By Brittany Thompson
The sound of a whip cracking was heard outside the small shack as thunder rolled through the sky.
A group of black slaves stood outside in the pouring rain, listening to a girl's whimpers and screams as the whip continued to sound.
Then there was silence; the slaves backed away from the shack as the door swung open with a loud thud.
A gentleman type man stepped out, coiled the whip around his wrist then looked up.
"The punishment has been given!" he announced boldly.
The large group mumbled amongst themselves in fear.
"Mr. Jingo!" their master called to his head servant.
An older black man stepped forward and removed his hat, letting the rain begin to flatten his white curls. "Ye-yes sir?" he replied.
"Take her and get her back to her chores."
Jingo nodded, then bowed his head as his master past him, he then hurried into the shack and carried a young white lady out into the rain.
"Now you hold on child," he spoke calmly. "I'm gonna help ya."
He carried her into the slaves quarters and laid her on a cot. She wasn't much older than 20 years old.
The young lady sat up in pain. "Jingo... I've... I've got to get back to my chores... you'll get into trouble."
"No child, you're gonna get out of here." The man said stiffly.
"But... but how?" she whispered.
"This way." Jingo quickly walked his young friend out the back door and she saw a horse standing there, waiting for her.
She tried to protest, but Jingo carefully placed her on the gentle creature, gave her a couple saddle bags, and sent her on her way.
The group waved goodbye, and some began to cry as she rode off into the storm.
"Do you think she'll be ok Jingo?" a small child asked.
"I pray so child," he answered as he watched the young lady disappear over the hill. "I pray so."
The sun just barely began to peek across the hills as the Springtime life started to awaken to a new day at the Sherman Ranch.
Slim Sherman was sleeping soundly on his bunk; he always slept more calmly than his friend and business partner Jess Harper, or their newest family addition, little Mike Williams.
But something jerked at him; a noise. He woke up briefly and listened, but nothing. He laid his head back onto the pillow and closed his eyes, as he drifted back into sweet dreams the noise sounded again. A loud thump.
Slim just stared at the ceiling as he listened, and it sounded again, and again, and again.
"What in tarnation?" He thought to himself. "Hey Jess?" he called out, but there was no answer. "Jess?" he said again, he turned his head to his partners bunk, it was empty, but what caught Slim's attention even more was that the bunk was made... Or, never slept in.
The thumping continued and Slim realized that it was coming from the yard. In a slight frustration Slim climbed out of bed, ran his hands through his sandy blonde hair, slipped into his trousers and boots then stepped out into the living room.
"Daisy?" Slim said startled as he saw their new friend and housekeeper, Daisy Cooper, in her nightgown and robe staring out the window.
"Shhh Slim," she whispered as she briefly turned to look at him. "Don't wake Mike."
"Well what are you doin' up this early?" he asked as he approached the window.
"Same thing as you, I expect; that noise out there."
"Don't tell me..." Slim started as he looked outside.
Daisy nodded her head. "I'm afraid so, he's at it again."
"That's three days in a row now." Slim spouted. "What's gotten into 'im?"
"I don't know Slim, but it's got me worried." Daisy walked away from the window and stopped at the kitchen. "He's never like this unless something's wrong."
Slim walked over to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. "I'll go and have a talk with 'im. Don't you worry none."
Daisy turned and smiled. "Very well, tell him that breakfast will be ready soon."
And with that Daisy scooted off into the kitchen to start breakfast, Slim grabbed his jacket then headed outside.
The cool morning air sent a chill down his spine, his bright blue eyes swept across the yard and came to rest on just what he was looking for.
Jess Harper, stacking wood and getting ready to chop more. His black hat hung on a nearby fence post along with his jacket. Even though it was chilly out, Slim could see his friend sweating a lot.
"Jess?" Slim called out as he walked closer, but Jess didn't answer. "Jess what do you think you're doin'?"
Jess looked up, his blue eyes pierced through his black hair that stuck to his sweaty forehead, in disbelief. "What am I do... I'm runnin' for gov'ner." he sneered. "What's it look like I'm doin'?"
"Hey now Pard, all I meant was what are you doin' up this early again?"
Jess could see that Slim was upset, but mostly worried. "I'm sorry Slim, guess I just haven't been gettin' much sleep lately."
"More like 'no sleep'," Slim stated. "Did you even go to bed last night?"
"Well I..." Jess started.
"Jess." Slim said sternly, he didn't want an excuse.
Jess dropped the axe and leaned against the small fence. "I-I couldn't Slim, I was goin' to after I found myself dozin' in the chair. But then, it happened again."
Jess nodded his head then looked down.
"That's three nights now. Most nightmares are gone after the first time."
"Don't you think I know that?!" Jess snapped again.
Slim just stood there, he wanted to snap back but he could tell that this was bothering the man who had become his brother.
Jess realized how harsh he had sounded. "I-I'm sorry Slim. I don't know what's come over me."
"Maybe, if you tell me what it's all about, I could help." Slim could see his friend was hesitant, he reached over and gently patted Jess's shoulder.
"I wish I could Slim, but it's... it's all so hazy."
Suddenly little Mike stepped out of the kitchen door, smiling like it was Christmas morning.
"Hey, you guys comin' to breakfast or what?!" he called out.
Jess couldn't help but chuckle at the small boy.
"We're comin' Mike." Slim called out. "Well, since you got all this wood chopped, we might as well take it inside."
Slim could tell that something was seriously wrong with Jess when he didn't make an excuse about taking in the firewood, but he decided to leave it be... for the moment.
The young lady rode hard through the hills, she swayed on her mount from exhaustion, but she kept on going.
The horse stopped for a moment and bit some leaves off a nearby tree.
"Just a little further," the girl said quietly, "then we'll stop and rest."
The horse nickered, then continued on.
Jess brought in the last little bit of firewood, then he and Slim took their hats and coats and hung them up.
"Come and get it!" Daisy called from the kitchen.
"Sure smells good Daisy." Slim said as he approached her side.
But Jess remained silent.
"Hey Jess!" Mike yelled as he ran over to his 'brother', but it was as if Jess didn't hear him. "Jess, is somethin' wrong?"
Slim and Daisy looked over worried when there was no answer.
"Jess!" Slim called.
Jess shook his head, coming back from his thoughts. "I'm sorry Slim," he sighed. "what'd ya want Tiger?" he asked looking down at Mike.
"I was just wonderin' if we could do some ridin' after breakfast, if'n you want to." Mike looked down, a little afraid of rejection.
Jess stared at his 'little brother' and smiled. "Sure Tiger, if it's alright with Daisy."
Both looked up at the woman who was much like their mother.
"Well, I guess it'll be ok." she said smiling.
"Alright!" Mike exclaimed.
"C'mon Pard," Slim spoke up. "You'll need your strength if you're gonna be ridin' with Mike."
Jess looked up and flashed a brief smile at his friends, then took his place at the table.
As they filled their plates and began digging in, Slim continued to worry about Jess. He noticed that his friend wasn't eating as much, nor as fast as usual.
"Oh Jess," he spoke up. "while you and Mike are out ridin', would you mind checkin' those fences on the south line? I'm worried that some of the posts fell in that storm we had the other day."
"Sure thing, Slim." Jess scooped up the last little bit of food on his plate. "I'll go saddle the horses." And with that, he was gone.
Slim and Daisy looked at each other in surprise.
"He barely ate a thing," Daisy said. "What's really been troubling him, Slim?"
"It's a nightmare Daisy," Slim answered. "Been nawin' at him for three nights now."
Daisy looked confused as well as concerned. "Maybe you should talk to him about it."
Slim wanted to say that he tried, but he knew that Daisy was right, just like his real mother. He smiled, then headed outside.
"Is everything alright Aunt Daisy?" Mike asked as he scooped another spoonful of eggs into his mouth.
Daisy smiled, she didn't want her 'little boy' to worry. "I'm sure it is Mike. Now c'mon, help me clean up, then you can go ridin' with Jess."
Slim stepped into the barn and saw Jess petting his horse, Traveler. Slim smiled; he knew that his partner was at his calmest when he was with his pet.
Jess quickly grabbed his saddle blanket and tried acting like he was keeping busy.
"Alright Jess, out with it."
"Out with what?" Jess jerked back.
"That nightmare that's been botherin' you these past few days, it's worryin' Daisy and Mike's been askin' questions and I don't know what to tell 'em." but Jess didn't acknowledge him. "I'm tired of makin' excuses Jess."
"Well I didn't ask ya to make 'em." Jess sneered.
Slim grabbed Jess and turned him around. "Jess, you're my best friend, and when somethin's botherin' my friends I wanna know about it. It is that nightmare, ain't it?"
Jess nodded his head, then walked over and leaned against the stall. "Trouble is... I can't understand it, don't even know where to start."
"Try the beginnin'." Slim flashed a tiny grin.
