The Colors of a Nightmare (by Mustang Sallie)

Summary: Slim Sherman and Jess Harper have always had a healthy respect for women of all ages and tender hearts for children. One April day, the duo comes face to face with an evil that tests their friendship and their family’s roots. There are references to two of my stories “A Second Chance” and “Joined at the heart” but this story can be read alone.  Please read Author’s Notes at the end.
Category:  Laramie
Genre: Western
Rating: T
Word Count: 19,000

Chapter 1

‘It was gonna be a right fine day, my kinda day,’ thought Jess Harper as he glanced out the window of the ranch house he shared with his family. This ranch meant so much to him but the family meant everything. The other half of his heart, his best friend/brother was the main reason he had stayed in the first place, so many years ago. Slim Sherman had booted him off his land the very first time they met and yet, before the day was done had offered him a home and a family. Andy, Slim’s younger brother, was the youngster he got to play with and then mentor and Jonesy had been more of an uncle to the lonely ex-gunslinger. It was the arrival of Mike that cemented the already deeply planted stakes and then Daisy, his second Ma had sweetened the happy home life. His gunslingers’ days now long over, he had become, almost without realizing it, “domesticated” but if asked he would have said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Are you ready yet?” Jess called out to said partner. He was anxious to get to town early. Their monthly Saturday morning trip to town for supplies had been penciled on the calendar for days now and Jess wanted to get it done and then go fishing with Mike.

“I’m ready,” Mike said as he jammed his hat on. “Do I need my jacket?” he asked his legally-appointed guardian. If asked, he would have said that Jess and Slim were his fathers in every way that counted. They had taken him into their hearts and home after the deaths of his parents. He had been nurtured for close to six years now and he hardly ever remembered a time when he hadn’t lived at the Sherman Harper Ranch.

“Not sure, Tiger,” Jess answered using the nickname he’d bestowed on Mike the very first time they talked. ‘He’s probably getting too old to my referring to him that way,’ Jess thought to himself as he opened the door to let the young boy out. It felt a bit chilly for the first day of April but Jess knew the day would warm up. This afternoon would be perfect for fishing. He idly watched Mike run to the barn and back again.

“It’s cold outside,” Mike shivered,  rubbing his hands together, as he came back inside. He darted into his room for his new jacket, a birthday present from Slim and Jess.

“Slim, a person could get old waiting on you!” Jess yelled to his unseen Pard. “What’s takin’ so long?”

Slim Sherman emerged from their shared bedroom a moment later tying his string tie. He looked quite dapper despite the fact that he was wearing his everyday denims and boots.

“Well, I’ll be! Why did you get all duded up?”

“It doesn’t hurt to get dressed up every now and again,” Slim finger- combed his blond hair and smiled down at Mike who had emerged from his room. “Cold out?” he inquired.

“Yeah, and you didn’t answer my question, Slim,” Jess interrupted impatiently.

Slim smiled indulgently at his dark-haired partner, and then turned to admire Daisy’s new hat that perched so delicately on her head. “Your new hat looks lovely,” he said smiling at their second Ma.

Daisy ruled the roost at the ranch with a gentle touch and “her boys” as she referred to Jess, Slim and Mike would do anything for her.

“Thank you, dear,” Daisy smiled at her oldest. Slim paid her compliments and most always indulged her wishes while Jess brought her wild flowers almost every time he rode fence. Mike, her youngest, had been taught to respect women, just loved her and hardly ever talked back to her. He was growing up and was now a big help in and out of the house.

The family was soon on its way to town. They enjoyed times like this, even though it was a bit chilly. Slim had remembered to bring some blankets so Mike and Daisy were warm as they sat on the buckboard. Jess and Slim followed on their mounts. They were looking forward to seeing their neighbors and friends and buying the many goods they needed.

 Jess kept glancing at Slim until he finally figured out the puzzle in his head. “It’s Marcy!” he shouted in glee.

“You want to tell the whole of Laramie that?” Slim shook his head in dismay.

Jess just continued to smirk as they rode behind the wagon. Finally, Slim’s grin reached his eyes and they shared a laugh. “You know me pretty well,  don’t you,” he shouted.

Jess nodded and grinned back. Slim was courting the pretty Benson girl and sooner or later the family was gonna get bigger. None of them knew their cocoon of family love was going to be tested that very morning.

*****

Chapter 2

Excitement filled the air around the family as they slowly drove down the street. The sidewalks were crowded with shoppers. Mike’s head kept swinging around as he saw all the horses and wagons. Some of his friends were shopping at the general store with their parents and some were just arriving. Daisy guided the horses alongside the back door to make it easier for Slim and Jess to load the heavy sacks of flour and grain.

“Before we all scatter to the winds, where are you all going?” Slim asked of his family. He didn’t want to lose Mike to a game in the school yard or Jess in the saloon.

“I’ll be in the dress maker’s shop,” Daisy proclaimed.

“I’m headed for the bblacksmithso see about that rack we ordered, “ Jess said as he dismounted.

“I will be in Benson’s,” Slim said as he glanced at Jess.

“Of course, you will,” Jess smirked.

Slim tried to ignore Jess and pulled out his pocket watch. “What say we all meet here in an hour and then go to lunch at the diner?”

Everyone thought that was a great idea and as they prepared to head out, Mike asked, “isn’t anyone interested in where I’ll be?”

Aghast that they had forgotten him, Slim doffed his hat. “Aw Mike, I’m sorry. Where are you going?” Slim and Jess exchanged a silent conversation above Mike’s head.

“I’m going to visit with Sheriff Mort!” he exclaimed. It was a well-known family fact that Mike and Sheriff Mort had a very special relationship. Ever since the adoption and the naming of Sheriff Mort Cory as Mike’s godfather, both Mort and Mike would sneak off for a day of fishing or special trips to town. One of Mike’s birthday presents was the promise of several sleepovers at Sheriff Mort’s home.

“Don’t talk his ear off!” Jess warned their son. “He’s probably very busy with everyone coming to town today.”

“I won’t!” and with that he scampered down the street.

Exactly one hour later Daisy emerged from the dress maker’s shop. Her arms were full of packages and there was a dreamy contented air about her. She sighed as she closed the door thinking of the new curtains, a shirt for Mike and new bandanas for her eldest sons. She could hardly wait to get sewing! The high-pitched scream startled her and she dropped her packages on the sidewalk. ‘Was it a horse?’ she wondered as she bent down to retrieve the curtain material. When she heard the sound again she realized it was coming from a child and she ran toward the sound as fast as she could.

Mike and Jess were talking in front of the sheriff’s office when they heard the sound. Immediately, Jess grabbed Mike and with arms of steel, held him fast against his chest. Mike could hear his father’s heart beating in staccato thumps as Jess fought to control himself. “I gotta go help! Mike, stay here!” As Jess ran towards the sound, he remembered the sounds of his nightmare and could see the bright reds, oranges and yellows of the thirsty flames that engulfed his home so long ago.

Slim had been packing up the groceries when he heard the distinct sound of a whip as it rent the air and the child’s cry a second later. He sped out the door just in time to see the man holding the whip and raising it high as he threatened the young girl in front of him. ‘She looked young, maybe as old as six’, Slim thought and then he saw the young boy backing away from the man entreating him to leave Marybeth alone. The man ignored him and raised the whip again. “I’ll teach you to obey me!” he roared.

Slim quickly walked to the back of the buck board and gestured to the boy. “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He said. 

The boy in question looked at the man and his sister and jumped into Slim’s arms, crying “you have to save my sister. He’s gonna kill her, like he kilt our Ma! “

Slim caught the young boy easily and held him close to his chest. The boy wrapped his arms around Slim’s neck and buried his head on his neck. He trembled violently as he heard his sister scream again. Slim looked frantically around and spying Daisy by the door way motioned with his head. “Hey now,” he said as softly as he could manage,” this nice lady is going to take you into the store where you’ll be safe. Then I’m going to help your sister. “

The boy nodded his head but didn’t move. Slim knew he was probably petrified. “”What’s your name, son?” he asked gently.

“Joseph, but my Ma used to call me Joe, “ he whispered.

“Alright, Joe,” Slim said as he turned towards Daisy, “this nice lady is Daisy and she’s my second Ma. You’re safe with her. “

Joe looked at both his rescuer and the lady and decided to go with the lady. Slim handed off the young boy and Daisy took his hand and led him into the store where Marcie handed him a peppermint stick and gestured to them to hide behind the counter. Slim cautiously crept around the buck board.

*****

Chapter 3

A crowd had gathered now and the shouts of the men, meant to stop the man’s actions, only fueled his already alcoholic anger. He started cursing his daughter. This action became too much for Jess and he took out his gun and fired a shot into the air. “Enough!” he yelled.

Slim took the opportunity to climb onto the back of the buck board and faced the man, gun also drawn.

“You can’t stop me!” the man hollered. “I have a right to punish my children.”

“Not that way,” spoke Mort for the first time. “Drop that whip.”

The little girl slowly backed away. Slim bent down to her and very gently put out his arms. “What’s your name little one?”

“Marybeth,” she answered. Her voice was thick with tears and she started shivering. Slim lifted her up and carefully held her to his chest.

“You can’t take her!” The man yelled again as he swung the whip up and towards Slim.

“Hold it!” Both Jess and Mort yelled simultaneously.

Slim took the opportunity to hand Marybeth to Lon, Mort’s deputy and climbed down to the ground. “I’m going to take you to your brother and then to the doctor to have him take a look at your arms.”

“Tell Jess and Mort that I’m taking them to Doctor Sam, “ Slim murmured to Lon as he walked quickly into the store.

“Get down out of there!” Mort gestured to the irate man. The man, instead raised his whip towards Lon who had taken Slim’s place in the wagon. Jess, seeing the opportunity to end this assault, flung himself at the man’s back and pinned him to the floor of the wagon. They wrestled briefly. Lon grabbed the whip as Jess finally ended the incident with a sound punch to the man’s jaw. Mort handed the metal cuffs to Lon who with Jess cuffed the man and hauled him off to jail.

“Alright, nothing to see here, everyone go about your business, “ Mort said with authority. “Anyone who saw this begin, stay behind.”

An hour later Jess joined Slim in Doctor Sam’s office waiting room. It was a room that both men had been in many times before but their memories were too painful to recount. Usually, it was Slim waiting for news about his Pard’s condition when the wound or illness was too severe to treat at home. Today though, they both paced as they awaited word on the two youngsters.

 Presently, a weary looking doctor came into the room.

“Gentlemen,” he paused as he took off his glasses and wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “This is one of the worst cases of child abuse that I have ever seen.”

“What!” exclaimed Jess, jumping up.

“Ease off, Jess.” Slim also rose but he grabbed Jess’s arm as he stood. Sam nodded and gestured to the two men to sit down again.

“Regardless of whether Mr. Jenkins killed his wife; he still did a lot of damage to his children. I am going to consult with Seth and the sheriff to bring criminal charges against him. We can’t let him near his children again.”

