The Christmas Winds


by Maddie Holthe





A/N: This one is for Monika Peuker

Although not completely necessary, it is helpful to read Requiem for a Renegade first as this story continues in that same slightly altered universe of how Slim and Jess first met. Enjoy!



PROLOGUE



Lazarus Jones turned his face to the pass and looked upwards to the mountains, at the belt of evergreens with dead foliage. From a distance the dried out needles took on a reddish tinge and he could sense the winds forming. Wispy clouds clung to the peaks, trailing down the mountainside like ghostly fingers, harbingers of the Chinook winds; the winds the Indians called Snow-Eaters. He had seen it melt a foot of snow in an hour; a warm gusty wind that would come roaring down the pass, bringing with it almost instantaneous temperature changes as it swept into the mountain valleys and onto the plains. It could turn snow slides to mudslides as it scoured the mountainside, uprooting trees and vegetation, creating a debris avalanche of snow, rocks and soil that swept aside man and beast. Nor were the Chinooks always warm, he knew, and instead of melting snow the gusts could set snowdrifts in motion creating whiteouts that were worse than any Plains blizzards.

He drew his tattered old jacket closer to his bony frame and picked up his walking stick. Lazarus Jones stood well over six feet tall, but he walked with the weight of the world on his shoulders, his face the color of buffalo hide, seamed and darkened by the elements. Grey eyebrows sat like twin escarpments shading whiskey-colored eyes that shone with a feverish intensity. The crusted snow crackled under his boots as he turned his back to the pass. He tugged at his tangled, white beard and sighed wearily, his breath puffs of steam in the icy air.

For now it was only cold, a bone-numbing cold that ate into his soul, but with the wind would come warmth… and death. His memory flickered like a fragile flame: Would this be the one? The one that would show him the way home?



PART ONE

Sam Munson hung the last of the red baubles on the Christmas tree standing at the end of the bar, and let out a frustrated sigh as the angel atop the tree tipped over and fell into his hand. That was the third time; had he been a suspicious man he’d have thought the heavens were trying to tell him something… maybe bailing wire would do the job better’n the gold ribbon he had bought at the general store. He shrugged and placed the little angel on the bar. It had seen a lot of Christmas seasons, it was missing a wing and the halo was askew. His wife had given it to him on their first Christmas; as it were it turned out to be their only Christmas together, she had died in childbirth the following year, and the tiny baby had died with her. That was nigh on twenty years ago, and this place had since become his home.

Every year he put up a Christmas tree in the bar and brought out the box of ornaments his wife had used to decorate their home. An evergreen wreath entwined with red ribbons hung on either side of the mirror behind the bar and a Nativity scene with hand carved figures sat next to the cash register. Probably not the most appropriate place for it, he sometimes thought, but safer than having it on the bar, where it would be exposed to the raucous customers that tumbled in and out of his establishment looking for some seasonal cheer.

Business that been good the last few months, and he had set out free lunch plates heaped with chunks of ham and cheese and sliced fresh bread, along with a bowl of pickled hard boiled eggs. It was inching towards noon and the saloon was starting to fill up. Sam wiped the length of the bar and eyed the lone occupant at the corner table speculatively. He had come in an hour earlier, smacked his money on the bar and retreated with a bottle.

Jess Harper stared at the half-empty bottle of whiskey and wondered why he was still sober. The liquor churned in his belly, but the hazy warm path to oblivion that he was looking for eluded him. It shouldn’t be this hard to get drunk; he had been there before, why was it different this time? Dad-gum Christmas! People smilin’ and wavin’ cheerfully at him like he was some long lost relation and not the fast gun who worked at the Sherman ranch. He tipped the chair back against the wall, and fished the cigarette makings out of his vest pocket. He dribbled tobacco onto the paper, muttering irritably as most of it landed on his shirt. He licked at the paper, but found that his mouth was so dry he could barely summon up any spit. How was that possible with all the whiskey he’d consumed?

Jess thumped the chair back on the floor; he gave up on the cigarette and refilled his glass instead. He gazed around the saloon, caught Sam’s friendly wave and looked away. The cheerful holiday mood of the revelers at the bar, the evergreen with the colored ornaments, the barkeep’s hapless efforts to get the Christmas tree angel to sit straight on top of the tree… it all set his teeth on edge, and he curled both hands around the glass. Too many dark memories floated on the surface of the amber liquid.

Winters on the little sharecropper’s place down in Texas had been bleak and bitter; there was little enough money for food and none for things like decorations and presents. Christmas came and went like any other day, filled with backbreaking work and younger siblings who were constantly hungry. Jess closed his eyes as he remembered one of the neighbor ladies coming by one Christmas morning with a basket of fried chicken and dumplings. His father had sent her packing, snarling that they didn’t take charity. Jess had snuck out the back and run barefoot after the buggy, catching up to it out of breath and fearful he’d get caught. His Pa wasn’t particular which end of the belt he used and he had the marks to prove it. He’d stood shivering in the snow, not noticing his feet turning blue, cheeks burning with the knowledge that he was not too proud to beg for food for his brother and sister.

His cheeks burned again as he thought of the scene in the Elders’ general store earlier that morning. The last time Mike came into town with him he had pointed excitedly at a box that sat on the counter by the candy jar; it was filled with intricately carved and painted wooden animals and buildings, there were horses in a corral, cows and pigs, a red barn with a water trough, and a little ranch house with a covered front porch.

