All Roads Lead Home

by Mary

Chapter One

Jess Harper pushed his hat back from his head and swiped his sweating brow with his shirtsleeve. The afternoon sun of a Wyoming summer day beat down on him unmercifully.


Leaning his ax against the barn, he allowed himself a few moments of respite. He gazed about him taking in the simple grouping of barn and outbuildings. The small but comfortable ranch house with the gentle foothills standing guard beyond.


He, along with Slim and Andy, had been splitting and stacking wood a good part of the day while Jonesy had puttered about in his vegetable garden. Mose had come bowling in with the morning stage and the afternoon stage would be arriving soon. The gentle steady rhythms of life at the ranch and relay station hummed along with the ever-changing seasons. Who would have ever thought he, the rolling stone who had so fiercely vowed to gather no moss would grow to love it so.


It had been scarcely eighteen months since he’d first come loping down the front drive to the ranch. He had just stopped in hopes of finding answers to a few questions. He had found these answers and so much more. He had found a home. And in Slim he had found a great and enduring friendship. Together the two of them, along with Slim’s younger brother Andy and Slim’s father’s old friend, Jonesy, had formed an unlikely but devoted family.


Oh, it hadn’t been easy at first and even now restless spirits often clashed. In the early months, the siren call of the great open gnawed at him like a toothache. A week of sleeping in a real bunk would be enough to set him yearning for a bedroll under the stars. Then he’d watched, as his faithful horse grew sleek and fat with regular feedings. He himself had even managed to put a few well-placed pounds onto his lean young frame. He had courted a schoolteacher and a well-respected rancher’s daughter. He’d been deputized more than once by the local sheriff. He’d even been to church a time or two. He knew he was in serious danger of getting metaphorically broke to saddle. Oddly, this thought didn’t trouble him anywhere near as much as it would have a year or so earlier.


Still, his past kept pulling at him, nipping at his heels, tempting him – taunting him. Nowadays he was pretty much able to ignore these voices. However, he had one tender, vulnerable spot in his inner workings. And when the voices spoke to that spot, he was powerless to resist.


This weakness - and he had to consider it just that - he figured came straight from his mother. Sometimes he found it hard to recall exactly what she looked like. She had died when he was very young.


Sarah Hart had been a tiny slender slip of a woman with hair the color of corn silk and a backbone of steel.


Local legend had it that she was the prettiest girl the town of El Paso had ever seen. All the young men – and older ones as well – had set their sights on her but she had eyes only for a handsome young dark haired drifter by the name of Johnny Harper. He was fresh out of the east, a wild quick-tempered fellow looking to make his fortune on the great American frontier.


They courted and married in a whirlwind. They then traveled from ranch to ranch throughout the vast Texas panhandle, his father working shares until his temper would get the best of him and then they would move on. All the while his mother bore a child every year. Life was tough and hard but she never lost her beauty, her kind sense of humor or her spirit. By the time Jess was born, the youngest of her five children, she was exhausted but unbowed. This strong, proud woman who had so little in terms of material possessions, gave her treasured last child two special gifts. Her striking blue eyes and her pure unwavering sense of righteousness and loyalty. The first gift had enabled Jess to charm himself out of many a tight situation. The second gift was his Achilles heel.


During his first year at the Sherman Ranch, Jess often yielded to the pull of friends and family in trouble – real or perceived. Every time, Slim had either wished him well and patiently waited for his return or when warranted, come to his rescue and brought him home with never so much as an “I told you so”. And upon occasion, Jess did the same for Slim. Such was the depth of their friendship.



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Chapter 2