Jess’ eyebrows knit together in a firm lime. “How bad is it?”

“The boy, apparently his name is Joe, is about ten and he has been beaten at least once a day for months now. He has multiple scars on his back from that whip and he told me that his father threw him across the room the same night his mother disappeared. The girl, whose name is Marybeth is six and she has bruising on her arms and whip marks on her back. The worst thing is that the father tried to make his daughter cook and clean. She’s six! They are both afraid of their father and don’t want to live with him anymore. “

“Isn’t there a law that says a parent can punish their child and they can’t be arrested for it?” Slim asked hesitantly.

“You have to understand, boys. Early in 1870, there was the case of a Mary Ellen Wilson, who was abused daily at her foster home. Since there wasn’t a law that protected children from abuse the case was given to the American Society for the Prevention of Animal Cruelty. These attorney’s thought that the abuse of an animal should not outweigh the abuse of a child. When Mary Ellen’s case went before a judge, he sentenced her foster mother to one year in jail. The case generated enough attention that in 1874 citizens formed the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

If Mort can prove that Jenkins killed his wife, he would hang for sure. As it stands now, we have to get the children away from that home and put Jenkins away for a long while.”

“Sam,“ Slim rubbed his neck in frustration. “what exactly is child abuse?”

 “Child abuse is when a parent or caregiver fails to act or causes injury, death, or risk of cruel harm to a child. There is a difference between spanking and hitting hard enough to cause a brain concussion. A parent can spank a child but not whip them.” Sam quoted from the journal he had in his hand.

*****

Chapter 4

“Why us?” Slim demanded.

Mort Cory raised his hands in supplication. “Judge Allen told me that since the two Jenkins children seemed to have formed a bond with you and Jess that a temporary solution was to have them stay at the ranch.  Jess, what do you think?”

Jess, who privately wanted the children to stay forever, was conflicted.

“Slim is the one who knows the books better than me and if he says we can’t afford to, then you have to find someone else.” 

It was the best argument he could think of but for all his bluff he couldn’t bring himself to believe it. He always backed Slim. That’s what Pard’s did but he personally thought that this time Slim was wrong. He shook his head. “Mort, it’s Slim’s call. It’s his ranch. Oh, I know we’re partners and all that, but what he says goes.”

Mort sighed. Judge Allen had been quite adamant. It was the Sherman Harper Ranch or the orphanage. “Boys,” he tried again. His patience was wearing thin. They had been going ‘round and ‘round for nigh on an hour. “ It’s your ranch or the orphanage in Cheyenne. “

“We can’t let that happen!” Jess implored his best friend.

Slim shook his head, eyes downcast. He heard the pleading in his Pard’s voice and the frustration in Mort’s. They could barely afford all the supplies they needed each month as it was. Two more mouths to feed, not to mention the toll it was going to take on Daisy was asking too much. He didn’t want the alternative to be the orphanage. They had heard awful things went on there.

“How long are we talking about?” he inquired to Mort.

“Just as long as it takes for the court to find enough evidence to convict Jenkins. The main goal here is to find a way for those two youngsters to be safe. The judge is looking for relatives also to take them in. Heck, I know it will be hard for your family but you’ve survived worse than this!”

Slim folded his arms in front of himself. He made a decision. “Mort, we’ll do it. But,” he warned, “I am not going to allow this to harm Daisy in any way. The minute I see her health endangered, this stops.”

Mort sighed gratefully. “Thanks, Slim and you too Jess. If you need anything, anything at all, let me know.”

When they heard the news, young Marybeth Jenkins attached herself to Slim and refused to let go. She had found a safe spot under his collar bone and her arms wound their way around his neck. Slim found the extra weight heartwarming and slid a large hand around her anchoring her in place. Joe, for his part, grabbed Jess’s hand.

The ride home was quiet. Daisy thought about how to stretch her grocery allowance to feed two hungry extra mouths. Jess was thinking about how much their lives were going to change. Mike was excited to have two young play mates and Slim was worried. It was a big responsibility taking on two young children they knew nothing about but he reminded himself that they had no knowledge of Mike either all those years ago. He clicked to the horses and as he slapped the reins, he took a quick glance behind him.

Jess had his arms full of two young overwhelmed children and he smiled in spite of himself. He and Jess had raised up Andy, and were raising Mike. They could take care of Joe and Marybeth too.

Jess walked into the ranch house with Joe and Mike to assess the bedroom situation. “How would you like to share your room, Tiger?” he asked his son.

Mike looked around the small room. “We could put Joe’s bed next to mine and put the table in the bunk house,” he replied. 

Jess shook his hand. “Now that’s thinking! You’re beginning to sound like Slim!”

Mike grinned and grabbed Joe’s hand. “We’re gonna have so much fun!” he exclaimed.

Slim and Jess gave their charges to Daisy and went off to get the next team ready for the stage. “So, how’s this gonna work?” Jess asked Slim when they were out of earshot.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about that,” began Slim, “remember when we told Mike that this was a working ranch and we all had chores to do? Why don’t we ask Mike which ones he thinks they can handle and go from there. There’ll be sleeping with either Daisy or Mike, eating with the rest of us and playing in the house. One thing is for sure. We have to get them some clothes. Mike’s old nightshirt is too long for Marybeth and too short for Joe.”

Jess agreed and suggested a family meeting to discuss the matters. “There’s one thing, though Pard,” he said seriously.

“Huh?”

“We’ve been given a precious gift and we gotta take care of it. We’re responsible for Joe and Marybeth, for their happiness and their safety. There’s apt to be a few nightmares and both of them following us everywhere but we gotta promise each other that while we have them no one takes them from us.”

Slim nodded. He knew what it was like to have your life uprooted. His Pa had died during the war from a bushwhacker and his Ma from illness leaving him raising up young Andy. While he had Jonesy and then Jess, those two children had no one but them. He would be their protector no matter what.

“Family Meeting! 10 minutes!! “ Jess shouted as he stuck his head inside the ranch house. He wasn’t usually the announcer of these events and he relished each moment of being in the center of them.

“What’s a family meeting, Mike?” Joe looked at his new big brother. ‘Have we done something bad already?’ he wondered.

“That’s when we all get together and talk about things, like who’s gonna go to town for supplies or if there’s trouble in town, that sort of thing,” Mike explained. ‘This big brother thing was kinda new to him and he wasn’t sure if he was up to the task.

The family gathered around the table, each apprehensive, that is, everyone except Slim. “ I called this meeting because there are things to discuss now that Marybeth and Joe are here. This is a working ranch and we all have chores to do. Now, “ he looked at their son and smiled.

“Mike, of the chores you do in the yard, which one do you think Joe could handle?”

Mike grinned. He now knew what the meeting was about – settling in – a new home for Joe and Marybeth. “Well, I think Joe would be able to milk our cow Molly,  and Marybeth could feed the chickens with my help of course.”

Jess smiled, remembering Mike’s misadventures with Molly. “What are you going to do with all your free time?” he teased his son.

Mike shook his head. “Well, maybe I’ll go fishing’ and ride fence or clean out the barn!”

Daisy passed out milk to Marybeth and Joe. “Maybe you could do all those things and then go fishing,” she suggested as she laid a hand gently on her youngest son’s shoulder.

Mike looked up and saw her tender smile. “Sure ‘nough, Daisy,” he smiled back at her.

“Now, to bedrooms,” Slim stood up. “Daisy, is your bed big enough for you to share with Marybeth?”

“I believe it is,” she replied, “but what about Joe? “

“He can sleep in my room,” Mike said proudly. The idea had been his, after all.

“Ah, the extra bed..” Slim’s voice trailed off.

“One last thing,” Jess murmured, “we gotta go to town for clothes.”

For a minute no one said anything. Then Joe shook his head. “Oh, we’re fine Mr. Sherman. It’s too much money.”

Slim walked around the table and reached for Joe. Placing his hands on his shoulders, he spoke gently. “First of all, it’s Slim. Mr. Sherman was my Pa. Next, you can’t wear Mike’s nightshirt. It doesn’t fit right. And what happens if your clothes get dirty, what would you wear if we get visitors? And I’m sure that your sister would like to have something pretty to wear, am I right?”

Marybeth squealed in delight and everyone laughed.

*****

Chapter 5

Two nights later, they woke to high pitched screaming. Jess, attuned to Mike’s wailing sounds from when he was younger, immediately jumped out of bed and ran to Joe. The young boy was tangled in his blankets on the floor and whimpering, “don’t hurt her no more, Pa” over and over again.

Mike, who had just returned from a trip outside, immediately ran in to help and then seeing that his fathers had the situation under control, lighted the lamp and got some milk to warm in a pot. Daisy, for her part, snuggled Marybeth back to sleep and then snuck out of her room to find that she wasn’t needed. Her eldest were well acquainted with night dreams and could handle Joe. Afterwards, finding they couldn’t sleep, Jess and Slim found their way to the porch.

“Dadgum,” Jess muttered as he lowered himself into his rocker, “that was a rough one to hear!”

“Yeah,” agreed Slim. He too sat down. “Jenkins must have been abusing those children for a long time.”

“Ya know Pard,” Jess spoke thoughtfully, “when Mike first came to us and we decided not to hit him if he needed punishment, It was one of the best decisions we ever made.”

Slim’s smile said it all as he looked at his Pard. “Do you remember when we had to explain about spanking and ended up tickling him?”

*He was sure ticklish,” Jess laughed, remembering the incident.

“Do you suppose Joe will have more bad dreams?” he asked as he looked up at the inky black sky. The moon was out and cast a glow over the hills above the ranch.

“Maybe, but you and I can take care of him and so can Mike, if need be.”

It was Jess who came up with the solution to the children’s clothes. Slim was so proud of him and told him so in the privacy of the barn. “How did you ever think of it? “ he asked.

“Well, Pard it’s like this,” Jess began, “remember when I went to bury Mike’s parents?”

“Yeah,” Slim nodded.

“Them Indians didn’t take the clothes they looked for the fancy things women wear. Well, Jenkins probably didn’t do anything with the children’s clothes after he killed their Ma and he certainly had no idea that he was going to jail so the house was probably wide open. I knew you’d agree with me that we didn’t want them anywhere near their house, so I just went in and got some of their clothes. I figured that the dress maker could make a dress and night shirt for Marybeth from the pattern and some of Joe’s shirts and a night shirt for him as well.”

Slim slid an arm across Jess’ shoulder. “Did anyone ever tell you that you were a very smart man?”

“Well as I recall, Andy did say something about that.” The two men grinned and went into the house for dinner.

That night, after dinner, Mike asked Jess for help bringing down his toy soldiers from the attic. He set up a battlefield and he and Joe proceeded to round up horses and fight imaginary battles in front of the fireplace. Daisy had Marybeth sorting thread and buttons for her and Jess and Slim found themselves just gazing at the peaceful homey scene in front of them. Eventually, they found themselves on the porch listening to the quiet laughter and love shared within the walls of their home.