"Well," Jess started, he began rubbing his hands together, like this was the hardest thing to do. "it... it always starts out the same; I'm sittin' in front of the fireplace, but somethin's always wrong, It's crazy, but I'm hurt."
"Hurt? Like someone's shot ya?"
Jess nodded his head. "I can feel the pain, and then there's someone there; a man."
"Like Mort?" Slim could see that this nightmare bothered Jess.
"No, I-I've never seen him before. But he's always there, laughin' and..." Jess stopped, like he remembered something.
"And what, Jess?"
"There's a girl, he's pushin' her around, beatin' her... But there's some-somethin' about her Slim, I-I think I've seen her before." his voice shook.
Slim looked shocked. "What do ya mean Jess? Like you're sister?"
"No, but someone like her; someone from my past. And she's in trouble Slim... real trouble"
Slim laid his hand on Jess's shoulder, he could feel his 'brother' trembling below his grip.
"I-I don't know what to do Slim. Whatever this is... it's almost hauntin' and I-I can't shake it..."
"You've had a rough couple weeks Jess; workin' for Mort, gettin' into that fight with the James boy, workin' double chores while I was away, and this weather changin'. It's a wonder we're all not havin' some strange dreams."
Jess looked up at Slim and smiled. "Maybe you're right, Slim."
"Hey!" a small voice called out.
The men turned to see little Mike, all wide-eyed and raring to go.
"Are ya ready Jess, or what?" he asked.
Slim and Jess both chuckled.
"Yeah, just about Tiger. Why don't you go fill our canteens, and I'll be right out."
"Ok!" And Mike was off.
Slim saddled up Mikes horse while Jess finished saddling Traveler.
"You'd best keep a good eye on Mike today, Jess. He just might try and jump a fence. I've never seen him so excited."
Jess lightly chuckled, then the two men led the horses out to the corral.
"I'm all set Jess!" Mike said as he hurried to his mounts side.
"Alright, Tiger." Jess lifted the small boy into the saddle then mounted his horse.
As they began to ride off, Slim heard the kitchen door open.
"Jess!" Daisy called out. "Jess, you be sure and keep out of trouble!"
Jess smiled, waved his hand and the boys were off.
"Oh dear." Daisy's voice shook a little.
Slim walked over and wrapped his arms around her and embraced her in a big hug. "Don't worry, Daisy, Jess'll keep an eye on Mike."
"Oh I'm not worried about Mike, I know he'll be fine. It's Jess I'm worried about. Did he tell you what's been bothering him?"
Slim nodded his head, "Hopefully after talkin' about it, he'll be able to get some sleep tonight... Or else, he'll be sleepin' in the barn."
Daisy couldn't believe Slim just said that, but she smiled. "Oh, Slim." she giggled.
He just smiled, then went on with his chores.
Jess raced across the open fields with Mike at his side. He couldn't help but smile as he watched the boy, who had become him and Slim's little brother, just seem so free, like he just didn't have a worry or care in the world.
"Hold up Mike!" he called out.
The small boy pulled on the reigns and slowed down, then he then turned and saw Jess catching up. "Awww, Jess, he just wanted to run." he said pointing at his horse.
"Oh he did, huh?" Jess quirked. "Well I don't mind it, but if that horse of yours falls into a gopher hole, Ms. Daisy'll skin me alive. Not to mention what Slim'll do."
"I'm sorry." Mike lowered his head.
Jess leaned over and mussed up the small boys hair. "It's alright Tiger, just try and be more careful."
"Well, there's the first downed fence." Jess pointed towards a tall tree. "Since we've come this far already with no problems, I don't think we'll be out here too long."
Mike smiled, then the two went to work.
Jingo was thrown to the floor.
"Where is she?!" his master demanded.
"I... I honestly don't know sir." Jingo's voice quivered as he struggled to get to his feet.
"Well she didn't return to her chores." The master's wife spoke near the fireplace. "And she hasn't been seen since the other night."
Jingo trembled under his master's gaze.
"I'm only going to ask you this once more, Jingo; Where. is. Amanda?"
Jingo swallowed hard, "She ran out the back of the quarters that night sir, and she took off for the hills. I don't know where she's gone sir, honestly."
The master towered over his servant, arms crossed. "I am very disappointed in you Jingo."
"Yes sir." Jingo whispered sadly.
"Now, I'm going to find Amanda, and when I bring her back you'll both be properly punished. Until then Jingo, I have no other choice but to lock you in the wood shack until my return."
Jingo looked up to plead, but two men grabbed him and dragged him out of the house.
The master sat beside his wife and looked deep into her eyes.
"Must you go?" she asked.
"Yes, she can't of gone far on foot. I should be back within a couple days."
"I honestly don't understand why you put up with that girl; she disobeys you more than any of our other servants. She's always trying to run off, and do you remember those words she spoke when she was in here that day?... All because of some silly letter."
Her husband nodded. "I know dear, but I own her, and I can't let something I own just run off. What would you do if one your dogs, or even your lambs ran off?"
"I guess I'd go after them." she sighed.
The master kissed his wife. "That's why I married you, we think so much alike."
She smiled, "Mark and Martha Carson."
"Major Mark Carson." he corrected. Then he stood and took his sword off the mantle and watched as it glistened in the fire flames.
The young lady, Amanda, rode to the top of a small hill, her feverish brown eyes gazed for any signs of help.
A sudden breeze blew her dark hair over her shoulder, and sent a chill down her spine.
She looked up and saw the sun was almost straight up in the sky, then she looked back down along the hill.
At first she didn't see anything, but then she spotted it; a small ranch, with water.
"Finally!" she exclaimed hoarsely, her voice almost gone.
She gave her horse a nudge and pushed him on towards their new destination.
Jess and Mike could see the house coming into view, they were almost there.
"Hey Jess, I can see the house!" Mike said excitedly.
"Yep, Daisy'll be glad to see you home in time for lunch."
"Oh, I'll bet ya she'll be happy to see you too."
Jess chuckled, "Hey, I'll race ya to see who's right."
Mike's eyes grew great big. "Let's go!" he kicked his horse, and the two raced for the house.
They were neck and neck.
Jess laughed and watched Mike bounce in the saddle, then something caught his attention; someone riding in, slowly, from the west hill. At the rate they were going, Jess would beat them there.
He was so distracted by the oncoming rider that he didn't notice Mike taking the lead in their race.
Mike quickly stopped his horse at the tie-on, jumped down then hurried into the house calling "Aunt Daisy! Aunt Daisy!"
Jess stopped his horse at the corral, dismounted and watched as the rider slowly continued in his direction.
"Jess!" Slim called from the front porch. "You gonna stand there like a statue just 'cuz you lost a race, or you gonna come in for lunch?"
"I'll be right there!" is all he replied.
Slim wasn't sure if he should leave his friend, but then he saw Jess begin to unsaddle his horse and figured that he was gonna turn the animal loose in the pen. Slim just shrugged his shoulder and walked back inside.
Jess turned his pet loose in the pen just as the rider came in. He could see that it was a girl, but something was strange; her horse didn't have a saddle, and she didn't look like someone out on a pleasure ride.
Carefully he approached her, the horse became uneasy. "Whoa, easy boy." Jess whispered as he grabbed the bridle. "Excuse me, miss?" he asked. There was no response. "Miss?" Jess said as he gently placed his hand on her boot.
Slowly she raised her head and looked at him. "Hhh...hhe..." she struggled to speak. "Help... me." she passed out, falling off the horse.
Jess quickly caught her as she fell, he carefully laid her on the ground and kept her head and shoulders supported on his left arm. "Miss? Miss?!" he lightly tapped her face trying to rouse her, but nothing.
He reached his right arm under her knees to pick her up, but as his left arm slid down her back, she moaned in pain. Jess could feel something slick on his glove, he carefully laid the girl back down, then raised his hand and saw blood.
"Slim!" he yelled. "SLIM!"
Suddenly the front door opened and Slim walked out. "What is it Jess?" he then saw the girl in Jess's arms. "Daisy, come quick!" he called back in the house, then he rushed over to his friend.
Daisy stepped out, then quickly followed.
"What happened Jess?" Slim said as he knelt down.
"I don't know Slim, she came ridin' in, then passed out."
Daisy hurried over, knelt beside the girl and began checking her. "Her pulse is very weak."
"She looks like she's been through somethin' awful." Slim said softly.
"You're right there Slim," Jess said, "Look Daisy." he carefully lifted the girls shoulder and showed Daisy her back.
Daisy covered her mouth in shock; the back of the girls dress was ripped, showing bleeding marks.
"We've got to get her inside." she said hastily.
As Daisy hurried into the house to get things ready, Slim crossed over and took the small load from his 'brother'.
"Easy Slim." Jess whispered as he lifted the girl into Slims arms.
Slim carefully stood and carried the girl into the house with Jess following close behind... something began bothering him.
Daisy turned down her bed and grabbed her nurses' satchel, Mike went to fetch some cool water.
