I am in no way affiliated to any of the shows portrayed in my stories. No copyright infringement is intended and I have made no profit from  any of my stories.I do not own any of the rights to any of the characters or programs represented in the fanfic stories.The sole aim of these stories is to entertain. Click here to filter so you only view the Laramie stories.

Please note stories should be read in numerical order as many of the stories are linked to previous ones, starting at number #1 Loved Lost Survived. To view the stories in order click on Archives All and they will be displayed, then simply choose your story by clicking on the title.


The Laramie Chronicles

My stories are based on the Laramie TV Show which aired between 1959 and 1963, staring Robert Fuller as Jess Harper and John Smith as Slim Sherman,two friends running a Ranch and Relay Station in 1870’s Wyoming.

Some stories also feature their housekeeper Mrs Daisy Cooper played by Spring Byington and Mike Williams their Ward played by Dennis Holmes.
Other characters featured were Sheriff Mort Corey, Stage driver Mose Shell,Slim’s younger brother Andy Sherman and an old family friend named Jonsey.

The stories are sometimes theme led as in Loved lost Survived where the subject of bereavement is explored, within the parameters of early 1870 western America.Many of the stories deal with issues of the time from lawlessness to the problems involved in eking out a living in the untamed west. The main framework of all the stories is the enduring friendship between the two, very different main characters.

Slim Sherman is the honest, straightforward ranch owner, who is a worrier and likes to do everything by the book and within the letter of the law. However once he befriends Jess Harper drifter, and ex gunslinger with a wild streak, his life changes forever. The unlikely duo team up and eventually become partners in the business but many trials and tribulations abound and life is never plain sailing.

I hope you will enjoy my take on this popular series. I have been writing these stories for over four years and have completed over fifty, many available on various Fanfic sites. It is my aim to compile them on this site,in time,as I have had many requests to collect them all together, so welcome to the new home of my Laramie Chronicles.


#101 Uprising!


Patty Wilkinson

(Some strong language, violence and adult themes)

Chapter 1
Jess Harper tightened Traveller’s girth and then looked up at the Sherman ranch house that he thought of as home, but now the windows and doors were all boarded up. Then he glanced over to the deserted barn and corral and the surrounding meadows empty of stock…and sighed deeply.
A loud clap of thunder made him glance up to the advancing dark storm clouds and he shivered as a sudden icy wind blew up, sending a tumbleweed bowling across the yard; increasing the atmosphere of desolation.
He mounted and then whistled up his dog Blue, before remembering he’d been whining at the kitchen window where one of the planks had come adrift. He’d been pawing at it trying to get inside where he had a juicy bone hidden under the table.
“Dang dog,” Jess muttered irritably before whistling for him again. Then mindful of the loose board he dismounted and headed back towards the side of the house.
Almost simultaneously there was another thunder-clap and a bolt of lightning struck the house which seemed to explode with flames leaping up to the now pitch-black sky.
Jess gave a cry of alarm and tore towards the blazing house, convinced he could hear Blue’s plaintive yaps coming from within.
The fire was burning his face as he tried to open the door…but then some strange force grabbed hold of him, pushing him back.
He fought desperately to get away and find his dog…but the power pushing him was just too strong…and he fell back gasping with pain and frustration.
“Let me go damn it!” he cried to his invisible assailant.

“Jess…Jess, it’s OK it’s just a nightmare,” Slim said urgently.
He finally opened his eyes to find Slim’ s concerned gaze upon him, his hands on his shoulders, pushing him back onto the pillow.
Jess looked around the room, his expression dazed, before he finally muttered… “Blue?”
“He’s here Jess see,” and the wolf-cross sheepdog lay his large head on the edge of the bed, his soft, worried brown eyes looking up at his master.
Jess laid a gentle hand on his head and whispered, “Hey it’s OK boy, don’t fret,” and was answered by the big dog’s tail waving hesitantly.
Then Jess started shivering and Slim pulled the covers more securely around him and removed the cold compress from his forehead.
“You’re not too well pard” he said softly, “one minute you’re burning up and the next icy cold. Been up with you half the night,” he added, his warm smile taking the sting out of the words.
“Sorry,” Jess whispered, “but I guess that accounts for the nightmare,” and he recounted it.
Slim gave a low whistle, “Nasty…and when you think about it, I guess those are two of the things you really fret about…Fire… after what happened to your kin. And a close second losing this old place,” he added casting a glance around their shared room.
“You ain’t wrong there,” Jess said, “losing this old fellah too,” and he once more caressed Blue’s head.
“Well, if you will get soaking wet mending fence in a storm and then come back and sit up with Snowbird in your wet duds all night, what do you expect?” he said in exasperation. “Just a good job Daisy was away playing midwife, or you’d be in real trouble.”
“How is he…Snowbird’s foal?” Jess asked quickly.
“Still thriving and one real proud Mama,” Slim said grinning down at his pard… “I checked on her just a few hours ago.”
“And how’s Ma Pattison?”
“Mose said it’s another girl and Daisy’ ll be home tomorrow.” Then chuckling, “Good to see you got your priorities right Jess.”
“Well shouldn’t a new baby come higher up the list for your concern?”
Jess grinned back, “Nope, heck Pattison babies are two a penny…now one of Snowbird’s foals that’s really something.”
They both laughed, until Jess’s laughter turned to a coughing fit.
“If you’re no better tomorrow I’m sending for doc Sam,” Slim said.
“Aw don’t fuss… I’m OK,” Jess finally managed.
“Sure, you are,” Slim said making for his own bed.


Why Jess Harper, I leave you boys to your own devices for five minutes and look at the state of you.
Jess opened his mouth to reply to Daisy, but ended up coughing and spluttering.
She immediately looked sympathetic and running to the bedside helped sit him up and then offered the glass of lemonade and honey she had just brought in.
Jess drank and then wiped away the tears that had been streaming down his face after the coughing fit.
“Couldn’t be helped Daisy I needed to tend Snowbird…you know how dang jittery she gets when she’s foaling.”
“Um,” Daisy said looking unconvinced, “and you didn’t think to change out of your wet clothes. Oh yes, Slim told me everything,” she said raising a hand to silence Jess’s denial.
“Anyway, Doc Sam should be here shortly, let’s see what he has to say,” she added before sweeping majestically out of the room.
“Looks like that nasty chill has got on your lungs. It’s not full-blown lung fever but could go that way.”
Jess just lay looking impassive.
“You need to do exactly as I say Jess…rest and take the medicine as prescribed… dang it, am I getting through to you?”
“Sure, rest and medicine,” Jess said, “so when can I get up, got a new foal to spoil some.”
Sam sighed and then looked down at his old friend a twinkle in his eyes, “A week should do it, deal?”
Of course, Jess didn’t share the doc’s advice and was up and about again a few days later, much to Daisy’s irritation.
The weather was still very inclement as spring moved to early summer and Jess’s temper mirrored the wet miserable weather.
“I don’t know what’s got into him,” Slim said early one morning as he slammed into the kitchen where Daisy was baking.
“Oh dear, Jess again?”
“Uh-huh got himself all worked up just because I asked him when he was thinking of finishing patching up that hole in the home pasture fencing. Darn it you can’t say anything to him these days before he takes it the wrong way.”
“Um he has been a little out of sorts lately,” Daisy agreed, pouring him a coffee from the pot on the stove, “He’s still got that nasty cough too,” she added.
“Um,” Slim muttered slumping down at the kitchen table.
Daisy looked across at him and then took the seat opposite, “I think you’re both a little jaded,” she said kindly.
“Huh?” He queried sipping his coffee and frowning at her over the rim of his cup.
“Well, you were so terribly upset when Mike and Jess were abducted last year. You didn’t get a proper Christmas really and then you missed out on the New Year celebrations too when you both went off seeking that terrible Pete Stone, to bring him to justice.” (*See #100 Christmas Story 2023)
“I guess you’re right,” Slim said thoughtfully, “and we’ve been working non-stop since repairing all the storm damage and getting the stock up to the high ground for the summer.”
Then he smiled sympathetically, “But heck Daisy it was just as bad for you when we really thought we’d never see Jess or Mike again.”
“I know women are supposedly the weaker sex dear,” she said softly, “but we have more resilience than folk give us credit for. Once Mike and Jess were safely home, I put the whole sorry business behind me, but I think possibly you and Jess haven’t yet?”
He looked thoughtful, “You could be right. I know Jess felt awful that he didn’t escape sooner, but he was just so afraid Mike would be harmed if he attempted it.”
“Of course, and he did exactly the right thing,” Daisy said looking upset, “I hope he’s not still fretting about that.”
Slim shrugged, “Maybe, and I know he’s missing Millie something fierce too.”
“Oh yes of course” Daisy said. “He missed out on New Year with her and now she’s gone off back east to help her sister-in-law with the new twins.”
Slim gave a wide grin at that, “You should have seen Hotshot’s face when he heard there were twins in the family,” he chuckled.
“Oh Slim, I do believe twin’s run in Tad’s wife’s family, not in his and his sister’s,” Daisy said, “as well you know.”
“I told him that,” Slim said, “he still came out in a cold sweat though.”
“Silly boy,” she said indulgently, “the sooner you two settle down with your girls and start raising your own offspring, the happier I’ll be.”
Now it was Slim’ s turn to look a little worried, “Uh, can’t rush these things you know Daisy.”
“So it would seem,” she said drily.
Then changing the subject said, “It’s quite quiet at present regarding work isn’t it. Why don’t you and Jess take off for a hunting trip for a week or two? You could ask the Jackson boys to cover, they’re usually happy to oblige.”
“No can-do Daisy, I approached their Pa last week, seems they’re already looking after old Chas Watson’s place while he’s sick.”
“Oh dear, that’s a shame, because I really think you boys deserve a break.”
“You and me both,” he said shaking his head sadly.

Chapter 2
The following day Slim was sitting out on the porch mending some tack when a rider came swiftly down the rise. Then tethering his mount by the horse trough he wandered over to Slim.
“Howdy Mort,” Slim said looking up at his old friend, “Take the weight off,” he said nodding to the other seat, “So what brings you over here?”
Mort sat down, relaxed in the chair and tipping his Stetson back said, “I’ve had some more trouble with those young braves coming off the reservation … chicken stealing this time over at the Patterson spread.”
“What? Was it Chief Red Bear’s younger son again, uh Red Wolf?”
“I guess so…Patterson didn’t get a clear look, took a pot shot, but it went wide.”
“Um, probably for the best, a dead Indian could cause all kinds of trouble, even if Chief Red Bear is on good terms with us at present.”
“My thoughts exactly Slim. The Major has been over and had a talk with the chief asking him to keep those hot heads under control. But it seems the old chief is not too well right now and the youngsters are taking advantage of it.”
“I guess he hasn’t been the same since his other son, Running Bear died,” Slim said quietly. “He was a real good guy…tragic what happened.”
“Yes, I was away when all that trouble started,” Mort said, “so what did happen exactly?”
“Seems that some of the tribe took against Running Bear when he upped and married a white woman…then they had a son and that really riled a few of the elders,” Slim said. “Things came to a head just a few months back when Running Bear was insisting that his son be recognized by the tribe as the Chief’s grandson, even if he was half paleface. It seems his brother Red Wolf, the trouble maker, got real mad…they fought and Running Bear died as a result.”
Mort shook his head, “That must have really upset the old chief. It seems he’s taken to his bed, leaving a lot of the running of the tribe to the elders and I guess they just can’t control the likes of Red Wolf. Even though he’s the Chief’s son, he’s the main culprit egging on some of the other young braves to leave the Reservation and cause mayhem.
“Should we be worried,” Slim asked frowning slightly, “with Daisy and Mike here I mean?”
“Oh, heck no, the Major assures me that it’s all under control and there’s a platoon doing spot checks all over. Nope Indians are the least of your problems Slim.”
“Oh…so what do you mean by that Mort?” He replied looking worried.
“Is Jess about?” Mort asked ignoring the question.
“Uh, no he’s out on the other side of the home pasture mending fence, why, did you want him?”
“Um nope, I was after a quiet word with you actually,” the Sheriff said, suddenly looking quite serious.
“Uh-uh, what’s he been up to now?” Slim asked resignedly.
“Well, he was in town a few days ago?”
“Yes, that’s right, he went in for supplies.”
“Well apparently he’d given old Ezra at the general store his list and he went over to the saloon while Ezra fixed up the order, and the boy loaded the wagon.”
“Well apparently Millie had written to Tom asking for more time off. She said her sis-in-law had come down with a fever and was pretty sick and she was needed there a little longer.”
Slim nodded, “Yeah, there was a letter waiting for him. It came on the noon stage. He got it when he came home. Put him in a foul temper…he’s taking it out on the fence posts as we speak,” he added with a grin, gesturing towards the home pasture.
Mort nodded sympathetically, “Trouble was that young Denny Brown was in the saloon too, and pretty drunk as usual… well you know how he feels about you and Jess.”
“I sure do, but heck Mort we were within our rights to fire him. He was only here a week and we hardly saw him sober. He was a danger to himself and everyone else too. Young Mike was nearly hit when a couple of mustangs broke free after Denny left a gate open. We just couldn’t risk him working here.”
Then frowning said, “And what’s Tom thinking…serving the kid anyways?”
“It seems that Tom doesn’t serve him strong drink anymore. Denny buys drink from the store, or steals his Pa’s and then comes to the saloon pie-eyed and drinks lemonade.”
Slim rolled his eyes, “So what happened?”
“Well apparently Denny started goading Jess into a gun fight… and as usual Jess just ignored him. But according to Tom the kid just wouldn’t back down. Then he started saying how Millie had probably got another guy back east and that’s why she was staying away.”
Slim gasped in consternation, “Go on,” he said.
“That’s when I came in. I stood by the door, not wanting to spook the kid in case he drew. Well, I’ll tell you Slim you could have cut the atmosphere in there with a knife. Everyone in the line of fire shifted damn quick …all you could hear was the sound of chairs scraping as folk moved.”
“Jeez,” Slim muttered uncharacteristically.
“Then Jess turned to Denny and by God, I’ve never seen him so mad. His eyes were almost black and icy cold, and he just said, “What did you say kid?”
“Go on,” Slim urged again.
“Well Denny was looking kinda spooked by now, but he was all fueled up on whiskey so he just said ‘you heard’… and went for his gun. I’ll tell ya now Slim, I’ve seen Jess draw fast…but nothing like that. His gun was out in a split second...too dang fast to see. He yelled at the kid and took his gun before landing a haymaker on him that sent him halfway across the room and then he went after him…took four of us to pull him off.”
Slim frowned and shook his head, “He’s been kind of hard headed ever since that business when he was abducted by the Stone brothers… but this?”
“Uh, yeah I’d noticed,” Mort said smiling wryly, “and I guess I can understand that. He needs a break, you both do,” he added taking in Slim’ s weary expression.
“Chance would be a fine thing,” Slim muttered, “been trying to take off for a hunting trip, but got nobody to cover for us.”
“I guess this is your lucky day then,” Mort said grinning broadly.
Slim looked puzzled, “Huh?”
“My Kate and young Cal Stone are coming down from the mountain for a visit next week and I’m pretty sure they’d both be up for covering for you and Jess if you want to take a little time away.”
Slim beamed at him, “Are you sure about that?”
“I am, Kate enjoys Daisy’s company, not to mention the use of her wonderful kitchen. As to young Cal he still feels so badly that his older brothers abducted Jess and Mike that he’d be real happy for the opportunity to make amends.”
“Heck he’s no need, we know he wasn’t part of all that business,” Slim said. “But it sure would be good to get away for a while. Maybe calm down my partner some too, before he fetches up in some real trouble. What about you though, Mort…don’t you want to spend some time with Miss Kate?”
“I sure do, and as it happens, I’ve got a few days leave due, so I’ll be popping by most days. And anyway, I figure once Kate sees how comfortable ranch living is compared to that old mountain shack…she might just consider a permanent move to town,” he said grinning happily.
The plan was agreed to and Cal and Kate Munroe, accompanied by Mort, rode in the following Monday afternoon.
Slim rushed out of the barn to greet them, “Gee this is really good of you Kate…Cal,” he said beaming at the pair as they dismounted.
“Glad to help,” the petite blonde woman replied.
She was dressed in her usual buckskin outfit, her tanned complexion glowing with health, and her blue eyes twinkling merrily, belying her age.
“So, where’s that young rascal Jessie Harper?” she asked peering around the yard.
However, before Slim could reply the ranch house door flew open and Mike burst out swiftly followed by Jess and Daisy.
The arrivals were warmly welcomed and then Mike took Cal off to show him the latest wild critter he had ‘rescued.’ The two had hit it off well when the sixteen-year-old was staying at the ranch helping out before, and now he was happy to renew the friendship.
The men folk went off to put up the horses, while Daisy and Kate retired to the kitchen to start supper and have a good old catch up. But that was not before Kate had noticed the tired look around Jess’s eyes and his generally edgy demeanor. His fingers never still and his body looking wired as though ready to spring into action at the least provocation.
Once Daisy and Kate had settled round the kitchen table a coffee apiece, without preamble Kate said, “The boy’s not himself is he Daisy?”
The housekeeper knew exactly who Kate was referring to and shook her head sadly, “He’s been very tense ever since that terrible abduction…it’s taken its toll on Slim too.”
“But not on young Mike?” Kate asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“Thankfully not,” Daisy said smiling, “I think it was all really a game to him. He hero worships Jess so much he just totally believed everything would be alright in the end…and thank God it was,” she added.
“Not like Jess to let things get him down,” Kate said.
“Oh no I don’t believe he’s dwelling on it all for a minute,” Daisy said quickly, “but I’m sure it still rankles a little. No, I just think it’s an accumulation of things really. As you know Slim and Jess missed out on a normal Christmas pretty much, what with Jess and Mike only arriving home on Christmas Eve. Then they were away hunting down that dreadful Pete Stone over New Year. After that they barely saw their girls before the snow was down for weeks. I think Jess managed to see Millie for a couple of times in the spring and then she had to take off to care for her brother’s wife. Well, that didn’t go down well,” Daisy added raising her eyebrows.
Kate chuckled, “No I imagine not. So, when’s our lovely Millie due home?”
Daisy shrugged, “Who knows… apparently her sis-in-law is quite sick.”
At that moment Mike and Cal burst in, Mike declaring that he was starvin’ hungry and when was supper.
“Just as soon as you’ve washed up and set the table young man and I have finished preparing it…now scoot.”
Kate offered to help but was assured all was in hand.
“Come on then Cal, let’s go get our orders from Jess and Slim,” Kate said. “Think I’ll tell them to stay away as long as they please,” she added winking at Daisy, “because me and Miss Daisy have gotten a lot of catching up to do!”
It was some time after supper that Kate decided to have a talk with young Jessie as she thought of Jess. Good grief, she’d known him since he was a babe in arms she thought now as she watched him chatting quietly with Slim, as they planned their route for the following day; Mort looking on, with interest.
Yup Jess hadn’t had the easiest start to life with his Pa being way too fond of the bottle and his poor Ma scrimping and saving to make ends meet; the young family living in poverty. Then that goddamn fire that had annihilated all but his brother Wayne and sister Francie and a teenage Jess. He had left soon after, searching for and seeking revenge on the gang who had fired their shack.
Kate wondered how long had he been on the drift until he found the feeling of belonging someplace, with the family love he has unconsciously craved. Far too long she thought…remembering all the trouble the youngster had gotten into on the way and she shook her head sadly and wished he‘d sought sanctuary with her and her beloved husband way back then.
After a moment she was suddenly aware that Mort was saying something.
She looked up, “Huh?”
“I said I must be getting back to town…but I’ll call by in a day or two and bunk down in Slim and Jess’s room, Miss Daisy insisted,” he added grinning at her. I thought I’d give you and Cal a hand around the place.”
“Very cosy,” Kate muttered knowing dang well how he wanted to coerce her down from the mountain. Well, all in good time she thought secretly and in my good time, not the Sheriff’s either she thought, in her usual feisty manner.
Mort ignored the sarcasm and said, “What were you thinking on before? You were miles away.”
“Oh, just young Jessie, how glad I am he finally managed to turn things around…find a safe billet here with good folk around him. Really don’t know what would have happened to him otherwise,” she added softly, “he sure was a wild one.”
“Um…still has his moments,” Mort said dryly.
Everyone had turned in before Kate finally had her chance to have a quiet word with Jess.
She had been sitting before the fire reading a book Slim had loaned her, when Jess came in from doing a final check on the new foal.
“Is all OK?” She asked looking up from the book.
He came over and took a seat on his rocker on the other side of the fireplace and grinned at her. “Just swell,” he said happily. “You will check him real regular won’t you Kate…and make sure Snowbird gets those extra rations I showed ya huh.”
“Damn it boy I know how to care for a mare and foal,” she said shaking her head, but smiling at Jess for being so clucky.
“Goodness what will you be like when the first babies come along after you and Millie get wed?” She added, raising an eyebrow.
“Ha chance would be a fine thing,” Jess said belligerently, “if she ever lands home again that is.”
She sobered at that and said gently, “You’re missing her bad aren’t you, Jess?”
He flushed up a little but nodded and muttered, “Something fierce.”
“Well, she’ll be home soon enough,” Kate said sagely, “and in the meantime I guess you can put a bit of that excess energy into a good hunting trip. Daisy can’t wait to see what’s going in her larder,” she added cheerfully.
Jess ignored the banter and said quietly, “What if she don’t?”
“Millie, what if she don’t come back?”
“What makes you say that?”
He shrugged, “I dunno, but if anything happened to Tad’s wife, I figure maybe she’d feel she had to stay and care for the babies?”
“Nah, I can’t see that happening.” Kate said wisely. “Jenny’s just got a fever, often happens after giving birth…body’s real wore out … she’ll bounce back, you’ll see. Anyway, if she stays too much longer, I guess you’d just have to go fetch her back.”
He merely nodded to that.
“Uh, Jess she does know how you feel, how badly you miss her?”
“You’ve told her then?”
“Well not in so many words…but she knows.”
“Trust me on this boy, you write and tell her. Tell her you want her home too…women like to be told these things.”
“They do… even when they know it?”
“Yes...especially when they know it.

Chapter 3
The following morning Slim was up before sunrise and after he’d washed and dressed, he wandered over to Jess’s bed and attempted to wake him once more.
“Jess, will ya wake up,” he said firmly, “you forgotten we are supposed to be riding out at first light?”
Jess finally stirred and said, “Uh, no I ain’t forgotten, just give me a moment will ya Slim…let a body wake up huh.”
“You wouldn’t be so dang tired iffen you hadn’t sat up half the night,” Slim said irritably. “What were you doing anyway? It was gone midnight before you came to bed.”
Jess sat up and looking pained and said, “Who are you, my Ma?”
Slim chuckled at that and gave him a playful swipe around the head with his damp towel and then said “Well?”
“If you must know, I was writing to Millie.”
“ Writing to Millie, why?”
Jess just shrugged, “Kate seemed to think it were a good idea. Tell her how I was missin’ her an’ all,” he said flushing slightly.
Slim knew how hard the last few weeks had been for his buddy and also knew it would be crass to tease him now, so he merely nodded and said, “Good idea, she’ll be glad to hear from you.”
“You think so?”
“Well sure, why wouldn’t she.”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno, maybe she’s found a better prospect out east.”
“What…better than you, you mean?”
“Maybe…some real well-educated guy, can give her a stable future…so she’d want fer nothin’ you know?”
Slim shook his head, “You’re crazy if you think that, Millie would never look at another guy.”
Just then there was a gentle tap on the door and Daisy popped her head around, “I got up early to make you boys some breakfast,” she said smiling at them, “it’s all ready.”
They made good time and had reached the far side of Paradise by mid afternoon. This was a parcel of land beyond the east pasture that Slim’ s Pa had bought many years ago. Although it was fenced, he had never worked the land and had let nature take over. As a result, it was teaming with wild life and was dubbed, ‘the larder in the back yard’ by all at the ranch.
It really was an idyllic spot Slim mused as he relaxed back on his upturned saddle looking out to the lake and mountain range beyond. This lake was smaller than the one near the ranch and didn’t have the advantage of a cave for shelter. However, the shore line was dotted by huge pines that provided plenty of refuge from both sun and rain.
The men had made camp and spent a happy afternoon fishing in the tranquil setting and now they were reposing on their bedrolls enjoying a coffee before turning in.
“Nice of Kate to bring us some of Denver’s brew,” Slim said waggling the bottle of moonshine after topping up his own cup.
Jess nodded and passed his cup over for a drop too.
“So… she thinks Millie was in need of a letter then?” Slim said quietly, picking up their conversation from the morning.
“Uh-huh. Seems women folk like to be told they’ve been missed even when they know it anyways,” Jess said dryly.
“Sounds about right,” Slim said shaking his head and looking slightly puzzled, “I guess that’s women for you.”
They lapsed into silence and then Slim said, “You don’t really think she’s playing around do you Jess?”
He shrugged, “I guess I don’t know what to think. I ain’t heard from her since that quick note saying she had to stay longer because her sis-in-law was sick.”
“I expect she’s been real busy, what with the twins and all,” Slim said.
“I guess you’re right,” Jess said sipping his drink and looking out to the distant mountains…but his eyes told a different story.
They turned in shortly afterwards and all was peaceful, until just before dawn.
Blue, who had been sleeping sprawled beside his master, his massive head and one paw lying across Jess’s chest, stirred.
Then he gave a low growl and his hackles rose as he growled again, even more menacingly.
Seconds later he leapt to his feet in a volley of hysterical barking; instantly waking Jess and Slim. They were up on one knee, guns drawn within a split second.
In the early dawn light Jess saw a small figure hurl himself up onto Traveller’s back. However, before he could even start to move away Blue was there in a frenzy of barking, which made an already spooked Traveller rear up depositing the would-be horse thief in the dirt, completely winded.
Jess and Slim rushed over and viewed the youngster in astonishment.
“Hell, he’s only a little kid,” Jess said leaning down and giving the youngster a hand up.
The swarthy, blond-haired boy, clad in buckskin, stared belligerently at Jess. “I ain’t no kid,” he growled.
“Sure you’re not,” Slim said chuckling, “you’re what, all of ten I’d guess.”
“I’m eleven actually mister,” the boy spat.
“Never mind about all that,” Jess said angrily, “what were you doin’ stealing my horse kid?”
When the boy just looked down sulkily Jess said, “You do realize that’s a hangin’ offense in some places?”
The child looked up clearly startled, “I’m sorry mister…you won’t take me in, will ya?”
Jess rolled his eyes at Slim and said, “Nope been down that particular road, don’t intend to make the same mistake again.”
The youngster merely frowned and said, “What you gonna do then mister?”
“Take you home to yer Pa, I guess it’s up to him, but if you were my kid, it would be a trip to the woodshed, that’s for sure...unless maybe you got a good reason?”
“Don’t have a Pa no more,” the boy said, reverting to his sulky demeanor.
“You don’t?”
“No sir he’s dead, was killed in a fight.”
“That’s too bad,” Slim said quickly, “so yer Ma?”
“Sick,” he muttered, “real sick…”
Then turning to Jess said, “That’s why I took yer horse Mister. Our old horse upped and died last month and I needed to go back to the tribe…get the medicine man to her. If he’d come…we were run off see, on account of my Ma being a white woman.”
“Hang on a minute,” Jess said, “are you Chief Red Bear’s grandson, your Pa was Running Bear?”
“Yes sir, you knew him?”
Jess nodded, “Yup came across him a few times. He was a brave man…”
Then getting to the point Slim said, “What’s wrong with your Ma son, maybe we can help?”
“I dunno, she’s been throwing up and now she’s got a real bad fever…I’m scared Mister,” he added…now looking every inch the frightened child.
“Hey it’s OK,” Jess said immediately and giving the child a gentle pat on the arm said, “we’ll ride home with ya see how she is huh?”
When he looked uncertain Slim said, “If your Ma wakes up and finds you gone, I guess she’ll be real worried about you.”
That seemed to make him decide and he nodded, “Sure, we’re over the other side of the lake… there’s a cabin over there.”
“Sure there is,” Slim said as an aside to Jess, “My Pa built it for butchering and salting our hunting kills, it sure isn’t anywhere you’d want to call home.”
The child overheard this though and said belligerently, “It sure is if there’s no place else Mister…me and Ma were desperate.”
“OK boy, don’t worry about that now,” Jess said, moving to break camp and then as an afterthought, “so what do they call you?”
“My Grandfather called me White Wolf…but Ma calls me James after my other grand pa…but I answer to both.”
“Well, I’m Jess and this here is Slim,” Jess replied, “and seeing’ as we’re going to visit with yer Ma, I guess it better be James… huh?”
They set off for the old cabin, the youngster riding double with Jess.
They saw the woman standing clutching onto the door frame for support as soon as they rode in and James leapt down from behind Jess and tore across to help her.
“Ma…Ma are you OK?” He asked the frail looking woman.
“Where have you been?” she gasped. “I’ve been out of my mind I thought your Uncle Red Wolf had come for you…was out to kill you like he did your dear Pa. I told you not to wander off didn’t I son!” She said almost in tears.
“It’s OK Ma, Red Wolf wouldn’t really hurt me…and anyways I found these men in the woods,” and turning he said, “This is Jess and Slim, they’ll help you Ma.”
The woman looked up taking notice of the two men for the first time and she pulled her shabby old coat that she wore on top of a thin night dress, more tightly around her and looking embarrassed, said “I’m sorry my boy bothered you gentlemen.”
“No bother,” Slim said walking over and smiling kindly, “I’m, Slim Sherman and this here is my partner, Jess Harper.”
“Abby,” she said with a faint smile, “and I use my maiden name now, Saunders, Abby Saunders…”
“Young James here seemed real worried about you Ma’am so we thought we’d ride over see iffen we could help any,” Slim said.
Jess gave the reins to James and motioned for him to go water the horses, before he walked over and touching his hat smiled and said, “Ma’am.”
The woman nodded to him and then turned back to Slim, “No… I’m alright really. Just food poisoning, I gave James the fresh meat and thought the old stew would still be alright,” and she just shrugged.
“You can’t be too careful,” Slim said seriously, “if you get real sick all the way out here there isn’t any help, wouldn’t you be better off living nearer town?”
She shook her head and noticing that James had taken the mounts over to the water trough she said quietly, “I wasn’t joking before. Red Wolf did vow to kill my son if he ever saw him again. So, we’re in hiding. I’m just so afraid,” she added with a little gasp. Then she turned even paler and Jess just managed to step forwards and catch her as she fell in a dead faint.
He carried her into the shabby old cabin and on looking around the dim interior saw a cot against one wall and carried her carefully over whilst Slim went out to the pump to fetch some cold water.
He returned moments later with James and the boy ran over to his Ma crying out in distress.
“It’s OK,” Jess said quickly, “she just passed out, needs some food and water I guess,” he added peering around for any sign of sustenance.
The boy shrugged, “There’s some soup I think.”
“OK you go stir up that fire and heat some up huh, your Ma will be just fine in a few minutes.”
Slim had been gently bathing her face with the cool water and moments later she stirred full of apologies.
Once she had finished the soup and had a welcome coffee, Abby was looking much better. She had blond hair braided in the Indian way, large blue intelligent eyes and a shapely figure…that didn’t go unnoticed by Jess.
“I’m so sorry,” she apologized again, “what must you think of me?
“I think yer one sorely tried lady doin’ the best you can,” Jess said honestly.
“Look,” Slim broke in, “we’re camping nearby, why don’t we pull a few fish out of the lake and come back at suppertime and cook them up for you and the boy and maybe talk through your options too huh?”
She gave a huge sigh of relief, “I would be so grateful, thank you Mr Sherman.”
“Slim,” he grinned and the men left to return to their campsite.
“Nice woman,” Jess said as they rode back, “but I don’t like her chances of surviving out here for long. Not with that crazy Red Wolf kicking off the way he is… only a matter of time before he finds them.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Slim agreed. My Pa and Chief Red Bear were good friends and Pa invited him to hunt here anytime he liked. Of course, all that changed when they went on the reservation, but I’m sure Red Wolf knows about this place and could easily come looking.”
“We need to get ‘em out fer sure,” Jess agreed.
Then he snapped his fingers, “How about the mountain folk…Rebecca and Tobias Finnegan. I guess if anyone can understand their plight it’s those two, what with Rebecca being’ half Arapaho an’ all.”
“Brilliant!” Slim said, “We’ll suggest it at supper.”

Chapter 4
When they returned to the cabin later that afternoon with their catch Abby was looking much better.
She was dressed in the Indian style with a buckskin dress decorated with beads and moccasins on her dainty feet. But her blond hair and peaches and cream complexion she could have passed for an Arapahoe squaw.
She noted Jess taking in her dress and said quietly, “We had to leave the camp quickly so all we took were the clothes we were wearing.”
“There’s nothing wrong with buckskins,” young James said hotly, entering the cabin and throwing Jess an angry look. “My Grandfather wears them.”
“Hush dear; remember your manners,” Abby reprimanded him. “Go and wash up for supper.”
Once he’d left, she apologized for his behavior.
“It’s hard for the boy,” Jess said, “pulled between two different worlds the way he is. You can’t blame him for being fond of his grand pappy.”
“I know,” she said sitting down before the fire and gesturing for Jess and Slim to do likewise, “but sadly the Chief was so devastated by my husband’s death that he retired to his bed. He had no idea that Red Wolf was plotting to kill us. Luckily, I overheard him talking the night after my husband had died.”
She sighed deeply looking close to tears. But after a moment continued, “So James and I left that very night, taking just our clothes, a little food and an old horse that had been put out to grass.”
“Yes, James said your horse had died,” Jess said.
“Even more reason to get out now,” Slim said seriously. “If anything did happen you’ve no way of escape at all.”
She nodded, “I know but what can I do?”
That was when Slim suggested his idea…
“And you really think this Rebecca and Tobias would take us in?” She asked looking incredulous.
“Sure,” Jess said, “Rebecca will understand your plight being half Arapahoe herself. She had a tough time when she was younger too…until she met Tobias. You see the thing is with the Mountain folk they care for their own and if you join their community, you won’t be judged, the way some other white folk might do.”
She nodded, “I understand all about that. When we were wed and we went back to the tribe we just weren’t accepted. Even the chief was reluctant to let us make our home there. So, after a while we moved on and met a wonderful old rancher north of Cheyenne. He judged a man by the work he did and the way he treated folk…not by the colour of his skin.”
“Way it should be,” Jess said softly.
She nodded, “We were happy there, working hard and had a real home with old Mr Hanson. James was born and we were one happy family…until the old man died that is.”
“Uh-uh,” said Slim, “so what happened?”
“His younger brother inherited the ranch and threw us out the day after the funeral. So, we decided to try and have another go at living with the tribe. My dear husband Running Bear said his son had experienced life with the white man, but he wanted him to understand the Arapahoe way of life too.”
“Makes sense,” Jess agreed.
“Yes, and when Chief Red Bear knew he had a grandson he was so very happy and accepted us at last,” she said smiling at the memory of the Chief’s first encounter with young James…or, White Wolf as his grandfather had renamed him.
“But I guess, your brother-in-law, Red Wolf, weren’t quite so pleased to see you?” Jess said.
She nodded, “You see the hierarchy of the tribe goes from father to eldest son…and then his son. So, with Running Bear back in the tribe he would have been made Chief after Red Bear died instead of Red Wolf. Then if anything happened to Running Bear, then his son… James…er White Wolf would have been made Chief.”
“A pretty good reason fer gettin’ rid of you two then,” Jess said.
She nodded sadly.
“So, what does James make of all this?” Slim asked.
She shrugged, “As you say he is pulled two ways. He loves his grandfather, but he is old enough to understand he is in danger in the camp. So, he will stay with me until he is older…and maybe things will change,” she said hopefully.
“The way Red Wolf is acting right now he’s as likely as not to get himself killed,” Jess mused, “he’s really out of control and there are a good few trigger-happy ranchers out there, intent of protecting their property.”
She shuddered, “He was always a wild one, the Chief despairs of him.”
“Yeah, well he needs to git himself out of his bed and sort the guy out before someone else does it permanently,” Jess muttered.
Then James returned and the discussion came to an end.


Abby was finally convinced that staying with the mountain dwellers was a good idea, at least in the short term, whilst she considered their position. So, they rode out the following morning, with their meager possessions in two small valises.
She and James rode double with Slim and Jess as far as the old Trading Post. Here Jess negotiated a deal with Billy-Joe and managed to acquire a steady old mare for Abby and fit young pony for James.
“How did you manage that?” Abby asked when the transaction was done and the animals bought for a song.
Jess winked at her, “Well see I broke ‘em ma’am and know exactly how much they’re worth…and on top of that Billy-Joe and I are good friends, so he did a me a good deal.”
Abby produced the right money from her bag, but Jess cast Slim a quick glance before saying, “That’s OK ma’am, have them as a gift.”
“Oh, I really couldn’t,” she said decisively, “I have plenty of money…saved from when we were at the ranch. I worked independently while we were there as a teacher in town and managed to save quite a bit of money over the years I worked. There isn’t much call for cash on the Reservation,” she added.
Jess shrugged and accepted the money and said, “Sorry…I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“Oh, you haven’t,” she said looking up quickly, “it’s just that I promised myself I would never be beholden to any man again. I must learn to stand on my own two feet now,” she added, “you do understand Mr Harper?”
Jess grinned at her then and said, “Sure I do…and its Jess remember.”
She smiled back, “Thank you Jess.”
They made good time and stopped to camp the night halfway to the mountains that lay just beyond Rawlins.
They were enjoying a final coffee before turning in, James already abed, when Abby asked, “How did you meet these mountain folk?”
Slim said, “Long story, but the way was, our young ward Mike was out on the range alone and took a tumble from his pony. He was knocked out and lost his memory for a while.”
“Oh, my goodness,” she said looking shocked, “the poor boy.”
Jess shook his head, “He was really out of order, he’d been told not to ride out alone…but kids…” and he shrugged.
“He was tryin’ to prove he could round up cattle as well as we could and he broke the rule of riding alone,” Slim said grinning. Then he sobered, “But I guess he learnt the hard way that rules are there for a reason.”
“So, what happened?” Abby asked.
“Tobias and Rebecca came along on their way back up the mountain from a fur trading trip in Laramie, found the boy and took him off with them,” Jess said.
“But why, surely they should have handed him over to the law?”
Slim nodded, “Indeed they should, but the kid wasn’t making much sense because he had a bad concussion. So, they thought maybe he was a little simple and had been abandoned. Whatever way it was they kept him for nigh on two months before we tracked him down.”
“You must have been furious and so worried,” Abby said softly…imagining James in a similar circumstance.
Jess nodded, “At first, yes. But later we understood how it happened. You see they explained everything about thinking he’d been left by his family. Then the fact that Rebecca couldn’t have a baby herself and was real desperate for a kid…well, I reckon we felt kinda sorry for her and so we forgave them in the end. They are real good folk and looked after him well…and over the years we’ve kept in touch.” (* See #8 The Runaway, and #10 The Mountain Adventure.)
“And the great thing is that Rebecca and Tobias finally have their own boy now,” Slim added grinning happily.
“Gee young George must be six or seven now,” Jess said.
“Seven last Birthday,” Slim confirmed, “Miss Daisy our housekeeper keeps in touch,” he added, “writes regularly.”
“You said it was a closely knit community,” Abby said smiling, “do they have close neighbors with children maybe that James could play with?”
“Well sure,” Slim said quickly, “the Hudson family, Wes and Jane have a shack just down the track and they’ve got a whole bunch of kids.” But then his face fell. “Oh no darn it, they moved on to California didn’t they.”
Abby turned quickly to where she had heard Jess give a quick intake of breath and was surprised to see his face had drained of colour.
“Sorry buddy, I’d forgotten,” Slim said quickly.
Then turning back to Abby said, “But yes there are about a dozen families up there, many with young ‘uns.”
A few moments later Jess made his excuses saying he was going to check on the horses before turning in.
“Is he alright?” Abby asked quietly as she watched Jess amble off towards where the animals were tethered.
Slim shook his head sadly, but then rallied and merely said, “Sure, it’s just that the Hudsons were real good friends and he misses them… we all do,” he added.


They rode up the mountain early the following day and Jess decided to peel off and go find a couple of rabbits for supper.
“You see the mountain folk don’t have an awful lot,” he explained to Abby, “and I’d hate them to go short of rations just because they’ve got extra mouths to feed.”
“Of course,” Abby said looking troubled, “I should hate to be a burden on them.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” She asked turning to Slim.
“Heck yes,” he said grinning at her, “you’ll be made real welcome, once they get to know you,” he added honestly.
Jess gave a little salute and said he’d see them later after he’d got something for the pot and rode off.
As expected, when they neared the old cabin that Rebecca and Tobias called home, Tobias came out wielding his rifle and demanding roughly they stay put and state their business. But just seconds later he threw down the rifle and tore across to where Slim had already dismounted. Now Tobias’s rugged features were wreathed in smiles and he shook Slim’s hand firmly beaming at him and then at Abby and James.
“Slim,” he said joyfully, “it’s so dang good to see you!”
Then turning he yelled, “Rebecca, Georgie, looky who’s here!”
Rebecca dressed in her usual buckskins and moccasins flew out of the door closely followed by the cheerful redheaded young George.
Introductions were made and George quickly took James off to see his new pony whilst the adults made their way into the cabin.
From the outside it had looked quite small and shabby, so Abby was delighted to find the interior quite spacious and neat as a new pin. There was a huge fireplace on the far wall with a large couch and chairs around. To one side there was a long dining table and beyond that a door leading to the kitchen.
Once their guests were all seated Rebecca said, “Where’s Jess, Slim? Minding the ranch?”
Nope he said grinning at her, “He’s stopping on the way to pick off some game for supper, that’s if were invited,” he added with a grin.
“You, Jess and your friends are welcome to stay just as long as you like, you know that Slim,” Tobias said smiling over at Abby.
However, when Slim turned back to Rebecca, he was surprised to see how troubled she looked at the prospect of seeing Jess, especially as he knew how fond she was of his partner.
“Uh… coffee everyone?” She asked now and rising added, “Maybe you’d come help me Slim?”
Once they were alone in the kitchen Slim looked puzzled and said, “What’s up Rebecca, you want to see Jess, don’t you?”
“Oh of course,” she said her face relaxing into a warm smile. “It’s just…well there is something you need to know.”
He sat down at the kitchen table and once the coffee pot was on the stove, she joined him.
“It’s Jane and the children they’ve come home…”
Slim’ s jaw dropped and after a moment he said, “But why? I thought they were happy, settled to their new life in California.”
“They were,” Rebecca agreed, “well Wes was, Jane not so much. But then Wes died, just a few months ago.”
Slim looked upset, “Gee, I didn’t even know he was sick.”
“No, I didn’t mention it in my letters to Daisy…uh Jane didn’t want you…well Jess really, to know about the tragedy.”
“Go on,” Slim said softly.
“Well, he seemed fine and then just upped and died of a heart attack…so sudden. Nobody expected it. Then Jane wrote and said she was heading home. As you know, her eldest daughter Ellie May married her beau Homer Jackson and they live up here just across the ridge. Jane had never really settled and the kids missed their friends so she sold up and headed back.”
Slim took all this in and then said, “And you say she didn’t want Jess to know?”
Rebecca sighed, “You know the way they were together Slim. Jess truly loved her…and she him I do believe, but he wouldn’t come between a husband and wife. Then Jane realized she couldn’t betray Wes and when Jess rode out, she vowed she would never see him again, for both their sakes.”
Slim nodded, “Yeah, I know all about that. Jess took it real hard. He told me he could never betray Wes that way and so he agreed never to see them again. Took him months to get over it and even now…” He just shook his head, remembering his pard’ s reaction just the previous night when the family had come up in conversation.
“Yes, and now he’s promised his life to Millie,” Rebecca said.
When Slim glanced up looking surprised, she smiled, “Oh yes Daisy tells me everything in her lovely long letters and I pass some of the news on to Jane.”
“So, she knows Jess and Millie are together and that’s why she didn’t want Jess to know she was back… in case it made things difficult for him?”
She nodded, “From what Daisy says Millie is the love of his life and I doubt anyone could come between them. But it’s Jane who I’m worried about. If she sees Jess again, I just know she will be smitten once more and it could never be the way she would wish. All it would do would be to cause her misery…and she’s had enough of that lately.”
“Jess and Millie are meant to be together,” Slim agreed. “Sure, they’ve had a few ups and downs lately,” he acknowledged, remembering how frustrated Jess was currently at not seeing his gal for so long, “but he loves her Rebecca.”
“Well may I suggest that we don’t mention Jane and just hope you are on your way before they accidentally meet up?”
Slim nodded, “Sure I agree…we’ll stay the night and be off at first light,” then he went on to explain the purpose of their visit.

