"Where is she?"
"I donít know."
"Sure you do!"
He shook his head once before the fist slammed into his face. He had been hit so many times that his eyes were swollen to slits. A strike to the ribs brought him to his knees. He was pulled up by his collar. He leaned heavily on his assailant. A moan escaped from his lips. "I swear I donít know..."
"Now Iím only going to ask you one more time." The voice sounded pleasant. "Where did she go?"
He knew that he should keep quiet. He had promised her that he would tell no one. He forced himself to block out what was happening and concentrate only on joining her in two weeks. He tried to imagine her face; but all he saw was his own blood. The harder he fought the urge to tell; the more the pain left him weak from protecting her. As he saw the gun butt raised to strike, he blurted out, "All right! Laramie. Sheís in Laramie." He no longer had any support. He fell to his knees. He was like a baby on all fours as he began crawling. If he could only get to his weapon. He started inching towards the gun but collapsed after moving only a few seconds.
"Iíd say if youíre lying, Iíll come back and kill you. But why make another trip?"
He raised his head and glanced over his shoulder. The gun was pointing right at him. "No!" he pleaded. He heard the gunshot just a split second before there was nothing.
His killer kicked him once to be sure there was no life. He then moved to his horse. "Well old friend, looks like weíre going to Laramie."
At first the laughter drowned out the riderís approach. The older man was the first to notice. His head tilted towards the sound heard outside the house. Jonesy was a cautious man and his brow crinkled with worry.
"Awful late for a visitor." Jonesy glanced at Slim Sherman. Slimís only reply was to strap on his gun belt.
"Andy, stay away..." Jonesy warned as the teen boy raced to the window.
Paying no mind, Andy pulled back the curtain and peered out at the darkness. "Itís Jess!"
Slimís face wrinkled with surprise. "Jess? I didnít expect him until tomorrow evening at the earliest."
Jess Harper felt bone tired as he dismounted from his horse. His clothes were covered with a sheet of dust. He had not shaved since yesterday and now stubble covered his face. As Jess used his hat to slap the dirt from this jacket, Andy ran out of the house and greeted the tired cowboy with a hug.
"Jess! Are we glad to see you!"
"Tired of doing my share of the work, huh?" Jess tried to focus on all the young boy was telling him; but he was so exhausted that he couldnít follow along. "Engaged?"
Andy grabbed Jessí saddles bags and started for the house.
His call came too late for Andy had already entered the house.
Slim met Jess on the porch. He offered his hand in friendship. The tall cowboy studied the weary ranch hand with careful scrutiny.
"You must have ridden half the night!"
"Figured I was needed at home. After all who does all the work around here?"
Slim could barely keep a look of surprise off his face. It was the first time this rancher could remember that Jess had called the ranch his home. "Everything go all right?"
Jess pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket and handed the money to Slim.
"Looks like you done good horse trading with Joe."
Jessí smile broadened. "No one does good horse trading with Joe. But I got close to what you wanted. And he promised to buy more just as soon as we had them broke. I figure we could start right away."
"Well at least come in and get some coffee first," Slim joked.
A slow smile spread across Jessí face. "I reckon morning will be soon enough to get started."
Slim rubbed the greenbacks between his thumb and finger. "This will get us through the spring. After I pay the mortgage payment, thereíll be enough left over to do some improvements around here."
"Improvements? Youíre getting as fussy as Jonesy."
"We could stand some changes around here."
Though the darkness veiled the surrounding buildings, Jess glanced over his shoulder at the barn, then the corral, then the outhouse. "The place looks fine to me."
"Well if you had some culture, it wouldnít. Look at the house. It could stand a coat of paint. And them curtains..."
"Curtains! Since when are you worried about curtains?"
"And the barn needs painting and..."
"All this improving just sounds like more work for me," Jess complained. "Maybe I should have stayed in Cheyenne."
Slim laughed. "Iím glad you didnít. Place isnít the same without you. Sure glad youíre home, Jess."
Slim started to enter the house but Jess stopped him by grabbing his arm. "Is it true? What Andy told me? Youíre engaged to be married?"
A grin burst out on Slimís face. "I sure am!"
"Well, now, no wonder you want to get the place fixed up."
"Itís fine for us. But for a woman..." Slim shook his head, looking worried.
Jess pushed back his hat with a flick of his finger. "So some filly finally hooked you. Whatíd she do? Twist your arm? Hold a gun to your head?"
"Just wait Ďtil you meet her," Slim bragged. "I couldnít get the words out fast enough."
