Bounty


by BadgerGater





Episode: Based on events from Season 3 episode, Lawless Seven, but you don’t have to know the episode to follow the story

Summary: Not everyone knows that wanted poster on Jess was cancelled.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Nan for the excellent beta.

oOoOoOoOoOoOoOo

 

He read the wanted poster over again, noting all the details, and smiled.

One thousand dollars.

That was a lot of money.

And it was going to be his.

Arthur McCrary had seen the man on that wanted poster.

He knew exactly where to find Jess Harper.

oOoOo

McCrary had to admit, it had been a surprise to find Harper still openly working at that ranch and relay station outside of Laramie. Of course, the wanted poster was issued by some two-bit backwater mountain town in Colorado Territory, and probably hadn’t been circulated much. That was likely the case. The flyer was nearly a year old, and though he regularly read wanted posters-- that was his business after all-- he’d never seen this one before. He’d come across it among a stack of old posters folded up in the bottom drawer of the desk in the marshal’s office in the little mountain town of Red Hill when he’d dropped off his last catch.

Now, five days later, McCrary was camped in the hills above the Sherman Ranch, studying his quarry, and dreaming of all the things a thousand dollars could buy.

He’d never had a catch this big, never collected a bounty anywhere near this size.

Art McCrary was hunkered down in a sheltered spot, his camp hidden by trees. He’d found a perfect vantage point, sheltered behind a downed tree allowing him to watch the activities in the ranch yard below while he waited for the right time to make his move.

He was no fool-- a man didn’t survive long in the bounty business if he was, and Art had been plying his trade for three years now. He was a careful man; he studied his prey like he was on the trail of a wounded grizzly. He’d quickly learned about Jess Harper’s reputation as a fast gun. That might be another reason why the wanted man was still walking around, free as a bird, not bothering to hide in the least. Harper had made quite a name for himself as a gunslick just a couple of years back, and while he was supposedly working an honest ranch job these days, no one was going to mistake him for an ordinary cowboy. Word was, he’d killed a lot of men since he’d settled in Laramie; Art had heard about Hank Ballard and Dixie Howard and Clay Jackson. Of course, Howard wasn’t the gun hand he’d once been by the time Harper took him down-- he was old, and wounded, but still, he’d been a formidable gunfighter once. And while the stories said Sherman, the ranch owner, was in on the shootings of Ballard and Jackson, well, that didn’t ease Art’s wariness a bit. And there was no doubt Harper had shot a gunman named Tracy and the outlaw Leo McCall.

Harper was a very dangerous man.

There wouldn’t be many bounty hunters, or lawmen, willing to challenge Harper’s fast gun.

Of course, he wasn’t going to, either. Dead men didn’t collect bounty money. Art wasn’t about to take any chances with his quarry’s talents with an iron.

‘Shoot first’ was his motto, and that policy had served him well over the years. Dead bodies were worth as much as live ones, and a whole lot easier to deal with.

He just had to catch Harper all alone, though that wasn’t proving to be easy. There were people around the man all the time, either the old lady, or the kid, or the tall guy, Sherman. Often, it was the two men working on some project around the ranch, or riding out together to work cattle or fix fences or cut wood.

Finally, on the fifth day of his hunt, Art finally got his shot at Jess Harper.

Literally.

oOoOoOo

 

“Hey, Jess, I’m thinkin’ of ridin’ out to the south pasture to check on those yearling heifers this mornin’,” Slim announced over breakfast. “Need to make sure they’ve still got enough grass, move ‘em over to the next section if they don’t. We can’t be lettin’ ‘em overgraze that meadow. We’ll need that grass before fall.”

“I’ll go with ya,” Jess offered eagerly as he finished chewing on a mouthful of ham and eggs.

Slim swallowed his eggs. “Can’t. Someone’s got to be here to change the teams on the morning stage.”

“We could go after,” the dark-haired cowboy suggested.

“Nah, that’d be too late, Jess. It’s a long ride up there.”

“Right,” Jess answered slowly, disappointed.

“Slim, are you forgetting that Mr. Beardsley is coming in on the morning stage?” Daisy appeared beside the table, coffee pot in one hand, a plate of fresh hot biscuits in the other. “Didn’t he want to talk to you about selling you some horses?”

Slim set down his fork and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “That’s right, Daisy, I almost forgot.” He turned to Jess, who’d grabbed one of the biscuits off the plate and was slathering it with butter. “Guess you’ll have to go check those cattle, partner.”

“So I’d better get going then.” Jess devoured the biscuit in two oversized bites. “Great breakfast, Daisy,” he complimented her as he gulped the last of the coffee from his cup. He picked up his plate, silverware and coffee cup and carried them out to the kitchen. “See you later, Tiger.” He ruffled Mike’s hair as he passed the table, snatched two more biscuits off the plate and slid them into his jacket pocket. He donned the coat and snared his hat off the peg by the door before he headed jauntily outside, eager to get in the saddle.

Jess walked across the yard to the corral and whistled at his horse. Traveler ambled over to the gate, but the cowboy, always attentive to his animal, noticed the bay’s gait seemed a little off. “Dang it, horse, what’s wrong, huh fellah?” he asked, stepping into the corral and standing at the bay’s near shoulder. Bending over, Jess ran a hand down the horse’s sturdy cannon bone and pinched the back of the tendon. Traveler obligingly lifted his hoof in response to the cue, and Jess immediately saw the source of the problem-- there was no shoe. “Dadgum it horse, when did you do that, huh?” he asked, looking around the corral and spotting a flash of sunlight glinting off metal. Sure enough, there, by the far fence, lay the shoe, too twisted to be reused.

He had two options—take the time to replace the shoe, or take a different horse.

It would take the better part of an hour to fire up the forge, form a new shoe and nail it into place, Jess knew. A start that late meant he’d be home too late for supper.

Looking around the corral, his eye fell on a dark gray gelding with a single white sock on his off hind and a narrow stripe down his face, a horse Jess had been breaking. Was he ready to go to work? He had less than a dozen rides on him, but Jess was confident the gray would be just fine for the trip up into the hills and back. True, the colt was pretty green, and had no experience working cattle, but the long ride would be a good chance for the horse to get some miles on him and a taste of working cows, too.

Making up his mind, Jess reached for his lariat, built a loop, and roped the gray.

oOo

 

“Jess, what’s up?” Slim asked several minutes later as he strode up to the corral, surprised to see the ranch hand saddling the young colt rather than his favorite bay.

“Traveler threw a shoe, so I thought I’d put some miles on this fellah,” Jess announced as he lifted the saddle onto the gray and tightened the cinch, the colt sidling sideways.

“You sure he’s ready?” Slim stroked the colt’s neck. “He’s pretty green, Jess.”

“No time like the present to find out,” Jess answered with a confident grin, tying his saddlebags behind the cantle and hanging his just-filled canteen over the horn. “Can’t baby him forever if we expect him to be a good mount.” Jess mounted up, the young horse shifting his feet nervously and refusing to stand quiet but he reined the gray back and pulled his hat down tight. “See you for supper, Slim.” With that, he touched his spurs to the colt and loped out of the ranch yard.

oOo

On the hill high above, the bounty hunter was smiling broadly. His patience had paid off at last. Harper was finally leaving the ranch all alone. Smiling in anticipation, Art quickly gathered up his gear, saddled his horse and rode after his quarry.

oOoOoOo

 

The gray was full of energy, and Jess let him run, wearing off some of the colt’s excess enthusiasm and enjoying the horse’s long-strided speed. After more than a mile, the sweating colt finally settled into an easy, ground-covering lope.

oOo

Art McCrary trailed behind his prey, careful to keep his distance. Harper was riding south, just the direction he needed to go to collect his bounty in Colorado, and into rough country away from the road and any possible onlookers who might interfere. This was perfect. Besides, the manhunter was in no hurry; the farther Harper rode, the farther they’d be away from any chance of that tall rancher showing up to interfere with his plan.

Art could already feel the weight of the bounty money in his pocket.

Easing his horse through the trees, keeping out of sight, the bounty hunter followed the unsuspecting ranch hand across the hills. He could be patient, very patient, for a thousand dollars.

oOo

By the time they passed Stone Creek, the colt was blowing hard, so Jess pulled him down to a walk, letting the horse relax as they turned off the Laramie road and headed up through a thick stand of pine. With a bit more work, he could be a top horse, Jess figured happily. He had a ground-covering yet comfortable lope, an easy trot and a nice bright walk. He was a smart horse, too, picking up things fast, already responding to leg pressure and the feel of the reins against his neck. He’d bring top dollar if they decided to sell him, or, if they kept him, he’d make a good mount for use around the ranch.

oOo

As he followed the cowboy away from the road, the landscape quickly turned more rugged than McCrary had expected. Rocky outcrops big as a house appeared among towering stands of ponderosa and lodgepole pine, making it hard to keep track of Harper without getting too close and risk being seen. He was going to need some luck to get a clean shot in these wild hills, McCrary realized, though there was the corresponding benefit that the rough country provided him with plenty of good cover. He could bide his time for the right chance at Harper, the opportunity to take down his target without unnecessary risk to himself.

oOo

 

Half an hour later, having crossed over a high ridge, Jess found the cattle. They were in a lush open meadow watered by a snow-fed stream that was tucked into a valley between rows of rocky, wooded hills. He did a quick tally of the small herd, finding them all bunched together. Every one of the heifers looked healthy, in good flesh with just the faintest outline of ribs showing, their rich brown hides sleek and eyes shining with good health. The grass was still plentiful, and Jess decided the animals wouldn’t need to be moved for at least another week.

Sweeping off his hat and wiping his forehead with his sleeve, he smiled as he admired the cattle. They were top quality, carefully chosen breeding stock designed to build a herd that the Sherman Ranch could be proud of, and make a profit from, for years to come. Still smiling, Jess put his hat back on and contemplated his good fortune—he was part of something good here, something solid and secure, a man working toward a real future as part owner of the ranch, and, more importantly, a man with a home and friends who were as much family to him as if they were blood kin. That realization still amazed him.

It felt good, mighty good.

He was a lucky man.

Jess turned the colt and let him walk through the thinning trees heading toward the stream that followed the base of a hill before turning out into the meadow. There was a spot along here where the creek widened into a deep and cool pond, Jess recalled, a perfect place for lunch. He reined his horse around a rock outcropping and into the open edge of the meadow.

oOo

 

Art McCrary watched the cowboy ride along, in and out among the trees, anticipating where the man would emerge into the open. He tucked the rifle’s butt in tight against his shoulder, the barrel set securely atop the rock he’d selected as a shooting platform, and braced the weapon with his left hand. He estimated the distance to his target, raising the barrel slightly to account for the yardage to his aiming point.

When Harper rode out from among the rocks and emerged into the edge of the meadow, Art closed one eye, sighting in on the middle of the tan jacket covering the broad back of his quarry. He took a deep breath, held it, and squeezed the trigger. The recoil kicked hard against his shoulder and a puff of blue-white smoke wafted into the air as the sound of the shot shattered the silence.

oOo

 

As he rounded the rocks toward the pond, Jess saw them a moment before they took flight-- a pair of mallards flashed sharply upward from the still waters, calling loudly, their wings beating the air. Spooked by the movement and the noise, the gray, tired as he was, shied sharply sideways.