Chapter 5

Meanwhile Jess was nearing the old Hudson spread. He told himself that as the land had been abandoned for so long there would be wild life in abundance ready for him to pick off. But in his heart though he knew he just wanted to look at the old cabin one last time…even though he believed the family were no longer in residence.
The terrain was wild and rocky with many bushes and trees for the rabbits to vanish behind. However, before too long he got a couple of chubby little critters in his sights and fired off two shots in quick succession killing them both instantly. He grinned at his sharp shooting, pretty good bagging the pair in one go he thought…But before he could even ride towards his quarry a horse reared up from where it had been hidden from view beyond a small rocky outcrop and then it bolted for the hills.
Seeing that the critter was saddled Jess made his way quickly over to the rocks to help the fallen rider. He dismounted and hurried over to the figure lying so still in the dirt. It was a woman, her dark hair and slender figure vaguely familiar. He bent down beside the unconscious woman and gently turned her over before gasping in disbelief. “Jane, dear God…Jane?”
He peered down into her paper white face a trickle of blood at her temple… “Jeez,” he muttered softly. Hell had a bullet gone wide, had he shot her? But no, there were two dead rabbits just feet away…she must have banged her head on a rock when her mount threw her.
Traveller had ambled over and he quickly reached up for his canteen and removing his bandana moistened it and gentle wiped away the blood with the cool water.
After a few minutes her eyes flickered open and she looked straight up into his troubled eyes.
Then her eyes opened even wider in amazement and she whispered, “Jess, dear Lord…is that really you?”
He nodded and then said softly, “Where does it hurt?”
She stretched warily and then tried to sit up, but as soon as she put some weight on her hand she cried out in pain.
Jess took her wrist and moved it gingerly and after a moment said, “It looks to be badly sprained, don’t think it’s broke.”
He carefully hauled her up and helped her to a rock where she sat back down looking very shaky. Jeez, but she was so light he noted. Looking so frail and almost as though she might snap in two if she was held too tightly…what was wrong he wondered anxiously.
Then she looked up to where Jess was standing over her and said, “I just can’t believe it, what are you doing here?”
“Never mind that,” he countered, “what in hell are you doin’ here? I thought you were in California.”
She swallowed hard and looked down before saying, “Wes died, so we came home.”
“Died?” Jess whispered, looking deeply shocked, “How? When? Hell, why didn’t you tell me you were back?”
“A few months ago, from a heart attack,” she said, “and I think you know why I didn’t tell you, we made a promise, remember?”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Sure, he’d promised…they’d both promised never to see each other again…but that was for Wes’s sake, for her marriage’s sake…but all that had changed now.
“I’m so dang sorry.” He whispered.
But whether it was for her sad loss or he was sorry for their promise to part forever she couldn’t tell.
His heart was beating ten to the dozen as he looked down at her…and he waited for the old feelings to surface…the rising desire, the butterflies in his belly…but no. Sure he did feel overwhelming compassion for her and the deep affection for a dear friend. But he was not aroused. Then he had a sudden vision of Millie sitting in the Stage waving as she left town and he knew at once that he could never betray her. Right then he was thinking of Jane as a friend, and that was how it must remain he told himself. No way would he risk everything by getting too close again.
“I’ll… I’ll go fetch yer mount,” he said quickly and strode off purposely.
Jane watched him go, her heart beating wildly in her chest then as she shook her head a wave of dizziness threatened to overwhelm her. She couldn’t do this, not lose him all over again. But she knew in her heart that it was hopeless. Even if he were free, which he was not, she knew that her overwhelming grief would make any future for them impossible. How could she commit to another when she was still suffering the anguish of loss? She must be strong and resist opening up old wounds…remembering how desolate she had been when he’d ridden away all those years ago.
When he returned, he said, “Hang it all Jane what were you thinkin’ getting up on this fellah? He’s barely green broke, no wonder he spooked that way.”
She looked up at him defiantly, “Because I didn’t have any darned choice. Katie usually hunts for the pot, but she’s sick right now and the larder’s empty.”
“She’s, OK? It’s nothing serious?”
“It was yes, a chill that turned to lung fever. I had the devil of a job keeping her in bed,” Jane replied ruefully. “But she’s recovering well, just not up to hunting yet awhile.”
Jess remembered feisty young Kate and giving Jane a grin said, “And I bet she broke this guy too?” He asked patting the young mustang’s rump.
Jane nodded, “She warned me he wasn’t ready to be ridden yet, but I had no choice. I loaned my usual mount to a neighbor, to go to town for medicine for his sick wife.”
Jess shook his head, “You always were too dang kind hearted, come on let’s get ya home.”
He helped her up on Traveller. Then riding double and leading the green broke mustang they made their way the short distance to the cabin.
Jess had his arm around her waist and Jane laid her head back against his shoulder. Her mind was spinning and her heart practically leaping from her chest as she tried hard to relax and act normally.
When they arrived Kate came running out, dressed in her nightshirt, but with a shawl thrown casually around her shoulder.
Jess stared at her in wonder. She was still the redheaded spirited youngster he remembered, but now at sixteen she had bloomed into a real stunner.
“Well, howdy Jess,” the girl said nonchalantly, as though he had just been away a few days, “good ta see ya again.”
“You too,” Jess said sliding down from his mount before helping Jane down.
Then turning back to Kate said, “You sure grew up some sweetheart, yer a real young lady now.”
She shrugged, “I’m still as good a shot as you Jess Harper and a better cook too!”
Jess chuckled at that, remembering the first time they had met when the eleven-year-old Kate had shot a moose he and Slim had in their sights.
However, Jane looked annoyed.
“Goodness child mind your manners, especially after Jess has kindly given us his kill for our larder.”
Kate just shrugged and said cheerfully, “Sorry Jess.”
Then looking at the two plump rabbits said, “So that’s the best you can do huh?”
“I was just starting out when I came across yer Ma…she had a nasty fall off of that mustang you were breaking,” Jess replied, ignoring the jibe.
“Yes breaking…not broke yet,” Kate said looking annoyed, “I did tell ya Ma.”
Then she came over closer and suddenly noticed her mother’s now swollen and bruised wrist and cut to her head.
“Heck I’m really sorry Ma, I didn’t realize you were hurt bad, come on in and I’ll fix you up and make some coffee too.”
“You’ll stay huh Jess?” She said turning to where he was just wondering what he should do.
Just ride out, his head said… stay and help them out some, his heart replied.
He grinned at Kate and said, “That sounds real good.”
Then before they could go inside little Amy burst out of the door wanting to know who was visiting.
She stopped in her tracks as soon as she saw Jess, her eyes open wide and her mouth forming an ‘O’ before she cried out in delight, “Jess, oh Jess, I knew you’d come…I just knew it!” and she ran over and threw herself into his arms.
He picked her up hugging her before placing her safely back on the ground and looked down at the pretty child.
“Jeepers you sure grew up too,” he said laughing as he remembered the little five-year-old who had pledged undying love for him all those years ago.
“I’m almost grown up now she said proudly, I’m nearly eleven.” Then she looked past him and saw Traveller, the second love of her life.
“Oh, you’ve still got Traveller,” she said in delight, “may I go pet him, Jess?”
“Sure you can honey,” and he handed her some sugar lumps from his shirt pocket, “give him these and then a good drink OK?”
Then Blue who had been inspecting some interesting smells way across the yard romped over and Amy gasped, “Gee…is that your wolf Jess?”
Jane who had already been introduced said, “He’s half dog Amy and Jess assures me he’s very friendly.”
At that Blue went over to the child, his tail wagging happily and mouth open in a sloppy grin.
Amy patted his head gently and Blue immediately rolled on his back exposing his huge belly to be tickled.
“It’s no good…I guess I ain’t number one anymore,” Jess said chuckling as they left Amy romping ecstatically with Blue.
Once inside Kate went off to the kitchen to brew the coffee and find some bandages for her Ma, and Jane showed Jess into the main room.
He remembered it all so vividly, the couch he had slept on when he had stayed with them and Jane had nursed him through broken ribs after a bad fall. Then how they had gradually fallen for each other and how he had been sorely tempted to take their relationship further. However, he had not done so because he just couldn’t betray her husband. Wes was a good man and didn’t deserve that kind of betrayal. So, he had ridden out and made that promise, never to see her again.
Now he pulled himself together and smiling across at her said, “So where’s the little ‘un? He should be running around causing mischief by now I guess, how old is he now, about five?”
The colour drained form Jane’s face and she suddenly looked quite old and ill.
“What’s up?” He asked quickly, thinking her injured wrist was paining her.
“We believe Joshua died,” she whispered, “on the Wagon Train coming home from California.”
He remembered the night back at the ranch when it was so hot he couldn’t sleep and had wandered out to the porch. Jane and her family were staying there on their way to a trade fair in Laramie. Baby Joshua was fractious and Jane had been walking him around the yard to calm him and had then seen Jess on the porch and joined him.
Now he had a vision of him sitting out on the old porch rocker in the moonlight, holding baby Joshua. His downy head resting just below his chin as he talked softly to Jane and rocked the baby to sleep.
He swallowed hard, feeling tears stinging the back of his eyes.
“No,” he gasped.
She just nodded, tears now streaming down her face.
“You believe he’s dead?” he queried. “You don’t know for sure? What happened?”
“The Wagon Train was in the middle of nowhere when the attack came. It was about 100 miles north of here, on our way home, just two months ago.”
She shook her head, her lip trembling, “I’m sorry Jess this so hard for me.”
He waited patiently, his eyes never leaving her face.
After a moment she gained control and said, “Amy was sick with the chicken pox, I was in the wagon and Katie and Josh outside when the Indian attack came out of nowhere. By the time I got down from the wagon there was no sign of Katie or Josh. Somehow in all the mayhem they became separated. Katie thought he’d come back to the wagon looking for me.”
“But he hadn’t?”
“No…somehow he must have got lost and that’s when one of the Indians grabbed him.”
Jess gasped in consternation, “You’re sure?”
“Absolutely, the Wagon Master saw it all, but before he could act the Indian had him up on his horse and had disappeared into the crowd of braves.”
“But surely when you arrived back in civilization, you tried to find him?”
“Of course we did, the military spent days searching the area. Then once the troubles were over and the Indians back on the reservation, they visited again turning the place over, but no sign of him…not a trace.”
Jess just stared at her in shock. That sweet little kid at the mercy of the renegades, it didn’t bear thinking about.
We just don’t talk of him anymore Jess it’s just too painful, you see the army came to the conclusion that he must no longer be alive,” she whispered.
That did it for Jess. He went over and took her in his arms, holding her close as she gave in to heart-wrenching sobs…whilst he tried to blink his own tears back.

Chapter 6
It was mid afternoon by the time Jess finally rode into the yard of the Finnegan place. As per usual Tobias came out as soon as he heard someone riding into the yard, but lowered his gun when he saw who it was.
“Well, howdy Jess, good to see ya…You’re expected,” he added grinning, “Your pard and friends landed some time back.”
“Yeah… sorry about that,” Jess said looking away, “I had trouble finding some game,” and he nodded to where a young buck was lashed behind his saddle, “until I came upon this critter,” he added.
Tobias grinned and went to inspect the kill, “A gift?” He asked raising an eyebrow.
“Well sure, of course it is. Least we can do if we’re staying awhile,” he replied
“Oh, well according to your pard you’ve gotta head out at first light,” Tobias said. “But me and Becca are happy for you to stay as long as you want…you know that, Jess. It seems yer pard is keen on goin’ a huntin’ though.”
Then he suddenly raised his rifle again as Blue tore down the trail and into the yard, from where he had again been off exploring some interesting scents.
Jess quickly grabbed the rifle barrel and yelled, “Don’t shoot Tobias, he’s my dog, he ain’t a wolf … not pure anyways,” he added.
Sensing the drama Blue skidded to a standstill and looked at Tobias warily…his ears back and one paw raised as he stood stock still.
“It’s OK boy come here,” Jess called and Blue immediately obeyed jumping joyously around his master all fear forgotten.
“By jingo he is a darned dog too,” Tobias grinned in surprise, “he sure looks like a dang wolf though Jess boy!”
Then they were joined by Rebecca and George. Blue was made a huge fuss of by the boy and Rebecca was given a big hug and kiss on the cheek by Jess.
Then Abby and James arrived, along with Slim.
“What kept you, Jess?” He asked. “Rebecca was all for waiting for you at dinner time.”
“Sorry,” Jess said quickly giving Rebecca an apologetic grin. “I had a problem finding something for the pot.”
“He sure made up for it my dear,” Tobias said jovially as he indicated the deer.
“Well, we’ll dine well tonight,” Rebecca said cheerfully.
Then she smiled at the handsome cowboy, “Come on in Jess and tell me all your news” she said taking his arm.
A while later Jess excused himself to go tend to Traveller. He was just rubbing him down in the barn when he was joined by Slim.
He glanced up and then returned to his task as Slim leaned on the stall watching Jess closely.
After a while he said, “So why were you really so long…and don’t give me that rubbish about not finding anything for the pot, we both know these hills are teeming with game.”
When Jess merely shrugged and said nothing Slim continued.
“And what’s all this about staying a while huh? We agreed we’d drop Abby and the boy off and make tracks for Yellowstone, like we’d planned to before we met them.”
Jess turned to look at Slim and said, “I thought it would be nice to catch up with the Finnegans, it’s been a while.”
“And, uh Jane Hudson too maybe?” Slim asked looking irritated.
Jess’ head shot up.
He turned to Slim looking flushed and angry, “You knew didn’t ya… Hell how long have you known she was back? Have you and Daisy been keeping it from me?”
Slim shook his head, “Heck no, of course not…I only heard this morning. So, you have been with her then?”
Jess hung his head and took a deep breath before looking up and fixing Slim with an uncompromising stare, “You got a problem with that?” He asked coming out of the stall and elbowing Slim out of his way.
“No but I guess Jane will have…according to Rebecca. And anyway, I thought you both vowed never to meet again?”
Jess sighed deeply, “Things change.”
And then looking angry, “And what the Hell’s it got to do with you, or Rebecca either if it comes to that.”
“We care about you both,” Slim exploded. “Rebecca is worried about Jane anyway; she’s still not over Wes dying yet. She barely eats or sleeps, the last thing she needs is an entanglement with you. And I’m worried about you too. I know how hard it hit you last time… please tell me you aren’t going to rake up the past again.”
“Look Slim will you quit jumping to conclusions, she needs me right now that’s all.”
“So, what about Millie doesn’t she need you too, or have you conveniently forgotten about her?”
Jess turned and balled a fist and for one moment, Slim thought he might lash out and punch him.
But he took a deep breath and turned away, slumping down on a straw bale. “No, I ain’t forgotten Millie. Even if she’s forgotten me,” he added in a whisper.
Then looking up at Slim said, “This ain’t what you think, she needs help. Young Katie is sick and there’s a green broke mustang gonna kill someone iffen it ain’t broke proper. They need food for the pot and the old house needs attention too.”
“So, you’re thinking of stepping into Wes’ shoes, are you?” Slim countered. “I seem to remember something like this in the past and those young kids got real attached to you Jess. What are Katie and young Amy going to feel when you ride out and leave them again huh? Not to mention their cute little baby brother Joshua…”
There was suddenly a deathly silence as Jess stared at Slim for a full minute his eyes registering deep sorrow before he finally managed, “Nope I guess Joshua won’t be missing anyone…see he’s dead Slim.” And with that he walked out of the barn without looking back.


Once supper was over and the children all abed the adults discussed how best Abby and young James could be integrated into the community.
It had already become clear to Abby that there was precious little spare room at the Finnegan’s shack and she really didn’t want to be a burden on them. Certainly, they had been very welcoming and said they would all manage somehow. Abby had taken to Rebecca at once and although they were very different Abby felt they would become good friends. Abby was well educated and a trained teacher, but she was totally in awe of Rebecca’s vast knowledge of Indian medicine and also Indian wisdom.
Now as she sat before the roaring fire with all these new friends, she felt truly blessed…but where and how could she and James fit in?
It was Slim who was to provide an answer that was perfect.
He too was aware of the cramped conditions and after discussing the matter with Rebecca earlier he thought he had the answer.
Now he smiled at the amassed company and said diplomatically. “Uh I’ve been thinking maybe Jane Hudson and her family might like you to stay with them for a while Abby? Until you decide whether you and James want to settle here or not, I guess she has the room now, what with her eldest daughter Ellie-May married…and Wes uh… no longer with us.”
“Oh, the friends you mentioned on the trail,” she asked looking pleased. “You must be so glad they have returned home,” she added turning to include Jess in her happy smile.
“Uh yes we are,” Slim said casting an anxious glance in Jess’s direction, before turning to Rebecca.
“You think she’d be glad of the company?”
“Oh yes,” she agreed, “I believe that’s just what she needs, the companionship of a like minded woman…who has shared similar experiences.”
Then turning to Jane said, “She too is recently widowed and can understand your plight my dear.”
“It sounds perfect,” Abby agreed, “if you really think she would want us staying?”
“I’ll sound her out tomorrow,” Rebecca said smiling, “but I’m pretty sure it would be the perfect arrangement.”
And also provide a chaperone she thought privately as she glanced over to where Jess was now chatting to Tobias about the work that needed doing on the Hudson place and a proposed hunting trip.


The following morning as promised Rebecca made her way over to the Hudson cabin whilst Abby minded the young ‘uns.
Slim, Jess and Tobias had taken off at first light on a short hunting expedition to get some game for both families. Jess had registered his concern about the lack of food in Jane’s kitchen and so the men decided that both larders should be full to bursting by the end of the day.
Now it was nearly noon and they were lounging around a camp fire drinking coffee as they relaxed; gunny sacks full of game for the pots.
“If yer still planning’ on stayin’ around a tad longer I figure the three of us could fix up that extension old Wes started years back, but never finished. That would give young James and Abby all the space they need.” Tobias said glancing over at Slim, knowing he really wanted to be off.
But old Jess there was determined to stay and help, that he knew…and the reason as to why troubled him some. He sure wanted Slim along to ride shot gun on Jess should he start rocking the boat.
He knew all about the history between Jane and Jess and as far as he was concerned then why not? He’d sure like Jess as a neighbor. But Rebecca was worried that Jess wouldn’t commit, what with him already being promised to that cute Millie. Well that sure would upset poor Jane if they got real close again and then he just rode out on her, he could see that. He sipped his coffee and figured that sort of conundrum should be left to the women folk to sort out.
Raising the coffee pot he said, “More coffee…and who’s for a drop of red eye in it huh?” Yup that was the answer to most knotty problems he figured, and he grinned happily at his friends.
Jess was the first to reply in the affirmative, passing his mug over.
“Sure, we’ll stay and help you out with the extension, won’t we Slim?” He said glancing over to his partner.
“Sure, be glad to,” Slim said through clenched teeth, secretly throwing Jess a dark look.


When Rebecca returned from her visit to Jane Hudson’s place, she was surprised to find the children sitting around the table, books, paper and pencils in front of them and clearly some sort of lesson in progress.
Abby jumped up as Rebecca entered looking a tad flustered.
“I do hope you don’t mind, but I was having my usual teaching session with young James and Georgie asked to be included.”
“Well of course I don’t mind,” Rebecca said, pulling off her bonnet and taking a seat beside her son and admiring his lettering.
“In fact, I’m delighted,” she added. “Truth be known I have been a little remiss about George’s spelling and ciphering, since we’ve had to start teaching the children at home,”
“Oh, so there isn’t a local school?” Abby asked, looking surprised and knowing there were a fair number of children in the settlement.
“Oh yes, there is one in town down the mountain, but we all decided to stop sending the children there a while back.”
“A few months ago, there were problems with the Indians. Well, you know as well as I do my dear, about the objectionable ways of your brother-in-law, Red Wolf, lately. He took to gathering with some other braves, drinking and hanging around in the woods at the foot of the mountain. We were all scared for the women’s safety and the young ‘un’s too…”
“I can understand that,” Abby said looking fearful herself now. “So, they frequent these parts?”
“Not anymore, no. The local Sheriff and his men, along with the Military, saw to that and they haven’t been around for a good while. So, we sent the children back down the mountain to school, but everything had changed. The schoolmaster, a strict man, had been replaced by a very young lady teacher.”
“Oh, and she was having difficulties with the discipline?”
“Precisely my dear…our youngsters were being bullied terribly by some of the older boys and things came to a head a few weeks ago. Tobias and some of the other parents went down to try and sort the matter out. But they were met with hostility from some of the town’s folk and the matter just couldn’t be resolved. In the end we decided we’d all teach our own children.” She sighed then and rolled her eyes, “But I guess there is more to it than we thought.”
Abby smiled knowingly, “Yes you could say that,” she agreed.
Then she looked very thoughtful and after a moment beamed at her new friend.
“This is wonderful,” she said. “I’d been hoping for a way to really be accepted by this community and now I think I’ve found it. You see I am a qualified teacher, with many years of experience, Rebecca, and if you’ll all have me, I would be happy to be the first teacher of the Rawlins Mountain School!”
Rebecca’s eyes opened wide in wonderment, “Oh that would be just perfect!” she exclaimed.
Then she said, “And my good news is that Jane is very keen to meet you, and if you hit it off then I do believe she would be happy to welcome you to share her home.”

Chapter 7
Meanwhile as Rebecca and Abby were catching up, Slim, Jess and Tobias landed at the Hudson spread to deliver Jane’s share of the spoils from the early morning hunt.
As they dismounted Tobias called out and moments later the door opened and they were joined by Jane and her family.
She was delighted with the abundance of gifts and quickly invited them in whilst Kate and Amy helped Jess to hang the gunny sacks of game in the barn to be butchered later.
When they entered the house Slim and Tobias were already seated around the fire a coffee apiece as Jane shared her news of the possibility of Abby and James moving in with them.
“I would be grateful of the company to be honest,” she said turning her beautiful green eyes on Slim. “I have felt a little lost without another adult to discuss problems with, so she would be most welcome. If she feels she could put up with my lot,” she added with a little chuckle as Amy and Kate bounced in followed by Jess.
Slim watched intently as Jess removed his hat, said howdy to Jane and took a seat near her and the look that crossed between the pair wasn’t lost on Slim. Oh yes there was still some kinda spark there he noticed as Jess took the proffered cup from Jane and she looked away quickly flushing a little, as their hands touched, before sitting back down again.
Hiding the moment she hurriedly continued her conversation, “So I would love you to bring everyone over for supper tonight and Abby and I can visit a little. Get to know one another,” she said addressing Tobias.
Then turning to Slim said, “Of course you and Jess must come too, as a little thank you for the wonderful additions to my larder…such a relief,” she admitted.
“Don’t fret Ma,” Kate piped up, “I’m nearly all better now and I can start huntin’ again real soon. Once I’ve gotten that ornery ol’ bronc busted proper that is,” she added.
“No, you ain’t,” Jess said protectively, “I reckon I’ll get her green broke for ya.”
“Won’t take too long,” he added, casting Slim an apologetic glance.
“Aw Jess you’re no fun!” Kate exclaimed, her mother’s deep green eyes flashing angrily, “I can do it ya know!”
“Sure, I know you can, but yer Ma wants you fit and healthy to do the job you do best, huntin’ and fishing’ for the pot huh.”
The child looked slightly mollified at that and merely said, “OK, I guess yer right, but I wanna help.”
To which Jess agreed with a friendly wink.
Then the conversation turned to the completion of the extension.
Jane’s eye lit up at the notion, “You really think you could do that for us Tobias?” She asked.
“Well sure iffen Jess and Slim can spare a few days out of their huntin’ trip. I figure we could get it up and ready for Abby and James to move in by the end of the week, what say you two?”
“Well …er…” Slim started, but Jess jumped in.
“Sure, we can do that can’t we pard?” he said, his eyes pleading as he turned to Slim.
Slim looked at Jess and over to Jane’s eager face and then back to Tobias, “Sure, we can do that,” he agreed.
“You and Slim could sleep in the barn,” Amy piped up. “It will be just like old times you staying here Jess, please do …please,” she wheedled.
Jess flushed up some and looked down whilst Slim said, “Well I don’t know honey. We don’t want to get under your Ma’s feet.”
But then Tobias said, “I’m not wanting to chuck you two out but you’d be a mite more comfortable over here than camping out in my yard.”
“We’re a tad overcrowded what with Abby and James stayin’ too,” he said to Jane.
“Well, that’s all decided then,” Jane said happily.


Later that evening, back at Tobias’ shack, Jess and Slim had washed up and changed for the proposed dinner party and they went off to saddle up their mounts.
It was the first time they had spent alone together since leaving the Hudson spread and now Slim turned on his pard.
“Just what’s going on Jess?” He asked angrily.
“Oh, come on don’t play the innocent… between you and Jane.”
“Nothin’,” Jess replied hotly.
“Oh yeah sure… I saw the way she was looking at you. As for you… hell you’re as jittery as I’ve seen you in a long while. So, what’s going on?” he repeated.
“I told ya nothin’, I just need to help her out right now. Hell Slim, she’s lost her husband, not to mention the young ‘un… she needs me right now.”
“Looks to me like you need her too,” Slim said dryly, leading his horse away.
Jess stared after him and whispered, “Well maybe I do…some…” Then he remembered Millie, so far away and no word from her in so long and cussed under his breath. It was Millie he needed really. Hell no, Millie he wanted, and he sighed deeply before patting Traveller and leading him off to join the others.
It was clear from the offset that Jane and Abby would become good friends. They had the same sense of humor and their parenting skills were similar. Both mothers believed in their offspring having a certain amount of freedom and responsibilities from a young age.
Maybe that was why an instant bond was formed between James and Amy too…Or maybe it was just because they were of a similar age so understood each other. Once supper was over, they soon ran off together exploring the Hudson spread away from the boring adults.
Slim grinned across at Jess and chuckling said, “Those two remind me of the way you and Millie must have been at that age Jess.”
Then he looked quickly at Jane and noted a small frown, her eyes suddenly bleak.
When Jess said nothing, Tobias said, “So you and yer gal were childhood sweethearts huh Jess?”
“Not really, just good buddies,” Jess said quietly. “It was later…much later when we well…when we…got together.”
There was a pregnant silence and then Rebecca said quickly, “Well I just hope all the children will settle down well together and will be one happy family.”
“Here, here,” said Abby and Jane, and coffee cups were replenished as they enjoyed the good company.
Amy had made sure that Slim and Jess would sleep in the barn and on their arrival had proudly showed them how she had furnished one of the larger stalls with fresh clean hay and thick blankets from her Mama’s store.
Once the party was over and the Finnegans and their guests had departed Jess and Slim went to turn in for the night. But not before Jane had offered a final nightcap of a glass of moonshine.
However, before Jess could reply, Slim said, “No thank you Ma’am we need to be up early to get started on the building work.” With that he ushered Jess out quickly.
Once in the privacy of the barn Jess turned on Slim and said, “There was no need to be so dang rude, she was only being neighborly.”
“Is that what you call it?” Slim said angrily. “Well from where I was sitting that lady wanted more than to share a glass or two of moonshine with you.”
“She asked you too,” Jess replied stubbornly.
“Um…maybe, but I’m telling you Jess she’s still stuck on you and you really shouldn’t be encouraging her.”
“Hell, I ain’t,” Jess said hotly. “I’m just actin’ like a friend… you got a problem with that huh?”
“If that was all it was,” Slim said, more quietly, “but you didn’t see her face when Millie was mentioned Jess.”
Jess merely cussed softly saying his pard was plumb crazy, before going to turn in.
But even so he lay awake into the small hours tossing and turning as he remembered the shared closeness he had once had with Jane.
He was up before first light and when Slim awoke a little later, he was surprised to see Jess up on the recalcitrant mustang, putting her through her paces.
He slipped down from the saddle when Slim came and leaned on the corral fence and said, “She ain’t as wilful as I first thought, I figure a few days of hard work should knock her into shape.”
“So, when do you propose to do that?” Slim asked, “I figure we’ve gotten our work cut out doing this dang building work.”
“Take it easy Slim, I aim to work on this little gal in my down time…early and late and in my lunch break, if that’s OK with you?” he added sarcastically.
Slim just shook his head, but then they were joined by Amy and Kate and the moment passed.
It seemed to Slim that Jess had heeded his words though and although his pard was scrupulously polite to Jane there were no lingering glances or flirting of any sort. In fact, he treated her exactly as he did Daisy, with kindly banter, but no hint of intimacy.
Tobias, Jess and Slim, along with a few other mountain men who had been co-opted, worked long hours on the lean-to extension on the back of the property and the construction was going well, much to Jane’s delight.
The news that Jane’s new lodger was a qualified teacher happy to set up a school specifically for the mountain children had come as a wonderful surprise to the many parents on the mountain. If not to say a huge relief too.
At the news a local man donated the use of his barn to be converted into a school house. He was now very elderly and had no use of the large building as he had moved across the mountain to live with his son.
On exploration the mountain men discovered that the building was in good shape. It was just in need of some makeshift desks, a large black board, plus books, slates and a good loud bell to bring the young ones in from far and wide across the mountain.
Once word got around donations of furniture and fittings came in thick and fast and the presence of their own little school was becoming very real… much to the delight of many a harassed parent.
Even Slim, who had really just wanted to leave as soon as possible and return to their hunting trip, was drawn in by the excitement Abby and James’ arrival had generated. Abby was welcomed by one and all with open arms and as Jess had predicted James was accepted by everyone and was soon integrated into the rough and tumble world of the local children. Amy took him under her wing and introduced him around and it was agreed that the young half Indian boy, whose grandfather was a Chief, was real cool.
The only person to have mixed feelings was Jane. Oh, she really liked her new lodgers and was delighted that a local school would soon be up and running. But she was also in a state of constant disquiet at the strength of her feelings for Jess. Yes, she knew it was wrong, knew that things had moved on for him and he had now made a promise to another. She should be happy for him. But all she felt was despair. The way he looked at her, so kindly, but without that intimate spark she had once known, was torture for her. Part of her wanted the work just to be done and for him to be gone. But another part of her wished he would stay forever and be hers once more. Then at that thought she was pierced with a feeling of terrible guilt at betraying her dear husband’s memory and she once more fell into an agony of grief.
Things came to a head the very next night. The men had worked exceptionally hard all day and then Jess had got up on Renegade, the name Katie had chosen for the young green broke mustang. Now as he lay on his straw bed in the barn, he ached all over, from several nasty falls. Plus, the weather had turned extremely hot and humid and he felt he could hardly breathe in the confines of the stall.
He got up quietly and leaving Slim snoring gently went out into the moonlit yard where there was at least a light breeze moving the air round.
He helped himself to a draught of cool water from the well and then sprawled on the bench outside the barn. He looked over towards the tree covered mountain range before him and felt himself begin to cool down and relax.
He was just thinking of turning in again when a wraith like form drifted towards him from the cabin. As she advanced, he realized it was Jane, dressed in a pure white nightgown, a pale shawl around her shoulders.
“I… I couldn’t sleep either,” she said hesitantly as she took a seat beside him. “I heard the well bucket and thought I’d join you for a little.”
He just nodded, feeling his heart lurch within his chest and start beating faster.
“I was kinda warm, needed to cool off some,” he said softly, “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“Oh, you didn’t,” she said quickly, “like I said, I wasn’t asleep…I sleep badly since….” and her voice trailed off both knowing she was referring to her recent losses.
He nodded again, “Grief can do that to a body,” he said softly, remembering that terrible time when his beloved Maria was shot down in front of him (* See #1 Loved Lost Survived.) “I figure you ain’t eating too much either,” he added noting her frail thin form again. The hollows in her cheeks making her expressive green eyes look huge and very beautiful.
“I…I just can’t,” she whispered.
“You hafta,” he replied urgently, “you’ve still got Katie and Amy to care for and you don’t wanna get sick.”
“Maybe that would be the best all around,” she said, now focusing on the distant mountain range, “I know Rebecca would take them on if I wasn’t around. Maybe they’d be better off if I was dead,” she added harshly.
Jess grabbed hold of her arm and dragged her around so she faced him; “Don’t!” he cried in anguish, “Don’t even think that…”
She pulled herself free of his grasp and tore off towards the corral fence where she stopped, again looking off into the distance.
He followed her and grabbing her arm roughly, again turned her around to face him.
“Tell me” He said his voice deep and rasping, “tell me you won’t do anything stupid.”
“Like kill myself?”
“Yeah, like kill yourself,” he said, his eyes bleak.
She looked down and swallowed hard before looking up into his distraught eyes, “Why, you wouldn’t care…”
He gasped and pulled her into a close embrace before whispering, “Of course I care.”
She pulled back a little so she could look up into his eyes. “You haven’t acted like you do. You’ve been treating me like some maiden aunt,” she said angrily.
“You know why,” he said, “things are different now. I love Millie, I’m gonna marry her… Hell I’m sorry Jane, real sorry, but that’s how it is.”
She nodded, “Yes I know that, but surely we can be how we were when we first met, when we were just real good friends…that wouldn’t hurt would it?”
He sighed deeply and then said, “Of course not sweetheart, we can always be friends,” and pulling her close he kissed the top of her head and said softly, “Maybe now would be a good time for some straight talking.”
Jess took her arm and propelled her gently to the cabin porch where he gestured for her to take a seat as he took the other.
From the barn door Slim swore softly and turned to go back to bed… all ideas of fetching himself a cold drink forgotten.
“What is it?” she asked her eyes huge in the dim light, her expression anxious.
Jess looked out to the distant mountain peaks for inspiration before saying quietly, “I’m real worried about you sweetheart, we all are.”
“There’s no need,” she said quickly sitting bolt upright, her expression uncompromising.
“Well, I think there is,” he said softly, “you’re hardly eating anything, you’re working yourself into the ground. Hell Jane, you look so dang fragile I guess a puff of wind could blow you away. And now yer talking like you wanna end it all.”
“Well, I’m grieving,” she said sharply, “what do you expect?”
“But that’s the whole point,” he said quickly, “You ain’t...are you?”
She frowned crossly, “What do you mean?”
“Oh, come on Jane, you haven’t accepted it have ya, any of it. You talk about Wes like he is still alive and just off on a hunting trip or something…and as to young Josh, well he’s never allowed to be mentioned by anyone.”
“How dare you!” she shot back furiously.
Then more quietly she sighed deeply and said, “You just don’t understand, nobody does.”
“Well maybe I do … some,” he replied, “I lost my fiancée, shot dead in front of me.”
Her eyes opened wide in shock, “I…I didn’t know…how terrible.”
He nodded and said, “The thing was I felt real responsible you know? I felt like I could have prevented it…but I know now I couldn’t…it was impossible.”
“So, what did you do, how did you get over it?” She asked.
“I didn’t. I just couldn’t accept it…pretty much like you,” he added with a sympathetic smile. “I just carried on working myself to death…not eating and I cut Slim out of my life. I hardly spoke to him. Just went through the motions of living. Ignoring it all… the pain of seeing her lying there bleeding to death in my arms…”
He shook his head and closed his eyes for a moment at the memory.
“But you can’t do that,” he said, finally looking deeply into her eyes before taking her hand and holding it gently.
“See thing is with grief you can’t go round it or under it…you hafta plough on straight through it…until you eventually make it through to the other side.”
“How did you find that out?” She asked now completely engaged with his narrative.
“It was Slim made me see sense. He caught up with me one day, made me sit down and talk to him properly, first dang time in weeks. Anyway, what he said sure made me sit up and think.”
“He told me he wanted me to leave, to go back to Texas before the winter set in. Said I was so dang sickly and weak the doc said I wouldn’t survive another Wyoming winter.”
She sucked in a deep breath, “But that’s terrible… so cruel…sending you away from your friends…your life there…just when you needed them most.”
Jess shook his head, “No it really wasn’t. He told me later it was the hardest dang thing he’d ever done. He said he had to say it for my own good.”
“So why did he do it?”
“I guess he figured he’d make me real mad…and he sure weren’t wrong there…Jeez I really let rip. See he said to me, ‘tell me how you’re really feeling then Jess,’ And I did, boy did I tell him! It all came out like a wildfire out of control. All the stuff I’d been holding in just came tumbling out…I yelled I cussed and yup I admit it I cried…but goddamn it, I sure felt better afterwards! Like some kinda burden had gone. Sure, I was still sick with grief…was for a good while…still am sometimes,” he said softly. “But the thing is I started to heal that very night Jane…and I’ll always be grateful to Slim for what he did for me.”
“He’s a dear man,” she agreed quietly.
“So, are you gonna tell me how you really feel then?” He asked with his shy smile.
“Really and truly?” She asked raising troubled eyes to him.
He nodded…
She took a deep breath and said, “OK I’ll tell you Jess… I’m just so mad…so mad I could scream!”
“Mad at who?”
“Why at Wes of course! Why did he have to up and die that way? He should have looked after himself better…should have drunk less moonshine and eaten more good food. He should never have taken us away. The climate never suited him. It’s all his fault!” she added furiously.
She jumped up and went and stood leaning against the porch upright, angry tears now flowing. “If he was here, I’d be so mad at him,” she added.
“But he ain’t…is he…he ain’t coming back is he Jane?”
“No,” she whispered, “no he’s gone forever,” and then with her heart breaking she began crying in earnest.
Jess got up and took her in his arms holding her until she was spent.
Then, when she finally finished crying, he looked deeply into her eyes and said, “It’s the only way sweetheart, meet it all head on…and then you can start living again. Because you hafta you know…. hafta keep going for Amy and Kate, they need you right now.”
Eventually she wiped her eyes and looked up at him.
Pulling gently away she turned back towards the cabin… “I think I’ll be able to sleep now,” she said and then softly, “Thank you Jess I needed telling…”