"Well she must be something special to get you to say I do."
"She sure is, Jess. But judge for yourself. Sheís inside."
With brotherly affection, Jess slapped Slim on the shoulder. "Well letís go meet this gal."
Slim entered the house first, with Jess trailing closely behind.
The woman standing by the fireplace immediately drew Jessí attention. Even in a crowd, he would have noticed her.
"Jess, welcome home!" Jonesy held out his hand.
Jessí eyes slowly moved off the woman and focused on Jonesy. The two men shook hands warmly as Jess said, "Good to be home."
"Have you eaten?" Jonesy asked.
"Just some jerky."
"I got some beef stew left over from supper. And itís just the way you like it with dumplings. Just take me just a minute to warm it up for you."
"Jonesy, I know itís late, and the stove probably ainít fired up. So donít go to any trouble..."
"No trouble at all. We sure missed you, boy." Jonesy hurried to the kitchen.
Jessí eyes wandered back to the woman.
Some women are pretty. Some are beautiful. But this woman was sultry. It wasnít anything that she wore or even the way she stood. But she had that unidentified quality that drew a manís attention and kept it locked on her.
Slim pulled the woman close to his side. "Jess, I want you to meet someone very special. This is..."
"Margaret," she informed.
"Margaret," Jess repeated as if saying a word he had never spoken.
"Margaret Hampton," she added. She didnít flinch as Jessí eyes swept down her body. His blue eyes met her green eyes for just a second before she turned and spoke, "Slim, dear, itís late. I think itís time that I head back to town."
"You staying at the boarding house?" Jess questioned.
"No, at the hotel. Slim got me a nice corner room on the second floor. Heís so thoughtful. He made sure I was right next door to the bathing facilities."
Jess knew how much a room at the hotel cost. If Slim was paying for it, then he was spending his savings, money that Slim had been putting aside for a long time to pay for next winterís grain and hay.
"Jonesy..." She glanced at the older man, who was standing by the stove dishing stew onto a plate.
"As always your meals are better than any cuisine Iíve eaten in San Francisco." Dimples appeared in her cheeks as she smiled.
Jonesyís face showed his pride.
Jess snorted softly; but the sound was heard by all.
Jonesy hawked, "Iím just glad someone appreciates my fine cuisine."
"We appreciate your cooking, Jonesy," Slim said with a small smile. "Itís just that weíd appreciate it a lot more if you didnít serve beans so often."
"When you get me the money to buy..."
"Maybe Slim ainít spending it on what he should be," Jess cut in.
Slimís glaze snapped towards Jess.
Margaret said quickly, in a very sweet voice, "Jonesy, I bet your beans are better than a steak dinner. When I marry Slim, youíll have to teach me your culinary secrets, including how to cook beans."
Jonesy blushed. "Well I donít like to brag..."
"Nope youíre as modest as they come," Jess said.
Jonesyís eyes narrowed. "Your stewís ready!" He slammed the plate on the table.
Jess sat down and began eating like he was starved. Jonesy added bread to the table, and Jess immediately began using it to soak up the broth of the stew. As he ate, his stare moved back to Margaret. He watched her every movement, his eyes never swaying to anyone else in the room.
Jonesyís expression softened as he looked at the woman. "Now Miss Margaret, Iím hoping that weíll see you here for supper tomorrow night."
"You can count on it," Slim replied for her. "Ainít she been eating with us every night for a week?"
"Well it is the best food in Laramie," she complemented.
Again Jonesy blushed as he glanced down at the ground.
"You must like beans," Jess said between bites.
"Why Jonesy hasnít once served us his famous beans," Margaret informed.
Jessí brows arched with surprise. "Thatís funny Ďcause thatís usually what we get to eat around here."
"I guess itís the company weíve been having." Slim pulled her to his body, giving her an affectionate squeeze.
She smiled back at Slim then turned towards Jess. "Iíve heard so much about you from Slim."
She drew so close that Jess could smell her perfume. It was alluring. "Now that youíre home, I can find out if all those stories Slim told me about you are true."
"Oh theyíre true all right," Slim said with a laugh.
She now smiled at Jess. But he didnít return her smile as his eyes roved from her face to her toes, taking in every detail. Jess studied her so hard that she stirred under his scrutiny.
She stammered as she said, "Iím glad youíre back, Jess. I know you were missed by everyone here."
Again his stare seemed to touch every part of her body. Then as if dismissing her, his head bent over so he was staring only at the food.
"Well..." she said as if unsure, "Good night, Jonesy. Good night, Jess."