“Don’t it look just like the ranch, Jess, huh, don’t it?” Mike had chattered happily as he pointed at the various figures. “See, it’s even got a rocking chair for the porch like the one you like to sit in, gollee, isn’t it just the neatest thing you ever saw?”

“Sure is, Tiger.” Jess had grinned down at the towheaded youngster and ruffled his hair. The shining innocence in those blue eyes cut right to his heart, and thawed the cold mantle that always seemed to settle on him this time of year.

He had stood in Hugh Elders’ general store that morning and looked down at the coins and crumpled bills he had placed on the counter, seeing in the kindly storekeeper’s eyes that it was not nearly enough, yet willing to beg him to take it as a down payment, he would scrape together the rest, he’d even offered to give him his shooting iron to hold as a guarantee.

Hugh Elders shook his head as he eyed the distraught man behind the counter. He knew full well Jess Harper’s reputation as a fast draw with a faster fuse, but he had also come to know the heart behind the gun. He had taken the measure of the man when Jess had saved Slim Sherman’s life by going up against that hired killer Lou Coulter right out on Front Street; the man had more grit than anyone Elders had ever met.

Elders removed his spectacles and polished them on his apron. “I can’t take your gun, Jess, you know that” he said quietly. “Why not?” Jess demanded his voice bitter as he shoved the weapon back in the holster. “Too much blood on it? I clean it real good every time I shoot someone, Hugh, you know that!”

Hugh Elders carefully put his glasses back on, fiddling with the wires that never seemed to sit quite right behind his ears. He wondered absentmindedly if it was his ears that were crooked, and not the glasses… Martha teased him about it often enough. He sighed and ran hand through his thinning grey hair.

“I can’t let you have the box because Mrs. Elders sold it yesterday, Jess. I just haven’t had a chance to remove it from the counter. Customer’s coming by to pick it up later today. I am truly sorry, son.”

*****

“Jess, you look like you’d climb a tree to fight a bear,” Mort Corey grinned and dropped his hat on the table. “Mind if I set?”

“It’s a free country,” Jess grunted and pushed the bottle towards the sheriff.

Sheriff Corey raised an eyebrow at the terse response as he slapped the dust off his hat and dropped it on the table. He folded himself into a chair with a grateful sigh and reached for the bottle. He eyed the man across the table as he poured himself a glass of whiskey. Jess Harper slouched in his chair, his hat pushed back off his forehead. His eyes were guarded and cold; he had the dark smudge of stubble on his chin and two hands around his glass. It was obvious he was in no mood for company and, judging by the contents of the whiskey bottle, he should be well on his way to good-size bender.

Mort Corey had his doubts when he learned Slim Sherman had taken on a drifter with a greased holster and a prison record to help him run his ranch and the Overland relay station. Gunfighters had a tendency to attract more of the same, but in the few months Jess had been in Laramie the sheriff had come to know the moral fiber of the man. He had seen him stride into a fight with all the odds stacked against him, but willing to die to save the life of a friend. There was unyielding steel in him, but his violent past dogged his footsteps and made it hard to get close to him. Mort tossed down his drink and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. He considered the bottle and shrugged; might as well put one in the other leg. It was goin’ on Christmas, after all.

Jess ran his thumb around the rim of his glass. He was on cautiously friendly terms with Corey, the caution being more on his own part; the Laramie sheriff did not fit into any category of lawman that he’d ever come across. He had crossed paths with too many peace officers that had one hand on their gun and the other in the town coffers. His distrust of the law had been learned the hard way, and the fact that Corey so readily extended his hand in friendship now that he was a part of the Sherman household still confounded him.

“Wish the wind would let up,” Corey ventured, looking for neutral ground to start a conversation. “Funny how they always seem to turn up this time of year.” He rolled his head from side to side trying to relieve the tension in his neck. “Like to give a man a headache.”

“Slim get back yet from Medicine Bow?” When Jess shook his head he continued: “I ran into Mose on the way over. He told me about the stageline looking to cut back on expenses; guess that’s why they’re havin’ that big palaver with all the relay station owners?”

Jess toyed with his glass, blue eyes unreadable as he met the sheriff’s gaze. He knew all too well why Slim had taken the stage to Medicine Bow. He had caught the strained, worried look on his friend’s face as he sat at the roll top desk every evening going through the ranch and stageline accounts. The new stageline superintendent had already cut back funding to the relay station once, his reasoning being that they had added four new stations to the various routes and needed to keep costs down.

Jess saw that Slim was hard pressed to manage on the limited funds at his disposal; hell, he’d been running the ranch on a shoestring the last few months. He knew Daisy worried about the prospect of not being able to give at least Mike a proper holiday celebration, and his eyes stung at the thought of the present he had wanted to get for his young friend. The people at the Sherman ranch had given him so much, and here he was in the Palace Saloon spending his last few dollars gettin’ drunk, and he couldn’t even manage that. Dad-gum Christmas!

He reached a hand for the bottle.

“Maybe it’s none of my business, Jess, but you might consider hogtieing your drinkin’ a bit.” Mort’s voice was quiet as he watched the younger man pour another shot. “It’s barely noon and you’ve got a long ride back.”

“I came in here to lay the dust in my throat, Mort,” Jess muttered, “not to get a damn lecture.”

“From the looks of that bottle you’re layin’ the whole Texas Panhandle to rest,” Corey grinned. “Jess, ease off, where’s your holiday cheer, don’t you know it’s goin’ on Christmas?”

