With a thousand thanks to Annie for all her hard work and patience with me.

 

************************************************************

 

A Little Town Called Bravo

By Betsy

 

CHAPTER ONE

The man caught my attention the minute he slouched through the door.  He moved with his head down and his shoulders hunched, the look of a man who has spent a long time in a hot, dusty saddle.  And dusty he was.  The gray adobe dust oozed off of him and faded the color of his clothing, his face, and his day old stubble, making him into a sort of weird ghost.  He slumped into a seat at an empty, isolated table, facing the door, and began pulling off his black leather gloves, more gray then black now. 

 

As I moved between tables to greet him, I winced as the dust settled on my clean, spotlessly white tablecloth.  I spent hours each day making sure they were pristine.  Most folk want to eat off a clean surface, but this hombre didn’t seem to care.  I made sure a smile was in place as I reached his side and welcomed him in my best waitress style.

 

“Hello, welcome to Bravo, what’ll you have?”

 

He glanced up, sort of sideways, the way a tired man would.  His blue eyes were shaded by thick lashes, and despite his apparent weariness, he actually looked rather young, younger than I expected, at least.  My heart went out to the poor boy, and I determined that he would have the best service at the lowest price I could offer.

 

“Coffee.”  The word seemed an effort, his voice was unlike any I’d ever heard before, deep and gravelly.

 

“Ice cold lemonade on the house today,” I volunteered.  The ‘ice cold’ part must have gotten to him, interest flickered in his eyes and he nodded.

 

“Will you have something to eat?”

 

He glanced at the menu on the table.  “Yeah, I’ll take the steak and mashed potatoes.”

 

I nodded.  “Do you still want the coffee?” I asked.

 

“Sure.”

 

I nodded again and hurried to the kitchen where I buried a glass in the chest of ice.  Ice was a luxury here in southern Utah Territory, and we paid a pretty fancy price to have it shipped from up north, packed in sawdust, but it sure made our customers happy.  While it cooled I gave to order to Rosita for his plate and told her to pile the potatoes high.  Then I removed a pitcher of lemonade from the chest of ice and poured the glass as full as I could.  I placed it on the tray with the large plate of steak and potatoes, two fluffy biscuits, and a small bowl of Swiss chard and sliced radishes and carried it back to the dining room. 

 

His hat was now off and the contrast between the sweat-stained hair the hat covered and what it didn’t was vivid.

 

I balanced the tray on the table beside him and placed food on the table.  “Refills are free,” I said.

 

“This looks good,” he replied.  The prospect of a decent meal seemed to alleviate his weariness and he dug in even before I had turned my back. 

 

As I served the last latecomers in the small café, I kept my eye on the trail weary stranger.  When the plate and glass were empty, I was there and offering seconds.  He wavered for a few seconds before giving in to my offer.

 

This time I replaced the salad with a bowl of chilled fruit, watermelon and strawberries, and brought his cup of coffee, and he actually grinned when I returned.

 

“You sure know how to feed a man around here,” he said.

 

“That’s our business.”  I placed my hands on my hips and watched him tuck into the food as if he hadn’t eaten for a week.  His hunger was obviously somewhat abated as he didn’t shovel in the food as quickly as he had before, but I had seen better manners.  After a few bites he looked up.

 

“I don’t suppose ya know where I could get a room as good as yer cookin’?” he asked, having the good grace not to speak with his mouth full.

 

“Across the street’s the only hotel.  It’s clean, has nice rooms and a bath…” it slipped out before I could stop myself.

 

“Oh, I get it.” He half chuckled.  Funny what a meal will do for a person.  He came dragging in here looking to be at the end of his rope, and here he was laughing, albeit apologetically.  I blushed and set about making up for my words, even though they were true.

 

“May I offer you some pie?”

 

He felt the pocket of his vest and started to shake his head.

 

“It’s on the house,” I said.  It wasn’t quite a lie, the house, or at least the owner of the house, would be paying for it.

 

He looked at me a while and I hoped I wasn’t blushing under his stare.  At last he nodded.

 

“Sure, what kind?”

 

“Do you like apple?”

 

“My favorite kind!”

 

I was soon back with a large piece of pie, a wedge of cheese and the coffee pot.  I refilled his and a few other cups around the room and removed some empty dishes.

 

After awhile I saw him stand and fish a few coins from his vest pocket and place them on the table.  He looked around, I guess to say goodbye to me, but I was behind him and behind a tall customer and he didn’t see me.  He strode from the café with a new spring in his step, and from the window I saw him untie a dark bay horse from the hitching rail in front of the café and make his way down the street in the direction of the livery stable.

 

**********

 

He was back the next morning, I supposed for breakfast, although most of the regulars had long since finished theirs.  He had bathed and shaved and looked like a human being again instead of some range critter.  I laid aside the broom I was using and met him at the same table he’d used last night.

 

“Good morning,” I welcomed cheerily.

 

“Mornin’.  Say, you’re pretty quiet this mornin’, ain’t cha?” he returned.  I couldn’t help but give him a gentle ribbing as I replied,

 

“We normally are… by this hour.”  He ducked his head and laughed up at me through those long lashes.  “Why, right now I’d peg him as being about twelve years old,” I thought.

 

“Yeah, Slim’s always gittin’ after me fer stayin’ abed sa long,” he confided.

 

“Slim?” I asked as I waited for him to make up his mind about breakfast.

 

“My boss up in Laramie.  I think I’ll have the pancakes and eggs, and…coffee.” 

 

“Coming right up,” I promised.

 

When I brought his order and was laying it out on the table, he began to talk, the look of the twelve year old being replaced by that of a man with something on his mind.

 

“I guess you know the folks in town pretty good,” he started.

 

“Aha” I thought, “So this is why he’s here.”

 

“You could say that,” I agreed.

 

“Ever hear of a man named Bud Simpson?” he asked.

 

The name was unfamiliar.  “No,” I shook my head.  “What does he look like?”

 

“Kinda tall, a little heavy, seems real nice an’ polite, smiles a lot.”