The colt’s skittishness saved Jess’ life.

There was no warning for what came next. Out of the blue, something slammed him in the back, low down on his side, something packing a wallop like he’d just been punched by a two-ton prizefighter. The force of the blow flung him out of the saddle. Jess had the brief but distinct sensation of being suspended in the air, and then he was falling. He heard what sounded like thunder, the booming noise echoing round and round through the hills.

He hit the ground hard, stunned as the wind was knocked out of him, watching his horse shy away and then run like the devil was after him. Still trying to puzzle out what had just happened, Jess reached his hand around toward his back, and when he pulled it forward, he was surprised to see it covered with the bright red of blood.

He knew then what had happened.

That hadn’t been thunder, it had been a rifle shot.

Someone had bushwhacked him.

And then he inhaled and gasped as agony flared hot and bright in his side, tearing his breath away.

oOo

 

Got him! Art held back the urge to let out a whoop of triumph as he saw Harper drop out of his saddle and the spooked horse take off at a frightened gallop. The gray raced across the valley floor, disappearing from sight into the trees on the far side.

When he refocused his eyes on the spot where the man had fallen, McCrary couldn’t see his thousand dollar prize. Harper must have fallen behind the rocks, he told himself as he climbed quickly to his feet and headed toward his horse, eager to secure his kill.

oOo

 

Jess groaned, biting his lip, instinctively crawling into the lee of the rocks. He stopped there, cautiously filling his lungs with shallow breaths, listening intently.

He’d been ambushed.

Had it been Indians? Outlaws? Someone after his horse? Or a hunter mistaking him for game? The bullet had come from a long ways away judging by how long it had taken for the sound of the shot to reach him. That was good news—it meant that, if the person who’d shot him had done it on purpose, the shooter was going to need some time to make his way to Jess’ location, giving him what he hoped would be enough time to move to cover.

If he could move.

Bracing himself against the rock, Jess pushed himself to his feet, six-gun in his right hand, his left hand holding tight to his burning right side. He took a shallow breath, which hurt a lot less than trying to take a deep one, swaying as he staggered away from the stream and back into the shelter of the trees.

oOo

 

Carrying his rifle, the bounty hunter hurriedly worked his way back to his horse, mounted up, and rode toward the spot where he’d seen his thousand dollars hit the ground.

oOo

 

Safely among the pines, leaning against the rough trunk of a large ponderosa, Jess peered out across the wide meadow, eyes searching for any sign of his attacker. The seconds crawled by slowly in the perfect silence and then, just when he thought no one was coming, he saw movement. A horse and rider ambled through the trees, the man looking intently down at the ground.

Jess lifted his Colt, appalled by the way his hand was shaking, and squeezed off a shot, the bullet kicking up rock shards at the feet of the approaching horse. The animal reared in panicked reaction, and Jess heard the rider shout. He sent another slug into the trees, and, not waiting to see its impact, in a stumbling, hunched over stagger moved farther up the hillside, deeper into the shelter of the rocks. They provided him a good, defensible position, Jess reckoned, a sheltering place where he could hold off his attacker for a long time. At least, as long he didn’t run out of cartridges, he added wryly. Or pass out.

As he hunkered down among the boulders, the numbness in his back completely disappeared, replaced by a pulsing ache, and every indrawn breath, even the shallow ones, produced a sharp stab of pain. Bullet probably broke a rib, he figured, even as he felt blood trickling slowly down his back, wet and warm. Jess brushed stinging sweat out of his eyes, squinting to focus, and flung two more shots at the movement he saw in the trees below him.

oOo

 

The bounty hunter sat back and waited. He knew he’d hit Harper, hit him hard. There was no need to risk his own life pursuing wounded prey-- he’d seen the blood on the ground where Harper had gone off his horse. His slug had obviously scored a solid hit on his target. Judging by the amount of blood pooled on the hard ground, Harper would sooner or later pass out from the blood loss-- most likely sooner. He just had to do a bit more waiting-- time was his ally, and a thousand dollars would be the reward for his patience.

oOoOoOo

 

Slim watched the passengers climb out of the stage, and then walked over and peered into the coach. Three men and one woman had gotten off, but none of them was the businessman he was expecting. “Where’s Mr. Beardsley?” he asked Mose who was clambering down from the box.

“Oh, yeah, he said to tell you he cain’t come out until tomorrow. Some meeting with the banker today, he said,” the stage driver explained.

As he switched up the teams, Slim reconsidered his work plans for the day. This change threw a wrinkle into the whole week’s work schedule. If Beardsley was coming out tomorrow, then he wouldn’t be able to ride over to check the waterhole on the west rim of Bartlett Canyon. Since there was no afternoon stage today, maybe he’d best saddle up and ride out there as soon as he got the teams changed. Tomorrow he’d have to stay around the ranch, and Jess could go up and check the north fence line.

Yup, he thought, that was a plan that would work. If he got going quick, maybe he could even meet up with Jess this afternoon and ride back with him, and both of them could check those fences out along Stone Creek. From the waterhole, he figured he wouldn’t be that far away from where the ranch hand was checking on those heifers.

As soon as the fresh team was in place and hitched, Mose climbed onto the box, lifted the reins, and headed the stage down the road at a full gallop.

Before the coach was out of sight, Slim was already saddling Alamo. He lead the horse up to the house, tying him to the hitch rail before going inside to tell Daisy of his change of plans.

Less than ten minutes after the stage had pulled out of the yard, Slim was loping Alamo south along the Laramie Road.

He left the stage road just past Stone Creek, heading west, and was cresting the first of a series of small hills when he heard what sounded like a rifle shot. He pulled his horse up and listened, but he didn’t hear any more. Riding on slowly, he was troubled by what he’d heard. Where had the shot come from? Could it be someone out hunting, he wondered? The gunfire sounded like it had come from Sherman land, over in the direction Jess was working, but the way sounds echoed in the hills, it could have come from half a dozen different hills or valleys. Did he need to be worried? Heck, it could be Jess himself bringing in some venison for the dinner table.

The tall rancher rode on, still uneasy, and then he heard a pair of shots, not a rifle this time but a handgun, followed by two more fired close together.

That didn’t sound like hunting, and there was no way Jess would need five bullets to bring down a deer.

Abruptly making up his mind, Slim spun his horse around, and headed south to investigate.

oOoOoOo

 

Jess was finding it harder and harder to focus. The steady throbbing in his back and side was eating away at his concentration. He rubbed a hand across his eyes and peered into the trees. Was that dark shape a man? Or just a shadow? Someone moving, or simply the wind in the trees? He blinked the sweat out of his eyes, longing for a drink of water to ease his thirst, but his canteen was gone, along with that dad-blamed colt. His knees felt all wobbly, like the slightest breeze could knock him over, and dark spots danced behind his eyes. He would feel better if he could just get a decent breath, but he couldn’t, and he was feeling light-headed and a little cold, shivering like there was a chill wind blowing in off the mountains.

He rested his head against the rock, closing his eyes for a long moment. When he reopened them, he spotted a flicker of movement down below. He was sure this time it was a man sneaking through the trees. Jess fired twice and the form disappeared back into cover.

He reached around to pull fresh cartridges from his belt, methodically ejecting the spent rounds from his Colt and refilling the chambers.

Quiet had returned, the only sound the wind sighing softly through the trees. Far below in the meadow, Jess could see the cattle grazing, the animals lifting their heads every now and then to peer anxiously around. Other than that, there was no movement save for a lone eagle riding the wind high above the next range of hills, gliding on the air with his mighty wings dipping and fluttering in the hot summer breeze.

oOo

 

Art McCrary was in no hurry. Harper was above him, up on the hillside, without his horse, his rifle or his canteen. He only had to wait a little longer and the wanted man would be his, too weak or too dead, to put up a fight.

Just as he was figuring it was time to try moving in on Harper, Art’s perfect plan came undone. Loud in the pristine quiet, he heard the sharp sound of shod hooves clattering over rock. Someone was coming! Art ducked back under cover and waited. After a few minutes he caught a glimpse of a familiar tall man astride a bright red sorrel horse. Sherman! What was he doing out here?

Disgusted now, the bounty hunter picked up his rifle and retreated deeper into the thick trees, at the same time careful to stay out of range of the rocks where Harper was holed up. Once he was sure he was out of sight of both men, he ran to his horse, stuffed the long gun into its scabbard and swung aboard his mount, riding rapidly away.

His plan had failed.

For now.

But, he vowed, he’d get another chance.

oOoOoOo

 

Slim pulled Alamo to a halt and silently studied the country in front of him. For a moment he’d thought he’d heard the faint sound of hoof beats, but he couldn’t be sure, and though he paused to listen he didn’t hear the noise repeated. He couldn’t see anything moving, either-- nothing stirred in the silent hills. Of course, in this rugged terrain, there was enough thick cover to conceal the movements of half an army.

Riding ahead at a cautious walk, Slim scanned the forest around him in between glancing down to check the ground for tracks. He was close to where the herd of heifers should be grazing; Jess should be somewhere in this area.

oOo

 

Jess saw a horse moving down below along the edge of the meadow, and brought up his gun. Was his attacker back? Squinting through a gray haze, he raised his Colt and aimed unsteadily at the figure riding below. Finger poised on the trigger, muscles already tightening, his hand suddenly wavered. The rider, there was something familiar about him. Jess wiped his eyes and stared, squinting. “I must be seeing things,” he muttered out loud, “’cause that sure does look like Alamo and Slim.” The man was riding along, eyes down to study the ground, and then he raised his face and Jess saw that it was for sure Slim.

With a relieved sigh, Jess lowered his gun and, still leaning on a rock, pushed himself to his feet. He tried to take a step and a deep breath to call out to his friend, but inhaling caused a spike of pain so intense that his vision darkened, the world spun, and he felt himself falling. “Slim,” he mumbled as he sagged to the ground and, overwhelmed by pain and blood loss, Jess lost his hold on consciousness and passed out.

oOo

 

Art McCrary paused deep in the thick timber, muttering curses under his breath at his bad luck. Another hour or two, maybe even less, and Harper, and the reward money, would have been his. Seemed like the only luck he ever had was the bad kind. Well, he’d just hang around Laramie until he could get another chance at that bounty.

With that thought, he turned his horse back toward the Sherman Ranch. The early bird might get the worm, he consoled himself, but patience was a virtue that could earn a man a lot of money in the bounty business.

oOo

 

Slim shivered with the sudden feeling that someone was watching him.

He peered out over the hills, his eyes searching for any sign of Jess or anyone else, but he could see nothing but trees and rocks. He rode down to the end of the meadow and circled slowly round the cattle herd. They were grazing calmly at the end of the valley, and there was no sign of Jess having been there.

Still troubled, he resumed his quiet search, following the banks of a stream that cut across the valley floor. There was no fresh sign here at all—no way to even tell if Jess had even been here. Maybe, he thought, the shots hadn’t come from this area at all— echoes could be mighty deceiving in this tangle of steep rocky hills and small hidden valleys. Maybe he should cross over the ridge and search to the south. Jess might have ridden there to check on grazing conditions, or investigate the gunfire. That seemed like the logical thing to do, but something told Slim to keep looking right here where he was a bit longer, an uneasy feeling that grew as the unnatural quiet lengthened.