The sheriff’s unwitting words cut into Jess and he leapt to his feet, kicking the chair aside and sending it crashing into the wall behind him.

“Christmas!” Jess snorted, his eyes blazing. “I know all about Christmas, Mort, and there ain’t nothin’ cheerful about it so lay off me.” He turned his back on the astounded sheriff and stomped towards the door. He teetered a bit and wind-milled his arms trying to regain his balance. His right hand grabbed for the bar and found only empty air. Sam Munson, who was on his way back behind the bar with a tray of empty glasses, reached out to steady him, got hold of an elbow. Jess regained his balance and tore loose with an angry grunt. He took a step back and felt something crunch under his boot heel. He glanced down and winced when he saw the remains of the saloon owner’s Christmas angel on the floor.

Wordlessly Sam bent down and gathered up the broken pieces. He shook his head in disbelief as he gazed at the mangled ornament. The halo was crushed, the remaining wing broken off. An ache in his heart, he closed his hand gently over the little angel.

He looked at Jess; saw a bleak anguish that he was somehow sure had nothing to do with the broken angel.

“Sam, I … I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to …” Jess’ voice faltered. “I never … aw, hell!”

Shaking his head in frustration he elbowed his way through the crowded saloon and headed for the door.

Sam wiped his hands on his apron He moved back behind the bar and carefully placed the angel next to the Nativity scene. He shrugged, sadness in his eyes; maybe he could glue it back together.

The door whooshed shut behind Jess bringing with it a gust of frigid winter air; the room seemed to tilt as all the warmth was sucked out of the saloon. Sam Munson shivered, sudden icy foreboding trailing down his spine. Cold air froze in his throat and for a moment it hurt to breathe.

The broken angel wing fluttered back to the floor.

High up above the tree line of Purgatory Pass the snow-slab groaned and shifted.



PART TWO

Daisy Cooper sifted flour into a bowl for her second batch of gingerbread cookies. Her face was flushed from the hot stove and she had flour on her nose. Normally this was her favorite time of year, filled with joyous holiday preparations and cooking more food than anyone could possibly eat. She hummed quietly as she worked, trying to keep her spirits up, but Slim had looked so worried when he left for the stageline meeting in Medicine Bow. They were running low on supplies, and Daisy knew full well that if funding for the relay station was cut once again there would be nothing extra for Christmas. She had dipped into her savings account at the bank twice already without telling Slim, waving it off as “cookie-jar” money when he wondered where it came from.

If nothing else she wanted to make sure Mike had a good holiday surrounded by his family; the youngster had lost so much so early in his life. Traveling west with a wagon train he had seen his parents killed by marauding Indians. He was lost and alone when a group of kindly traveling entertainers had found him and brought him to the relay station. When no living relatives could be found to take him in, Slim had been appointed the boy’s legal guardian, and the Sherman ranch had become his permanent home. He clung to his adopted family with a fierceness that sometimes worried her.

“Aunt Daisy, when’s Jess coming back from town?” Mike asked looking up from his schoolbooks.

Daisy slowly added warmed milk to the flour. “Oh, I imagine he’ll be here in time for the eastbound stage, Mike.” Daisy smiled at the youngster who occupied one side of the kitchen table. Buttons, Mike’s floor mop of a mutt, waved his tail vigorously and gave her his best imitation of an orphaned and starving street dog.

“Oh no you don’t, Buttons,” she laughed, gesturing with her wooden spoon. “You already got a plate of leftover stew so don’t give me that “nobody loves me” look.”

“He’s always hungry,” Mike concluded favoring the pooch with an ear scratch. “I don’t like it when Slim and Jess are both gone,” he continued, his normally mischievous face serious. “Is Slim gonna be home in time for Christmas?”

Daisy put the bowl aside and covered it with a clean towel. She wiped her hands and sat down across from Mike. The boy was worried, she could see that. Half his family was missing and Christmas was only a few days away.

“Of course he will,” she said soothingly. “The meeting in Medicine Bow should be over by now, and I expect he’ll be on the afternoon stage tomorrow.”

Mike tried to look convinced. “Sure wish I had a present for Jess,” he said softly. “This being his first Christmas with us ‘n all. D’you really think he likes it here?”

Startled, Daisy looked at the youngster. ‘Where had that thought come from?’ she wondered. Mike ducked his head developing a sudden interest in his history lesson. She put a hand under his chin tilting his head to look him in the eye.

“Why would you think otherwise, Mike?” she asked gently.

“I dunno,” Mike murmured, fiddling with the pages of his book. “It’s just that… he never has time to talk to me anymore, Aunt Daisy. I tried to ask him about Christmas when he was growing up in Texas, but he just walked away from me. His eyes looked kinda… kinda sad somehow,” his voice trailed off and he looked uncertainly at Daisy.

Daisy’s heart went out to the troubled boy; she reached across the table and took both his hands in hers, giving them a reassuring squeeze. Her love for the people who called the Sherman ranch home knew no bounds. There was Slim, rangy and wide in the shoulders, an easy grin that belied his serious nature, righteous and honest to a fault, and stubborn as a mule at times; Mike, whom she thought of as her youngest, with big somber eyes that could sparkle with mischief and a nose that crinkled up when he was worried, like now.