Chapter 8
The following morning the atmosphere between Slim and Jess was somewhat frosty, although Slim hadn’t said anything to his buddy. As far as he was concerned, the sooner the building of the extension was completed and they were out of there the better. He had lain awake for nearly an hour before Jess had come back into the barn and settled back down to sleep. Surely his pard wasn’t thinking of having a relationship with Jane…he just wouldn’t …would he?
On a positive note, the new school was completed and all the children made their way down the hillside laughing and shouting happy at the prospect of meeting up with all their friends.
Abby too was looking forwards to the challenge of teaching once more.
The day went well and although tired Abby was delighted at the way the children had all settled in and taken to their books again. She had hidden a smile as James and Amy shared a desk and remembered Slim’ s comment about them being like Jess and his girlfriend when they were youngsters.
She had felt that there was something more to his comment at the time and wondered exactly what the history was between Jess and her new friend Jane. He had seemed very upset back on the trail when her name had cropped up…and she too had noticed Jane’s reaction to Slim’ s mention of Millie. She sighed deeply…well it was none of her business. She had quite enough to cope with getting the new school underway.
As the faint cries of the children laughing and yelling as they made their way home faded, she was aware that James was speaking to her.
“So may we Mama?”
“Sorry …what is it dear?”
“May Amy and I walk home now?”
She looked at his eager face and that of young Amy and smiled at them.
“Yes, I think so. You know the way don’t you Amy. But go straight home and tell your mother I will be home directly, just as soon as I’ve tidied up in here,” she said smiling at the youngsters.
They ran off laughing and pushing as joyful and mischievous as a pair of young puppies and she looked fondly after them.
It was a mere half mile walk through the woods to the Hudson cabin and the other children, including Katie, were still around so she had no cause to fear for their safely. Having checked with Jane that morning she too had said she was happy for the children to walk home alone as Abby finished her jobs off in the classroom.
The first they knew that something was amiss was when a terrified Katie ran into the Hudson yard screaming blue murder.
Katie at sixteen had been at the school house to finish off her education and also to help Abby out with the younger pupils. But now she felt as terrified and vulnerable as the youngest child at what she had just witnessed.
Jane ran out at once swiftly followed by Tobias, Jess and Slim who had been busy finishing off the building work on the house.
It was several minutes before they could get a coherent account of what had happened, the usually calm and tough Katie clearly traumatized.
“We…we were just crossing the little stream and I’d gone on with my friend Ginny, when I heard Amy screaming. Well, we thought maybe she’d fallen in…those stepping stones were kind of slippy,” she added.
“Go on!” Jane cried holding her daughter’s arm tightly and looking deeply into her troubled face.
Katie swallowed hard holding back tears, “There were Indians…lots of Indians and they took James and Amy…they took my sister!” she said finally breaking down in heart rending sobs.
“No!” Jane screamed and she collapsed in a dead faint as Tobias lunged forwards and caught her.
“Where was this?” Jess barked holding Katie by the shoulders and looking deeply into her troubled eyes, tears still coursing down her face.
After a moment she recovered enough to reply, “Just beyond the stream crossing by that big pine,” she said, “you know it?”
Jess nodded, and tore off to the barn for his horse.
Slim patted the child’s shoulder, “Don’t worry honey, it’ll be OK, we’ll find them, I promise,” he said before turning to Tobias.
“This is Red Wolf’s work I’ll be bound. Once we find them, I figure we’ll take him back to his Pa on the Reservation, to settle this once and for all. You’ll be OK here protecting the women…just in case there are any others around?”
“Sure,” Tobias said quickly. “Don’t you worry son, just do what you need to. I figure Rebecca will be over shortly. She’ll calm Jane down with a sleeping draught, until you get back.”
Slim glanced at Jane’s paper white face as Tobias carried her into the cabin and then he dashed after Jess, who already had Alamo saddled up for him.
The men galloped out of the yard swiftly followed by a barking Blue, caught up in the excitement of the moment and enjoying the chase which he thought was some sort of new game.
It had taken Katie around ten minutes to race home and the Indians had a good head start. Unaware that they were being followed, once they had reached a clearing on their way down the mountain Red Wolf called a halt. Dismounting he hauled James down and pushed him roughly up against a tree.
Then taking out his hunting knife he told two of the braves to hold the child firmly.
As soon as Amy realized what was happening, she wriggled free of the other brave who was restraining her and tore across to James standing protectively in front of him. “You leave him alone you big bully!” She screamed, her anger overtaking her fear of the big aggressive Indian.
He sniggered at that and said, “Quite a tough little squaw you have here White Wolf…a shame you won’t grow up to know her when she is older.”
James emboldened by Amy’s attitude stuck his chin out and said, “You don’t scare me Uncle…you won’t hurt me, because if you did Grandfather would have you hunted down and killed like a rabid dog!”
“Ha, fine words my little brave,” Red Wolf said with more of a grimace than a smile. “But sadly, he will never know, because you and this little one here will never be found.”
As realization dawned Amy started screaming hysterically.
Red Wolf pushed her aside and moved closer to James brandishing the knife and telling the other two Indians to hold the child more firmly.
Amy was grabbed by the remaining brave and they all looked on as Red Wolf raised his knife. His dark eyes brimming with hatred and vengeance. This would show his father who the true leader of the tribe should be…the invincible Red Wolf, not this half breed brat…of his dead brother.
He raised the knife ready to thrust it deeply into the child’s chest.
Then suddenly a barking, thunderbolt of grey fur struck him full in the chest, sending him flying backwards. Blue leapt on his prey his full weight pinning him down. Growling menacingly he began worrying the Indian’s arm causing Red Wolf to scream out in terror and pain.
As Jess and Slim rode in the remaining three braves moved as one and were astride their ponies and heading for the hills in the blink of an eye.
Concerned as they were for the children’s safety, Slim and Jess just let them ride out; figuring they’d keep for another day.
Once it was confirmed that neither child was hurt Jess finally called Blue to heel. The big wolf-cross did so reluctantly, but on the second firm command he trotted to Jess’s side.
He fondled the dog’s ears and put his arm around a now composed Amy, before turning to where Red Wolf was still sprawled in the dirt.
Slim who, had his rifle trained on the Indian, growled, “Get up!”
When he failed to respond, Jess snarled, “Git up, you ain’t hurt that dang bad.”
Red Wolf struggled to his feet staring aggressively at the men, holding his bleeding arm…but saying nothing.
Now James said in horror, “He was going to kill me, he really was. I never thought he meant it!”
Slim put a protective arm around the boy and said, “It’s OK James, he can’t hurt you now and I reckon by the time his Pa’s finished with him he’ll be in no condition to hurt anyone again!”
They rode out once Slim had bandaged Red Wolf’s still bleeding arm.
“After all we don’t want ya bleedin’ to death before your Pa gets to know the truth,” Jess said with a sarcastic grin.
They had no other option but to take the children with them. Thinking that if they split up and one of them returned to camp alone with the youngsters then they would be at the risk of attack from the three remaining braves who got away.
“No, better to stick together,” Slim said, much to the children’s delight.
“I guess James needs to tell his grand pappy exactly what happened too,” Jess said, “just in case he doubts us huh.”
They arrived at the edge of the Reservation early the following day and were pleased to see some tepees in the distance marking the fact that the encampment was their side of the large Reservation area.
“I figure they came over this way hunting, and Red Wolf went into town and got wind of the fact that James and his Ma had moved up the mountain,” Slim said.
Jess agreed, “Probably after buyin’ firewater. But I figure Red would have sent him back to the Reservation if he had done,” Jess said, referring to his buddy Red Smith, the Sheriff of the nearest town.
As the small party rode in, curious braves, squaws and small children gathered and then one of the elders ran to inform Chief Red Bear that they had visitors.
When the Chief emerged from his tepee Slim hardly recognized him as he had lost so much weight and had visibly aged.
He solemnly raised a hand in peace to Jess and Slim welcoming them and then seeing his son, his eyes hardened as he saw his wrists were tied and he was clearly a prisoner.
“What have you done now?” He cried angrily, before looking askance of Jess and Slim.
James slid down from where he’d been riding double behind Slim and ran over to the chief and said, “He tried to kill me grandfather!”
The look of delight on the old man’s face at the sight of his grandson quickly changed to one of shock and disbelief.
“No White Wolf, you must be mistaken.”
“No mistake Red Bear,” Jess drawled, “that dang son of yours tried to knife the boy.”
The Chief looked up at Jess and then across to Slim, “This is true?”
“It’s true alright,” Slim said nodding.
“Don’t listen to them father they lie!” Red Wolf yelped.
The Chief turned back to his son, “Jess Harper is an honorable man and I have known Slim Sherman and his father before him, for many years. I take their word over yours.”
Then gesturing to the elders he said, “Take him from my sight.”
“We will talk later,” he added to Red Wolf.
Then he gestured for Jess, Slim and the children to join him around the fire and the men smoked a pipe with him.
“What will you do?” Slim asked once they were seated and the pipe had been passed around.
“He will be severely punished and then be banished from the encampment and indeed the tribe to spend his days alone. He will dwell up in the caves to the north of the Reservation and will be kept under watch until his dying day.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” Jess whispered to Slim who merely nodded and sighed with relief.
“So, what of you my little White Wolf, will you return to the tribe now?” Red Bear asked of James.
James shook his head, “I guess not…not just yet grandfather. My Ma wants me to be all educated up first. She says…uh… knowledge is power and she wants me to learn to read, write and cipher real good.”
Red Bear rolled his eyes and said, “The only education you need is of Indian Wisdom, passed down from generation to generation…if you are to be the Chief one day.”
Jess took a deep breath and said softly, “Maybe there is room in the kid’s life for both Red Bear? He’s settled down real good on the mountain, made friends and his Ma is settled too. I think maybe that’s what Running Bear would have wanted for them right now.”
The Chief nodded, “I know you were a good friend to my son and I accept your words, Jess Harper. But the young brave needs to know his own people too.”
“Maybe he could visit,” Slim suggested, “in the school holidays … now his uncle won’t be a threat anymore huh?”
The Chief turned to his grandson and James nodded enthusiastically, “Yes, that would be swell… uh I mean that would be good grandfather for now, and then I will return to live with the tribe when I am a man.”
It was as they had risen to leave that there was a commotion amongst a small knot of onlookers and a small boy broke ranks and tore towards where Amy was about to be helped up onto Traveller.
He was closely followed by a squaw yelling blue murder, but he was too fast for her.
He ran up to an amazed Amy and said, “This is my sister…tell them Amy, tell them who I am!”
Amy stared at the diminutive blond-haired child dressed in buckskins for a full minute before her face relaxed into an astonished grin, “It’s Joshy… my little brother Joshua!” she cried before pulling him into a bear hug.

Chapter 9
Once it became clear that the youngster was indeed telling the truth Red Bear looked askance of the elders.
“I know nothing of this boy,” Red Bear said, “what is going on?”
One of the elders came forwards and gesturing to an Indian behind him said, “Black Elk and his wife found the boy wandering where a wagon train had passed by and took him in, gave him a good home. As you know Little Deer is barren and so they were happy to help the child.”
“That’s a damn lie,” Jess cried hotly. “I know young Josh’s Ma and she told me the wagon train was attacked by a whole gang of renegades. The wagon master said he saw the kid taken by one of the braves…this Black Elk, I’m guessing,” he added staring hard at the now discomfited looking Indian.
“Is this true?” the Chief asked turning angry eyes on the now cowering Indian.
He fell to his knees at once and nodded.
Again, the Chief was forced to apologize to the white men and promise that punishment would be metered out.
“The whole bunch of renegade braves are getting way out of order Red Wolf,” Jess said angrily, “they need a real tight rein or they’ll bring disgrace to the whole tribe…and end up dead.”
“He’s right,” Slim said, “and it could end in more wars with the white men which none of us want do we?”
The old Chief shook his head.
“No, indeed we do not!”
Then he sighed deeply. “I blame myself for not watching over the young braves more carefully. I have been mourning my dear son. But now things will change,” he said looking up to Slim and Jess, “this I promise you.”
It was later that evening that Slim and Jess heard more of what had happened to young Joshua since he was abducted from the wagon train.
They had decided to camp over night before returning home, the journey from the reservation being long and arduous.
“You were treated well?” Jess asked, noting the boy seemed well fed and clothed, albeit in buckskins and moccasins.
“Oh yes, Little Deer was like a Ma to me, real kind. And Black Elk taught me to fish and how to use a knife real good to gut them…he was kind to me too.”
“So how come the Chief didn’t know about you?” Slim asked, once they had finished their supper.
“Well, I got sick the day after they took me,” the child replied.
Then turning to Amy said, “I caught your Chicken Pox sis. When the Medicine man saw me, he told Black Elk I should be kept away from the tribe as I carried White Man’s sickness which could kill the Indian children.”
“Jeepers you must have been real lonely!” James piped up.
Joshua nodded and then he looked deeply saddened, like he might cry, “I missed my Ma and my sisters real bad,” he said softly.
The kid had been so dang brave Jess thought, that they had all forgotten he was just a little kid…only five years old.
Jess put a kindly arm around him and said, “Well you’ll see yer Ma and Katie tomorrow and I promise you’ll be safe from now on…OK?”
The youngster looked up and gave him a beautiful smile and snuggling up said, “I know it,” and then fell asleep almost at once.
“Poor little kid, he’s wore out,” Jess said softly as he carried the child to a bedroll near the fire and settled him down for the night.
Shortly afterwards everyone else settled down to sleep and all that could be heard was the distant call of a lonely owl.


The reunion with both children and their Ma the following day was incredibly emotional.
When Jess and Slim rode in, James was riding a pony given to him by his grandfather and Slim and Jess riding double with Amy and Joshua. As they rode into the yard Tobias could hardly believe his eyes.
“Well, I believed you’d fetch the young ‘un’s back safely,” he said removing his hat and scratching his head as he looked at Jess and Joshua up on Traveller, “But Hell Jess, I never thought you’d be raisin’ this little one from the dead…it is Joshua, I take it?”
At that point Jane and Rebecca ran out of the cabin and Jane stopped and stared in shock as first Amy scrambled down, and then Joshua. Both children ran into her arms yelling, “Ma…Ma!”
Jess and Slim dismounted grinning with pleasure, and Tobias put an arm around a tearful Rebecca as they all beheld the emotional reunion.
Once Jane finally composed herself, she said, “I’ll never forget what you did for me Jess…never.”
And on that note Rebecca ushered the little family indoors to hear all the news, whilst the men and James went to put up their horses.
“I’ll never forget what you did,” Slim said in a wicked parody of Jane, smirking at Jess…as they made their way to the barn.
Jess flicked a quick glance towards James and then whispered, “Shut the Hell up Slim,” out of the corner of his mouth.
“Well, I was there, liberated the kid too,” Slim said chuckling, “figure I should never be forgotten either.”
Once James had tended his new mount, he ran off to the cabin in the hope of finding milk and cookies being dispensed, to welcome the youngsters home.
Meanwhile Jess was intent on brushing Traveller to within an inch of his life as he tried to ignore Slim’ s eyes boring into his back.
After a while he gave in and putting the brushes aside came out of the stall and went and joined Slim where he was reclining on a straw bale, his saddlebags nearby.
Jess slouched down beside him and nodding to the saddlebags said, “You packing then?”
Slim nodded, “I figure we’re just about done here. We can finish off that last bit of building work this afternoon. Then we can get up at first light and go hunting. Replenish Jane’s larder again like we promised and be on our way before noon.”
“Got it all figured out ain’t you,” Jess said looking slightly miffed.
“You got a problem with that?” Slim asked frowning slightly.
Jess sighed quietly and said, “Nope, no problem, we should be getting back.”
“You’re sure about that are you?” Slim said raising an eyebrow.
When Jess remained silent, he went on, “Only I thought maybe you were thinking of staying around…permanently. I figure that would sure suit Jane and the kids too, they worship you…all of them.”
“Now just hang on there,” Jess said looking angry.
“No, you hang on,” Slim said sitting upright and glaring at his partner. “If you want to be unfaithful to Millie, well I guess that’s your choice, but I want no part of it and I’m not going to stand back and watch. I’m just not staying around any longer to see the way Jane is with you.”
“Huh…what does that mean?”
“Oh, come on, anyone can see she’s still in love with you, and as far as I can see you feel the same way dontcha...huh? Just admit it, Jess.”
“That ain’t true,” Jess said now jumping up and glaring down at his pard.
“How can you even think that?”
“So, you deny you sat up half the night romancing her…just a few days ago?”
Jess looked puzzled and then his face cleared.
“No, you’ve got that all wrong,” he said, “we were just talkin’ is all.”
“Oh really, well from where I was standing it all looked pretty intense, not like you were discussing the weather or the price of hay Jess.”
Jess rolled his eyes…and then said quietly, “If you must know we were talkin’ about grieving. Hell, she really spooked me Slim. She said she felt like she wanted to end it all after losing Wes and then young Josh, felt she couldn’t go on. So, I…well I told her a few home truths.”
Slim’ s expression changed from one of righteous indignation to surprised interest.
“You did?”
“Yes, I explained to her about how I was after … you know, after losing Maria. How I nearly dang well died of a broken heart…way I was goin’ I wouldn’t have lasted a Wyoming winter, just like you said.”
“So, you really told her all about that?”
Jess nodded and then looking deeply into Slim’ s eyes, said, “Yup, how you saved my life by making me face up to everything.”
Slim was transported back to that dreadful time…and how Jess had bared his soul as he told him just how he was feeling. His pard’ s raw emotion so very hard to watch…
“And that’s what you did for her?”
Jess nodded, “It’s what I had to do. She was upset, real upset…but she needed to face facts and move on. Hell Slim, she’s so dang skinny and sickly, she wouldn’t have lasted if someone hadn’t made her see reason…made her accept that Wes was dead and never coming home.”
Slim had gotten up again that night and peered out of the barn door and seen Jane in Jess’s arms and thought the worst. Now he felt ashamed…not only for spying on the couple, but also at jumping to the wrong conclusions.
“I’m sorry Jess I reckon I’ve got it all wrong.”
Jess gave him a sad smile, “No you ain’t I think you’re right. She is getting a tad too fond of me I reckon and the young un’ s too…it’s time we left.”
“You’re not tempted…to stay at all?” Slim asked looking anxious.
Jess shook his head, but then said, “Well I guess I’d be lyin’ if I said it would be easy leaving those kids…I’m real fond of them for sure. But as for me and Jane…nope it’s all over as far as I’m concerned. Sure, she’ll always be real special to me, but no Slim, we don’t have a future together. Maybe back then, but things are different now and it’s definitely over. Me and Millie are together and that’s the way I want it.”
“Maybe for you pard, but I guess it isn’t as far as she’s concerned.”
“Yeah, and that’s why we’re ridin’ out tomorrow,” Jess said firmly, before wandering off to pack his saddle bags too.


The following morning Jess and Slim were up at first light and were joined by Tobias for their last hunting trip together. They walked their mounts out of the yard, leaving a sleeping Jane with her family and also Abby and James who had finally moved into the new lean-to extension.
Once they were mounted and, on their way, Tobias said, “It’s real good of you boys to come out hunting before your long trip home.”
“That’s OK,” Slim said smiling at his old friend, “we want to leave you all well provided for, especially as my buddy here eats like a half-starved mutt.”
“Well thanks,” Jess said scowling at his friend.
Then looking over at Tobias and smiling said, “Anyway how could we turn down a trip once we knew there were moose about.”
“Yup they were seen by old Bill a day ago heading for that small lake just a mile or so west of here. Iffen we’re lucky we should be able to bag a couple and you can take some prime cuts home to Miss Daisy,” Tobias replied grinning broadly.
“I sure hope so,” Slim muttered as an aside to Jess, “because we’ve had precious little time to fetch anything else home.”
Jess looked a tad uncomfortable, knowing it was his fault they had spent the week they were supposed to be having a break actually working as hard as if they had stayed home. Having helped Jane and her family out with the building work and horse breaking had left them with little time to relax and enjoy themselves.
“We’ve still got a few days left,” he replied, “and anyway Mort told us not to rush back, remember?” With a cheeky grin he urged Traveller on to catch up with Tobias.
Once they found some moose tracks both Tobias and Slim pulled back a little letting Jess take the lead as he was by far the best tracker. Once Tobias would have been eager to lead the party, but now with failing eyesight he had to admit that Jess was a much better guide.
The sun was just dawning on a perfect summer morning and the men were relaxed and carefree as they stealthily followed the recent moose tracks.
One minute Jess was sitting tall in the saddle having checked the tracks and waved the others forwards as he set off purposefully. The next moment there was a low whistling sound and then a dull thud and Jess was thrown back out of the saddle. He fell, sprawled in the dirt, just in front of Tobias and Slim who starred in horror at the arrow protruding from his chest.
He cried out, his back arching and jerking in agony before he passed out.
Looking up Slim was just in time to see Red Wolf’s pony disappearing amongst the trees of the densely forested area.
He cussed, but let the Indian go, his priority right then saving Jess’s life.
Both men leapt from their mounts and hurried over to where Jess lay sprawled in the dirt, his face a deathly grey colour.
For one frantic moment, Slim thought he was gone. But a tentative hand on Jess’s neck provided a weak pulse still beating.
Slim gave a deep sigh of relief, before turning his pard on his side to see the injury more clearly.
“Gone straight through,” Tobias drawled, “ain’t looking too good Slim, we need to get the dang thing out now before he bleeds to death.”
Jess’s pale blue shirt was already saturated with dark red blood, and Slim knew he didn’t have long.
“You need ta push it through,” Tobias added, “else the dang tip will get stuck and do more harm.”
Slim had dealt with arrow wounds before and knew the truth of it and he quickly snapped off the flight feathers and told Tobias to try and ease the redwood shaft out from Jess’s back as Slim gently pushed it through.
The procedure was completed just as Jess came around cussing and struggling to sit up.
“Hush and lay still,” Slim said pushing him gently back. “You caught an arrow but it’s out now.”
Meanwhile Tobias had been inspecting the arrowhead closely and he even ran a finger over the sharply carved bone head and licked his finger before grimacing.
“Dang well poisoned,” he muttered.
Slim stared at him in consternation, “Are you sure?”
“Oh yes…It ain’t snake…but some kinda plant poison. It’s what the Arapaho favor for killin’ prey…paralyzes them see.”
Slim glanced down at Jess who looked like he might chuck up, and muttered “Goddamn it.”
“You still got that redeye in yer saddlebag?” Tobias inquired.
Slim nodded and Tobias ran off to Alamo and moments later returned with the whiskey, Slim’ s canteen and a bundle of clean rags he’d also found.
“Need to wash it out real good,” he said and no time to waste. “Then bind it real tight too. Way he’s bleedin’…well…” he added under his breath, throwing Slim an anxious glance and shrugging.
The procedure was dreadfully painful but Jess was stoic and just cussed softly as the neat spirit was poured into the gaping wound. As Tobias had predicted it started to bleed even more profusely and Slim quickly pulled Jess into a sitting position and bandaged his torso tightly.
The arrow had struck him to the far right of his upper chest and seemed to have missed any vital organs as far as Slim could tell…but he knew his buddy was in dire need of medical assistance. He also knew that the old Doc in Rawlins, the nearest town, had recently passed on and there wasn’t another medic for miles. With the exception of Rebecca that was, with her vast knowledge of Indian medicine. She was their only hope Slim figured.
“We need to get him back,” he said to Tobias, “I figure Jane Hudson’s spread is the nearest… can you ride for Rebecca?”
“No need,” the older man said smiling for the first time since the incident, “she’s already there helping Jane sew some new drapes; so, she said this morning.”
It took the two of them to get Jess up on Alamo, the pain rendering him incapable of the effort involved in getting in the saddle. But finally, they made it and Slim climbed up behind him, an arm around Jess’s waist supporting him as they made off at a slow pace. Tobias followed on leading Traveller as they headed the mile or so back to the cabin.
After a little while Slim felt Jess’s full weight lying against him and his head lolled backwards and he figured his buddy had passed out again.
When they arrived at the cabin, they were relieved to see both Jane and Rebecca sitting on the bench outside, taking their ease and sipping some cooling lemonade.
As soon as the men rode in, they leapt to their feet, crying out in consternation.
“Whatever has happened?” Jane managed as she stared at Jess’s unconscious form…still supported by Slim.
“An arrow wound, Red Wolf’s revenge,” Slim said bitterly as he dismounted.
“And the arrow, poisoned, I expect?” Rebecca asked. Slim merely nodded.
Then he glanced down at the front of Jess’ shirt, which was now stained with blood, the wound having bled through the dressing, and he cussed, feeling suddenly fearful.
Rebecca noted that and then she turned to her husband and said urgently, “Tobias, ride for my medical herbs.”
“Sure. It was plant poison I think,” Tobias replied, “we washed it out real good with spirit…but he’s lost one hell of a lot of blood.” He shook his head again before he and Slim lifted Jess gently from the saddle and carried him inside the cabin.
Whereas Rebecca was her usual calm self helping the men ease Jess down onto the large comfortable old sofa before the fire, Jane was in bits. Tears streamed down her face and she was shaking uncontrollably.
Previously Slim had his doubts about Jane’s genuine feelings for Jess, thinking maybe she just wanted a replacement for Wes…to help her bring up the young ‘un’s…But now he saw she genuinely loved him deeply and was clearly distraught at this terrible turn of events.
He felt a wave of compassion towards her and as Rebecca removed what was left of Jess’s shirt and started tending the wound he went over and put a comforting arm around Jane.
“He’ll be OK,” he said, with more conviction than he felt, “he’s one tough cookie Jane…he’ll be just fine.”
But then they both looked across in horror as Jess started gasping for breath.
“Quick, help me sit him up,” Rebecca cried and Slim was beside her in two long strides…hauling his pard upright and rubbing his back gently.
“It’s OK buddy, it’s OK,” he said, “just breathe real slow and deep.”
“Oh where is Tobias,” Rebecca muttered looking apprehensive,” he should be back by now.”
Jess was still gasping for breath and Slim was getting more and more worried, “Dang it, Jess,” he cried, “don’t you dare up and die on me now…just breathe damn it!”
Then the door crashed open and Tobias was there with Rebecca’s basket of medical herbs.
She quickly selected some and ran from the room where she made an infusion with boiling water, returning just minutes later. The awful smelling concoction was held to Jess’s lips and he was urged to drink it down. At first, he gagged, but eventually the liquid was forced down him and just minutes later he relaxed back. The colour returned to his cheeks and his breathing became less labored and within ten minutes had returned to near normal.
“Thank God,” Jane whispered sinking to her knees beside the sofa.
“It’s not over yet,” Rebecca said quickly, “we still need to try and remove the poison from the wound. I must make up a strong poultice,” she said before once more moving off to the kitchen with her herbs.
By the time the children and Abby returned from school Jess was sleeping and they all tiptoed around the cabin, looking and feeling deeply upset. Jess was popular with all the children, but especially Amy and she just couldn’t stop crying.
Eventually Slim took her on his knee and said gently, “Hey honey, do ya think Jess would want you upsetting yourself this way?”
She gave a deep sniff, rubbing her eyes, but eventually said, “No I guess not.”
“Well then, the best thing you can do for him is to help your sister out with the supper and then get young Josh to bed for her huh?”
Amy looked over to where her Ma was sitting by Jess, looking very pale and anxious.
Then the child nodded her head, “OK Slim,” and she slipped off his knee and headed for the kitchen, before turning back.
“He will be, OK?”
“Sure he will,” Slim said smiling encouragingly at her.
Once she had gone off with James and Katie to start on supper, Slim went over to the sofa and stood looking down at Jane for a moment before saying softly, “There’s nothing you can do for him right now…but I think Amy needs you really badly Jane.”
She looked up at him like he was speaking a foreign language and then shaking her head a little as if to clear it said vaguely, “Yes, yes of course,” and rising she left the room heading for the kitchen.
Much later that evening Tobias and Rebecca along with young George had returned home…Rebecca leaving strict instructions as to Jess’s treatment and insisting she be called back if he took a turn for the worse.
Now it was nearly midnight and still Jane sat beside Jess who was now looking very warm and uncomfortable and seemed to be dozing fitfully.
Figuring Jess could do with stripping off some so that he could cool down and knowing he would feel embarrassed if Jane was still there, Slim gently suggested she go to bed.
“No, I’m fine really,” she said turning to glance at Slim before returning her full attention back on Jess.
They had previously dragged in an old cot beside the fire for Slim to sleep on and now he nodded to it, “Well uh, I was thinking of turning in.”
Not seeming to grasp the significance of him stripping down before getting into bed, she merely nodded.
Slim sighed and then said, “Uh, see thing is, I need to help Jess with things…um…you know stuff maybe he’d prefer some privacy for huh?”
Jane flushed up and stood up quickly, “Yes of course I’ll give you some space for a little while.”
Slim sighed but remained polite.
“I think I can handle things for tonight, Jane, you go get a good night’s sleep and we’ll see you in the morning.”
“Oh…well alright… I suppose,” and she drifted off. Then pausing at the door to her room said, “you’ll call me if there’s any change?”
“Sure,” Slim said smiling at her.
Once she’d gone Jess opened one eye and said, “She gone?”
Slim grinned down at him and said, “Yup.”
Jess breathed a sigh of relief and then said, “Help me git my pants off will ya Slim I’m roasting here.”
Once Jess was stripped off to his undershorts and Slim had bathed him in some cool water, he seemed more like himself and soon fell into a peaceful sleep.
It was in the early hours of the morning when Slim was awoken by Jess thrashing about feverishly.
He got up and again commenced cooling him down with some cold water he had drawn from the well earlier. But this time it made little difference and he was crying out calling for Millie and then for Slim.
“Hey pard it’s OK I’m here,” Slim said reassuringly as Jess once more lashed out as though fighting an invisible enemy.
Then as he once more called out for Millie, Slim heard someone gasp and saw Jane standing in the shadows.
He looked back down at his pard and gently bathed his forehead again and said softly, “She’ll be here soon Jess you just rest huh.”
Eventually the icy water seemed to have worked its magic and he gradually fell back to sleep.
“Why did you tell him that?” Jane asked throwing Slim and accusing look.
“Because it’s what he needed to hear,” Slim replied, “and right now I’d be happy to tell him any darned thing if it helps to get him through the night.”
“Yes…yes of course,” she said softly, before retracing her steps back to her lonely room.

Chapter 10
The following morning Jess seemed a lot brighter and when Rebecca examined him, she said the wound had stopped bleeding and was beginning to heal well.
“So how do you feel?” She asked peering deeply into Jess’s eyes, “And the truth please,” she added, “none of your ‘I’m just fine!’”
Jess chuckled and said, “Well I ain’t fine, but I reckon I’m getting’ there.”
“Good and no further trouble with the breathing?”
“Well good,” and she turned to smile at Slim and Jane who were standing anxiously by.
“I think with some careful nursing we should have him back in the saddle in a week or two.”
“Hey that ain’t no good,” Jess cried out, “we’ve got to get back home, got us a ranch to run…darn it!”
“Easy Jess,” Slim said quickly, “just do as Rebecca says huh.”
Then he wandered off to the door, plucked his hat from the hook and put it on… then buckled on his gun belt.
“Hey where are you off to?” Jess asked, looking hard done by.
“Well seeing as you’re on the mend I thought I’d go check out Red Wolf, seems we’ve got a score to settle.”
“Oh no you don’t,” Jess said pulling the blanket back and half rising from the sofa and then laying back down again quickly, when he remembered he was in his undershorts.
“You’re not going to let him get away with this are you?” Slim asked, raising an eyebrow and turning back to sit on a chair by the sofa.
“Of course I ain’t, but this is my fight Slim, not yours…besides he could have half a dozen or so braves with him, you’d stand no chance.”
Slim looked thoughtful and then said, “OK, we’ll leave it for now. But I’m going into Town to talk to Red Smith about this, maybe he’ll have something to say about it all…after all he is the law around here.”
Knowing that was the best he could hope for, Jess lay back down and said, “OK pard, but don’t be long huh.”
He glanced towards where Rebecca and Jane were standing watch over him, the words, ‘save me from being dang well clucked over by these women,’ left unsaid, but the message clear to Slim.
“Don’t worry Hotshot, back before you know it,” he said with a grin before heading off.
As it was Slim was gone far longer than he intended to be.
He rode into Rawlins and was immediately thrown into supporting Sheriff Red Smith with the arrest of four very aggressive drunks, who had been shooting up the town and causing general mayhem since earlier that morning.
Once they were safely in his jail Red turned to Slim and grinning shook his hand, “Well thank you kindly Slim appreciate yer help,” he said and they wandered into his office, from the cells out back.
Shaking his head he said, “Straight off a trail drive and no more sense than that fool cat of mine,” and he caressed the tom cat asleep on his desk.
“I guess your old Geronimo has way more sense,” Slim said chuckling and accepting a coffee from the Sheriff.
“So, what brings you to town and where’s your pard?” Red asked with a quizzical smile. “I heard you’d been visiting up the mountain. Jess been catching up with Mrs Hudson, has he?” He added with a wink.
Slim ignored the innuendo, fully aware that Red knew all about the past liaison between Jane and Jess. So not wishing to discuss the subject he merely told him their tale.
How they’d met Chief Red Bear’s grandson and the boy’s Ma and had taken them to a place of safety up the mountain as young White Wolf (aka James) was in danger from his Uncle Red Wolf. Then later how James and Amy had been abducted by Red Wolf.
“Jess and I were going to come into town on our way home to fill you in on all this,” he added. “But we did go see the Chief, after the abduction, and he promised that he’d keep Red Wolf under guard and he’d do no more harm.”
“Sounds fair enough,” Red said, “that’s what I’d have done anyways…I guess you and Jess saved me a journey.”
“Yeah, except it was a dang waste of time,” and then he went on to enlighten Red as to Jess’s injuries at the hands of Red Wolf.
Red looked deeply shocked, “Jeez, that’s too bad… he’ll be, OK?”
“Sure, Rebecca sorted him out with her herbal medicines…But even so Red Wolf can’t get away with it, Sheriff.”
The Sheriff looked thoughtful, “Indeed not. But sadly, it’s out of my jurisdiction now Slim. See the tribe moved off to new hunting grounds just a day or so ago. The military came in to escort them seeing as Red Wolf was such a dang trouble maker. The Major himself rode over and he said Red Wolf and his cohorts were moving with the tribe and were being kept under close scrutiny. But of course, he didn’t know about this latest incident with Jess,” he added shaking his head.
“So, what do we do now?”
“Best I can do is wire the local Sheriff, nearest to the hunting grounds. It will be your buddy Mort Cory I reckon. I’ll let him know the facts and he’ll take it from there. So, when are you heading home?”
“We’ll head out as soon as Jess is OK to ride.”
“Right, you leave it with me I’ll get onto it right away.”
But then the door crashed open and the barkeep stood there looking anxious, “Sorry Sheriff, but more trouble…can you come at once!”
Much later as Slim sat down to supper at the Sheriff’s house he smiled across the table and said, “This is real good of you.”
“Least I could do,” Red said helping himself to mashed potatoes, “you sure saved my bacon today Slim, with my Deputy being away. I really would’ve had my work cut out with all those dang drunks.”
Then his wife smiled at Slim, “Tuck in,” she said kindly, “lots more where that came from Slim.”
They kindly offered him a bed for the night after supper, but as it was still quite early Slim declined saying he’d better get back and see how Jess was doing.
Meanwhile back up the mountain Jess had dozed on and off all day, just waking to see Rebecca standing in attendance waiting to give him more of her healing herbs, whilst Jane looked on anxiously.
However, during the afternoon one of the older children accompanied Georgie to the Hudson cabin looking for his Ma. “Teacher said to bring him home Ma’am,” the youngster said, “She thinks he’s getting’ a bad cold, he sure don’t look well,” he added weighing up the flushed tearful youngster.
“Thank you so much dear, I’ll take him home to bed at once,” Rebecca replied casting her offspring a worried glance.
Then turning to Jess said, “You’ll be alright?”
“Sure you tend to the young ‘un,” Jess said throwing the child a sympathetic smile.
Then turning to Jane she said, “You know what to do don’t you? The dressing will need changing and the medicines are all ready in the kitchen.”
“Of course,” Jane said smiling at her good friend, “you go and tend to poor little Georgie, Jess and I will be just fine, don’t fret.”
Rebecca turned anxiously back to Jess, “Slim will be back soon,” she said, already feeling an atmosphere in the room.
Then George gave a huge sneeze and she hurried him out.
The house felt very empty when they had gone and Jess flicked a glance over to where Jane was now looking slightly flushed and nervous.
“I…uh think I’ll change that dressing now if you don’t mind,” she said, “Before the children get home from school. You know what chaos it is once they come in all clamoring for their supper.”
“OK,” he said quietly, knowing there was no choice but to let her do the job and then hopefully Slim, Abby and the kids would be home and this strange tension between him and Jane would be broken.
As she leaned over him to remove the bandage from his chest, he inhaled her oh so familiar perfume, and those days when she had nursed him before came flooding back.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes trying to blank out the vivid memories.
He remembered how just like today he had been confined to the couch and Jane had sat with him late one evening. The household were abed and they had shared a couple of glasses of moonshine. Later he’d blamed his behavior on that, when he had asked playfully for a good night kiss.
Now he was suddenly aware of Jane speaking to him.
“I said are you alright, am I hurting you?”
“No...no it’s fine,” he said quickly, but she could see in his eyes that he was remembering the last time she had nursed him so intimately.
He had kissed her so gently and with such sweet tenderness she had felt shock waves shooting through her body and just wanted to go on kissing him forever.
Eventually she’d pulled back and looked deeply into his blue eyes and saw they were misty and unfocused for a moment before he collected himself and said very softly, “goodnight sweetheart,” and she’d reluctantly risen and left him alone.
The following morning he’d said, “About last night, I guess I was out of order.”
She’d placed a finger on his mouth, “Hush,” she’d said softly; “you have nothing to be sorry for.”
He’d just nodded and said, “Thanks. I guess we have always been honest with each other haven’t we, and you know I’d never do anything to hurt you or your family”
She nodded, “Yes I do.”
Now, all this time later, as she looked at him, she just knew he was reliving those moments…and everything that had happened later.
His deep blue eyes looked up at her with such understanding and compassion that she could bear it no longer.
Very slowly she leaned in and just grazed his lips with her own before kissing him deeply.
He responded kissing her back, his hands caressing her hair … But after a few seconds he gently pushed her back and whispered, “No this ain’t right Jane.”
Her eyes were brimming with desire.
“Why not,” she gasped, “I need you so much and Millie need never know.”
He closed his eyes and sighed deeply.
“But I’d know and I couldn’t do that to her…or to you. Hell Jane, you’re worth more than that. I can’t stay here you know that. So, it would be all wrong, you must see that…I…”
But she never heard what he was going to say next, because the door burst open and Kate, Amy and young Josh tumbled in saying school was out early as several kids were ill…and could they have milk and cookies as they were starving.’
It was much later after the children had turned in that they were able to resume their conversation.
Jess was already feeling apprehensive when Slim had failed to return for supper. Goddamn it he thought…had his buddy taken things into his own hands and gone after Red Wolf after all?
Jane once more came and sat on the edge of the sofa. Seductively leaning in and gently brushing his hair back from his forehead she said, “You’re worried about him aren’t you…”
“Some…he should be back by now.”
“Maybe he’s stopped for supper with the Sheriff, you know what a wonderful cook his wife is,” she said vaguely.
“Jess… about before…”
He just looked up at her, but said nothing.
“I’m sorry, to put you in that position.”
“No, I’m sorry too. I guess I’ll ride out in a day or so…it’s real difficult this… I know.”
When tears welled up in her eyes he stroked her cheek tenderly, “Another time…another life,” he whispered.
Neither of them heard the door open quietly as Slim entered trying not to wake the sleeping household. He stood there watching but after a second or so he gave an embarrassed cough and the couple sprang apart.
Jess glared at his pard and to defuse the intimate scene turned on him, saying irately, “Where the hell have you been to this hour, we’ve been real worried.”
“Looks like it,” Slim muttered.
“I’d better turn in,” Jane said rising quickly.
“You’ve eaten Slim?” She asked.
He nodded, “Yes thanks Jane. I stayed on at the Sheriff’s for a while.”
Once Jane had left the room Slim sank down onto the chair beside the sofa and throwing Jess a searching look said, “Well, so what’s been going on?”