Slim spent the next half hour carefully crisscrossing the hillside and the meadow, starting at the south end near the cattle and working his way up the valley. Searching for sign, the only thing he found was bent grass that might have been made by a lone horse traveling to the south, but could just as easily have been caused by a stray steer or a wandering elk. He followed it for a few hundred yards, but the trail, if it even was one, soon vanished. Frustrated, he stopped and looked carefully around, then reined Alamo along the edge of a rocky hillside.

That’s where he saw it, just before the small stream swept out into the meadow and widened into a deep, crystal clear pool.

A rusty red stain marred the rocky ground.

Heart thudding, Slim stepped down off the sorrel and bent down to take a closer look. Reaching out a hand, he touched the congealed liquid, finding what he feared. The feel and the smell were familiar-- it was blood, fresh blood.

His search suddenly taking on a new urgency, the rancher stood abruptly and studied the surrounding rocks and dry, sun-baked ground. After a moment he spotted a small red smudge on a nearby boulder, a few yards away another red smear on a tree trunk, and there, another spot of color on a rock, beside a boot print.

Cautiously, he followed the sign up the hillside until he stepped around a cluster of rocks, and stopped dead in his tracks. A body lay motionless on the ground, a dark-haired man, face-down on the rocky ground. Even at this distance he could see a neat round hole in the back of the short tan jacket. What little he could see of the light blue shirt beneath was stained with bright red blood.

Oh God, it was Jess.

“Jess!” Slim ran toward the unmoving form. His first touch dispelled his worst fears, confirming that the body was warm and alive and he could hear the harsh sound of labored breathing, every inhalation catching raggedly.

“Jess?” There was no answer as Slim carefully lifted the edge of Jess’ coat and shirt. The bullet had entered the cowboy’s back, low on the right side, along a misshapen rib that was clearly broken. Gently, the tall man rolled his friend over onto his back. Jess’ eyes fluttered but didn’t open, a pain-filled moan his only response. “Jess?” Slim called more urgently, noting that there was no blood on the front of his shirt, meaning the bullet was still inside him. “Hey, pard, come on, talk to me. You with me here? Jess?”

The eyelids fluttered, a bit of blue showing for a moment in the too-pale face. “Slim?” the cowboy asked, his voice low and uncertain.

“Yeah, it’s me.” Slim hastily made a bandage out of his bandana and fixed it against Jess’ chest with a strip torn from the tail of his shirt.

“What hap… ?” It was obvious Jess was trying to say more but couldn’t.

“What happened? I don’t know, Jess. Did you see who shot you?” Slim asked.

Jess shook his head, struggling to answer. “Didn’t. Don’t--“

“Easy, Jess, don’t worry about that now. We’ll sort it out later.” Slim gave him some water from his canteen, and Jess drank it greedily.

Looking around, Jess’ horse was nowhere in sight, so Slim hurried to Alamo and led the sorrel closer. “We’ve gotta get you back to the ranch, get this bullet out.”

Jess nodded, and Slim bent down to lift the man’s shoulders. Jess gasped, biting his lip. Slim could see how much he was hurting his friend but he had no choice. With a silent prayer for forgiveness, he pulled Jess to his feet and hoisted him into the saddle.

Jess wrapped one hand around the horn, the other holding tightly to his ribs, his breathing coming in painful gasps.

“Can you ride?” Slim asked, his face contorted with worry.

He thought Jess nodded, though he wasn’t sure, but Slim took the slight motion as a yes, and mounted up behind the wounded man. “I’ll get you home, pard, you just hang on, you hear me Jess?”

“Home. Hear ya,” Jess answered in a voice so faint Slim had to lean forward to make out the words.

He wanted to set his spurs into Alamo’s flanks and race for home, but he couldn’t. A rough, jarring ride would cause Jess to bleed more, and hurt him bad, too. Holding the horse to a walk, his arms wrapped around Jess’ slumped form, they rode toward the ranch, the wounded cowboy slipping in and out of consciousness.

oOo

 

Art McCrary watched the two men riding away, bemoaning his bad luck. Still, this hunt wasn’t over. He would get another chance at Harper, he vowed. He was not letting a thousand dollars slip through his fingers like water.

The bounty hunter turned his horse to follow the men on their slow trek back to the Sherman Ranch.

oOoOoOo

 

“I wonder what’s keeping Slim and Jess?” Daisy asked herself as she peered out the window for what seemed like the hundredth time in the last hour. It was long past supper time and longer past dark, and neither man had told her that they were planning on missing the evening meal. Still, she tried not to worry. Daisy knew there were many things that could happen, simple things like finding a fence down or a horse throwing a shoe or discovering cattle that had strayed. Her young men being late for supper wasn’t all that unusual of an occurrence, but today she had a bad feeling.

She’d let Mike eat his supper hours ago and had finally put him to bed despite his protests that he wanted to wait up for Slim and Jess. Now, alone in the house with her worries and needing to keep herself occupied while she waited, Daisy picked up her mending basket, sewing on buttons and repairing torn shirts by lamplight as the minutes slowly passed and her worry grew to mountainous heights.

oOoOo

 

Slim heaved a sigh of relief when they crested the hill overlooking the ranch and could finally see the light shining from the ranch house windows. Jess seemed to have gotten heavier in his arms with every passing minute, Slim thought as they rode the last few hundred yards into the ranch aboard a weary Alamo. “Hey pard, we’re almost home.”

There was no answer.

Slim reined the horse toward the hitch rail in front of the house, calling out loudly, “Daisy! Daisy!”

Almost before the words were out of his mouth, the door opened and she stepped out. “Slim? What’s wrong?”

“Jess is hurt,” he told her, sliding down off the sorrel, one hand still holding Jess aboard the horse. “He’s been shot.”

“Shot?” her voice rose with concern, all of her worst fears confirmed.

“The bullet’s still in him, and he’s lost a lot of blood,” Slim added as he pulled the wounded man down off the horse and carried him into the house, gently easing him down on the leather couch below the window.

Daisy was quickly by Jess’ side, turning up the lamp as she assessed her patient. His face was very pale, his eyes closed, his mouth set in a tight line, and his breathing shallow and rough. She could see no source for the blood that soaked his clothes. Gently, she laid a hand on his forehead, feeling the unusual warmth there. “Jess? It’s Daisy. Can you open your eyes for me?”

His head moved slightly and he mumbled something, eyes fluttering, but he didn’t get them open.

Gently she brushed the thick dark hair back off his sweat-beaded forehead. “It’s okay, Jess. You’ll be fine. Just fine.” She still couldn’t see the wound. “Where is he hit?” she asked Slim.

“In the back,” the rancher answered angrily, the muscle in his jaw jumping and his eyes flashing. “I don’t know who did this, but when I find him—“

She put a calming hand on Slim’s arm. “We can’t worry about that now. Jess needs us. Help me move him,” she ordered, and Slim helped her ease Jess onto his side so she could see his back. One look at the blood leaking steadily from the wound and she shook her head. “We’ve got to get that bullet out now.” Taking command of the situation, Daisy ordered, “Slim, get me my nurses satchel and some of those bandages from the chest in my room, and then start some water boiling.”

“Can you get the slug out?” Slim asked as he brought her the things she’d requested. “I could ride to town for the Doc.”

Daisy looked down at Jess and shook her head negatively. “I don’t think he should wait that long. Not with all this blood he’s losing.” She looked back up at Slim. “You’ll have to help me.”

“Just tell me what to do,” he promised.

She scrubbed her hands, then washed the wound while the medical tools boiled and then it was time.

Holding the blade above the wound, Daisy hesitated. She’d done this so many times before, cut bullets out of men young and old more times than she could count, in the war and since, but this time it was different. This was Jess, whom she loved as a son. Sure, she’d stitched him up, and treated lesser injuries he’d suffered, but this wound wasn’t like that. This bullet was in deep and if she made the slightest mistake, he could die and it would be her fault.

Suddenly, Slim’s calming hand was on her shoulder. “You can do this, Daisy. I know you can. You’ve done this dozens of times.”

She took a deep breath, and tried to smile. She didn’t have to explain to him how this was different for her. “I know. It’s just that Jess—“

He saw the tears forming in her eyes and smiled encouragingly at her, knowing how much his friend meant to her. “Just do your best, that’s all you can do.”

Daisy straightened her shoulders and calmed her breathing. Nodding at Slim, she wiped the perspiration from her forehead with her sleeve. “Hold him still,” she ordered the tall rancher.

He moved around to take hold of Jess’ shoulders.

Once again poising the knife above the ragged entrance wound, Daisy lowered it to touch Jess’ skin, willing her hands to be steady and blocking out all thought of whose body she was working on.

She began to cut.

Slim felt Jess flinch, a slight moan escaping his lips as Daisy dug for the bullet, blood welling from the small ragged hole. Daisy was frowning in concentration, and then suddenly she withdrew the knife and, using the little forceps tool, she probed the wound. Seconds later, she had hold of the slug and pulled it from Jess’ side. Quickly setting aside her instruments, she wiped away the blood and poured alcohol into the wound as a disinfectant, then bandaged it, applying steady pressure. He was breathing harshly, but breathing, and already the bleeding was slowing. Gently, she covered him with a blanket.

The worst was over, Daisy told herself with relief, wiping the sweat from his face with a clean, damp cloth. “We’re done, Jess, the bullet is out. You’re going to be fine, just fine,” she softly reassured him, and herself.

Suddenly, she felt dizzy and the room spun, her knees feeling weak, her legs threatening to collapse.

Slim took hold of her arm and guided her to a chair he hastily pulled up alongside the couch. “Stay here,” he ordered her, voice tight with concern. He hurried to the kitchen, bringing her back a glass of water.

She drank, and gave the glass back to him.

The frown hadn’t left his face. “Are you okay?”

Daisy smiled thinly. “I’m fine, Slim. It’s just been a long day. I’m tired.”

“And worried,” he added.

She glanced back at Jess, reaching out to place her hand on his arm, stroking it gently. “Yes,” she admitted.

“That makes two of us. But he’s going to be all right,” Slim added optimistically, as if saying it could make it so.

Daisy looked over at Jess, concern shining from her eyes. “Of course he is. He’s strong.” She wished she felt as confident as her answer. With any bullet wound, there was always the risk of infection, and this bullet had been in deep. Her words had been the truth, though, Jess *was* a strong and healthy young man, and resilient. “We should move him to his room. He’ll be more comfortable in his own bed.”

Slim nodded. Sliding his arms under Jess’s shoulders and knees, he lifted his friend and carried him into the bedroom.

Daisy had already turned down the blankets on his narrow bed. “Gently,” she admonished as Slim eased Jess’ unmoving form down onto the bunk.

“You go get some rest, Daisy, I’ll sit with him.” Slim headed off her protests before she could say anything. “If there’s any change, I’ll call you, I promise.”

Daisy reluctantly agreed. She went to her room and tried to sleep, and finally dozed off, waking long before dawn, still tired. Knowing that she couldn’t go back to sleep, she got up and pulled on her robe to go check on her boys.