Jess hesitated but finally he stood up from the table. "Maíam," he said. His voice was cordial and polite, with not a hint of friendliness.
She ruffled Andyís hair before leading Slim out of the house. Slimís hand was pressed protectively against the small of her back.
Jess waited until the door closed before he spoke, "This engagement. Itís awful quick, ainít it? Iíve only been gone a couple of weeks."
"She hog tied Slim before he even knew she was tying the knot," Andy stated.
Jonesyís eyebrows rose with surprise. "I donít think Slim would see it like that. Andy, I think itís time you went to bed. Itís getting awful late. Way past your bedtime."
As Jess sat down at the table, Andy perched next to him.
"Jonesy, I want to stay up with Jess and hear all about Cheyenne." He turned towards Jess. "Is it everything they say it is? Is Cheyenne as wild as they say it is? Lots of gambling? I hear the saloons never close. And thereís a gunfight every night. And the women..." Andy nodded his approval.
Jonesy tilted his head with speculation. "And what do they say about the women?"
"Oh..."Andy glanced at Jonesy. "...just they got the prettiest gals in Cheyenne. I heard all about them."
"Well you shouldnít believe everything you hear." Jonesy joined them at the table. "You know how some people like to stretch the truth to a lie and..."
"Jess and Slim wouldnít lie!" Andy defended.
Jess stopped chewing. He saw the disapproval on the foremanís face. "Jonesy, I swear! I never....When?" he growled at the young boy. "When did you ever talk about women with me and Slim?"
"Well some mornings when youíre shaving out back, and Iím milking the cow, I can hear you..."
"You were eves dropping?"
"Not exactly." Andyís stare dropped off of Jessí face.
"Oh and what would you call it?" Jess challenged.
"Well sometimes you and Slim are laughing so loud that I wanted to find out what you were talking about."
"And I bet you got an ear full, didnít you?" Jonesyís expression of anger slid from Andy to Jess.
Andy asked, "Are the girls as pretty as you and Slim thought theyíd be?"
"Now Iím sure Jess was only interested in selling them horses," Jonesy answered before Jess could speak.
But the expression on Jessí face showed that more than horses had interested him.
"Jess, I hear they got a big wheel that when you gamble..."
"Thereíll be time enough in the morning for Jess to tell you all about Cheyenne."
"But Jonesy..." Andy protested. "I want to hear all about it now."
"Andy, itís time to get to bed," Jonesy ordered. "Tomorrow will be here before you know it. Plenty of time to question Jess then. Now you get on to bed."
"Jonesy, if you got something to say to Jess, you can say it in front of me. I ainít no kid."
"Who says I got something to say to Jess?"
""Well you sure look like you do! You look like youíre about ready to burst!"
"Maybe Iím about to burst Ďcause I ainít yet seen you start for that bedroom door." Jonesy raised his eyebrow with warning.
Andy stood up. "Oh all right. Iím going." Andy walked slowly to his bedroom. At the doorway, he turned. "Jess, tomorrow you will tell me all about Cheyenne, wonít you? Iím aiming to go there someday."
"To see them women you heard about?" Jonesy mocked.
Anger was heard in Andyís voice as he said, "You know, Jonesy, I ainít a kid. Iím fourteen. Iím just a few years younger than..." Andy was thoughtful for a moment before bursting out, "than Billy the Kid."
"You telling me that youíre planning on shooting someone?" Jonesy asked. "ĎSpect you can do it in the morning if thatís your plan. Right now you need to go to bed."
Frustration marred the young boyís face. "Iím just saying that Iím pretty near grown. I ainí a kid no more. Itís time you realized that."
"Iíll keep that in mind," Jonesy said. "Should I see a pretty woman or a stage that needs robbing."
"I donít know what a fellow has to do around here to show heís grown up," Andy argued.
Jess said quickly, "Seems to me if a fellow was grown up then heíd want to get some shut eye so he can do a full dayís work in the morning. I know as soon as I finish this stew, Iím hitting the sack."
Andy grinned. "See you in morning, Jess....Jonesy. And Jess, Iím sure glad youíre home."
"Goodnight, Tiger," Jess said.
As Andy entered the bedroom, closing the door behind him, Jonesy mumbled, "That younginí. All anxious to prove heís a man. Thereíll come a day heíll wish he was still a kid."
"I was just like him," Jess admitted. "Anxious to grow up. See the world."
"And where did it get you?" Jonesy said. "Using a fast gun."
Jess grimaced. "Andy will be all right. He just wants to see the sights in a town bigger than Laramie, thatís all."