 

“That description could fit a lot of people,” I frowned, reviewing my recent customers.  “Is there anything special about him, the way he talks, or walks, or wears his clothes that might set him apart?”

 

“Na, ‘cept he wears right fancy duds, an’ he’s kinda an older feller.”

 

“Mmm.  Well, I’ll keep my eyes open, but I can’t promise much.”  I started to turn back to the kitchen, but stopped and turned to my hungry patron.  “I don’t even know your name,  I smiled.

 

“Harper, ma’am, Jess Harper.”

 

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Harper.  Mine is Susan Dandridge.”

 

“A pleasure, Miss Dandridge.”

 

I left him then and returned to the kitchen, where I filled Rosita in on the man we were to look for and collected the mop and pail she had ready for me.

 

To my surprise, Mr. Harper left his breakfast to help me set the chairs, upside down, on the tables so I could mop underneath them before returning to his breakfast.  As I neared the door with my mop, I saw a figure striding towards the café and the color flew to my face.  Inwardly I grumbled about my fair complexion, knowing that my blush was always obvious.

 

The door opened and the tall, lanky figure of the sheriff entered.  He removed his broad brimmed hat and nodded courteously, after his eyes swept the inside of the building.

 

“Good mornin’ Susan,” he said and his deep voice sent delicious tingles from the ends of my toes to the tips of my fingers.  I felt my blush deepen as I replied, just as calmly, I think,

 

“Good morning, Clay.  Would you care for some breakfast?”

 

“Please, the usual.”  After a moment he moved across the room and joined Mr. Harper at his table.

 

Abilene, wan’ it?” I heard Clay ask after exchanging pleasantries. 

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Long time ago.”  There was silence for a moment and then Clay continued, nonchalantly, “Heard ya changed businesses since then.”  It was almost a question, and I stalled going out of hearing range to catch the answer.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Glad ta hear it.”

 

I left then and made up Clay’s tray of ham and eggs and a tall glass of milk, adding a special touch in the form of a letter I’d written the night before that I slipped inside the napkin.  He being the sheriff and all, we didn’t have as much time as we’d like to talk, so he’d though up this way of exchanging letters when he came in for his meals.

 

I returned to the dining room and delivered the tray, accepting Clay’s letter and tucking in my apron pocket without being noticed.  I would read it later when I got a chance.

 

“What brings ya ta Bravo?”  Clay asked.  The room was small enough that I could hear without meaning to, and I am afraid I must confess I was interested.

 

“Business.”  Mr. Harper growled

 

“Bravo ain’t much on servin’ cattlemen.”

 

“Ain’t that kind a business.

 

“Ner stage line business, neither.”

 

“Ya sure are nosey, ain’tcha,” Mr. Harper marveled.

 

“‘At’s my business.  Reputation like you’ve got, pays ta be nosey.  I ain’t partial ta havin’ my town shot up.”  Clay was cool as a cucumber.  I held my breath.

 

“That a threat?”  Danger tinged Mr. Harper’s question.

 

“Nope.  I’ll level with ya, Harper, if you’ll level with me.  I aim ta keep the peace around here, an’ you ain’t exactly known fer bein’ peaceable.  Granted, the trouble that ya find sa easy ta git knee-deep in ain’t always yer makin’, but ya still manage ta make things pretty hot.”

 

Mr. Harper pushed his plate back and leaned back in his chair, looking straight at Clay, a faint grin teasing the corners of his eyes that faded as he began to speak.  “Alright, I’ll level with ya.  I’m lookin’ fer a man named Bud Simpson.”  Mr. Harper went on to describe this fellow, and Clay told him he’d heard of him, but had never seen him.

 

“What’s he done this time?”

 

“Robbed a friend of mine an’ left me fer dead.”

 

Clay whistled through his front teeth.  “Must be might dern quick on the draw.  I sure don’t see you gittin’ any slower.”

 

Na, an’ I don’t figure he’s sa quick, either.  Got me in the back—ambush.”

 

“I see.”  Clay used a biscuit to mop up the rest of his eggs, wiped his mouth on the napkin and stood, fishing a coin from his pocket and dropping it on the table.  “Oh, by the way, what went on in Gunsight, Colorado?”

 

“Gunsight?!”  Mr. Harper’s brow furrowed and the surprise showed on his face.

 

“In these little backwater towns we sometimes git a new batch a wanted posters.  Trouble is, they fergit ta cancel ‘em more times than not.  Now, I know ya ain’t guilty, leastwise, not of murder.  That never was yer style.  Thing is, though, does the rest of the law?”

 

The frown on Mr. Harper’s face had disappeared as Clay spoke.  Now he stood to his feet and shook Clay’s hand.  “Yeah, they know.  I was cleared of all charges.  I got the papers….”  He reached for his inside vest pocket with his left hand, but Clay stopped him with a wave of the hand. 

 

“Your word’s good ‘nough fer me.  That’ll be one poster I’ll be glad ta git rid of, if I kin find it, that is.”

 

“If ya can find it?”

 

“I don’t hang up wanted posters of my friends, ‘specially when I know they’re innocent.  We are friends, ain’t we?”

 

Mr. Harper’s hand strayed up to rub his jaw.  “After that night in Abilene, I sure hope so!”

 

Clay laughed and slapped his shoulder.  “Yeah, well, I don’t fancy another broke nose.  I don’t look sa good with two black eyes, ya know!”  He shook Mr. Harper’s hand again and left, going out of his way to pass beside me.

 

“Breakfast was better than ever, Susan,” he said, just low enough for me to hear, “I’ll see ya this evenin’; same time as usual?”

 

“Oh, yes,” I breathed, clutching the mop handle and feeling very starry-eyed.

 

“Fine,” he touched his star, which was pinned near his heart, and I responded by touching the left side of my blouse, near my heart.

 

Clay had figured out this special symbol as well.  We are both quiet people and don’t like everyone knowing how we feel about each other.  (Woe be unto my fair face!)  So, by touching our hearts, we are able to say that we love each other without the whole town knowing.

 

**********

 

That evening during our walk I asked Clay about Abilene and Mr. Harper.