Slim had carried the rocking chair from its usual spot near the fireplace and set it beside Jess’ bed. He was seated in it and nodded at her as she came into the room, his eyes looking gritty and tired, every motion belying his weariness. Obviously, he hadn’t slept.

“How is he?” she asked, stepping close.

“He looks a little better, I think,” Slim said, his face still wearing the worried frown that had been there all evening. “But maybe it’s just wishful thinkin’.”

Daisy bent over the wounded man and checked him carefully. Jess was sleeping and his color did look slightly better. There was no fresh blood darkening his bandages, his pulse was steady and strong, and his breathing seemed slightly less labored, too. Daisy touched a hand to his forehead and smiled with relief; he showed no sign of fever. She glanced over at Slim with a tight smile. “I think you’re right. He does seem better. Now,” she looked at the tall man sternly, “it’s my turn to stay with him, while *you* get some rest.”

He stood and stretched, towering over her and yawning. “Not much use in me tryin’ to sleep now, Daisy, ain’t long until sun-up.”

“You need rest, young man,” she repeated sternly, making shooing motions with her hands. “You can get at least a couple hours of sleep before the morning chores. That’s an order.”

“Yes’m,” he smiled tiredly at her and headed over to his bed with one final look back at his wounded friend.

“He’ll be fine,” the housekeeper reassured Slim as he pulled off his boots, slipped under the covers, and was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Daisy pulled the chair closer to Jess’ bed, and gently stroked his arm. “Jess, it’s Daisy. Slim’s gone off to get some sleep and I’m going to stay with you for a while. Rest easy, everything is just fine,” she murmured, believing that, even if he wasn’t awake, he might still hear and be comforted by her words. Daisy picked up her sewing, humming low to herself, pleased with her patient’s progress.

At dawn, she put on coffee and started breakfast, every few minutes quietly going back to check on Jess. When Mike woke, she intercepted him and put him to work helping her with the meal, keeping the curious and worried boy away from the sleeping men.

Once Slim woke, with a hint from Daisy, he took Mike out with him to help with the chores, keeping the house quiet for the wounded man to rest.

oOoOoOo

 

Jess began stirring shortly after noon, small random movements, and when he finally, lazily opened his eyes, both Slim and Daisy were there, beaming down at him.

“Hey pard,” Slim greeted him with a smile. “It’s about time you were wakin’ up.”

“How are you feeling?” Daisy asked.

“Thirsty,” he answered, his voice rough.

Daisy poured him a glass of water from the pitcher she had waiting, raising his head with one hand and holding the glass with the other.

He gulped a few mouthfuls and then done, he sank back on the sheets. “How’d I get here?” he asked, his words slow and low as if speaking was an effort.

“I found you out in the hills and brought you in, last night,” Slim explained. “You don’t remember?”

“Nah.” Keeping his eyes open was still a battle, too. “What happened t’me?”

“You were shot,” Daisy answered.

“Shot?” The blue eyes popped wide open in surprise.

“Yesterday, while checking cattle,” Slim added.

Jess looked puzzled. “Who’d I tangle with?”

“I don’t know,” Slim frowned. “I was hopin’ you could tell us.”

Jess closed his eyes and thought hard, but all he had were vague images of a shadowy figure in the trees. “Never saw him,” he decided, opening his eyes to peer up at his friends.

Slim nodded. “Could it have been Indians?” he prompted.

“No,” his answer was firm, he’d seen enough to know that much.

“Might be it was someone after your horse,” the tall man suggested.

“No. The guy had a horse.”

“Doesn’t mean he didn’t want yours. That colt’s a nice mount,” Slim suggested.

“Could be,” Jess shifted on the bed, grimacing.

“You need to keep still, young man,” Daisy ordered. “You lost a lot of blood, and I don’t want you tearing that wound open again.”

He nodded, sinking back on the cushions, his heavy eyes losing the fight to stay open and sliding shut. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Why don’t you rest now?” Daisy suggested, pulling the blankets up to his chest once again.

Jess didn’t answer because he was already asleep.

oOo

 

Much as Slim wanted to go out in search of Jess’ attacker, he had chores to do, and a pair of stages coming through that day. He sent word with the morning stage for the sheriff to come out, and Mort Cory rode in shortly after noon.

They went inside and sat with Jess, Mort asking questions but getting no more information than Slim had earlier, keeping the interview short because it was plain that Jess was hurting and tired. “I’ll ride out and take a look around, and keep an eye out for that horse, that’s the best I can do,” Mort offered. “And you take care of yourself, young man,” he told Jess.

“Don’t need to, Mort. I got these two fussin’ over me like I was a newborn baby,” Jess answered, trying to hide how tired he was, and failing.

“I’ll walk you out, Mort,” Slim offered. Once they were outside the front door, the tall rancher stopped the lawman. “So what do you think?”

“I don’t know, Slim. I haven’t heard of any other trouble around here the last few days. Maybe you’re right about the horse, it could have been some fellah passing through who was desperate for a fresh mount.”

“I know it don’t seem real likely, but I can’t see any other explanation,” the tall rancher conceded. “And Jess sure don’t know.”

“Shot in the back, he’s lucky to be alive. If that fellah had even just a mite better aim, you know you’d be preparin’ for a funeral.”

“I know,” Slim nodded. He didn’t need a reminder of how close a call it had been for his best friend. “I know.”

oOo

 

The sheriff! Right there in the Sherman ranch house, with a wanted man! Art McCrary was shocked. Mort Cory had a good reputation among lawmen, but then, word was, Harper had served as his deputy in Laramie a few times. Maybe they were friends enough that the lawman could ignore a wanted poster, especially one that was from outside Wyoming. Or maybe the Laramie sheriff had never even seen it—that happened sometimes, too. Who got flyers from small towns could be pretty hit or miss.

Whatever the reason, Art could see he wasn’t going to get any cooperation from the local law. So when he finally did get his hands on Harper, he’d have to haul the man all the way back to Gunsight himself. That was a long ride he wasn’t looking forward to, but at the end of that ride, there’d be a thousand dollars, like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

He’d ride a long ways over the roughest trails for that much money.

oOoOoOo

 

With all the chores to take care of on his own plus two stages passing through each day, Slim didn’t so much as get out of the ranch yard that day, or the next.

Meanwhile, Jess made slow but steady progress, staying alert a bit longer each time he awoke. By the end of the second day, Daisy was smiling cheerfully, cooking him broth and standing watch as he ate it, ignoring his complaints that he wanted real food and was ready to get out of bed.

It was an argument Jess wasn’t going to win, Slim observed with a smile. Daisy ruled the roost over her patients, and Jess was no exception—despite the fact that she seemed to have an especially soft spot for the roguish ranch hand.

oOoOoOo

 

Bored with three days of inactivity, Jess slipped out of bed while Slim was changing teams on the late morning stage and Daisy was busy washing the breakfast dishes. He quickly discovered that he didn’t hurt too bad if he didn’t move too fast or try to bend over too far or straighten up too completely or take too deep of a breath. Proud of himself for getting up on his feet, he managed the two steps over to the doorway, aided by a hand braced against the wall. The three steps over to the rocking chair, now back in its normal spot in front of the fireplace, were more of a challenge. He took his time and moved slow and easy, aided by leaning on the desk, and finally triumphantly reached his goal. He sat down heavily, telling himself he wasn’t winded or feeling weak at all. Nope, not at all.

Just then, Daisy walked into the living room from the kitchen, stopping in mid-step and staring at him in consternation. “Jess Harper! What ever do you think you are doing?”

“Gettin’ out of that dad-gummed bed, Daisy. I’m about gone completely wall-eyed what with stayin’ in one spot for so long.”

“You shouldn’t be moving around yet!”

“Well, I am.”

“You could open up that wound,” she cautioned.

“But I haven’t.”

“Not yet,” she countered. “Now, you get back into that bed.”

“Aw, Daisy, I’m here now, and sittin’ up feels good. It won’t hurt to let me stay,” he put on his best, most contrite look, the one that always worked on the kind-hearted housekeeper.

“Oh, I suppose you can stay there. For a bit,” she conceded. “But, no moving around.”

“I won’t. Promise.”

She smiled at him. “And I will hold you to that promise, young man.”

The rest of the day passed quietly, Jess dozing in the rocking chair as the others came and went, surreptitiously checking on him. He listened while Daisy read him the highlights of the latest issue of the Laramie paper which had arrived on the morning stage, and after lunch played a couple of games of checkers with Mike. Even that little activity wore him out and he was soon asleep.

oOoOoOo

 

By the fifth day after he’d been shot, Jess was moving around the house, slow and careful, his side pulling with each step, but the pain was receding and Daisy pronounced the wound as healing nicely.

“It’s all your good doctorin’, Daisy,” he told her with a smile.

She beamed back at him, patting his arm. “Oh, I think it’s mostly because I have such a strong young patient.”

“Well, that, too,” he conceded. “And your good cookin’.”

“Are you trying to flatter me, Jess Harper?”

“Of course. Why, Daisy, you know you’re my best girl forever,” he declared, grinning widely.

“Only until you find yourself the right young woman,” she corrected.

He rolled his eyes. “I’ve told you, Daisy, it ain’t gonna happen.”

“Oh yes it will,” she answered him confidently. “Some day some pretty young lady will come along and sweep you completely off your feet and you won’t even remember that I exist, much less that I can cook.”

“Never, Daisy,” he promised.

She smiled indulgently at him. “You mark my words. It *will* happen.”

oOo

 

That afternoon, after the morning stage pulled out, Slim saddled Alamo, and led the horse up to the house. Though he still felt vaguely uneasy about leaving the ranch, there was no real reason not to, and plenty of reasons why he should. He never had checked that waterhole, and he had fence line to ride on his way back, and tomorrow he’d have to ride north to check on the cow-calf herd. There was too much work to be done for him to stay around the ranch any longer just because he was feeling on edge. His schedule decided, the tall rancher stepped inside the house to have a final word with Jess before heading out.

He found the patient propped up on the couch with several pillows behind his back, his legs covered with a colorful crocheted lap robe, whittling earnestly but not too artistically at a piece of kindling.

“What’s up, pard?” Jess asked, looking up.

“While you’re lollygaggin’ around here, I’ve got work to do,” Slim looked at him sharply. “You won’t be givin’ Daisy a hard time while I’m gone, now, will you?”

“Who, me?” Jess asked innocently.

“Yes, you, hotshot. Daisy doesn’t need to be worryin’ about you tryin’ to do too much. You gave her quite a scare, and you ain’t as recovered as you think you are.” Slim saw Jess forming a retort, and cut him off. “And don’t you get your back up about it. I got eyes, and I can see.”

“I’m bein’ careful,” Jess insisted.

“Well, Daisy doesn’t see it that way. And she’s had a rough week, worryin’ about you day and night. So you listen to her, hear?”

“Well, it wasn’t my idea to get shot.” Noting Slim’s glare, Jess looked down guiltily and nodded. “All right, all right, I’ll be on my best behavior. Promise.”

“You do that,” Slim told him sternly. “I’ve got a long ride, so I reckon I’ll be late for supper. Don’t bother waitin’ for me.”