"And I can imagine what sights you saw," Jonesy said.
Jess quickly bent his head to eat, hiding his expression from Jonesy.
Jonesy said, "Andy is right about one thing. He is growing up. Slimís going to have to have a serious talk with him soon about women."
"Maybe Slim needs the talking to." Jess scraped the bread across his plate, soaking up the juice.
"Whatís that suppose to mean?"
"Good stew, Jonesy. Reckon I can have some more?"
Jonesyís eyes narrowed with speculation. He picked up the plate and returned quickly with another helping of stew.
"Slimís fiancee...sheís pretty, ainít she?"
Jessí eyes avoided Jonesyís stare. "Sheíll do."
Jonesyís eyes narrowed more. "The way you were staring, I figured you thought she was very pretty."
Jess took a bit and chewed a long time before saying, "Sheís Slimís girl."
"And I wouldnít be forgetting that."
Jessí fork stopped halfway to his mouth. "I wouldnít. Slimís my friend."
Jonesy leaned back in his chair. "A woman like that. Be hard not to notice her. Make any man take a second look."
Jess hunched over his food as he wolfed down the last of the meal. He chewed hard as if angry at his food.
As Jonesy started to take his plate away from the table, Jess stopped him with one word, "Jonesy?"
"Oh never mind."
Sliding his chair close to Jess, Jonesy quickly sat back down at the table. "If something is eating at your crawl, you can tell me."
Jess spoke hesitantly, "Itís just...this engagement. It happened kinda of quick like."
"Surprised me too. But sheís a fine lady."
Jess snickered softly but Jonesy heard.
"You saying different?" Jonesy demanded.
"I guess Ďcause she complemented your food, you think sheís high heaven."
"Now you listen here, boy! You got something to say, then you spit it out. Ever since you come through that door, youíve had a burr under your saddle. I know youíre slow to warm up to people. But when it comes to a pretty girl, you ainít slow at all. Youíre usually the first one out of the gate. But you were so quiet, I had to check to see if you were still living."
"Nothingís bothering me."
Jess blurted out, "Iím just concerned because Slim donít know women like I do."
Jonesy leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest. For a long second surprised registered on his face. "So youíre an expert on women, are you?"
"I just meant that Slim donít have my experience with women. He usually likes the town girls. Sweet. Innocent. Thatís the kind Slim knows about. Me..."
"You think Slim would take up with a saloon gal? He ainít like you!" Jess bit back his words.
Jonesy added, "For your information, Mister Know It all, she was passing through town on her way to a teacherís job."
"A teacher?" Jess smiled. "I bet she could teach a fellow something."
Jonesyís frown deepened. "You best not let Slim hear you talk like that."
"All I meant was she donít look like a teacher."
Jonesy bristled with anger. "And you donít look like no ranch hand."
Jessí voice was deadly as he asked, "Whatís that mean?"
Despite the hard look on Jessí face, Jonesy didnít back down. He leaned forward, his voice stern, "When Slim hired you, you looked like the gun slick that you were on your way to being. But despite your looks, you proved yourself to be a good ranch hand."
Jessí face relaxed. "Jonesy, itís just that...the engagement was awful quick. Iíd sure hate for Slim to get hurt. Heís been awful good to me."
Jonesy studied Jess. "Youíre holding back."
"Itís just...well hotel rooms donít come cheap. And Slimís been saving a long time to have enough to buy winter hay. If he donít get it, he stands to lose a large number of cattle. And if that happens..."
Jonesy smiled. "Guess you donít know as much as you think you do, Mr. I know about women. Theyíre engaged. Heís got a right to take care of her. But she refused his offer to pay for the room. Sheís paying with her own money."
"Hotel rooms donít come cheap." Jess chewed on the words before he spoke. "Tell me, Jonesy, where would a teacher get that kind of money? Donít it get you to wondering."
"Nope, Ďcause she done explained that she inherited money from a dead uncle. Thatís why she was on her way back East. She decided to move back to Boston."
"Boston? Thatís where sheís from. She donít have a Boston accent. None that I can tell."
"You sure are trying to find fault with her. You wouldnít be jealous, would you?"
"Like you said awful pretty. Slimís a lucky man."
"I told you that Slim was a friend. I would never..."
"Jess, sometimes when a man acts like he donít like something, itís Ďcause he likes something too much."
Jessí eyes open wide with anger. "You saying..."
"Iím just saying," Jonesy said calmly, "that Slim is a friend. So take my advice. I wouldnít criticize her to Slim."