Slim carried the girl into the bedroom and carefully laid her on the bed.
"Thank you Slim, now go help Mike with the water and bandages."
Slim hesitated at first, but did as he was told.
Jess walked in the room and just stared at the girl as Daisy began checking her pulse.
"Daisy?" Jess's voice seemed to be caught.
"I don't know yet Jess." she answered. "It'll take some time."
The girl shifted, then quietly moaned in pain. Daisy gently turned the girl onto her side, hoping to relieve some of the pain.
Slim hurried in carrying two buckets of water; one cold and the other warm. Mike walked in behind him carrying bandages and rags.
"Thank you boys, now leave please."
"All of us Daisy?" Slim asked.
Daisy just nodded, and watched as her three boys walked back into the living room.
Jess went and plopped down in the rocking chair, and just stared into the fireplace, watching the small fire crack and flicker.
"Hey Mike," Slim spoke up.
"Why don't you go take care of the lady's horse, and yours too?"
Mike nodded his head, as he headed for the door he stopped. "Are we still gonna eat?"
Slim chuckled, "Yeah we're gonna eat, just take care of the horses first."
"Oh, alright." then the boy hurried out to the yard.
"Alright, Pard," Slim said as he sat on the couch to face his friend.
"Before you say anything Slim, I don't know." Jess started. "Something about her... it just... she just seems familiar. Her face, her eyes, the softness in her voice."
"From another town maybe?"
Jess slightly shook his head, "I don't know Slim. Maybe I'm just imaginin' things, you know Mort's always sayin' how I see things that ain't there."
Slim nodded. "Speakin' of Mort, we might wanna tell him what's goin' on."
"Let's wait and see what Daisy's got to say." Jess's voice sounded almost pleading.
Again Slim nodded. "How 'bout some lunch?"
Jess agreed, and as they headed for the kitchen, Mike busted in the back door.
"Let's eat!" he exclaimed.
Slim smiled as he passed out the plates.
Major Carson and two of his henchmen rode across the hills looking for Amanda.
"Major?" the youngest of the group spoke up.
"What is it Frankie?"
"Are we even sure she came this way? I mean, she left in a rain storm, wouldn't that've just washed her footprints away?"
The other man thought that it made sense, until... "Major! Over here!" the he called out.
Carson pushed his horse over to his follower. "What'cha ya got Thompson?"
"Horse prints, ridin' hard."
"But Jingo said that she left on foot." Frankie spoke up.
"She must've stolen a horse." Carson said stiffly. "Which way do those tracks lead?"
Thompson took a few steps forwards not taking his eye off the ground. "This way sir." he said.
And the men rode off.
Mike practically inhaled his food. Slim couldn't believe the appetite on the little guy.
He noticed Jess had barely touched his food.
Suddenly some dark clouds began passing over the ranch.
"Looks like we could have more rain." Slim said as he shoved another bite into his mouth.
But Jess didn't say anything.
"Jess?" no response. "Jess!"
"Hmm?" Jess blinked and became more coherent. "Sorry Slim."
"I said it looks like it could rain again."
Jess looked out the window and saw the dark clouds moving across the sky. "Yeah, I'd better go move the horses in."
Just as he began heading out the door, Daisy stepped into the living room.
"Daisy?" Slim asked.
Jess turned and hurried by her side. "How is she?"
"She's sleeping right now." she said quietly as she sat at the table. Jess remained standing.
"Well what's wrong with her?" Slim asked as he poured the worn out lady a cup of coffee.
"Oh that poor girl, she's so worn out. She didn't even make a sound when I was cleaning the marks on her back."
The news worried the young men.
"Mike?" Slim spoke up.
"Why don't you go get Jess's horse and put him up in the barn, maybe give him some oats."
Everyone waited until the boy had left the house.
"Are you sure, Daisy?" Jess asked, his voice was soft but quivered with worry.
Daisy nodded her head. "I wish I wasn't Slim, but the blood on her back... she was horse whipped, and recently."
Slim swallowed the lump that was forming in his throat. "What else Daisy?"
"Well, her hands are full of blisters and calluses, and she has bruises all over her arms. I gave her some water, and she took it as if she hasn't had any in weeks. If I didn't know any better I'd say that she's a slave."
The news hit the boys like a ton of bricks.
Jess staggered. "Slave?" he repeated, like he almost couldn't believe the word ever existed. "But how could she, she's..." his words got caught.
"She's white." Slim finished. "Not to mention that the ownership of slaves was lifted after the war."
"Oh it's not uncommon for some people to still have slaves." Daisy said as she sipped her coffee. "Except, nowadays, they're called "hired hands" or "laborers"."
"Yeah, but I've never heard of a 'hired hand' to be treated like that." Jess said harshly, he still couldn't believe this news. "Why?"
"Guess we're just gonna hafta wait til she comes to." Slim said. "Now Daisy, would you like some lunch? We've kept it warm for ya."
"I'd love some Slim, thank you." she smiled sadly.
As Slim filled a plate for her, Daisy noticed that something was bothering Jess. "Jess?"
He just sat down in disbelief.
"Are you alright Jess?" she asked.
When he didn't answer, she laid her hand on his and gently squeezed it. "I know what must be going through your mind right now, but she's in good hands now. She'll be fine, we'll just have to wait until she wakes up to see where she came from."
Jess smiled and lightly nodded his head. "You're right Daisy."
Daisy never liked seeing her boys hurt; whether it was emotionally or physically, it didn't matter. She'd always try and ease their pain.
Slim handed Daisy her plate, and the three finished their lunch together.
"Oh Slim, after lunch, would you mind hitching up the buckboard for me?" Daisy asked.
"What for Daisy?"
"Well that girl's going to need some fresh clothes when she's up and around. She can't stay in one of my nightgowns and robes forever."
Jess smiled. "She's got a point Slim."
Slim chuckled. "Alright, but I'm goin' with ya."
"Oh Slim, I don't need an escort." she protested.
"Oh I know that Daisy, but it looks like another rain storm is comin', besides I've gotta pick up some supplies that are waitin' for me."
"Oh very well." She gave in. "We might as well take Mike along too."
Slim looked up at Jess. "Will you be alright Jess?"
"Sure, why not?" Jess thought that was the craziest question ever asked. "I'm a big boy."
Again Slim chuckled. "I know that Jess, but..."
"We just want to make sure that you'll be alright dear, with the girl." Daisy interrupted.
Jess nodded his head. "Yeah, I should be alright. We've pretty well got all the outside chores done, I'll just work inside so I can keep close by."
"Good, then it's all settled." Daisy said as she took one last sip of her coffee.
Just then, something caught their attention; a thud, coming from Daisy's room.
The three looked at each other, then they heard whimpering and crying.
Daisy hurried into the next room, Slim and Jess were on her heels.
The young girl, Amanda, laid on her right side, shaking. Her left hand was on the side table trying to reach a water glass.
"Easy." Daisy soothed as she sat on the bed trying to calm the girl.
"Ple-please," the girl whispered, her voice sounding almost gone. "I'm... I'm so..."
Jess picked the glass up and put fresh water in it, then handed it to Daisy.
"Help me." Daisy requested. Then she carefully eased the girl onto her back, and Jess lifted her head while Daisy offered her some water.
Amanda drank it greedily.
"Not so much dear," Daisy insisted as she pulled the glass back. "Slowly."
Amanda took a couple more sips then laid her head back down. Slowly she opened her eyes, they seemed so lifeless. She looked at the people around her, but her fever saw someone else.
"Ple...please... forgive me." she struggled. "I'll... I'll get back... to my chores." slowly she started to get up.
"No dear," Daisy said as she carefully pushed the girl back down. "You must rest."
"I-I can't rest... The master... will be angry... If I don't..." she tried sitting up again, but the fever overwhelmed her and she fell back on the bed.
Jess and Slim stood there and watched as Daisy felt the young girls face, then placed a cool cloth on her forehead.
"She's got a high fever." Daisy said finally, then she pulled the blankets up to the girl's shoulders to keep her warm. "We'll have to build up the fire to keep her warm."
"We'd better close all the windows too," Slim spoke up.
Daisy and Slim took off to do just that, but Jess stood there, looking at the girl. How familiar she seemed to him.
He sat beside her and gently laid his hand on her face, the coolness of his hand began to stir her.
"Mmm." she moaned, slowly her eyes opened just a slit. "Jingo?"
Jess looked confused. "Must be the fever." he thought to himself.
"Oh Jingo," the girl whispered. "I dreamt... I dreamt of him again."
"Who?" Jess asked calmly.
"The friend from... from my childhood... I've told you of him." her voice sounded so soft, but sweet. "Oh... life seemed so perfect... when we were young." she began slipping back.
"What... what was his name?" Jess asked eagerly.
"His... his name... was..." her voice trailed off, then she fell into a deep sleep.
Jess wished it hadn't happened, but he understood just how sick she was. He'd just have to put the puzzle together later.