 

“Well,” he said, scratching the back of his head, “It all started one night after dark.  I was the deputy in Abilene at the time and somebody come runnin’ over ta the sheriff’s office ta say that there was a fight at the saloon.  We took off over there, and, boy howdy, was there ever a fight!  The whole place was in on the rumpus an’ most of ‘em seemed ta be gangin’ up on this young drifter, Harper.  We moseyed on over ta the bar an’ asked the bar tender what it was all about.  He said a hot headed young kid with more grit than brain had accused the drifter a cheatin’.  Harper denied it, an’ the kid, who was unarmed, walked around the table an’ knocked him down.  Harper hopped right back up an’ knocked the kid down, so the kid’s friends got in on it, an’ their friends joined in, an’ there ya were.  ‘Bout that time Hank, the sheriff, went down, hit on the back of the head with a whisky bottle.  I couldn’t get their attention by yellin’, so I shot inta the air a couple a times. 

 

“Ever’body else calmed down, but Harper just kept on sluggin’.  I waded through the crowd an’ tried ta pull him away from the other man, an’ he busted my nose.  So I decked him, an’ hauled him an’ the kid off ta jail, since Hank was out a the picture fer awhile.  He sure didn’t like where he was when he come to the next mornin’.  When he’d cooled down some I told him he’d better behave hisself or leave town.  He decided ta behave hisself an’ hung around fer awhile. 

 

“Before he left we had a couple chances ta talk.  I knew his reputation as a fast gun fer hire, but what I didn’t know was that even when he hired it out, the job had ta suit his ideas of right an’ wrong, which, fortunately weren’t too haywire, an’ I came ta respect him.  Maybe he wasn’t the easiest feller ta git along with, an’ maybe he’d done some things he shouldn’t, but in his own cockeyed way he was tryin’ ta do what he thought was right.

 

“Well, after a few days he just packed his gear an’ left, an’ I never saw him again until now.  I sorta kept tabs on him fer awhile after that, an’ he proved my hunch right about his sense of right an’ wrong.  I was mighty glad ta hear ‘bout him hangin’ up his ‘trouble gun’ fer good.”

 

“What about this Bud Simpson?” I asked.

 

“Simpson’s got a reputation hisself as a big spender.  He’s careful feller who’s polite ta ever’body when it suits his purposes.  There’s been stories a people gittin’ hurt after crossin’ him, but there was never enough evidence ta be able ta blame it on him.  I ain’t sure why Harper figures he’s own his way ta Bravo, but I sure hope he don’t show.”

 

“And if he does?” I whispered.

 

“If he does I reckon fur’ll fly, an’ maybe, when the dust settles some, he’ll find hisself in jail.  He’s a tough ol’ bird an’ I wantcha ta keep yer eyes open.  If he does show, you be mighty careful, ya hear?”  Clay held me by the shoulders and kept eye contact until I nodded.  Then he pulled me into his chest, and we didn’t worry about any Misters Harpers or Simpsons for the rest of our promenade.

 

**********

The next couple of days followed much the same pattern.  Mr. Harper would come in for breakfast, making it with the rest of the crowd after the first day, and then hit the trail and be out until supper, looking for something that would help him find his enemy, I supposed.  Clay would come in whenever he got the chance, and we would go walking in the evenings. 

 

Then on the afternoon of the third day, things began to change. 

 

It was lunch time, and busier than ever.  The stage had brought a full load and a few riders had also tied up out front.  I finally made my way over to an older gentleman sitting at a table alone.

 

Ever since Mr. Harper had told me who he was looking for, I had paid close attention to every stranger in town.  Today, since the stage pulled in with all the new arrivals, I had been hearing Mr. Harper’s voice rumbling out the description in the back of my mind:

 

‘Kinda tall, a little heavy, real nice an’ polite, smiles a lot, wears right fancy duds, kinda an older feller.’ 

 

Now as I approached this gentleman the dirge pushed itself to the forefront of my attention, and I was almost whispering as I check items off his list,

 

“Tallish, heavy-ish, fancy clothes, older, well, the latter end of middle aged. We’ll see how polite he is and about his smile…”

 

“Welcome to Bravo, sir, what’ll you have?” I smiled.

 

“Why, thank you, my dear!” He leaned back in his chair and smiled, a sticky sweet smile that made the back of my neck crawl.  “A very nice place you have here.  I’ll bet you get a lot of customers with your pretty face.”

 

“For shame!” I snipped back, mentally of course.  If this was Bud Simpson, and he sure fit the description, he was dangerous, and I couldn’t afford to have him leaving my place before I could alert Mr. Harper or Clay.  So I pretended the color on my face was a coy blush instead of flags of anger and dropped my lashes.  Clay had told me once they had the potential of being dangerously pretty.

 

“Oh, go on.” I smiled demurely up through a red-gold screen.  “Have you decided what you’d like to eat?”

 

“Let’s see,” he glanced back at his menu.  “I think I have the beef stew and dumplings for starters.  The menu says biscuits go with every meal?”

 

“That’s right.”  I fought to keep the distaste out of my voice and to keep a hint of liking in, sure Clay would understand.

 

“That’ll be fine then.  And how ‘bout you come sit down when you bring it back and we’ll have a real conversation, huh?” he invited, with another sickening smile.

 

“With all these customers!”  I half laughed, trying to keep a smile in place instead of curling my lip in disgust.

 

“Of course, forgive me.  We’ll talk later.

 

“Over my dead body!” I fumed inwardly.

 

As I passed the last table by the kitchen door, Old Pete spoke in a soft tone.

 

“Uh, oh, Red-head’s got her dander up!”

 

Old Pete had been a regular since my father owned the place before me, and he was one of the best friends I had.  He and Clay were the only ones who could get away with using that name.

 

I patted his shoulder and slipped him a cookie on my way back through.

 

“I stick around an’ keep the peace,” he promised, settling back for a long stay.

 

The suspected Mr. Simpson hung around after everyone else left, but when he found he couldn’t outstay dear Old Pete, he gave up and stalked out the door.  Old Pete followed suit soon after with a wink for me and a pocketful of fresh cookies.