The heat of the day was abating and there was rain in the air. “We better get to those fences tomorrow,  Slim,” Jess murmured as he rocked back and forth.

“Yeah,” Slim replied. He seemed distracted and kept looking around the yard.

“Something the matter?”

“No, why should there be!” Slim’s response was a bit too harsh.

Jess glanced at his friend/brother. “I dunno, you seem worried about something. Anything I should know about?”

Slim stood up and ran a hand behind his neck, a tell of his when he was worried. “Did you ever get the feeling that something was going to go wrong when everything was perfect?”

Jess looked up and stared into Slim’s eyes. “Ya mean like waiting for the other boot to fall?”

“Yeah, something like that. You see, I know this is temporary but everything is going real well now. They’re fitting in, Daisy is doing fine, Mike has become an older brother like almost too perfect.”

Jess rose too and faced Slim. The twin blues met and held. “ You’re probably just jumpy ‘cause it’s the end of the month and besides whatever happens, we’ll face it together like we always do.”

The days at the ranch started blending into one another. The children, who had been shy and quiet now were becoming Mike’s younger siblings and followed him everywhere, much to Jess’s amusement. Joe asked Mike constant questions about living on the ranch. Mike’s patience was wearing thin one day when a question Joe asked rattled him.

“Why don’t you call Slim and Jess, ‘Pa’?”  

Mike stopped folding his clothes and sat on the edge of his bed. “Slim and Jess aren’t related, you know so they don’t have the same last name. They both legally adopted me so I call them by their first names cause if I was to call ‘Pa’ meaning Slim and Jess answered, well there would be a lot of confusion.” Mike wasn’t sure where the question came from nor was he sure if he gave the right answer. He stared at Joe.

“Have you ever been hit by them?” Joe’s voice was soft but he looked scared nonetheless.

Mike shook his head. He’d been asked this question before and it never ceased to amaze him that people thought that his obedience was due to a stern upbringing. In truth, he hated to disappoint Slim or Jess. The most he ever got was a stern look or a warning shout. Mostly, he was either sent to his room or taken aside and given a talking to with a long explanation.

“I’ve never been hit,” he said honestly. “They never cuss in front of me. See, Slim had to be both Ma and Pa and older brother to Andy when their Ma died. Jess and Slim both learned a lot about growing up boys. They both love me and want me to be safe which is why you’re safe with them too.”

Joe nodded and then went out to play.  Mike went back to folding and putting away his clothes. He suddenly he heard a light knock on the door.

“Good talk you had with Joe,” Slim said, his smile soft.  “That boy’s been through a lot and he needs to know that not all men are like his Pa. Every time he makes a mistake, he won’t be hit, least wise I hope not. We’re proud of you, Mike, “ he added.

Slim was still waiting for the other boot to drop and when it finally did, he, of all of them, became the most distraught.

“Jess,” Daisy nudged his elbow while he helped dry the dishes one evening after supper. “ I have to go see Dr. Sam on Saturday. Could you drive me in the buck board?”

“Daisy!” he gasped, almost dropping the plate. “ Aren’t you feeling well?”

“I might as well tell you,” she shrugged, “I’ve been getting headaches a lot and sometimes I can’t make out the color of thread. I think I may need glasses.”

Jess sighed. “Well, that isn’t something to worry about, Daisy! Sam will get you fixed up right away,” he spoke so confidently that Daisy smiled.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple, as they came to find out.

“Cheyenne! Next week! “ Slim threw up his hands in frustration. First, some horses jumped the fence and ran away and they had spent two days rounding them up. Then Mike broke his leg falling off one of the railings, and the Superintendent of the stage line was due for a visit on Monday.

“Can we delay one week?”

“Slim, if I thought Sam would go for it, I’d ride in and ask him now, but he seemed to think that Daisy ‘s condition was getting worse. She needs glasses. We gotta help her!”

Slim shook his head in dismay. He knew that Daisy’s health was important and that after all the things she had done for the family, well they had to just bite the bullet and solve the problem. “You’d better start tomorrow,” he told Jess. “We’ll just have to manage.”

*****

Chapter 6

Two days after Jess and Daisy left,  the proverbial boot dropped and became the subject of Slim’s nightmares for years to come. He had just finished clearing off the breakfast dishes and settled Mike in a chair by the fire. Joe and Marybeth were making their beds. As he went out the door to get water to wash the dishes, he saw a strange buggy and a driver coming towards him. Alongside the buggy was Mort Cory.  Ordinarily, Slim would have been happy to see his oldest friend but the hairs on the back of his neck rose when the driver came closer, Judge Allen was in their yard.

‘This is not a social call,’ he thought as he buckled on his holster. Telling Mike to keep the children inside, he stepped out onto the porch. The judge was dressed all in black and looked totally menacing. Slim noticed that his oldest friend looked very uncomfortable. His hat was slammed down on his head and he was twisting the reins.

“Morning, Slim” Mort began one of the most heated conversations in Slim’s life. His voice was friendly enough but he looked like he was wearing a fence post down his back.

“Slim nodded curtly and addressed his attention to the judge. “What brings you out here on a sunny morning, Judge Allen?”

“The Jenkins children,” the tone was sharp.

“They are well and happy,” Slim started to say when he noticed the handcuffs hanging off of Mort’s saddle horn.

“Well, get them ready to go.”

“Go? Go where?” Slim was confused and more than apprehensive.

“I’m taking them to a real family, Mr. Sherman. A Mother and a Father . A father that does not have a bad reputation. This was only temporary;  you agreed to that when you took them in, did you not?” Judge Allen had relieved himself of his vest but he still looked menacing.

“Now wait a minute, Sir,” Slim began,” this isn’t right. You can’t just ride in and pluck those children out of our home with no explanation or warning. I just told you that they were happy and well cared for. As for Jess, my partner, he’s been a respected rancher for many years now. He’s served as Mort’s deputy many times. He’s a good man and they both are quite fond of him.”

“Be that as it may, Mr. Sherman, but if I had been the judge who handled that adoption you would have had to be married or have another partner. He’s not suitable to be a father for two children who have been abused.”

Slim’s blood began to boil over. His hands had formed into fists and he straightened his back against the insults being directed at his best friend. “Judge Allen, you’re wrong. Jess is a good man. He did have a reputation when he was younger and he was in a Yankee Prison at the end of the war and he was on the drift after his family got wiped out by the Banisters but because of all those things he knows how to steer young men away from things that can hurt them.  Together, we raised my younger brother who’s now a doctor and we’ve been raising Mike Williams with the same dedication. He is learning honesty kindness and hard work under both of us. Mrs. Daisy Cooper, our housekeeper, who’s more like our second Ma, provides our meals, cleans our ranch house and gives us all the tenderness of a Ma. Those children suffered from their father’s abuse and are recovering. You can’t just take them from us to give them to an unknown family. They are not a sack of potatoes!”

“Are you defying me, Mr. Sherman?” Judge Allen stood up in the wagon and looked from Slim to Mort.

“Yes, I am.” Slim shivered involuntary. He had never defied the law before.

 “You are not taking those children! “

“Sheriff, do your duty! Arrest this man!”

Slim sucked in his breath. “Whatever for?”

“You are in Contempt of Court, Sherman. You are defying a direct order from a Judge. Sheriff, I say again, do your duty!”

Mort stared at the judge and at Slim. It was times like these that he wished he was anything else but a lawman. “ Slim, do as he says. Release the children.“

“No!” Slim’s hand was straying dangerously close to his gun.

“Judge, I need a word with Mr. Sherman.” Mort dismounted and swung the reins over the hitching rail. “Let’s go in the house, a minute.” He gestured towards the front door.

“Sheriff, if you don’t bring out those children or Mr. Sherman in handcuffs, you’ll be joining him,” Judge Allen warned.

Mort followed Slim into the house and shut the door behind him. Mike, who had been reading near the fire, twisted around in his chair but said nothing. Sheriff Mort and his father faced each other. “Mort, you understand, don’t you?” Slim asked earnestly.

“Yes, I do but unfortunately there’s nothing I can do. You and Jess agreed to take the Jenkins children on a temporary basis and the judge can remove them at any time. If you get arrested, the judge could have you put in a tumbleweed wagon and driven to a federal prison for as long as he wants! And then what would become of Mike? He’s still under both your and Jess’s care. And you have to think of Daisy and the ranch. Please Slim see sense. There is nothing you can do.”

Slim began to pace. “Do you think you could get him to back down for a week or two? Jess should be back with Daisy by then.“

Mort shook his head. “What good would that do? Can you imagine how Jess will feel! What he’d do to the Judge?”

“I am thinking about how Jess will feel! Can you at least try?”

“I make no promises, “ Mort said as he walked out. There was no denying the Judge’s response. Someone in the next county could hear it.

“Slim,” Mort came back in holding out the handcuffs. “I’m sorry, but he wants you arrested.”

“No! You can’t hurt my Slim!” Marybeth sobbed hysterically clutching Slim’s leg. Joe was openly crying and holding onto Mike.

Mort stepped out if the house and there was quiet for a time. Gradually, Slim began to realize what would happen if he really was arrested. His first responsibility was Mike, followed by Jess, Daisy and the ranch and relay. While the judge’s decision was unreasonable, he could do nothing to stop it. He bent down and consoled Marybeth, tears streaming down his face.

“This isn’t what we wanted for you,” he told both of the children as he helped them pack. “We are glad you came to live with us and we’ll never forget you. Try very hard to stay together. We love you. Jess and Daisy would say the same if they were here. Be good and try to like the new family you’re going to live with. If the new family approves, we might be able to visit you.” 

There was so much he wanted to tell them but his heart was full and he kept seeing an angry Jess in his mind’s eye. Mike hugged them both and gave them the picture book he’d been teaching them their letters with.

Slim opened the door and helped the children onto the wagon. After one more hug, they settled down and the judge turned the wagon around. With a curt nod, he drove away leaving a stunned Slim Sherman and Mike Williams in his wake.

Meal times in the Sherman-Harper Ranch were usually happy affairs but that night neither Slim nor Mike could eat. Slim’s stomach was still aching in pent up rage over the unfairness of the whole situation and Mike was aching inside for his new friends and especially for Jess.

“Should we send a telegram to Jess and Daisy?” he asked Slim.

Slim, startled out of his deep thoughts, looked over at Mike. He shook his head. “”What’s he going to do, Mike?  He’s probably just settled Daisy and besides he can’t leave her. No, we’ll wait until they get back. It’ll only be a few days.”

“They both are going to feel really bad, Slim.”

Slim shook his head. “You were there Mike. You saw and heard that Judge. There was nothing else I could do. I couldn’t risk losing you.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t lose me, “ Mike tapped his father on his arm,” I’m right there in your heart, right next to Andy and Jess!”

Slim wordlessly pulled Mike into his arms and wept for the family they had and the one they had tried to make.

*****

Chapter 7

“Slim, what do you know about the Tomlinson’s?” Mike fretted as he pushed his eggs around his breakfast plate.

“About as much as you, “Slim replied as he too played with his food.