And then there was Jess. Daisy had no explanation for the hold he had on her heart, this drifter who blew into their lives off the hoot owl trail he rode; a dark-haired maverick with a lean, hungry face and the eyes of a man accustomed to looking at life over a gun barrel.

Getting to know him had not been easy; Jess held his emotions closely in check, shading his vulnerability with a chip on his shoulder and a volatile temper. He gave sparingly of his hardscrabble youth in Texas and the years he had spent on the drift. It was a bleak and lonely picture, and Daisy’s maternal heart had reached out to the young man to draw him into her circle of warmth and family. She saw the longing in his dark blue eyes when she caught him observing Slim and Mike horsing around, or when she sometimes sat with Mike to help him with his homework. Suspecting that the young drifter’s schooling was limited, Daisy did her best to include him in solving Mike’s never-ending math and history problems; to her delight she found that instead of being embarrassed Jess had shyly embraced the lessons, hungry to learn.

“Mike, I don’t think Jess has very good memories of his childhood in Texas,” she said softly. “But they are a part of what he was, before he came to live with us here at the ranch, so we have to try and understand it and help him. He probably didn’t have much in the way of holiday celebrations when he was growing up, and now that we’re getting so close to Christmas remembering the past is making him sad. Can you understand that?”

The youngster digested what she said, and wriggled his hands free from her grasp. He placed his elbows on the table and rested his chin in his hands.

“I guess so,” he sighed. “Kinda like I feel when I remember Christmas with my Mom and Dad ‘cept I’m sorta sad and happy when I think on it ‘cause I have really good memories?”

“That’s exactly right, Mike.” Daisy moved quickly around the table. She leaned down and wrapped her arms around the slight figure. She hugged him gently and rested her cheek on the top of his head for a moment; how she loved him for his childish, but intuitive, understanding. “We don’t need presents to make sure that Jess’ first Christmas with us is the best he has ever had, all we have to do is show him that we’re glad he is with us, and make him a part of all our holiday preparations, especially decorating the tree.”

Mike jumped to his feet, the sudden movement jolting Buttons out of his blissful snooze. The little dog yapped excitedly and took a couple of turns around the room wanting to be part of whatever was going on. Mike shushed him and gazed up at Daisy with shining eyes.

“We can let Jess put the Christmas star on top of the tree, just like you and Slim let me do it last year when it was my first Christmas here. And I can sing some of the Christmas carols we’ve been practicing in school, and then you can make some of that hot drink that made Slim all silly and we …”

“My goodness, Mike,” Daisy laughed and held up her hands in self-defense. “I can see we’re going to be very busy. Of course we’ll let Jess hang the Christmas star, I don’t know about that hot drink, though; remember how Slim kept tripping over his tongue all night?”

Mike giggled, mirth written all over his face. “He said it needed a seaspoon of brown thugar, and then he complained his head hurt and he ought to … “

“He ought to bo to ged,” Daisy finished, and they both collapsed with laughter.

They were still giggling helplessly when the door suddenly flew open and the object of their merriment filled the doorway, bringing with him a swirl of dust.

“Slim!” Mike all but threw himself across the room and into Slim’s arms, knocking his hat off in the bargain.

“Whoa there, Tiger,” Slim laughed and grabbed the boy up in a bear hug. “Did you miss me?”

“Nope, not one bit,” Mike declared. He squeezed his arms around Slim’s neck, and burrowed his face against his chest, snuffling contentedly at the familiar scent of warmth and safety.

“Slim, we didn’t expect you back until tomorrow,” Daisy said, putting a hand on his arm. Glad to have him back, she nevertheless worried what was behind his early return from the stageline meeting.

Slim struggled to untangle himself from Mike who seemed to have grown eight arms and twelve legs, all squirming and not about to let go off his ‘big brother’. The boy clambered around and fastened himself to Slim’s back, arms tight around his throat, his heart full of love and mischief.

“Mide ... arrgh ... you’re dokin’ be...” Slim wheezed and staggered towards the couch. “Leggo, Diger...”

They tumbled down on the leather couch and Mike finally loosened his grip. Slim turned on him with a vengeance and rolled him over on his back. He planted an elbow in his midriff while he peeled off his gloves. Glowering menacingly, he wiggled his fingers at Mike, who squealed in apprehensive delight.

“Aaww, noooo, Slim, you wouldn’t...”

“Oh yeah?” Slim growled. “You don’t think so?” He poked the boy in the ribs and Mike howled. He was incurably ticklish, and Slim proceeded to wreak merciless havoc on his victim. Buttons decided he wanted to be part of the game; he leapt up on the couch and gave Mike’s face a wet, sloppy tongue lashing,

“Aunt Daisy! Aunt Daisy!” Mike hollered, trying to writhe off the couch. “Help me ... Slim, Buttons, stopstopstop! Aaww... getoffameeee...!”

He hiccupped, tears of laughter running down his cheeks, and Slim finally let him up.

“Truce?” he grinned down at Mike, who nodded vigorously as he wiped an arm across his reddened face.

“I swear I don’t which one of you is the child here,” Daisy smiled affectionately at them.

With a grin Slim picked his hat off the floor and hung it on the peg by the door. He shrugged out of his sheepskin jacket and ran a hand through his rumpled blond hair. He looked down at the petite woman who was the real boss of the Sherman ranch, and reached out to pull her into a gentle hug.

“I didn’t want to wait for the stage tomorrow so I rented a horse at the livery,” he whispered against her silvery hair. “It’s good to be home, Daisy.”