 

When the street was clear, I informed Rosita of my destination and set out for Clay’s office.  It was locked and a sign informed me that he was ‘Out’.  When I stopped at the livery stable, Jeb informed me Mr. Harper had stopped by for his horse that morning and was still somewhere out of town.

 

I returned to the café and began to help Rosita clean up the dining room.  My mother had died when I was just a babe in arms and Father had hired Rosita to come care for me.  She seldom spoke, and even more seldom in English, preferring Spanish or the tongue of the Arapaho, being a member of both races.  From the time I was very young she had trained me in both languages, until I spoke them almost as fluently as she did.

 

She had just left to start supper preparations when I heard the door open behind me and the uneven tread of boots scuffing along the floor.  Surprised, I looked over my shoulder, and then turned full about to face a tall, battered man.  He had one hand wrapped around his waist, the other leaning heavily on the back of a chair.  His face was down and shaded by a filthy hat, and ‘filthy’ well described the rest of him as well.  If an area wasn’t covered in dirt, it was in blood, and in many places, both were present.

 

I stared for a few minutes at the appalling sight before gathering my senses.

 

“Rosita,” I cried and rushed forward to catch him as he began sagging to the floor.  “Rosita, ayudame!”

 

Rosita emerged from the kitchen just as his eyes closed and he swayed toward my clean floor.  He was almost too heavy for me and I struggled to keep both our balances.

 

Rosita pulled a chair out from a table and positioned it so I could lower him into it, and together we dragged him to the kitchen door.  Here was where the trouble would begin.  A single step led to the kitchen and there was a whole flight of them to the bedroom where we aimed to take him.  To this day I am not sure how we managed to get his long dead weigh up those twenty-one stairs and onto my bed, and I don’t care to try and remember.  All that matters is that we did. 

 

Rosita hastened me off to fetch some hot water, and when I returned she had stripped him and cut a hole in a sheet to fit over his head, as nothing we had in the house would fit him.  We washed and bandaged, and even went fishing for a bullet buried in his shoulder.  He was a sorry mess to behold, even after we got him cleaned up.  His face was a mass of black and blue and purple bruises, with angry red flags heralding the presence of an ugly fever flying high in his cheeks.  We washed the blood and dirt from his blond hair and prayed that the lump we found was not too serious.  At last we were through, and Rosita bundled up his soiled clothing to take to the laundry bin.  I knew she would not only go through his pockets there, but also see to supper and call me when it was time to wait on tables.  In the meantime, I did my best to keep him comfortable and induce the fever to decrease.

 

**********

 

Thankfully Mr. Harper made it back to town in time for supper tonight, so I was able to tell him of the stranger that fit his description of Mr. Simpson.

 

“Say, you’re kind cute when you’re mad,” he chuckled.  I am afraid I described the stranger a little too forcefully.  I snapped his plate on the table in front of him and wished I could think of a smart retort.  I couldn’t though, and had to suffice with a glare.

 

“I thought you said he was polite,” I finally said, after I had made another round of the dining room.

 

“Some girls think he is,” was his reply.

 

“Ick.”  I said, unglamorously.  He chuckled, drained his coffee cup, and stood.

 

“You say he’s at the hotel?” 

 

I started to nod but stopped when I saw him stiffen, his eyes flashing to the door, and his hand dropping to his gun.

 

“Please, not in here,” I whispered once I had glanced over my shoulder, putting my hand on the front of his shoulder.  “Go out the back door before he sees you, and tell the sheriff,” I begged, giving him a little push.

 

“Alright,” he growled reluctantly, and retreated toward the kitchen while I drew Mr. Simpson’s attention in the opposite direction.  I was grateful that Mr. Harper didn’t start anything in the café, but a niggling fear wondered if I hadn’t set him up for even more trouble. 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

He struggled to open his eyes but his eyelids felt as heavy as lead.  He started to stir, but the movement brought such pain that he ceased.  One thing though, the pain had helped get his eyes open and he surveyed his surroundings with growing curiosity.  He was in a gabled room, probably in an attic.  The roof was unfinished and the rafters were used to hang things from.  He could see drying strings of beans, corn, and flowers along the wall to his left and a brightly colored curtain obscured the wall in front of him.  Also to his left was a window, shaded by a large tree.  A rocker sat by the window next to a small table with a woman’s sewing basket on it. 

 

Turning his head, he encountered the bright, unblinking gaze of two shiny black eyes set in a face so wrinkled that there seemed to be wrinkles upon wrinkles.  It was an old woman, with skin the color of wood and hair as white as the driven snow.  A movement caught his eye and he looked down to her hands.  She was deftly spinning wool into yarn with a drop spindle without a single glance at her hands.  This he knew for when he looked up again, she was still studying him.  As he looked up, she smiled a toothless smile and spoke, her voice creaky with age, but still possessing a vitality that belied her age wrinkled face.

 

“¿Comó estás, mijo?”  At his blank look, she turned to English.  “How art thou, my son?”

 

He wanted to say he was fine, but could he have some water, however, all he could manage was “Water,” in a voice that surprised him by its weak hoarseness.

 

She rose and dipped a ladle into a blue water jar standing on the table by the bed.  Lifting his head with surprising strength, she held the dipper to his lips until he had finished the cool liquid.  Replacing the dipper, she removed the cloth from his forehead and replaced it with a wet one that was unexpectedly cold.  Then she smoothed his hair back with a hand gnarled with age, but soft as a rose petal.

 

“Sleep, my son, will do thee best,” she crooned, and resumed her spinning.  “Sleep, and soon thou wilt eat.”

 

He was glad to hear this, and surprised that he was glad.  How long had it been since he’d eaten, anyway?  Where was he, and why was he, well, were ever he was?  As he lay there listening to the sound of the birds in the tree outside the window, sounds from below drifted up to him.  He could hear the clink and clatter of dishes and the hum of voices.   Sounds were not the only thing that drifted up, he could also smell tantalizing odors that made him hope ‘soon’ really was soon.