As Daisy gathered up more blankets, Slim went around closing all the windows to keep the heat in.
Jess stepped out of the bedroom, he saw the others keeping busy. He looked back towards the room, then stoked up the fire, and headed back outside.
As Slim began to close the kitchen window, he saw Jess out back, chopping more wood.
"Is he at it again?" Daisy asked as she walked in the kitchen.
"Yup." Slim said. "Ever since that girl rode in, it's like he's a whole other person."
"It's as if he's seen a ghost."
Slim looked at her in surprise. "Daisy, I think you've just answered the question." and he hurried outside.
Jess continued chopping wood, log by log. He didn't notice Mike hurrying back inside, or even Slim coming out.
"Jess?" his friend spoke.
But he didn't answer.
"Jess, that girl... Have you seen her before?"
Jess stopped for a moment, "I... I don't know Slim. I-I just don't know. But somethin' about her... being here... it's like I have, but I can't place her."
"What about your dream?"
Jess looked up in shock, "Ya think?" the thought made him worried.
"Only you can answer that Jess." suddenly more dark clouds began to pass over the ranch. "We'd best get goin' if we're gonna make it to town."
"I'll hitch up the buckboard." And Jess hurried off.
Slim was worried about Jess, but right now they had other things to worry about. He gathered up the extra wood and carried into the house.
"Slim, where's Jess?" Daisy asked as she stepped out of the extra bedroom, ready to go.
"He's hitchin' up the buckboard." Slim answered as he put another log on the fire.
"Slim, I'm worried. Should we be leaving him here? I mean, the way he's been acting..."
Slim walked over and placed his hands on his 'mothers' shoulders. "I know Jess; he may have a temper, and he may be a loner at times, but the one thing he hates most about himself is makin' you worry."
Daisy smiled. "Oh Slim."
As Slim pulled Daisy close and hugged her, the front door opened and Jess walked in.
"Buckboard's ready to go Daisy." he said.
"Oh good." Daisy responded as she walked over to her other boy. "Now Jess, try and keep her warm. And when she comes to, try and give her some water."
"I will Daisy." Jess admired how much caring Daisy had in her heart, she's always been there when someone needed her. He leaned down and gently kissed her cheek; she smiled as she stared deep into Jess's blue eyes.
"Ready Daisy." Slim spoke up.
Jess followed Slim, Daisy and Mike out to the buckboard; Slim helped Daisy up, then climbed in himself.
"Jess!" Mike spoke up.
Jess didn't need to hear anymore, he grabbed the small boy and flung him onto the buckboard like a sack of potatoes. "There ya go Tiger."
"Whee!" Mike exclaimed.
Daisy and Slim couldn't help but laugh.
"Now, you sure you'll be alright Jess?" Slim asked.
"Yes Pa, I'll be fine." Jess teased.
Daisy lightly giggled. "Oh Jess, I put some stew on the stove for your supper, try and see if the young lady can eat some."
"I'll try Daisy. You be careful now."
"Will do Jess," Slim said. "If it starts rainin' we'll hold up in town till it passes."
Slim slapped the reigns and the horses pulled the buckboard towards town.
"Bye Jess!" Mike yelled back.
"Bye Mike!" Jess waited until the buckboard was almost out of sight, then he headed back inside.
Major Carson and his men rode on, following the horse tracks that led over the hills, when they spotted the dark clouds moving in.
"Sir?" Frankie called out.
"What is it Frankie?"
"Aren't we gonna find some shelter 'fore those clouds burst?"
Carson took a deep, angry breath. "You brought a slicker, didn't ya?"
"Well ye-yes sir."
"Then we'll not stop until I have her back; rain or no rain, we are goin' to get that girl back."
Frankie didn't like how angry his boss was, "Why is this girl so important?" he thought. But he kept his questions to himself and followed the Major and Thompson onward.
Jess placed the lunch dishes in the wash bowl, then walked into the living room.
He placed another log on the fire and poked at it to get it going again.
As he stood up, he heard something; moaning, coming from Daisy's room.
He quickly walked into the next room and saw the girl's head tossing back and forth, her body shaking and her breathing coming out in shivers.
Jess felt her forehead and realized that her fever was higher. He could also feel that, even though all the windows were closed, Daisy's room was still too cold.
He carefully tucked the blankets around the girl, then scooped her up in his arms.
Amanda's head rolled onto Jess's shoulder, she seemed to calm down as he carried her out to the warm living room and laid her on the soft, leather couch.
Jess quickly grabbed another blanket and laid it over her, then went and fetched the cool water bucket, then he wet a rag and laid it on the girl's forehead.
Slowly she started waking up, her sight was blurry as she opened her eyes. "Wha... what happ...ened?" she tried speaking, but the words barely escaped her mouth.
"You passed out," Jess answered. "you've got a high fever."
"I-I can't stay here." her voice started to panic. "I've got to... get back... m-my chores... Mistress will... will be..." she struggled against Jess's grip as he tried to keep her down.
"Easy," he spoke calmly. "Easy, there's no chores to be done here."
The girl looked confused. "You... you did them?" she asked.
"Me and a couple friends." Jess answered honestly, he gently placed his hand on the girls face.
She turned her head so his whole palm was flat against her cheek, she liked the cool feeling. "Thank you." She whispered as tears slowly began falling down her face.
"Hey now, no cryin'." Jess said as he brushed back the tears. "You just rest."
She barely nodded her head, she could no longer keep her eyes open, they slammed shut and she let out a shuddered sigh as she fell back into a deep sleep.
Jess waited for a moment, then he got up and headed to the kitchen for some coffee.
"Who is this girl?" he thought to himself. "Why is she so familiar? Is she from my dreams? My past? What?" as he continued to ponder these thoughts, he put the coffee on the stove, then started washing the dishes. "Gotta keep busy." he thought. "Or I might go crazy."
Slim waited outside of the general store for Daisy and Mike to finish up their shopping.
He thought to himself, "how much is Daisy plannin' on buyin'?" but then he realized that the new girl probably had nothing except her horse, her saddle bags, and the clothes on her back; course those were all torn up.
As he continued to muddle through his thoughts, he didn't see his friend, Sheriff Mort Cory, heading his way.
"Hey Slim." Mort said as he approached the young rancher. "Slim?"
"Hmm?" Slim came to. "Oh sorry, Mort."
"You alright, Slim? You looked a little lost there for a moment."
Slim shuffled his feet, "Actually Mort, I came into town to talk with you."
"What, is there somethin' wrong with Daisy or Mike?" Mort became a little worried.
"No," Slim smiled. "Daisy and Mike are inside shoppin'?"
"What about Jess?"
"He's back at the ranch... with the problem."
Mort furrowed his brow. "Maybe we'd best go to my office."
Slim nodded, he turned and poked his head into the store. "Daisy!" He called out. "I'm goin' over to Mort's office, shouldn't be there too long."
"Oh that's fine Slim," She spoke back, smiling. "We'll be here." and she kept on shopping.
Slim couldn't help but smile, then he and Mort headed down the sidewalk over to the jail.
"Alright, Slim," Mort said as he sat down at his desk. "What's goin' on? What's the problem that Jess is keepin' an eye on?"
Slim shuffled his feet again. "Well it... it ain't exactly a problem Mort... it's a girl."
Mort lightly chuckled. "Haven't you heard Slim? Girls are trouble."
Slim didn't like the joke at the moment. "No Mort, it ain't like that. She showed up at the ranch around noon, ridin' a horse with no saddle. All she had with her was a light weight saddle bag; no food, and no water."
"Well what's wrong with that?"
Slim took a deep breath, those next few words were important. " Mort... she's a slave."
The words hit Mort hard, he turned his full attention to his friend. "A slave?"
Slim nodded. "Yeah, but not a normal slave."
"What do you mean?"
"She's white Mort, like you and me, but Daisy said she'd been horse-whipped and tortured like a slave was before the war."
Mort leaned forward. "Are you sure about this Slim?"
"I know it's hard to believe Mort," Slim started pacing. "but when she rode in, she passed out in Jess' arms. He found the marks on her back, and Daisy said that she's got bruises, calluses, and looked as if she'd been starved."
"Well, I'm gonna hafta talk with Ms. Daisy 'bout this. Was there anythin' that might've told you where the girl came from?"
Slim shook his head. "No, there was no brand on the horse, no papers, just a couple pictures and an unopened letter but no name on the envelope."
"You say that there was no brand on the horse?"
Slim nodded. "Yes."
"Hmm, interesting. And you've never seen her before?"
"I haven't, and I'm sure that Daisy hasn't either."
"What about Jess?"
Slim stopped, "I don't know."
Mort looked confused. "How do you mean?"
"Well, Jess has been havin' these crazy dreams about a girl bein' in trouble, then this girl shows up. But he stares at her, like... like he's seen her before the dreams..."
Mort tried understanding. "He doesn't know if he's seen her before?"