Daisy pushed away from him and put her hands on his arms. She sought out the sky blue eyes in the handsome face, and searched for shadows of despair and worry; in the eyes that had never lied to her she found only contentment and laughter. ‘Could it be ... dare she hope...?’

Slim thumbed the flour off her nose, and then he whirled her around and sat her down at the kitchen table.

“Mike, Daisy, I have only good news from Medicine Bow,” he announced as Mike skipped over to join them, Buttons hard on his heels, not wanting to miss out on anything.

“Goodness, Slim,” Daisy fluttered a hand to her throat. “Does that mean the stageline is not cutting funding to the relay stations after all?”

Slim leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “Not only that, they fired that new hard line superintendent because of all the complaints that had been coming in, not only from station owners, but also from passengers who protested the lack of meals and service, not to mention the cut in stopovers.”

While Daisy and Mike looked at him in delight he leaned back, hooking his thumbs in his vest, a big easy grin on his face.

“They’ve restored the funding and...” he paused for dramatic effect “and given one Slim Sherman a raise and a bonus!”

While Daisy and Mike gaped at him in openmouthed astonishment, Slim jumped to his feet and grabbed his jacket off the couch. He reached into an inside pocket and pulled out an envelope that he handed to Daisy, saw her hands tremble as she opened it and stared at the bundle of dollar bills. Her eyes brimmed with tears as she gazed up at him, and he found he couldn’t stop grinning as he looked at the two people seated at the table.

“Slim,” Daisy whispered a catch in her voice. “I thought they ... that is, weren’t they trying to...” she faltered, a single tear making its way down her cheek.

Slim brushed it away with a gentle finger. “Everything’s all right, Daisy, there’s enough there for food and supplies, maybe even that new pair of boots Jess has had his eye on.” He stopped and looked around; suddenly realizing one member of the family was missing. “Say, where is that pardner of mine anyway?”

“Jess went into town this morning, Slim,” Mike said. “Said he had to pick up somethin’.”

Slim raised an eyebrow at Daisy; she reached out and took hold of his hand. “Everything is fine, Slim. I suspect he had some last minute Christmas shopping to do. He should be back in time for the eastbound.”

‘Christmas shopping?’ Slim wondered. ‘Jess doesn’t have any money to spend.’

******

The Tanner gang rode south. The temperature had jumped in the last few hours, and they’d had to shed their heavy winter jackets as the warm Chinook winds chased them down the trail.

Red ‘Wolf’ Tanner was the brains and the leader of the pack. He got his nickname from his long incisors, tips visible even when he clamped his lips shut, and his pale green eyes, flecked with gold. He was lean and barely medium height. Unwashed lank red hair hung down over his forehead, and strafed his worn shirt collar. His holster and gun were workman-like; he disdained fancy riggings, claiming they called too much attention to a man when he was trying blend into the background, but the trigger guard was filed down and the hammer worn. He was good with a gun and better’n most with a rifle; he was also utterly ruthless, and had been known to kill a man for just looking at him sideways.

Wolf had recruited Will Parker, and his sidekick Charlie Hoyt, after they all got themselves entangled in a fracas in a saloon up in Billings, and the sheriff had given them the choice of getting out of town or resting their britches in the local jail. Not being inclined towards earning an honest wage Hoyt and Parker jumped at the chance to trail along with the Tanners; they were a rough pair, handy in a fight and not bothered by moral scruples.

The Tanner gang specialized in raiding isolated ranches and holding up stagecoaches. The pickings were slimmer than a bank or a train, but there was less chance of getting shot, and the locals weren’t as apt to run a posse after you.

Unlike his older brother Ben Tanner stood close to six feet five, thick in the neck and shoulders. He had hands the size of plowshares and an oddly crooked face; wide and worn it sat atop his frame like the weathered side of an old barn.

With his thick reddish-brown beard, droopy moustache and lumbering gait he resembled a two-legged bear. He was a gentle giant, slow to anger and slow to learning; he depended on his brother for all the important decisions in his life. Like when to eat, where to camp, and when to rob a relay station.



PART THREE

Jess Harper halted at the top of the crest in the road leading down to the Sherman ranch. His head throbbed and his feet hurt. Durn’ cowboy boots weren’t meant for walking, but Traveler had thrown a shoe a ways back; he was favoring his right front leg as he ambled along behind Jess. Whenever he stopped to rest Traveler would nudge him on with a gentle push against his shoulder. The horse knew home and his stall were not far off, and he was disinclined to stop even if his hoof caused him discomfort.

Jess pushed the Stetson back off his forehead and wiped a sleeve across his face. He sneezed as the warm wind blew dust up his nose. He couldn’t figure the weather, this morning it had been close to freezing and he had thought for sure it would snow, and instead it had turned into a warm spring like day. He had worn his heavy sheepskin jacket when he rode into town, and now it was dangling off the saddle horn.

He rubbed dispiritedly at his aching temples. It gnawed at him that he didn’t have the money to buy Mike that special present. Jess’ bleak, bitter memories of his own childhood made him want to make this Christmas something special for the youngster; wanting to shower his newfound family with gifts he found himself empty-handed with nothing to give them.

It hurt to see Slim worrying about funding for the relay station; there were nights when he’d wake up to find Slim still sitting up going through the accounts, trying to squeeze an extra dollar where there was none. They were almost out of supplies, and Jess suspected Daisy had been dipping into her savings account at the Laramie bank to cover some of the bills at the general store.