 

He must have dozed, because the next then he knew, the old woman was gone and a slip of a girl with fiery red hair piled on top of her head was bending over him.  Her grey-green eyes were framed by long, curling, red-gold lashes, and danced when she smiled to see him open his eyes.  Her nose wrinkled when she smiled, too, and he decided that she was right nice to look at.

 

“Good morning,” she smiled, “Or rather, good night!  Do you think you could eat something?”

 

“Sure could,” he croaked, trying to return her smile, but his face felt awfully stiff.  She put her arm around his shoulder and helped him sit up, slipping another pillow under his shoulders.  He was shocked to realize that even that had winded him and left him feeling shaky.

 

 She sat in the chair beside the bed and placed a tray on his lap.  Picking up the spoon, she dipped it in the bowl of broth and raised it to his lips.  He swallowed hungrily and turned his eyes back to his nurse.  Her tiny frame was almost completely covered by a large white apron which she wore over a blue gingham dress with a soft, white, rolled collar open to reveal a small heart-shaped locket on a thread of a golden chain that nestled in the hollow of her throat.  Her sleeves were rolled above the elbow and her arms were nicely sunburned.

 

He opened his mouth to ask a question, but was forestalled by a spoonful of broth. 

 

“You may talk after you’ve eaten,” she answered the question in his blue eyes, and filled his mouth with more soup.

 

He planned to talk plenty after he’d eaten, but by the time the bowl was satisfactorily empty, he was so worn out that she had barely lowered him to a single pillow before he was back in the world of dreamless sleep.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

“Ouch!”  The tall blond jerked under my gentle touch.  Poor fellow, he sure had received more than his fair share of hard knocks recently.  He continued to toss and mumble, and, as much as I hated to, I feared he would undue some of the good rest had done him, so I uncorked the brown bottle the doctor had left.

 

“Jess, stay away!”

 

“What?”  I cried, the spoon fell unheeded to the table, and I leaned over the delirious cowboy.  “What did you say?”  I hoped my words would get through and he would say more.

 

“Stay back, Jess, I don’t want any more trouble…” his words trailed off, and I wrung my hands and frowned.  Picking up the spoon, I filled it, my mind racing.  Mr. Harper’s first name was Jess.  Was he connected to this poor man, perhaps to the trouble he was in?  He couldn’t have been the one to put him in this bed, though.  Mr. Harper hadn’t a mark on him, and he sure didn’t seem the type to stand by and watch as a hired man did his dirty work.

 

“Open,” I said, and I guess my words reached through his delirium, because he opened his mouth, just enough for me to pour the brown fluid down his throat.

 

He made an awful grimace and shuddered.  I had always heard this stuff tasted vile, I guess it really did. 

 

He had been here three days now and we knew just as much about him as I did when I saw him standing in the doorway.  He had been unconscious or under the influence of the laudanum ever since that first evening when he awoke, and his pockets had been empty.  Thankfully, I suppose, the fever kept him out of it enough that we didn’t have to use the painkiller often.  The bruises on his face were not quite as bad as they had been and it looked as though when they were gone he would be a fairly decent looking young man.  Of course, I sighed dreamily, he couldn’t hold a candle with a certain other party, who also happened to wear a badge.

 

The days slowly rolled by until at last he was able to sit up and eat by himself.  Then came being up short periods of time and even walking about.  Rosita and I kept him hidden up in my room with only the doctor and my sheriff knowing about him.  We all figured that what with all the trouble that had sort of arrived together, it might be wise to keep him out of the way until he could take care of himself. 

 

We finally learned his name, and only by his volunteering it.  I wanted to know as little about him as possible, just in case he ought to be in jail instead of loose in my house.  The better he got the more trouble he became to keep in line.  He was supposed to keep his arm in the sling, but he couldn’t resist taking out on the sly.  A person has to be pretty sly to get past Rosita, and I don’t do so bad myself, so his arm stayed where it belonged most of the time.

 

Mr. Harper and Clay were presently working together on Mr. Harper’s investigation of Bud Simpson.  In the evenings they would come to parley in the café, and I must admit the sessions were pretty interesting.  Mr. Harper wanted Clay to arrest Mr. Simpson right away for his crimes, but Clay put him off, protesting that, while he believed Mr. Harper entirely, it was just his word against Mr. Simpson, the rest of the witnesses being conveniently out of the way for good, or basing their claims on hearsay and circumstantial evidence.  They decided at last to lay low and keep their ears and eyes open and hope Mr. Simpson would make a mistake Clay could arrest him for sooner or later.  Clay, I knew, was hoping for sooner, not sure how long he could keep his hot headed friend at bay.

 

**********

 

One morning as I was taking a load of clean bed linen upstairs, I caught Mr. Sherman standing by the bed table.  He looked cautiously over his shoulder, and I ducked behind the wall, wondering what he was up to.  He had the laudanum bottle in his hand, and I feared the worst until I realize that it was the fact that the laudanum was in an old whisky bottle that had caught his attention, so I stayed under cover to watch the fun. 

 

He pulled out the cork and raised the bottle to his lips, tipping his head back.  Almost immediately his head came down, and he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, coughing and glaring at the bottle.

 

“‘And again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.’” I quoted with a grin.  “And put your arm back in the sling.”

 

“That stuff ain’t for that neither,” he retorted between coughs, whirling at the sound of my voice, and setting the bottle back on the table to obey my order.  “What is it?”

 

“Laudanum.”

 

He raised the bottle again, his confusion written all over his face.

 

“The other bottle had a crack in it.  The doctor poured it into that one after scrubbing it, but I’m afraid no amount of scrubbing can eliminate that horrid smell.” I wrinkled my nose.

 

“Oh.  Say, do you suppose I could come downstairs for breakfast this morning?” he asked eagerly.

 

I hesitated, casting a sharp glance at him.  Mr. Harper had not yet come in for breakfast, and I hoped for Mr. Sherman’s sake he wouldn’t as I reluctantly agreed.

