saw Parker lean over to his partner. They both aimed their guns at the front door.

“One last chance, Sherman. We have you surrounded. “

Slim chuckled. “Now that’s where you’ve got it wrong. We have you surrounded. Throw down your guns.”

“He’s bluffing, Jake whispered to Parker.  Parker took a step forward and fired at the door. Slim carefully aimed and fired back. No one knew who started the volley but bullets suddenly flying through the air in rapid succession. Jake took aim at the window and Caleb let a bullet fly hitting Jake. The bullet tore through his back into his upper chest. Blood started spurting down the outlaws shirt and he clutched his chest. He was not to be denied and fired again at the window. Slim took aim and fired a shot behind Jake hitting a pail. As Jake turned, Slim shot the gun out of his hand. He lay writhing on the ground.

Parker, yelled to Jake but Jake was unconscious and bleeding badly.

“Give it up, Parker! “ Slim yelled.

“No way!” yelled Parker. “We’re just getting started!”  He ran from the stage across the yard to the barn. But Jess and Lon had secured the doors and they would not open. Caleb couldn’t get a clear shot so he stayed on his belly and watched the action below him, firing as needed. Freddy, gun in hand, tried to get into the house by the back door. He kicked and pounded on the door but it did not budge. Finally, in desperation, he flung himself into the door causing it to give way. He didn’t get far. Adam grabbed him and his gun and although wounded by the flying splinters of the door, managed to tie up the outlaw.

Parker watched his carefully laid plot disintegrate. There were only two options left, smoke ‘em out or leave for another day. Frank Parker did not give up easily so he motioned to Cole to climb the roof of the ranch house. Cole loved climbing and had mentioned early on that smoking’ out the rancher would get him outside and shot. Parker had tucked the thought up in his brain in case the worst came to pass. Clutching the old rags, Cole climbed up the side of the house and crept up the slanted roof. Slim could hear the footsteps but had no idea what was happening until Charlie started to cough. “Quick,” he hissed to Charlie, “put out the fire. He’s trying to smoke us!”

Charlie and Adam raced to throw well water on the fire and although the atmosphere was smoky they wouldn’t have to replace the house.  Cole made his way down the slippery roof and was just about to make his escape, when a tumbling, weaving Jess barreled into him. A few well-placed punches ended Cole’s escape.

Just as Slim was about to persuade Parker again, Mort’s posse, accompanied by the rest of the Land Association men, galloped down the hill effectively surrounding the remaining Parker gang.

After Mort and the deputies hauled Parker and his gang off to town and the six very tired but jubilant ranchers had given their statements, Slim and Jess released Daisy and Mike from their uncomfortable hiding place. Jess praised Mike for taking care of Daisy. He assured her that both he and Slim were fine. Daisy mourned the rug but Mike took the whole incident in stride. He hugged his fathers and proudly proclaimed that they were his hero. No one got killed; the outlaws were caught; and their ranch was saved.

“I guess you’ll have to find all this deeds, Pard,” Jess grinned at his best friend.

“They’re in plain sight, Pard.” replied Slim.

**********

Chapter 15

The Sherman – Harper family stood on the porch long after the last man left. They stood huddled together, gathering and rejoicing in their strength and family love. Together, they had fought and survived. Daisy let out a huge sigh of relief. Slim’s arm tightened around her. She smiled.

“I don’t suppose anyone is hungry?” she asked.

“I could eat,” Mike spoke softly.

Jess ruffled his hair. “You can always eat!” he smiled at their son.

“I seem to remember Jonesy saying that about you, Pard,” Slim shot him a look.

Jess just rolled his eyes. A good-natured ribbing was welcome, especially now. They had come close to losing everything and had survived to tell the tale. “Hey, Daisy,” he suddenly remembered, “don’t light a fire. Them outlaws threw some rags down the chimney to smoke us out and we don’t want to have that chimney explode on us!”

“Good to know,” she murmured as she walked into their home. She stopped suddenly. “How are you going to get the rags out?”

“How about tongs?” Mike suggested. “If the rags aren’t too far down the chimney, you could reach ‘em with a long set.”

“Hey Pard, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea!” Slim exclaimed. “Come on, Mike. We’ll get the ladder.”

“I’ll stay by the fireplace and let you know when the rags fall down,” Daisy shouted after them.

“Are you going up, or am I?” Slim asked Jess as they carried the ladder to the side of the house.

“Me, of course! “ Jess exclaimed.

“Watch your step, Pard.”

Jess walked carefully up the roof holding the tongs in one hand. Balancing his weight, he leaned against the chimney. “Daisy, let me know when you see day light. “

“Alright, Jess. “ she shouted back to him.