Jess shook his head, and had cause to regret it. ‘What the hell had he been thinking, downing half a bottle of whiskey?’ It had accomplished nothing more than leave him with a headache of epic proportions. ‘Dang, but you’re feelin’ sorry for yourself, Harper.’

Traveler stretched his graceful neck forward and rested his head on Jess’ shoulder. The two had shared many adventures and long treks over the years, and the horse could sense his friend was unhappy. He blew softly into his ear, and Jess turned to him.

“I know, pal, I know,” he grinned and rubbed a gloved hand over the silken muzzle. “You want your stall and your good buddy Alamo, not to mention a drink of water and a new shoe.”

Traveler nodded enthusiastically and pushed against Jess to get a move on.

“We’re almost home,” Jess said softly.

Home… He gazed down at the little ranch house. The afternoon shadows were lengthening, the muted light mellowing the weathered red barn ‘Slim and I gotta get around to paintin’ it one of these days or Daisy’ll make us sleep out there.’

Jess marveled again at how much the Sherman ranch and its occupants had come to mean to him in the short time he had been with them. They had taken him in, a drifter with a checkered past and an uncertain future, and given him a place to call home. The meager sharecropper’s farm where he had grown up on the Texas Panhandle had been burned to the ground by outlaws, killing most of his family in the bargain. On his own since he was fifteen he rode the big open beholden to no man. He treated life as a high stakes poker game and played the hand he was dealt, upping the ante even when the odds were stacked against him.

He had hired out his gun between Texas and Laramie, but his own code of ethics often had him fighting on the side of lost causes where payment was no more than a meal and a roof over his head for a few days. His reputation as a fast gun dogged him and while he rode the hoot owl trail he slept light, one hand on his iron.

When Slim Sherman had extended his hand in friendship and offered him a job and a place to call home Jess’ innately wary nature had looked for an ulterior motive, and found only an easy smile and a stubborn integrity.

‘Stubborn!’ Jess grinned to himself. ‘The man gives a whole new meanin’ to the word.’

Traveler intruded on his musings and nudged him again, a little more forcefully this time. Jess sighed, wiggling tired toes in boots that seemed to have become two sizes too small over the last half hour.

“Yeah, I hear you, friend,” he muttered and picked up the reins that trailed on the ground.

He trudged down the road, Traveler hard on his heels. As he got closer he noticed an unfamiliar horse tied to the hitching rail by the front porch.

“Looks like we got comp’ny,” he said but Traveler was not the least bit interested and made a beeline for the barn. Jess chuckled and let the horse have his way. Alamo welcomed them with loud nickering, sticking his head over the stall and nuzzling his friend as Jess got Traveler settled. He removed the saddle and bridle, and gave the dust caked animal a thorough rubdown; he’d take care of the shoe later.

“I swear you’re purrin’,” Jess grinned as he placed an arm around his old friend’s neck and rested his cheek against the warm, silken horseflesh. He made sure there was feed and water, and gave Alamo a quick ear-scratch. He grabbed his rifle, slung his jacket over one shoulder and headed for the house, eager to get his tired, aching feet out of their confinement.

He yawned as he crossed the yard, the warm weather and the lingering effects of the alcohol making him drowsy. A few wayward chickens squawked as a heavy wind gust almost blew them off their feet and sent them scurrying for shelter. Jess heard a door banging, and squinted through the swirling dust, suddenly realizing that it was the front door to the ranch house.

He came to a dead stop; adrenaline surged through his body as every fiber of his being screamed that something was wrong. The open door yawed at him as the wind worried the house, rattling shutters and windowpanes. The big bay at the hitching rail sidestepped nervously, pulling at the reins.

“Easy, boy, easy,” Jess said softly, soothing the skittish animal with a pat on the neck. He draped his jacket over the rail and leaned his rifle carefully against the front stoop. He jumped as the door slammed shut with another wind gust, and his hand flashed to his gun. He thumbed back the hammer as it cleared the holster and stepped up on the porch. There was not a sound from within the house, only the wind and the creak of the rocking chairs on the porch intruded on the silence. Icy fear brushed along raw nerve-endings and for a moment he couldn’t breathe.

Sweat trickled down his neck, and with an oath he brought his right leg up and aimed a kick at the door. It flew open slamming against the inside wall, and Jess launched himself through the opening, coming in low, gun sweeping from left to right. The room appeared empty, but an odor of unwashed bodies and cordite assailed him; he saw the overturned kitchen table and the broken dishes littering the floor. A Levi’s clad leg and scuffed boot protruded from behind the table, and Jess’ world tilted.

“Slim!” His voice rasped in his throat.

His friend lay face down on the floor, under the table, silent and unmoving, blond hair matted with blood. Buttons lay scrunched up close to him, as if the little dog was trying to give comfort. Sad brown eyes looked up at Jess and favored him with a hesitant tail wagging. Jess gave him a quick pat and, not daring to think, he pushed the table aside and dropped to one knee. He gently turned Slim over on his back; saw a pale, bruised face and reached a trembling hand to touch a bloody furrow along the left temple. Disconcerted, he stared at the blood on his fingers, and quickly wiped it off on his shirtfront.

“Pard!” Jess whispered. He laid an ear against Slim’s chest and his world righted itself again as he felt a faint, but steady heartbeat.