 

“Alright.  I suppose, since you think you’re well enough to try and poison yourself with liquor, that you’re well enough to come downstairs.”  I started down myself, with him on my heels.  Half turning back, I waved a threatening finger up at him from about the level of his stomach.  “But no shenanigans now, you hear, or it will back to bed with you for sure!”

 

He chuckled.  “Yes, ma’am.”

 

I helped him settle into a chair at the first table we came to.  The trip had taken more out of him than he cared to admit; his face was ashen and his breath whistled between his teeth.  I hurried for his breakfast and returned just in time to see Mr. Harper come through the front door.  Quickly serving Mr. Sherman, I hurried to greet this shorter, brunette cowboy.

 

“Well, I’d ‘bout given up on you,” I welcomed, trying to steer him to a table where he would be unable to see the other man, Mr. Sherman’s warning to a man named Jess ringing loud in my head.  Mr. Harper would have none of it though and suddenly stiffened, and I knew he had seen my patient.  Before I could make a move, he was thrusting aside a chair that stood in his way and almost running across the room.

 

“Slim!” he cried, in a funny, almost choked up voice.

 

“Jess?”  Mr. Sherman started to stand, but sank back to his seat with a groan.

 

Mr. Harper knelt beside him and started to reach out, but stopped, seeming almost afraid to touch him.  “You alright?  What happened?”  His voice carried a threat that I now realized was for the perpetrator, rather than for the wounded man.

 

“Yeah, I’m fine, now.  I just had a little run in with a certain party, that’s all.”

 

 

“A little run in!  Do ya know who it was?”

 

“I think it was Simpson’s men, but like always, I have no proof ‘cept my own word.”

 

“What made ya leave the ranch?”  Mr. Harper demanded.

 

“When we didn’t hear from ya for so long, Daisy an’ I decided I should go look fer ya.  I trailed ya ta that house ya stayed at while ya recovered.  Ya know, ya left quite an impression on that old lady.”  Mr. Sherman’s voice carried a hint of teasing.

 

“Yeah, well, how’d this happen ta ya?”

 

“I rode into an ambush.  They shot at me, but almost missed, so they came in ta finish off the job with their fists.”

 

“Any idea as ta why?”

 

“Seemed like they was afraid I was gonna make trouble fer ‘em.  An’, Jess, I plan ta do just that.”

 

I slipped out at this point to fetch Mr. Harper’s breakfast, amazed, and a little frightened at how everything was building up to what could only prove to be a grand climax.

 

They had a fine catching up session over breakfast, and then Mr. Harper fetched the sheriff, as Mr. Sherman was in no condition to go see him.  The three of them hunkered low over the table, taking care this time to keep their voices low.  I left the room.

 

Clay came in search of me when they were through with their conference and pulled me into a tender embrace.

 

“Are you absolutely sure ya don’t mind marryin’ a lawman?”  he asked, dead serious.

 

I matched his seriousness as I replied to the affirmative.  “Absolutely, positively certain.”

 

“Even with the dangers I have ta go through?”

 

“Even with the danger.  I trust you, Clay, to use your head, even when others don’t, and further more, I trust your guardian angel and the timing of the Master.  When He says it’s time, it’ll be time.  Not before, not after.  I also trust that when that time comes, He will be there to give me the comfort I shall need.  Philippians 4:13, after all.”

 

I think he might have kissed me then, but Rosita made her slow, deliberate way into the room, and we decided to wait.  Clay returned to his duties then, and I to the dining room to clean up after my latecomers.

 

“Will you two be in church on Sunday?”  I asked as I picked up their empty plates.  This was Friday.

 

They stopped and looked at me, surprise written all over their faces.

 

“Uh, well….”

 

“It’s a very special occasion,” I assured them, my face heating.

 

It was Mr. Sherman who replied, his friend still looking mighty uncomfortable.  “It’ll have ta be ta git Jess there.  Sure we’ll come.  But what’s the occasion?”

 

I lifted the tray of dirty dishes and turned my back.  “Surprise,” I squeaked, a thrill running through me head to toe.

 

“Well, alright.” Mr. Harper still didn’t sound to enthusiastic. 

 

Mr. Sherman made rapid progress that day back to health.  I think the presence of his friend helped.  Saturday passed in a flurry of last minute activity, and then Sunday was upon us.

 

Mr. Harper picked us up in the buggy and the four of us drove to the stark, white church on the hill over town.  Rosita was beaming like a little, wrinkled brown sun, but the gentlemen were clearly ill at ease in carefully laundered working clothes, as they had no others with them.

 

The meeting was a fine one, and I think that even the two from Laramie relaxed under Reverend Black’s friendly, warm sermon.  Just after the closing prayer and before the postlude music, our good Reverend stood and raised his hands for attention.

 

“Now most of you know what’s going to happen this afternoon between sermons.  I see a few new faces that might not, so this is for their benefit as well as for those who might have forgotten.”  A pointed look in the direction of Charlie Miller, who squirmed in his seat.  Poor Mr. Miller had a grand memory for forgetting.

 

“This afternoon between sermons,” Reverend Black continued, in a grand style, “We shall celebrate the marriage of Miss Susan Dandridge to Mr. Clay Anderson, who, as you all are aware, is our bachelor sheriff.  I stole a glance at Clay, who for once was blushing.

 

 He had been a confirmed bachelor when he had first come to Bravo, and more than one girl had gone miles out of her way to try to change his mind.  I am please to say that I did not make a fool of myself flirting shamelessly.  Something just happened, who can say what.  I didn’t much care what it was that had happened, only that it had.

 

“So I want you all to be there.  Let’s give our sheriff and the owner of the best restaurant in town the best wedding this town has known for years!”

 

I whirled around on the worn stool at the piano and launched into the postlude before the good Reverend could embarrass us more.

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

A large crowd gathered around Clay as “Rock of Ages” sounded lustily from the piano, everyone wanting to shake his hand and offer their congratulations.  His face was still unnaturally red as he accepted the words of good wishes, and his hand felt like it was going to be wrung off as member after member shook it heartily.  At last he reached the outside, where he held up his hands for silence.  When he had it, he thanked them for their kindness and proceeded to make just one request.