They both had no appetite. They both were worried but only one wanted revenge. As Slim slipped further into his own dark thoughts, Mike watched him from his seat at the table. “Where do they live?” he persisted.

“Mike!” Slim was getting more and more agitated and then suddenly was aware of his reaction to his son’s question.“ He looked up just in time to see the hurt expression flit across Mike’s face.

“Tiger,” Slim used Jess’s nickname for Mike, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. I just wish Jess was here. He’s going to be awfully mad to discover what happened and not being able to say goodbye to those children is going to hurt him.” 

He reached out and grabbed Mike around his shoulders. “I wish that they could have stayed forever! I miss then already.“

“I hope that their new family is good to them. They’ve been through a lot. They loved their Ma so much and were looking forward to a new baby brother or sister.“

“What Jenkins did was horrendous, Mike. It’s going to haunt Joe forever if he doesn’t get a lot of love and care and Marybeth is so very young and needs someone to hug her and tell her she is pretty. She needs reassurance that she is safe and that she is free to run and play and read. She is not responsible for cooking or cleaning. She’s just a little girl. They both need to know they are safe and their home is permanent.”

“You and Jess did that for me,“ Mike spoke so softly that Slim had to strain to hear him. ”You hugged me, taught me things, praised me. You showed me how to do things and told me how glad you were that I was here. When you asked me if I wanted to stay, I remember saying that I wanted to stay with you and Jess forever!  I will always love my Pa and Ma but you and Jess and Daisy made me part of your family. I may have been a stray but I will always be Jess’ “Tiger” and your son!”

Slim’s eyes were swimming with tears. Mike had a way about him that just tugged at his heart and right then, his was overflowing in love.

Mike turned serious again, mulling over the plight of his two young friends.

“Marybeth told me that when she dreams, all she sees is a rainbow of black and red. Her Ma used to say that rainbows were a sign of hope but until she and Joe came here there had been no hope.  I know you’ve both taught me not to wish ill on any man but Jenkins deserves to die for what he did!  Didn’t you read in the newspaper that the foster mother of that girl in New York got one year in prison?”

 Slim nodded, “Yeah, but you have to remember that jail is different for women.”

“Say, do you think the Tomlinson’s will let us visit Marybeth and Joe?”

“Probably, but not for a while. They need to settle in and get used to them first. We might confuse them.”

“Slim,” Mike asked hesitantly, “are you going to tell Jess what the Judge said about him, about how he was unfit?”

“No!” Slim declared. “For one thing, he’s heard that before and I don’t want him to get more depressed than ever. Secondly, there’s no telling what his reaction will be when I tell him what the judge demanded.”

The days passed and one day Slim received the telegram they’d been waiting for – Jess and Daisy would be home at the end of the week.  Slim grew more and more anxious at each passing day. Mike chose to draw a ‘Welcome Home’ banner and had Slim hang it up over the fireplace. He was slowly getting better and Dr. Sam had said he could take the cast off in two weeks.

As it happened, one of the worst days of Slim’s life began as soon as Jess and Daisy stepped off the stage.

“Where’s Joe? Where’s Marybeth? Are they hiding?”

Slim swallowed the huge lump in his throat and began to tell his best friend and his second Ma about the judge and his ruling. The initial reaction was one of shock followed by a bunch of questions from Daisy. While trying to answer her, Slim kept eyeing Jess, who was fingering his gun. Finally, saddened but resolute, Daisy entered the house and waited for her two eldest to join her. But that’s when Jess erupted.

“Why didn’t you tell him to wait! I could have ridden for home and we could have forced him to listen.” Jess fumed.

“Jess, you’re not listening. He threatened me with jail time. What would have become of Mike? He could have taken Mike away from us!”

“That wouldn’t have happened! We are his legal guardians! Are you sure you did everything you could do?”

“Short of going to jail or shooting him!”

“We could have found a way” He moaned.

Slim took a chance and walked closer to Jess. He could feel the anger coming off him in waves.

“Wait, this was the perfect answer! You never wanted to do this in the first place. I bet you went and found that family.” Jess turned suddenly, rage clouding his vision.

Slim saw red. He pushed Jess out towards the barn. “Now you listen to me,” he began, “You’re wrong, Jess. About as wrong as one can be!” Slim ‘s voice took on a menacing tone and Jess instinctively backed away from his friend. The air was thick with tension. He remembered that Slim’s long arms could reach him faster than he could move and right now, being in the highly charged state they both were in, the situation would be out of control within minutes.

“Jess, listen to me.” Slim tried again. “I was trying to keep them here. I wanted them to live here permanently. I knew it would be hard but you and I raised up Andy and we’re raising up Mike. I was just trying to figure out a way…” his voice trailed off.

“I’m through arguing with ya,” Jess yelled from a safer distance. “You aren’t listening to a word I’ve said!” Suddenly he knew what his only option was. He had fought the feeling for a while now, but he knew that this was the last thing he could do. Acting on pure determination, he strode away from Slim into the house. He narrowly avoided slamming into Daisy who was watching from the window. He walked into the shared bedroom, emerged a few minutes later with a hastily made bed roll and withdrew his gun fighting weapon from the Sherman Harper safe. “Ain’t your fault, Daisy.” His words, spoken in haste, wavered in the still air. They offered no comfort and worst of all no hope.

A shocked Slim watched his Pard saddle his horse. There were no words left. He had to try, though. Somehow, somewhere there had to be a way to get through the thick skull. “Jess,” he began.

“Don’t try and stop me,” growled Jess as he yanked the cinch a bit too tightly . “I’m through. Put my money in the account for Mike.” He mounted Traveler, “Oh, and give those stakes to someone else;  this ain’t home to me anymore.”

*****

Chapter 8

Two long weeks had passed since Jess had ridden away. At first, Slim was convinced that Jess would come back but as the minutes turned to hours and days slipped by, his grasp on the hope dwindled. Mike had taken to watching the yard much as Andy had done before him. He was used to Jess or Slim leaving to take care of ranch business or even serving as Sheriff Mort’s deputies but it had been a long time since Jess had ridden away in anger.

Mike’s eyes scanned the horizon once again and sighing loudly, shuffled towards the kitchen. Daisy wiped her floured hands on her apron and looked at her youngest. “Mike,” she spoke gently, “have you ever heard the saying “time heals all wounds?”

Mike shook his head. He was pretty sure that the saying came from Poor Richard’s Almanac. “What’s it mean?” He asked morosely.

Daisy smiled, “it means that sooner or later things resolve themselves. In our case, Jess has to come to understand that a compromise has to be reached. He knows this is his home and we’re his family and we all miss him and love him. He has to realize that Slim was only following the judge’s request. He just needs something or someone to push him in our direction.”

Slim, who had been listening at the door, smiled slightly. ‘She sounds just like Jonesy’, he thought thinking of his old friend. Jonesy had gone to St. Louis with his younger brother and had kept him safe all those years ago. Although he had died several years ago now, Slim and Jess never forgot him. ‘Jonesy and Daisy would have liked each other,’ he thought.  He shook his head, trying to clear it. He sometimes felt as though pieces of his heart had broken apart and if he stepped the wrong way, they would scatter all over the floor.

He stepped into the house just as Mike asked a poignant question. “Daisy, what color is hope?”

“My Mother used to say that green was the color of hope, Mike. The color of harmony and health. Green is a generous, relaxing color that wakes up our body and mind. It balances how we feel and leaves us feeling safe and secure. It also gives us hope, with promises of growth and riches and it provides a little bit of luck to help us along the way. Yes,” she spoke positively, “green is the color we need.”

Mike looked up as Slim entered the house. “Slim, did you know that green is the color of hope?”

Slim shook his head and wearily sat down on the chair by the fire. “What are you getting at, Mike?” he asked as he stretched out his long legs.

Mike sat down on the well-worn rug and looked up at his father. “Slim,” he started hesitantly, “has Jess ever described the fire dream to you?”

Slim nodded slowly. “After about the fourth or fifth dream he did. He told me about how he couldn’t save his brothers and sisters and his Ma. He has blamed himself ever since that he lived and they didn’t.”

“When he heard Marybeth scream that day, he saw the fire of his dream again, didn’t he?”

Slim nodded, his elbows were on his knees now. “More than anything, he wanted to give Marybeth and Joe a home where they would be safe from dreams and whips and drunks.”

“But our home was only for a short time, wasn’t it?”

“Judge Allen wanted Sheriff Mort to find a home with a mother and a father for the children. While he looked, they were to remain on our ranch.”

“Is that why Jess was so angry, that they couldn’t stay forever?”

Slim slowly nodded. He lowered his head into his hands to hide the tears streaming down his face. His voice was muffled. “He wouldn’t listen to me. He thought it was my idea. That’s why he rode away.”

“Slim, can you feel him right now?”

Slim shook his head. The invisible thread that bound them together was still there but he took no comfort in it. He hadn’t felt Jess in ages and at the rate he was going he doubted that he would again. Added to that, no one had seen him.  ‘He must be avoiding towns,’ he thought. Mort had sent out telegrams -missing, not wanted posters, but no one responded.

“Maybe when you say your prayers at night, you could show him hope.”

Slim smiled in spite of himself. “That’s a good idea, Mike. Hey,” he said suddenly, “there’s no green in fires.”

He’d had a restless night and when Daisy came to wake him, he was tempted to pull the pillow over his head and shoo her out the door. But duty called and ranch chores didn’t do themselves so he got up and ready for the day. Daisy looked up at him when he entered the room.

“Bad night?” She asked gently.

Slim nodded. “I kept seeing Jess. He’s in trouble, Daisy. Not just in body but he keeps reaching out to me, to us. I have no idea how to help him.”

“Are you still telling him about hope?” Mike asked as he reached out his hand towards his father. “As long as you can feel him, that’s a good thing.”

Slim smiled at him. Their eternal optimist smiled again. Things were going to get better. They just had to.

*****

Chapter 9

For two weeks Jess rode with no direction in mind. He just wanted to get as far away from Slim and the ranch as possible. He pushed his memories down deep during the day, but the memories of porch talks, telling bedtime stories to Mike and sampling Daisy’s pies kept him company at night. He thought of riding to Canada but he remembered going to Canada with Gil all those years ago and the thought was given a quick boot down the nearest hill he came across.

California was another lure. For years he had toyed with the idea. He never even came close to getting there. There was nothing left for him in Texas. He could ride to Boston and surprise Andy. The big open was waiting and all he had to do was pick the direction. He knew he wasn’t being followed. He’d just about severed the connection he had with Slim. Sometimes, he regretted the words he spoke. And although he was still mad over the way Slim had broken their vow to protect those children, he still hoped that his family was all right.

On a day with bright sunshine, he found an answer in the way of a wagon train headed to California. He met them by accident as they were crossing a river somewhere in Utah. The fifty or so wagons were led by a seasoned stout fellow by the name of Tom Bradford. His able-bodied assistant was Chris who had been a farmer himself and initially rode in a wagon train as a lad. Chris was near Slim’s age and was quiet and thoughtful. Jess thought in another life the two might be friends as they were so alike. Jonathan was trained as a doctor which was downright helpful on this train as he knew everything from babies to wagon wheels. The only position that was lacking was that of a scout.