Jess slipped one arm under Slim’s shoulders and hooked the other under his knees. With a mighty heave he lifted him into his arms. Staggering under the weight he made his way to the leather couch and carefully eased his burden down. Buttons trotted along behind them, needing the reassuring closeness of his human family.

Sidestepping broken dishes Jess hurried to the kitchen and pumped water into a basin. He snagged a towel off the rack and returned to his friend. He dipped the towel and wrung it out, then gently washed out the bloody cut. ‘Bullet crease.’ Whatever had happened could not have been too long ago, he could still smell the gunpowder in the room.

Jess dabbed at the bruises on Slim’s face. “Easy, Pard,” he murmured as Slim tossed his head restlessly. “You’re gonna be all right.”

Slim moaned softly as he fought his way back to consciousness. He heard a familiar voice, felt a reassuring presence and a calming hand on his shoulder. Light filtered through his eyelashes sending stabs of pain through his skull.

“Aahh… Jess?”

“Right here, Slim,” Jess said quickly and sat down on the side of the couch. He brushed the bloodied hair off his friend’s forehead, saw the sky-blue eyes try to focus. “How d’you feel?”

Slim squeezed his eyes shut while he considered the question. The hammering in his head did not invite any sudden movement and he gingerly opened one eye. The hazy pain filled mist cleared gradually and Jess’ worried face came into focus.

“Pard?” The word came out as a hoarse croak. “ Wha’ … what happen’?”

“I was kinda hopin’ you could tell me,” Jess said and dabbed again at the bullet crease. The bleeding seemed to have stopped, and it didn’t look to be too deep.

Slim jerked his head away. “Ouch … easy … my head’s ‘bout to fall off …”

Sudden recollection flooded him and he sat up, only to have Jess grab his shoulders and force him back down.

“Lie still, you’re in no shape to move around,” Jess snapped. “Tell me what happened!”

Slim’s face blanched, and the bloody bruise stood out in stark contrast. He looked around wildly and then clutched at Jess’ arm.

“Tanner…” he gasped. “It was the Tanner gang, Jess… no chance… two came in the back and two through the front door… I… I couldn’t hold ‘em off.” He winced as the pain caught up with him, and sagged back against the couch.

“Wolf Tanner?” Jess hissed. He knew the outlaw by reputation, and there was nothing good connected with the name. It was a hit and run outfit that usually targeted outlying ranches, with a few stagecoaches and payroll runs thrown in when the opportunity presented itself. They were marginally successful and hard to track; they never touched banks or trains, and stayed away from larger towns. As far as he knew, there were no warrants out for them in Wyoming.

“Yeah, Wolf and his brother Ben,” Slim said wearily, looking up to meet his friend’s concerned gaze. “Two others… called ‘em Parker and I think Hoyt… Daisy! Where’s Daisy… oh God, Jess, Parker, he… he hit her …”

Jess shot to his feet, Slim’s words wrapped around his heart like a vise and he had to fight for air. Daisy’s sweet face wavered before his eyes, and a strangled groan forced his way past his clenched teeth. ‘Noooo…’

“I went for him… that’s when Wolf shot me,” Slim whispered. “I guess they thought… I was dead…” his voice trailed off and his eyes drifted shut.

Jess forced his legs to obey him and moved slowly towards Daisy’s room. His heart in his throat, he stopped and laid a hand on the door. He rested his forehead against it for a second; she had to be all right, anything else did not bear thinking about.

He drew a shaky breath and pushed open the door. In the back of his mind he registered that he had never seen the inside of her room before, his eyes caught soft lace curtains, the rocking chair with a side table, a lamp and some books, a chest of drawers, a colorful hooked rug. Daisy sat on the edge of the bed, her head bowed and her hands folded in her lap. Her normally perfectly coiffed silver hair was in disarray, stray curls hanging down in her face.

“Daisy?” Jess found his throat so dry he could barely get a word out. He swallowed and approached her gingerly. “Daisy, it’s me, Jess.”

She didn’t move and he knelt in front of her, taking her folded hands in his; her hands were ice cold and he kneaded them gently. “Daisy, it’s Jess.” He reached a hand to tilt her chin up, and then jerked it away as if burned when she flinched at his touch.

“Oh God, Daisy,” he whispered as he saw the tearstained beloved face; saw the swollen angry bruise on her right cheek, the stark outline of a handprint. “Daisy, I’m so sorry…”

Daisy Cooper blinked, and for the first time in a long while her world stopped spinning out of control. She saw Jess on his knees before her, his face devastated as he looked up at her. He was here, everything would be all right, he would make it all right, it was what he did… incoherent, jumbled thoughts tumbled around in her aching head.

“Jess… you’re here,” she said, her voice barely audible. “They… they shot Slim…”

Jess rose up and pulled her against his chest. “Sshh, he’s okay, Daisy, bullet just creased him. Bounced of that stubborn, hard head of his.” He felt her sag against him in relief for a moment, and he stroked her back, murmuring reassuring non-sensical words as her tears stained his shirt.

She stiffened suddenly and pushed away from him. “Mike!” she whispered, her eyes wide with fear. “Jess, they took Mike!”

Jess felt the color drain from his face as he rocked back on his heels. ‘Mike!’ He had been so caught up in worrying about Slim and Daisy that he had forgotten about the youngster.