 

“Just stay out of trouble today, an’ preferably tomorrow, too,” he pleaded.  This drew a laugh and shouts of, “Alright be me,” “Sure, Sheriff, ya’ve earned it,” and even a couple of  Aww, that’s no fun!”

 

Slim and Jess finally made it to his side and Jess stuck out his hand with a grin.

 

“How come ya didn’t tell me, Sheriff?”

 

Clay raised his eyebrows, his face expressionless.  “Ya never asked me.” He walked off with a grin, leaving a slightly bemused Jess staring after him.

 

There was not much time between sermons and most of the congregation gathered in the café for a light lunch before the wedding.  Women of the community pitched in to help serve, but Susan could be seen flitting from table to table, her cheeks red from accepting best wishes and gentle teasing, her eyes sparkling.  Neither she nor Clay ate any lunch, claiming they were too keyed up to eat. 

 

At last the hour drew nigh and the bride and bridegroom withdrew to their respective homes to dress for the wedding.  At his request, Slim and Jess accompanied Clay, who was so nervous he couldn’t even tie his string tie and had to ask Jess to help him.  He drove back to the church in the buggy he’d purchased in anticipation of this day, and in which they would leave on a short honeymoon to Saint George, Utah, after the second sermon.

 

A young friend of Susan’s was seated at the piano when they arrived and the pews were already packed.  Reverend Black came forward to meet them and confided that he wished their sheriff was getting married everyday, it was most unusual to have such a fine turnout.  Clay assured him that he would rather go through this one time only, and thank you very much.

 

The bride’s escorts arrived and the pianist softly began playing.  Clay and Susan had decided to forgo the traditional wedding march, and she would walk down the aisle to the tune of “Nearer, my God, to Thee”.  Clay’s best man was a local townsman who often served as his deputy when the need arrived.  The bridesmaids entered the door of the church and walked slowly down the aisle, lovely in dainty pastel gowns, but the congregation’s attention was fastened on the door.  Susan came through on the arm of Old Pete, and a collective breath was drawn.  She was a vision of loveliness, her red hair frosted over with her mother’s wedding veil, her white gown that had been passed down her father’s side covered with Irish lace.  The high collar turned over softly under her chin and the sleeves came to a point on the backs of her gloved hands.  She carried a bouquet of local bramble roses in shades of white, pink, and crimson that was tied about the stems with a blue satin ribbon. 

 

Slim glanced at Clay as she floated up the aisle to find a look of awe upon his face.  Then Susan was at Clay’s side, taking his hand with a look of utter trust on her serene young face.  The Reverend began the ceremony with the long standing phrase, ‘dearly beloved’ and their ‘I do’s rang forth unwaveringly at the proper time.  Then Susan Dandridge was Mrs. Sheriff Anderson and he was kissing her soundly, in the face of the whole town and not minding a wit.  They turned and made their way back down the aisle, the best man and the maid of honor just behind them and went out into the bright sunshine. 

 

No sooner had they reached the church yard than a man galloped up on a spent horse.  Flinging himself from its back, he shoved his way through the crowd and grabbed the sheriff’s arm.

 

“Clay, you were right, they done it!” he gasped, thoroughly winded.

 

“What?  Done what?”  Clay demanded fiercely.  Slim and Jess pushed through the crowd and waited until the man had enough air to speak.

 

“Ya know that trap we laid fer Simpson an’ his bunch?  Well he tripped it.  He hit the relay station ‘bout an hour ago.  I done jest like ya tol’ me an’ hid in the barn.  He shot Olsen an’ made off with the money an’ the horses.”

 

Clay turned to Susan, anguish written on his face.  “Heart’s dearest…” he began, but she cut him off with a finger on his lips.

 

“Go, and God be with you.”  She whispered. 

 

“Dave, you’re deputized.  Jess?” 

 

The cowboy nodded and Slim raised his good hand.  “Me too.”

 

“Pard,…

 

“No.  I’m goin’.  I’ve got a stake in this, too.  I’ll be alright.”

 

Clay looked askance at the sling around Slim’s arm, but accepted his services.  “Alright, let’s go.”  He kissed Susan again.  “Dearest, I’m so sorry.”

 

“The sooner you go the sooner you’ll be back,” she replied, trying to make her voice light and failing entirely. 

 

He nodded, and hugged her once more before leaving without a backward glance.  Susan followed slowly to the picket fence around the yard and watched as he mounted his appaloosa brought by the livery man.  She touched her heart, and he his star, and then he dug in his heels and wheeled the mare in the direction of the rest of the posse.  Rosita slipped her arm around Susan’s waist, and the girl buried her face in the older woman’s shoulder.  Then she raised her head.

 

“I guess I’d better go change for the second sermon,” she said.  “Old Pete, will you drive me home?”

 

Old Pete tried to answer, but found the lump in his throat to big to speak around.  So he nodded his grey head and lifted her gently into the buggy she’d arrived in, climbing in on the other side and clucking to the horses.

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

It was hard to go through the rest of the day.  Sure, Clay had ridden on posses before, after men just as bad as this one, but never on our wedding day, and never leaving a wife behind.  Reverend Black preached a lovely sermon on faith and my darling was remembered in both the opening and closing prayers.  The rest of the day dragged, and I searched for little things to do, praying all the while that everything would go well.  Dark fell with no word, and I finally gave in to Rosita’s nagging and climbed the stairs to my room.  “Not exactly how I planned to spend the night,” I thought, kneeling in the dark by my window, not even waiting to undress. 

 

I must have dozed because the next thing I knew I was staring down the street into the darkness, straining to see what had awakened me.  Then I saw a light flare in the sheriff’s office, a lamp had been lit.  The light of another joined it, and I bowed my head in grateful prayer, still pleading that they were all right, but so glad they were at last were I could check on them.  I hurried to the kitchen and made up a large tray knowing they would be hungry.  In silence I walked down the street, feeling my chest tighten with dread with each step.  At last I reached the office and stood just outside the open door, waiting for my eyes to adjust and assessing the movements of the men inside. 