Jess waited patiently by the edge of the stream until all the wagons, horses and cattle were across. Bradford offered him a coffee while the folks rested from their harrowing ordeal and they got to talking about horses. By the end of the conversation, Jess had a new job and a destination. At least for now, he had no complaints.

The route they were taking was full of danger from wild animals and just a few meandering Indians. Jess knew that there were probably trails that would require clearing of downed trees and in some cases, roads that had washed away in floods. Armed with grub and extra ammunition and two canteens, he set out to scout the trails . He enjoyed the work, the people and being in the open again. He was pretty much his own boss. Rarely did he think about what the good folks from his old family were doing. But all that changed when one day, while enjoying the view, he was shot by an unseen assailant.

Awareness came slowly. He was lying face down in the grass. His shoulder ached and when he lifted his head, the world spun. ‘Slim is gonna kill me,’ he thought to himself. He opened his eyes slowly and looked around. Traveler was standing by his side looking none the worse for wear. He decided to turn over. Bad, very bad mistake. His shoulder wound stretched and he winced in pain. “Slim,” he cried out, “help me!”

The second time he woke it was dark and cold.  ‘How long have I been here?’ he wondered. He remembered riding, following a trail, scouting. ‘Wait, what was I looking for? Slim would know,’ his thoughts were jumbled. ‘Dadgumit!’ He had to think about Slim. Of course, he wasn’t there. He was miles away from Laramie. Miles away from the place he used to call home. Miles from Mike. His wrist ached and as he rubbed his brotherhood scar, tears were forming in his eyes.

He heard it first. The crackling of thirsty flames of color burst into his mind. The long fingers of despair and death reached towards him. The high-pitched screams of his brothers and the little ones echoed all around him. He ran but he was surrounded by blacks and reds, yellows and oranges. He couldn’t breathe. He was gonna die. When he opened his eyes, finally catching his breath, he saw a mass of color and soot and pain. The blackened land was a burned-out shell with nothing but rubble and ash. But then he saw Slim standing in the midst of fire and destruction holding out the tiniest green plant. “Hope isn’t in the fire, Jess. Hope and love are home.” He fell apart.

He was so dry. His skin felt like it shriveled from his bones and his body craved water. The noon day sun beat down on him. He tried to wet his lips but even his tongue was dry. For the first time he felt that he was gonna die. Dadgumit, he would never get to say goodbye to Slim. At least he would die on the prairie and not on a no nothing street in a town no one had ever heard about. “I’m sorry, Slim. You were right.”

He felt something drag across his hot, aching skin. The hand was gentle and the water was so very welcome. He was lying on a bed and he slowly opened his eyes. He stared up at the ribbed wooden hoops of a Conestoga wagon. ‘Huh?’

“Why, hello,” the voice spoke softly beside him. “Glad to see you’re awake.”

Jess blinked and stared at the familiar dark-haired man.

“Caleb?” he croaked. Caleb Johnson, the Pennsylvania’s store keeper who was seeking a life of adventure in California, stared back at him. 

“You’re in my wagon, Jess. We found you lying on the trail, well actually we found your horse first. We were waiting for you to come back and when you didn’t, we figured you had died or something happened to you. Doc got the bullet out and patched you up. You had a couple of nightmares in your fevered state but now you look like you might be on the way back from the brink.” He paused long enough to bring a canteen of water to Jess’ lips.

“Did I say anything interesting?”

Caleb grinned. “Nope, no interesting tales about the ladies but you seemed awfully concerned about a fella named Slim. You kept calling his name. Friend of yours?”

Jess shook his head slowly. “Used to be my friend, not anymore.”

“Well, tell that to your heart, Jess.” Caleb said softly as he rose from the bed. ” You sure are aching something fierce to see him again.”

Two more weeks passed and Jess was back at work. The wagon master allowed him to ride only as far as they could see him. The kindness shown him was unusual and he was grateful. He had been a lonely man before, plagued with memories of Laramie and Slim, but as he pushed the memories down deep during the day, he began to feel better. The problem was nighttime. Memories of serving as Mort’s deputy, riding fence or working with Slim herding cattle, long evenings in front of a cozy fire playing checkers with Andy, telling bedtime stories to a young Mike, greeting passengers off the stage and the ever-loving presence of Daisy kept him company during the long, restless nights. He debated with himself. Should he return to Laramie and make amends and then ride away for good?  Should he go back? Had Slim hired a new hand? He wondered how the Jenkins kids were doing. The trial must have been held by now.

*****

Chapter 10

The day the wagon train finally reached the California border, he was sorely tempted to ride further into the territory but he turned Traveler away. He had places to go and things to do. The scouting job was over. He could drift away now. The only problem was that the big open wasn’t the same anymore. It was full of dusty towns, crooked gamblers, loose women and no hope. The wagon master, Tom Bradford, was heading back to Missouri. He caught up with Jess in the hotel. Thanks to his abilities and his fast gun, they all had made it safely to the land of gold. He shared a meal with him at one of the diners.

“Jess, Chris and Jonathan are heading back to Missouri with me in a couple of days. We’re going to go by the Overland Trail and pass-through Utah and Wyoming. We need to reach our home base before the snow comes. Would you like to join us? You don’t have to decide whether or not to scout again for us until the spring and we’d be glad for your company. “

Jess thought about the offer. He needed a place to hang his hat during the winter and if he was careful, he had enough money to do that. The idea of sharing meals alongside the men he now considered friends was tempting. He could ride over to Laramie, see the people at the ranch and ride away towards his new life. Yes, that’s what he decided to do. He didn’t know them very well but the trip back would solve that. He smiled at Tom, shook his hand and the deal was made.

Tom Bradford thoughtfully walked up the hotel stairs. It was strange how things came together. His team of now four were as different as night and day. He was the oldest and more seasoned than the rest of them. He had been a wagon train master for some 10 years now and while the trails all looked the same and the stories the pioneers told were similar, he still reveled in the nuances each day brought him. Chris, his able assistant, was a dreamer who shared and consoled the passengers on their trek. They made a good team. Jonathan was a doctor by trade but in truth he could tackle just about everything from wagon wheels to babies and everything in between. Then there was Jess. The newest member of the group kept mostly to himself. They had learned about his life in the war and his life in the big open but it wasn’t until he had been bush- wacked, that they learned about his life as a rancher.

As they rode along the now familiar trail, Jess enjoyed the companionship of the men he rode with. It was welcome and safe. They swapped tall tales of bravery against impossible odds and told of harrowing incidents with Indians, renegades and the weather. Jess mostly kept to himself. Even though he had agreed to go to Missouri and think about scouting again, he was torn. He knew that they would probably hit the fort first and then he could easily ride towards Laramie, say his goodbyes and catch up with Tom and the rest of them. Some days he decided to just ride on but a tall, lanky blond-haired man beckoned to him in his dreams and he couldn’t deny his feelings any more.

It was autumn now and the pleasant breezes were turning into harsher ones. He needed to get back to his former home soon before winter set in. He reckoned that he’d stay long enough to eat a meal or two, share some stories, hear all the gossip, shake Slim’s hand, ruffle Mike’s hair and kiss Daisy before he rode away. He could catch up with Bradford easily enough.

The dream assaulted him fiercely the first night they reached the Utah border. They were closer to Wyoming and Slim now and Jess was still debating whether or not to go to the ranch. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see the family he left behind so much, it was that he knew he couldn’t stay. Was it fair to Mike to burst into his world after so many months away, get his hopes up that he would stay and then leave again in the spring, perhaps for good?  For that matter, was it fair to anyone? He would like to find out about the Jenkins children and reconnect with Mort. He would hear Slim’s “all is forgiven and forgotten” speech and then feel guilty and feel pressured to stay. No, it was better for everyone if he just stayed on with the wagon train. He was good at scouting and he enjoyed the companionship of the men he rode with. They weren’t family but he had tried to forget the notion that he, Jess Harper, deserved a family.

It had rained during the day and Jess was cold and uncomfortable. He huddled into his blankets and pulled his hat down around his ears. As he stared into the fire, he remembered watching flames lick the popcorn that Mike was making a long time ago. The young boy was laughing at a joke Slim had told and all at once the peaceful family love feelings surrounded him and he leapt from his rocker and bolted out the door to the safety of the barn. Slim had followed him a bit later and as they often did, sat and talked about family-friendly things until Jess could calm down enough to share his feelings. He remembered how gentle and loving Slim had been. In all his life he had never met anyone who knew his heart like Slim. Jess shook his head to clear the memories and willed for sleep.

The colors of his nightmare rose and heated his body. Red, orange and yellow flames teased his every step, taunting him, challenging him and in the midst of his agony, he saw Slim crying. He tried to get closer and in desperation he flung himself into the pit of color as he heard Slim cry out, “I need you! I can’t do this anymore!”

He woke suddenly, gun in hand before he was upright. ‘What had happened? Where was he?’ He wondered if he had called out or something but his companions didn’t stir and he lay back in his blankets. He was cold. The fire was dying and he rose to feed the flames. He shivered and thought about Jonesy’s medicinal whiskey. As he lay down, he heard the telltale wheezing in his chest. ‘All I need is rest and some good food and I’ll be fine,’ he thought to himself. “I am not going near that ranch so I don’t have to worry about Daisy fussing over me.’ But the dream haunted him. ‘Why was this decision so difficult?’ He felt his wrist throb and he knew somehow that Slim needed him. He remembered what Caleb said when he woke up in his wagon. “you are aching something fierce to see him again.”

*****

Chapter 11

The initial plan was to ride to Fort Laramie and on through to Cheyenne and then back on the trail to Nebraska. Tom would later wonder why they felt the need to ride through Wyoming but at the time he gave into the whim of it all. It was relaxing to just pick a destination and ride towards it without having to worry about passengers and wagon wheels and renegades. As it happened, life got in the way. They no sooner got close to the fort when they realized that they had a very sick Jess Harper on their hands.

“What are we looking at, Jon?” Tom looked down at their dark-haired scout.

“My educated guess is lung fever. He’s been hiding his symptoms from us but the fever and the wheezing and the coughing caught up with him. I really don’t have the medicine to help him. If we can get him to the fort, I’m sure there is a doctor there who can help him.”

“What are his chances?”

“Oh, he’ll recover alright with proper rest and food and medicine. About all I can do for him now is to try and get the fever down and I do have some laudanum to give him so he won’t have those dreams that keep waking him up.”

“How soon to the fort, Chris?”

“Another day or so,” Chris answered as he handed Jonathan another cold cloth.

“We’ll camp here for the night and then ride to the fort. I’ll put him on my horse and we’ll ride double. Don’t let loose of his horse, boys. He’s mighty fond of him.”  