"Oh, you know how it is Mort, people come and go in someone's life, we shouldn't be expected to remember everyone."
"No that's true." Mort agreed. "So how's the girl now? Has she spoken any?"
"She's pretty sick. And in a way, yes. She kinda woke up 'fore we headed for town. She kept askin' for forgiveness and said she needed to get back to her chores... before the master got angry." The words almost seemed strange coming from Slims mouth.
"She said 'master'?"
Slim nodded. "After that, she just drank some water and fell asleep. If'n she's done any talkin', it's been to Jess. But I don't know how much we'll know about her right now, Daisy says her fever's pretty high."
Mort quickly stood up. "Well then, we'd best get Doc and head out to your place."
As they headed for the door, a loud thunder clap hit and lightning lit up the sky.
Slim quickly headed back to the general store, followed closely by Mort. "Daisy!" he called out.
Daisy hurried out with a few more packages. "Oh Slim, that storm..."
"Yeah, it's comin' fast."
"Looks like it's gonna be 'round for a while." Mort spoke up.
Slim could see Daisy started to worry. "Look, why don't you and Mike go over to the hotel and get us a couple rooms."
"What are you gonna do?" she quickly asked as she gently grabbed Mike by his shoulder.
"I'm gonna put the buckboard and horses in the stable. Don't worry Daisy, I'll be there soon."
"Just be careful Slim."
Slim smiled, then climbed onto the driver's seat and drove the team to the livery stable just down the road.
Mike and Daisy were almost to the hotel when the clouds broke and rain began to pour down.
"Oh dear!" Daisy cried out as she and Mike hurried inside.
"Whoa! I've never seen it storm so quickly Aunt Daisy."
"Me neither Mike, I just hope that Jess and the girl will be alright until we can get back."
Slim hurried through the pouring rain; his boots became caked and heavy with mud.
As he approached the hotel doors, he stopped and tried his best to shake the mud off before going in.
"Hey Slim!" Mike called out as he jumped into 'his big brothers' arms.
"Hey Tiger, you and Daisy all checked in."
"Just about, Aunt Daisy is makin' sure that the beds are clean 'fore we try and sleep in them."
Slim chuckled, then he threw Mike over his shoulder and carried the small load upstairs and found Daisy trying to shake the blankets. "Daisy, what are you doin'?"
"Oh," she quickly stopped. "I just wanted to make sure that you and Mike were gonna be warm enough tonight, with that storm out there, I don't need you two catchin' a cold."
Slim put Mike down, he loved how much Daisy worried about him, Jess and Mike, but he felt bad as he thought about how much she worried and took care of them. "Now Daisy, don't you worry; Mike and I'll be fine."
Daisy laid the blanket back on the bed. "Oh I know that Slim, I guess..."
Slim quickly took his second mother in his arms and hugged her tight. "I'm worried 'bout Jess too. But he's been in storms with helpless people before, he'll be alright."
Daisy looked up at 'her oldest boy' and smiled. "You're right."
"Aunt Daisy?" Mike spoke up.
"Are we gonna eat soon?"
Slim looked surprised, then grabbed his pocket watch and noticed that it was getting close to dinner time.
Daisy giggled. "Yes we're gonna eat soon. Why don't you and Slim get cleaned up and we'll go down to the restaurant."
"Ok!" Mike said smiling great big.
Daisy giggled one last time, then headed to her room to clean up.
Carson, Thompson and Frankie rode straight into the storm.
"Thompson!" The Major called out.
"How are we doin'?"
Thompson looked around. "Tracks are washin' away pretty fast. But there're some ranches over the next hill, maybe someone there's seen her."
And the men rode on.
Frankie didn't like all the pressure he was putting onto his horse, he worried that one slip and they would be in trouble. He slowed up his horse some and rode carefully through the mud, rain making his coat feel heavy.
Lightning streaked across the sky as more thunder rolled.
Jess jumped a little, but kept right on fixing him a bowl of stew.
He worried some about Slim, Daisy and Mike, but he knew that they'd stay safe and warm until it was alright to travel.
As another thunder clap hit, the girl woke up startled, and she lightly screamed.
Jess hurried in and sat right beside her. "Easy now." he said calmly.
The girl looked around the room, "Where am I?" she asked.
"You're at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station."
"Wuh-how'd I get here?"
"You rode in on a horse, 'bout 8 hours ago." Jess then felt her forehead, "You're fever's gone down some, that's a good sign."
The girl just stared at him.
"What's your name?" Jess asked.
"A-Amanda... Amanda Carson."
Jess could tell she was scared. "How ya feelin' Amanda?"
"My back hurts a little." she said as she shifted on the couch.
"It's gonna be like that for a while. Would you like somethin' to eat?"
Amanda lightly nodded her head. As Jess went to the kitchen for some broth, she tried sitting up but found that she was very weak. She also noticed that she was in a soft white nightgown, and robe. "What?" she thought.
"Here we go." Jess sat in the rocking chair holding onto the bowl.
Amanda tried taking the soup from him, but her hands were too shaky.
"Here, let me." Jess scooted the chair closer and slowly began spoon-feeding the girl.
"Mmm, that tastes good." she said after a couple swallows.
"How long has it been since you last ate?" Jess asked as he continued to feed her.
"What day is it?"
Jess had to think for a minute. "Thursday."
"I ran awa..." she stopped, then took a deep breath. "I left home late Monday night, haven't stopped until I came here."
Jess thought she was hiding something "You haven't slept or eaten in three days?"
"I-I had to get away!" Amanda spoke harshly.
"Away from what?" Jess watched as the girl suddenly hunkered lower in the blankets, she was scared of something... but what?
Amanda took a couple more sips of the broth, then shook her head saying that she was finished.
As Jess took the bowl to the table, another thunder clap hit and Amanda yelped.
"It's just a thunder storm." Jess said as he walked to the table and fixed himself a cup of coffee.
"Oh, I know." the girls voice quivered. "But ever since I was a little girl, I've been terrified of storms."
Jess lightly chuckled. "I had a friend like you once, wouldn't even go out into the rain."
"I doubt they were as bad as I was." The girl giggled as she struggled to sit up. "When I was little, and a storm would hit, I'd hide under my front porch."
Jess's smile suddenly vanished as he listened. "What?"
"You know," Amanda continued. "There was this boy, one Summer, he lived on a ranch not far from my family... He-he would tease me for bein' scared of storms. He'd always splash water on me, tryin' to get me out from under the porch." she couldn't stop smiling at the happy memory.
Jess stood there for a moment. "And when you wouldn't come out," he spoke up. "He'd climb under the porch and sit with you until the storm passed?"
Amanda turned to look at him, her smile was replaced with shock and fear. "How'd you know that?"
Jess laid his cup down, then walked over and sat next to Amanda.
They stared deep into each other's eyes, searching.
"Mandy?" Jess finally said. "Mandy Collins?"
Tears began running down Amanda's face. "Jess Harper?" she reached up and caressed his cheek.
"Yes." he whispered.
"Oh Jess!" Amanda reached up and hugged Jess tight. "I can't believe it's you." she cried.
Jess gently hugged her, tears began filling his eyes. "I-I tried lookin' for you, but the ranch was burned down."
Amanda pulled back, nodding her head and sniffling.
"What happened?" Jess's voice was cracking.
"It happened after your family was killed, and you joined up in the Confederacy. Dad and the boys joined up too... They're dead Jess."
The words hit Jess hard. "Davie and Sam?"
Amanda nodded her head. "They were captured and put into a camp; they got real sick and died."
"Well, what about your folks?"
"Dad died in battle, mom..." Amanda's words got caught. "Mom and I were taken and sold as slaves."
"To who?" Jess struggled to listen, deep down his heart was filling with anger.
"Major Mark Carson."
Jess looked shocked. "But he's..."
"He's Union." Amanda finished. "I know... but he secretly bought slaves, and we've all been workin' for him since... almost 10 years."
"And your last name?"
"He makes us all say that we're Carsons, it's his way of sayin' that we belong to him... forever. Mom died workin' for him, and I was given all her chores."
Jess needed answers; he cupped his hand on her cheek and raised her face. "What happened the other day?"
Mandy swallowed hard. "I-I got a letter from a Colonel in the Union army, sayin' that my father died helpin' the Union escape from an ambush. Apparently he was captured and signed over his allegiance to them."
"What else did the letter say?"
"It said that he earned some money, but he left that money with the Union. And in case somethin' happened to him, they're supposed to get it to his next of kin. Took them almost 10 years to find me; it said that I had to be 18 to claim the money."
Jess thought for a minute. "If memory serves me right, your birthday was..."
"Sunday," she interrupted "and I turned 19. But according to Major Carson, I'm gonna be 17 for a long time. He kept sayin' that I was his and I wasn't leavin'." she struggled with her next words. "I-I tried to argue, but a couple of his goons dragged me out to the wood shack and chained me to the wall."