Chapter 11
The following morning Jess told Jane that he felt well enough to get up and he and Slim would be riding out by the end of the week. Jane took the news badly, but as Rebecca was busy tending Georgie, she was unable to ask her to tell Jess he really wasn’t well enough. She was surprised too that Slim seemed to be in full agreement with his partner, and encouraged him to get up and start taking a little exercise.
However, it was a visit from Sherriff Red Smith on the Friday that really cemented their decision to ride home the following day.
He rode in as Jess and Slim were taking their ease sitting on the bench outside the Hudson cabin, Jane and the children out visiting friends.
Once the Sheriff had been welcomed and furnished with a coffee, he took a seat on the porch and handed a telegraph to Slim.
“It’s from Mort,” Red said, “I figure it was kind of important so he sent it directly to me.”
Slim tore it open and read the brief message.
“Come home urgent,” signed Mort Cory.
Slim frowned and passed it to Jess, “What do you think is the matter?” He asked Red.
He shrugged, “I dunno, but it’s not like Mort to be so short and snappy…I think there’s trouble of some sort Slim.”
“Could it be Indians do ya think?” Jess asked peering over at Red.
“Might be, the tribe were heading that way. If the old man hasn’t got Red Wolf under close watch, well who knows what could be happening.”
“Just great,” Jess muttered under his breath.
“We don’t know it’s that,” Slim said, “it could be something to do with the ranch, after all we did leave Mort and Kate looking out for the place.”
“Even worse,” Jess said, having visions of rustlers, or his beloved Snowbird taken sick, “we’re heading home tomorrow Slim, no matter what!”
Jess and Slim rode out the following morning, with Rebecca’s warning of not to overdo it; and Jane’s sorrowful farewell, ringing in their ears.
The night before all the children had been upset, but as of the past it was Amy who was the most distressed. She was tearful when Jess broke the news to her gently that his family back in Laramie needed him.
Now as he and Slim made their way down the mountain, he felt wretched, knowing that he could never go back. Never see little Amy and the others grow up. It would be just too cruel to put Jane though his leaving her once more, he knew that.
Slim watched Jess closely all that day as they headed for home at a brisk trot and was aware that it was really hard going for him. The arrow wound had been life threatening and was only just beginning to heal. Now as darkness fell and they finally dismounted to make camp he could see how exhausted his buddy was.
They tended their mounts and had a scratch meal. Then Jess fell asleep almost before he’d finished eating. Slim looked at him, illuminated in the bright moonlight, his long lashes casting a shadow on his pale cheeks and thought he had never seen him look more vulnerable or worn out.
The following morning, they set off at first light hoping to make it home later that day. They’d taken a cross country short cut which was challenging for both horse and rider. When they finally crested a hill in early evening, they were able to look down on the plain spread out before them and the perimeter of Sherman land way off in the far distance.
Turning to Jess, Slim said, “I reckon we won’t make it back to the ranch tonight, figure it would be better to camp out at Samson’s cave and do the last step tomorrow.”
Jess looked annoyed, “Have you forgotten Mort said get home urgent?”
Slim sighed, “No I haven’t forgotten, but we still won’t make it back to the ranch before late evening and would be crazy to carry on to town, especially in this weather,” he added casting a wary eye to the looming black clouds behind them.
Samson’s Cave was on the border of Sherman land and that of their neighbor Bill West and his two sons. Although the cave was officially on Sherman land Slim was happy for the boys to use it regularly to camp in and fish from the small lake adjacent to it. Slim and Jess used it as a resting place when bringing new stock to the ranch. They kept the critters in quarantine there for a week or two and also branded them there as well. So, the cave was quite a comfortable billet with adequate bedding and fuel for a fire. Also, a small coral and good stabling built next to it for up to six horses.
Now Slim grinned at Jess and said, “It isn’t home, but it’ll be warm and dry and that’s the main thing.”
Jess still didn’t look convinced and Slim noticed how tense he was, rubbing his wounded shoulder and frowning.
“Bothering you?”
“Some,” then he sighed as there was more rumbling from the advancing storm.
“Maybe you’re right Slim, but I still reckon we can outrun that ol’ storm and make it home huh? Come on,” he said before he urged Traveller off, the horse carefully picking his way down the steep slope.
It was when they had been riding for a good hour and were close to the cave that Slim noticed there was something wrong. He had taken the lead once they were out on the open plain, with Traveller following on, but now as Slim looked back he notice the plucky bay had slowed to walking pace.
“So much for outrunning the storm,” he muttered to himself.
Slim turned and backtracked, about to tease his buddy about his slow pace. But then as he came alongside, he saw that Jess had tied his reins and was holding onto the saddle horn as he swayed gently in the saddle. As Slim peered more closely in the fading light he saw Jess’s eyes were closed.
“Jess…Jess, hey pard you, OK?” He asked.
When there was no reply, he looked closer and was amazed to see Jess either deeply asleep or maybe even unconscious. He’d heard tales of Traveller bringing his buddy safely home on the odd occasion he’d fallen asleep in the saddle after overindulging in the saloon, but he’d never really believed it.
Now as Traveller walked on at the gentle pace seemingly aware of what he should do, Slim was deeply moved, “Crazy old horse,” he muttered and then curbed his pace to match and they made their way slowly onward.
When they arrived at the cave Traveller stopped by the coral fence and Slim reined in Alamo and quickly dismounted.
He went over to Jess and putting a gentle hand on his knee said, “Jess…you awake?”
There was no reaction. However, when Slim gently shook Jess’s arm, he slowly slid forwards and would have fallen from the saddle if Slim hadn’t caught him.
He was surprised at how heavy his slender partner was and figured what he lacked in any spare flesh he sure made up for it in muscle.
Grimacing Slim took a deep breath and carried his pard over to the cave and stooping entered the large area within and deposited him gently on the dry sandy floor. Jess’s head lolled to one side and Slim realized he was out cold. Damn it, the journey had taken more of a toll on him than Slim had realized.
Leaving Jess lying there he went and unsaddled the horses and returned with their saddles and bedrolls. Then making his pard more comfortable he went off to tend the horses, just as there was an almighty crash of thunder followed by a deluge.
Once the horses were safely undercover, watered and fed he returned to see Jess hadn’t moved an inch.
“Jeez, you must be bad iffen this hasn’t made you stir,” Slim said as yet another clap of thunder reverberated around them.
He quickly lit a fire from the kindling and logs stored at the back of the cave and lit one of the many lanterns spread about and gave thanks for young Tommy and Jake, their neighbor' s boys, who kept the place ship shape.
He had eaten some beans and was enjoying a coffee sometime later when Jess finally stirred.
He groaned and then sat up peering around him.
“It’s OK,” Slim said quickly as he saw Jess looking around for his gun.
“It’s OK,” he repeated more gently, “we’re in the cave Jess…you’ve been out of it for a couple of hours.”
Jess rubbed his eyes and peered around him again, “Hey I thought we were gonna outrun that dang storm and make it home,” he said irritably.
Slim shook his head, “Not with you riding at a snail’s pace we weren’t.”
Jess looked puzzled and then said, “Oh yeah, I was feelin’ kinda dizzy so I tied the reins.”
Slim nodded, “And that good old horse of yours brought you here safely.”
“He’s, OK?”
“Sure, fed and watered.”
Then Jess looked annoyed again, “I still think we should have made for home.”
“Jess you were the riding dead…no way would you have made it home, now just settle down, will you?” Slim said beginning to lose his own temper.
“Sorry…sorry Slim.”
“That’s OK now you want some beans?”
Jess shook his head, “Any coffee goin’?”
When they set off the following morning the storm was still rumbling away in the distance with more black clouds bubbling up on the horizon.
Slim figured after the downpour of the previous day; the going would be easier on the Laramie Road. He had watched Jess mount slowly and painfully and was mindful that his buddy was really way too sick to be sitting a horse. But what choice did they have?
So, they headed off for the busy Laramie Road and were soon well on their way home. However, there was soon something bothering both men. The road was completely deserted. They passed no other travelers and the nearby land was empty of any livestock. The place felt unnaturally quiet and rather spooky.
Jess shivered a little and turned in his saddle to address Slim.
“Ain’t this the spot where old man Brown usually tethers his goats to graze?” he asked tipping his hat to a couple of posts by the roadside.
Slim nodded, “Maybe he’s sick and didn’t bring them out today.”
“And so why haven’t we seen anyone and how come there weren’t any hogs layin’ about when we passed Billy Hanson’s spread earlier?”
Slim just shrugged, “Maybe Kate and Daisy will know what’s going on, we’ll be home soon.”
Shortly afterwards they rode down the rise, but reined in sharply at what they saw as they entered the yard.
The ranch house windows and door were all boarded up and there were no livestock in the coral or surrounding fields.
They sat staring at the scene in numb disbelief…there were no chickens scratching about in the yard and no welcoming plume of smoke coming from the chimney.
A loud clap of thunder made Jess glance up to the advancing dark storm clouds and he shivered as a sudden icy wind blew up and sent a tumbleweed bowling across the yard increasing the atmosphere of desolation.
Then he had a terrible feeling of déjà vu, this was that exact terrible nightmare he’d had all those weeks ago.
He glanced down to where Blue was standing beside him his hackles up and emitting a low growl.
“What the hell,” he muttered and dismounting he tore across the yard to the barn and yanking the door open stood looking into the completely empty space… No relay horses and worse still, no sign of Snowbird and her new foal.
Slim joined him, “What the heck’s going on around here?” he muttered.
But they didn’t have long to wait before they found out…
As in Jess’ dream he was suddenly aware of the smell of smoke and rushing out of the barn they could see a plume of black smoke arising from behind the ranch house.
Tearing around the side of the house they saw that the fuel store where they kept things like paraffin for the lamps, paint and varnish and other inflammable items, not safe to keep near the house or barn, were stored.
It was fully ablaze and there were several flaming arrows dotted around the area.
“Injuns,” Jess yelled seeing the telltale arrows.
Then they heard a whooping yell way off in the distance and were just in time to see a large group of braves riding off at speed.
They opened fire on them, but they were out of range within seconds.
They galloped up a hill and joined more Indians and they all lined up looking down at the ranch for several minutes.
Jess and Slim exchanged an anxious glance knowing they’d stand no chance against such a large group.
Then they recognized the leader of the group as Red Wolf. He raised his lance and gestured with it in a threatening manner before turning and riding away, the others following on.
“What the hell was that all about?” Slim asked in surprise, “They could have finished us easily.”
Jess looked grim, “It ain’t that straight forward Slim, I figure it’s me he’s after.”
“Why you, it was both of us that delivered him to his Pa if you remember rightly, I reckon he blames us for being disowned by his father.”
“Maybe, but I crossed swords with Red Wolf way before that…and I reckon he’s got a long memory. I saw it in his eyes last time we met up. I guess he won’t be happy until he gets his revenge in a one-to-one fight. This was just a warning…or maybe an invitation,” he added dryly.
Just then there was another roll of thunder and again the heavens opened and there was a dramatic downpour… and both men and Blue rushed to the sanctuary of the barn.
As they ran in, soaking wet and panting Jess said, “Well I guess there’s one good thing…”
“That rain will have put the dang fire out.”
They rode into Laramie sometime later and tethering their mounts outside Mort’s office hurried inside.
The Sheriff looked up from where he’d been studying a report and frowning said, “Well about time.”
“What’s all this about Mort?” Jess asked ignoring the less than friendly welcome, “Are Daisy and Mike OK…the ranch is all boarded up.”
“I know,” Mort said with irony, “I dang well boarded it.”
“So, are they OK?” Slim persisted.
“What…oh yeah, they’re just fine, staying at the doc’s place just now.”
“Mort are you gonna tell us what’s going on?” Jess asked looking angry now.
Mort stared at him for a few seconds and then gave him a weak grin, “Sure, sure, take a seat and I’ll get you a coffee.”
When he passed over the steaming cups he sighed and said, “I’m sorry for the less than friendly welcome…and I’m real glad to see you, but things have been kinda difficult here these last few days.”
“Indians?” Jess said raising an eyebrow.
Mort frowned, “You’ve heard then?”
Slim shook his head, “Nope, but we’ve seen them first hand at the ranch. They burnt down our lamp oil store.” Then he shook his head, “It was Red Wolf and Jess seems to think it was kinda personal,” and rolled his eyes.
However, Mort said, “Well I figure you’re spot on Jess, that’s what we’ve heard too.”
“Go on,” Jess said his eyes never leaving Mort’s tense face.
“Well, there’s been trouble for over a week, raids on some of the outlying ranches, stock taken or slaughtered.”
Jess flinched at that, “All the stock from our place is gone.”
“No, don’t worry,” Mort said quickly, “the relay horses and that pretty little mare of yours and her foal are all safe at the livery here in town.”
Jess gave a sigh of relief and closed his eyes momentarily, muttering “Thank God.”
“What about the rest?” Slim asked. “We’d got some prime beef calves in the home pasture…even the chickens are gone.”
“All safe and sound,” Mort said, “I delivered them over to the Jackson spread. I figured they’d be safer there. Plus, the military have men camping near some of the outlying ranches for extra security, including the Jacksons.”
“Thanks Mort,” Slim said, “we really appreciate you looking out for our place that way.”
“Yeah, thanks Mort,” Jess added. Then, “So what the hell is the old man, doin’ about all this then?”
“You mean Chief Red Bear? Well, it seems he’s real sick right now, got the influenza, touch and go the word is…and if he dies, well…”
Both men looked daunted and then Mort continued, “That’s why that hot head Red Wolf has been able to co-opt more men into his renegade gang. Rumours have it that the Cheyenne may become involved too and it could turn into a full-scale Indian uprising if things ain’t nipped in the bud.”
“So, what is the Major doing?” Jess asked looking irritated.
“Well as much as he can with the troops he has. It seems several patrols have had to go out to try and stop the Cheyenne becoming involved; he’s really only got enough men to protect the ranches right now.”
“And you reckon all this is to do with some vendetta Red Wolf has against Jess?”
Mort looked troubled, turning to Slim, “No I’m not saying that, I think he’s just trying to prove a point, but something seems to have ruffled his feathers.”
That’s when Jess and Slim explained all about Red Wolf trying to kidnap and kill his nephew White Wolf, and also abducted young Amy.
“The Chief promised to keep him in check and now this!” Jess exploded.
“Well, he is sick,” Slim interceded, “I guess he can’t do much and most of those elders are too dang old and feeble to pull Red Wolf and the tribe back into line.”
Mort looked thoughtful, “It’s strange he’s not got it in for the pair of you, seeing as you were involved too Slim but it’s definitely ‘Jess, he wants a fight with.”
“Sounds about right,” Jess said and went on to explain to Mort how he had come upon Red Wolf several years before. How the brave had jumped him and tried to steal Traveller … and how Jess had beaten him easily and humiliated him in front of some other braves. Before turning on them too and all had fled the scene rather than take him on.
“I guess it’s rankled all these years,” he said, “then seeing me again must have reminded him and he wants another crack at me.”
“Yeah, well he wouldn’t have too much of a problem right now,” Slim said throwing Jess a warning glance.
“I was thinking you looked a tad peaky,” Mort said peering at Jess more closely.
Then Slim explained how Red Wolf had almost killed him with a poisoned arrow.
Mort gave a soft whistle, “He sure means business.”
“So how do you know he wants to settle things once and for all between us?” Jess asked ignoring Slim’ s anxious glance.
“He called at the ranch, bold as brass. I was out checking on the fence on the west pasture, but Kate saw him. He simply said to tell Jess Harper to get home as Red Wolf had unfinished business with him. When Kate asked what he dang well meant he just gestured with his knife as though slitting a throat and said, he knows.”
Jess grinned at the thought of Kate Munroe fearlessly quizzing a knife carrying, aggressive Indian, and muttered, “Good old Kate.”
“Never mind about good old Kate,” Slim growled, “you’re not thinking of taking him on are you, Jess?”
Jess deigned to reply, but turning to Mort said, “It’s Red Wolf who is the ringleader of all these raids and trouble you reckon?”
“Oh undoubtedly, remove Red Wolf from the scene and I figure the others would all fall back in line.”
“And the Major agrees with you?”
“Why sure, but he knows dang well if the army kills him, then there really will be trouble, and big trouble.”
“But if it was a duel of sorts what the Arapahoe would see as a battle of honour, between me and Red Wolf that would be OK?”
Mort flicked a glance over to Slim and then back to Jess and looking away again finally muttered very quietly, “Yes.”
Jess took a deep breath and turning back to Slim said. “Well, I guess you have your answer.”
However, before Slim could remonstrate with him, the door flew open and Kate Munroe marched in.
She beamed at both men and said, “Yer back …and not a moment too soon!”
Then peering more closely at Jess said, “What the hell’s the matter with you? You look real sick boy!”
Jess protested, but Kate would brook no arguments and five minutes later he was in Doc Sam’s office.
He and Slim had an emotional reunion with Daisy and Mike, and now while Jess stripped off for Sam to examine him, Slim and Kate were in the Doc’s kitchen brewing some coffee.
“I wanted a quiet word away from Daisy and Mike,” Kate said as she busied around making the brew, and some milk and cookies for Mike, “no point in upsetting them…But tell me exactly what happened.”
Slim explained about the poisoned arrow and how Tobias had helped him remove it and then how Rebecca had treated the wound daily with her Indian herbal recipe.
“Good, that’s good,” Kate said reflectively, “probably saved his life.”
Slim nodded, “The trouble is we had to leave before he was fully healed.”
He told her the events of the previous day, how Jess had been completely out of it and was now totally exhausted.
“There is no way he can take on Red Wolf at the moment it would be crazy to even try,” Slim lamented, “and I guess you’re the one to convince him Kate.”
Kate beamed at him, “Well normally I’d agree with you Slim, but right now I figure there is someone else who has an even greater influence on him.”
“Oh,” said Slim looking surprised, “who would that be then?”
“Why, Millie Johnson of course and I saw her stepping off the Stagecoach a couple of hours ago. Maybe you could suggest a little visit? Once he mentions all this business then she’ll veto him taking on Red Wolf for sure,” Kate said beaming. “But wait until I’ve had a chance to have a word with her first.”

Chapter 12
Before Kate was able to speak to Millie however Mrs Hudson, the Doc’s housekeeper came through the front door carrying some bags of shopping. Jess, who was just coming out of Sam’s examination room, grabbed the bags from the heavily laden elderly lady and carried them down the hall to the kitchen for her.
“Oh, thank you my dear,” she said beaming as he laid them on the table for her. “I’m so glad you and Slim are safely home,” she added, “and dear Millie back from her visit too.”
Jess was just going back to the parlour, but stopped dead in his tracks and turning back retraced his steps and said, “Huh Millie…back you say?”
“Why yes dear I saw her getting off the stage a couple of hours ago.”
Jess tore down the corridor and putting his head around the parlour door said, “Gotta go out for a while Daisy, see you later.”
Then as Mike ran over, he gave him a warm hug said, “See you later Tiger, be good and look after Blue for me huh,” and he turned away.
However, Slim was too fast for him and caught up with him outside on the sidewalk. He was lugging a large suitcase with him and called after his friend.
“Hang on Jess,” he yelled, “where are you off to in such a darned hurry?”
“She’s home!” Jess said beaming from ear to ear. “I’m goin’ a courtin’.”
“What like that?” Slim asked looking Jess up and down.
“Sure, like this why not?”
“Because you’ve been wearing those filthy duds for days, haven’t shaved since Thursday either. Hell Jess, you look and smell like an old buffalo.”
Jess took his hat off and ran a hand through his hair, before using the hat to brush himself down some…I ain’t that bad.”
“Worse!” Slim said then nodded towards the Barbers and Bath House.
“Why don’t we have us a bath and shave and change of clothes,” he said holding the suitcase aloft. “Daisy packed a case for us. A shave and wash first huh, I figure our ladies would kinda appreciate that?”
And it will give Kate a chance to sound out Millie too, he thought secretly.
Meanwhile across in the Sheriff’s office Mort and Kate were having a heated debate.
“Look honey I don’t want Jess to get hurt anymore than you do,” Mort said, “but involving Millie will only make matters worse.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Because Jess will always do what’s right and it won’t help any if he has to deal with Millie getting real upset too, that’s why.”
“Don’t you think she has a right to have her say, she is his gal after all.”
“Yes, but it ain’t down to her to decide what he does, or doesn’t do. I reckon sooner she accepts that the better, if she intends to make a go of things with him.”
“Why Mort Cory, I never realized you were such a bigoted man!” she cried angrily.
He sighed deeply and getting up from his desk strode across the office and took her in his arms, “I’m not…not really, but I just know Jess so dang well. If he feels he can stop this Indian uprising by silencing Red Wolf once and for all, then nothing or no one will stop him.”
Kate sighed and relaxed in his warm embrace, “You’re right of course,” she whispered, “Just this once,” she added more firmly.


An hour later a very clean, smartly dressed pair of cowboys entered the Laramie saloon.
It was practically deserted as they made their way to the bar to find Tom the barkeep disconsolately polishing glasses.
“You’re busy,” Slim said grinning at the older man.
Tom shook his head, “It’s been this way ever since the Indian troubles, folk are staying close to home.” Then he smiled at them, “Anyway good to see you boys, welcome home. Mose said you’d been off on a hunting trip…all went well?” He asked as he went to pour them a beer.
“Never mind that where are our girls?” Jess asked urgently.
Tom winked at Slim and passed the beer across and said, “Why uh, I think Lily’s out back if you’d like me to call her Slim?”
Slim nodded and Tom wandered off to find her, whilst Jess downed his beer looking even more agitated.
Tom returned with Lily and Slim grinned at her and leaning over the bar gave her a quick kiss.
Jess rolled his eyes and turning to Tom leaned in and said, “Quit messin’ me about Tom. Where’s my Millie.”
Tom pointed to the ceiling, “Well she’s up in her room Jess, but…”
However, before he could say anything more Jess had dashed off and was halfway up the stairs.
“…but she said she was getting in a hot tub and then having a nap,” he added to Jess’s retreating back.
“Well, I’ve a feeling she isn’t now,” Slim said with a sly wink.
“And I suppose you want me to give this young lady the day off too dontcha,” Tom asked, turning to where Lily had now slid around to the other side of the bar and was basking in Slim’ s warm embrace.
They both looked hopefully at the old barkeep who said with a soppy grin, “Go on then we ain’t busy that’s for sure.”
Upstairs Jess had tapped on Millie’s door and then rapped more loudly, but it was several minutes before the door opened a crack and she peered out. Then, on seeing who it was she gave a little cry of delight and pulled it open wide… Jess stared at her in open admiration as he took in her beautiful face completely free of makeup and hourglass figure wrapped in a tightly belted white silky bath robe, her hair up in a white toweling turban.
“You’re back,” she whispered, “Oh Jess…”
And then they said in unison, “I’ve missed you!”
They laughed and then Jess said, “Well, can I come in…?”
Smiling she stood to one side as he entered. Then throwing his hat onto a nearby chair he took her in his arms, simultaneously kicking the door shut behind him…then their lips met and they were transported into their own private world of ecstasy.
Much, much later Millie looked down at Jess’s rumpled hair and naked torso as he lay back against the pillows beside her.
“So, are you going to tell me how you got that wound then?” she asked for the second time, regarding the snowy white bandage across his chest anxiously.
He rolled his eyes and pulled her closer, “Aw it were nuthin’, just had a run in with Red Wolf ‘tis all.”
“What that renegade that is threatening the town? Folks are saying there’s going to be an uprising and we don’t have enough military to protect us,” she added looking even more worried.
“Hey don’t worry about it,” he said leaning over and kissing her neck, before glancing up at her still troubled countenance…
“Well, I am,” she said pulling away again, “and worried about you too. So are you going to tell me exactly where you’ve been and what’s been happening, because I don’t buy that story about a simple hunting trip.”
He sighed deeply and then pulling her into a warm embrace, her head resting on his shoulder he told her the whole sorry tale.
At the end she sat up and said, “So how is Jane now that poor Wes is dead?”
“Coping OK,” Jess said averting his gaze.
Sure, Millie knew all about his relationship with Jane and it had been way before they were the couple, they had become now…committed for the long haul. But even so he felt a tad uncomfortable discussing Jane with her.
However, he hadn’t allowed for Millie’s inherent perception when she said, softly, “She wanted you to stay, for her and the children didn’t she.”
Jess’s head shot up, and for a second, he was totally thrown and then knowing that honesty was the only way with Millie he said quietly, “Yes, yes she did.”
“And were you tempted?”
He recalled how their lips had brushed for a split second, whilst he was laying injured on the couch, and how he had pulled away from the temptation. Then how he had immediately thought of Millie and how much he would hurt her if he gave in to his basic instincts and finally said, “Nope I guess not, it’s you Millie, always been you…I just didn’t know it years ago.”
She nodded and then quickly changing the subject said, “You mentioned you had to meet the Major tomorrow, please tell me you’re not going to get involved with the Military and the darned Indian problem?”
He just shrugged dismissing the idea as unlikely, “Nah, he probably just wants some advice I reckon, seein’ as how I know Red Wolf and the Chief pretty well.” Thinking to himself that he’d level with Millie once the Indian issue had been dealt with. After all there was no call to go upsetting her…particularly not right now he mused with an inward smile. Nope he thought, on some occasions honesty wasn’t the best policy.
“Well, I hope that’s all it is,” she persisted.
“Sure, now come here,” he said gently stroking her cheek, “I guess I need to show you again, just how dang much I’ve missed ya.”
Early the following morning Jess, Slim, Mort and the Major were poring over a map on Mort’s desk.
“This is the point where they were camping as of yesterday,” the Major said, pointing to an area of woodland and a small lake about ten miles north of town. They have a twenty-four-hour watch on the camp and my scouts observed about thirty braves there. But he has more staked out on the mountain foothills just beyond the camp too.
“More men than you have at your disposal?” Mort asked anxiously.
The Major paused and stroked his grey beard for a moment and then said, “In confidence gentlemen, yes. He has a good third more fighting men than I have here right now.”
“But you could get reinforcements; I mean if they really attacked the town?” Slim asked hesitantly.
The Major shrugged, “I really couldn’t say, all my spare troops have their work cut out currently dealing with the potential Cheyenne involvement. The negotiations with their Chief are kinda important right now.”
Then turning to Jess said, “So like I said earlier Harper, this is really down to you.”
“And like I said,” Slim growled, “Jess is just getting over damn near dying from a poisoned arrow wound and he’s in no fit state to take on Red Wolf, or anyone else right now.”
There was an uncomfortable silence whilst Jess threw Slim a dark look, before nodding to the Major and saying, “Let’s go,” as he made for the door.
But then he paused and looking back gave Slim a gentle smile and said, “You comin’ pard?” Before adding ruefully, “Iffen I’m gonna get all beat up I guess I need someone to carry my body back home huh.”
Slim shook his head and then rolling his eyes said, “OK I’m coming,” and he and Mort followed the Major and Jess out.
As soon as they got within a mile or so of the Indian encampment, they were aware of curious eyes watching them from the undergrowth. But they rode slowly on, in single file. The Major leading the way with a white flag waving from his rifle which he carried before him like a banner.
They knew that once they arrived at Red Wolf’s camp, they would be relatively safe seeing as how the brave had virtually invited Jess to the duel. They also knew that the Indian’s code of honour would allow Jess to enter and take part in a fair fight. What they weren’t sure of was what would happen if Jess won the contest. If the Chief had been there, they knew that they would have been allowed to leave freely. But would Red Wolf’s braves have the same sense of fair play, if their leader were to die at Jess’s hands?
As soon as the small party entered the camp, Red Wolf came out of his tepee followed by several scowling henchmen and nodded to the Major and raised his hand in peace acknowledging the white flag.
Pointing to the Major he said, “You come see Red Wolf kill the white man Harper in fair fight and take back news of the Indian win over the white man?”
The Major and the others dismounted and he came forwards to face the Indian, “I come to see a fair fight yes, Red Wolf. Also to say if Harper here wins you return to the Reservation.”
Red Wolf looked infuriated.
“Or Harper will not accept your challenge,” the Major added.
Now Red Wolf’s reputation was at stake. He’d already been humiliated by Jess not once but twice before his friends and he wasn’t going to risk retribution slipping away from him.
He looked down and then said quietly, “You have my word, because I will win. And when I do, it will be the White man bowing down to Red Wolf, Chief of the Arapaho.”
Jess came forwards at that, “What your Pa is dead…Chief Red Bear is dead?”
Red Wolf gave Jess a snake like smile, “No my father lives…but he will not survive much longer, and then the white man will be shaking in fear and terror of the great Chief Red Wolf.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Jess dismissively, “so are we gonna fight or what?”
“Oh yes Jess Harper, we fight,” Red Wolf replied with another smile that looked more like a grimace.
“Your gun belt and shirt, take off!” The Indian said, suddenly becoming officious.
Well, Jess had known all along he wouldn’t be called upon to prove his fast draw. He figured he’d been asked to remove his shirt to prove he had no hidden weapons…assuming it would be a fist fight…But one that culminated in death and a shiver ran down his spine. Killing someone with his bare hands wasn’t something he relished, but if that’s what it would take to diffuse the dang uprising, then so be it. If indeed that would happen if Red Bear was dead…well that made a huge difference he acknowledged, but it was too late to back out now.
He unbuckled his gun belt and passed it to Slim and then did the same with his shirt…
Their eyes met; Slim silently pleading for Jess to back down, although they both knew it was way past that point.
Jess turned back to his adversary to see the Indian take a long knife from the brave beside him and holding it on high threw it hard. For one terrible moment Jess thought the knife was aimed to kill him where he stood. But then it landed neatly at his feet.
“Your weapon,” Red Wolf snarled, “we fight with the long knife.”
Jess stooped and picked up the lethal looking Bowie knife with its razor sharp ten-inch blade and flicked a glance across to Slim and then back to Red Wolf.
Before he had a chance to really assimilate the terrible danger he was in, Red Wolf let out a bloodcurdling scream. Then tore across the few yards between them, his knife raised high as he came in for the attack.
Jess used all his strength to parry Red Wolf’s knife wielding arm and knocked the Indian off balance enabling Jess to attack. His powerful blade caught red Wolf’s upper arm and a crimson ribbon of blood trickled down to his hand.
This seemed to enrage him and again he yelled vengeance in his own tongue before grappling with Jess once more.
Slim reckoned that Jess too must be pretty dang mad and his temper was firing him up to equal the strength of the young brave. But for how long Slim thought, as he watched with anguish as the two men fought for their lives. Evenly matched in height and weight the Indian still had the advantage as Jess was far from recovered from the arrow wound.
Now they were once more circling each other, looking like tom cats, waiting to spring to attack and this time it was Red Wolf who scored blood by slashing at Jess’s thigh. Caught off balance he fell heavily…his light-colored denims stained almost black with blood in seconds. Then Red Wolf was on top of him, the two men rolling over and over in the dirt.
Surprisingly it was Jess who sprang to his feet first and although he was clearly unsteady the fury in his eyes left none of the watchers in any doubt that he was far from through yet.
Again, Red Wolf lunged at him and the two men were once more grappling for the upper hand, both knives poised to strike the final blow. Then somehow Red Wolf managed to knee Jess in the groin and he fell to his knees in agony, dropping his knife.
It seemed like it was all over. Red Wolf even took a moment to scream another war cry and turn to see his braves all whooping encouragement.
Jess got shakily to his knees and was just reaching out for his knife when Red Wolf triumphantly kicked it away out of reach.
Then he grabbed hold of Jess and pulled him up to his feet before brandishing his knife above him and bringing it down towards his chest.
Jess desperately caught hold of the Indian’s wrist and tried with all his might to push him away.
Then suddenly it was all over. There was a cry from one of the men and the crowd were silenced as they looked on in horror…unable to discern which man was the winner and which was mortally wounded.
Both men had their eyes open wide in shock…their faces contorted in pain.
Then very slowly Red Wolf fell to the ground, his own knife buried up to its hilt in his chest.
There was a gasp from the onlookers then the small crowd of braves parted to allow a figure to emerge, that of Chief Red Bear.
The Chief had heard of the proposed skirmish and journeyed, with the tribe and elders, to the meeting place just in time to see the fight.
He stood silently observing his dead son and then barked out a command in his native language and several braves ran forwards and carried Red Wolf away.
Then the chief came forwards and raised his hand in a sign of peace.
Jess who was now supported by Slim, the gash to his thigh draining him, said quietly, “I’m real sorry it had to end this way Red Bear…losin’ your son.”
Red Bear shook his head, “He was no son of mine, I disowned him after he brought shame on the tribe.”
Then seeing Jess was now terribly pale with Slim literally holding him up, Red Bear called out again in his own language and the Medicine Man came over.
He was an elderly man and wore a necklace made of wolves’ teeth and also various leather pouches were slung around his neck. Others fastened to his belt containing all manner of herbs along with potion bottles attached by thongs.
By now Jess was in a bad way and Slim gently lowered him to the ground whilst the Medicine man stood over him before dancing and chanting in a harsh voice as he wielded his rattle.
“For God’s sake he needs a doctor,” Slim said now kneeling by Jess and looking up to Mort, “can you ride for Doc Sam?” he asked urgently.
However Red Bear came forwards and placed a comforting hand on Slim’ s shoulder, “Have patience Slim Sherman,” he said kindly, “your friend is in good hands.”
Then after more prancing about and chanting the Medicine Man seemed happy to check out the wound…and he gestured for Slim to remove Jess’s denims. Thankfully Jess was now past caring what indignities were thrown his way as he just wanted out of the terrible pain he was in.
The Medicine Man checked the wound and then glanced up at the Chief shaking his head almost imperceptibility before removing his knife from his belt.
For one terrible moment, Slim thought he was about to witness some dreadful kind of mercy killing. However, the Indian merely passed his knife to a nearby brave and told him to put it in the campfire.
Then turning to the Chief, he said a few words in his own language and then looked sadly at Jess and then Slim.
“He says the bleeding is so bad it cannot be stopped,” Red Bear supplied, the wound must be burnt to stop the life flow from leaving him.”
“Huh, the life flow?” Mort queried and then, “Ah to stop the bleeding, he’s gonna cauterize it Slim,” he added quietly.
A short time later the now white-hot knife was brought over and again the Medicine Man addressed the Chief.
“He says to hold him very tightly, he must not move until the task is completed, “Red Bear stated.
Slim and Mort immediately moved in to support Jess and Mort said, “You ready for this Jess?”
Jess rolled his eyes and muttered, “As ready as I’ll ever be… just tell him to do it; get it over with goddamn it.”
Slim nodded and as the medic applied the white-hot blade to the wound the terrible smell of burning flesh filled the air.
Jess bucked and yelled out cussing loudly before seconds later passing out.
The medicine man smiled and nodded happily at his handy work and then began scattering some powdered herbs into the wound, before binding it tightly with a surprisingly clean piece of cloth.
“He’ll be OK…all those crushed leaves and stuff he put in there?” Slim asked the Chief.
“Oh yes,” said Red Bear, “they will keep the wound clean and help it to heal. Indian medicine very strong…very good.”
Then the old Indian medic passed Slim a little bag of herbs.
“For the pain and to help him sleep,” the Chief told them, “Make it like you make your coffee, water very hot.”
“Thank you,” said Slim accepting the small pouch.
“Wise Eagle is a good healer,” the Chief said encouragingly. “Everyone said I would die of the influenza sickness, but he saved me and he will save Jess Harper, this I believe to be true.”
“Thank you,” Slim said again, nodding to the Medicine Man, Wise Eagle with new hope.
All the time Jess was being worked on the rest of the tribe had disappeared into the background slowly packing up and getting ready to head off until all the tepees had been dismantled and packed ready to go. All save for one.
Now Red Bear nodded to the one remaining tepee and said, “Your friend must rest until he is well. I leave you my son’s tepee as a gift. Please take it when you leave and keep the contents. May they be a reminder of the peace that is…and will remain between the Arapaho and white man as long as I am Chief.

Chapter 13
Once the tribe had left, heading for the Reservation, Slim and Mort wasted no time in carrying Jess over to the tepee. They settled him comfortably upon a warm buffalo hide and covered him with a colorful Indian blanket. After groaning and cussing softly he fell into a deep sleep and Slim figured it was a reaction to the brutal, albeit essential procedure.
The Major had followed Slim and Mort in and they looked around the wonderfully decorated place. Slim remembered that Red Wolf’s mother had been very talented in Indian arts and craft work. There were dream catchers and various beautifully decorated pots. Also bows, arrows, knives, spears and various woven rugs, blankets, buffalo-hides and bearskins.
“It’s really beautiful,” Mort said squatting down beside the central fire pit and warming his hands. Although it was summer a chill wind had gotten up and it sounded like a storm was on the way.
The Major heard the sound of distant thunder too and said, “I reckon I should be on my way, report back the outcome. Seems we’ve averted what could have been one hell of an uprising today,” and he glanced down at the now sleeping Jess.
Then frowning slightly said, “He will be OK you think?”
Slim nodded, “Sure, tough as old boots is Jess,” with a confidence he wasn’t really feeling, his Pard looking so sickly and pale.
“I sure hope so,” the Major said and then quietly, “The bravest damn thing I’ve ever seen, him taking on the redskin that way, still recovering from that other injury an’ all.”
“Thing about Jess is he won’t ever give in,” Mort said with a wry smile, “dang fool,” he added affectionately.
The Major had ridden out shortly afterwards, agreeing to call in at Laramie and assure Mort’s Deputy that he would be back the following day and also that everything had gone to plan.
“Uh, I’ll call in at the Doc’s place and saloon too,” he added smiling at Slim, “put your friends in the picture.”
“Thanks,” Slim had replied, “I figure he should be OK to ride in a week or so. Tell them, we’re fine just uh, kinda tired,” he added. Knowing how Daisy and their girls would fret.
“No need to go into details huh?” he added casting a quick glance down at Jess and back to the Major.
“Message received and understood,” the Major said grinning at him, “We don’t want to go upsetting the women folk.”
Now with the promised storm raging without, Mort and Slim again looked around them.
“Sure is a swell gift,” Mort said, “it’s dry and real warm in here, the perfect way to travel.”
“Uh, yeah it’s great, but how the heck are we going to transport it back to the ranch?”
Mort grinned. “The Chief left another gift too, a couple of ponies to carry everything, he showed me how to dismantle it and all…real easy once you know how. I’ll show ya before I head out.”
“Well, I guess it’ll sure make a good den for young Mike and his friends,” Slim chuckled.
Then he reached over for Jess’s denims that he’d put to dry near the fire after washing all the blood out of them. He rooted about in his saddlebags before bringing out a small sewing bundle.
Mort watched with a quizzical expression as Slim expertly threaded a needle and started sewing up the long slash in the pants…made by Red Wolf’s lethal knife.
“Well, ain’t you a good little housewife,” Mort said smirking.
“Hey don’t knock it,” Slim said raising an eyebrow, but grinning. “My Lily gave me this, real useful on the trail...when Miss Daisy isn’t around.”
“So, it would seem,” Mort said, “I guess he can’t wear them the way they are.”
Sometime later after Slim’ s handy work had been admired, he brewed up some good strong coffee.
He was just about to pour it out when Jess stirred and groaned softly before pulling himself up on one elbow and sniffing the air said, “That coffee I can smell?”
Slim and Mort exchanged an amused glance before Slim said. “For me and Mort yeah, but you’re on some special Indian herbal tea.”
Jess just rolled his eyes and said, “Yer kiddin’… just give me some coffee Slim and can ya throw some more wood on too I’m freezin’ my butt off here.”
Then he lifted the blanket and yelled, “Hey where are my pants!”
Slim and Mort were chuckling now and Slim threw the pants across and said, “Here you are…and it’s OK don’t thank me for all the washing and mending.”
“Um… sorry Slim, thanks,” Jess muttered pulling them on and wincing slightly as he moved his damaged leg.
Then turning a beautiful smile on his Pard said, “So coffee huh…?”


As planned Mort rode out at first light with strict instructions to play down Jess’s injury and say the men would be home within the week. He had explained to Slim on how to dismantle and move the tepee and grinned as he mounted up.
“I reckon you two will have a real nice break,” he said looking around him, “game in the hills and fish in that lake. Paradise…enjoy,” he added before tipping his hat and moving off.
“Ha!” Jess said once the Sheriff was out of earshot, “Fat chance I’ve got of goin’ huntin’, hell I don’t think I could even make it over to the lake right now.”
“That’s because you point blank refuse to take that herbal medicine Wise Eagle gave you,” Slim said frowning at his pard. “He said it was real important for you to rest and it’ll help you get a good night’s sleep, should ease the pain some too.”
Jess sighed, “OK, I guess I’ll give it a go.”
It worked like a miracle and Jess slept most of the day away, waking in time for supper feeling much better and virtually pain free from the deep gash to his thigh.
That was the pattern of the following few days and it was working so well that Slim upped the dose, thinking that the more Jess rested the more likely he’d be well enough to ride home as planned.
However, the night that Slim had mixed up the extra dose, Jess had a terrible nightmare and woke up yelling out in alarm and visibly shaking.
Slim quickly went over and slinging an arm around Jess’s shoulders said, “Hey, it is OK buddy, just one of your bad dreams.
He finally managed to calm him down, but it was the following day before he heard all about Jess’s awful night time terrors.
His leg was healing well enough for the pair to be sitting at the edge of the lake fishing poles in hand. After a while Slim turned to his pard and said, “So, you want to tell me what that nightmare was all about?”
Jess swallowed hard and looked out to the distant hills beyond the lake and said, “It was that one about bein’ at the ranch…and it catchin’ fire. Just the way it really happened when we landed home during the Indian troubles. The place all boarded up and Mike and Daisy gone.”
“It was really strange that you had that dream just weeks before things really happened that way. It was almost like it was an omen of what was to come.”
“Yeah, that’s what’s bothering me,” Jess said.
“Go on…”
“Well, it was just the same, there was a storm blowing up, the place deserted. But this time Millie was there and I knew, just knew, she was in real danger. She was standing right on the porch and I called to her but she couldn’t hear with the wind blowing up an all. So, I tried to walk towards her and I couldn’t move, was like I was in a quicksand or something.”
Slim gasped, “Nasty…”
“Yeah, and then the lightning struck the porch roof and the whole damn place went up like the 4th of July. Millie was screaming and I still couldn’t move to save her…and I remember thinkin’ thank God I decided to leave Jane and the kids and come home to Mil…But even then, I still couldn’t save her…and then you woke me up.”
Even talking about it, Jess had broken into a sweat and his face was ashen.
Slim leaned across and squeezed his shoulder and said, “Hey pard don’t take on so. It was just a dream; Millie is safe in town. Anyway, there haven’t been any storms around since that one a while back and even if there were she’s smart enough to take cover someplace safe. That old homestead has survived thousands of storms and it’s not going to burn down now…I promise you.”
Jess was finally convinced and he relaxed back, taking up his fishing pole again and the two sat in companionable silence for a while.
Then Slim said, “Of course it could be your brain telling you it’s time you upped and made an honest woman of Millie…after all you did choose her over Jane.”
“Uh, yes I reckon I did,” Jess said thoughtfully, “maybe you’re right.”
“Sure, I am, I should set the date when we get home.”
Jess still wasn’t looking convinced but agreed and then said, “Of course you’ll be best man?”
“Well sure,” Slim said beaming.
“And Lily will be a Bridesmaid?”
“I should imagine so, yup,” Slim said, still with a soppy grin on his face.
Jess considered this and then said, “You know what that means dontcha?”
“Well, you’ll be next of course, I mean it stands to reason, everyone would expect it…especially Lily.”
The smile faded and Slim suddenly looked anxious, “You think so?”
“Oh yeah,” Jess said easily, “I know so pard.”
Slim pondered on this and then said, “Of course you can’t rush this kind of thing. I mean, we’d need to build over on the east pasture for you and Millie, like we always said, and that will take a powerful lot of money.”
Jess agreed, “And time…we won’t have too much of that to spare over the next few months…busy time late summer… and fall…”
Slim nodded, “Yup real busy.”
“And we’d have to extend the ranch for you and Lily too, newlyweds’ need some space,” Jess continued.
“Yup, more dang expense,” Slim agreed shaking his head sadly.
“Then there’s the price of beef to consider,” Jess offered.
“Well, I mean we’ll need some good sales to afford all these changes.”
“You’re not wrong there,” Slim agreed.
Then with a hopeful smile, “I guess we’d better wait awhile, before mentioning it to the girls huh?”
“I think so,” Jess agreed, “next year…or maybe the year after would be plenty of time.”
“Yup plenty of time,” Slim agreed and the men went back to their fishing feeling suddenly light hearted, now that everything had been sorted out so sensibly.
Yup Jess thought as he relaxed back enjoying the peaceful scene before him, all was right with the world and he was one lucky cowboy.


They rode into town a few days later and tethering their mounts and the Indian pack horses outside Mort’s office they strode inside.
Mort and Kate Munroe were sitting sipping coffee and both looked pleased to see their friends back at last.
“Well, I’ll tell ya Jessie boy you sure are the hero of the hour,” Kate said enthusiastically. “Everyone’s heard how you beat that ol’ Red Wolf at his own game and saved the day. Mort here told us all how you managed to prevent a major uprising...you and the Major too of course.” she added smiling at Slim.
Jess frowned and threw Mort a less than friendly glance, “Thanks for that,” he muttered.
Mort grinned enjoying the reluctant hero’s attitude, “Well credit where credit’s due Jess,” he said chuckling.
Anyway, Kate said, “Never mind about that now, how is your leg?”
“Uh, fine, just fine,” Jess said quickly.
“Um, I think I’d better check it over,” Kate said, “I’d be real interested to see some of Wise Eagle’s handiwork.”
“No need, I’m just fine,” Jess insisted, not wanting the indignity of stripping off there and then.
Reading his thoughts Mort said quickly, “It’s OK you can use the back cell, nobody in there right now.”
Again, Jess objected and Kate chuckled, “There is no need to be so darned bashful Jess, ain’t no part of you I ain’t seen before. Used to change his diaper when he was a young ‘un,” she added grinning at Slim and Mort.
“Yeah, well I kinda grew up some,” Jess said indignantly.
However just then Doc Sam entered and smiling said, “Welcome back boys, saw your horses outside. So, how’s the knife wound Jess…thought I might just check you over?”
Jess returned from his examination sometime later and grinning at Slim said, “Doc says it’s a miracle, never seen a wound heal so quick.”
Slim showed the doc and Kate the herbal powders he’d shaken into the wound every time he’d changed the dressing and also the powerful sleeping draught and painkiller.
Sam and Kate took a great interest and sniffed and tasted the herbs used for the infusion.
“Very strong,” Kate said, “excellent, and you need so little too.”
Slim’ s head shot up at that, “So little?”
“Why yes,” Sam said, “just a small pinch is all you need, maybe two, in boiling water.”
Slim looked pale, “That’s all?”
“Certainly, these herbs have very strong properties,” the doc said, “why do you ask?”
Slim swallowed hard, “I’ve been giving him two large spoonfuls twice a day.”
“What!” Jess cried, “You could have killed me!”
“Well, you’re better, aren’t you?” Slim said suddenly on the defensive.
“No harm done,” the doc said quickly, “just maybe the odd side effect?”
“Like nightmares?” Jess asked.
“Precisely,” the doc said smiling, “but a small price to pay for all the benefits of these herbal remedies.”
“And look on the bright side,” Slim said happily, “your dream about Millie being in danger wasn’t an omen, just drug induced.”
“Um…and that’s good?” Jess asked.
“I guess so. But maybe you’d better go and check up on her though, just to be on the safe side,” Slim added with a grin.
“Yeah, I reckon I will,” Jess said and he was off through the door in a flash.
“I guess that old leg has healed real well,” Mort said grinning after his friend.