Jess’ smile abruptly vanished, replaced by a worried frown. “You be careful, Slim, that guy could still be out there.”

Slim shook his head. “Naw, I think he’s long gone with that colt. But I’ll keep my eyes open anyway.”

oOoOo

 

The bounty hunter noted Sherman’s saddled horse with rising excitement. Once the tall man was mounted up and gone, the woman and the kid wouldn’t pose any problem, and he could ride in, take Harper, and be quickly on the trail south. He gathered up his gear.

oOo

 

“Aunt Daisy, there’s a rider coming in,” Mike announced less than half an hour after Slim had ridden out.

“Who is it, dear?” Daisy called out softly from the kitchen, trying not to wake Jess who was sprawled on the couch, snoring lightly as he napped.

“Ain’t nobody I’ve ever seen,” Mike declared, standing in the doorway.

“It isn’t anyone you’ve ever seen,” Daisy corrected. She wiped her hands on her apron, patted her hair into place, and stepped out onto the front porch, raising a hand to shade her face from the glare of the mid-day sun. She didn’t recognize the rider either, but then, it wasn’t unusual for travelers to stop in search of water or directions.

The stranger rode right up to the hitch rail, pulled his horse to a halt, and tipped his hat, smiling. “Howdy, ma’am.” He was looking around. “Mr. Sherman around?”

“No, Slim’s not here at the moment. Can I help you?”

“Might be you could, ma’am,” he said, stepping down from his horse and wrapping the animal’s reins around the hitch rail. “I’m mighty thirsty. I’d dearly appreciate a bit of that water,” he added, pointing at the pump beside the house.

Daisy had stepped back when the man dismounted, her smile dimming warily. Something about the stranger made her uncomfortable—his eyes never quite met hers but were darting around, like he was checking out the place, and his smile seemed feral and insincere.

“Help yourself. The water’s good and cold,” Mike offered.

Daisy was studying the man, trying to decide if she’d ever seen him before. The stranger was unremarkable, of average height, thickly built, and wore a six gun as well as carrying a rifle in the scabbard attached to his saddle. His saddlebags were stuffed full and a bedroll was tied behind the cantle. He needed a shave and a bath, too.

“Traveling far?” she inquired, putting one hand on Mike’s shoulder to keep the boy close to her.

“Yup.”

Still curious, she asked, “Did you want to see Slim on business?”

“You might say that, ma’am.” He took a long drink from the dipper, tossed the last dregs to the ground, hung the dipper back on the side of the bucket and turned around to face her. “There’s another fellah here besides Mr. Sherman, isn’t there, a Mr. Harper?”

A puzzled frown crossed her face, and wary of the man, she hesitated before answering vaguely. “Yes, Jess lives here but I’m sorry, he’s not available at the moment.”

“He’s—“ Mike started, but Daisy squeezed his shoulder so hard he stopped, turning to look up at her quizzically.

“He’s not—“

The man took a quick step forward, his six gun suddenly in his hand, as he pushed Daisy and Mike toward the door. “Let’s just go inside and see how unavailable he is, little lady.”

Daisy stopped, indignant at the treatment. “Now you see here, mister—“

The man grasped her arm painfully hard, shoving the gun against her side. “Make trouble and I’ll shoot you, lady.”

“Let her be!” Mike hollered.

McCrary slapped the boy and hurried the woman into the house. Just inside the door, he spotted Harper, asleep on the couch.

“You, over there,” he ordered the lady, pointing toward the fireplace and grabbed the squirming boy, holding the youngster in front of him like a shield.

oOo

 

Loud voices woke Jess from a deep sleep and he sat up, rubbing his eyes. “What in blazes!” A man was in the house, holding a gun to Mike’s head, and a frightened Daisy was looking from the boy to Jess and back again, her eyes wide and her face gone pale as paper.

Immediately wide awake, Jess sat up quickly, ignoring the stab of pain in his side as he swung his feet to the floor and stood. “Take your hands off that boy, mister,” he ordered gruffly.

“No.” The man was smiling, baring bad teeth. With one arm wrapped around Mike’s neck, the stranger holstered his gun and reached into his back pocket, pulling out a pair of handcuffs and tossing them towards Jess. They landed on the floor with a loud and ominous clink of metal. “Put those on, Harper.”

Jess made no move toward the cuffs. “Just who are you, mister? And what do you want here?” he demanded.

The man snugged his arm tighter around Mike’s neck, all but cutting off the squirming boy’s air, and once again drew his pistol, aiming it at Jess’ head. “Put on the cuffs, Harper. Now!”

Carefully, Jess bent toward the floor and picked up the restraints, holding them loosely in his hand. “Ease up on the boy and I’ll do as you say.”

The stranger loosened his hold around Mike’s neck slightly, and Jess could see the boy take a deep breath. “Put those on, now,” the intruder ordered, giving Mike a shake.

“Don’t be hurtin’ that boy--” Jess bristled.

“Then do as you’re told, Harper. Now!”

Having no choice, Jess snapped the cuffs around his wrists and looked up at the intruder, anger burning in his eyes. “We ain’t got much but whatever you’re after, mister, take it and go—“

“Oh, I’ve got what I’m after right here in front of me and it’s plenty valuable,” the man smiled again, shoving Mike toward Daisy and keeping his gun aimed square at Jess. “Step over here, Harper. And if you give me any trouble, I won’t just shoot you, I’ll shoot them. Is that clear?”

Jess glanced at Daisy and nodded, then obeyed the order, stepping slowly toward the door, his cuffed hands held out in front of him. “What is it you want with me? I ain’t never done nothing to you.”

“That’s true. Nothin’ personal, Harper, but you’re worth a thousand dollars.”

“A thousand dollars? Where’d you get a crazy idea like that?” Jess growled.

The ugly smile was back. “I got a paper says they’ll pay that for you in Colorado.”

Colorado?” Jess was stumped and he looked over at Daisy, who seemed equally surprised. “What paper?”

The man patted his chest. “Oh, little town called Gunsight put out a reward poster on you a while back. I’m surprised you’d forget a murder charge so quick.”

Jess relaxed. “You’re a bounty hunter? I should have figured it. Mister, that paper’s over a year old, and worthless to boot. They cancelled those charges and the reward that went with ‘em. I was cleared.”

The man laughed. “Oh, really? I suppose you think I’ve never heard an owlhoot make *that* kind of a crazy claim before.”

“Well this time it’s true,” Daisy chimed in primly. “Jess is free and clear of those charges. It was all an unfortunate mistake.”

“I’ve got the papers to prove it,” Jess added. “Right there in that room.” He started forward to get them.

The man waved the gun at Jess, and the young man stopped. “Don’t bother, Harper. Anyone can make up papers.”

Jess was glaring at the man, and with a sudden realization, lunged forward. “You! It was you that shot me!”

A healthy Jess might have succeeded in his attack, but Jess was far from healthy. The man easily evaded Jess’ rush, a single left to the jaw sending the wounded man careening into the wall and sliding down it to slump on the floor, dazed.

“Jess!” Daisy cried out, starting toward him.

“Get back, lady,” the bounty hunter was waving the gun at her and she retreated, holding tightly to Mike.

Stunned, Jess put a hand to his face, brushing blood from his lip.

“Get up!”

It took him a moment to get his legs under him, but Jess managed to slowly push himself up off the floor and stand, leaning against the wall for support, breathing hard. After a moment, he wiped more blood from his mouth, feeling his side catch painfully with every breath. “I should have figured only a bounty hunter would backshoot a man,” he growled, eyes snapping.

The stranger smiled. “I’ve heard about you and your reputation, Harper, and I ain’t fool enough to face the gun of a killer like you. Now, if you’re done jawin’, mister, you and I are gonna ride out of here.”

“You’re going to do no such thing,” Daisy stepped forward, incensed. “This man is injured and not fit to travel. You could kill him!”

The bounty hunter smiled coldly. “Doesn’t matter one bit to me, lady, I get paid for his kind dead or alive.”

Daisy gasped. “He’s not wanted anymore. Please, just go talk to the sheriff in Laramie. Mort Cory will tell you. You’re making a terrible mistake!”

“Riiiight, Cory, Harper’s friend. Don’t trust him either.”

“Mister, you are plain wastin’ your time,” Jess snapped angrily. “You’ll be takin’ a long ride to Colorado for nothin’. You won’t get so much as a penny for me.”

The bounty hunter’s feral smile was back. “And I should take your word for that? Sorry, Harper. Now move. All of you.” He marched them all outside and around the back of the house to the root cellar he’d noted when he rode in. “Lady, you and the kid get in there.”

Daisy didn’t move. “I won’t,” she declared defiantly.

“Me neither,” added Mike. “You can’t take Jess away.”

The bounty hunter turned to the shackled man. “She moves, or I shoot her.”

Jess turned to Daisy, his face troubled. The man was not only bounty hunter, but a backshooting bushwhacker, the kind of man who wouldn’t be above hurting a woman or a child. “Please, Daisy, do as he says. I’ll be all right. Just tell Slim--”

The rest of his words were cut off as the bounty hunter angrily raised his gun, cocking the hammer and aiming the weapon at the boy. “Shut up Harper, quit your stallin’. And you two, get inside. Now!”

“Go,” Jess pleaded.

Daisy stepped inside the cellar, her eyes never leaving Jess’ face. “Jess—“

“I’ll be okay, Daisy, I promise.”

The door closed, leaving the two of them in darkness.

“Daisy?” Mike’s voice was soft. “Jess will be all right, won’t he?”

She reached out and wrapped her arms around the boy, pulling him close, glad of the darkness that concealed the fear she knew suffused her face. “He will, Mike, yes, he will.”

If only she could believe her own words.

oOo

 

With Daisy and Mike locked in the root cellar, McCrary escorted Jess over to the barn and ordered him to take a horse from among the stock in the corral. Jess opened the gate and one of the animals walked right up to him, all but sticking his head into the bridle the cowboy carried. He was about to push the bay away when the idea popped into his head. With a silent apology to the animal, Jess slipped the headstall over the horse’s head and led him out of the corral.

He picked a saddle from among the spares that were slung over the stall partitions in the barn. It took him three tries to toss it up onto the bay’s back, and he was gray-faced and breathing hard by the time he got the saddle into place and cinched it tight.

Once the bay gelding was tacked up, McCrary impatiently waved the gun at Harper and ordered him to mount up.

Jess patted his horse’s neck regretfully. “Sorry, boy,” he whispered to Traveler. Barely able to lift his foot into the stirrup, he managed to climb aboard awkwardly, sitting hunched over the saddle horn for a long minute while he waited for the pain to subside. It didn’t, not entirely and already he could feel the first warm trickle of blood sliding down his back.

His wound had broken open.

How long and how far he could ride that way, he didn’t know.

He could only hope that his spur-of-the-moment idea would buy would buy him enough time for help to reach him.

oOoOoOo

 

Slim reached the top of the hill above the ranch at dusk.