Jess shook his head with regret. "It wouldnít do no good anyway. Not the way sheís got him wrapped around her finger. Andyís right. Sheís hog tied him. I saw the way he looks at her. Like a dog after a ham bone. Still... maybe I should talk to him..."
"Give him some of your expert advice on women? I donít think so."
"Now you listen here, boy. Slim ainít no fool. You leave him be if you know whatís good for you. Slimís happy. And sheís the reason that heís happy. And thatís all that matters to me. And if youíre his friend..."
"...youíll leave this alone. Now how Ďbout some more stew?"
Jess started to argue; but at the last moment he only pushed his plate away. "Iíve had enough. Iím going to bed. If I can stay awake long enough to get to my bed."
"Iíll take care of your horse."
"Thanks, Jonesy. You know I missed this place. Kept nawiní at me to get home. Ainít had that feeling since I was younger than Andyís age. Guess I ainít as grown up as I think I am."
ĎOh I donít know. Once you become a part of a place, it gets awful lonesome when you ainít there. Night, Jess. And boy, it is good to have you home."
Jonesy knew daylight would come in only a few hours. Still he sat at the table thinking on what Jess had said.
Slim arrived home closer to dawn than to midnight. As the sun rose, he was already shaving, humming a tune. Jess stumbled sleepy eyed to the wash stand.
"Morning." Jess yawned.
"Good morning!" Slim greeted with a large grin, then began humming.
"Youíre awful cheery."
"Must be the clean living Iím doing," Slim joked.
Jess threw out the water that Slim had used then pumped more water into the bowl. Jess scrubbed his face, then dried his face with the towel that hung from a peg. He shaved quickly, threw the water into the dirt, then started back inside.
"You ainít too talkative? I thought youíd be telling me all about Cheyenne."
"You and Andy."
"Whatís that mean?"
"Must mean something."
"Oh...Andy was just asking me a lot of questions last night...some about women."
"Women!" The grin was replaced by a worried look. "Well I guess it was bound to happen. Him wanting to know what goes on between a man and a woman, especially when he sees how I am with Margaret."
Jess turned suddenly and demanded, "Howíd you meet her anyway?"
"She rode in on the stage. Iíll tell you, Jess, I ainít never been happier." "Well donít get too happy. Itís bad luck."
Slimís brows furrowed with worry. "You had a good time didnít you? In Cheyenne?"
Jess only nodded before he started for the house.
Slim grabbed his arm. "Is something wrong? You were doing a lot of tossing when I came in last night. You ainít acting like yourself. If somethingís wrong..."
"Yeah, somethingís wrong!" Jess hesitated.
"You can tell me," Slim urged.
Jess said, "Itís...well...Iím just hungry, thatís all, and Jonesy ainít started breakfast yet. The stove wasnít even fired up when I walked out here. I leave here for just two weeks and when I come back home the whole place has gone to hell."
"Well if thatís all thatís bothering you, then letís go get breakfast going!" Slim whistled as he started into the house.
Despite Jessí first day back, breakfast was quiet. Too quiet. Andy talked non stop but Jess hardly said a word. If asked a question, he mumbled an answer or shrugged.
"You sure everything went all right in Cheyenne?" Slim asked.
Jessí head darted up. "You donít like the price I sold them horses for?"
"No! I thought you did real good." Slim exchanged a look with Jonesy, who only shrugged.
"You want anything in town?"
"You going in?" Jess asked with surprise. "I thought Jonesy and Andy were going in to get supplies. Andyís out hitching the buckboard now."
Again Slim and Jonesy exchanged a look of uncertainty.
"We are. Right after breakfast if I can get Andy away from talking about Cheyenne with you," Jonesy replied. "He wants to know all about the women."
"I heard," Slim said.
"You know what that means," Jonesy said.
"Iíll get around to talking to him," Slim promised. "Maybe when I get back from town."
"So if theyíre going in, how come youíre riding in? I thought weíd get started on breaking them horses this morning," Jess said.
"Well...Iíve been riding in every morning..."
Jess gasped. "Every morning!"
"For the last two weeks," Jonesy informed. "Regular like clockwork."
"Joe said as soon as we had more horses broke, heíd pay us. Thought we could use the money. Last night you were talking about improvements. How you fixing to pay for all you got planned to do around this place if we donít get more horses broke? And Ďsides if you ride in, then who does the work around here? Unless of course.." Jess criticized, "youíre expecting me to do all the work? And I canít break them horses by myself and do the stage work and take care of the cattle and fencing that needs to be tended to!"