Jess couldn't believe what he was hearing. "They what?" his words came out in a whisper.
Mandy nodded her head as tears began filling her eyes. "The major came in... and he began whippin' me. Next thing I remember is Jingo carryin' me out into the rain and tellin' me that he was gonna get me outta there. He put me on a horse and... I rode here."
Jess wiped her tears away. "What happened to the letter?"
"Mrs. Carson burned it," Amanda whispered. "She's just as cruel to the servants as her husband is. She's the one who insisted that we didn't need much food to live on, so I gave my portions to the smaller children."
Suddenly a louder thunder clap hit near the house, Amanda jerked and Jess pulled her close and held her in his arms.
"It's alright." he whispered as he gently rocked her.
Amanda chuckled through her tears. "Just like when we were young, huh? Me bein' the scared little girl, and you; my strong protector."
"I just wish I was stronger," Jess spoke as he rubbed his cheek against the girls soft hair. "I would've stayed and protected you."
"You were almost killed in that fire Jess; you had your kin to worry about. And I don't blame you for that."
Jess pulled Amanda back and smiled, "Sweet Mandy Collins, never had a bad word to say of anyone."
She smiled. "It is good to see you again Jess. Just wish it was under better circumstances."
"Me too." Jess looked out the window and saw the rain was letting up a little. "Why don't you rest some more, I need to go check the stock."
Amanda nodded, then eased back down on the couch.
As Jess headed towards to the kitchen, Amanda noticed something moving around outside the living room window.
Suddenly the front door busted opened, two men hurried in, followed by Major Carson.
"Jess! Run!" Amanda screamed.
Jess hurried back into the living room, gun drawn, but it was too late; Thompson fired his gun, hitting Jess.
Amanda watched her friend get thrown back, and heard as he hit the kitchen table.
"Jess!" She struggled to her feet, and hurried to his side.
Thunder rolled outside the restaurant.
Mike perked up at the sound. "That thunder sure is loud." he said.
"Sure is Mike." Slim said, he looked over and saw Daisy pushing her food around her plate. "You alright Daisy?"
"Hmm?" She looked up. "Oh yes, I'm fine."
"Daisy?" Slim knew that she was lying.
"I'm sorry Slim, I just can't shake the feeling that something's wrong."
Slim reached over and placed his hand on hers, "I'm sure Jess is alright. He's probably got that girl eatin' some of your stew right now."
Daisy smiled sadly. "I sure hope you're right, Slim."
Slim smiled, but deep down he hoped that he was right too. "I'm sure Jess is alright."
Jess rocked and moaned in pain as Amanda tried looking at his wound.
"Easy Jess," she spoke calmly. "Try not to move."
"You fool, why'd ya shoot him?" Frankie asked angrily.
"It was either him or me." Thompson answered as he took Jess's gun.
Everyone watched as Amanda pulled back part of Jess's shirt, exposing the wound.
"How is he?" Carson asked.
Amanda sniffled. "The bullet's still in there, he's losing blood fast."
"Does he live here alone?"
"No sir," Thompson answered. "There's at least two others living here."
"Then leave him, his family will find him when they return."
Amanda looked up in fear. "No Major!" she screamed. "You can't do that!"
"I can, and I will." Carson signaled for Thompson to grab Amanda.
Jess just lay there... helpless.
Amanda struggled in the strong man's grip as she was dragged towards the door. "No Major, please! He'll die without help!"
"That's not my problem."
"Yes it is," Amanda finally jerked free from Thompson's grip, but she was still so weak that she fell to the floor. "If you don't let me save him, I'll not return with you alive."
The Major stopped and looked down at the determined young lady.
Amanda held her ground, she wasn't gonna let Jess suffer for her problems.
"Very well, help him."
Amanda struggled back to her feet. Frankie walked to her and helped her over to Jess' side.
Jess was struggling to stay awake, every breath he took rocked him with pain.
"Jess?" Amanda asked as she laid her hand on his head.
"Man... Mandy?" he gasped, "ahh."
"Yeah," she whispered. "Don't worry Jess, we're gonna get the bullet out."
Frankie looked at the bullet wound, it was just below the left shoulder. He could see that it was deep and that it was going to take some time digging it out. "I'll help Amanda." he said.
Amanda smiled. "Thank you Frankie."
"What can I do?"
"Help me get him in front of the fire."
Frankie laid his rifle down, then carefully slid his hands under Jess's shoulders and lifted him up.
Jess couldn't hold back a pain-filled cry as he was dragged into the living room and laid next to the fireplace.
Frankie then grabbed a pillow off the couch and placed it under Jess's head.
"Jess?" Amanda said as she knelt beside her wounded friend. "Is there any whiskey here?"
Jess struggled to speak. "In-in the dresser... nurse satchel." Jess pointed a weak finger towards Daisy's room.
Amanda stumbled as she headed for the bedroom.
Frankie went into the kitchen and began warming some water, he then looked for anything that could be used for bandages.
Major Carson and Thompson just sat at the table and watched the two young people gather supplies.
Suddenly the sound of rain poured harder outside.
"Major, I think it might be wise if we stay here until the rain slows up." Thompson suggested.
Carson nodded his head. "I think you're right Thompson. Go see to the horses."
Thompson pulled his coat collar up, then headed out.
Slim, Daisy and Mike just sat in the restaurant, occasionally talking with the waiter.
Daisy looked over and saw Mike's head begin bobbing up and down as he was falling asleep. "I think it's time for someone to hit the hay." she said smiling.
"I'll take him upstairs Daisy." Slim went over and scooped up the small boy and took him to their room.
Daisy watched and smiled, she loved seeing how much the boys all cared for each other. Suddenly, the upset feeling hit Daisy again; something was wrong and she knew it.
As she began sipping on her coffee, she heard something crashing in the hotel lobby. She could hear the hotel manager getting angry, and someone yelling "Please! I need help!"
She quickly headed into the next room and saw the manager trying to throw an older black man out of the room. "Mr. Bailey!" she called out. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Just gettin' rid of a drunkard, Ms. Daisy."
The black man turned and looked at the older woman. "Please ma'am, I need help."
Daisy then noticed the man was favoring his left arm. "Let him go Mr. Bailey."
"But Ms. Daisy..."
"She said to let him go." Slim called from the stairs.
Bailey let the man go and Daisy helped him over to a chair.
"My goodness, sir," she said as she began looking at the old man's arm. "What happened to you?"
"I had to break out of a wood shack then rode none stop 'til I found this town."
Slim looked confused. "Did someone lock you in the wood shack?"
"Yes sir," the man said nodding. "My master."
Slim and Daisy looked shocked.
"Your master? You mean you're a slave?" Slim asked.
"Yes sir, name's Jingo... Jingo Carson. I work for Major Mark Carson's ranch, 'bout a day and a half's ride from here, if'n you ride hard enough."
Daisy looked up at Slim, "We'd best get him upstairs."
But Jingo protested. "Thank you ma'am, but I ain't got time. I've got to find her 'fore the Major does."
"Find who?" Daisy asked as she continued to check Jingo's arm.
"Ms. Amanda Collins, ma'am. She was captured and sold to the Major about 10 years ago, during the war. I helped her escape on Monday."
Slim looked down at the older man. "Was she white? ''Bout 20-years-old, with brown hair? Ridin' a horse with no brand or saddle.
Hope lit up in Jingo's eyes. "Yes sir, have you seen her?"
"She's out at my ranch with a friend of mine. She'll be safe there."
"No she won't sir, the Major left long 'fore I did. He's probably caught up to her by now."
Daisy straightened up next to Slim. "Oh, Slim..." her voice was filled with worry.
"It's alright Daisy, I'll go get Mort."
Amanda slowly walked back into the living room and knelt beside Jess. She could see that his skin color had gone pale, and sweat began pouring down his face.
His breathing was labored, he looked as if he was in a painful sleep, and he lightly shivered.
"I've got some water boiling, Amanda." Frankie said as he rounded the corner.
Amanda nodded, "Can you fetch me a blanket?"
Frankie hurried into Jess's bedroom and brought out a couple blankets and gently laid them over the young man.
Jess jerked as he felt the extra weight being laid across him. "Ma-Mandy?" he whispered.
"I'm here, Jess." she took a hold of his right hand. She could feel him trying to squeeze it.
"You-you can't go with him." he struggled to keep his eyes open.
"I have to Jess or he'll kill you." she whispered as she began brushing back some of his dark curls, she could feel a fever slowly starting to rise. "Besides, you've outlived so much already; a fire, a war... my grandfather's wrath..."
That made Jess lightly smile through the pain.
"I'm not about to let a man, like Carson, take your life away." she finished.
Jess raised a weak hand and rubbed Mandy's face.
Just then Frankie hurried in, carrying a bowl of hot water with some of Daisy's medical tools in it. He carefully laid it beside Amanda.
"Thank you Frankie." Amanda then took the bottle of whiskey and held it to Jess's lips. "Here, better drink some of this."