He pulled up his horse in surprise at the realization that the house was dark and there was no smoke rising from the chimney. That would have been strange any evening, but with Jess home hurt, there was no way Daisy would have left the place. His suspicions aroused, he turned off the road and guided his horse across the hills toward the barn, dismounting and leaving Alamo tied in the trees a hundred yards from the buildings. Approaching the barn from the back, he made use of every bit of cover, moving slowly and cautiously with his gun drawn. When he finally got close to the barn, Slim noted with surprise that Jess’ Traveler was missing from the corral. That was odd. No one but Jess rode that horse, and in fact, with Jess laid up and he himself having more chores piled up than he had had time to finish, no one had taken the time to replace the bay’s lost shoe.

His worry growing more intense with every passing second, Slim slipped into the barn. The building was quiet, everything seemed in place until he spotted the empty saddle rack. Knowing Jess’ saddle was gone with the missing gray, Slim suddenly wondered if some crisis had drawn Jess away, but why or where? And if there was some emergency serious enough to send an injured man riding away from the ranch, why would he take a horse in need of a shoe? Take the risk of laming his favorite mount?

None of it made sense.

The knot in his stomach now grown to huge proportions, Slim eased his way up to the house, and peered in a window. It was dark and still inside, with no sign of life at all. Quietly opening the back door, he entered stealthily, only to be greeted by complete silence.

Something was terribly wrong.

Fear consuming him, he threw caution to the winds, shouting out loud, “Daisy! Jess! You here?”

There was no answer. Slim stepped out into the yard and hollered again, more urgently. “Jess! Daisy! Mike! It’s Slim! Daisy! Jess!”

Faintly he heard what sounded like Daisy’s voice, muffled and dim as if coming from a far distance. He worked further toward the back of the house, the sound getting slightly louder. “Slim! Slim! Over here! We’re in here, in the root cellar!”

He ran behind the house to the root cellar’s entrance, hastily unbarring the door.

Daisy rushed out, looking frazzled and frightened, clinging to Mike as if she was afraid someone would tear the boy away from her.

“A man took Jess away!” the boy proclaimed before Daisy could say anything.

Slim’s face went dark. “Someone took Jess?” He swung toward the housekeeper. “What happened?”

“A man, the one who shot Jess, he’s a bounty hunter,“ Daisy began.

A puzzled frown crossed the rancher’s face. “A bounty hunter? There’s no bounty on Jess.”

Daisy was wringing her hands, terrified for Jess. “He had one of those old posters, from Colorado, from when they thought he shot that rancher and turned outlaw.”

“That charge was dropped last year. Didn’t you tell him that?”

“He wouldn’t believe us,” Daisy explained, near tears. “He forced Jess to ride out with him. You’ve got to stop him, Slim. Jess’ wound isn’t healed, it’ll reopen for sure. He shouldn’t be riding—“ She was wringing her hands, knotted in her apron.

“I know, Daisy,” Slim kept his voice calmer and more confident then he felt for Daisy’s sake and for Mike’s. Taking hold of her shaking hands, “You’re okay? He didn’t hurt you?” he asked.

”We’re fine, but Jess--” she answered, her voice trembling with worry. “Don’t worry about us. Go! Hurry! Find Jess. Please.”

He stared at the two of them for a long moment, reluctant to leave them. “Are you sure—“

“I’m sure. Now go!” Daisy cut him off.

“If I’m not back by morning—“

“I’ll send for Sheriff Cory.”

He turned and ran back for his horse, mounting up in a single leap, pausing for one last look at the two of them huddled together.

Daisy was clutching Mike tightly, her voice trembling with fear. “Find him, Slim.“

“Don’t you worry, Daisy. I’ll find him,” the tall rancher promised. “They can’t have gotten far.”

oOoOo

 

Blood was oozing warmly down Jess’ side, slowly soaking his shirt and seeping down to stain his pant leg. Though they’d ridden little more than a half dozen miles, he was already feeling dizzy and growing steadily weaker, clinging to consciousness. When he swayed and almost fell from the saddle, the bounty hunter stopped, looped a rope around his prisoner’s upper body and tied him to his horse. Then the man took the reins and kicked his horse into a bone-jarring gallop, Traveler following on behind.

They covered only a few more miles when, as Jess had expected, Traveler began to slow despite the bounty hunter’s tugging on his reins. The bay was limping more heavily with every stride, favoring his near front foot.

McCrary pulled up and dismounted, walking angrily over to Jess’ horse. Picking up the bay’s foot, he took one quick glance at the hoof and let it go in disgust.

The horse had lost a shoe; this was going to seriously slow them down.

Jess was glad of even the brief moment of respite, though he felt bad about what he was doing to Traveler. He knew he needed every minute of rest, any small bit of help if he was going to survive this mess. His life was on the line, and he realized that at the same time he hated the thought that his horse was going to suffer for it. He silently promised somehow, someway he’d make it up to the bay.

If he lived long enough.

And right now, the way he was feeling, that didn‘t seem to be a good bet at all.

oOo

 

Slim wanted to race out of the ranch yard in hot pursuit, but he knew that would be foolhardy. He needed to think carefully about which trail the bounty hunter might have taken. He hadn’t met anyone along the road on his ride home, which eliminated one possibility. And they wouldn’t be traveling north-- that would make no sense at all.

Which left the conclusion that the bounty hunter must have headed west, and along the main road would be his guess, at least until they could find a trail south. Jess wasn’t fit to ride in the rough country, not traveling with any speed anyway, and then there was the issue of Traveler’s missing shoe, too. They couldn’t be too far ahead of him.

Knowing Jess’ life likely hung on his decision, and silently praying he’d guessed right, Slim spurred Alamo down the trail to the west.

oOo

 

Leading Harper’s slow-moving lame horse and cursing his bad luck with every step, Art McCrary turned off the Laramie Road and headed up into the hills. They’d have to hole up until morning, he decided, and maybe he could buy a horse from a nearby rancher. There were several small spreads up in these hills, he recalled.

He pushed on until he found a likely spot for a camp, hidden down in a draw beside a jumbled pile of rocks. McCrary took the ropes off his prisoner and ordered him to dismount. Moving slowly, Harper obeyed, sliding down to the ground to stand swaying. McCrary could see his shirt and jeans were wet and dark with blood. Good. He wouldn’t have to worry about this wanted man making a run for it. Still, taking no chances, he unsnapped the cuff from around Harper’s left wrist, then pulled the man’s hands roughly behind his back, ignoring his prisoner’s grunt of pain as he refastened the shackles tightly.

That thousand dollars seemed so close now he could almost touch it.

Come morning, he’d go in search of a horse.

oOo

 

Jess’ mouth was so dry he could barely swallow. He knew his raging thirst was related to all the blood he was losing, same as the way he was feeling cold now, too, even though it was a warm night. He watched languidly while the bounty hunter made himself some supper and offered him none, though to be honest, he really wasn’t hungry. He was thirsty though, desperately so, and finally, he had to ask. “Hey, how about some water?”

The man looked over at him suspiciously, then finally nodded. “I don’t suppose it’d hurt anything.” He brought over the canteen and held it so Jess could drink. A lot of it spilled down his chin, soaking his shirt and chilling him further, but he did manage to drink some, enough to ease his thirst a little, at least for a bit.

As soon as Jess was done, the man stepped quickly away, taking the canteen with him.

“You got a name, mister?” Jess asked.

“McCrary. Art McCrary.”

“You know you’re wrong about me, McCrary,” Jess insisted.

“I ain’t wrong about that poster. I can read.”

“I’m telling you the truth.” Despite the desperate circumstances, Jess’ voice lacked its usual energy. “I’ve been cleared of that charge.”

“We’ll find out when we get to Gunsight.”

“Bleedin’ like this, you know I’m likely to be dead a’fore then.”

The bounty hunter smiled unsympathetically. “That’s the chance your kind takes when you go crossin’ the law.”

“I didn’t cross the law! And I’m not wanted!”

“We’ll see.” McCrary turned away.

“Hey, don’t you turn your back on me!”

The bounty hunter spun around. “Harper, if you don’t shut up—“

“I ain’t gonna shut up until you listen to me!”

“I am tired of listenin’ to your jabberin’, mister. Shut up or I’m gonna gag you.”

“Listen, I’m not the man you’re—“

A look of fury on his dark face, McCrary stepped over to his bound prisoner, pulled Harper’s kerchief off his neck, and gagged him with it.

“I told you to shut up, Harper, but it appears that you don’t listen so good,” he snapped, and walked away.

Exhausted and hurting, Jess had no choice but to settle back and try to sleep. He knew he needed the rest, but the ground was cold and hard, and his side was aching something fierce. He tried to find a comfortable way to lie but failed. Finally, he laid his head down in the sand and dozed fitfully.

oOo

 

It was pure luck that Slim found the point where they’d turned off the road. There was just enough moonlight that, traveling slow as he was, he spotted the small item lying near the edge of the road. Dismounting quickly, he bent down and picked up the bit of cloth, a long narrow strip of material. The bandage had been white but now it was dark and damp.

Soaked with blood.

Jess’ blood.

Slim studied the ground carefully, considering the tracks in the road. It was obvious that a pair of horses had pulled up here and one rider had gotten off, leaving boot tracks on the edge of the road where the ground was soft from last night’s rain. Then the horses had veered off into the hills, angling to the south.

He’d found their trail but it was too dark to follow.

He could only hope that morning wouldn’t be too late for Jess.

The rancher spent a restless, impatient night, too worried to sleep, eager for the new day to arrive. At the first faint hint of dawn in the eastern sky, he saddled up and broke camp. Leading Alamo, Slim began to follow the trail in the dim light. As soon as full day broke, providing him with enough light to track from the saddle, he climbed aboard his horse and began to make better time.

oOo

 

At dawn, McCrary rousted Jess out of his blankets. He removed the gag and switched the handcuffs around to the front so the prisoner could grip the saddle horn as he rode. He didn’t offer either breakfast or coffee to his prisoner before ordering him to mount his horse.

With an effort, Jess pulled himself into the saddle, and they began another slow day of travel, Traveler’s shoeless front hoof limiting them to a slow walk.

 

Two hours later, the bounty hunter and his prisoner rode into a well-tended ranch yard with neatly painted buildings. Colorful flowers grew alongside the house, and several horses dozed in the corral. As the riders approached the house, a tall and lean man, gray-haired but lithe, stepped out of the barn at their approach, carrying a pitchfork in his hands, like he’d been interrupted in his work.

The bounty hunter pulled to a halt in the shade of the barn and offered up his best smile. “Howdy. My name’s Arthur McCrary. I’m a bounty hunter, and this man is my prisoner. His horse threw a shoe a ways back. I was hopin’ I could make a trade for a new mount,” the bounty hunter explained.

The man set the fork down, leaning it against the barn, rubbing his jaw as he thought. “I’m not generally in the horse tradin’ business, Mister McCrary, but I guess I’ve got a horse I could swap ya,” he said. “I’m Dan Anderson.”

Ignoring the conversation, Jess slid down off his horse, barely able to stumble over to sit on the edge of the water trough. He dipped his hands into the cool liquid, slurping the water from his palms, desperate to slake his raging thirst.

The rancher eyed him cautiously, then peered at the bounty hunter with a cold expression. “Your prisoner appears bad hurt, mister.”