Slim looked taken back.
"If I didnít know better, Iíd say Jess was the owner of this spread," Jonesy said. "Canít remember you being so worried about the work getting done, Jess. Does this mean you ainít going to take so many coffee breaks?"
Anger flashed across Jessí face. "I do my share!"
"So do I!" Slim countered. "Been doing all the work since youíve been gone. Who do you think repaired that fence out front? And brought the stock down from the hills? And..."
Jess replied, "I didnít mean...I just meant...I think we should start breaking them horses, thatís all. The sooner we get them broke, the quicker we can make some improvements around here. And we need a new plow. We talked about getting one as soon as you had extra money. The one we got ainít going to last much longer and thereís the..."
"That ainít what youíre worried about," Slim argued. "Now why donít you tell me what youíre really sore about?"
Jess said nothing.
Slim added, "Jess, if you got a problem with me, then speak up."
Jessí voice soften. "Slim, I ainít got no problem with you. And I know you do your share of the work. Ití
s just..." Jess shrugged. "Iím just tired, thatís all." Anger fled from Slimís face. "You rode some long hours to get home as quick as you did. Tell yo what, why donít you take it easy today. Youíve earned a rest. Might do you good to get some peace and quiet."
"And with you going in town, whoís going to do the work?" Jess stared hard at Slim.
Slim sighed. "I guess youíre right. Jonesy, when you go in town for supplies, how about telling Margaret that I wonít be around until late this afternoon to pick her up for supper."
"All right, Slim. But you know how she likes you to stay close."
Slim smiled, which caused Jess to frown more. Slim didnít notice; but Jonesy did.
Slim said, "I guess thatís what love will do to you. Makes you want to spend every minute with the one you love. Nothingís else seems as important. But once we get married, sheíll have to get use to me riding out to tend to the cattle. Just explain to here that Iím tending the cattle, while Jess takes care of the stage. Jess, thereís only one stage coming through and itís late this afternoon. I think Mose is doing the run. He can help you change the horses."
"I can change horses without an old manís help," Jess snarled.
"Reckon you can. But while youíre changing the horses, you might also change that attitude," Slim snapped. "Iím hoping some time alone will get you back to being yourself. So far youíve acted like a grizzly bear who ainít welcome."
Jess slammed his fork down on the table. "Slim, what do you know about her?"
Jonesy drew in his breath. Andy walked into the room, "Horses hitched."
"Come on, Andy, I need help washing the dishes."
Andy looked from Jessí angry face to Slimís angry face. "But Jonesy..."
"Come on, Andy! I need your help." Jonesy tugged on Andyís sleeve. The young boy and old man moved to the kitchen sink. Andy turned to listen but Jonesy poked him in the side. The young boy turned back to dry the dishes. Still they could hear every word that Slim and Jess said. Neither was making any attempt to lower their voices.
A look of puzzlement settled on Slimís face as he asked, "Youíre talking about Margaret, arenít you?"
Jess nodded. "What do you know about her?"
"I know all I need to know."
"You know where she came from? What she did before she met you? Who her friends are?"
"She taught school. She was heading back East to live in Boston..."
"So she says..."
Jonesy moved quickly to the table with a pot of coffee. "Jess, why donít you eat up before your breakfast gets cold? Slim, how about some more coffee?"
"Jonesy, let Jess speak." Slimís voice was cold.
Jonesy set the coffee pot down on the table and moved back to the sink.
Slim ordered, "You got something to say about Margaret, then you say it here and now."
"All Iím saying is you havenít known her long..." Jess began.
Slim asked, "Jess, is my being engaged whatís got you so riled?"
Jess said calmly, "Slim, itís only been two weeks..."
"You donít think I know my own mind!" Slimís temper burst. "Now you listen here. And you listen good! Iím a grown man. Iíll wed who I want, when I want. I donít need no advice from you."
Jess stammered, "I only meant..."
"I know what you meant! And I donít cotton to it! You best remember whoís in charge here. Now when I get back this evening I want you in a better mood. And you best be polite when I bring her around. After all sheís going to be my wife and live here."
Slim slammed the door as he left the house.
"I ainít never seen Slim lose his temper like that," Andy observed.
"Thatís what a woman will do to you," Jonesy said.
"Especially that kind," Jess said as he finished his coffee.
"What kind?" Andy asked.
"Never mind," Jess snarled. Glancing at Andy, seeing his hurt, Jess added, "Sheís real pretty. Can make a man not think straight."
"Is that why you asked Slim..." Andy began.