Amanda watched as Jess gulped the alcohol down, until he signaled that he had enough.
"Frankie, you'll have to help me hold him."
Frankie swallowed hard, took his place at Jess's head, he then grabbed Jess's shoulders to hold him down.
Jess was feeling the light buzz of the alcohol in his head, he couldn't move his left arm, but he worried about his right. He quickly slipped his right hand under his back to hold it there.
Amanda counted to three then carefully poured some whiskey into the bullet hole, Jess jerked and cried out in pain, but Frankie held him down. He watched as Amanda quickly grabbed the scalpel and began cutting into Jess's shoulder.
Jess's back arched in pain; he squeezed his eyes shut so tight that tears began falling down his face.
Amanda kept whispering, "It's alright Jess, you're alright. I'm gonna get it out." as she dug to find the bullet.
As the scalpel kept cutting deeper and deeper, Jess tried hard to fight the pain, but his body took its toll and he fell into unconsciousness.
Frankie knelt down and could hear slight steady breathing coming from the wounded man. "He's passed out."
"Good." Amanda said, she cut just a little deeper, then she spotted it; Thompsons bullet. She quickly grabbed the forceps, reached down into Jess's shoulder and retrieved the bullet.
As she pulled it free, a steady flow of blood followed. Frankie quickly grabbed a towel and applied pressure to the wound.
Amanda quickly packed the wound and sewed up. And, with Frankie's help, she wrapped a bandage around Jess's chest and shoulder. "If there's no infection, he'll be alright." she said quietly. She then used a towel and began cleaning up the blood.
Frankie gathered up the supplies then took them into the kitchen to get cleaned up.
"You do good work." Carson spoke up. He had been so quiet that Amanda almost forgot that he was there.
"It's something I learned from Jingo." she said sternly.
"Ahh, Jingo," Carson sneered as he puffed on a cigar. "I'll remember that when I dole out his punishment."
Amanda turned and looked up at the Major. "His punishment? For what? He didn't do anything."
"On the contrary, he helped you run away."
"No, I did that on my own!" she demanded.
But the Major didn't say anything, he just sat there, sipping his coffee.
"Now wait a minute!" Mort commanded. "You said that you're a slave to Major Mark Carson? Of the Union?"
"Yes sir." Jingo said.
"How can that be? The slaves were freed after the war."
"Apparently not all of them." Slim spoke up. "Jingo here told us that Major Carson has had slaves long before the war, and he doesn't let any of them go."
"We've lost many because of sickness, lack of food, or bein' whipped." Jingo said sorrowfully.
"And this girl you told me about?" Mort asked.
"She was captured durin' the war when she was about 9," Jingo said. "Her mama worked until she died and then Amanda got all her chores. Poor child, she always tried to do the right thing, she gave our own children her food so they'd survive. But Major Carson didn't like that, so he'd whip her then let her go hungry."
Mort just stood there, disgusted. "And you think they might be out at the ranch?"
Slim shrugged his shoulder. "I don't know Mort, Daisy kept sayin' that she felt somethin' wasn't right."
"Well if there's one thing I've learned, it's that you always listen to a woman. I'll need to send a wire to Colonel Taylor; he'll know what to do. You Slim..."
"I already know what I'm gonna do." Slim interrupted. "You just make sure that Daisy and Mike get home in the morning." And with that he stormed out of the hotel into the rain, and headed for the livery stable.
Daisy hurried down the stairs. "Where's Slim?"
"He's gone after Jess." is all Mort said, then he stepped out and headed for the telegraph office.
Daisy gently eased Jingo's arm into a sling. "There we go, now why don't you come upstairs and have some coffee."
"Thank ya ma'am." he answered as he headed for the stairs. "Ma'am? Do you think she's alright?"
"I'm sure she is Mr. Jingo." Daisy tried keeping his spirit up, but deep down something didn't feel right. She looked back one last time and saw Slim riding out in the rain... headed for home.
As the hours passed, Frankie found himself dozing on the couch. Thompson paced the living room like a nervous cat, while Carson rested his head on the table.
Amanda kept a vigil eye on Jess, checking his bandages and trying to keep a growing fever at bay.
As she laid a cool cloth on his head, Jess began to stir. "Mandy?" he whispered.
"Shhh." she said. "Thompson's watchin' us."
Jess opened his eyes a slit and focused on his friend. "Need to... to get outta here."
"We can't, there's no way. We don't even have a gun."
"Gun... hidden... fireplace." he struggled to say.
Mandy looked surprised. "Where at?" she whispered.
Jess carefully raised his hand and pointed to the right side of the fireplace. "There's... a-a loose panel." he whispered.
"I'll try." Mandy had to think quickly; the rain was letting up and soon the sun would be rising. If she didn't act fast, she'd be taken back to Carson's ranch and given no mercy.
Slowly she rose to her feet, she made it seem like she needed to lean against the fireplace for support, but actually she was looking for the hidden panel... She found it, but there was no way she'd be able to get the gun with Thompson watching her every move. Then she had a thought.
"Thompson." she spoke softly. "Have you eaten anything lately?"
Thompson rubbed his stomach. "Now that you mention it, no."
Amanda turned and smiled. "Well, there's some stew on the stove, Frankie's been keepin' it warm. I'll get you some." As she headed for the kitchen, she stumbled and almost fell, but Thompson caught her.
"I'll get my own stew." he said gruffly. "You'd prolly try and put somethin' in it."
Amanda leaned up against the fireplace and watched Thompson disappear around the corner. She turned and saw that the Major nor Frankie had moved. She quickly lifted the panel and pulled out a cloth wad. In it she could feel a gun.
She hurried down to Jess, and together they quietly unwrapped it, and he hid it below the blanket. The movement sent a slight sharp pain through his body, he lightly gasped.
The noise made Carson looked up. "What are you doin' over there?" he demanded.
"Nothin', just tryin' to keep his fever down." Amanda answered as she placed another cool cloth on Jess's forehead.
Carson listened as Jess shuddered under the coolness. "Frankie! Saddle the horses." he demanded.
Frankie sat up. "Y-yes sir." and he hurried outside.
"What are you gonna do?" Amanda asked.
"We're gettin' outta here."
"No!" Amanda stumbled to her feet.
Carson looked angry. "What did you say?"
Amanda looked down at Jess, "I said I'm not goin' anywhere."
Carson walked closer to her. "I still own you, Amanda Carson, and you will return with me."
"The name is Mandy Collins, and I no longer belong to you." she stood her ground.
Thompson walked around the corner and watched what was going on.
Carson took a deep breath, then slapped the young lady.
She crumpled next to Jess.
Jess tried to reach over and touch her shoulder, but Thompson walked over and slapped his hand away.
"No you don't."
"Looks like I'm gonna hafta teach you a lesson girl." Carson said.
Mandy stayed on the floor, quietly crying.
Then she felt Carson grab her arm and drag her to her feet.
"No!" Jess tried helping, but his shoulder throbbed. He could hear Mandy crying as she was being drug outside.
Frankie walked out of the barn, pulling two horses behind him, when he spotted the Major stepping outside.
"Horses are ready sir!" he called out, then he saw Carson dragging Mandy behind him. "What are you doin'?"
"Keep out of this Frankie!" The Major yelled back.
It didn't take long for Frankie to realize what was gonna happen. "No!" he screamed as he drew his gun.
But the Major out drew and shot Frankie. Mandy screamed as she watched the young man fall in the mud and die.
Carson holstered his gun and dragged Mandy out into the rain, she kept fighting his grip.
Thompson and Jess heard the shot. Thompson stood at the door and watched the Major continue dragging the young lady towards the barn.
"Here's my chance." Jess thought to himself.
Slowly he pushed the blanket back and struggled to his feet. As he cleared his head, he tried sneaking over but Thompson spotted him.
The henchman tried firing his gun, but Jess jumped him and the two wrestled.
Thompson had the upper hand since Jess only had one good arm.
But Jess managed to flip Thompson over his shoulder, then he scrambled for his gun and hit Thompson on the head, knocking him out.
Jess slumped against the bedroom door, trying to catch his breath, when he heard Mandy scream again. He holstered his gun, then pushed himself to his feet and stumbled to the front door. He struggled out onto the front porch, and saw the Major and Mandy almost to the barn.
"Carson!" Jess yelled.
Carson stopped and turned to see Jess leaned against the porch post.
"Leave her be!"
"Make me!" Carson yelled back. He pushed Mandy into the mud.
The two men stood ready, rain poured down as the morning light began to brighten the cloudy sky.
Jess took a deep breath, he wiggled his fingers around his gun, but his eyes never left Carson's hand. He waited... for the right moment.
Suddenly Carson made a move and the two men drew and shot their guns.
"No!" Mandy screamed.
The two men stood there, Jess took a deep breath then took a step forward out into the rain. His feet squished in the mud.
Carson just stood there, then he stumbled forward and fell into the mud... and died.