The decision was made and the men set to work to set up camp for the night.  Jess tossed and turned wheezed and coughed through their hushed conversation but never voiced his opinion of their plan. He was lost in a fever dream and was being pulled towards the ranch he used to call home.

The doctor at the fort was very helpful but his supplies were limited. He had willow bark tea and of course laudanum but suggested that they ride towards Laramie.

“Why Laramie?” the men asked.

“Jess comes from there. Dr. Sam has treated him before for this illness and he can get better treatment. He also has family there.”

“You seem to know him very well,” observed Chris.

The doctor smiled slightly and took a swig of his coffee before replying. “He’s a good man. The horses he and his partner supply our troops with are worth every penny they charge. That young man has seen it all. He was in the war, got wounded, captured and found his way to Slim’s ranch. The way Slim tells it, he booted Jess off his ranch for trespassing the first time they met but by the end of the day had hired him. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him here for a while. Where’s he been hiding?”

“He’s been scouting for our wagon train,” Tom spoke softly. They had just found some missing pieces of their new friend’s life.” An idea started growing and he looked at his men. “Where’s this ranch, you spoke of?”

“Just outside of town, maybe twelve miles or so. It’s the Sherman Harper ranch. They raise cattle and horses and have a stage stop. If you go there, be sure to have a meal. Their housekeeper, well, the way they tell it, their second Ma, makes the best damn apple pie! Oh, and then there’s Mike, I think that’s his name. They’ve been raising him up, all legally of course for nigh on five years or so. His parents were killed by Indians and they adopted him. That family is really close.”

The doctor stood and then said he had to get back to his patient. Tom looked at Chris and Jonathan. “What do you think, boys? Press on to Laramie?”

*****

Chapter 12

Jess woke slowly. He played possum until he could figure out where he was. He was lying on a bed not the ground he was used to. His chest felt heavy and his skin was clammy like he had a fever. At least his throat, while dry, wasn’t sore anymore. ‘Where’s Tom and the rest of the guys?’ he wondered. He opened his eyes slowly and took stock.

He was in a recovery room of a doctor’s office, at least that’s what it looked like. There was a wash basin on the table near his bed with a stack of cloths near it. One of those newfangled stethoscopes was hanging by a nail near the door. A row of little bottles of medicine stood proudly near the basin. ‘How long have I been here?’ he wondered. He heard the door knob turn and the door swung open.

“Ah, you’re awake. How do you feel?”

‘If he hadn’t been lying down, he would have fainted and fallen on the floor.’ he thought.

“Where did you come from?” he croaked as he stared at Doctor Sam.

Doctor Samuel Ford, otherwise known by Laramie’s citizens as Dr. Sam, chuckled as he gazed at his patient. “You’ve been my guest for about a week Jess and you’re just now realizing it?”

Jess stared at his former doctor and friend. “How did I get here?”

“Your friends from the wagon train brought you into town on the stage. They apparently were at the fort but the doctor there told them I was the better choice to help you.”

“Where are they now?”

“They decided to stay at the hotel until I told them you were on the mend. They figured that once healed, you would join them. Glad you have good friends, Jess,” Doctor Sam said as he reached for his stethoscope.

He listened to Jess’ lungs and then hung the instrument around his neck. “Want to try sitting up?”

Jess nodded and Sam pulled Jess into a sitting position with several pillows behind him.

“Does anyone know I’m here?” Jess asked gruffly.

“If you mean Slim, the answer is ‘no’,” Sam replied, “although Sheriff Cory knows you’re here.”

Jess looked up sharply, his eyebrows knit together in a straight line. “How?”

His question hit Sam like a bullet.

Sam flinched. ” He happened to see three men carrying a body into my office. He needed to know who the man was and how badly was he hurt and who they were. Mr. Bradford explained the situation to him and Mort asked me to let him see you when you were better. Want to try and eat something?”

Jess nodded and Sam handed him some newspapers as he left. “Might as well catch up on what’s been going on while you were gone,” he murmured as he turned away. Jess opened the newspaper and read the front-page news about the Jenkins trial. The chief witnesses were Slim and Lon and Charlie. The judge had questioned the children away from the courtroom. The culprit was sentenced to ten years hard labor and then he was to be put in solitary confinement until he was to be hung. Judge Allen and the jury wanted him to suffer for the child abuse of his children before they hung him for the knifing of his wife and baby.

The second article was about the Tomlinson’s adopting Joe and Marybeth. Jess read about how Slim and his family had been originally chosen to take care of the children but when the Tomlinson’s stepped up and offered their home, the judge reversed his decision and ordered the children removed from the Sherman Harper ranch and placed temporarily in the care of the Tomlinson family.

Jess put down the paper with a sigh. He started to tremble. The newspaper slid out of his grasp and fluttered to the floor. He had been wrong. He had ridden away for nothing. Slim hadn’t betrayed him or made a decision without him. He had to give the children to the judge. How could he ever face Slim again? The answer of course was that he couldn’t.

“So, you want me to tell Mort he can see you tomorrow?” Doctor Sam asked Jess as he handed him a bowl of chicken broth.

Jess stared out the window, seeing nothing and everything. He shook his head. “I don’t rightly want to see anyone,” he growled. He felt hemmed in somehow, as though Mort would force him into staying or saying something. He pinched the bridge between his eyes, willing himself not to cry. He had been wrong. He had ridden away for nothing. Slim hadn’t given the Jenkins children away. Judge Allen had taken them away. All those months away thinking his friend and brother had made a selfish decision and he hadn’t. He couldn’t face Slim or Daisy or Mort now. As soon as he was able, he was riding out of town.

*****

Chapter 13

‘It felt good to stand up and walk again’ thought Jess as he cautiously walked slowly around his sick room. The buffalo that had been sitting on his chest had gone off to graze greener pastures and Jess finally had his taste buds back. He had been well enough to have visitors too. Tom, Chris and Jon had come by several days ago and Jess had said goodbye. He wanted them to get to Missouri before the snow flew and it wasn’t fair for them to wait any longer on his account. He told them about his plan on catching up to them in the future and they shook his hand, bade him a speedy recovery and said they would hold the position open for him.

Mort Cory had come for a short visit also. He was glad to see his old friend but still conflicted about Slim.  Mort didn’t push him only told him about the trial and the children. He seemed reluctant to talk about the residents at the ranch. When it was time to leave, Mort stood up and fiddled with his hat.

“Son, I’m not going to say a great deal about the family you left behind. I don’t know what the argument was all about, although I think it had something to do with the children. You have to realize that Slim had no choice. He faced contempt of court and I would have had to put him in jail if he didn’t give the children to the judge. The Tomlinson’s have, so far, provided a good home for Marybeth and Joe. All I know is that the family is surviving one step at a time. Mike helps as much as he can. He took a year off from school, you know. Daisy is getting on in years and is not as spry as she once was, although she says she sees better with her new specs.  Slim had to hire someone to help him. But the man is not a friend; he’s a ranch hand and sleeps in the bunk house. He calls him ‘boss’.  Slim doesn’t talk much about you but from what I can see, he’s suffering just as much as you are.”

Jess looked up sharply, his eyebrows tilted in an absurd angle. “Whatcha mean?” he asked sharply.

“He told me that he thinks about you all the time and hopes you’re alright. He wishes he knew where you were so he could apologize. He didn’t handle telling you about the children well and said some things he shouldn’t have.”

“Mike told me, on one of his sleepovers, that Slim wasn’t eating, had night dreams and kept vigil at the corral gate looking over the horizon watching for you. Every week or so, he goes to the telegraph office to see if you sent word about where you were and when you were coming home. Mike said that he had heard Daisy crying in the night.  The family you left behind loves and needs you. And that, my friend, is why I think you two need to iron out your differences! If after you talk and you find that what he says is not what you need or want, you can shake his hand with a clear conscience and ride away.”  

Mort’s sigh traveled from his boots to his mouth. “If you decide to break that bond of yours, it will be a sorry day for both of you.” He shook Jess’ hand and left a very stunned man in his wake.

*****

Chapter 14

Mort Cory was an honest, hard-working sheriff whose goals sided always with the law of the land. He’d taken an oath to protect the citizens under his care and if he had to bend the circumstances a bit to help people he would do so, no questions asked. His co- conspirator, Doctor Sam cared for the citizens health and that was all. He mostly let the law handle whatever else was needed in town. They made an unusual pair that morning but the goal, if achieved, was worth it. They were determined to bring two men together. The fact that these two men, Slim Sherman and Jess Harper, were their friends, meant so much to them. The clock was ticking and there wasn’t much time left before Jess rode away.

“When do you think we should do this?” asked Sam. He tipped his coffee cup up and took a long gulp.

“As soon as possible,” replied Mort. “Jess is apt to just pick up and ride on out so the sooner the better.”

“Then how about tomorrow?” Sam’s eyes were fixed on the sheriff he called friend.

“Does Carrie mind helping?”

Sam chuckled. Carrie, his only daughter, had set her 13 year old sights on the dark-haired rancher the first time he’d been carried wounded into his office. Now, at the brink of womanhood, she still had tender, loving feelings for the rancher. She knew, in her heart of hearts, that he was too old for her and scarcely recognized her feelings for him, but he had on occasion, been nice to her and Sam knew that he never would take advantage of her. “She would do anything for Jess” he told Mort. “She’s had a crush on him since he first came to Laramie.”

“Then it’s settled. You get Jess out of town by 10:00 and I’ll get Slim by lunchtime, right after the noon stage.  Be sure Carrie holds those reins tight. Both of those men are fond of their horses.”

Jess was feeling right fine the next morning and was up and dressed when Sam came to wake him. “Oh good, I’m glad you’re awake,” he said. “How about a fishing trip today? You need some fresh air.”

Jess mulled over the idea. He hadn’t gone fishing in a coon’s age and it would be a long while until he had the opportunity to do so again. He nodded eagerly and Sam told him they would set out in his buggy around nine. At precisely nine, Sam knocked and found Jess all ready to go. Sam was so excited; he almost let Jess in on the reason for this trip but steeled himself into solitude. Consequently, the conversation was limited but for once Jess didn’t mind. It was a nice day and he sat on the buggy seat and appreciated the scenery. He was so engrossed in lost memories that he failed to recognize the trail to the lake.

“We’re here!” Sam’s voice broke into Jess’ mind.

Jess looked around. “Sam, are you aware that we’re on Slim’s property?”

Sam nodded and laid a gentle hand on Jess’ arm. “Didn’t you once tell me that the best fish were swimming in this lake?”

“Yeah, but we’re still on his property.”

“Don’t worry, you’re with me.” Sam helped Jess down and Jess immediately was drawn to an old dead log. “It was here,” he muttered.

“What was?” Sam knew already but he wanted Jess to start remembering good thoughts about Slim and the ranch.

“I met Slim right here.”

Sam stood by Jess for awhile and then suggested that he sit for a bit while he cut some branches for fishing poles. He needed to stall for time and the idea was as good as any. Jess sat against the log. His hat shielded his eyes which were filling with tears. ‘How can I even think of leaving all this behind?’ he wondered.