 

Mr. Sherman was leaning on the desk, his face gray and pinched.  Mr. Harper was poking up the stove, his back to the door.  He looked much the way he had when first I met him, filthy and bone weary.  I could not see Clay and my breath caught in my throat.  Then he came through the door from the cells, looking older and weary, but very much alive.  With a small cry I burst through the door, somehow managed to put the tray on the desk without upset, and flung myself at Clay, burying my head in his chest and wrapping my arms around his waist.  He put his arms around me slowly, and I could feel his reticence in his body.  Pulling back I looked up at him, and he wiped the tears I was unaware of from my face with gentle thumbs.

 

“It’s alright, Susie, best go on home now.  I’ll be over fer breakfast.”  He only called me ‘Susie’ when he was either very tired or feeling very emotional.

 

“Won’t you be coming tonight?”  I asked, half shyly.

 

“Susan!”  His face was shocked and he gently put me from him.

 

I glanced up, worried.  “Don’t you remember what happened this morning?”  I asked, grasping at straws.

 

He looked blank, then realization dawned over his face.  He whooped, laughed, and caught me up to swing me in a circle.  As he lifted my feet from the floor, his breath caught, pain flashed across his face, and he stumbled, almost dropping me.

 

“Dearest, are you hurt?”  I asked, frightened.

 

“Just a scratch.  Sweetheart, I’m so sorry about today!”   He sat down in his desk chair and pulled me into his lap, now completely oblivious to the other two in the room.

 

“I’m not.”  I replied, calmly.  He looked a question, and I went on matter of factly.  “I’m not.  You’re safe and sound, except for that wound I doubt you’re telling the truth about, and Mr. Simpson was kind enough to delay the robbery until after we were married.”

 

Clay threw back his head and laughed heartily, then kissed me.  “You wonderful little angel,” he whispered.

 

Then Mr. Sherman fainted dead away, and I dispatched Mr. Harper for Rosita.  He left at a full out run, despite his weariness and cowboy boots.  By the time he returned, Clay had deposited the unconscious man on his own bunk in the next room and was breathing heavily, sweat dripping down his face.  While Rosita tended Mr. Sherman, I made Clay sit down and unbuttoned his shirt to get at a bandage tied awkwardly around his waist.  As I unwound it, I demanded the whole story, hoping to distract Clay’s mind from the pain.

 

He told me they had set up a trap to catch Bud Simpson in the act of robbing a relay station, since they lacked the proof that would send the man to prison, if not to a worse fate.  The thief had been slow in rising to the bait, so they arranged to have a large shipment of fake “money” delivered to the relay station just outside of town.  Something had gone slightly wrong in the communications end of the matter, resulting in the “money” arriving late Saturday night, instead of Friday as they’d planned.  Thus Mr. Simpson and his helpers attacked on Sunday, apparently counting on the fact that most of the town would be in church, and therefore doing a poor job of concealing their identities, or their trail.  The posse had tracked them for many miles before catching up with the outlaws, and when they had, gunplay had ensued.  He didn’t tell me much about this, but the evidence on his side told me quite enough.  Anyway, the law had won and they returned to town with the bandits, locking some up, and sending the rest to more permanent accommodations.  Mr. Simpson was among those in jail and looking forward to the bleak prospect of a trial with all facts and evidence far from in his favor.

 

Mr. Harper betook himself to the hotel when he was sure his friend would be alright, taking the supper tray with him, since no one else was interested in the contents.  Clay tried to send me back to the café, saying he would be staying all night to keep an eye on his prisoners. 

 

I informed him that was just fine, I was sure I would be just as comfortable here as he would be.  In vain he tried to dissuade me, but I am not easily discouraged, and morning found us on floor behind the desk, our bed made of two prison mattresses and several quilts.  Perhaps it was not quite the way I had planned to spend the first night of my marriage, but I wouldn’t have traded it for all the tea in China.

 

 

 

FINIS

It was awhile before Slim was again able to ride, but at last he and Jess were mounted and ready to take the trail back to Laramie. 

 

“Thanks for your help, Clay,” Jess said, leaning forward to shake Clay’s hand.

 

“Glad ta give it, Jess, this time,” Clay smiled as he stood on the boardwalk outside the café, with his arm around Susan.

 

“Thanks, Sheriff.”  Slim said, also shaking his hand.  “We’d be happy to put you up if you’re ever up Laramie way.”

 

“Thanks, I’ll remember.”

 

“Good bye, Susan, I won’t be forgettin’ your cookin’ in a hurry,” Jess said, with a grin.

 

She smiled.  “Thank you, Mr. Harper.  Take care now.”  She turned to Slim, who took her proffered hand in a gentle handshake. 

 

“Thanks for fixin’ me up, Susan.”

 

“Once is enough!” she laughed.  “Keep that arm in that sling, you hear?”

 

“Oh, he will,” Jess promised. 

 

Rosita patted Jess’s knee, but spoke to Slim.

 

“Vaya con Dios, mijo.”  She said.  “Go with God, my son.”

 

“Thank you, Rosita,” Slim said softly, taking her withered hand.

 

Then they urged their horses away from the hitching rail and rode out of town, turning at the corner to wave a final farewell.

 

**********

 

“Aunt Daisy, they’re back!” Mike whooped as he ran to the house.  Daisy appeared in the doorway, her head tied up in a large handkerchief, clasping a broom.

 

“At last!”  Her eyes studied the approaching figures, noting the careful way Slim rode and the joy that showed even at this distance in Jess.  Following Mike, she met the horsemen at the corral, returning Jess’s gentle but eager embrace, and fussing over Slim as he allowed Jess to help him from his horse.

 

“Ya sure bin gone along time,” Mike said, as he hung from Jess’s leg.

 

“Too long, Mike.”  Slim heaved a sigh as he looked about the ranch.  It was sure good to be home.  He looked down at the boy now dangling his leg and reached down to ruffle the boy’s hair.

 

“Come into the house, Ben will look after your horses.  We want to hear all about it!”  Daisy shooed her men to the house like a mother hen.

 

“Well, Daisy, it all started in a little town called Bravo, way down in Utah Territory…”

 



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