They returned to the ranch the following day and life resumed its normal relaxing pace, the cowboys having nothing more pressing to concern them other than the everyday challenges of ranch life.
Summer came and went and it wasn’t until Christmas that Daisy received her usual seasonal missive from Rebecca.
Sitting around the breakfast table she read out interesting snippets…
“Oh, it seems Abby has met and married a widower and she and young James have moved into his place. It’s quite near to Jane’s cabin though, so they still meet up.”
“Wow that was quick,” Jess said looking surprised.
“The school is thriving too with more children on their books. It looks like Abby is a real asset to the mountain,” Daisy continued reading.
“Who’d she marry?” Slim asked.
“Uh… a man called Brad Jones, do you know him?”
“Sure,” Jess said grinning, “he’s a great guy. I believe his wife died of the fever. She left him with a baby girl, looks like Abby’s gotten herself a daughter, as well as a new husband. He was a business man before he gave it all up for mountain life, now he acts as the local preacher…a real good role model for James.”
“It seems James, or should I say White Wolf,” Daisy said twinkling, “spent a few weeks in the summer holidays with his grandfather too. He really enjoyed his time learning all about the Indian ways from Red Bear.”
“So, uh, is there any other news?” Jess asked casually.
Slim and Daisy exchanged a knowing look before Daisy returned to the letter.
“Let me see, it says she and Tobias are well and that young Georgie is growing up fast.”
Then quietly, “Oh yes and Jane and family are fine. Jane is working at the school with Abby and enjoying it,” she finished before folding the letter and returning it quickly to the envelope. Declining to mention that Rebecca had also shared that Jane was clearly still grieving her loss very deeply…and not just that of her husband, she had added, for Daisy’s eyes only.
Over the years they received all the gossip from the mountain, via Rebecca’s letters, rejoicing when the news was good. Young James, aka White Wolf, went off to college back east, but returned with his degree to spend time with Red Bear in his declining years. Then after his demise he took on the role of Chief and led his people with wisdom and fairness. He also married the love of his life, Jane’s young Amy and they lived contentedly together, producing a large happy family.
Jane never remarried and went to her grave still loving Jess. But she did get great pleasure from her children and grandchildren who were a real blessing in her life.
If Jess ever thought about the Mountain folk, which he did upon occasion, it was with great fondness and mostly happy memories. His only one regret being that he and Jane had fallen in love all those years ago. But as he oft told himself it was wrong back then when she was married to Wes and nothing could ever have come of it. Likewise, although Jane would have reprised their relationship after Wes’ s death, by then he was in love with Millie and so it was never to be.
So, he kept his promise and sadly never visited the mountain folk again. Although he would have dearly loved to see how the children had grown and prospered. Also, he’d have liked to have been able to make a good friend of dear Jane, but he knew in his heart that would never be possible for her, so he stayed away. But he always enjoyed hearing news of the Mountain Folk via Rebecca’s letters as did Slim and all at the ranch and wished them well.

The End
Thank You for reading my 101 story!


Chasing Memories

This is a special call out to all my dear friends out there, who enjoy reading my stories.

This one entitled, Chasing Memories is NOT a Laramie story, but one I sincerely hope you will think of buying.

 It is a unique fictional account, written from the point of view of a lady with Alzheimer’s. 

Told with empathy and understanding, it endeavors to inform and raise awareness. It’s also an entertaining and enjoyable read!

 Plus sales will benefit Alzheimer’s Research.  I know many of you have been touched by this awful disease and this is my way to support research for a cure.

 It is out now on Amazon (worldwide distribution) as a Paperback and also as an e-book. 

Please if you do read and enjoy it I would be SO grateful for a positive feedback on Amazon, to promote sales. 

Those of you who buy it you will see a small Laramie connection! 

Link to Amazon for Chasing Memories Book

Thanks guys. And yes, I will be posting another Laramie story soon too, but that one, as usual, will be completely free to read here on my website.


#100 Christmas Mayhem!

Christmas Mayhem!
Patty Wilkinson

My 100th story dedicated to: My dear friend and Beta Reader Bertie Whiskin

(Please note some adult themes, strong language and violence.)

‘Many thanks to Pam Knych Klawinski for her beautiful screen cap.’

Chapter 1

It was early December and at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station plans for Christmas were already in full swing. Mrs Daisy Cooper, housekeeper and surrogate Ma to all at the ranch had been busy baking, canning and jam making for weeks. She had also been cleaning and tidying everywhere, to the extent that none of the males in the household could find anything. They were also feeling slightly alarmed at the prospect of keeping the house so neat and tidy on the run up to Christmas.
“Dadgum it Slim she’s even cleaned under my bed and moved my spare fishing tackle someplace,” Jess asserted, “not to mention hiding that half bottle of old Denver James’s best hooch! Dang, it I’d been saving that!”
“Well, you know she doesn’t like Moonshine in the house Jess and maybe under your bed isn’t the best place to keep your fishing tackle either.”
“Heck Slim a man’s gotta have some private space,” Jess interjected crossly.
“Oh, come on, she doesn’t mean any harm…and anyway she’s concentrating on making all the sweet treats for Christmas now so I reckon she won’t notice if you put everything back.”
“Yeah, if I can dang well find it all,” he replied, looking slightly appeased at the thought of Christmas baking.
Seconds later the little blond whirlwind that was Mike Williams bounced into their room saying, “Aunt Daisy says breakfasts on the table and you’re to hurry up as she’s got a long list of things that need to be done!”

As much as both men dearly loved Daisy they sighed deeply in unison and went off to hear what chores she had in mind for them next.
“Well sure Daisy, I agree maybe the bunkhouse could use tidying up some before our guests arrive, but ain’t it a bit soon? Uh, I mean those ol’ spiders will just move right back in again if we do it too early,” Jess said hopefully as he dug into his bacon and eggs.
“And we painted inside last year…or the year before anyway,” Slim said, “I really don’t think it needs painting again so soon Daisy.”
“Heck it’ll only be me, Slim and Mort in there anyway,” Jess added hotly, “and Mort don’t care any about paint and tidying any, all he wants is a warm billet.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Daisy said reluctantly. “If Mike moves in with me for a couple of nights, then Mort’s Kate can have his room and the girls yours… that would be perfect.”
Jess personally thought it would be even more perfect if Millie and Lily were to share his and Slim’ s room with them still in it, but knew better than to suggest that, especially in front of Mike.
They continued their meal in peace and then Mike was sent off to get his books ready for school and Daisy launched into her next attack.
“Oh well if you don’t want to do the bunk house, that just leaves the shower and outhouse. You can’t deny they are looking pretty shabby.”
“Aw Daisy, nobody in their right mind will be using the outside shower this time of year,” Jess responded.
Then as a quiet aside to Slim, “If the gals want to bathe, they can use the tin bath in front of the fire like the rest of us,” and they exchanged a knowing grin and wink.
Daisy pretending not to have heard said, “Well alright, but the outhouse definitely. After all it would be a shame to waste that fresh paint I bought, wouldn’t it?”
“I suppose,” Jess muttered, “maybe tomorrow huh Daisy?”
“But why, what’s wrong with today dear? Strike while the iron is hot, that’s my motto,” she added beaming at both men.
“Well, ya see…thing is, me and Slim are off lookin’ fer strays today, Daisy.”
“Oh? But I thought you brought the entire herd down from the mountain weeks ago?” she asked in surprise.
“Uh, well yes we did,” Slim conceded.
Then Jess added quickly, “But we were missing a few and figured they may be on their way home now see Daisy. They do that suddenly realise the herd have moved on and try and get home. Well, it sure would be a shame if they were lost out on that mountain all winter now, wouldn’t it?”
Out in the barn as they saddled up, Slim said, “Well that’s held it off for another day, but we’re going to have to face it sooner or later you know Jess.”
“Not me buddy,” Jess said grinning, “I promised old man Turner I’d go over and check on those mustangs he wants me to break for him over the winter. Figure I’ll ride out tomorrow, stay the night and be back day after.”
Slim shook his head and said, “I reckon I may need to go over to Cheyenne on business later in the week too.”
Slim just grinned.
“Hell Slim, no need for us both to suffer, let’s just toss a coin on it huh?”
“OK…but we’ll use my coin…not your double headed one!”
They tossed a coin and Jess looked delighted when his call of ‘heads' won the day.
“Aw shame buddy,” he said trying to hide a grin. “But you’d better get to it Slim. Don’t forget, the stage line will be putting on extra runs next week with the additional Christmas mail and passengers.”
“Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that,” Slim replied, “and we’ve got to mend that fence over on the west pasture before the snow’s down too, or we really will be in trouble looking for strays.”
The couple chuckled at that and then they heard the stage coming down the rise and wandered out of the barn to see Mike off to school.
Jess threw Mike up into the stagecoach and said, “You behave young man; don’t you go giving your teacher a hard time just because it’s nearly the Christmas holiday.”
“I won’t,” he promised.
Then Mose the stage driver grinned down from the box.
“So, Miss Daisy got you boys busy?” he asked with a snigger.
“Busy enough,” Slim grinned back.
Mose went to set the stage in motion and then recalled something.
“I nearly forgot, got yer Sentinel here, something may interest you boys. So long.”
Slim took it from him and after waving the old timer off, shook the paper out and surveyed the headlines.
“Hey listen to this Jess…says here that the Stone gang have been released from prison. I sure hope they don’t show their faces around here again!”
“They’ll damn well regret it if they do,” Jess responded darkly.
“Well, they’ve done their time. What was it, two years? So, I figure they’re free men to go where they please.”
“Yeah, as long as it ain’t around here,” Jess reiterated. “They’re a real bad lot,” he added. “Hell, that Randy is damned evil through and through and his brothers ain’t much better. Young Cal that ain’t so bad, just caught up with the others poor kid.” Then frowning added, “Dang it, we gave them work and fair pay on our cattle drive and what did they do, tried to rustle the whole damn herd.”
“Nearly got away with it too, but they didn’t take you into account Hotshot,” Slim said grinning, “You winged two out of the four didn’t you, Randy and Cole?”
Jess grinned back. “Yup, Pete and the young Cal threw down their weapons begging for us not to shoot.”
“Nasty business altogether though,” Slim said shaking his head. “You trust folk and then they turn on you that way… it leaves a bad taste in your mouth doesn’t it…”
Jess nodded, “Oh well I reckon we’ve seen the last of them. They wouldn’t be so dang stupid as to head this way I reckon. Come on Slim, let’s go and see if we really can find some strays huh?”

Chapter 2

At breakfast the following morning Mike was not his usual cheerful self and merely pushed his meal around the plate.
“Hey what’s up Tiger?” Jess asked noticing at once that the boy wasn’t any too happy.
“Aw Jess, do ya hafta go on that trip today?”
“Well sure I do Mike, Mr Turner pays me real good money for breaking his horses and I promised I’d call by this week and strike a deal…be back tomorrow night, what’s the problem? “
“I don’t like you riding out,” he replied, jumping up from his seat and sounding close to tears. “Last time you said you’d be back in a couple of days it was days and days! Then when you did make it home you were shot up real bad. I heard the doc say you only just made it,” he finished, his voice trembling.
“Hey Mike it’s OK,” Jess said, getting up and pulling the child into a warm hug. “That was different. I was ridin’ posse with Sheriff Cory, and there were some real bad men we had to bring in. Heck, Mr Turner is a good friend; I’ll be just fine.”
Then he ran an experienced hand across the youngster’s forehead checking for a fever. He knew of old that he often became tearful and irrational when he was coming down with something.
Daisy raised an inquiring eyebrow and he smiled at her, “He’s as cool as a cucumber Daisy.”
“Just feelin’ kinda anxious huh partner?” he said turning back to the boy and hugging him again.
“I guess so,” he sighed. “But if you promise you’ll be back tomorrow for supper then I’ll feel better.”
“Cross my heart…and if my lucks in, I may bring back some of Ma Turner’s homemade candy, how about that huh?”
Mike brightened at once, “Gee that would be swell.”
Then he sat back down and started eating his breakfast with relish and asking for more milk…please.
Once Mike had been safely dispatched to school on the stage, Jess saddled up and Daisy and Slim came onto the porch to wave him off.
“Give Ada Turner my love,” Daisy called to him.
“And make sure you come back when you said,” Slim added, “I might just save some painting for you!”
Jess just flapped a hand at his partner.
Then called, “Will do,” to Daisy and rode off giving a little salute as he urged Traveller on to a fast trot, shortly disappearing around the bend at the top of the rise.
He made good progress and after riding up the Laramie Road for a few miles, turned off to his left on a well-worn trail. This led to the small community where Bert Turner and a couple of other ranchers had land. It was about fifteen miles to Bert’s spread and Jess figured if he came straight back after their business was concluded, he could just about make it home before dark. But then he’d miss out on Ma Turners excellent supper, not to mention Bert’s lethal home-brewed whiskey. Nope, he’d make an evening of it and maybe even bring a couple of the mustangs back with him. He figured once the extra work generated by Christmas was over, the ranch would be pretty quiet and he could crack on with getting the horses green broke as soon as possible.
It was a sunny day and quite mild for early December and he whistled softly as he slowed his pace some, knowing he had plenty of time to get the deal done and then indulge in a little early Christmas spirit he chuckled to himself.
They’d recently made a real good deal on cattle sales, and for once they had quite a substantial amount in the business account. Heck, only the other day they’d discussed buying in some more of the famous Aberdeen Angus beef stock that they had done so well with. There was even the possibility of putting up another barn if business continued to thrive. Yup all was right with the world.
After a while he reined Traveller in and feeling kinda dry reached for his canteen. He had just put it to his lips when a shot rang out… the bullet catching him in the back of his right arm and catapulting him out of the saddle. Being caught completely off guard he fell badly; cracking his head on the rocky ground where he lay deathly still.
When he came around several minutes later, four pairs of angry eyes peered down at him. Then the man with a rifle aimed at Jess’ chest said, “Guess what Harper…it’s payback time!”
Meanwhile back in Laramie Mike sighed heavily and squirmed in his seat.
Mr Brown the teacher looked across the empty classroom at the small blond boy and finally took pity on him.
“OK Mike you can put up your books up now and go out to play. But remember young man you do not chatter in class, especially not during math…is that quite clear?”
“Oh yes sir, real clear,” Mike said leaping up from his desk, “Sorry sir!”
Mr Brown’s heart melted; Mike sure was a nice young man if a little over exuberant at times.
“You got your lunch there boy?”
“Yes sir,” he said holding his lunch box aloft.
“Good, good, well you come out the front with me then son. I’m off to the schoolhouse Mrs Brown will be wondering what’s kept me.”
At the front door of the school, they parted company. Mr Brown entering the school house next door and calling, “I’m home honey.”
Mike turned to the left and made to enter the school yard to see his friends.
However, he was suddenly called over by one Marcus Dodd, who Mike knew only slightly. He had left the school a year ago and since then had been in and out of trouble with the law for petty crime.
Now he grabbed hold of Mike’s arm and said, “You’ve gotta come with me kid, Mr Sherman’s sent for you to come home pronto.”
“Huh, what are you saying? Why?” Mike asked looking skeptical…knowing the boy was doubtless up to no good.
“It seems that Mr Harper’s been shot up some, and is calling for you.”
Mike’s expression changed from disbelief to alarm.
Looking near to tears he said, “Sure I’ll come, but I’d better tell the teacher.”
“I doubt he’ll be too happy you disturbing his dinner,” Marcus said, knowing Mr Brown of old and how fond he was of his food.
“Here,” he added passing over a scrap of paper and pencil, “write a note and push it under his door, he’ll see it before afternoon school.”
Marcus helpfully turned so that Mike could lean the paper on his back and wrote quickly, ‘I had to go home sir, family stuff,’ and signed it.
“Better add a ‘PS Mr Sherman came for me.’ Ya know how grown-ups fret about this kinda thing,” Marcus said.
Mike complied before pushing it under the door.
“Come on kid I’ve got a pony fer ya here and I’ll ride along, keep you safe.”
If Mike was slightly surprised by the new kindly version of Marcus Dodd, he hid it well and merely mounted up and headed for home.
They had only ridden a matter of two miles when they were joined by another rider, who came upon them suddenly from the bushes beside the road.
He rode straight in front of Marcus and Mike forcing them to rein in quickly.
“OK son, I’ll take it from here,” the stranger said tossing Marcus some coins, “well done.”
As Marcus turned his pony back towards town Mike looked terrified, “Hey Marcus where are you going?” he yelled, but the boy ignored him and merely spurred his mount on to greater speed.
“It’s OK kid the tall burly man said, I’m a friend of Jess Harper…he ain’t at the ranch right now, I’ll take you to him.”
Mike looked closely at the scruffy individual and then said, “I know you… you’re one of those bad men that tried to steal our beeves. You ain’t no friend of Jess. I ain’t going with you!”
He kicked the pony onwards towards home, but just seconds later the rough hombre caught up with him, and grabbing the reins brought the pony to a halt.
“You’re a feisty little runt ain’t you,” he said laughing. Then he tied Mike’s hands securely to the saddle horn, and leading the pony set off down a track leading towards open countryside and the Laramie Mountains, to their camp, a mile or so outside Laramie…but well hidden.


“I ain’t writin’ nuthin’,” Jess yelled angrily.
He cussed long and loud, while clutching his badly bleeding arm.
Randy Stone looked down at Jess lying in the dirt, “I don’t really think you’re in any position to argue, Harper,” he drawled.
“What is it you’re after Stone?” Jess spat.
“Just for you to confirm that you are our uh…guest and that for you to get medical attention and your freedom then there will have to be a deal done…with your partner Sherman.”
“So how much am I worth?” Jess growled.
“Oh I’d say about $100… this time.”
“Are you crazy? And what do ya mean ‘this time’?”
“Well, see Harper we figure we’d get payment in installments…just a little and often, so as not to arouse suspicion when yer partner makes the withdrawals from the ranch account.”
“You’re plumb loco,” Jess snarled, “why in hell would I write askin’ him to do that?”
Then all turned as Cole Stone rode in, accompanied by a terrified looking Mike.
Having just caught the end of the conversation Cole dismounted. Then untying Mike he dragged him down from the saddle and holding him in a vice like grip said, “I guess this is why,” he drawled pushing the youngster forwards.
“Because iffen you don’t, the kid’s going to get hurt…hurt real bad. If you get my drift,” and he cuffed Mike hard on the side of his head sending him flying before tumbling to the floor.
Despite the fact that Jess was held at rifle point, he leapt up and tore across the short distance between them coming to Mike’s aid. Holding him close and talking softly he hugged him close with his good arm.
Once Mike was relaxed against him and had calmed down some, Jess finally said, “Fetch me the paper…”

Chapter 3
Back at the ranch, Slim had made a good start on the outhouse and having finished the interior went and washed up.
There was an extra Stage due mid afternoon and sure enough he had just finished at the pump when he heard it clattering down the rise.
It was purely a mail drop, so the horses didn’t need changing. Once a few pleasantries had been exchanged with the young driver, Slim took the post indoors to Daisy; who had just brewed a fresh pot of coffee.
“Oh, what have you got there?” she asked as she poured them both a cup.
“The parcel you were expecting…that will be the adventure story book for Mike I guess,” he said handing it over.
“Oh good, I’m glad it arrived while he’s in school. I can squirrel it away now,” she said beaming at him.
“So where is the latest Christmas present hiding place?” Slim asked grinning back at her.
She tapped her nose, “That’s for me to know Slim Sherman. You and Jess are almost as bad as Mike for peeking before the big day!”
Slim agreed and then perused the rest of the mail. There was a feed bill and then another letter without a post mark.
“Um, a local one here been sent direct to the Stage Office, maybe it’s an invite to a neighbor' s Christmas Party,” he said cheerfully ripping it open.
Daisy glanced up expectantly and then looked concerned as the colour drained from Slim’ s face and he suddenly sat down at the table.
“Why whatever is it dear,” she asked, “bad news?”
Slim just didn’t know how to break it to her. It must be a hoax surely. But no, that was Jess’ hand alright; …and looking even more illegible than usual, as though written with his left hand. Which would indeed concur with the letter’s content.
“Slim…please you’re frightening me.”
He couldn’t read out the letter the way it was written it was too stark…too damn horrific.
“It’s from Jess,” he began quietly.
“Oh, so is he going to be away longer than expected?” Daisy asked looking puzzled.
“You could say so,” he agreed, and then explained the gist of the letter. How Jess was wounded and held captive and Mike too had been abducted. Then Slim explained how he had to pay a ransom, to affect their release and medical help for Jess.
Daisy looked horror stricken, but in her usual stoic way recovered quickly, “Well, you must get the money,” she said at once, “and tell Sheriff Cory too.”
Slim looked even more worried, “No can do, Daisy. They say we’re being watched and if I go to the law…well, they’ll kill Mike in front of Jess.”
A hand shot up to her mouth and Daisy looked horrified, “No!”
“I’m sorry Daisy, but I had to level with you. They’ve even suggested a cover story. We’re to tell everyone that a long lost relative of the boy has been found…an uncle claiming custody and Jess has taken Mike to visit him.”
“As though we’d do that…we’d ask the man to come here.”
“It’s all we’ve got Daisy and we’re going to have to make it sound plausible, because Mike and Jess are in real danger. All we can do is send the money and hope they’ll be freed.”
The letter had gone on, in a different hand, to add instructions saying that Slim needed to be at the telegraph office at ten the next day, where he would receive a wire telling him which office to wire the money to. He must complete the procedure at once and then leave the office and go directly home to await further instructions. It also reiterated that the law must not be informed and they should stick to the story that Jess and Mike were away visiting Mike’s new-found kin. You are being watched the letter finished.
“I don’t understand,” said Daisy, “why not just tell you where to send the money now?”
“Because they probably think I might tip off the local Sheriff and have an officer there to meet them. No Daisy, this way they will be waiting at the designated telegraph office ready to receive the money once it’s sent over. Then they’ll be off and free as soon as the transaction is completed. Darned clever,” he muttered. “And what’s more they could continue doing it just moving from one Telegraph office to another across the country, until they’ve bled us dry and there isn’t a damn thing, we can do about it.”
Daisy let the bad language go, knowing how terribly upset Slim was.
“Oh dear, what can we do, it seems impossible,” she whispered looking distraught.
“Well, you know Jess … he’d usually escape if he possibly could, but to be honest Daisy, I figure he won’t even try; not if Mike’s life is in the balance. I reckon he’ll just do exactly as he’s told. I sure hope so anyway,” he muttered.
Slim was at the bank as soon as it opened the following morning and then went to the Telegraph Office to await the wire. It came in just after ten and if the operator was surprised at Slim waiting for it and then the subsequent money transfer, he said nothing. After all, it was his job to be discreet and what Slim Sherman did with his money was his business.
Slim gave a sigh of relief and strode out onto the boardwalk; looking all around him. It was still early, but being Saturday the street was quite busy already. The last thing he wanted was to be quizzed about the whereabouts of Jess and Mike. He made to unhitch Alamo from the rail when someone called his name.
“Oh, I’m glad to see you Mr Sherman. Uh is everything alright back at the ranch?”
Slim turned to look into the concerned eyes of Mike’s teacher, Mr Brown.
“Uh…sure,” Slim said vaguely. “Why do you ask?”
“Well just that rather cryptic note Mike left saying you had fetched him from school regarding some family business back at the ranch?”
“Oh, uh, yeah, that,” Slim said flushing slightly.
“I would um…appreciate it if you were to just come into school and tell me next time,” Mr Brown added, looking very much the school teacher.
“Yes sure, sorry,” Slim said. “You see the thing is Mr Brown I was rather upset. We’d just had word that Mike does indeed have a living relative who was most concerned to meet him. In fact, my partner Jess Harper has taken the boy down to um Denver, to meet up with this long-lost Uncle. As you can imagine it’s been rather unsettling for us all.”
“Yes, quite so, I’m sorry Mr Sherman. Do keep in touch and let me know how things proceed. It would be a sad loss to the school if young Mike were to leave. He’s got great potential you know…a lovely boy.”
“Yes, we think so,” Slim agreed feeling the unfamiliar prick of tears behind his eyes. “Uh, excuse me, good morning,” he said before mounting up and trotting Alamo down Main Street at speed.
Jeez he hated to lie, but what could he do in this untenable situation?
Then he remembered it was Saturday and he and Jess had hot dates with their girls that night. Hell, he couldn’t face seeing Lily, she’d see through his lies at once, Millie too probably. As he was passing the saloon, where the girls worked, he saw Tom the barkeep brushing down the boardwalk outside and he reined in.
“Uh Tom, give Millie and Lily a message, would you?” he called from the saddle.
Tom wandered over, “They’re up and about if you want to go in Slim?”
“Bit pressed for time Tom, just give our apologies. Jess and I have got some real important work on right now and won’t be in town for a week or two. Tell them we’re real sorry and will make it up to them at Christmas.”
“Will do,” Tom said with a wry grin. “I sure hope they don’t shoot the messenger though.”
Slim rode on a little further and then reined in again, looking over to Sheriff Cory’s office. Could he risk informing his old friend of the situation, or was he really being watched? He glanced around him, noting one or two strangers making their way down Main Street. Were they merely visiting relatives prior to Christmas, or were they really spying on him? Then he remembered Mort was on an extended pre-Christmas visit with his old daddy in Denver. Nope he couldn’t risk telling his young Deputy, Lon about the situation and sadly he spurred Alamo off towards home. He paused after a while and pulled his collar up, against the biting northerly that had just started blowing up; the smell of snow on the air. Jeez I sure hope they’re warm and dry he muttered to himself as he moved off again.

Chapter 4
Back at the outlaw camp in the foothills just a few miles north of Laramie, Jess Harper shivered violently.
The night before Jess had insisted that Mike be given some food and a warm blanket. Also, that he be freed from where he was lashed to a pine tree…next to Jess.
“Oh sure,” Randy smirked, “like I’m gonna do that. As soon as I loose him, the kid will run off.”
“Not if I tell him not too, he won’t,” Jess growled.
Then turning to Mike said, “You’re to stay by me Tiger you understand, it’s real important.”
Mike looked into Jess sincere deep blue eyes and knew when he had to obey an order and said, “Yes sir, I understand.”
Then looking up at Randy said, “I’ll stay put Mr. I promise.”
“Huh? Mister? What about ‘sir’ kid!”
“My Pa taught me that calling folk sir was real respectful and I reckon I don’t respect you,” he said honestly, with childish logic.
“Why you little varmint!” Randy yelled and raised his hand to the boy, but Jess bellowed at him before he could hit the youngster.
“You touch that kid one more time and I swear to God, I’ll hunt you down and kill you the slowest and most painful way I know how,” he swore.
A fleeting look of fear crossed Randy’s face before he turned tail and marched off.
Sometime later the youngest of the Stone brothers, Cal, came over with some soup for them both and a blanket for Mike.
He released the boy from the rope restraints replacing them with light chain that he fastened around Mike’s ankle and then around the tree so that he could now at least lie down in comfort, and covered him with the warm blanket.
“Sorry, it’s the best I can do,” he whispered.
“Thanks Cal,” Jess said smiling at him.
“I’m real sorry about all this Mr Jess; it weren’t my idea. I didn’t want any part, but Randy insisted I come along.”
“It’s OK Cal…I know this ain’t your fault,” Jess said. “Hell, you were just a kid when you were roped into that rustling stunt. I know that. That’s why I spoke up for you at the trial.”
“I know and I thank you kindly, I only had to do a few months and I was released; went back to live with my Ma. Thanks to you speaking up and the fact that I was just fifteen I believe.”
“So how come you got caught up in all this huh?”
The young man looked close to tears and said, “Ma passed away a few months ago. I lost the house, had no place to go until Randy and the others came looking. I had to go with them…they’re my only kin.”
Jess just shook his head. Gee it was a real shame, Cal gave the impression of being simple or slow, but actually he was bright enough, merely dominated by his aggressive older brothers.
Now he looked at the chain that was lashing Jess tightly to the tree and the handcuffs on his wrists and said, “I’m real sorry I can’t release you too Mr Jess, but Randy has the keys and he won’t let me near them.”
“It’s OK I understand.”
“Cal git yer butt over here,” Cole yelled from over by the camp fire, “get our supper kid.”
Cal gave them an apologetic smile and then dashed off.
It had turned bitterly cold in the night and by morning Jess had lost most of the feeling in his hands and feet. But looking over at Mike he was relieved to see his cheeks had a healthy pink glow and he was warm enough wrapped in the thick blanket Cal had brought.
Jess’ mouth was so dry he could hardly speak and he licked his lips as Randy strolled over.
“We need some water,” Jess croaked his usually deep voice even more gravelly than usual.
Randy gave him a bitter smile, “You want water huh?”
He turned and wandered off returning with a full canteen, which he proceeded to empty over Jess’ head, soaking his jacket and seeping through to his shirt and freezing skin beneath.
“You wanted water you got it,” and with a hearty laugh he turned away.
Now an hour later Jess was still shivering.
“Are you OK Jess you look awful white?” Mike said anxiously.
“Sure, I’ll be OK Tiger, don’t fret,” Jess said trying to keep his voice light, “everything will be OK you’ll see. We’ve just gotta be patient, bide our time. They’ll make a mistake sooner or later and then we strike…OK?”
“Sure Jess,” the boy said looking relieved, “whatever you say.”
But they didn’t and as the hours turned into days and the days to a week, nothing changed…save for the fact that Jess began to get sick…real sick.
Back in Laramie, folk began to talk about the residents of the Sherman Ranch and Relay. Their friends concerned that nobody from the ranch had been seen in town for a couple of weeks. Others were just gossiping idly about what the trouble might be.
When they had been absent from Church for two Sundays running, the Padre, Rev Joshua Wesley, became suspicious that there was something seriously wrong. OK, Jess wasn’t the most frequent attendee of his church services, or Slim either if they were busy with ranch business. However, Miss Daisy and Mike were regulars and now that Daisy had also missed the planning meeting for the children’s Christmas Party, he decided there must be something seriously wrong.
He called in at the school house on his way to visit the ranch and Mr Brown told him in confidence what Slim had told him…the reason for Mike’s prolonged absence.
“Oh, dear me, how very upsetting,” the kind hearted cleric said, “I really must visit and offer my support.”
The weather had turned very cold and inclement and he was glad when he finally arrived at the ranch. Tethering his old mare to the hitching rail he knocked loudly and waited.
Eventually Daisy came to the door and opened it a crack, peering out fearfully.
Joshua hardly recognized the usually smart sprightly woman. She looked a mere shadow of her former self. She had clearly lost weight, there were dark shadows beneath her eyes and her usually neat hair was in some disarray.
“My dear Daisy,” he said at once, “whatever is wrong?”
She looked like she might well break down, but she opened the door wider to allow him in and remembering her manners offered him coffee.
Once they were seated Joshua mentioned what Mr Brown had told him.
“But Daisy dear they have been gone a long time. Is there no news of this long-lost Uncle…when are you expecting them back?”
Slim had been toiling all morning; at repairing the fence out on the west pasture. The sudden change in the weather and threat of snow had necessitated his swift action, but oh how he was missing Jess’ help. Well, he was missing Jess period; his humor and quirky ways…friendship and laughter. He even missed the way he would now be cussing about the freezing cold weather. ‘Oh, where are you buddy’ he lamented to himself, as he rode into the yard.
For a split second seeing the horse by the hitching rail he thought it was Traveller, but his hopes were dashed as he came closer. Never had he felt so helpless and so utterly desolate.
Recognizing Joshua’s old mare, he entered the ranch to see the Padre and Daisy before the fire, Daisy weeping quietly…and Joshua holding her hand and talking gently to her.
For one terrible moment, Slim thought that Mike and Jess had been found dead and the Padre had come to break the news.
He licked his lips and said to Daisy, “Is there news?”
She looked up and drying her eyes tried to pull herself together, “No dear nothing yet.”
Slim looked relieved and then distressed, “You’ve told him haven’t you Daisy?”
“I’m…I’m sorry dear, but I just couldn’t lie, not to Joshua.”
“No, of course not,” Slim said sighing and sinking down on the couch, looking exhausted.
“Please Slim don’t distress yourself my dear boy. Surely you know I have taken a vow of confidentiality. Nobody, not even my dear wife, will hear one word that has been exchanged between these four walls. I promise you that.”
“Thank you, Joshua, I knew that, really,” Slim said wearily.
“Now what I must do is think of the best way I can support you? Prayer for their safe return of course, first and foremost,” he said giving them his warm smile. “The Good Lord will provide, I have no doubt, but we must be prepared for some difficult days to come. Now what else could I do?” he said, thoughtfully studying the ceiling for inspiration.
“Maybe try and allay the gossip?” Daisy reflected. “The letter said we are being watched. It would be terrible if folk guessed what has happened, and these men think we’ve spoken out of turn.”
“Yes of course,” Joshua said beaming at her. “I will be, uh, rather imaginative with the truth and confirm the story that is doing the rounds. That Jess and Mike are off visiting his one remaining relative. I’m sure the Lord will forgive me fibbing this once; after all it’s in a good cause.”
“Thanks Joshua, that’s real good of you,” Slim said, “folk will believe you. Maybe you could visit Millie and Lily too. Explain that all will be well, but we won’t be around for a little while.”
“Of course,” Joshua replied. “I certainly need to assuage Millie’s worries. When you didn’t attend Church, she was quite worried and planning to visit on her day off. I will explain as much as I can…just enough to reassure her anyway.”
When Slim thanked him, but looked bleak, the Padre felt for his old friend.
He said gently, “You are missing them so much aren’t you Slim.”
The blond rancher just bowed his head, unable to reply.
The room was silent for a minute and then the Padre said, “You know, I think I can help you, practically at least. You look weary my friend…missing Jess’ assistance, as well as his company I imagine?”
Slim gave him a weak smile, feeling on safer ground now, “I sure am. I’ve been trying to patch up the west perimeter fence, and its real heavy going. I’m pretty beat, but best to keep busy,” he added.
Joshua regarded Slim properly; noting that he’d lost weight, and his face was pale and drawn. “Um, keeping busy is good up to a point, Slim, but you’re in danger of getting sick if you carry on this way.”
“That’s just what I told him,” Daisy interjected.
“It so happens that I have a young priest staying with me at the moment,” Joshua reflected. “Just fresh out of the seminary and a bit inexperienced, but never the less he could be a great help to you.”
“Oh, I think your prayers will suffice,” Slim said quickly, not wanting the added burden of some rooky Padre hanging around the place.
Joshua grinned at him, “No, you misunderstand me my dear boy, Fr Damian would be prepared to roll up his sleeves and help you with the work…just until Jess is freed,” he added.
“I don’t know,” Slim said, “see thing is, money’s kind of tight right now.”
“He wouldn’t charge you. Oh, dear me, no. You see this is all part of his Ministry Slim. He intends to travel about the country finding people to help and passing on the Word of the Lord by example. He has ample means to last him a good while, from a recent inheritance so he says. This is just the situation that he needs to help set him on his path of Ministry.”
“Oh well, glad to help then,” Slim said with a touch of irony.
Joshua merely smiled sadly, patted Slim’ s arm and then said quietly, “I shall pray with you before I return home.”

Chapter 5
Fr Damian O’ Brian rode into the ranch yard early the following morning.
Slim ran out of the barn at the sound of a horse approaching, but once more his hopes were shattered as he saw a pleasant young man quickly dismount and stride towards him hand outstretched.
“Mr Slim Sherman, will it be,” he said in a melodious tone with an Irish lilt.
Slim looked the visitor up and down and sucked in a shocked breath. The newcomer had a striking resemblance to Jess. He was of similar height and build. His eyes crinkled around the edges and twinkled mischievously when he smiled, just as Jess’ did. But these eyes with their open friendly expression were a warm brown colour. Now as he shook hands and then removed his Stetson Slim noted that he too had Jess’ dark hair, although his was straight and cut in a short neat style. The only thing distinguishing him from a regular ranch hand was the clerical collar he wore at his neck.
“Please come in and meet, Mrs Cooper, our housekeeper,” he said quickly, “and uh, it’s really good of you to help us out here Father.”
“Damian will do just fine, so it will,” he said, eyes twinkling at Slim again.
Once inside the house he looked around appreciatively, before smiling as Daisy appeared, “Mrs Cooper, a pleasure,” he said grinning engagingly at her.
Daisy too was taken aback at his similarity to Jess, but recovered quickly, offering coffee and a seat by the fire.
Once they were settled, he said, “Reverend Wesley didn’t actually tell me the nature of your situation, but I imagine I may be of some service to you?”
Daisy opened her mouth to say something then glancing at Slim saw him shake his head imperceptibility, and merely offered the visitor a cookie to go with his coffee.
“I’m just really shorthanded,” Slim said quickly, “as my partner has been delayed on a business trip. Joshua thought you might be able to help me out some? I really need to get a fence mended before the first snow fall. I guess doing that and all the yard chores, not to mention extra mail coaches through...uh, well I’m finding it kind of hard going,” he conceded.
“But of course, and I can see how it would be,” he replied cheerfully. “Another pair of hands needed, so there is. And your partner, he’ll be home for Christmas, I’m thinking?”
Daisy and Slim exchanged an anxious glance before Slim said quickly, “Yes, we hope so. Uh, so if you’re ready I’ll show you the ropes out in the yard.”
He waited a second until Damian was through the door and then said as an aside to Daisy, “Later Daisy, we’ll tell him when I’m convinced that I can trust him.”
At supper that night they heard a little of Damian’s history.
“So, I imagine you’ve guessed I’m, originally from the old country,” he said his eyes crinkling with laughter. “But I was a young boy when we moved from Dublin Ireland to New York.”
Then he sobered, “We’d only been over here a matter of months when both mama and pappy died of the fever.”
“Oh, my dear how terrible,” Daisy said clasping her hands together and looking shocked.
“Indeed, so it was, especially for an only child like myself. No relatives over here so at just seven years of age I was sent to an orphanage and from there, once my schooling was complete, I went straight into the Seminary.”
“What made you choose that life?” Slim asked with interest.
“Oh, I suppose it was expected, quite a few of us orphan boys went straight there. You see the Seminary ran the orphanage. Well many of us felt we owed them for taking care of us so well.”
Slim thought that was kind of a strange reason, and always thought men of God had a specific ‘calling’ but kept quiet.
“So, I did my training, took a vow of celibacy and here I am,” he said again smiling engagingly at them both.
Daisy looked saddened, “So you will never marry or have children?”
He shook his head, “No ma’am, I’m married to my vocation you see. I’m dedicating my life to serving God and helping my fellow man.”
Well, that was where the likeness to his buddy stopped, Slim thought. He sure couldn’t see Jess as celibate and he hid a smile.
Once supper was over and Damian had politely tried to hide a yawn, Slim suggested he might like to turn in, suspecting he wasn’t used to hard physical work.
He got up and made for the door, “I think I will Slim. Thank you for the lovely supper, Mrs Cooper,” he added.
“You’re welcome, dear, and it is, Daisy, remember. But where are you off too?” she asked.
“Well, the bunk house is that a way isn’t it, ma’am?” he said, jabbing a thumb towards the yard.
“Heck you can’t sleep out there,” Slim said quickly. “You’d freeze to death. We hafta light the stove a good few hours before it even starts to warm up.”
“What about Mike’s room?” Daisy suggested.
Damian looked surprised. “Mike? I thought your partner was called Jess?”
“Mike is my ward,” Slim said quickly and then sucked in his breath at the error. “He’s away visiting kin right now,” he added quickly.
“No good anyway,” Daisy remembered, “that awful racoon is in there Slim, the room is really rather…um ripe,” she said searching for a polite word.
“Oh yeah, I need to clean out his cage,” said Slim, referring to Mike’s pet racoon, Bandit.
“So, Damian, you’d better bunk in with me, you can have Jess’ bed.”
He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth, but there was no going back.
He’d felt rather embarrassed when Damian had knelt to pray before jumping into bed, but once he was settled, he seemed to fall asleep almost at once, another similarity to his pard, Slim thought.
He stared at Damian, sleeping on his back, clearly illuminated by the moonlight filtering in through the window and had never felt so miserable in all his life. The man lying in Jess’ bed looked so much like him, but it wasn’t him and that made Slim feel about as wretched as he had ever done.
What had become of his pard and young Mike… were they cold, hungry? Hell, were they even still alive? There had been no letter for almost a week. Had the outlaws abandoned the bodies someplace up in the hills and even now were heading for the border? He closed his eyes tightly to prevent a tear escaping and lay there in the dark listening to the gentle breathing of the man in the next bed…who wasn’t Jess.
Back in the outlaw’s camp Randy Stone stared down at Jess restlessly sleeping under a thin blanket and cussed softly.
Since the episode when he had doused him with freezing cold water, he had caught a bad chill and had been feverish and way too sick to write the weekly note that accompanied the demand for more money. The untended wound to his arm had flared up too and now Randy was fearful that the cowboy might die if something wasn’t done soon.
Turning back to the campfire, he addressed his youngest brother who had been away from the camp with Cole, sending the messages to Slim. Randy had thought the kid was getting way too friendly with the captives; hence his trip away. But now he saw he needed his help with Jess.
“Got a job for you kid, you’re to look out for Harper…starting now. He’s got a bad fever, go cool him down some with water from the stream. Then once he’s feelin’ better, feed him some of that chicken broth. I need him good to write within a few days.”
Then turning to Pete and Cole he said, “I figure we’ll make this the last one and a real big one. We’ll ask for more…but at one of those telegraph offices a good distance from here. That way we’ll put them off the scent. I imagine someone’s gonna say something, sooner or later iffen we keep using the same places. Nope we’ll go further afield and you can come with me Pete, just in case we run into any trouble.”
“Hey I’ve got an even better idea,” Cole said. “We keep ‘em both alive until just before Christmas and then send the kid home saying they need to pay out one more time…to get Harper back.”
“I like it,” said Randy grinning, “but we’ll still kill Harper…once the kid’s gone home and we’ve got the money. Then Mexico here we come! But we’ll do this last big drop first.”
He turned back to Cal…
“Well don’t just sit there kid, get to it…go doctor that bastard Harper. Get him so he can sit up and write a couple more letters. Then he can rot in Hell for all I care.”
Jess groaned as Cal wiped his face down with the icy cold water from the stream, and after a moment his eyes flickered open and he looked around him in shock.
“Mike,” he whispered, “is Mike OK?”
“Sure,” Cal replied, “he’s right here, see.”
“I’m OK,” Mike piped up. “But you’ve been real sick Jess cussin’ and rollin ’ around with a real bad fever.”
Jess just groaned again and accepted some water from the canteen held for him by Cal
Seeing the fever seemed to have abated of its own accord Cal said, “I’ll bring you some soup in a minute Jess, that’ll help you feel better.”
“I reckon you’ve had a dose of that uh…lung fever,” Mike said brightly. “Last time you had that the Doc was real worried and said iffen you got bad again he couldn’t uh…pre…perdic…?”
“Predict?” Cal asked looking across at the boy, “He couldn’t predict what would happen? Like he wasn’t sure if Jess would make it, or not, I think he meant.”
“That’s it exactly,” Mike said looking impressed. “Gee folk say you’re kinda dumb you know Cal, but you ain’t really.”
“Mike!” Jess exploded, “That ain’t no way to talk.”
“It’s OK,” Cal said quickly “I reckon I do seem a bit slow. But see, thing is, I’m thinking. It seems I do a powerful lot of thinking, what with Randy and the others always ‘a yellin’ at me. It’s easier just to sit and think. Just ‘cos I’m quiet don’t mean I’m stupid,” he added.
“Sure, we know that,” Jess said earnestly.
“In fact, I’ve got a lot to think about right now,” he continued.
Jess lay back down and wished to God his head would stop thumping. Sure the fever had abated some, but he still felt real sick.
“Oh, so what are you thinking on now Cal?” Mike asked with interest.
“Well first off I need to make some more chicken soup for Mr Jess here.”
“Then what?”
“I’ve gotta figure out how to spring ya both.”
Jess who had been on the verge of nodding off opened his eyes and said, “Huh, what’ d you say Cal?”
“I’ve gotta, Mr Jess…see they want you to write another letter and then they’re going off to another telegraph place, somewhere distant. But when they come back, they’re going to take Mike home and kill you!”
Jess let out a sigh of relief that at least Mike would be freed. Maybe once the kid had been let loose, he’d be able to fight his way out.
“See Randy and Pete are taking off to get the money from this new telegraph office, leaving just me and Cole to guard you. You’ve seen how fond he is of the bottle? Well, I figure once he’s been tipping the jug some and he’s out of it, I could get the keys off of him to your chains and handcuffs. Set you both free,” he said grinning in anticipation.
“You’d really do that?” Mike gasped with excitement.
“Sure, I would. See way I look at it I owe Mr Jess here more for speaking up for me at the trial than I ever owed my brothers. They treat me like dirt…always have done…Just one thing…could I come back with you Mr Jess…hide out until the law gets them?”
Jess grinned at him…beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“You bet ya,” he said happily. “Why don’t you go fetch that soup you were talkin’ about and we’ll make plans…huh?”