"Forget it, Andy. It wasnít my place to talk to him about her."
Jonesy poured himself a cup of coffee. "You only got yourself to blame Ďcause I told you so."
Jess snarled, "Jonesy, I donít want to hear it."
"I ainít going to say another word. I ainít one to say I told you so....But you got to admit that I did tell you so," Jonesy answered back.
Jess raked the stall. Fresh hay laid just outside the stall, giving off a sweet scent. He stroked his horse, Traveler. "Youíd like a carrot wouldnít you? Iíll see if Jonesy has any in the house and ..." He turned and at the same time drew his gun with lighting speed.
Margaret stood in the doorway of the barn. "I hope youíre not going to shoot me," she greeted.
She slowly lifted her hands in the air, her purse swung on her arm. "I promise Iím not dangerous."
Jessí only reaction to her smile was a look of anger. "You shouldnít sneak up on a person." He slid his gun back into his holster. He turned his back to her and began tossing hay to the horse.
She moved close to Jess. Again he could smell her perfume. He wiped his hand across his nose but the scent lingered.
"I didnít know part of your job was to clean out stalls."
"Usually Andy does it. But Jonesy and him went to town early this morning"
"I know I saw them there."
"If youíre looking for Slim..."
"Jonesy told me that he would be out on the range for most of the day. I came to see you."
His body tensed.
"I thought you would be pleased to see me," she said. "I did notice your interest last night."
"Whyíd you pick the name Margaret?" He turned and leaned on the rake.
She shrugged. "I thought it sounded decent. Why? What name would you have chosen?"
"I liked your real name."
"Well sometimes a girl needs to get rid of her past life. But here it is. Staring right back at me. After all these years, seeing you again. And of all places. Here. As a ranch hand. I always figured you would find your way to the end of a rope."
"I was a wild kid back then."
"Searching for the Bannisters. Out to get revenge against the men who killed your parents. You ever find them?"
Jess shook his head no.
"I knew you were fast on the draw but still...a boy searching for killers. Jess, I worried about you after you left El Paso"
"Did you now?" Doubt was heard in each word that he uttered.
"You look like you healed all right." She reached out to touch his face.
He jerked his head away from her touch. "Took time but I healed all right." He started to rake, looking only at the hay and not at her.
She touched his sleeve. He looked at her.
"You do look fine, Jess."
He pulled back on his arm, causing her to loose her hold. "And youíre still a woman that can make a man look twice."
Jessí stare bore into her. He looked at her so hard that she shivered.
"Jess, I havenít told Slim about us."
Jessí cheek ticked. "Donít you think he needs to know?"
Her eyes widen with panic. "No! Thatís in the past."
"Is Frank Bonnor in the past?"
Her face harden. "I havenít seen Frank since..."
"He got out of prison three months ago. I read about it in the paper."
"Did he? I didnít know." Her stare lowered, then she peeked at him through her long lashes.
"Sure, you didnít," he mocked.
"Jess, you have to believe me! Frank is no longer a part of my life. Iíd like to forget the past and put all that behind me."
"You want to forget everything about your past?" he asked as his eyes again roamed her body.
"Maybe not all of it." She smiled at him.
His stare turned cold. He started to turn away but her plea of "Jess" stopped him. "It looks like you started over. At least to hear Slim talk about it."
"He told you all about me huh?"
"Weíre going to be married, Jess. Slim and I donít have any secrets."
"Except about Frank Bonnor and you changing your name. Tell me, when did you ever teach school? Was that before or after you worked in a saloon?"
"All right!" she snapped. "Iíve only worked in a saloon. But it was a little lie that did no harm." She lifted her chin defiantly. "Jess, I know you like it here. You consider this ranch your home. But if you try to come between me and Slim, well, heíll choose me. He loves me. You want to stay on here, then you better be nice to me."
"And what do you think Slim is going to do when he finds out that I know you as good as man can know a woman."
She slapped him.
Jess looked taken back as he touched his cheek.
She breathed hard as anger torched her cheeks. "I told you that was a long time ago. Iím not the same girl that I was then."
"Really?" Doubt colored Jessí voice. "You sure about that?" He took a step closer to her. "You really sure about that?" His eyes seemed to stroke her face.
"Jess, donít go to war with me. Youíll lose. Youíll lose everything that you have here. I promise you that."
"Iím curious. Why did you come to Laramie? Why Laramie? If I remember correctly, you always had a hankering for cities, not small towns."
"I was just passing through."
"To visit my sister in St. Louis. She said I could find a job there.. A decent job. Iím through working in saloons."