*****

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Slim was in the corral getting the horses ready for the next run, when he saw Mort riding in. For the brief moment he thought that Mort had news of Jess. But it had been too long and it was becoming clearer as every empty day passed that he might never see his friend again. Mike, who had been perched on the corral railing, jumped off and ran over to his godfather.  “Hi, Sheriff Mort! Would you like some coffee?”

“That would be good, Mike,” he said and then gestured to Slim. “When you get through, I have some news for you all.”

Slim, thinking for sure now that the news was about Jess, raced through his chore in record time. He shook off the dust of the yard and washed his hands before he entered the house. “So anyway, I thought you should know,” Mort was saying when Slim walked in.

“What should we know, Mort?” His heart made a queer jump inside his chest. It wasn’t about Jess.

“I was just telling Daisy and young Mike here, that there were robbers in the area and to keep a look out. Oh,” he said as an afterthought, ” Slim, you might just like to take a look over at that lake of yours. I thought I saw someone near it earlier.”

“There’s a sign,” Slim spoke softly remembering Jess tying off Traveler to that very sign so many years ago.

“Well, we all know that robbers don’t read,” Mort acknowledged. “Say, would you like to go with me to see if someone is taking a sip from your private stream? We could check it out and come back for lunch.” He grinned at Daisy. It was a well-known fact that Mort could smell one of Daisy’s pies a mile away.

“Please be careful,” Daisy implored Slim. She personally felt that the family was teetering on the edge of despair. Slim was not sleeping well. He was up at all hours. Mike was surely getting a stiff neck with all his watching the road through the curtained front window. She wept at night for the children the Tomlinson ‘s took as well as for the sons of her heart.

“I’ll be careful,” Slim assured Daisy. He reached for his rifle that was hidden near his desk and after hugging Daisy and Mike followed Mort out of his house. They rode side by side in silence. As Slim remembered finding Jess at his lake and then finding his friendship, Mort watched him, hoping that the scheme would work.

Presently they came across a saddled horse with an unknown brand grazing near an outcrop. Slim got down from his horse and examined the unfamiliar one. The saddle was dusty and the reins were tied much like Jess did with Traveler thought Slim but he shook his head against the memories. Whoever this stranger was, he was still trespassing. He proceeded carefully and as quietly as possible. It was easy to see that the man was asleep. He had a well-worn blanket wrapped around his frail body and compassion knocked on Slim’s heart. ‘He’s sick and tired.’

As he stepped closer, he accidentally stepped on a twig and it broke beneath his boot. 

“Who’s there?” An upright man, gun held in a shaky hand startled Slim as he stared in disbelief at his long-lost friend.

“It’s me, Jess. It’s Slim.”

*****

Chapter 15

The two men were silent, each taking stock of the other. Slim had a well prepared speech tucked up in his brain but the words escaped him as he looked at the pale man in front of him. He holstered his gun, hoping for the right words to convey the very strong emotions surging through his body.

“What are you doing here?” he finally asked.

“Taking in the view,” answered Jess.

“Mind if I sit?”

“It’s your land,” Jess spoke in a voice filled with pain and regret.

“It’s our land, Jess,” Slim replied, unwilling to forget the forged bond between them.

“Well now,” Jess’ tone,  sardonic now, ” thought you had given those stakes away by now, maybe to your new ranch hand.”

‘There he goes again,’ thought Slim. ‘Tearing himself up again, taking all the blame. Well, this time, maybe for the last time, he wasn’t going to let him. “How could I? You’re part of the family we built together, Jess,” he reminded him gently. ” There’s an invisible thread that connects us whether we’re together or apart.”

“Easy for you to say,” Jess began to pick away at the tiny thread on the blanket in his lap.

Slim pushed his hat up off his forehead. This conversation was getting them nowhere. “Jess, I was wrong, so very wrong. Can you listen to me now? If you don’t agree, at least let’s shake hands and we’ll both walk away with clear consciences.”

‘Where had he heard that before?’ Jess wondered. He glanced at Slim’s honest open face. He nodded. It wouldn’t hurt to listen.

Slim settled in the grass and looked around at the lake before he began to speak. He hoped that when he was done, Jess at least would understand what had driven him to say the things he had said so many months ago.

“When you were in Cheyenne with Daisy, Mort rode in with a stranger driving a buck board. I had no idea who he was so I instructed Mike to stay with Marybeth and Joe in the house. It turned out to be Judge Allen who demanded that I turn over the children to him. He said that since our home had been a temporary solution to a problem, he could change it around and again demanded that I pack up their things and get them in the wagon. He wasn’t very nice about it. When I refused, saying that it wasn’t in their best interest, that they were just settling in, had become less scared and had suffered no more nightmares, well, he said it didn’t matter.” Slim paused, this was difficult to repeat. “He said that there was a family in Laramie who had stepped up and requested the children. They could provide them with a mother and a father and no undue influences. Well, I tried to fight back. I said that we were raising up Mike just fine and the judge said that if he had handled the case, Mike would have gone to a family with a mother and father not two fathers, one of whom was an ex gun fighter!  And then he threatened me with contempt of court with jail time if I still refused. What could do? What would happen to Mike if I was in jail? So, I reluctantly packed up the children and they rode away. When you came back, you were so angry with me. I don’t blame you. I was pretty angry at myself too. I didn’t think I fought hard enough. I didn’t explain enough for you to understand. When you rode away, I thought it was just for a day or two but then when I discovered your gun gone, I just about lost it.”

Jess was stunned. He realized that he hadn’t done enough to understand his friend all those months ago. He had ridden away in haste because of a fool hardy notion that Slim had betrayed the trust and the decision they had made for the children under their care. The wounds the children had suffered were going to be forever etched on their skins but hopefully, with tender loving care, they would learn to trust again. They had each other to get through it all and he had felt that he and Slim,  Daisy and of course, Mike could give them a stable and loving home.

He had been furious with Slim and now was sorry he hadn’t trusted him  enough to find a solution to their shared problem. He hadn’t given any thought as to how Daisy and Mike felt either. They had all bonded with the Jenkins children and they all could have come up with a plan to keep them or at least how to comfort each other. He had forgotten that together they could solve most anything. That together they made each other stronger. In their shared sorrow, they would have taken comfort from the fact that even in the brief time the two children had been at the ranch, they had known love and protection.

“I’m sorry too, Slim. I didn’t take the time to listen and I regret that. I guess I’ll ride on.” Jess stood up on wobbly legs.

“You don’t have to do that,” Slim blurted standing up and facing Jess. ” I happen to know that there’s a perfectly good job about twelve miles from town if you’re interested.”

“Yeah?” ‘What is he thinking on now’ wondered Jess.

“Yeah, it’s on a ranch not far from here, as a matter of fact.”

“What would I be doing?” Jess countered looking warily over at Slim.

” Well, let’s see.” Slim began the litany of chores, while placing his hands on his hips. “There’s a relay station attached, so you’d be getting the horses ready for teams, finding and breaking wild horses, rounding a few head of cattle, riding fence, mending wagon wheels, working a forge….” His voice trailed off.

“I wouldn’t have to paint or chop wood, would I?  I hate doing that,” Jess remarked getting into the banter before he could stop himself.

“Afraid so, the barn and house need painting but there’s more. There’s a young boy who lives there too. He needs lots of attention.”

Jess seemed to ponder the employment requirements. “How’s the money?”

“Limitless, oh and there’s room and board thrown in too,” Slim added, choking back a laugh.

“Bunk house?”

“Shared bedroom, and the food isn’t bad either.”

“You cook?”

“Nope, we got the best cook  around so there’s lots of apple pie oh, and coffee of course.”

“Sounds interesting,” Jess was grinning broadly now. “What’s the boss like?”

“Oh, he’s tall, has blond hair and the ladies say he’s quite handsome.” Slim puffed out his chest in mock pride. “ He’s honest and caring and he listens, at least most of the time.”

Jess stuck out his hand. “I’m interested. When can I start?”

“How about now? You never really left. Your spirit followed me around wherever I went, no matter what I did.” And then, because he couldn’t stand to be apart from his brother any longer, turned into his arms and the men stood together sharing a brotherly hug.

“Can you ride?” Slim asked Jess as he wiped his eyes. “You look a bit wobbly.”

“Well, I’m recovering from lung fever but Sam says I’m almost ready to ride again. Why don’t we try it? Sides, I’m anxious to get started again on the cleanest, dullest, quietest ranch this side of Laramie!”

“Say, how did you get here?” Slim asked as Jess dusted himself off.

“Sam brought me in his buggy.” Jess suddenly was aware that Sam was no longer around. ‘How the heck was he supposed to go anywhere?’ he wondered.

“How did you get here?” Jess asked Slim.

“I rode in with Mort,” Slim started to smile. ”Jess! They brought us here and left!”

Jess shook his head in amazement; awareness coming slowly as to the great gift their friends had given them. “Aw heck! Those two…” he grinned up at his Pard. “How the heck am I supposed to go anywhere?”

Slim slowly wrapped an arm over Jess’ shoulders and squeezed gently.“ I reckon Sam figured you were ready to ride, Pard. Look over there.” He pointed at the trees a short distance from them. Alamo was grazing next to Jess’ Traveler.

“Dadgumit! How the heck did he get there? He was at the livery in town. I would’ve seen him as we drove in here!” he sputtered in amazement.

“Jess,” Slim smiled as he propelled his brother forward, “does it matter? We’re here now, together and we’re going home to that quiet, clean, dull  ranch you talked about.”

Jess had reached Traveler and was patting his neck now. He checked the cinch and as he hopped onto the saddle he grinned at Slim. “I can’t wait to see it!”

The shared laughter echoed around the lake as the two friends rode towards their home.

*****

Chapter 16

Sunlight streamed into the shared bedroom on very sunny autumn day. Slim heard, rather than saw, his Pard slowly and quietly shaving. Every now and then, he heard the water in the basin ripple when Jess’ shaver swirled. He opened his eyes slowly, blinking in the sunlight filled room.

“Up early, aren’t you?” He inquired as he cleared his voice and blinked out the cobwebs in his eyes.

“It’s Mike’s first day back at school, remember? We have a tradition to uphold, so up and at ’em, Pard!” Jess grinned as he eyed his rumpled pillow. It was within easy grabbing distance and looked perfect for a flying wake up payback as he owed one or two to his now stretching Pard. He watched Slim as he swung his long legs over the edge of the bed. He thought sympathetically about letting Slim sleep but he knew that the tradition of taking Mike in the buck board was a yearly event started when Mike first went to school. It was their way of showing him support and love and he knew that come heck or high water, Slim would want to be there for Mike. They had a strong fatherly bond and the yearly trip to school was something that they never missed.

“Ok, I’m up,” Slim groaned as he stretched his still sore back muscles. They had been chopping wood the day before and he probably ‘overdid it’, he thought to himself.