Chapter 6
It was a few days later that Slim received the letter in the mail on the early morning Stage.
“So, there’s no sign of Jess and the young ‘un returning home yet then?” Mose asked peering at Slim from the box and looking mighty puzzled.
“No, not yet,” Slim said curtly.
“Odd that,” Mose replied, “real odd…them being away so long and all…and right before Christmas too?”
“Have you got mail or not?” Slim asked deadpan.
Mose sighed seeing that it looked like he was to remain ignorant of whatever was going on. And there was something strange happening, he was damn sure of that.
“I’ve got me a catalogue for Miss Daisy and a letter…by the looks of it from her sister in Cheyenne. Oh yeah, another one posted locally, don’t recognize the hand,” he added peering at the letter short-sightedly. “But same as you got a week or two back...from a friend maybe?”
Slim literally tore it from Mose’s grasp, growling, “Give me that!” Then added quickly, “Don’t let me keep you Mose, you’ll be running late if you don’t watch out.”
The old timer bit back an angry retort when he saw the look of worry in Slim’ s eyes as he looked down at the letter. So, he merely hustled the horses out of the yard and up the rise, back to the road. Yup there sure was something amiss at the Sherman spread he said to himself once more.
Slim took the mail over to the porch and slumped down on a seat and ripped open the letter. This time they wanted substantially more money and Slim wondered if he would have to remortgage the ranch if things went on this way. The letter again started off in Jess’ spidery hand declaring that if Slim could make the payment in time, Mike would be released for Christmas. Then the letter continued in the big bold writing of the kidnapper with further details of what Slim was to do, but no mention of Jess’ release. Although Slim was overjoyed by the prospect that Mike might indeed be freed, he doubted they’d let Jess go. No, the only way out would be for them to kill him. Otherwise, he would be able to identify them. Plus, Jess being Jess he had probably already indicated that he would hunt them down and make sure they paid for what they had done.
He was so engrossed in the letter that he didn’t hear Damian come over and take the other seat.
After a moment he said softly, “Bad news is it Slim?”
Slim jumped and put the letter away quickly, before saying quietly, “Uh, yeah, kind of.”
“Don’t you think maybe it’s time you levelled with me?” Damian asked looking at him quizzically.
When Slim remained silent, he added, “I didn’t figure Joshua Wesley asked me to come over here just to patch up a fence or two. There’s more to it than that isn’t there Slim…and if you’ll just trust me, maybe I can help?”
Slim ’s head sank to his chest and he sighed deeply, before looking up at the man he’d begun to think of as a friend. “Oh I do trust you Damian, and I will tell you all about it, later. But I don’t figure there is much anyone can do.”
As he went about the chores later, Slim thought about his new friendship with Fr. Damian O ’Brian. Maybe it was because he favored Jess…or it was just his easy open manner, but he’d warmed to the man from day one and then gradually began to trust him too.
They’d talked some about this and that and everything he said made sense to Slim. They actually laughed together at one stage and afterwards Slim felt terribly guilty. Hell, it was first time he’d laughed since Jess and Mike were taken.
Damian had an air about him that exuded confidence and understanding, and Slim began to feel he could trust him implicitly.
Maybe that’s why he chose to open up to him that evening.
He’d decided not to discuss the matter in front of Daisy, knowing how terribly upset she was about the whole sorry business. Hell, Slim hardly recognized the confidant chirpy woman she once had been, although she made an effort in front of him and Damian. He knew in private she wept and was tormented by the image of Mike and Jess suffering, cold, hurt and missing their home and loved ones.
It was after supper, once Daisy had retired to bed, that Slim dived off to the bedroom. After digging about in Jess’ chest of drawers retrieved the half bottle of moonshine Daisy had removed from beneath his bed. ‘Don’t worry buddy.’ he said softly. ‘Old Denver James has been by with the Christmas order so I’ll pay you back’.
“So, uh, do you drink?” he asked Fr Damian tentatively.
“What, you mean like communion wine?” he replied innocently.
“Um, I was thinking more in the way of this,” and he waggled the bottle of moonshine at him.
“Ah, some of the good stuff, is it?” he asked; his eyes brightening. “Of course, it isn’t a patch on the real stuff from the Old Country so I’m told.” H
e added, “That is, Poitin … Irish dew.”
“Well, I can’t offer you that, but you’ll take a glass then?” Slim asked.
“Uh, just for medicinal purposes only,” the cleric said with a twinkle in his eye, “after all it was powerful cold out there today, was it not Slim?”
That reminded Slim of dear old Jonesy and the way he and Jess used to run rings around him to get a drop or two of medicinal whiskey.
He poured out a couple of good measures and put the bottle in the hearth.
Damian took his drink and after a sip looked over to Slim on the other side of the hearth and said, “So, I’m thinking you’d like to tell me what’s going on?”
“I figure it’s time,” Slim said nodding and finally began to explain everything to Damian.
Once he’d finished the young priest was silent for a while and said, “I am very sorry, this must be so hard for you and dear Daisy.”
Slim nodded, “Yes, she’s taken it pretty badly.”
“If the boy comes home, which it sounds like he may, from what you’ve told me, that will help ease her burden a little, I’m thinking?”
Slim nodded, “Sure it would be wonderful to get Mike home,” and then sighed and looked down.
“But you’re thinking that Jess won’t be coming home?”
“Don’t!” Slim almost shouted. “Don’t say that,” although he knew in his heart it was probably true, and yes it was what he was thinking.
When Damian remained silent, Slim took a deep breath and said, “Sorry I shouldn’t have yelled at you that way…it’s just…”and then he swallowed and couldn’t go on.
“Just?” Damian prompted.
Slim took another sip of whiskey and said, “It’s just the thought of losing him. Hell Damian you don’t understand. Jess isn’t just a ranch hand…he’s my partner in the business…but much more than that…well I think of him as a brother.”
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise.”
“And as for poor Daisy, I figure he’s gone a little way to compensating for the son she lost in the war. So, we aren’t just talking about a ward and a business partner, Mike and Jess are kin to us.”
“I think I’m beginning to understand it all now,” Damian said thoughtfully, “I reckon these men that have abducted them couldn’t have hurt you both any more could they. It sounds to me to be someone that you know and who know all you folk… how close you are?”
Slim nodded, “I thought the same. Damn it, if only I could tell Mort about it all, maybe we could get a posse up and start searching. Except for the fact that every move I make is being watched by someone. Someone out there,” he said looking bleakly at the dark night beyond the window.
“Are you sure?” Damian asked.
“Oh, I’m sure alright. There is always a little PS at the end of the letters and a comment regarding something I or Daisy have done. See here, this last one says… ‘Sorry to hear one of the relay horses went lame yesterday. “How in hell do they know that if they aren’t watching? But I’ve looked all around and there’s no sign of any strangers…no tracks, nothing.”
He sighed looking helpless before finishing up his drink, topping up Damian’s and pouring himself another glass.
After they’d sat there drinking in companionable silence for a few minutes, Damian said, “Tell me about him…Jess… how did you meet him?”
Slim gave a tired smile, “Oh he came wandering in here off the trail, with a greased holster and trouble in both pockets,” and he chuckled in spite of his sadness.
Then he went on to tell all about how they had first met, when Slim had turned his rifle on the cheeky stranger for trespassing. Then how he’d turned the tables on Slim and taken his rifle and hand gun, before heading off with a mischievous, “Stay out of those woods I saw a jack rabbit in there and he looked real mean.”
Then how on his return home he’d found Jess teaching his kid brother, Andy some card sharp tricks that had angered him even more.
But then things had changed when Jess sided with him and the law to help capture some notorious outlaws…and he had eventually been persuaded to stay and work on the ranch a while.
“He sure was a rough diamond back then,” Slim said. “But old Jess, he kind of grows on you,” and he looked bleakly into the dying embers of the fire, before reaching down and throwing on another log.
“So, he stayed on and eventually settled down…and you made him a partner?”
Slim looked up from where he’d been staring deeply into the fire.
“Yeah, it was a long hard haul. You see Jess didn’t have the greatest start in life, and he touched on the fire that killed his kin, the tough war he’d suffered, and then his running with gangs and getting into trouble.
“Sure, he’s seen the inside of a jail more than once, and even felt a rope around his neck, but he was wrongly accused,” he added quickly. “So, it was really hard for him to leave his past behind, especially when old friends, or enemies, kept showing up trying to lead him down the wrong path again.”
“But he always chose the right road in the end,” said Damian and it was a statement rather than a question. “With a little help from his friends,” he added.
“Works both ways,” Slim said, “I watch his back and he watches mine…saved my bacon more than once and I’ll tell you if ever you’re in a gunfight, you sure want Jess on your side.”
“He sounds like a good man,” Damian said quietly.
Slim nodded, “The best damn friend I’ve ever had Damian…or ever will have.”
“And you’ll see him again. I’m sure of that,” Damian said fervently.
Slim looked over and gave him a sad smile, “I sure hope so.”

Chapter 7
As Slim was opening up to Damian, Jess, Mike and Cal were making plans for the great escape.
“They aim to head off at first light,” Cal whispered, “and they’ll be leaving Cole in charge with the keys. But like I say I figure he’ll start making inroads into that big bottle of grog Randy’s been saving for Christmas. If he don’t I’ll just remind him about it,” he said with a cheeky grin.
The next morning everything seemed to be going to plan. Randy came over and said, “I figure Sherman will have gotten that latest note you wrote the other day and he’ll be standing by waiting for instructions by late afternoon. Then I’ll relieve him of some more of your hard-earned cash, huh Harper!”
“You’ll pay for this,” Jess growled angrily.
“Now come, come Harper, the kid will be freed like I promised; just as soon as we get back tomorrow night. That’s what you want ain’t it?”
Jess nodded, “You know I do.”
“Well then,” … and he strode off.
Cal and Cole were sitting by the fire and Randy hunkered down by his youngest brother and said, “You mind your brother… do what Cole says understand kid?”
Then Randy looked thoughtful and said, “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you getting way too friendly with the prisoners boy. If you’ve got any notion of helping them out just forget it now. Because I’m telling ya … you cross me, and kin or not, I’ll hunt you down and kill you like vermin…you got that?”
Cal flinched but just nodded and said quietly, “Yup I got it.”
“And you stay off of the strong drink Cole iffen you know what’s good for ya,” he added turning to his other brother, and with that he and Pete mounted up and rode off at speed. That’s it, Jess thought, all his hopes dashed. No way will the kid help us out now, and who could blame him.
It also looked like Cole would toe the line and no reference was made about whiskey.
When Cal mooched over later in the morning with some coffee, looking real anxious, Jess took pity on him.
“Look it’s OK, I understand if you can’t go through with it. At least Mike’s gonna get out of here…sooner or later.”
“Oh, it’s not that…I ain’t scared of Randy.” Cal said quickly. “It’s just that my dang brother has hidden the bottle someplace and I can’t find it.”
Jess looked thoughtful for a minute and then tipping his head towards the fast-flowing stream that flanked the camp said, “Try along there. He may have put it in the water and attached a line to it…keep it real cool, though beats me as to why when it’s this cold,” he added shaking his head. “But it would be a good place to hide it away from Cole. I saw him messing with something over there last night. He looked to be attaching a rope to a rock over there.”
It took Cal just a few minutes to locate the large bottle of hill whiskey that was indeed tied to a line wrapped around a rock at the side of the stream. Once located, he went and put it over by the fire where Cole was dosing.
“Looky what I’ve found,” Cal said beaming at his brother.
“Oh, I ain’t to touch that. I promised Randy,” Cole said looking all innocent.
“OK,” Cal replied not believing his brother for a moment, “just thought you might like a drop to warm you up?”
“Well, you thought wrong,” Cole asserted.
Jess’ heart plummeted, so near to freedom and yet so far.
Cole lasted a good couple of hours before he gave into temptation.
Cal was over giving Jess and Mike their meager dinner when Jess’ eyes opened wide and he nudged Cal.
“Look,” he whispered, “he’s just taken a real good swig.”
Cal sighed with relief, “Once he starts, he just can’t stop,” he said joyfully. “It’s just a matter of waiting.”
It was mid afternoon before Cole was sleeping, snoring noisily and Cal was able to liberate the keys to the chains binding Jess and Mike.
However, Jess really wasn’t prepared for how sick and weak he felt. As he tried to stand, he swayed some and would have fallen if Cal hadn’t grabbed his arm.
“Whoa, are you OK?” he whispered.
Jess nodded, “Sure…I am, yeah.”
Hell, he felt as weak as a day-old kitten. What with all the blood loss from the wound to his arm, plus the fact that he’d given most of the small amounts of food they’d been given to Mike, he was really running on empty now he thought with a wry grin.
They made their way silently to where the horses were tethered. Then they held their breath when Traveller gave a little whinny of welcome as Jess walked over.
They turned as one, but Cole was on his back by the campfire still snoring loudly.
Once they were sure he was out for the count Cal grabbed the tack and started saddling up.
But Jess was examining his horse and talking softly to him. It had been early on after their capture that Randy had lost his temper with Jess and taken it out on his horse. He’d whipped Traveller brutally, the sturdy bay crying out in pain and anger. Jess had caved in at once and done what Randy wanted. But at that moment he made a promise to himself; Randy would pay, and pay dearly for what he’d done to Trav. That was when he first realized where Cal’s allegiance lay though as the youngster secretly tended the nasty, bleeding welts to Traveller’s shoulder and rump. Now Jess gently ran a hand over the scarred tissue and again swore his vengeance.
He was just about to lift his saddle but then Cal was there, “Let me,” he said quietly, and without any fuss he saddled Traveller while Jess looked on feeling real bad. But it was clear the cowboy was still far from well and when Cal offered him a leg up, he accepted it thankfully.
“The young ‘un can ride double with me,” he suggested, noting how Jess was sitting his horse looking far from comfortable and was obviously in some pain.
“Thanks,” Jess drawled as Cal swung Mike up onto the broad back of his sturdy grey mare.
“So where are we?” Jess asked as they set off slowly through the dense woodland, crossing the stream and heading due north.
They had moved camp several times during the last few weeks as Randy used different telegraph offices. Each time they’d moved, Jess had been blindfolded and now he was totally disorientated.
“Not as far from home as you might think,” Cal said cheerfully, “about a day’s ride I figure. We should make it by the afternoon tomorrow iffen we lay over someplace for the night.”
Jess was all for traveling on through the night, but when he saw how tired Mike was, he agreed to stop. And to be honest he too was exhausted. The gunshot wound to his arm had become badly infected and it was still bothering him. Then when they made camp and Cal rustled up some beans, he was almost too tired to eat.
Hell Harper, git a grip he thought angrily, hating any form of weakness in himself.
Cal looked on and saw Jess was struggling and said quietly, “A man can only take so much before his body kinda says no more. But that don’t make him any less a man. Not in my books anyways,” he said softly.
Jess gave him a tired smile, “Thanks Cal…and just fer the record I think you’re a real smart kid, and you could really make something of yourself…given half a chance.”
The young man beamed back at him, “That means a lot to me Mr Jess.”
“It’s just, Jess. OK Cal?”
The boy grinned happily, “You bet ya,” he said mimicking the man who was fast becoming his hero.
It was mid afternoon when Jess, Cal and Mike finally wended their weary way into the ranch yard.
Slim, Daisy and Damian were just finishing their coffee after a late lunch and regarding the Christmas tree by the fireplace. Damian had suggested bringing a tree in, saying young Mike would expect to see one. But once it was in place neither Daisy nor Slim had the heart to fetch the decorations down from the attic and it stood there looking forlorn.
Now Damian suggested they decorate it, but Slim merely shrugged and said, “What’s the point?”
“Like I say the young ‘un will want a Christmas tree. He’ll be home soon, I’m sure.”
“Are you?” Slim asked bitterly, whilst Daisy looked near to tears.
“It’s called faith,” Fr Damian said softly.
There was complete silence in the room and that’s when they heard the sound of riders in the yard.
Slim and Daisy made a dash for the door, Damian following more slowly.
Nothing prepared them for the vision they saw before them. Jess astride Traveller sported a thick dark beard. His face was gaunt and chalky white. He looked to be holding on like grim death as the horse came to a halt by the hitching rail.
He was followed by a young man riding a grey, with Mike riding double.
Within seconds Mike had jumped down and thrown himself into Daisy’s warm embrace, holding tightly to her and crying, “Aunt Daisy, Slim, gee it’s good to be home. I’ve missed ya something fierce!”
Slim looked down at the boy, feeling tears behind his eyes and gently ruffled his hair and muttered, “Thank God,” before turning his gaze once more to his dearest friend.
Jess just stared back at Daisy and Slim for a long moment before finally summoning the energy to slide down from the saddle. He nearly fell, but Slim quickly strode over and caught him. He threw his strong arms around him and hugged him close for a moment before pushing him back so he could look at him properly.
“Jeez you’re a mess pard,” he whispered.
“Yeah, well we’ve had a kinda tryin’ time these last few weeks,” Jess replied, ever the master of understatement.
Then Slim noticed Cal standing behind, holding the reins of his horse and looking anxious.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Slim exploded.
Then he turned to Jess, “It was the Stone brothers did all this to you and Mike?”
Jess merely nodded, feeling too exhausted to say more.
“Damn it!” Slim said once more glaring at Cal.
“No, you’ve got it all wrong,” Jess sad quickly, “it was Cal that sprung us. Hell, he had nuthin to do with any of this business Slim!”
When Jess saw Slim was still glaring balefully at the boy he said, “Cal, go put up the horses for me would ya? Then come on in… I’ll explain everything to my partner.”
When the youngster still looked worried, Jess gave him a gentle push, “Go on,” he said kindly, “it’ll be OK I promise.”
Then Daisy appeared at his side and he took her in his arms and held her close as he felt her shaking and knew she was weeping silently.
“Hey Daisy it’s OK,” he said gently, “it’s OK now,” and he walked her slowly into the house.
Just as they entered the house Fr Damian slipped into the kitchen, out of sight, his valise in his hand.
As soon as Daisy had a good look at them, she ordered that Mike must take a bath immediately and Jess shave off the dreadful beard so she could see his handsome face again.
Whereas Jess knew that being clucky was just Daisy’s way of dealing with all the recent stress, Mike did not.
“Aw no, Aunt Daisy, I ain’t dirty…not really.”
“Well, I don’t know about that Tiger,” Jess said grinning down at the youngster. “But iffen you wanna share a room with Bandit, I figure you’d better wash up like Aunt Daisy says. I don’t reckon he’d wanna share with someone that smells as bad as you do.”
Mike looked affronted and then grinned at the joke, “Aw you!”
“Come on I’ll get you started,” Daisy said marching him off to his room, as Slim went to fetch the tin bath and put some water to boil.
Jess had sat down by the fire and was nearly asleep when Slim returned and said, “I figure you can use Mike’s water when he’s done and then tell me all about it huh?”
Then more quietly, “Jeez I’m just so damn sorry I couldn’t bail you out buddy.”
“Nothing you could have done Slim, that Randy Stone is crazy as a box of frogs. I really think he would have killed Mike and me iffen you’d made any move to rescue us.”
“I guess so, that’s what Damian said too.”
“Fr Damian, he’s a priest, Joshua Wesley sent him over to help us out. Gee he really was a God send Jess and such a nice guy I can’t wait for you to meet him.”
Then he looked around him in puzzlement, “Now where the heck has he got to?”
Daisy having left Mike to his own devices in his bath entered and said, “Goodness me, do you think he’s gone over to Laramie already?”
Damian had already broached the subject of Christmas and said he felt he really should go and help out the Padre as it was a busy time for him. This was just after Daisy had informed him there would be a full house for Christmas, with Doc Sam Baker, his daughter Carrie, Lily and Millie from the saloon and also Sheriff Mort Cory and his lady friend Kate Munroe.
“Well, you won’t miss me at all,” he said smiling kindly at her, “and I’m sure you will have that boy of yours home, and Jess too,” he added.
“Surely he wouldn’t have left like that without saying good bye?” she said now, and went and checked his room.
“Yes, you’re right,” she said to Slim. “His bag has gone, what a shame, but he’ll be back after the festivities, I’m sure. Now I’ll make us all some nice coffee.”
It was then that Jess remembered Cal still waiting out in the barn.
He quickly explained the situation to Slim.
“Hang it all Slim he put his life on the line to save us,” he said. “That Randy threatened to kill him if he helped us. And you know what…I really believe he would. The guy’s one of those uh… what does the Doc call ‘em… folk without a conscience?”
“Oh, yeah uh… a psychopath, that’s it?”
“Yup that’s right.”
Slim looked thoughtful and said, “ I figure you’re right, way he was last time we ran into him. I remember him saying anyone that crossed him he’d kill, kin or not! So yup we’ll look out for young Cal.”
“I figure Randy will come looking,” Jess said darkly, “and I’ll be dang well ready for him too.”
“Well let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,” Slim said, “right now I want to thank Cal for springing you and Mike.”
They made their way to the barn and at first Jess thought the lad had done a runner. Then he saw him lying flat on his back in the stall with his horse.
“What the hell?” Jess cussed kneeling down beside him and seeing blood smeared across his face.
“What’s happened?” Slim asked coming up behind him.
“Looks like someone has laid a hay maker on him, his nose is bleeding and he’s out cold.”
Slim fetched a water bottle and Jess bathed Cal’s face. Moments later the boy opened his eyes and stared blankly around him before focusing on Slim and shrinking back.
“Hey it’s alright Cal,” Jess said quickly, “I’ve explained everything to Slim and he’s in as much debt to you as I am.”
“Ain’t you pard,” he said turning to glance up at Slim.
“Sure,” Slim said smiling encouragingly at the young man and then said, “Who did this to you Cal?”
Cal gasped and said, “It was that Irish guy, goes by the name of Declan…Declan O’ Hare. When I explained I’d double crossed my brothers and I was going to tell the law about what they’d done, and tell about him too, he got real mad. He decked me and I guess he’s gone now.”
Slim looked puzzled, “What… but the only Irishman around here is Father Damian and he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Yes,” Cal said quietly, “that’s the alias he was using, Mr Sherman. He was the one that’s been watching you all along and reporting back to Randy.”
Slim shook his head looking furious.
“No, I just don’t believe it. I don’t know what kind of stunt you’re trying to pull Cal… but you’re wrong about Damian, he’s a real nice guy. He just wouldn’t do that!”
“Look let’s get Cal inside and cleaned up and then he can explain properly,” Jess said.
Once Cal had washed up and was seated by the fire Slim said, “Right go on and this better be good Cal, because I can’t believe the guy would do such a thing.”
Daisy who was also sitting with the men said indignantly, “You really must be mistaken Cal, why dear Damian is a lovely young man.”
Cal looked up to where Jess was standing leaning on the mantelpiece and he nodded at the youngster, “Go on Cal, just explain to us,” he said with an encouraging smile.
“Well, it’s this way… we met Dec…uh Damian as you call him, when we were in prison. He was in for bank robbery, but he insisted he was innocent.”
“Yeah, they all say that,” Jess said with a grin.
“No really, I believed him. You see he was set up. Sure, he was near the robbery and it might have looked like he was keeping watch, but he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Jess again looked skeptical, whilst Slim didn’t believe a word Cal was saying at all.
“Anyway, he was arrested and at the trial he was found guilty alright, but it was all a set up. You see the Judge was a friend of Dec’s Pa.”
“Why in hell would a Pa want his son in prison?” Jess interjected.
“Dec had left Ireland to come over here to try and make a go of being an actor... it’s all he ever wanted. But his Pa was dead against the idea, wanted him to go into the family business, which was a law firm. That’s how his Pa knew the judge, he was from the old country too. So, this way he figured after a short spell in jail he’d decide America wasn’t for him, and he’d return home with his tail between his legs and do as his Pa wanted.”
“But he didn’t,” Jess said.
“Nope it made him even more determined. He’d done real well on the stage over here and he wanted to go back to the old country. But to London... said he wanted to do plays by some guy called Shakespeare?”
Slim nodded, “Yeah, so go on.”
“Well, he just didn’t have the fare money and that’s where Randy came in. He’d worked out how he was going to abduct Mike…then decided iffen he could get Jess too that would be even better. But he needed someone on the ground here too. So, he could be sure that Mr Sherman believed he was being watched…and that’s where Dec came in.
Then he turned to Slim.
“He was to play the role of a caring Priest, gain your trust and then report your movements back to Randy. His job was to try and persuade you not to tell the law and to comply with all the demands too.”
He paused for breath after his long speech. Then looking over at Slim again, saw the colour had drained from his face.
“I’m real sorry Mr Sherman. I know he can be real convincing…that’s his job, do you see?”
“I see alright,” Slim said bitterly, “see I’ve been made an utter fool of.”
Daisy just sat quietly and said, “I’m sure the boy isn’t all bad.”
Slim shook his head, “The evidence is all there, Daisy. Yes, he did encourage us to pay the ransom and said it would be dangerous to talk to Mort. Heck he even went off to town regularly, supposedly to visit with Joshua and pray with him, when really, he was wiring Randy with snippets of information. Those Postscripts on all the letters, the stage horse going lame, the day you put the washing out and the line came down. Even that time I hurt my thumb when I was hammering the chicken house door. Well, when you look back on it now there really was only Damian that could have known all those things. We just couldn’t see it at the time.”
He looked totally defeated…as did Daisy.
“There is one thing,” Cal said, “he really did think that Mike and Jess wouldn’t be in any danger. My brother lied to him about that. He said he’d treat them real well and they’d be returned just before Christmas completely unharmed. I don’t think he’d have taken the job otherwise. He was just desperate for the money.”
“Oh, so that makes it alright, does it?” Jess said angrily, before moving off towards the door.
Slim turned and said, “Where the Hell do you think you’re going?”
“Why, to find the bastard and bring him back!” Jess said hotly. Feeling angry for the way he’d duped dear Daisy and Slim as much as anything.
“You’re in no fit state,” Slim said equally angrily, “besides it will be dark in an hour or so,” Then peering out of the window, “and it’s snowing too, damn it!”
But it was Daisy that persuaded him not to go after Damian, or Declan as they now must call him.
She pulled herself up to her full height and glaring at Jess said, “Don’t you think I’ve been put me through enough? If you go out there now, I would find it very hard to forgive you!”
Jess stared at her in shock, not ever having seen their lovable housekeeper so angry before.
He dropped his gaze and with a soft, “Sorry Daisy… he’ll keep,” he went and sat back down.

Chapter 8
Later that evening when Mike had finally been persuaded to go to bed, followed shortly after by Cal who was sharing his room, Daisy made them all some coffee.
Once they were all settled by the fire, Jess looked over at Daisy and said softly, “Is he OK Daisy…he ain’t come to no harm through all this has he?”
“Why no dear, don’t fret he seems surprisingly fit and well…in good spirits too.”
Jess sighed with relief and then Daisy added, “Which isn’t surprising seeing as he just told me that you gave him most of the food and water on offer.”
“Yeah, well I wasn’t feelin’ too good Daisy, seemed right the boy should have it. I sure didn’t want him getting sick.”
“Like you, you mean?”
Jess’ head shot up.
“Oh yes, he told me all about that nasty wound to your arm… not to mention that you had another bout of lung fever.”
“Aw Daisy it weren’t really that bad, the wound’s just fine now and the other just like a bad cough ya know?”
“Um... and I know a sick young man when I’m looking at him and as soon as Doc Sam comes over, I’m going to ask him to check you out.”
Jess sighed with relief and winked at Slim and said, “Heck Daisy that won’t be for ages, I’ll be just fine by then.”
“Uh, I don’t think so dear, it’s Christmas Eve tomorrow you know, and they’ll all be here first thing on Christmas Day. In fact, Kate and Mort arrive tomorrow.”
Jess’ eyes opened in bewilderment, “What, really?”
“Yes, really young man…so you’d better just do as I say regarding taking it really easy um?”
“Sure Daisy, sure,” he said wearily.
Once Daisy had turned in Slim looked over at his buddy and said softly, “You fancy a livener in that coffee?”
Jess nodded, “You bet ya!”
Once they were sitting enjoying the added benefit of Denver James’ brew, Slim said, “Daisy’s right you know pard, you look pretty done in.”
“Yeah, sure, but more important than that, is when those Stone brothers are gonna land?”
“Huh…what’ d you say? You think they’ll come here?”
“I’m sure of it. No way will Randy let Cal get away with this. He dang well said as much. Said he’d hunt him down and kill him if he double-crossed them.”
“The poor kid. You really think he’d do that?”
“Don’t you?”
Slim looked shocked and then taking a deep breath, “You may be right, that Randy guy sure isn’t right in the head.”
Then he looked worried.
“Hell, you don’t think he’d strike over Christmas when the girls are here?”
Jess shook his head, “I don’t think so…they were bringing back food and grog with them. I reckon they’ll celebrate as they’d planned and then come looking.”
Slim looked serious, “I figure that Lily and Millie should go home Christmas night with the Doc and Carrie though. We sure don’t want them around if there’s trouble.”
“Good plan,” Jess said, “and I think Daisy and Mike should leave too and stay at the hotel until all this is over.”
Slim nodded, “I guess we’ll have one hell of a job convincing Daisy though.”
Jess rolled his eyes, “And Mike too.”
The following morning was Christmas Eve and with Mort and Kate due to arrive at midday Daisy was all in a tizzy trying to get her jobs done before they arrived.
“I really have been quite lax,” she confided at breakfast, “but I just didn’t have the inclination to do much, with you and Mike away,” she said leaning over and squeezing Jess’ hand affectionately.
“We should have listened to Damian…uh I mean Declan when he kept telling us to have faith and that they would be returned safely before Christmas,” Slim said with deep irony.
Jess rolled his eyes, “I guess it’s easy to have faith if you know the outcome…or he thought he did anyway. He did believe we’d be safely returned.”
Daisy agreed, “Yes, you’re right dear. I’m sure he wouldn’t have taken the job if he thought for a minute that you really would be killed.”
“Well let’s forget about him for today. Why don’t you go off and do all that prettifying ladies are so fond of, and me and Slim will see to the dishes,” Jess said smiling at her. “Then we’ll all help with the preparation for the guests.”
“Why Jess Harper are you saying I’m not beautiful enough already,” she said with mock offense.
But when she saw the nonplussed look in his eyes she relented and smiling broadly said, “I’m just teasing you dear and that’s exactly what I need to do. Primp my hair a little and change my dress so I’ll look my best for our guests.”
Once she’d gone and Mike and Cal had left to do the yard chores, Jess said softly, “It’s really hit her bad all this business ain’t it Slim.”
The tall rancher nodded and sighed, “Sure has. To be honest with you, we’d hatched a plan for if you and Mike hadn’t returned by Christmas Eve. I was going to ride into town and say she was sick… a bad cold or something and cancel the Christmas visits completely.”
“Jeez,” whispered Jess, “that would have been a real shame.”
“Sure, but what could we do? I don’t think either of us could have pulled the wool over Mort’s eyes, or our girls come to that. They were already beginning to think it was really odd you were away so long. I hated lying to them but my hands were tied…thinking Randy knew every move I made.”
Jess nodded, “Well at least we’ll be able to level with our girls, and Mort now.”
Then the conversation was terminated as an anxious looking Daisy swept in and said, “Slim dear you haven’t seen my pearls, have you?”
He shook his head, “Nope they’re usually kept in that black leather box on your dressing-table, aren’t they?”
She nodded holding open the empty box.
“My dear grandmother’s pearls,” she whispered looking close to tears. “They’re gone.”
Mike and Cal were called in from the yard and where equally baffled.
“I just don’t understand it,” Slim said, “there’s been nobody in the house and you haven’t left the ranch since all this business started Daisy. It’s been just you and me here.”
“Not the only ones,” Jess said quietly, “Declan was here too.”
“Oh, but Fr Damian wouldn’t take my pearls.” Daisy said quickly. “Why would he?”
“Because they’re worth something,” Jess said angrily, “and he ain’t no Priest remember Daisy, he’s a no-good thief called Declan O’ Hare.”
Then he looked over at his pard and saw his face was drained of colour.
“Oh no,” Slim cried, “I was showing him my Ma’s engagement ring just the other night, saying as how it was destined for Lily’s finger one day.”
Then he made a beeline for his desk and after rifling through all the drawers finally returned with the empty ring box.
“Gone,” he said despairingly.
Jess got up at once and dashed into the bedroom, closely followed by Slim who stood and watched in consternation as Jess pulled out the bottom drawer of the chest of drawers. The one that that housed his most treasured possessions. The drawer held his Ma’s old Bible, the tiny friendship bracelet that Millie had fashioned for him when they were just children, and various other items with sentimental value. But what he was looking for was an old tin box buried at the bottom of the drawer.
He eventually pulled it out and opened it.
“Empty!” he yelled. “Garldarn it Slim he’s taken all my nest egg money. I was saving up to build out on the east pasture when me and Millie get Wed.”
“Jeez,” Slim said looking aghast, “how much was there?”
Jess named a substantial sum.
“Hell, you should have put it in the bank,” Slim replied.
“Oh sure! Do you know the darned bank has been robbed at least three times since I came here,” he said hotly.
Then he started digging about again, before turning to Slim and saying, “Damn it, he’s taken my half bottle of moonshine too!”
Slim looked kind of guilty at that.
“Uh, no Hotshot, that was me,” he confessed. “Well, me and Damian…that is Declan, finished it one night.”
Before Jess could object long and loud Slim silenced him with an upheld hand, “Take it easy, I ordered an extra bottle for you it’s in the barn with the rest of the stuff.”
When they returned to the parlour Daisy was sitting before the fire looking totally defeated.
She turned saddened eyes to the two men, “How could he do that, steal from us that way?” she asked tearfully.
Jess said, “He just wasn’t who you thought he was Daisy. But I promise you this, as soon as the festivities are over, I’m gonna hunt him down and get our stuff back.”
Then he turned on his heel making for the yard.
“Jess?” Slim called out anxiously.
“It’s OK, I’m just gonna talk to Cal, he reckons he knows where Declan was headed. We need to find him Slim, but I agree…later…not right now.”
“Sure, I’ll tell you everything I know and I’m real sorry that Dec stole from you. I didn’t think he’d do that.”
“Well, he dang well did,” Jess said hotly, “and he ain’t gonna get away with it!”
“You’ll find him working in the theater in Denver. He’s booked to act in a play that’s starting its run just after Christmas. Then through January for six weeks, I think he said. He’s going to try and make it to London England to work in the theater there, at least that’s what he told Randy when they were in the jail.”
“Hell Cal, Denver’s a big town now and there are lots of those theaters ain’t there?”
“Sure, but it’s the Grand on Main Street, can’t miss it. I believe Declan lives in a boarding house some place nearby, but don’t know which one.
“We’ll just hafta go see the play then,” Jess said dryly. “Surprise him at the stage door.”
But then his attention was drawn to two riders coming down the rise and he grinned as he recognized Sheriff Mort Cory along with his long-time lady friend Kate Munroe.
As soon as Cal saw the Sheriff’s badge he turned to Jess, panic in his eyes.
“Jeez, has he come to arrest me, Jess?”
Jess shook his head, “No he’s a guest here for Christmas and don’t worry Cal…after what you did to help me and Mike, I figure there won’t be no charges to face. Especially if you help us arrest the others. You’re still sure about that…turning your brothers in?”
“I’ve never been surer about anything Jess. Randy is crazy, he needs locking up. Pete too…and as for poor old Cole well he’s just a no hoper.”
Before they could discuss the matter further, Mort and Kate had hitched up their mounts and were heading over.
“Don’t worry I’ll stand by you,” Jess said quickly, before marching over to meet the guests.
The petite Kate with her snowy white blond hair and dressed in her habitual buckskins came forwards quickly and Jess pulled her into a bear hug. They went way back to Jess’ childhood out on the Texas panhandle. She had always looked out for the snotty little kid with no shoes and the hand me down clothes, as she recalled him back then. And now all these years later she still felt motherly towards him and viewed him with great affection.
Now she pulled back from his embrace, a frown on her beautiful face and peered at him with all seeing eyes.
“My goodness Jesse,” she said reverting to his childhood name as she often did, “whatever have you been up to? You look skinnier than a half-drowned pup, kind of sickly too,” she added regarding him with her head on one side.
“He’s been up to something,” Mort said coming over and shaking Jess’ hand. “And I don’t for one minute believe all this malarkey about you taking off with Mike to visit some long lost relative. So, what’s really been going on huh?”
Jess grinned at him, “Not much gets past you does in Mort. You’d best come in and we’ll tell you everything.”
Then turning he said, “Can you just finish up in the barn Cal and then come in, Daisy will be making coffee shortly.”
As they walked over to the porch Mort glanced back and said, “Isn’t that the youngest Stone brother? So, what’s he of all people doing working for you again Jess? Thought you’d learnt your lesson from the last time you employed the Stone boys?”
“Yeah, well Cal’s different,” Jess said quickly. “Come on in and I’ll tell you everything.”
Sometime later Slim was apologizing profusely to Mort.
“Gee I’m so sorry I had to lie to you…to everyone really, but I was between a rock and a hard place you know Mort?”
“Sure, sure I understand,” Mort said quickly, “I just wish I’d paid more attention to what was going on before I left town. But what with being away to visit my old pappy in Denver, I guess I kinda let you down some.”
“There weren’t anything anyone could have done,” Jess said quickly. “Not with that Declan, posing as Fr Damian and reporting back Slim ’s every move. He believed that iffen he’d said anything, well, things might have turned out different,” he finished aware that both Daisy and Mike’s eyes were upon him.
Then he added, “If it weren’t for young Cal, I figure we’d still be up to our eyes in sh**… in big trouble,” he said again flicking a glance at Daisy and Kate and moderating his language.
“Well as far as I’m concerned, it’s whether or not you want to prefer charges. If not, then young Cal can walk free. But how does he feel about his brothers being taken in?”
“He’s promised to help us anyway he can,” Jess replied.
“So, what do you propose? We go looking, after the festivities are over?”
“No need,” Jess said, “I reckon they’ll turn up here looking for Cal. They told him as much if he helped us escape.”
Then finding a good time to broach the subject of Daisy and Mike going to town for safe keeping, Slim said, “That’s why we’d really like you and Mike to go back to town with the Doc and the girls on Christmas night Daisy…we figure they may strike the next day.”
“Oh no dear I can’t do that,” she said quickly, “my place is here, looking after you boys.”
“You know what you said to me when I was all fired up and wantin’ to go after that Irish…bas…uh… guy? How you said, ‘ain’t I put you through enough?’” Jess asked looking deeply into Daisy’s eyes.
Daisy just nodded.
“Well, I hafta tell ya I’ve been through enough too Daisy and I really don’t need the added burden of worrying about you and Mike maybe getting shot in the cross fire or something.”
She looked down, near to tears and said, “I’m sorry dear, of course we’ll go.”
Jess strode over and gave her a warm hug, whispering, “Thanks Daisy.”
But then Mike piped up, “Well I ain’t going! I’m gonna stay here and fight with you two and the Sheriff!”
Slim went over and said quietly, for Mike’s ears only, “Well Mike iffen you do that, who’s going to look out for Aunt Daisy…huh?”
The boy looked nonplussed.
“Gee, I never thought of that.” Then, “But we can come straight home as soon as you’ve whopped those Stone brothers real good, huh Slim?”
Slim ruffled his hair, “Sure you can, I promise.”