"I hear you got enough money that you donít have to work. Hotel rooms donít come cheap."
"Well, I have been saving. And my sister sent me some for my ticket and..."
He shook his head with disbelief. "You always had an answer for everything. Now where did you get the money?"
"Itís true! I swear! Sheís married to a storekeeper, who does very well. She wanted me to be comfortable as I traveled."
"Then answer me this. You knew Iíd be here alone to greet the stage. Did you come here thinking you and me would rekindle an old acquaintance?" He touched her face with his gloved hand. He softly fondled her cheek.
She stepped back, away from his touch. "Donít flatter yourself! I knew we had to talk. I expected you last night. I even kept the light burning late into the night for you."
"Iím not the same man who use to jump, just waiting to find out how high you wanted me to go."
She lowered her eyes. "Youíre still bitter arenít you?"
"Frank Bonnor beat me up so bad, it took me weeks to heal."
"And you blame me?"
"Always the innocent. And Iím sure you had nothing to do with why Frank went to prison. I read in the paper that there had been a woman involved in that robbery. Lured a young teller into saying when the mining money was due. I figured that was you."
"I never!" she cried out.
"Now honey, donít get angry at me. We both know how you felt about Frank."
"Jess, I swear I was not involved!"
"Paper said the teller was only eighteen. But then I was only seventeen."
She gasped his hand, holding it tightly. She clung to it as if clinging to life itself. "I did care for you."
"You told Frank about us just to get him jealous."
"Then why didnít you leave with me? I offered you marriage."
"Because Frank would have killed you! You know how he is. He swore if I left with you..." She stopped seeing the look on Jess face. She let go of his hand. "I swear, Jess, itís true! Please donít look at me like that! Donít you understand? I loved you so much that I had to stay behind. I didnít want Frank. I never cared for him like I cared for you. I was so lonely in that town after you left. For months, I cried, wishing I had left with you. I just wish Frank hadnít found out about us." She neared him, her face only inches from his. "Remember how it was between us? It was good."
She drew closer to him. Her lips were almost touching his when he spoke, "I came back."
Her face paled to a snowy white. "When?"
"You had left. I was told with Frank. I was told that you and him took off two days after I left." Anger radiated off his body.
She stepped back. "I...I did but Jess you were hell bent on finding the Bannisters. You werenít ready for marriage. Besides you were broke and..."
"Frank had money. Stolen money. He always had stolen money on him."
She didnít think that Jessí face could harden more but it did.
Jess continued, "And now you think Slim has money? Well he donít. We live by hand to mouth here. He owes a huge mortgage on this spread. More times than not he has a rough time making the monthly payment. Why do you think we eat beans so much?"
"I donít care about how much money Slim has. I told you that I have money."
"You expect me to believe that you want to live here. On a dirt poor ranch."
"And all you want from Slim is to be a good wife."
"Yes! I fell in love with Slim and I fell in love with Laramie. I think this will be a good place to raise our children. Iíll be a good wife to Slim and..."
"I believed you once." Jess suddenly grasped her hand. He held her palm so tightly that she cried out in pain. But he didnít let go of her, or even loosen her hold. "Slim is the best friend that I ever had. Heís been like a brother to me. I owe him more than I can ever expect to pay in this lifetime. If I find out that youíre lying to Slim, I swear, woman or no woman..."
She jerked back as hard as she could, pulling her hand free from his grasp. She reared her arm back but he stopped the slap less than an inch from his face. "Be careful," he warned. "Iím not the same man you knew."
Her eyes narrowed as her face redden. "And you be careful. Slim will pick me and youíll be back to drifting. You cross me and youíll find that you have no home here. And donít expect Slim to stay your friend either. Heíll side with me. Youíll loose a home and a friend. Youíll be alone again, nothing more than a drifter."
She wounded him. She saw that in Jessí expression. For one quick moment, Jess had let down his guard and exposed his fear of losing both home and friendship.
She smiled. "We can be friends or we can be enemies. The choice is yours, Jess. I hope youíll choose friends. Because we could be good friends." Her fingers crawled up his arm. She squeezed his shoulder. "You liked my friendship once. We donít need to fight. We can both get what we want. All I want is a chance. You started over. I want to do the same." She turned and walked away.
"If Frank comes here, Iíll kill him!"
She stopped. He could see her back straighten as if an iron had been pressed against it.
She turned. "You do just that. You wonít find me mourning. Frank is no longer a part of my life. So you go right ahead and kill him. You have my blessing!" She turned and never looked back as she walked out of the barn.