At first, he tried to snag the rags with a pincer movement but the rags must have been oily because they kept slipping. Finally, he pushed them as hard as he could and down, they fell with a loud plop. He heard Daisy laugh out loud.

“Daisy, are you alright?” he peered down the shaft.

Daisy’s blue eyes twinkled in merriment as she wiped her soot- covered face with her apron.  “Oh, my!” she laughed. “That was so unexpected! It worked, Jess. You can come down now.”

A long busy month passed and things around the ranch finally got back to normal. The trial of the Parker gang lasted a week. Both Slim and Jess were called as witnesses so chores back at the ranch were delayed for a bit. Frank Parker and Jake Collins were hanged for the murders of the ranchers. The rest of the gang got long prison sentences. All but two ranchers returned to their homes.

“All’s well that ends well,”  Slim raised his whiskey glass in Jess’ direction. They had gone to town to celebrate with the rest of the Association and had lingered, as they often did, in Mort’s office.

“Yeah,” Jess raised his slightly inebriated head up and fixed an eye at his Pard. “Say Slim, I got a bone to pick with you.”

Slim looked bemused and slightly curious. “What’s up, Pard?”

“You never told us where you hid the deeds and I wanna know, you know, cause I might need to, you know.”

Slim smiled indulgently at his best friend. “Well, I’d tell you, but you won’t remember in the morning. “

“I will too,”  Jess yelled as he tried to rise to the occasion but failed and sank right back into his chair.  “Well, if you help me up, I will, I think…”

Mort Cory shook his head. “What you two need is a good rest and we are going to the hotel so I can have one and Daisy doesn’t have a fit when you stumble home.”

He deftly pulled Jess into a sitting position and pushed Slim upwards.

“Come on, you two, it’s the hotel or jail. Which do you want?”

Both men remembered Mr. Firth, from his prior rants, and surprisingly chose jail cells to sleep off their drunken haze. In the morning they were slightly hung over but good enough to ride after Jess consumed three cups of coffee.

“What am I going to do with you?” Mort moaned as he watched the pair stumble around their cells.

“Just point us in the right direction, Mort. We got a ranch to run.” Slim smiled at his old friend.

“Well, you two deserved to tie one on, but by golly, maybe you should stick to that ranch of yours for a while. “

“You betcha!” Jess grinned. “Come on, Pard,” he clapped a hand onto Slim’s nearest shoulder. “Like you said, we’ve got a ranch to run.”

Halfway home, Jess stopped and reined in Traveler. “Slim,” he said very seriously, “Really, where is it?”

“Jess, will it make any difference in our partnership or our friendship if you don’t know?”

“No.”

“That’s what I knew you would say! But if it will make you feel better, I WILL show you when we get home.”

“You mean it? Really?”

“Really!”

A few miles and a half an hour later, Jess was looking at the hollowed-out leg of his bed post. He blinked several times. “Well, I’ll give you one thing, it’s unusual.”

“But clever, huh?”

Jess just shook his head and went into Mike’s room. Mike was frustrated. Slim had said it was pretty obvious where the deed was.

“Mike, where do you hide your candy sticks?” Mike moved his clothes off the end of his bed post and pushed on the wall behind it. The deed tumbled out. He just shook his head in disbelief.

“Okay, where is yours?” Jess demanded of Slim.

Slim looked hard at Jess for a long moment. “Pard, do you remember when Carlin had you and Andy go to the barn to shoe a horse?”

Jess nodded in remembrance. “Yeah.”

“One of those rifles belonged to my Pa. I only fired it once a year on the anniversary of his death. The day I inherited the ranch. Although I was still away and did not know of his death, I became head of my family that day. I shot the rifle in remembrance and honor. The deed is with the rifle behind his desk. I will move it if you insist, but I would rather not.”

No one said anything for a long moment. Then Mike slipped his hand into Jess’. “The day that the two of you took me into your hearts and made me part of your family is a day I will never forget. Slim hid my copy of the deed in the very place where I hide candy sticks which I first tasted when you took me to buy clothes the first time I went to town. He hid your copy, Jess, in your bed post. Before you traveled to the ranch, the only bed you had known was your saddle on the trail. The bed was to become part of the home and family you were seeking. “ He reached out to Slim then and as three stood together, he looked up at his blonde-haired father.

“You hid your original deed with your Pa’s rifle. He founded this land and it became part of you. It doesn’t matter how far we’ve traveled to get here; it only matters that we are family. The deed doesn’t make us that. The land doesn’t make us that. We chose to make us family.” Mike stopped then to wipe his eyes.

Jess felt a tap on his back and turning saw Daisy with a tray of cups. “A toast is in order,” she said.

When they all  had cups, Slim raised his cup high “To Our Family, the one we chose, the one we will always travel home to be with.”

“To Family” they echoed and Slim smiled.

***The End***

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