“That’s what happens when a murderer resists arrest. He’ll make it to Colorado, one way or another, and then it won’t matter. He’s just goin’ back to hang,” McCrary answered.

“That’s a mighty cold attitude, mister,” Anderson shook his head unhappily, watching the prisoner splash water on his face. “Even an outlaw deserves better’n that.”

“I ain’t no outlaw, nor a murderer. This is all a mistake,” Jess looked hopefully up at the rancher. “I’ve been tellin’ him that, but he won’t listen.”

“Shut up, Harper,” McCrary snapped, then turned to the rancher. “He’s been whinin’ ever since I caught up to him, but there’s no mistake.” He pulled the wanted poster from his pocket and showed it to Anderson. “He killed a man down in Colorado, and he’ll tell any crazy story to keep his neck out of a noose.”

The rancher was not swayed. “Still, Mr. McCrary, I’m a Christian man. No one, no matter what he’s done, should be left to suffer. While we swap horses, my wife, Martha, she could take a look at him, patch him up some,” the man offered.

McCrary didn’t want the delay but he needed the man to sell him a horse, and the fellow just might refuse if he said no. “Okay,” he reluctantly agreed. “But your wife, she comes out here, where I can keep an eye on him. He’s a tricky one, and not to be trusted. You wouldn’t want your woman gettin’ hurt.”

The rancher nodded and hurried up to the house. A moment later a middle-aged woman emerged, carrying a basket filled with clean cloths and medical supplies.

While Anderson brought out a roan gelding, the woman unwrapped the old, blood-soaked bandage from around Jess’ ribcage and replaced it with a clean one, wrapping and tying the cloth neatly.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he told her softly, wincing at her gentle touch. “I appreciate this.”

“You’re welcome, young man,” she replied as she finished with her task. “May God have mercy on you,” she added, not unkindly.

By the time she was done, Jess’ saddle was already on the roan, and his own bay was turned loose in the corral.

With an effort, Jess hauled himself into the saddle of the new horse before turning to look over at the rancher. “Take good care of my bay, mister. His name’s Traveler. He’s a good horse, and I’ll be back for him,” he promised.

Anderson simply nodded and watched, troubled and frowning, as the bounty hunter and his prisoner rode out of the yard.

oOo

 

The water, rest and care had helped some. Jess felt a bit better and a little stronger, less like he was about to fall out of the saddle at any moment. He could only hope that the delay had given Slim time to be on hot on his trail.

Irked by the morning’s delay, McCrary set a faster pace. The thousand dollars was so close he could taste it, now that the Colorado border was so near.

oOo

 

“Looks like it’s our day for visitors, Martha,” Dan Anderson told his wife just over an hour later. “Someone’s ridin’ in.” The rancher stepped out of the house to greet the lone arrival, a tall and serious looking man aboard a dusty red sorrel horse.

The stranger touched his hat brim. “Howdy, I’m Slim Sherman, from Laramie.”

“Dan Anderson. This is my place. Say, you wouldn’t be the Sherman that runs the relay station?”

“Yup, that’s me.”

“Light, and water your horse if you’d like.”

Slim stepped down, leading the sorrel over to the water trough and watching while the horse dipped his muzzle in the cool liquid and drank greedily. Bending down, he splashed some water onto his own face, and when he raised his head, he looked into the corral. Quickly, he stood up straight and took a closer look. No mistake, that bay horse, that was Jess’ Traveler. He pointed over at the animal, “Where’d you get the bay, Mister Anderson?”

“Traded for him this morning. He’s off on the left front, but all he needs is a new shoe.”

“And the man ridin’ him?” Slim asked eagerly.

Anderson peered more closely at his visitor. “Friend of yours?”

“Yes, he is.”

Anderson drew back warily, reaching inside the house for his rifle.

“Whoa. There’s no need for that.” Slim soothed, putting on his friendliest smile.

Anderson was frowning. “There is if your friend’s a murderer.”

“He’s no murderer. It was all a mistake. A town down in Colorado issued a wanted poster last year but just a few days later they found the real murderer and cancelled the reward. That bounty hunter apparently didn’t get the word.”

“Your friend said the same,” the rancher explained. “If what you say is true, you better get ridin’, Mister Sherman.”

Slim looked at him, eyebrow raised in a silent question.

“Your friend’s hurt. My Martha fixed him up some, but he’s in a bad way. Bleeding a lot. And that bounty hunter, he don’t care a lick if your friend gets to Colorado pig or pork.”

Slim nodded and hurrying, stepped into the stirrup and swung aboard Alamo. “I’m obliged for any help you and your missus gave Jess. How far ahead are they?”

“Not much more’n an hour, and your friend’s slowin’ ‘em down some.” Anderson pointed south. “They took the trail toward Entwhistle. That’s a little town just across the border into Colorado Territory, but there’s a shortcut through my range, over that line of hills,” Anderson pointed to a steep ridge that rose above his ranch. “The trail ain’t much, it’s real rough going so as you couldn’t get a wagon over it, can barely make it with a horse, but if you ride hard, Mister Sherman, it’ll put you ahead of them in an hour, maybe less.”

“I will. Thanks.” Slim pulled his hat down tight and spun Alamo around, then glanced back. “And hold onto that bay horse, Mister Anderson. Jess is gonna want him back.” With that, he spurred Alamo and clattered out of the yard at a ground-eating gallop.

oOo

 

Slim pushed his horse hard up and over the hills. The sorrel was lathered and blowing as thirty-five minutes later they topped out on the ridge line. Stopping, Slim pulled out his field glasses and studied the landscape laid out below him, a long valley with a meandering stream shaded by cottonwoods flowing down the center of it. Following the line of the creek, he spotted a well-used trail skirting the hills as it came around from the east. That had to be the Entwhistle trail. And there, he glimpsed something moving. Focusing the glasses in on the movement, Slim could pick out two riders, moving slow, heading southwest.

Jess and the bounty hunter.

And he was ahead of them.

Slim stuffed the glasses back into his saddlebags and kneed Alamo down the slope toward the trail.

oOo

 

There wasn’t much cover along the road, but Slim found a spot to tie Alamo back in the trees. He took his rifle from its scabbard and made his way along the creek, close to the road, watching the two men approach. His anger flared as he realized Jess was tied to his horse, hands cuffed in front of him, and slumped over.

When the horses were only twenty yards away, Slim stepped out into the road, his gun out and pointed. “Stop right there, mister. Keep your hands where I can see ‘em.”

McCrary jerked his horse to a halt, holding his hands wide. “What do you want?”

“I want to see you in jail.”

“I’m a bounty hunter. I ain’t broke any law.”

Slim’s anger boiled over. “You bushwhacked a friend of mine, shot him in the back, broke into my home, kidnapped him, and threatened a woman and a child. I reckon the law could find a charge or two in there somewhere.” The tall rancher stepped closer, glaring at the bounty hunter, fear gnawing at his belly as he realized Jess was motionless. “He better be alive--” Slim snarled, and put a hand out to check for signs of life.

At the touch, Jess moaned softly.

“Jess?” Slim dug into his pocket, pulling out his small knife, slicing through the ropes binding him to the saddle.

With Slim distracted, McCrary took advantage of the moment. He kicked out at Slim, his boot catching the tall man on the shoulder and spinning him around. The bounty hunter ruthlessly jabbed his spurs into his horse’s belly and the animal leaped forward into a startled gallop. Jess’ mount, lead rope wrapped around the horn of McCrary’s saddle, surged forward alongside.

Slim jumped to his feet, raising his gun, but he couldn’t risk taking a shot for fear of hitting Jess. Jamming his gun back into its holster, he turned and raced for his horse, leaping into the saddle, spinning Alamo around and setting off in pursuit.

McCrary raced around the edge of the hill, and once out of sight of his pursuer, veered off the road and across the meadow, toward the trees.

oOo

Jess wasn’t quite aware of what was happening. He’d felt his horse surge into motion and out of instinct had clung to the saddle until the last of his waning strength gave out and he slid gracelessly out of the saddle, dropping like a stone into the knee-high meadow grass.

oOo

Realizing he’d just lost his thousand-dollar prize, McCrary pulled back on the reins, his horse sliding to a stop. His first thought was to go back for Harper, but the sound of rapidly approaching hoof beats forced him to drop the idea. He spurred his horse forward a dozen strides to the tree-lined stream, pulling his rifle from the scabbard as he dived out of the saddle, and ducked into the shelter of the overhanging stream bank.

The Laramie rancher, riding at a hard gallop, thundered into the meadow.

McCrary didn’t want to kill Sherman. Unlike taking down Harper, he knew he couldn’t justify putting a slug into the rancher. He fired three quick shots over the tall man’s head.

Slim reined Alamo hard left, into the trees, and took cover behind the trunk of a cottonwood.

McCrary fired again, and the slug spit splinters from the tree Slim was hiding behind. He turned to try to move the other way, and another bullet tore a furrow in the tree’s bark on that side.

He was pinned down, tight, and he didn’t know where Jess was.

Or even if his friend was still alive.

Just then, he heard a new, and very welcome, voice shout an order. “Drop your guns, mister. This is the law talkin’.”

Mort? Mort Cory? How did he get out here so quick? Slim wondered. “Mort? That you?”

“Slim? You okay?” Mort called out.

“Yeah.” The tall rancher stood up warily, then spotted the sheriff holding a gun on the bounty hunter. He hurried over to the man, his expression thunderous. “Where’s Jess?”

The bounty hunter said nothing.

Slim grabbed his shirt, pulling the man close until they were face to face. “Where’s Jess? Where is he?”

“Back there,” the man pointed out into the grassy meadow.

Slim gave the man a shove, throwing him to the ground and turned and ran. “Jess! Jess!” he called out as he searched frantically through the tall grass.

oOo

 

His name was being called and Jess tried to answer. That was Slim’s voice he was hearing, but his own was so weak he could barely hear himself. He cleared his dry throat and coughed, and then there was no need to try again, because Slim was suddenly there, kneeling beside him. “Hey Pard. How ya doin’?”

“Tired.”

Slim’s expression was grim as he saw the blood-soaked shirt, his chest drawing tight with worry. “We’ll get ya fixed up.”

“I tol’ … that …. fool the … poster was old.”

“I know. Don’t worry about that now.” Slim was ripping the tail off his shirt, folding it up into a thick pad and pressing it against the bleeding wound in Jess’ back.

Jess groaned.

“Sorry, pard, I know that hurts. But we got to slow the bleedin’ down some.”

“S’ all right.” Jess grimaced.

Just then, Mort arrived, herding McCrary along in front of him at gun point.

“Get the keys for these cuffs, huh?” Slim demanded.

Mort hastily searched through McCrary’s pockets and quickly produced the key, handing it to the tall rancher. “Here. How is he?”

“He’s lost an awful lot of blood. Forcin’ a wounded man to ride in this country, that’s akin to murder.” Slim’s voice was dark with anger, his eyes flashing as he glanced up at the bounty hunter. “It’s no way to treat any human being.”

“He’s on his way to the gallows anyway,” McCrary insisted stubbornly.

“No, he’s not,” Mort answered. “If you’d bothered to come and talk to me, you’d have known that. That poster was cancelled near a year ago.”