Chapter 9
The following morning Mike was as excited as all young ones are on Christmas Day. He took his stocking into Slim and Jess’ room at some ungodly hour; the boys trying to shush his cries of delight as he opened his presents.
Both Jess and Slim were deeply moved as they watched the age-old ritual, thinking what might have been if not for Cal’s help.
Once Mike had been persuaded to go back to bed for another couple of hours Jess stretched and got up wandering restlessly around the room.
“What’s up?” Slim asked sleepily from where he was preparing to nap again.
“Dunno, can’t settle I reckon.”
“You don’t think they’ll hit today do you?” Slim asked looking anxious.
He shrugged, “I don’t think so…but maybe we’d better go easy on the moonshine just in case,” he said throwing Slim a tired smile.
“Yeah, and set up a rota, you me and Mort to keep a lookout, just to be on the safe side. Unobtrusively though, we don’t want to upset the women folk.”
Jess went over to the washstand and after a cursory wash he started getting dressed.
“Where the heck are you going at this hour?” Slim asked.
“Thought I’d go check on Traveller, and start the yard chores. I wanna keep busy,” he said, and went quietly out of the room.
Slim looked after him apprehensively. Gee, Jess really wasn’t the same since he got back. He still had that nasty cough…and he was as spooked as a turkey on Thanksgiving Eve. This sure was one strange Christmas he thought as he stretched out and tried to go back to sleep for an hour or so.
He awoke sometime later to hear Daisy banging pots about in the kitchen and after washing and dressing he wandered in to see Kate helping her prepare breakfast. Mort and Cal were in deep conversation by the fire, whilst Mike was setting the table.
“Oh, there you are dear,” Daisy said cheerfully, as he entered the kitchen, “Merry Christmas!”
“Same to you,” Slim said kissing her lightly on the cheek and then doing the same to Kate.
“Where is Jess?” Daisy asked, “This is nearly ready.”
“He went out to check his horse, I’ll go find him,” Slim said quickly.
But hell, that was a good couple of hours ago he thought frowning slightly.
When he entered the barn and there was no sign of Jess a shiver of fear ran down his spine…where the hell was he?
Maybe the outhouse, he thought and made his way over there…but nope it was empty.
“God damn it,” he muttered, “he’s gone after the Stone brothers’ single handed.”
He knew his pard had been concerned for Mike and Daisy’s safety, plus their girls who Carrie and the Doc were due to drive over shortly. Maybe he’d gone to scout around and check there was no sign of the outlaws…but without his horse?
He wandered around the back of the outhouse to see if he was down by the home pasture and then he saw him. He had his back to Slim and was drawing his gun, then holstering it…time after time…as fast as Slim had ever seen him.
He watched in fascination for a few more minutes and then coughed discretely to warn him he was there.
Jess turned, gun still in hand but holstered it immediately when he saw Slim standing watching him.
Are you spyin’ on me?” he asked with a crooked grin.
“Nope, just wondered what you were playing at,” Slim said looking puzzled.
“I was shot in my right arm when they bushwhacked me. It’s been kinda stiff. I was just checking I could draw OK,” he said looking a tad sheepish.
“Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Slim said grinning, “as fast as ever I’ve seen you, Jess.”
Jess gave a small sigh of relief and then needing to change the subject looked at the outhouse.
“Nice paint job Slim,” then as they walked past, he added, “oops you missed a bit.”
“Git inside the house!” Slim growled taking a swipe at the back of his head as Jess took off at speed closely followed by Slim.
Their other guests arrived shortly after breakfast, to make the most of the day together and when Jess saw Millie, he thought she had never looked lovelier. Her dark hair was pinned up in a chic style with little tendrils surrounding her heart shaped face and she wore a scarlet dress trimmed with lace and looked every inch the lady about town. He felt a surge of love for her as he helped her down from Doc Sam’s large wagon. He held her close for a minute breathing in her light perfume and whispering intimate words of love, before he had to turn away and welcome their other guests.
True to Daisy’s word she insisted the Doc check Jess over, but that was after the tale of the abduction had been revealed. Whereas Jess tried to tone the ordeal down some, Mike milked it for all it was worth. He gave lurid details of being chained and the meager sustenance they had been given. Not to mention the bitter cold nights and taunts from that ‘Real bad man’ as he referred to the eldest Stone brother.
“Yeah, well it’s all over now Tiger, why dontcha go show Carrie that new painting book you got? She might give ya a few tips,” he said winking at the Doc’s daughter, who he knew was something of an artist in her spare time.
Then the Doc came over and said quietly, “It wouldn’t do any harm for me to check you over Jess, just to be on the safe side…and keep Miss Daisy happy huh?”
‘They went into Jess’ room and sat on his bed for the examination. Then the Doc looked very serious as he removed his stethoscope from his ears.’)
“Miss Daisy was right to be concerned. You’ve still got a nasty bit of infection going on in your chest, Jess. You’ve lost a significant amount weight by the looks of you. I’ll send a tonic over, and you should take things really easy for uh…a week, maybe ten days.”
“OK” Jess said cheerfully as he buttoned up his shirt.
Then turning to the Doc said, “Just one thing Sam, this confidentially thing yer always banging on about…well you won’t be saying anything to the others about me not being quite 100% will ya, huh?”
When Sam threw him a quizzical look Jess continued, “See I don’t want Miss Daisy worried, she’s been through enough with all this business, you know?”
“Oh, uh yes, I see,” the Doc said quickly, “no of course not Jess. You just take things easy, no riding or exertion for a week or two and I won’t breathe a word.”
“Sure, sure,” Jess said happily slapping him on the back, “let’s go join the party huh.”
On their return they found the others all looking quizzically at the tall pine tree in a barrel by the fireplace.
“Looks like you kinda forgot something,” Mort said speaking for them all.
“Oh gosh Aunt Daisy…Slim you ain’t dressed the tree!” Mike cried out in consternation.
“Well, we can soon make amends,” Jess said quickly, “go get the ladder Slim and we’ll have those decorations down from the attic before you can say Santa Claus.”
It sure was a strange Christmas Jess reflected. Everything seemed different from usual. He now watched Lily and Millie open the box of tree ornaments and carefully un-wrap them, instead of the usual tradition of him and the others doing it on Christmas Eve. But although different it sure was good to see them enjoying themselves.
The girls gave little cries of delight as the Christmas decorations were unwrapped, each one admired before Mike and Carrie placed them carefully on the tree. Some had belonged to Slim’ s Ma, and the delicate glass baubles had survived the long journey from the Old Country and every Christmas since. Others were bright, handmade decorations made by Slim and his little brother, Andy when he was young, and also some Mike had made the previous year.
As of the last couple of years Andy was again spending Christmas back east, where he was studying and at times like this, both Slim and Jess missed him and old Jonesy.
Jess watched as Carrie carefully placed a glittery star at the top of the tree fashioned by Andy many years ago. Looking over at Slim he caught his eye and gave him a tiny sad smile and nod in acknowledgement.
Slim smiled back and was suddenly hit by the realization of all he would have lost if Jess hadn’t come home, so very many shared memories. Not to mention their bond of love and affection for Andy and old Jonesy too. Jonesy had ‘jumped ship,’ as Jess had put it and was now happily settled back east. Riding shot gun on Andy, and living with a special lady friend too.
Things change, Slim reflected, but change could be good too and very positive.
Now he watched as the last of the ornaments were carefully unwrapped and Mike gave a whoop of delight as his own very special decorations were displayed. The Holy Family carefully carved by Jess, along with a diminutive donkey.
“These are my very own,” Mike said proudly as he displayed them beneath the tall tree, the perfect finishing touch.
His eyes were shining as he turned to the amassed company and said, “Jess made me Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, and the donkey too; as my very own Christmas family. He said it was to remind me that this was my very special forever home, with my new family,” he added happily.
Many a tear was secretly brushed away by the adults after that little impromptu speech. But Mike was totally unaware at how moving his words had been as he and Cal started stacking the wrapped presents beneath the tree.
Jess looked on wondering what Cal’s future might hold now he was all alone in the world. There was no going back to the life of crime with his brothers that he had hated so much that was for sure… not after he had sworn to see justice done…
Jess had put in a good word for him with Mort and was pleased to see that both the Sheriff and Kate seemed to have taken him under their wing.
Once it had been made clear that Cal had shunned his family and had also assisted in Jess and Mike’s escape, he had been hailed a hero and everyone made a fuss of the youngster, much to his embarrassment. Daisy had spoiled him and managed to find several small Christmas gifts for the boy and he seemed overwhelmed by all the kindness he had received.
The meal was a great success, even though Daisy admitted that her heart really hadn’t been in it when she was preparing for the feast, not knowing if Mike and Jess would be home to eat it. So, it was that Slim ’s usual little speech of thanksgiving before the meal was especially poignant.
He toasted, “Thank you for all our dear friends around the table, and especially Lord for the deliverance of Mike and Jess,” looking from one to the other, tears in his eyes.
All day long the men had made sure that one of them kept a careful surveillance of the yard and outbuildings and also were circumspect in their drinking. This did not go unnoticed by Daisy who cornered Slim in the kitchen and whispered, “What’s going on dear, you aren’t really expecting those dreadful Stone brothers to turn up today are you?”
He shook his head, “Jess thinks not, but we have to be prepared for anything. That Randy Stone is a law onto himself…totally unpredictable.”
“Yes, I remember how dreadfully aggressive and violent he was when he was arrested for the attempted cattle rustling. I really don’t think he’s quite right in the head, the way he acts,” she concluded sadly.
“Well don’t say anything to the other ladies,” Slim said softly, “no point in upsetting the party and I really don’t think he’ll hit today, we’re just being cautious. After all there’s a lot at stake,” he added as he looked fondly over at where his dear Lily and Carrie were laughing at something Mike had said.
“I’ll be ready to leave before dark,” Daisy said quietly, “but do take care won’t you Slim, dear. And watch out for Jess I really don’t think he’s quite well yet.”
Jess was actually feeling very well and very much in need of some quality time with his best girl.
He bided his time and then when he noted that the others were all intent on inspecting Mike’s new fishing rod he leaned over and whispered something in Millie’s ear. She smiled and nodded, before getting up and collecting her shawl from by the door.
Slim was the only one to notice and Jess said softly, “Just takin’ Millie over to the barn to show her Snowbird’s new foal.”
Slim threw him an old-fashioned look and said softly, “Sure you are,” but winked and nodded, Jess knowing he’d cover for him if they were missed.
Once in the barn he took his girl in his arms and kissed her passionately before releasing her and whispering, “Jeez, I’ve missed you so dang much Mill.”
“Me too,” she gasped breathlessly. “Oh Jess, it was terrible you being away for so long. I just knew there was something wrong. Slim implied as much, but told me I mustn’t say or do anything to attract suspicion and now I know why.”
“Well, it’s all over sweetheart,” he said again holding her so close that he could feel her heart beating in unison with his own.
“But it isn’t is it though?” she said looking tearful, “Those dreadful Stone brothers are bound to come for Cal. Then I heard the Sheriff saying to Kate that you intended to go after that bogus priest.”
“I have to,” Jess said firmly.
“Why? Can’t you just let it go? He didn’t do any real harm, except dupe poor Slim and Daisy.”
“Oh, but he did,” Jess said looking angry, “he only dang well took our nest egg Millie!”
“What the money you’d been saving to build and furnish our place?” she asked looking ashen.
“Yup…and I aim to get it back,” he said, steely determination in his eyes, “you can count on that.”
Then he was holding her close again, all thought of money or danger erased from their minds as and they were kissing with growing fervour.
Suddenly they heard a shot fired off.
“What the hell!” Jess uttered, before pushing Millie into one of the empty stalls and telling her to stay down.
He tore out of the barn in time to see both Mort and Slim moving carefully around the side of the house.
He joined them and then as they ventured out towards the home pasture, they saw Cal standing looking out to the distance, his rifle still smoking in his hands.
“What happened?” Mort gasped as he ran over to the boy.
“I dunno Sheriff I thought I saw someone move over behind those bushes. But maybe I over reacted,” he added looking sheepish as old Betsy the house cow wandered over looking decidedly annoyed.
“I reckon we’re all a bit wound up son, no harm done,” Mort said easily.
“No harm done!” Jess said heatedly as an aside to Slim, “Just when things were gettin’ real interestin’ back there.”
Slim smirked at his pard and said, “You’d best go tell Millie all’s well. Oh, and Daisy was just going to send Mike out to say a light supper’s ready.
“Great,” Jess muttered looking mutinous as he headed back to the barn.
The party broke up soon after they had finished the afternoon meal; Daisy and Mike with overnight bags at the ready.
Doc Sam wouldn’t hear of them staying in the hotel and insisted there was plenty of room for them to stay with him and Carrie.
She thanked him profusely and then eyeing Slim and Jess, sadly said, “Hopefully it won’t be for too long.”
Kate had insisted on staying on and as she was as handy with a gun as the men nobody questioned that, and of course Mort was delighted to have her company.
Once Cal had wandered off to bed after the long day, the others sat on before a roaring fire with a welcome glass of redeye.
“You seem to have hit it off real well with Cal,” Jess said raising an inquiring eyebrow.
Kate smiled and nodded, “I have Jess, he puts me in mind of young Billy, dontcha think?”
Jess remembered Kate’s kid brother, with his blond curly hair and innocent blue eyes, the colour of a summer sky. Then his face clouded as he remembered how the boy had drowned in the creek when he was just sixteen years old.
He nodded, “Yup, has a look of him… he could make something of himself too, given half a chance.”
“Um, and that’s what I aim to give him,” Kate said. “Me and Mort have been discussing it and we figure the best thing all around would be for me to take the kid back up the mountain when I go in a few weeks. Teach him a trade and also get him mixing with Denver’s boys, Mick and Cody. I reckon they’ll be able to show him the right path…by example, see. Be better than us old ones trying to tell him.”
Sure, Denver was a Moonshiner, but he was basically a good man and had taught Mick and Cody to be true, loyal and respectful. They knew right from wrong and were no strangers to hard work.
“I hope yer thinkin’ of showing him the ropes on huntin’ and curing hides rather than moon shining?” Jess said with a cheeky grin.
“Indeed, I am,” Kate said frowning, “you know Den runs a legit business as a fur trader.”
“Sure, sure, just joshing you,” Jess said quickly, “and I think that’s a swell idea.”
“He’s real good around the horses too, I’ve noticed,” Kate continued. “He might make a wrangler or bronc buster…or even blacksmith, with a little help from friends. Young Cody is running quite a few horses now. He can show him the ropes easy…and he’ll be well away from those brothers of his if he’s up the mountain.”
“With any luck Randy will be languishing in the Laramie Prison before too long,” Slim said quickly, “Pete and Cole too.” Then added darkly, “And they can throw away the key as far as I’m concerned for what they did to Jess and Mike.”
“And my horse,” Jess said looking angry, “Yup and once I’ve caught up with that no hoper Declan O ’Hare, I figure we can relax and enjoy the New Year,” he added.
“Um,” said Kate thoughtfully, “that’s the other thing…I think Slim should go with you.”
“Huh?” Jess asked.
“Come on boy, you may be able to pull the wool over Daisy’s eyes or even Doc Sam maybe, but I can see you ain’t right yet.”
Before he could protest Slim said quickly, “She’s right Jess.”
Then turning back to Kate said, “I just don’t like to think of leaving Mike and Daisy alone for any length of time, so soon after what they’ve been through.”
“Well, that’s where I come in,” Kate said with a wink at Mort. “See I thought I’d stay on for a week or so while you’re away and show young Cal the ropes as to running a Ranch and Relay. So, what do ya think huh?”
Jess looked over to his pard and saw a small nod and then reaching for the whiskey bottle he held it aloft and said happily, “I say we’ll drink to that…and thank you Kate!”
Chapter 10
The following day all was quiet at the ranch. Slim was beginning to think maybe his pard’ s theory was wrong and Randy, Pete and Cole had cut their losses and decided to ride for the border rather than seek retribution on their youngest sibling.
It was the day after Christmas and the men and Kate had been on tenterhooks all day long, constantly checking the area for signs of the Stone Gang, but nothing.
Now Cal was already abed and the men and Kate sitting around the fire having a last coffee before turning in Slim chuckled and said, “Well maybe they’re all still hung over from Christmas.”
“Hey this ain’t no laughing matter,” Jess said angrily, “or have you forgotten they’ve got just about every last cent we own right now?”
“No, I haven’t forgotten Jess,” Slim said hotly, “but I sure hope I’m right and they’re just nursing bad heads, because iffen I’m not and they’ve headed for Canada we’ll have one hell of a job finding them.”
“I still think I’m right,” Jess insisted, “that Randy is crazy and iffen he says he’s gonna find his kid brother and kill him for siding with us, then I figure that’s just what he’ll do.”
Kate shuddered, “What kind of man would murder a member of his own family?”
“A very sick one Doc Sam would say,” Mort drawled, “but I figure just a plain evil one.”
Jess nodded in agreement, “And if or when they hit, I want Cal to stay safe in here. Can you watch his back Kate?”
The older woman nodded, “Sure I can, none of those no hoper bastards will get past me, I can promise you,” she said with a broad grin.
“Well, I know that don’t I,” Jess said winking at her.
Whilst Mort merely shook his head, but hiding a proud smile.
The following morning Jess and Slim were rustling up some breakfast, Cal having been dispatched to go fetch some more eggs from the hen house.
However, he came tearing back into the ranch moments later yelling, “Fire! Fire! The barn’s on fire!”
Jess and Slim stormed out, closely followed by Mort, Cal and Kate.
Slim took charge at once as he saw a plume of smoke on the barn roof and more issuing from the partly open door…the squeals of alarmed horses coming from within.
“Mort, you Kate and Cal start a bucket chain. Buckets by the well yonder!” he yelled.
“Jess, help me get the horses out.”
The two men placed their bandanas over their noses and mouths and headed into the dark smoke-filled building and moments later the terrified stage horses were liberated and started milling around in the safety of the corral.
Slim had freed Alamo from his stall towards the back of the barn and Jess gestured that he was going to release Traveller from the nearby stall.
“I’ll be out in a minute you go help the others with the water chain!” he yelled before turning away and heading into the smoky depths of the barn.
Slim waved a hand in acknowledgment and went out to help fight the flames.
When Jess got to the back of the barn, he found Traveller eyes wide with terror and pawing at the ground by the closed stall door. But when Jess went to open it and free his mount it was stuck fast.
He peered at the catch, his eyes streaming from the acrid smoke and then in the dim light filtering through the open doors he saw a piece of wood had been wedged down the stall door latch, locking it solid.
He looked around desperately for something to knock it out with, and then his eyes came to rest on his saddle hanging near the stall, and his rifle in its scabbard.
Pulling it out he hit the door jamb hard with the rifle butt and the blockage fell away; the stall door swinging open.
Coughing profusely, he used his last ounce of energy to hurl himself up onto Traveller’s back and headed him towards the open barn door with the early morning sunlight filtering in.
However, just as they were nearly there, Jess heard a shot and then the unmistakably gruff voice of Randy Stone call out, “Git yer ornery hide out here Harper come and join the party.”
At the sound of Randy Stone’s voice Traveller trembled and tensed with anger. Then before Jess realized what was happening his good horse took off at speed and galloping out through the barn door he swerved making for where Randy stood, his rifle covering Slim and Mort. Whilst Pete was still sitting his horse, his weapon aimed at Kate and the hapless Cal. All of them unarmed and were at the outlaw’s mercy, exhausted and filthy from fighting the fire.
But Jess had only a split second to take all this in as Traveller tore across the yard and rearing up he bellowed with rage as his iron like hooves slammed down hard on Randy Stone, glancing blow knocking him to the ground, fracturing his arm in several places…and sending his rifle skimming away out of reach. But for Jess’ excellent horsemanship Traveller might well have trampled Stone to death. But Jess urged him to turn away. Traveller being a superb cow horse who could turn on a dime, obeyed at the last second, leaving Randy sprawled in the dirt groaning in agony.
Then Jess found himself facing Pete and raising the rifle he still had in his hand growled, “Drop yer iron Pete or by God I’ll blow yer damn head off.”
Pete needed no second telling and dropped his rifle like it was a red-hot poker. Mort tore over and had him cuffed in seconds.
Meanwhile Slim and Kate ran over to where Randy was rolling in the dirt still cussing in pain.
Jess dismounted and wandered over with Traveller following along.
When Randy saw him, he quailed and said, “Keep that dang critter away from me!”
“Hey what’s yer problem?” Jess asked with a wicked grin. “It’s just a case of settling old scores. I thought you were all for that Randy.”
Once Randy had been helped inside and Kate had made a makeshift sling Jess suddenly realized Cole was missing.
“Where’s that lowlife brother of yours?” he snarled at Randy, “Deserted you, has he?”
Randy just dropped his head and looking uncomfortable said nothing.
“Well?” Mort asked.
Then turning to Pete said, “So where is he?”
Pete looked at his older brother and then muttered, “Dead.”
“What!” Mort exclaimed, “How…when?”
“It was me!” Randy snapped, “Alright I killed him. Did him a favor too, saved him from drinking himself to death.”
Jess looked shocked, “Is that right Pete, Randy killed him?”
Pete nodded, “When we got back to camp and you’d hightailed it with young Cal he just went loco. Cole was sitting there nursing a daddy of a hangover and I reckon Randy just saw red, started hitting him and just couldn’t stop.”
“Didn’t you even try to help him?” Slim yelled in disbelief.
“No sir, you don’t cross Randy when he’s that way,” Pete said in a whisper.
Kate who had been sitting silently to this point got up and looked down at Randy who was reclining on the couch, nursing his arm.
“Is this true,” she asked, “you really killed your own brother?”
“Yes Ma’am,” he said, just staring belligerently at her.
“And you’d have killed young Cal here too?”
“Yes Ma’am,” he repeated laconically, “I reckon I would.”
Kate just shook her head feeling totally overwhelmed and returned to her seat.
“Well, I figure we all heard that confession folks,” Mort said dryly.
Then turning to Randy said, “I guess you’re heading straight for the hangman’s noose my friend.”
Randy just shrugged as though it was of no consequence.
“We’ll ride for town in an hour,” Mort said decisively.
Slim accompanied Mort taking the prisoners in the buckboard, so that he could return with Daisy and Mike, now the danger was over.
However, the only danger Jess was in was being killed by Kate’s kindness…at least that’s what she called it.
“Goodness Jess you’ve hardly stopped coughing since the barn fire…and so you really need to take this remedy!”
Jess sniffed suspiciously at the proffered bottle, “What is it?” he asked, recoiling at the smell
“Why mostly honey, with a few added herbs,” she replied with a serene smile.
She shook the bottle expertly and handed it over with a spoon and watched him like a hawk.
“Aw, do I hafta?”
“Well, unless you want me to tell Miss Daisy chapter and verse of the fire and how bad your chest is right now, then yes you do.”
Jess just scowled at her and swallowed down the medicine before coughing again and making for the door, calling, “Come on Cal, work to do.”
“Now where are you off to?” Kate asked in exasperation.
“Get the barn cleaned up before Daisy arrives home. Luckily those hombres only lit a few clumps of straw, soon get it cleaned up and Daisy need never know,” he added with a cheeky grin, and grabbing his hat and jacket disappeared out of the door before she could reply.
A few hours later Kate made a pot of coffee and called the men in for a break.
“All done,” Jess said cheerfully as he sat down, “and I figure Slim and I can be off at first light if you and Cal are happy to run the place for a little while.”
Cal’s eyes lit up at that, “You bet ya Jess,” he said enthusiastically, “we’ll look after it real good, won’t we Miss Kate.”
“Sure we will boy,” she said grinning across at him.
Then reaching for the medicine bottle she shook it and handed it across with a large spoon, “Medicine Jess.”
He pulled a face, but took a dose and then frowning said, “Exactly what is that stuff Kate. I figure the honey’s working, but what’s the other stuff in it?”
“Oh, just something to calm you down, sort of relax you and make you more er… amenable to takin’ it. Well, you remember that ornery old mule, Clancy that we couldn’t git to move? Then he was an angel and was trotting along as happy as Larry?” (See # 99 Scapegoat)
“Yeah, sure I do, but what’s that got to do with this medicine?”
“Same stuff,” she said succinctly.
Jess almost choked, “What, you’ve been feeding me horse medicine?”
“Well, its workin’ ain’t it; you’ve not coughed once since you came back in.”
Jess just shook his head and drank his coffee knowing it was useless to argue.

Chapter 11
Slim and Jess’ plans for an early start were sadly thwarted. First of all, one of the stage line horses came up lame just as Jess was about to harness him up to the early stage. So, they let Mose go without them whilst Jess insisted on treating the badly strained muscle. Then he spent some time showing Cal how to tend it while he was away.
“Kate could have dealt with it,” Slim said testily as he moved his valise back onto the porch and ran a finger round the too tight collar of his best shirt.
“She could yeah, but we’re supposed to be sortin ’ the kid out ain’t we,” Jess muttered as an aside. “He learns how to care for the critters and old Sammy there gets well again, it will make him feel real good about himself.”
“Sure, I know,” Slim said quietly, slouching down on the porch chair and putting his feet up on the hitching rail.
“But now we’ve got to wait for the noon stage and all dressed up too, so we can’t do anything.”
“Well, that ain’t true,” Jess said grinning and pulling a deck of cards out from his frock-coat pocket.
When they arrived in Laramie it was to the news that there had been an accident down the line aways, when a train had hit some cattle that had strayed onto the track. So, they finally left on the night train.
“Great,” Jess muttered morosely, “we’ll share the journey with a load of snoring drunks and get no dang sleep.”
“Well, we sure haven’t got the money for a sleeper compartment, so you’ll just have to make the best of it. Anyway, you got to spend some time with Millie didn’t you.”
Jess grinned, “Sure did,” and he sighed. Then his expression changed to one of anger. “That no hoper hadn’t better have spent all my nest egg money or he’ll dang well live to regret it.”
The two men sat down opposite each other at a window seat, a table between them and Jess put his valise on the seat next to him to deter any drunk taking his ease there and stared sullenly out to the ill lit station platform where folk were still embarking.
“Look Jess don’t be too hard on the guy,” Slim said.
“Too hard! Are you crazy, he took all my savings…not to mention the ring meant for Lily, and Daisy’s pearls! And maybe you’ve forgotten he made a complete fool of you with his lies?” he added for good measure.
“No, I haven’t forgotten,” Slim said looking down. Then he looked Jess in the eye and said, “I can’t help but feel he’s a nice guy underneath it all. He just got kind of carried away with ambition. You know how these artistic folk can be.”
“Nope can’t say as I do,” Jess replied, “and even if he is ‘on the stage and an actor’ it don’t make it right that he should steal from innocent folk. Not to mention being party to a kidnapping!”
“I know and you’re right, of course you are. But I’m just asking that you don’t knock him to kingdom come, before we’ve heard his side of the story. OK?”
Jess sighed deeply, “OK, but then I ain’t holding back,” and with that he settled down and closed his eyes.
But the seats were hard and the railroad train swayed and rattled along making sleeping difficult.
After a while, a tall, well-dressed man with a white mustache and beard came along and tipping his Stetson back to reveal thick white hair he directed a friendly grin at Jess and said, “I see you are no stranger to a deck of cards?”
Jess who had been idling away the small hours playing Patience returned the grin and said, “You’d be right there Mr…?”
The dapper man sat down next to Slim and throwing both men a winning smile said, “Rogers, Denny Rogers.”
“A gambling man, I’m thinking?” Jess hazarded a guess.
“Yes, you’d be right young man I have been called that in my time. I’ve had a lifetime of reading people’s faces, can tell what their cards are by the way they hold their eyes,” he chuckled.
Then noticing the small bottle of Moonshine on the table said, “For taste of your whiskey I’ll give you some advice.”
Jess and Slim exchanged an amused glance and Jess pushed the bottle towards the gambler.
He took a good pull before re-corking it and wiping his mouth. Then said, “See, it’s this way son, if you’re gonna play the game you’ve gotta play it right. You’ve gotta know when to hold ‘em,” he said picking up a card from the deck, and looking at it thoughtfully, “and know when to fold ‘em.”
But then Jess butted in, “Don’t tell me…know when to walk away…”
The gambler’s head shot up and he threw Jess a quizzical look… then Slim added, “Know when to run.”
“OK…OK, maybe I was thinkin’ you two were a pair of tenderfoots…so you wanna play a hand or two?”
Jess grinned back and as the gambler brought out a deck, Jess said quickly, “But we’ll use my cards old man.”
The gambler laughed out loud this time, “Nope you ain’t no tenderfoot that’s fer sure… so you got a cigarette I could bum off of ya?”
They whiled away a couple of happy hours until the gambler knew when to cut and run. Jess had won a good few bucks from him, and Slim had just about broken even.
The gambler stood up and thanked them for their company before wandering back to his own seat and fading off to sleep.
Slim turned to his pard and said, “You did pretty well there against a professional.”
Jess shrugged, “I guess, but you win some you lose some. Gambling’s a mug’s game; best you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Slim agreed and the men turned their attention back to the black night beyond the carriage window, alone with their own thoughts.
The first light of dawn was just filtering through the clouds when the train finally lurched into Denver station, rattling and swaying before releasing a last belch of smoke and hiss of steam and settling down in the siding.
Jess had finally fallen asleep and wasn’t happy to be jabbed in the ribs by Slim yelling a hearty, “We’re here, Jess, wake up!”
The men jumped down onto the platform, yawning and stretching and looking around them, before turning towards the exit.
They made their way through the almost deserted streets, heading down towards the area where most of the theaters were situated. By the time they’d wandered around the place for a while the streets were coming alive. With folk making their way to work and the shopkeepers busy brushing down the boardwalk prior to opening up for business.
They finally located the theater and stood looking up at the huge billboard proudly announcing that the Life and Times of Davy Crockett would be running for the next six weeks. The star of the show…the up-and-coming actor, Dev West.
“Never heard of him,” Jess muttered before casting an eye down the other players. “I don’t see a Declan O ’Hare anywhere,” he said turning to Slim.
“Well maybe he’s in the chorus of something, doesn’t get a mention on the cast list?”
Jess yawned widely, “Well I suppose we’ll find out tonight…at least it’s the right theater and show, so he must be around here someplace.”
“Like you say we’ll find him tonight,” Slim said, looking up and down the now busy street. “Let’s try down one of these back streets, see iffen we can find cheap lodgings huh.”
They finally found a place with a vacancy sign in the window and after knocking they waited several minutes before a hatchet-faced middle-aged woman eventually pulled the door open and said abruptly, “Yes?”
“We’re looking for a room for a few nights,” Slim said politely.
The woman looked him up and down and then transferred her gaze to Jess…but quickly turned back to the more affable looking blond young man.
“You ain’t snake oil salesmen, are you?” she asked sourly.
Slim shook his head as though he was horrified at the idea, “No Ma’am we’re ranchers from Wyoming, come down to see a friend.”
He was about to add in the theater, but figured an actor would be even worse news than a snake oil hustler.
“Well alright,” she said reluctantly, “breakfast’s over and if yer wanting a bath water won’t be on ‘til after six and that’s another 25 cents…soap and towel extra.”
The bath situation Jess could deal with…but no breakfast?
“Not even coffee Ma’am?” he whispered in despair.
The older woman looked at the dark haired one that looked like trouble, but then her heart melted at his woebegone countenance.
She sighed deeply and said, “In the front parlour then, I’ll see if there’s any left in the pot.”
The coffee was surprisingly good and was even accompanied by some homemade cookies, which Ma Bates, the land lady, said would be added to the bill.
“Plus, extra for a key if you gentlemen intend on staying out after 8 O’clock,” she added, as though after that hour only the devil’s work would be done.
The room at the top of the house although chilly was clean and the bedding fresh.
Jess hurled himself on the bed happily.
“Boots!” Slim yelled.
He quickly kicked them off and rolling on his side said, “Wake me fer supper will ya …” and was asleep in seconds.
Slim rolled his eyes and then chuckled as he looked down at his pard. Jeez it was good to have him back…infuriating ways and all.
After supper the men hurried out to the theater and were surprised to see how popular the show was. They only just managed to secure the last seats high up at the very back of the auditorium.
Jess looked around him with interest at the plush seats and stage lighting, it being his first visit to this sort of theater.
“Sure, I’ve seen a few of those…ya know exotic dancers and stuff in saloons, but ain’t ever been in a place like this,” he said to Slim.
Slim chuckled, “Well I’m sure glad it isn’t Hamlet playing for your first Play Jess. I figure old Davy Crockett and his wild ways should be right up your street.”
“Ham who?”
“Never mind…look, the lights are turning up it’s going to start.”
The play was in itself enthralling and Jess enjoyed it tremendously, until he suddenly remembered why they were there.
“Well can ya see him?”
Slim shook his head, “Nope, the only guy that looks like him is playing the lead. But he’s got red hair and a New York accent, so that can’t be our man. Jeez Damian… uh… I mean Declan is as Irish as they come, you sure wouldn’t miss that accent.”
Then someone shushed them from behind and they settled to the play once again.
When it was over and the audience started moving off Jess said, “Well maybe he was in that chorus, you know had a non-speaking part or somethin’ huh?”
“Maybe. Come on let’s get round to the stage door and see if we can spot him.”
They stood in the cold draughty back alley for a good twenty minutes to no avail. Some of the stars had stopped and signed autographs and other players made their way off to the saloon in small groups laughing and joking.
“We’ve been had,” Jess said bitterly, “that Declan must have just told young Cal what he did to put anyone off the scent. He’s probably halfway to the old country now, with my money,” he added bitterly, turning and starting to retrace their steps back up the alley.
Slim turned to follow him and then stopped in his tracks as he heard a well-known laugh followed by, “Sure it was a grand success and we’ll be taking a little drink, will we not?”
There was no mistaking Declan ’s Irish brogue, and Slim turned around to see the star of the show, Davy Crockett himself…alias Declan O’ Hare…alias, he now knew, Dev West… of course a stage name.
Aware that Slim had paused, Jess turned back and was just in time to hear him say, “Well howdy Father Damian. Or is it simply Declan now? I really wouldn’t have known you with that red hair, not to mention that credible American accent on stage! But there again you are a very good actor,” he added bitterly.
Declan turned pale and then said to his friend, “I’ll see you later Gil.”
“Are you OK?” Gil asked casting Slim and then a fierce looking Jess an anxious glance.
“Sure, you be getting off now, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Declan said quickly.
Once the friend had disappeared around the corner Jess grabbed Declan by his shirt front and said dangerously quietly, “Are you sure about that…because I ain’t! There might just be nuthin’ left of ya by tomorrow!”
“Jess!” Slim said pulling him roughly away, “Please, you promised we’d hear what he had to say first OK?”
Jess sighed, but relinquished his hold and frowning muttered, “This better be damn good.”
“We can’t talk here, how about a bar?” Declan said hopefully.
Jess was feeling pretty dry and in need of a shot of whiskey, or two to revive him.
“OK, but don’t think yer going to get a gang of your actor friends to try and see us off,” Jess said, “we’ll go to a bar we choose.”
Once they were seated in a corner of the bar in a quiet respectable hotel and furnished with a drink apiece Slim said, “Well go on then Declan explain yourself. Just what kind of guy befriends those in trouble and then betrays them the way you did huh?”
Jess looked at his pard and felt quite shocked at the harsh words and figured this Declan had hurt him real bad.
“I’m sorry, really sorry Slim, and it wasn’t all acting I swear it. The more I got to know you and Miss Daisy, the more I realized what I was doing was wrong. I hated myself in the end,” he added looking down and flushing with embarrassment.
“Sure, you did,” Jess said angrily, “it didn’t stop you stealing from them though did it…and me too!”
“Yes, I really regret that, but you see I felt so bad I decided not to accept the money from those God-awful men. When you landed back looking so weary and sick and the young ‘un being so brave about it all… well I just felt so ashamed…so I did.”
“You knew about that?” Slim asked.
“I’m sorry but I was in the kitchen watching from the shadows, heard how badly they’d been treated and all,” he said shaking his head sadly.
“And taking Ma’s ring, Daisy’s pearls and all Jess’ savings that was better than the blood money promised you, was it?” Slim asked bitterly.
“You don’t understand. I pawned the ring and beads to pay my way while I was here. I was going to redeem them when the run finished and I was paid, then send them back to you.”
“Sure, you were,” Jess muttered, “and what about me huh?”
“I was going to use that for my fare to London and then pay it all back as soon as I got my first role. I swear it, Jess.”
“So, you’ll be makin’ yer fortune will ya then?” Jess said sarcastically.
“I aim to yes, Declan said, raising his head and sticking his chin out in a challenging way. I’m a star already over here and once I make it big in the old country, I will indeed earn a fortune.”
Slim just shook his head and rolled his eyes at Jess.
“Well in the meantime we’ve got a score to settle,” Jess said, “you can fetch yer gear from where you’re staying and bunk down with us tonight, we’ll catch the first train out tomorrow. You can explain everything to the Laramie Sheriff, you’re under arrest.”
“No, I can’t!” Declan cried. “What about the show?”
Jess who had been controlling his temper admirably up to now lurched out of his seat, grabbed Declan by the shirt and he balled a fist.
“It’s either our room or the Sheriff’s office and iffen you decide to resist arrest on the way, I’d be more than in my rights to uh…restrain you some,” Jess said now moving his jacket back to reveal the tin star pinned on his vest.
The actor sighed deeply and threw Jess a look that would have done credit to a Shakespeare tragedy, and whispered, “I’ll come quietly.”
They called in at a boarding house on the way so Declan could leave a message with his understudy.
“What, you won’t be coming back at all?” Charlie, the startled young actor asked.
“No, like I told you, family business…uh tell the Stage manager there’s been a death in the family.”
“Oh, my condolences,” the young man said before grinning from ear to ear, “But my big break huh!”
“Nice to see you’ve got such caring friends,” Jess said as they made their way off.
“That’s show business,” Declan said equitably, “an actor will do just about anything to make it in the business.”
“So I’ve seen,” Slim said dryly.
The following morning Declan handed over Jess’s nest egg money, almost intact. Then they visited the pawnbroker and retrieved the pearls and ring, before heading off to the rail head.
As the train pulled out, they saw a billboard displayed advertising the Life and Times of Davey Crockett and Declan could hardly bear to look at it, “My life’s over,” he whispered dramatically.
“You’ll darn well wish it was iffen you don’t behave,” Jess muttered, whilst Slim looked at the young actor with just a trace of pity in his eyes.

Chapter 12
They arrived in Laramie by mid afternoon and marched Dec straight to Mort Cory’s office.
Jess barged in, closely followed by Slim and Dec, to find old Alf Thompson reclining in Mort’s chair taking his ease and reading the latest addition of the Laramie Sentinel.
He put the paper down and straightened up. Polishing his deputy badge with his bandana he rather self-consciously threw Jess an anxious glance. Sure, he admired the young cowboy that the Sheriff held in such high esteem, but dang it, he sure could be ornery.
“Slim, uh Jess, howdy,” he said, smiling hopefully at Slim.
Jess ignored the greeting, “Where’s Mort?” he barked.
“Out on business,” Alf replied, just knowing Harper would explode once he heard the latest news.
“Is Lon out too?” Jess asked, referring to Mort’s usual Deputy.
“Yup half the town are away. The Sheriff called up a posse, “he admitted.
“What’s going on Alf?” Slim asked, more kindly.
“Of course, you won’t know,” Alf said bracing himself for the onslaught, “it um… seems that Pete Stone has escaped from the Laramie prison.”
“What!” Jess cried, “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me!”
“All in here,” Alf said passing over the newspaper.
Jess shook out the offered paper and he and Slim read the lurid headlines that stated Peter Stone, of the Stone gang had escaped from the Laramie prison. Then it went on to explain that he had bribed a guard to aid his escape, by hiding in a laundry trunk.
“Dang well bribed him with our hard-earned cash, that they’ve still got hidden away,” Jess interjected.
“It says this happened a couple of days ago…and it doesn’t look like the posse have found him or they’d be back by now,” Slim asserted.
“Goddamn it!” Jess hollered, “We dang well caught them, all the prison had to do was keep ‘em locked up for goodness sake!”
Then Slim looked anxiously at Alf, “It was just Pete that escaped, not Randy too? “
“Oh no Slim, don’t worry on that score. See it says right there, Randy Stone is still recovering from a badly damaged arm. The authorities are hoping he will be well enough for his trial and subsequent hanging in the next few weeks.”
Slim and Jess shared an amused glance at the irony of the statement, clearly lost on Alf.
“What’ ll we do?” Slim asked Jess, “Do you want to go find the posse and look for him?”
Jess shrugged, “What’s the point, he’ll be long gone now, and with all our money too. He’s probably over the border already.”
“Well, I imagine they’ll be bounty hunters a lookin’ too, “Alf said pushing a Wanted poster over with an eye wateringly large payment of dollars for the capture of one Pete Stone, dead or alive.
“I know where he’ll be,” Dec suddenly announced.
In the excitement of the moment Jess and Slim had completely forgotten his presence.
“You do, do ya?” Jess growled, with a look of disbelief.
“Yes, I do, they’ve got a secret hideaway up in the Snowy Range. We hung out up there after we were released from jail. That’s where they made all the plans to kidnap Mike, and later they added you, Jess. It’s where they planned to keep the money too. The idea was to hide out there for a few weeks after the last payment until everything died down and then head for the border.”
“Really,” Jess said his eyes narrowing, “and you didn’t think to tell us that bit about the money being stashed there?”
“I didn’t know what had been happening, you told me Cole was dead and Randy and Pete in jail I just assumed that they’d told you where the money was.”
“Well, you assumed wrong,” Slim said.
“I could show you…take you there,” Dec suggested hesitantly.
“Oh yeah and what’s in it for you?” Jess asked deadpan.
“Maybe a pardon? After all you did get your nest egg back Jess and Daisy and Slim’ s stuff back too…so no real harm done…huh?”
Jess looked incensed and grabbing hold of Dec’s arm dragged him over to the far side of the office away from the others and spoke in a low, but intimidating voice.
“No harm done huh? You used two of my dearest friends for your own means. Deceived them and what’s worse is you really tried to make a friend of Slim. Hell, he believed in you…trusted you, and you dang well stabbed him in the back.”
“I know it,” he said hanging his head, “and you’ll never know how truly sorry I am…but maybe this way I can make it up to him, some huh.”
Jess just shook his head sadly, “This ain’t just about the money Dec, it’s about trust and friendship, but I guess you just don’t get it huh?”
“Really Jess, if I could turn the clock back I would…but please let me do what I can now …will you not?”
Just then the door swung open and Mort and Lon trooped in looking weary.
Mort stopped when he saw Slim and Jess and removing his hat he ran his hand through his hair before ramming it back on, “You’ve heard,” he said quietly.
“Just,” Jess said, “but hell this ain’t your fault Mort it’s that damn prison’s blunder.”
“No sign then?” Slim asked.
Mort shook his head and collapsed into his chair, recently vacated by Alf.
“Not a sign…disappeared into thin air.”
Then Slim turned to Dec raising an eyebrow before saying, “Declan here reckons he knows exactly where he’s gone.”
“Oh, he does, does he?” Mort said looking at the young actor with a somewhat jaundiced eye.
“So, it’s not Father Damian anymore, I take it?”
Declan hung his head in shame, “I am really sorry about all that business Sheriff. I was just carried away by ambition and when I saw a way of earning my fare to England…well, I just took it without thinking the matter through.”
“It’s just a good job Jess and young Mike managed to escape,” Mort said dourly, “or you’d be looking at a prison sentence for aiding and abetting murder. But it will just be aiding and abetting kidnap now…unless Jess decides to drop the charges that is?”
When Declan looked deeply shocked Mort said, “Oh yes young man I can assure you that Randy would not have hesitated to kill Jess and possibly the child too, had they not managed to get away.”
“I…I had no idea. He said they’d be well cared for. I never thought he’d harm them,” Declan said turning very pale and again hanging his head.
“Well maybe not, but the outcome would have been the same,” Slim said. “Your informing Randy was a key part of the plan and I figure he wouldn’t have risked carrying on extracting money iffen he hadn’t had you watching us and reporting back.”
“I’m just so darned sorry,” Declan said yet again looking close to tears, “please let me help now, make amends. I can find Pete and get your money back too; I just know I can.”
“It’s up to you Jess, do you want me to sling him in my jail on the kidnap charge or not?” Mort asked.
Jess looked at Declan and then over to Slim before wandering over to the window and looking out with unseeing eyes.
After a few seconds he turned back and said, “I’ll think on it while we’re on the trail lookin’ for Pete.”
Then turning to Slim and Declan said, “You ready then?”
They set off at first light the following morning, heading west towards the Medicine Bow Peak. However, after they’d been riding for an hour or so in the bitterly cold wind, Slim reined in and peered up at the huge Snow-capped mountains in the far distance.
“What’s up?” Jess asked coming to a standstill beside his pard, closely followed by Dec.
Slim narrowed his eyes and sniffed the air, “Snow on the way,” he said looking worried.
“So?” Jess returned.
“Oh, come on Jess, you’ve lived here long enough to know what that means. We might not even make it up that old Mountain, never mind get down again in one piece.”
“Aw stop frettin,’” Jess said rolling his eyes.
“I’m serious Jess…or have you forgotten we all nearly perished in the extreme weather we had last winter?” (See # 96 One Wyoming Winter Long, Long Ago)
“No, I ain’t forgotten, but we didn’t, did we. And have you forgotten how that no good bastard is sitting on all our hard-earned cash? He’s cleaned us out Slim. Hell, we probably won’t even be able to pay the feed bill next month! Never mind new boots for Mike…or food for the table even!”
“I know it,” Slim said, “but hell, what about Mike and Daisy if the weather gets really bad?”
“Young Cal’s lookin’ after the spread, not to mention Miss Kate…heck they’ll be fine. And if there are any problems you can be sure Mort will be there lookin’ out for Kate and the others. Hell, come on Slim we’re wastin’ time here,” he added crossly.
“The cave isn’t right up on the Peak Slim. You go half way up and then turn due west, there are two lakes and the hideaway overlooks the second lake,” Dec said.
“Sounds real purty,” Jess said sarcastically, before urging Traveller on to a brisk trot.
Sure enough, when they made camp at the base of the mountain late that afternoon the snow started floating down forming a delicate pattern on the dark earth.
Later Jess lay on his bedroll under the branches of a huge pine watching the flakes spiral and gently float down caught in the light from the camp fire.
“Reminds me of that last night I spent with Flora, up the Sherman Mountain.” he said turning sad eyes on Slim. (See # 19 Daisy’s Dilemma.)
Slim nodded, both men falling silent and looking bleakly out at the distant hills of home.
“An old girlfriend, was she?” Dec asked jovially, not picking up on the sudden deep emotion hanging in the air.
Jess just shook his head, “A real good friend. She went up the mountain to die,” he said softly, “Consumption.”
Dec gasped, “Gee I’m sorry … I uh…didn’t know.”
“How could you,” Slim said kindly.
After a pause Jess took a small bottle of Denver James’ best hooch from his saddle bag and after taking a pull passed it across to Dec.
The young man’s face lit up, “You sure?”
Jess merely nodded and then winking at Slim said, “Purely medicinal of course…helps keep the cold out.”
Dec couldn’t understand why Slim chuckled, but he took a good pull and then passed it on to him. Thinking to himself what a wealth of shared memories the two guys had, no wonder Jess was so protective of his buddy he mused.
The following morning there was still only a light dusting of snow, but the higher up the mountain they traveled the deeper it became and the going was slow and treacherous.
They were following an old Indian trail, and the rocky pathway skirted a deep drop to one side that was extremely perilous, as it had crumbled away in several places. Eventually they had to dismount and lead their horses for several miles before the terrain flattened out a little. Then on turning a bend they were able to make out the twin lakes twinkling in the noon day sun, far off in the distance.
“How long will it take us to get to the hideout from here?” Jess asked turning to Dec.
“About another three maybe four hours ride in this kinda terrain,” he replied. The snow was lying over a foot deep and much higher in areas where it had drifted. Jess felt frustrated, but knew it was sensible to take their time and not risk injuring their mounts.