Mandy struggled to her feet and hurried over to Jess, she caught him as he began to slump into the mud.
"Jess! Jess, answer me," she demanded.
He looked up at her and smiled. "I'm alright." he placed his hand on her face. "Are you hurt?"
Mandy shook her head, then she carefully leaned over and hugged him. "I'm sorry."
He hugged her back, wrapping his good are around her.
Suddenly a movement caught Mandy's eye; Thompson staggering out the front door, gun drawn and aimed at...
"Jess, look out!" Mandy yelled.
As she pushed Jess out of the way, a shot was fired.
Mandy just sat there... shocked.
"Mandy!" Jess grabbed her shoulders and shook her. He looked back and saw Thompson dead on the front porch.
Jess looked around in fear.
"Jess!" a voice called out.
Jess turned to see Slim riding up, gun drawn. "Slim!"
Slim quickly dismounted and hurried over. He immediately spotted Jess's wrapped up shoulder. "Are you alright?"
Jess looked at Mandy and saw tears began pouring down her face, mixing with the falling rain. "Yeah, we're fine Slim."
Slim wondered what was going on, but he knew he had to get those two out of the rain. He carefully picked Mandy up and carried her inside; Jess looked up and saw the sun beginning to break through the clouds, and the rain let up.
Then he slowly staggered back into the house after Slim.
Slim carefully laid the last of the three bodies into the wagon and covered them up with a blanket. He started heading back to the house when he heard a small noise.
He turned to see Mort Cory riding his horse, with Daisy, Mike and Jingo driving the buckboard.
"Hey Slim!" Mike called out as they pulled into the yard.
"Hey Mike." he answered as he took the small boy off the buckboard.
Daisy immediately noticed the bodies in the wagon. "Slim! What happened?"
Slim looked over at Mort. "That's Major Carson, and two of his men."
Jingo looked worried. "Where's Ms. Amanda?" he asked.
Slim smiled, he put a finger to his mouth indicating for them to keep quiet, then he quietly led them all into the house.
Mandy was sound asleep on the couch, and Jess was on the floor, both hunkered under a small pile of blankets to keep warm, along with a blazing fire in the fireplace.
Jess laid on his right side, Mandy on her left; her right hand resting on Jess's injured shoulder.
Daisy quietly walked over and gently laid her hand on Mandy's forehead, then she knelt down and checked Jess. Neither one stirred at her touch.
"They both have a slight fever, but it's not too bad." She said as she walked back to the group. "Slim what happened?"
Slim led everyone outside so they could talk more freely, then he looked down at Mike. "Hey Mike, why don't you take the horses and give them some water.
"Ok Slim," and Mike was off.
"Well Slim?" Mort insisted.
"One of Carson's men shot Jess; Mandy got the bullet out. They were both out in the rain when I showed up."
"Out in the rain?" the words worried Daisy. "She shouldn't have been out with that fever.... and Jess shouldn't have been either, not after being shot."
"They didn't have a choice, Daisy; Carson was gonna horsewhip Mandy for goin' against him, Jess had to follow them outside to save her."
"Did you see what happened, Slim?" Mort asked.
"I rode in just as Carson drew on Jess. It was self defense."
"What about the other two?"
"Mandy said that Carson shot one of his men, I had to shoot the other before he killed them."
Mort nodded his head, "Well I'd best get these men back to town. Oh Colonel Taylor will be here in 3 days to investigate the Carson's, you might wanna tell Mandy that she's a free girl now."
Slim, Daisy and Jingo watched as Mort drove their wagon back towards town.
"Slim?" a voice weakly called from inside.
"Sounds like Jess is awake." Slim said.
The three all smiled, then headed inside.
About a week later the stage coach pulled in; Mose all bright eyed and bushy tailed.
"Howdy, Slim!" he called out.
"How's Jess doin'?"
Slim started unhitching the team. "Oh he's doin' alright. Doc says that he'll be back to full work by next week."
"And how's that girl that's been stayin' with ya?"
Suddenly the front door opened.
"See for yourself." Slim stated as he changed the teams.
Jingo stepped lively towards the stage, carrying two large bags.
Mandy stepped out with Daisy, Jess and Mike followed. She was wearing a brand new lilac colored dress, and a smile to match.
"I don't know how to thank ya Ms. Daisy, for everything."
"Oh don't think anything about it dear." Daisy said smiling. "Just knowing that you're on your way to a better life is thanks enough. And besides, it should be I thanking you for taking care of Jess."
Mandy looked over at Jess and smiled. "He helped me far more than anyone knows, I couldn't let him die."
Daisy smiled then gently hugged the girl. "Goodbye dear."
"Goodbye." she whispered.
Mike hurried over with a big smile on his face. "Thanks for showing' me how to braid a horses tail, Miss Mandy. Now all our horses'll be pretty too."
Mandy giggled. "I'm sure they will be Mike."
As Mike ran off, Slim walked over.
"I've... never been real good at speakin," he started. "I do want to say I'm sorry for all you've been through. And that you're welcome back here anytime."
"Thank you Slim." she then leaned up and kissed him on the cheek.
Mandy watched as the first three went over and were saying their goodbyes to Jingo, then she turned her attention to Jess, who had leaned up against the house; his head hidden under his hat.
"Jess?" she said.
Jess looked up with a sad smile on his face. "Seems like one of us is always runnin' off." he said.
Mandy walked over to him. "I know, and I hate it. But I can't stay, you know that."
"Yeah I know," he shuffled his feet. "What are you gonna do now?"
Mandy took a deep breath. "I don't know; I've got no money, so I guess I'll just go and find a job somewhere."
Jess reached in his pocket and pulled out an envelope. "Why don't you start here?"
Everyone watched as the young lady opened the envelope and read the letter.
"I-I don't understand," she looked up at Jess. "Where did you get this?"
"It was in your saddle bags."
"What is it?" Slim asked.
Tears began to fill Mandy's eyes as she struggled to speak. "It's the letter from the Army... about my father's money."
Jingo stepped forward. "I forged the letter Ms. Amanda." he said. "The one the missus burned was a fake, that there's the real Army letter."
"Oh, Jingo." Mandy hugged her friend close. "Thank you."
"Pullin' out folks!" Mose called out.
Jingo hurried and climbed aboard the stage.
Mandy turned back to Jess, tears began filling her eyes. "Jess I..."
Jess grabbed her and hugged her close. "I'm gonna miss you too." he whispered.
She pulled back and saw a tear fall down Jess's face. "Hey now, no tears remember?" she said as she wiped it away. But she couldn't stop her own from falling.
Jess wiped them away, then leaned in and they shared a kiss.
As they broke it Mandy looked down. "I always wished that you'd do that if I ever found you."
Jess smiled, then kissed her one last time.
She pulled back. "Goodbye." she whispered sorrowfully, then she hurried over and climbed onto the stage.
As it pulled out, she leaned out the window waving goodbye and blowing kisses.
Everyone waved and said goodbye.
Mike hurried inside, Daisy and Slim turned to see Jess standing there, like a statue.
"Jess?" Slim asked. But no response.
"Jess dear, are you alright?" Daisy asked sadly.
Jess swallowed. "I was just remembering; when we were little she always said that she'd be mighty hurt if we ever parted."
Daisy looked up at Slim who had a sad smile on his face.
"I never realized until now... what it's like to be broken hearted." Jess finished.
Slim laid his hand on Jess's shoulder. "It'll get better in time Jess."
His 'younger brother' just nodded.
Daisy wrapped her arms around both her boys and pulled them close.
They couldn't help but smile at the love 'their mother' had for them.
"Alright now," Daisy spoke up. "enough of these tears. Let's go inside for some apple pie."
Both men agreed that that'd be perfect.
As they headed inside, they heard barking and a scurrying noise coming from the bedroom.
"Mike?" Slim called out.
Then there was a loud crash.
"Mike!" Jess yelled as they hurried into the other room.
The three looked around, the room was a mess, but what caught their attention most was Mike, hanging halfway out the window.
"Oh Mike!" Daisy said startled.
Slim hurried over and pulled the boy back in, "What's goin' on?"
Jess grabbed ahold of a rope that Mike was holding and pulled his pet raccoon back inside. "What happened, Tiger?" he asked.
"Oh somehow Button got inside and tried scaring Scooter away."
"So Scooter decided to go out the window?" Slim asked.
"Well it wan-it my idea!" the little boy snapped back.
The two men chuckled at the boy's innocence.
"Alright now," Daisy spoke up. "Go wash up, or there'll be no apple pie for any of you."
"Apple pie?!" Mike said excitedly. "ALRIGHT!" and he took off running.
Everyone busted out laughing, then Slim followed the boy. Jess hung back for a minute, Daisy could see her boy was still hurting, but he was gonna be fine.
She walked over and gave him a small sideways hug.
He wrapped his arm around her shoulder, then the two went out and cleaned up for lunch.