“I didn’t know.”

“I told you,” Jess mumbled.

Slim was gently removing the manacles from Jess’ wrists. He handed them to Mort, who quickly fastened them on McCrary.

“What’s this for?” the bounty hunter protested.

“I’m charging you with assault and attempted murder.” Mort lowered his voice. “And if he doesn’t make it, that’ll be murder.”

“Murder! You can’t hold me--!” McCrary stammered.

“Oh yes I can. That wanted poster doesn’t give you leave to go around shootin’ innocent people, in the back, from ambush,” the sheriff told him.

McCrary suddenly looked scared.

“Mister, if you’re a prayin’ man, you’d better start prayin’ Jess pulls through,” Mort snapped angrily.

oOo

 

With the bounty hunter cuffed to a tree, Slim and Mort quickly got Jess settled on a bedroll in the shade of one of the cottonwoods near the stream. Slim put a fresh bandage on the wound, his expression grim as he worked.

By the time he’d gotten Jess another drink from his canteen, blood was already soaking through the new bandage.

Mort pulled him aside, far enough away so that Jess couldn’t hear them, his face taut with worry. “I don’t like the look of that wound, Slim,” he whispered.

“Me neither. Not when he’s lost so much blood already.”

“There is one sure way to stop it.”

Slim blanched. “I know. I was thinkin’,” he paused, shaking his head, looking over at Jess, far too pale and still. “I can’t think of anythin’ else to do for him.”

“Then we’d better get to it.” Mort’s face softened. “I’ll do it if you want.”

Slim shook his head and squared his shoulders. “I will.”

Mort placed a hand on Slim’s shoulder and they walked back to Jess, Slim kneeling down beside his friend while the sheriff gathered wood and started a fire, stoking the flames.

Taking a deep breath, Slim put a hand on the cowboy’s forehead. “Jess.”

“Hmmm.”

The answer was softer and weaker than what Slim wanted to hear, with Jess’ eyes looking sleepy and drifting around rather than focusing on his face.

“Your wound’s still bleedin’, Jess.”

“I know.”

“An’ we got to stop it.”

“Yeah.”

“Only one way to do that out here, you know that.”

He saw Jess swallow hard, realizing what Slim meant even without the words being said, and wordlessly acknowledging the necessity of it. “Get to it then.”

Slim looked over at Mort, who was crouched beside the fire, holding the blade of his knife in the flames, his expression grim. The tall rancher watched as the sheriff pulled the blade from the fire and tipped the canteen, allowing a single drop to fall onto the hot metal. It sizzled and was gone.

Mort nodded, stood and walked over to the injured man, kneeling down beside Slim and handing him the red-hot knife.

Slim took it, staring at it a long moment before turning to let his worried eyes meet Jess’ pain-filled ones.

Jess nodded.

Mort held Jess’s shoulders.

Slim’s hands were shaking as he pulled away the blood-soaked bandage. He could feel the heat radiating off the knife blade. Once again, he looked at Jess’ face, watching Jess close his eyes in complete trust.

“Do it,” Jess whispered.

Do it quick, do it right, be done, Slim told himself, unable to breathe as he pushed the red-hot metal tip into the wound in Jess’ back, pressing it deeply into the skin.

“Arrgghhhh!” Jess hollered, rising up against the pressure of Mort’s hands on his shoulders, and then he fell back, unconscious.

As soon as he was done, Slim tossed the knife away, his face twisted into a bitter grimace, gagging at the smell of burnt flesh.

oOo

 

An hour later, Jess was still out, but Slim was sure he could see improvement in his friend’s condition. “I don’t think we should move him,” Slim told the sheriff. “The bleedin’s stopped, but he’s lost so much blood already he’s mighty weak. Maybe by morning I can get him back to that ranch where they swapped horses. That Anderson and his wife seemed like pretty decent folks.”

Mort nodded toward his prisoner. “I’ll get this fool back to Laramie and send the Doc out to the Anderson place. And I can let Daisy know what’s happened. She’s the one sent me out here, you know.”

“Figured that. But how’d you get here so quick?”

“Pure luck, Slim. I rode out early this morning to talk to one of the homesteaders about a missing cow. Stopped by your place for a cup of coffee.”

“And Daisy’s good breakfast,” Slim noted. Mort never missed a chance to enjoy Daisy’s cooking. “She and Mike okay? ”

Mort nodded. “She told me about the bounty hunter locking her and the boy in the root cellar. Mike’s great as always and Daisy, she’s fine, just mad, and worried sick about Jess.”

“Let her know you found us, soon as you can then, Mort. Thanks.” Slim looked over at the still figure lying beside the fire, brow furrowed with concern. “Don’t tell her too much, not until we know more. She don’t need to worry more.”

“I understand.” Mort slapped his friend on the back. “And how about you take some of your own advice, Slim. You know Jess will be just fine. He’s too cussed ornery to lose this fight.”

oOoOoOo

 

Three days later, the Andersons loaned Slim a buggy. Slim helped Jess up onto the seat, then hurried around to the other side to drive. With a slap of the reins on the rumps of the horses, and waving a grateful goodbye, they lurched into motion, Alamo and a freshly re-shod Traveler following on behind on leads. Slim watched his friend out of the corner of his eye, noting the grimace when the buggy started, and the way Jess was bracing himself against the vehicle’s motion, one arm wrapped protectively around his ribcage. “You sure you’re ready for this?” he asked, concern clouding his expression. Jess looked awfully pale and more than a mite wobbly, and the tight lines around his eyes indicated he was still feeling more pain than he’d ever admit to. “Maybe you ought to be lyin’ down.”

“I’ve been lyin’ down for three days, and I’m tired of it,” Jess replied. ‘You just watch where you’re driving, eh? If you didn’t hit every rut in the road,” he winced as a buggy wheel lurched through a pothole, “I’d be just fine.”

It was a long drive home, the road following a much longer route than the cross-country paths they’d traveled to get to the Anderson’s spread.

Less than an hour into the trip, and despite the roughness of the road, Jess was slumped on the seat, asleep. Slim let him rest.

oOo

 

“Hey Jess, better wake up. We’re home,” Slim told him hours later as they were finally trotting down the hill and into the ranch yard.

Jess opened his eyes and sat up straighter, blinking as he looked around the place with sleepy eyes. He’d sure missed the place—it was good to be home.

Mike came racing out to greet them, Daisy following behind, wiping her hands on her apron and smiling widely. The boy was bouncing around like a playful puppy, firing questions faster than Jess could fan his Colt. “How ya feelin’ Jess? Did ya have a good trip? Is Traveler all right? We’re sure glad you’re home.”

“Me, too, Tiger,” the cowboy answered with a smile.

“Hi Jess! Hi Slim!” Daisy called out cheerfully as she latched onto the boy. “You take it easy around Jess, you hear, Mike?” she ordered sternly.

“Sure, Aunt Daisy. I’ll be careful.”

Jess’ eyes met Daisy’s over Mike’s head as she handed the boy over to Slim.

She watched Jess climb down slowly without his usual grace, moving stiffly and carefully and favoring his side. Despite his obvious discomfort, she couldn’t stop smiling at the sheer pleasure of the sight of him—there’d been far too many hours over the past few days when she’d been sure she’d never see him alive again, the whole time from when the bounty hunter had locked her and Mike in the root cellar clear until Mort had arrived to give her the good news he’d been found. Even then, she’d never really stopped worrying until this very minute when he was right there in front of her and she could see with her own eyes that, though he was hurting, he was alive and on the mend. Blinking back the wetness in her eyes, she hurried to him and hugged him carefully. He was smiling, but that didn’t mask the paleness of his cheeks nor the weariness in his eyes.

Her soft eyes filled with concern. “I’m so glad you’re home.”

“It’s good to be here, Daisy,” he answered earnestly, kissing her cheek.

“You look tired,” she worried.

“Guess I am, kinda. It was a long ride. And you know how I love buggy rides. ‘Specially with Slim drivin’. He hits every chuck hole in the road.”

Daisy beamed at Jess, then looked up at Slim with a sly smirk. “You don’t have to tell me about it. I’ve ridden with him, and I nearly had my bones rattled apart. Now come on, Jess, let’s get you inside. We can’t have you overdoing things. You need a rest before dinner.”

Leaning on Slim, Jess walked slowly away from the buggy, into the house, and on into the bedroom, easing his sore body carefully down onto his bunk. It felt darned good to be sitting still, Jess admitted to himself. He had some healing to do before he was gonna go bouncing around in a buggy again anytime soon, no matter who was driving.

As soon as he was stretched out on the bed, he had to fight to keep his heavy eyes open. Daisy was bustling around, fluffing his pillows and bringing him an extra blanket and a glass of water for the bedside table. “I’m fine, Daisy. No need for all this fussin’.”

She stopped, looking down at him, and put her hand on his arm. “I know, Jess. But it makes me feel better. Gives me something to do. We’ve been awfully worried.”

“No need for that,” he answered gruffly.

“Of course there is,” she scolded him softly. “Now young man, you nap until supper’s ready. I even baked you a pie.”

“Apple?”

“Of course.”

That brought a smile to his face as he drifted off to sleep.

oOoOoOo

 

EPILOGUE

 

Jess eased out of the chair at the sound of hoof beats crossing the yard, wondering who was coming to visit. He walked carefully to the front door, peered out through the window, then hurried outside as fast as he could. He still wasn’t moving very fast, but it was better than he’d been moving yesterday, or the day before, he thought wryly.

Slim had already pulled Alamo to a halt by the corral and was tying up the other horse he had trailing along behind.

Recognizing the animal, Jess made his way across the yard, breaking into a smile as he walked up to the gray colt. “Where’d you find him, Slim?” he asked, stroking the gray’s sleek shoulder. “I thought we’d never seem him again.”

“He must have been really spooked by all the shootin’. The Parkisons found him wandering out on the edge of their range the end of last week. Saw the brand and knew he was ours, but they’ve been so busy over there, no one’s had time to return him.” Slim was watching Jess closely, puzzled by the happy smile on the cowboy’s face. “You know, I didn’t think you were *that* fond of this horse, Jess.”

The cowboy pointed at the gear the horse carried, the saddle scratched and battered but everything intact except for the broken-off reins. “I ain’t. But that’s my saddle he’s wearin’ and my carbine in the scabbard. *Those* I’m glad to have back.”

Slim smiled but cautioned his friend, “Yeah, well, it’s gonna be a few days yet before you’re ready to use ‘em.”

Jess glared. “You’ve been talkin’ to Daisy, haven’t ya?”

“No, I’ve been watchin’ you. Don’t be in too much of a hurry.”

Jess was shaking his head in mock amazement. “Dadgum, now that’s something I thought I’d never hear, Slim Sherman tellin’ me to take more time off from work.”

“No, I just want you healthy when you *do* get back to work. I don’t want to be hearin’ any excuses for slackin’ off.”

Jess’ eyebrows shot upward. “Me, slack off? When have I ever?”

“Oh, Mondays. Tuesdays. Wednesdays—“ Slim was smiling as he shortened his stride to walk alongside Jess, and they headed to the house together.

 

oOoOoOo -- The END -- oOoOoOo

 



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