“I don’t figure Pete is going anyplace,” Slim said, slapping his buddy on the back. “Come on, if we push on, we should make it to the lake before dark…might even have time to pull a fish or two out for supper huh?”
Jess’ face lit up, as Slim knew it would, “Well what are we waitin’ for?” he said grinning and pushing on through the rough undergrowth.
They were indeed able to fish for their supper before settling down for the night by the first of the lakes. The other wasn’t too far, but they decided to camp a distance away from the hideout not wanting to alert Pete to their presence.

They had enjoyed a good fish supper, but Slim had noticed Jess beginning to limp as the day progressed and knew he was suffering some pain from an old injury to his left thigh. It was a legacy from a shootout with an outlaw a few years earlier and tended to play up in very cold weather.
After supper he wasn’t surprised when Jess fished out his spare bandana and tied it around his left knee.
Dec noticed Slim raise a troubled eyebrow at his buddy and Jess sigh and shake his head slightly before getting up and going off to check on his horse.
“Is he alright?” Dec asked quietly.
“Huh… oh yeah, an old wound just troubling him some…a guy we were after for Bank robbery shot him in the thigh, said he’d give Jess something to remember him by. He was right,” he said bitterly. “Just kicks off when he gets really cold and then his knee kinda gives way. But he’ll be fine now that he’s strapped it up. Sooner we’re on the way back, the happier we’ll both be,” he added with a tired smile.
Dec nodded, not for the first time was he amazed and slightly jealous of the partners close friendship, where a glance and responding look could mean so much, with no words exchanged.
Then he had an overwhelming feeling of guilt at how he had betrayed the friendship Slim had shown him and felt the need to unburden himself.
When Jess returned and they had replenished their coffee cups Dec cleared his throat and said, “I need to say something… so I do… about how shabbily I treated you Slim; Miss Daisy too.”
“Save it,” Jess said taciturnly, “You’ve already apologized and it don’t change anything, you still betrayed my pard… and Daisy.”
“It’s OK Jess, let’s hear him out,” Slim said, knowing that Jess’ animosity was not just anger at the way Dec had acted, but also that he was in some pain as well, making him short tempered.
Jess looked down and said nothing and eventually Dec said, “Yes, you’ve a right to be angry Jess, of course you have. Damn it, you and Slim here are as devoted and close as brothers I can see that. But there are a couple of things you need to know. Firstly, Randy promised me that you and the boy would be unhurt. And he would only take enough cash to allow him and his brothers to start over again, and me to fulfill my dreams of acting in London.”
“Well damn it you could have got off yer butt and worked for it,” Jess growled.
“Jess, let him finish,” Slim interjected.
“Yes, I should have done, I realise that now,” Dec replied… “I’m too impetuous so I am. I know that.”
When Jess just rolled his eyes but remained silent Dec continued, “He told me you were really well to do, could afford the loss. Jaysus and I believed him! Said it was just like a play I’d done, Robin Hood…robbing the rich to help out the poor!”
The men were well aware of the British story of Robin Hood having read it to Mike and they exchanged an amused glance.
“I was a complete idiot, so I was, and said I’d act as their lookout, reporting back. And then everything changed,” he added softly.
“Go on,” Slim said with an encouraging smile.
“I realized what a nice guy you were Slim and Daisy the sweetest little woman you’d ever meet. And I saw what this business was doing to you,” and he swallowed looking genuinely emotional now.
This time it was Jess who prompted him, “Didn’t stop you though, did it?”
“No… no it didn’t … I wired Randy, said I wanted out. Next thing I knew he turned up at the ranch…well on Sherman land anyway.”
Slim looked shocked, “The hell he did…when?”
“Remember when we were mending fence over on the east pasture? You’d gone back for some more nails…and I was talking to a guy when you returned?”
“That’s right,” Slim said snapping his fingers, “and he rode off before I got to you. You said he was asking for directions to Laramie.”
“So, what did he really want?” Jess asked.
“He came to tell me that my old Uncle would meet an untimely death if I didn’t behave and do just as he said. He’s a lovely old guy. He lives in Cheyenne, took me in and helped me when I first came over. He also said that he would kill Daisy if I didn’t toe the line.”
He turned desperate eyes on Slim and said, “I just couldn’t do anything you must see that. I couldn’t take the risk.”
“Sure, that makes sense,” Slim said.
“There’s something else too,” Dec said looking deeply into Slim’ s eyes, “all those times we talked…You told me stuff…personal things because you trusted me? All those times I wasn’t acting…I really did feel like we were becoming friends you know. But my hands were tied I just couldn’t risk upsetting Randy…and the consequences.”
Slim smiled at him, “I reckon I can understand that and I can forgive you.”
Then he glanced at Jess who was still looking unconvinced.
His pard looked over to Dec and said, “Yeah…maybe,” and with that he turned in for the night.
Slim looked over to where Dec was looking downcast.
“He’ll come around, let’s get some shut eye…busy day tomorrow.”

Chapter 13
The following morning the men were up at first light and with Dec guiding them, they took the Indian trail up the steep mountain towards the second lake.
The air was crystal clear. Then as the sun came out, sparkling on the lake surface and snow below, they agreed it was breathtaking scenery.
Dec led them on past the lake and then took a winding, steep back trail so that they came out on a wide plateau just behind the cave hideaway, set way up in the cliff face above the lake.
As they reined in, they saw a small fenced paddock where Pete’s horse was taking his ease eating from a bale of hay, a water trough nearby.
“All the comforts of home,” Jess said grinning, and led Traveller over to the water.
Once the horses were settled, they made their way quietly up the final steep path to the cave.
The track was narrow and made even more perilous by the icy, compacted snow and steep drop to the lake below. Hugging the mountainside, they moved silently down to the cave entrance.
Then on a sign from Jess, Dec and Slim tore in with guns at the ready and confronted the sleepy form of Pete Stone dozing comfortably by his camp fire…a bottle of moonshine at his side.
He just stared agog at Jess who growled, “Throw yer gun over here Pete and don’t even think of tryin’ to make a run for it!”
Pete Stone sighed lustily, and said, “Even I ain’t that dang stupid Harper,” and he threw his Colt over and then raised his hands.
“Put ’em out Jess barked and then handcuffed him before turning to where Slim and Dec had been ransacking the cave for the rancher’s money.”
It was Dec who finally yelled in delight and pulled out a large metal box from the inky depths at the back of the cave.
Slim went across and the men levered it open to reveal not only a stash of cash, but also some jewellery and gold.
“I reckon we’ve hit the jackpot,” Slim said grinning over to his pard, “quite a little haul here.”
Pete scowled at Slim and then noticing Dec for the first time he lurched towards him cussing and said, “You double-crossing no good Irish scum!”
Jess who was losing patience and whose leg was beginning to really bother him now yanked Pete away from Dec and backhanded him hard across the face saying, “Shut yer filthy mouth, Stone!”
Pete said nothing but merely glared at Jess, and back at Dec, before slumping back down by the fire.
Slim put all the stolen goods in a saddle bag and then the men left the cave, Jess leading the way followed by Pete, then Slim who had his rifle trained on the outlaw, with Dec bringing up the rear and carrying the saddlebags. They made their way along the icy narrow path, back towards where their horses were waiting.
Pete was still reeling from the smack across the face and was glaring at Jess’ back, immediately in front of him…Then he noticed the bandana tied around his knee and he smiled an evil smile. So, the tough guy wasn’t quite as tough as he seemed huh…
He waited until they reached an exceptionally dangerous part of the narrow pathway high above the lake before kicking Jess hard in the back of his weakened knee.
The blow was so unexpected that he lost his balance, teetered on the edge of the path for a moment desperately flapping his arms before he tipped over and hurtled down...down to the icy lake below…There was a tremendous splash as he hit the water and then he disappeared from view.
Jess had plummeted down and into the water at such a pace he hardly knew what was happening. Then the freezing water hit him and took his breath clean away before he sank deep into the icy depths; his thick sheepskin jacket dragging him down.
The men stared in horror, even Pete was somewhat overwhelmed by what he had just done. Sure, he had meant to bring Harper to his knees, give him a nasty shock…but not that.
Slim stared down at the ripples emanating from where Jess had entered the water and was about to dive in after him, when he felt a firm hand restrain him. Dec had grabbed his shoulder and said, “No Slim, that’s not the way, you’ll perish too, begorrah!” he lamented.
They peered down at the clear, icy blue water and then just moments later the surface was broken and Jess appeared gasping for air and then desperately swimming for the shoreline.
“Jeez, come on!” Slim yelled, “Let’s get down there…” and the men carefully inched along the icy pathway before tearing off to where their horses were in the paddock.
Before they set off Slim turned to Pete and said, “You try and escape I’ll have no second thoughts about back shooting you! You got that?”
“Loud and clear,” a very subdued Pete responded.
By the time they’d made their way down to the lake edge there was no sign of Jess at all.
Slim ’s stomach lurched in fear as he scanned the blue vastness of the lake for any sign of his pard…but all was serene.
Then finally Dec yelled, “Look, over there Slim!”
A good few yards along the lakeside there was what looked like a pile of old clothes. But Slim recognized Jess’ jacket and tore down the shore line towards him…followed by Pete and Dec.
He knelt beside his buddy and gently turned him over on his back and then gasped in dismay. Jess’ face was as white as the driven snow with a terrible blue tinge around his lips and he was clearly not breathing.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Declan cried, “tell me he’s not dead!”
Slim glanced up bleakly for a second but said nothing, merely started hurriedly unbuttoning Jess’ jacket.
Then after a moment he looked up again and said, “Quick, we’ve gotta get him stripped off...get his boots off Dec. Then go back to the horses and get our saddlebags and bedrolls.”
When Dec returned Jess was completely stripped of his clothes and Slim commenced rubbing his limbs with a rough woolen blanket. After a few minutes the colour began to return to his face, he took a deep rasping breath, his eyes flickered open and he started to thrash around coughing violently.
“That’s it, Jess, bring it up,” Slim said sighing with relief. He pulled Jess on his side and continued rubbing his back as the cowboy coughed and retched.
After a few more minutes he began shaking violently and stuttered, “Cc ... cold...”
Helped by Dec, Slim immediately covered Jess in warm blankets from their bedrolls and he slowly began to look around him, the heaving and coughing replaced by violent shaking.
All this time Pete had been standing watching the drama unfold ...dreading the outcome if Harper had indeed died at his hands. Sure, he wanted to bring the hothead to his knees to teach him a lesson...but murder wasn’t in his plan. Hell, he had just reacted to that slap without thinking, needing swift retribution.
Now as he saw all Slim and Dec’s attention were on Jess, he inched his way forwards to where Slim had propped up his rifle against a nearby boulder.
He stared at the little tableau before him... Slim pulling the blanket more securely around his buddy and talking to him quietly, nobody paying him any heed. Slowly...slowly he crept forwards and then once he’d reached the gun, he grabbed it and backed off. The cuffs had a long chain and he wasn’t impeded at all as he took aim.
Then everything seemed to happen at once. Something made Dec glance up and seeing the prisoner with the rifle aimed at Slim he yelled a warning.
Slim looked up and in a split second dived and rolled away from trouble as a bullet skimmed past his ear and slammed into a tree just behind him.
Then Dec was galvanized into action on seeing Jess’ hunting knife that had fallen out his boot when they were removed earlier. He grabbed it and hurled it at Pete.... The knife flew as straight and seemingly as fast as a bullet and smashed into in the centre of Pete’s chest with a sickening thud.
His eyes opened wide in shocked disbelief before he crashed forwards...dead before he hit the ground.
All three men stared in disbelief, before Slim turned to Dec and gasped, “Where the heck did you learn to do that?”
When he didn’t reply Slim looked more closely at the Irishman and was surprised to see him looking deathly pale and shaking almost as much as Jess.
Dec swallowed hard and said, “I never killed a man before and crossed himself saying softly, “God forgive me.”
Slim looked down and then leaning over patted Dec gently on the shoulder, “I guess this is kind of hard for you, but you saved our lives Dec, if you hadn’t done that, I reckon he’d have killed us all.”
Jess struggled up onto an elbow, “He’s right Dec. Thanks,” he said quietly, “You saved our bacon that’s for sure.”
Although Jess protested that he was just fine and they ride on, it was patently obvious that he was not. He was still quite pale and shaking with cold. And one look at Dec, who was clearly in shock, made Slim insist they make camp in a sheltered spot adjacent to the lake, for a few hours at least.
He and Declan built a huge warming fire from the wealth of dry branches scattered beneath the many large Scot’s pines and then settled down to rest for a while.
The day wore on with Jess mostly sleeping...the shivering finally decreasing as he warmed up.
By the time the sun was sinking in the west casting blood red streaks across the lake, he finally awoke, peering around him.
“Jeez Slim why didn’t ya wake me?” he said sitting up, before gasping and falling back down again, as a wave of dizziness overwhelmed him.
“Because you really weren’t up to traveling,” Slim said dryly, “and still aren’t by the looks of you.”
“Aw I’m fine,” Jess said, “just got a tad wet an’ cold ‘tis all. And kinda dizzy, all that water in my ears, I figure,” he said with a weak grin.
“Jess, you damn well nearly drowned and by the looks of you you’ve got a really bad chill coming on as well,” Slim said noting the slick of sweat on Jess’ brow and his now flushed countenance.
“So, where’s the hero of the hour?” Jess asked changing the subject.
“I suggested he go and see if he could pull some fish out of the lake for supper...thought it might help take his mind off of things some.”
“Yeah, he took killing Pete Stone kind of badly...never killed anyone before he said.”
“Well, he’s an actor…had no call to I guess,” Jess replied easily.
“Um well he’s pretty cut up about it. I think we need to talk to him later,” Slim said eyeing the corpse of Pete Stone, now discreetly wrapped in his bedroll and laid over near the horses.
Jess followed his gaze and said, “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”
Supper was over with both Jess and Dec merely pushing their food about and hardly eating anything.
Slim was concerned for Jess...loss of his usually hearty appetite always a sign he was feeling pretty sick.
But right now, he needed to deal with Dec’s distress.
The Irishman had frequently glanced across to the blanket and its macabre contents over by the horses. Now as they sipped their coffee he said, “Jaysus can we not be burying the poor sod?”
Slim shook his head, “I’m sorry Dec but the ground is frozen solid, and no way could we dig a grave.”
Jess decided to try and lighten the atmosphere.
“So how the heck did ya learn to throw a knife that way,” he asked.
Dec gave him a faint smile, “Well I’ll be telling you... see it was this way. When I landed here, I couldn’t find work as an actor...so I joined a circus so I did!”
“Never,” Slim said grinning at him, “so what did you do?”
“Anything and nothing, mostly animal care and odd jobs, do you see. But then the Great Marcello took pity on me and decided to teach me the knife throwing.”
“That was kind of him,” Jess said dryly.
“Well, yes and no. You see the Great Marcello had a liking for the whiskey, so he trained me up so that I could cover for him if he was uh...unwell...or blathered as we say back on the Emerald Isle.”
“So, what did you have to do?” Slim asked looking fascinated.
“Oh, just throw a dozen or so razor-sharp knives around his wife’s body,” Dec said casually
Jess and Slim were immediately transported back to that time when the Oriental Troupe had arrived at the ranch bringing a very young and frightened Mike with them, after finding him unconscious at the roadside. Then they remembered how they had put on a show for him at the ranch including a knife throwing act.
“Takes some guts to do that sorta thing,” Jess said the light of respect in his deep blue eyes.
Dec shrugged, “You get used to it after a while...I quite enjoyed it.”
“So, why’d you quit?” Jess asked.
“Mrs Marcello decided she preferred me to her drunken husband, so I decided I should move on,” he said with a cheeky grin.
“Wise move,” Jess said thinking maybe he and Dec had more in common than he’d first imagined.
“And kind of different to the tale you spun about being an orphan and entering the priesthood after your schooling,” Slim said with a twinkle in his eyes.
The men sat quietly watching the moon rise above the tranquil lake for a while and then Slim turned to Dec and said, “What you did today...you really did save our lives you know Dec, and you shouldn’t be brooding about it.”
“Should I not?” he asked bitterly. “But to be sure I broke one of The Commandments; Thou shalt not kill...did I not!”
Well, there was no arguing with that Slim figured, what could he say?
“You and me both,” Jess said softly. “I never killed in cold blood. I’ve only ever killed a man before he killed me, but does that make it right? Maybe not...but at least I’m still here and I figure I’ll hafta deal with that on Judgement Day. Until then I ain’t frettin’ about it, life’s too dang short.”
Dec had to smile at that, and yes somehow it made sense...at least they were all still alive... and maybe he could go on to atone for his sin in some way in the future.
Then he remembered an old Irish Blessing his grandpa had taught him.
“Maybe you’re right Jess. Bless you for that,” and then he added, “May you be in Heaven an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.”
Jess raised his coffee cup, which had been livened with a good splash of moonshine and said, “Cheers!”
“Slainte!” Dec replied, smiling properly for the first time that evening.
Slim replenished their cups and shortly afterwards Dec retired for the night leaving Jess and Slim laying back against their saddles with another drink and enjoying the peace at the lakeside.
After a while Jess said, “Hey what’s the date Hardrock?”
Slim pondered a while and then gasped, “By jimmy it’s the first of the month...it’s New Year’s Day Jess!”
“The hell it is, Jeez Slim we’ve missed the New Year’s Eve party at the saloon, and the dance, not to mention Miss Daisy’s special meal today!”
“I sure hope Kate and Mort enjoyed our share,” Slim said sadly.
“Think they’ll be any leftovers?” Jess asked hopefully.
Slim shook his head, “I shouldn’t think so, not with Mike and Cal around.”
“No,” Jess agreed, looking miserably out to the lake.
“Our girls will have missed us,” he added after a while.
“Well, I sure hope so,” Slim said, “but I imagine there would be plenty of guys ready to take our place at the dance after the party.”
“You think so?” Jess asked now looking deeply anxious.
Slim looked over at his pard and then his face lit up with a huge grin, “Nah, ‘course not...just winding you up Hotshot.”
Jess still looked a tad worried, “Sooner we get home, happier I’ll be,” he muttered before throwing back the rest of his drink and refilling his and Slim’ s cup with a tad less coffee and a tad more moonshine.
When Slim raised an eyebrow Jess said, “Well we’re celebratin’ the New Year ain’t we?”

Chapter 14
Maybe their over indulgence accounted for the fact that they didn’t hear the nighttime intruders.
The following morning Dec was the first to awake. He glanced over to where the gruesome corpse of Pete Stone had been the night before. Then he rubbed his eyes and looked again. It was gone!
He pushed his blanket aside and jumping up went to investigate. Not only had Pete disappeared, but his mount had gone too.
He stood for a moment literally shaking with fear before bellowing for Slim and Jess to wake up and come over.
Slim was the first to raise his head and then quickly lower it again as a killer headache struck. He cussed softly and then tried again...this time staggering up from his bedroll and giving Jess a gentle nudge with his foot.
“Wake up pard,” he urged the still recumbent Jess.
He finally sat up nursing his head in his hands and muttered, “What’s all the goddamn racket about?”
By now Dec had run back into the camp and merely stood there pointing to where the remaining horses were still tethered.
“Gone,” he finally managed. “By Jaysus he’s come back to life and ridden off!”
Jess squinted up at him, “Huh...who...what are you sayin’?”
“It’s Pete Stone...he’s come back to life I tell you and made off!” Dec screamed hysterically.
Jess and Slim looked over to where Pete’s corpse had lain the night before and indeed it was gone.
Both men jumped up as one, hangovers forgotten and they hurried across the camp.
Jess thought at first maybe a bear had taken the body...but no. There was no sign of blood or tracks so that ruled a wolf or bear taking him.
“Anyway, that would have made the horses kick off something fierce,” Jess said.
“We’d probably have slept through it,” Slim said dismally, “amount of red eye we put away last night.”
Jess looked woeful, knowing that under normal circumstances he would have awoken at the first sound of any intruders...Slim too.
“You didn’t hear anything?” Jess asked turning back to a now pale Dec.
“Nope I sleep really deeply...and anyway I believe ghosts don’t make too much noise, or whatever he is now,” he added shuddering. “You know a Thevshi maybe, living between this life and the next.”
“Oh yeah sure,” Jess said rolling his eyes, and dismissing what he called Dec’s Irish mumbo jumbo.
“A headless coach driver sometimes comes to claim the dead,” Dec continued, “driving a team of headless horses.”
Jess spluttered with mirth at that and Slim grabbed Dec’s arm and said, “Come on get a grip buddy...there has to be a rational explanation.”
Meanwhile Jess was looking around him. Any footprints in the snow had been brushed away with a branch. The area all around clear of any tracks and it did indeed look like the corpse had disappeared into thin air.
Slim walked over to him and looking up and down the narrow Indian trail said, “Are you thinking what I am Jess?”
The dark-haired cowboy nodded, “Yup I reckon this was the work of Lenny and Bill Davies.”
Dec had wandered over to join them and now said, “Who the heck are they?”
“They’re the lowest of the low,” Jess spat, angrily. “A pair of crazy kids who think they’re Bounty hunters. Some days anyway...” he added shaking his head.
“They’re two brothers live near Laramie...always in trouble, mostly petty crime… but they’ve excelled themselves this time though,” Slim continued. “We figure they got a head start on the other vultures hunting Pete down for the money on his head. They must have heard we’d gone after him and decided to trail us. Probably planned to move in and kill him themselves, for the bounty, if the opportunity arose.”
“Yeah, and us tipping the jug was just the opportunity they needed,” Jess said bitterly, “I guess a dang marching band wouldn’t have woken us last night.”
Then he added, “Well what are we dang well waitin’ for lets git after them!”
Dec recovered quickly from his shock and the men broke camp, mounted up and followed the trail back towards Laramie.
After riding for a few hours, they came across the place where the brothers must have stopped for the night, the fire ashes still warm.
Dec scratched his head, “They must know we’ll be following them why’d they stop here?”
Jess chuckled, “Well ya see the thing is Dec, Lenny and Bill ain’t any too bright and not too good at bounty huntin’ either I reckon.”
“Or stage robbing... or sod-busting... or pretty much anything,” Slim added cheerfully.
“Yup I figure they were last in line when the Good Lord were handin’ out the brains,” Jess chuckled.
Slim joined in, “I figure the smart move would have been to take the body to some small town where they aren’t known. I reckon Mort will see through them really easy.”
“Yeah, I reckon,” Jess said, “but come on...let’s git goin’ just to be on the safe side.”
Luckily for them, Mort had been out of town on business and had only just sat down to interview the would-be bounty hunters...as the other men rode in.
They trotted briskly into town, having made good time and tethered their mounts outside Mort’s office alongside those of Lenny and Bill. Pete Stone’s mount still carrying his blanketed corpse was there too they noted.
“Here’s yer Thevshi,” Jess said nodding to Pete’s body as they passed, “I guess that headless coach driver must have missed him.”
Declan looked somewhat abashed, but merely said, “‘Tis Irish folk lore. Many believe in it you know.”
“Sure,” Slim said kindly, “but not in this case maybe,” he said, slapping Dec on the back...who responded with a weak grin.
As Jess barged into the office the scrawny figures of Lenny and Bill leapt to their feet… flushing with embarrassment.
“Afternoon Mort, howdy boys,” Slim said cheerfully, “good of you to deliver our prisoner for us, but I figure we can manage OK now.”
The elder, Lenny, swallowed hard and said, “He ain’t your prisoner Mr Slim, he be ours. We shot ‘im fair and square, didn’t we Bill?”
Bill looked shifty and finally whispered, “Yup brother that was the way it were. Shot with yer rifle, point blank range. Prisoner was escaping see,” he added, “Lenny had no choice but to shoot.”
“So uh, when did this shooting take place and where?” Mort asked from where he was sitting back in his chair, hat at a jaunty angle and the light of amusement in his eyes.
“Why was just about an hour, or so ago,” Lenny said. “We caught up with him on the trail, heading towards town. We figured he was after supplies.”
“Well coming into town would be a real smart thing for a guy to do, who is wanted in three States,” Slim said dryly.
“Shot this morning,” Mort repeated, “you sure about that?”
“Why sure Sheriff,” Lenny said, his pale blue eyes widening, “I said so didn’t I?”
“So, what would account for the body being frozen solid?” Jess asked.
Lenny just shrugged and glanced over to his brother who flushed up and said nothing.
“OK, I’ve had enough of this charade,” Mort said, getting up and looking out the window to where Pete’s body remained. “Bring the body in and put it in the cells,” he said firmly turning to the Davies brothers.
Then turning to Lon his deputy, said, “Fetch the doc to check the body over will you.”
Sometime later Doc Sam stood up and stretched from where he’d been leaning down and examining Pete’s body. He came back into Mort’s office...all eyes upon him.
“I can confirm that the deceased met his end well over a day ago, possibly two days.”
“Thank you, and the cause of death?” Mort asked.
“A deep, penetrating knife wound to the centre of the chest, piercing the heart and causing instantaneous death, the weapon most likely a hunting knife.”
Lenny and Bill were already inching their way towards the door.
“Hold it right there!” Mort bellowed.
“Uh sorry Sheriff, Mr Slim, Mr Jess. It was just a bit of fun...we didn’t mean no harm,” Lenny said.
“Didn’t mean any harm!” Jess bellowed angrily, his hangover suddenly returning with a vengeance.
“OK Jess leave this to me,” Mort said quietly.
“Right, you two, I’m arresting you for conspiracy to obtain money under false pretenses and I have to tell you, you are liable for a jail sentence of up to five years. Take them to the cells Lon,” he added.
Lon hauled them off, with them protesting their innocence and saying it had all been a prank that went wrong.
After they’d gone Slim turned to a grinning Mort and said, “That’s a bit harsh isn’t it, Mort?”
“No, it ain’t,” Jess interrupted, “it’s what they dang well deserve. How are they gonna learn otherwise huh?”
“Good point,” Mort said sagely, “a few weeks in there should straighten ‘em out. They’re not real bad kids...but like Jess says, they need to wake up and start flying straight before they get into real deep trouble.”
Then smiling benignly said, “Right gentlemen shall we start again? Maybe you’d like to enlighten me as to what really happened?”
Sometime later Mort grinned at Dec and said, “Well it looks like you’ve kinda redeemed yourself young man...in my eyes anyways. It seems your swift action saved the day.”
Jess nodded, “It sure did, saved Slim’ s life I reckon,” and he slapped Dec on the back.
“So, I take it you’ll be finding it in your heart to drop the charges of collusion with the Stone brothers in your abduction then, Jess?”
“Well, I figure Dec’s learnt his lesson and I don’t expect he’ll be thinkin’ of crossing the line again, will ya?” he asked smiling at the Irish man.
“By all the Saint’s, no I will not,” Dec said emphatically, “I’ll save all my acting for the stage, so I will!”
“That’s good to hear,” Mort said grinning at him. “So, I’ll just take a signed statement about all you know regarding Randy Stone’s involvement in the kidnapping for his trial. Then you’re free to go and no need to attend, you can get back to your acting,” he added with another smile.
“Be in about three weeks time,” he added to Slim and Jess.
They left the office, but Mort called Jess back, saying, “I think you forgot something?”
He emerged from the office a few minutes later and Slim raised an eyebrow. “OK?” he asked.
Jess just patted his vest pocket and said, “Yup, tell ya later,” and with that they headed for the saloon.
The following day Dec rode back to the ranch with Jess and Slim as he wanted to apologize personally to Daisy and Mike.
As they rode down the rise into the yard Slim said, “Uh, I think maybe you should make yourself scarce for a little while Dec. We need to break the news to Cal of Pete’s death first of all.”
“Sure, sure,” Dec said quickly, “I’ll feed and water the mounts over in the barn, so I will.”
The men were slightly surprised when nobody rushed out to meet them. However all was made clear when they entered the ranch house to find Daisy, Kate and Mike busily baking in the kitchen. But as the front door opened Mike tore into the parlour and dashed over to the cowboys. He was then unceremoniously hurled aloft by Jess who hugged him and then threw him carelessly over to Slim.
“Gee Jess, Slim, you’ve been gone a long time,” the child reprimanded them once he was back on terra firma. “Where have you been?”
But before they could reply they were enveloped in Daisy’s warm hugs and Kate was laughing and smiling at them.
“You remember young ‘un,” she said, turning to Mike, “Uncle Mort said as how that Pete Stone had escaped and Jess and Slim were gonna hunt him down.”
Then turning to Jess said, “So did ya?”
“Sure did,” Jess said happily, “and what’s more, got all our money back too, thanks to Dec helping us out.”
“Declan...you mean Fr Damian, so you found him?” Daisy said looking delighted, “Is he here?”
“Yes, he is,” Jess said beaming at her, “and remember Daisy it ain’t Father Damian...he’s an actor by the name of Declan O ’Hare now.”
“Yeah, or Dev West,” Slim chuckled, “well that’s his stage name anyways.”
“What, Dev West? I’ve heard of him,” Daisy said clasping her hands together in excitement. “Why he’s an up-and-coming star I believe. But it can’t be our man? Doesn’t Dev West have very red hair?” Daisy asked, turning to Kate, who nodded in agreement.
“Well, he has now. He just dyed it for the part of Fr Damian,” Slim chuckled. “I figure he’s so darned ambitious that he just couldn’t wait to make enough money on the stage to get back to the old country where his heart lies. That’s why he was tempted off the straight and narrow. He sure is a good actor though,” he added dryly, “certainly had us fooled. Robbed us too if you remember Daisy. But I believe he’s really sorry and we’ve got everything back, so I figure we can forgive him?”
“My pearls are safe and sound?” she asked hopefully.
“Yup, sure thing,” Jess said, “and he wants to apologize and explain.”
“Well, where is he, bring him in,” Daisy said peering out the window. “Of course, I can forgive the dear boy. I was sure he’d have a good reason for what he did.”
“Uh, something we’ve got to do first,” Jess said looking a tad anxious.
Then turning to Mike, he said, “He’s out in the barn, go out and give him a hand with the horses will ya Tiger, and come on in when you’re through.”
Once he’d gone Slim briefly explained how Pete had turned a gun on them and how Dec had saved their lives by knifing the outlaw.
“I figure we need to see Cal and explain that Pete’s dead before we do anything else,” Jess said.
“He’s out in the home pasture chopping some logs from that tree that fell down in the storm last year,” Daisy said.
“I’ll go break the news,” Jess said quietly, “then you go fetch Dec in Slim and hopefully this can be an end to this sorry business once and for all huh?”
Jess sat down on the large tree trunk and broke the news to Cal as gently as he could.
Although the youngster was deeply shocked, he didn’t blame Dec or the others for his older brother’s untimely death once he heard the circumstances surrounding the demise.
“Ma always said that they’d come to a sticky end and it seems she was right,” he said, turning saddened eyes on Jess. “After Pa was killed in that Indian raid, they just seemed to go wild and Ma couldn’t control them.”
“I know boy...and I had a lot of respect for your old Ma,” Jess said quietly. “That’s why we gave you and your brothers the job on the cattle drive. We thought earning good money for a hard day’s work would set ‘em straight...but it weren’t to be.”
When Cal just hung his head looking despairingly at the ground Jess said, “But it ain’t too late to turn your life around and make yer old Ma proud.”
“You think she knows... is kinda looking down from Heaven?” he asked.
“Sure, of it,” Jess said, reaching over and patting the boy’s shoulder, “Yer what, sixteen?”
“Just turned seventeen,” the boy nodded.
“Well then you’ve got the whole of yer life before you...that’s plenty of time to get it right, ain’t it.”
The boy nodded and then smiled for the first time.
“Miss Kate says I can go live up the mountain with her and her cousin and his boys. I think I’d like that. Cody’s got a bunch of mustangs he needs my help with,” he added proudly.
“That’s just swell,” Jess grinned, “I reckon we’ll make a horse wrangler of you yet!”
Later Dec was introduced to Cal and was able to explain how very sorry he was for the way things had ended. Again, young Cal was philosophical and forgiving and that deeply moved Dec. A few minutes later he made an excuse that he needed some fresh air and hurried out to the porch.
Slim and Jess exchanged a worried glance and then Jess said, “I’ll go...”
He found Dec sitting on one of the porch chairs, looking out to the distant mountains, tears in his eyes.
He sniffed and swallowed hard as Jess took the other seat and said, “That young lad is brave, so he is, puts me to shame and not a pinch of malice in him, even after what I did.”
“He’s a good kid,” Jess replied, “and I figure he’ll turn out OK. And just for the record Dec he was under no allusions as to what his brothers were. He knew you did what you had to do, to keep us all alive. It’s just the way it is out here. Sometimes killin’ is the only way to survive.”
“I know,” he said bleakly, “it’s just that... well it’s never been me doing the killing before, do you see that, Jess?”
“Sure I do...but you’ll just have to put it behind you buddy. Carry on with that acting career of yours like Mort said. Daisy tells me you’re gettin’ real famous,” he added with a grin.
Dec ignored the compliment but merely said, “Oh I intend to, in fact I’m catching the noon stage back to Denver, to take over from my understudy. Then I’ll look around for another job. I’ll get my fare money sooner or later. But I’m going Jess...whatever it takes, I need to get home.”
“Sure, sure,” Jess said, “but not today huh. Mike just told me Daisy is planning a surprise New Year’s supper tonight... seeing as how we missed out on it this year.”
Dec just gave him a weak smile, “That’s real kind of her...but no Jess. I just couldn’t sit at your table knowing what I did to hurt you all...and young Cal too,” he added again looking emotional.
“Hey, it’s OK,” Jess said quickly. “Daisy and Slim have forgiven you for pulling the wool over their eyes that way...and as for me and Mike...well I figure you redeemed yerself out on the trail when you saved me and Slim...so just forget it huh.”
“Can’t,” Dec said bleakly, “I can’t forget it....and you may be forgiving, but I really can’t forgive myself.”
Jess looked nonplussed and shrugging said, “OK iffen that’s the way you feel...but I figure time will help...and yeah maybe you need to git yerself home too,” he added.
Then reaching into his vest pocket he pulled out the bulky envelope Mort had given him.
“Here,” he said, “I figure that will help you out some huh?”
Dec took the envelope and opened it staring in shock to see it was bursting full of twenty-dollar notes.
He stared at it in shock for a good minute before looking back at Jess.
“By Jaysus, what’s this...there is a small fortune here!”
“The Bounty on Pete Stone’s head,” Jess said succinctly. “It’s all yours earned fair and square.”
“But... but I can’t accept this,” Dec said shuddering, “why ‘tis blood money.” Jess nodded, “Yup, that’s one way of looking at it. But like I said you earned it and Mort won’t take it back.”
“Well... I don’t know...give it to Cal then...from me...a gift.”
Jess shook his head and then said with a gleam in his eye, “Now how would you think the boy would feel iffen you walked away with nothing after savin’ me and Slim’ s bacon huh?”
When Dec said nothing, Jess continued, “So how’s about we split it down the middle, half for you and half for young Cal? That’s enough to help set him up in business when he decides what he’s doin’ with his life. And the rest should be more than enough for yer fare home and to keep you going for a good few months until you hit it big time over there in the Old Country... deal?” he asked offering a hand.
“Deal,” Dec said grinning back at him, “And may All the Saints bless and keep you, and may you be blessed with many sons!”
“Hey take it easy,” Jess said looking slightly nervous, “just thanks will do.”
Then Slim came out to chat with Dec, and Jess went off to check on how Daisy was doing with the meal, leaving Dec and his Pard in deep conversation.

The ranchers were just turning back into the house after waving Declan off on the stage, when a lone rider came down the rise apace.
Mort swept into the yard and slipped down from his buckskin, “Was that the Irish guy on the stage I just passed?” he asked.
Slim nodded, “We gave him half the Bounty money and he’s headed back to Denver to complete his work there. Then he’s off to London to try his hand at Shakespeare.”
“Whoever he is,” Jess interjected.
Mort and Slim exchanged an amused glance before Mort said, “So are you boys keeping the other half?”
“No,” Slim said, “we’re going to let Cal have it, set him up when he’s a little older. He doesn’t know it yet though,” he added.
Mort grinned at that, “Well with that backing from you boys and my Kate keeping him on the straight and narrow I figure the kid can’t go wrong. Let’s go tell him the good news,” he said grinning happily.
As it happened Cal felt he really didn’t deserve the money, until Mort convinced him that it was what his Ma and Pa would want for him.
“You just fly straight, work hard for Miss Kate and Denver and make yer folks in Heaven proud boy,” he said quietly.
“I will sir,” the youngster said, now persuaded, tears in his eyes. Then he shook his hand and that of Slim and Jess and said, “I don’t think I can ever thank you enough.”
“Well, I think you’ve done a grand job dear,” Daisy said from the kitchen door. “Now you boys go and wash up, your New Year’s Day dinner is ready!”
Young Cal Stone would indeed have made his parents proud as he did Mort and Kate. He settled into mountain life well, hitting it off straight away with Denver’s boys, Cody and Mick. He had a wonderful way with horses, and astonishing results using the horse whispering technique Jess taught him.
After a couple of years Kate could see he needed to fly the nest and she introduced him to the Laramie Blacksmith, a big cheery man, with a big heart too. He took to young Cal at once and agreed to take him on as his apprentice. Just five years later Cal was able to use the Bounty Money to buy a partnership in the thriving business. He was popular with all the clients and the horses were always well behaved for him, knowing instinctively that they were in safe hands. Then ten years later when the old Blacksmith finally retired, he left his half of the business to Cal. He was now a happily married man with two strong sons destined to enter the family business. But all his life he never forgot the forgiveness he received from Slim and Jess, the fresh start with Kate and Denver and the added bonus of the nest egg from the Irish actor.
It was several months before Slim and Jess heard any news of Declan O ’Hare...or Father Damian as Daisy always thought of him.
A letter had arrived earlier that day and Jess and Slim read it while they were sitting out on the porch. It was the first warm day of spring and they had a whiskey apiece relaxing after a long day moving the herd up to the higher ground.
“Seems he’s a real hit over in London England playing the lead in Romeo and Juliet,” Slim said as he read through the letter again.
“It’s a love story Jess, about the struggles of a passionate love affair that wasn’t allowed...ends kind of badly,” he added vaguely.
“So, Dec is this Romeo guy and gets to kiss the gal on stage every night?” Jess mused.
“I guess so.”
“Jeez talk about an easy life,” he lamented.
“Well, I reckon there’s a bit more to it that all that Jess, after all he has to remember all his lines and stuff...and they die in the end too.”
Jess was silent for a little, sipping his whiskey and looking out to the distant snow-covered mountains.
“It was real bad that time when me and Mike were abducted,” he said finally, turning to look at Slim.
“The worst I can ever remember,” Slim said honestly. “If anything had happened to you or Mike...well...” and he was silent, looking out to the mountains too.
Then very quietly he said, “A friendship like ours doesn’t come along every day.” Then he grinned and said, “You may be a pig-headed son of a gun more often than not, but I sure wouldn’t want to be without you.”
Jess grinned back, “Well thanks...I think,” he said narrowing his eyes and scrutinizing his pard.
“Told you before,” Slim said, now grinning, “the old place wouldn’t be the same without you.”
That satisfied Jess and he topped up their glasses from the bottle on the porch floor beside him.
“What else does he say in the letter?”
“Huh...oh, just that he’s having a wonderful time... and thanks you again for persuading him to take that bounty money.”
Jess nodded, remembering their conversation on the porch the day Dec had left.
“We talked that day after you went inside,” Slim said, “he told me how you persuaded him to take the money...says he’ll never forget it.”
“He’s a good man,” Jess said, “just got kinda sidetracked off of the straight and narrow. It can happen to the best of us,” he added with a cheeky grin.
Then sobering and looking deeply into Slim ’s eyes said, “I figure we all need a helpin’ hand sometimes. I got one and figured I’d pass it on to Dec.”
Then smiling again, he said, “He sure was one for those Irish blessings eh... wished me many sons,” he said shaking his head, “but not for a while huh!”
Slim smiled and then said, “He said something real nice when we were sitting here before he left. He said I should pass it on to you and I clean forgot about it until now.”
“Oh, what was that?”
Slim looked up to the myriad of stars in the sky above them, trying to remember the exact words of the old Irish blessing.
“Yes, I remember now,” he said at last, “it goes something like this. May the road rise up to meet you May the wind be always at your back May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”
There was complete silence for a minute as the men thought about the beauty of the words and then Jess grinned at his pard, “That’s real purty Slim, I’ll drink to that, cheers!”
“Slainte,” Slim replied as they chinked glasses.
They sat on listening to the night time sounds around them and looking up to the moonlit mountains, counting their blessing of a true and enduring friendship.

The End

Thank you for reading this my 100th story.

Merry Christmas and May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.