They both made their way into the kitchen in search of coffee. Mike’s bedroom door was open and they peeked in. Their son was up and dressed and packing a bag with his new slate and pencils.

“Excited are you?” Jess asked in surprise. Mike loved to sleep in and this was early, even for him.

“It never hurts to be early,” Mike said cheerfully looking at his fathers.

Slim just shook his head but smiled at Mike. Their boy was growing up. This was his last year at the Laramie school and they probably needed to sit down and talk about his future. Would he want to go to college like Andy?  Slim wasn’t sure so he decided to talk with Jess later.

The needed talk was halted when the Sherman-Harper family learned that the Jenkins children were being adopted by the Tomlinson’s. It was almost a year ago that they had met and taken care of the two sweet children and both Slim and Jess were apprehensive. Jess especially was anxious and aggravated. He hardly said anything to anyone and although he did his chores, all manner of humor had left him. Every time Slim started the needed conversation, Jess walked away.

One day a letter arrived by stage that changed everything. It was an invitation to dinner at the Tomlinson’s ranch. The invitation was extended to Daisy and Mike as well as Slim and Jess and while Slim could see the reasoning he had his doubts.

“It’s a trick,” groused  Jess one night. They were sitting on the porch enjoying a last drink of coffee before bed.

“How could it be a trick?” Slim was confused.

“They’re gonna’ try and make us see how happy those two young’ ins are.” He stated flatly.

Slim shook his head. “I don’t think so, Pard. I’m wondering about it too but likely it’s just a show of good faith, you know just to let us know that they are happy and safe and after all, isn’t that what we wanted for them too?”

Jess stared into his coffee cup, his face unreadable. Slim sat by his side waiting for Jess to realize that the coffee wasn’t going to give up its secrets. Finally, he slid an arm over Jess’ shoulders and squeezed gently. “I don’t think the answer is in there, Jess,” he spoke softly.

Jess continued to stare for a few more minutes until Slim felt his shoulders relax under his hand. “Why should we?”

The question was not confronting so Slim let out a long breath and swallowed hard, hoping what he said next would make sense. “I think it’s a good will gesture, Pard. Maybe they want us to know that Joe and Marybeth are okay and well taken care of. You know, you and Daisy never got to say ‘goodbye’ proper like and this would be a good chance.” He grimaced and shook his head. “When they left, I was so angry with Judge Allen and mad at Mort that I’m not sure what I said to them either. It’s time. We started them on a new journey and I guess it’s time to properly see them off.”

Jess nodded slowly and drinking the last cold dredges of his coffee, sighed and said,” when did you get to be so smart?”

Slim laughed. ” I picked it up from you!”

After church the next Sunday, the Sherman-Harper family drove their buck board towards the Tomlinson’s Ranch. The ranch was on the other side of Laramie so it took a bit of time but they arrived with time to spare. Mr. Tomlinson was a tall man, almost as tall as Slim, with dark brown hair and eyes. His face was smooth except for his beard which stretched to the bottom of his neck. Mrs. Tomlinson was much shorter and had hair the color of honey, Mike thought privately. They seemed very glad to meet the family.

Joe and Marybeth were excited to see them and immediately took Mike off to see their rooms while the adults talked in the living room. Bound and determined to be on his best behavior, Jess politely asked about the adoption, saying how he and Slim had adopted Mike and how nervous they had been.

“Well, we probably had a different experience than both of you,” Mr. John Tomlinson stated. “We had to wait until the trial was over. Then we had to see if there any other relatives, which there are not, and then Judge Allen made several visits to see us both with the children and when they were in school. I guess he wanted to be sure we meant to raise them proper and could in fact, do so. I’m glad we passed the test.”

Jess looked at Slim pointedly. Slim sighed and then reached a hand out to rest on Jess’s shoulder. “Mr. Tomlinson,” he began, “our family was honored to be chosen first to care for the children and we tried our best to make their stay with us happy and safe. I’m not sure what made Judge Allen change his mind and place them with you and your wife but there were certain things he told me that day which were totally a lie. I just want to clear up any questions you might have about us or the care we provided.”

 He paused and looked at both Tomlinson and his wife. Daisy had been sitting on the opposite side of the room and now got up and sat down next to Slim. Mr. Tomlinson cleared his throat and looked over at his wife.

“Mr. Sherman, first of all, my first name is John and this is my wife Caroline. We want to thank you and your family for coming here today. To tell you the truth, we were told a lot of things about the three of you and have learned from various people in town that the judge thinks one way and the townspeople think another.”

Jess nodded and grinned at Slim and Daisy. “All good things, I hope?” He asked mischievously.

Slim checked to see where the children were and they were still playing in the yard with Mike.” John,” he spoke softly, “my family came from Illinois and was one of the founding families in Laramie.  My brother Andy was born at the ranch. Our father died while I was at war and when I returned, our Ma was dying and my brother Andy did not know me. I became his Father, Mother and Brother all at once. It was a lot of hard work and I needed help, so I wrote my father’s best friend Jonesy to come live with us. He proved to be a godsend in more ways than one.” Slim paused and drank a sip of coffee.

 “When Andy was about twelve, our lives changed forever when a drifter came into our lives.”  Slim motioned to Jess who continued their story.

“John and Caroline, I grew up in Texas, as you can probably tell. There was passle of us kids and I was one of three boys that lived. The year I turned fifteen, there was a gang led by a Frank Bannister who liked to rob people and burn down houses.” Daisy shot Slim a look but Slim just shook his head.

“Anyway,” Jess continued, “they attacked my father in the front yard and started a fire and rode away. My father managed to get my sister Francie out of the burning house and urged me to take her and run towards the woods but I couldn’t just leave my Ma and the little ones so I ran back but I couldn’t save them.” He stopped then and wiped his eyes with his sleeve.

 Caroline Tomlinson got up and wrapped her arms around him in a comforting gesture. After a minute, Jess began again and Caroline Tomlinson sat down next to her husband.

“I found a place and people to take care of my sister and began my search for the Bannisters. I rode with some outlaws, that’s true, but I never shot a man in the back or took out my revenge on innocent people. I was in the war too and captured and sent to a Union prison at the end of the war. When I landed in Laramie, I was searching for my former partner who stole my money and had shot me.”

Slim picked up the rest of the story. “When I first met Jess, he was trespassing on my property but he soon skedaddled and then I saw him again at my kitchen table eating a meal with my brother. But,” he smiled broadly at Jess,” he saved all our lives that day and I ended up offering him a job and that was the best decision I have ever made!”

Jess, wanting to ease the tension, rose and took a little bow, which earned a hearty laugh from the Tomlinson’s and laughter from Daisy and Slim.

“He soon became my friend, helping at the ranch and relay, another big brother and friend to Andy, a stage driver, member of a posse on occasion and deputy sheriff on more than one occasion. He’s not the scoundrel that Judge Allen thinks he is. He’s my best friend, closer to me than a brother and partner and he helped me raise up Andy and Mike and was capable of taking care of Joe and Marybeth too.”

Jess was embarrassed now and pretended to drop his napkin so that he could wipe his eyes.

 Daisy smiled at their guests and spoke, “So you see, this second family of mine is made up of people like yourselves who just wanted the best for those two lost children and I think we can now better relate to each other, don’t you think?”

The Tomlinson’s agreed and shook Slim and Jess’ hands. Everyone started talking at once and soon the children joined them. Dinner was a lively affair and when Mike suggested that he read Joe and Marybeth a story on the porch, the adults agreed.

“I understand that you were away when Judge Allen took Joe and Marybeth away from Slim,” Caroline said to Jess.

Jess nodded. “I never got to say ‘goodbye; I wished I had.”

“Well, I think it’s high time you did. “Jess was astonished and for once couldn’t think of what to say.

“It’s very clear that Judge Allen acted in haste without regard to those children and while we are going to be their adopted parents, they still need you and Mrs. Cooper in their lives now and Mike too, of course!” Caroline said.

“So, how about you two go outside and do just that and maybe Slim and I could take Mike out to see the apple orchard,” John Tomlinson said with a meaningful nod to Slim.

Daisy and Jess left the room, while Caroline went into the  kitchen to get the desert ready. “Thank you,” Slim gratefully said, “Jess needs to say goodbye to Joe and Marybeth.”

“I hope your family won’t disappear from their lives. They need you and your support.”

“You’ve got that wrong,” Slim said firmly,” they need us all.”

*****

 Jess would later remember the Jenkins family incident as the trial of friendship within a nightmare of many colors and Slim would remember the long months as a test of friendship that they almost severed and he vowed to never let anything like it happen again. The trail they had both followed had been harrowing and brutal and the path to their shared future awaited them. Whatever happened now would be nothing compared to the loss they both had faced. They needed a reminder every now and again to treasure their bond but they needed the strengthing bond of friendship and brotherhood more. The children they had tried to save recovered and went on to better lives. Together, with their new adopted parents and siblings, they would continue their friendship with Slim and Jess.  Mike, who often wished for a baby brother or sister, went on as the loving only son of two very different but loving fathers. Daisy always said “they were blessed” and her prophetic words would surround the family of the Sherman Harper Ranch for years to come.

***The End***

Author’s Notes:

April, in America, is known as National Child Abuse  Awareness and Prevention Month. Over 10 years ago, my husband and I began a non-profit program in our town to bring about awareness and prevention of child abuse. We solicit funds and spend all the funds on promotional products and expenses for speaking engagements to bring awareness to this ongoing problem. Luckily, our town citizens embrace the theme and we are able to bring our first responders and schools on board each and every year.

As any reader or watcher (tv or movie) of American westerns knows, the treatment of women and children in the 1870s was, in some cases, barbaric. Women were treated by some men as property and boy children were raised to work the farm or ranch. Fathers could discipline their children any way they wanted to. There were no laws to protect the women or their children until a case involving a Mary Ann Wilson came into the forefront in New York. See: https://hekint.org/2019/12/03/history-repeated-child-abuse-in-the-united-states/

In every state there now are resources for anyone anonymously to report suspected child abuse. Please support the effort to end this scourge and save our children. The colors of this program are blue and white and the symbol is a pinwheel. There is No Excuse for Child Abuse.

In my story, I called on the theme of the colors in a flame. Child abuse victims often express their feelings of hopelessness and of living in a nightmare. Jess and Slim were great foster parents. Although they both knew it was a temporary solution, they both bonded with the children fairly quickly, Jess especially. Foster parents of today often end up adopting the very children they foster.

It was natural for feelings to run hot for our two characters. They both were men of integrity and kindness and a healthy respect for the law (especially Slim). Jess’s journey started out in anger. He found hope when he found the wagon train. His swaying feelings of doubt and anxiety are felt by child abuse victims and their mothers (mostly) when trying to escape the family situations that lead to the abuse. Hope and love find their way finally into Jess’s heart when Slim appears and the stakes are once more cemented on the Sherman-Harper ranch. With love and guidance, so too will child abuse victims go on to lead healthy, normal lives but only if YOU are aware of their suffering and report it.

The national hotline number is: 1.800.422.4453.

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