“Jess, did you hear me, they took Mike with them,” Daisy cried. “Oh God, he was screaming for them to let him go… I tried to help him, that’s when one of them hit me… I heard a shot and saw Slim fall… they pushed me in here… I thought he was dead…”

Her voice trailed off and she caught her breath as she gazed up at Jess. He looked blasted, old, the midnight blue eyes black with anguish. She reached a hand up to lay it against his cheek, but he swatted it aside and grabbed her arms.

“How long ago, Daisy?” he asked harshly. When she didn’t respond he tightened his grip and shook her. “HOW LONG?” It was an angry shout.

Daisy flinched, and the little reaction brought some sense back to Jess, he saw what he was doing to her and moved his hands to pull her close to him again.

“Oh God, Daisy, I’m sorry, please forgive me… I didn’t mean… Why did they take Mike? He’s just a kid – why, why?”

Daisy snuffled against his chest, felt the wildly beating heart. She spoke softly, hesitantly:

“Wolf Tanner’s brother, he called him Ben – I don’t think he’s quite right in the head, Jess… it was strange, he seemed so taken with Mike, I heard him say he always wanted a little brother to look out for… Wolf, he just laughed and said something like “well, take the kid, you can have him for a baby brother.”

Jess squeezed his eyes shut, images of Mike’s laughing face and mischievous eyes tearing at his heart. His focus narrowed to a single thought: While he was in town getting drunk and feeling sorry for himself, the people who so generously and unselfishly had made him a part of their lives were being beaten and shot.

“How long since they took Mike?” He didn’t recognize his own voice; it was like a sheet of ice, brittle and infinitely cold.

Daisy pushed away from him and tried to think. ‘How long since the outlaws came storming into the house and the nightmare began?’ Mike’s pitiful cries and the gunshot that felled Slim still reverberated in her ears. She raised a hand to her aching cheek.

“Not long… no more than an hour, Jess,” she finally whispered, despair in her voice.

She felt a hand under her chin and raised her eyes to look at a stranger. It was the only way she could describe it. The face before her was not that of her beloved prodigal son, it was like looking at a tautly drawn mask with bone white features and eyes that burned with an unearthly, cold fire. Bereft, she saw that there was no life, no warmth, only vengeance, icy and bitter; she tasted ashes in her mouth.

“Know this, Daisy, I will get Mike back safely,” Jess said quietly. “I will get him back.”

He swung on his heel and strode back into the living room. Slim stood by the couch, wavering on his feet; he had overheard most of what was said and his face was white with shock.

“Jess, we’ve got to… got to go after them,” he said hoarsely and took a step forward. His knees buckled, and Jess caught him with an arm around his waist and sat him back down on the couch.

“You ain’t goin’ nowhere except to town to see the Doc,” he snapped. He grabbed a chair and sat down in front of Slim. Leaning forward he rested his forearms on his thighs and stared intently at his friend. “Slim, do you remember if you heard Tanner said anything, anything at all, about where they might be headin’?”

Slim tore at his matted, bloody hair in frustration. “I don’t know, Jess, it’s all mixed up, Wolf’s brother Ben was holding Mike – he’s a big bear of a man, but he was… he was kinda gentle with Mike, like he was afraid he’d break… said he’d always wanted a little brother. I think Ben’s a little slow, Pard, he looks to Wolf for everything and…” He stopped and leaned his head in his hands, the pain making his eyes water.

“Easy, Slim,” Jess said and squeezed his shoulder. He heard Daisy come up behind him, but stayed focused on his friend. He knew Slim was hurting, but he needed him to concentrate on what had happened.

“Aahh… I’m all right,” Slim groaned, his brow furrowed against the pounding in his head. His pain-clouded eyes cleared for a second as he suddenly remembered something Wolf Tanner had been saying to his men just before he shot him.

“Purgatory Pass!” he breathed. “He said they were cuttin’ through the pass, Jess.”

Jess shook his head in disbelief. “Are you sure, Slim? Purgatory Pass is a misplaced piece of hell on a good day; why would they risk it this time of year?”

“I’m sure,” Slim replied. “Who’s goin’ to follow them up there? If there’s not too much snow at the higher elevation Tanner and his gang can easily lose themselves up there and just drift on down into Colorado Territory on the other side of the pass.”

Jess digested the information as he got to his feet. Daisy had said the gang had maybe an hour’s head start. There was no time to waste.

“I gotta get on the trail; the way the wind’s blowing it’ll soon wipe out any chance of trackin’ them.”

“All right, I’m going with you,” Slim said and made an effort to get to his feet. A finger against his chest was all it took for Jess to push him back down.

“Pard, I’m gonna be ridin’ hard and fast to catch up to the Tanners; you can barely stand up and I can’t be lookin’ out for you.”

Slim knew he was right. He shook his head slightly. “Jess, at least go into town and have Mort get a posse together, you can’t tackle the Tanner gang by yourself, there’s four of them!”

Jess smiled grimly and rested his hand on his gun butt. “Yeah, well, I figure that makes the odds just about even, Pard.”

He turned to the slight figure behind him, and again the sight of that bruised cheek cut into him like a knife. He put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Daisy, the eastbound should be comin’ through in a little while. You get Slim to the Doc and tell Mort what happened here. He can get a posse together.”

“Jess, you can’t take them on alone,” Daisy implored. “Slim is right; you should wait for the Sheriff.”

“I got no time for that,” Jess said shortly. “Slim, whose horse is out front?”

“His name’s Drifter.” Slim smiled wryly. “Belongs to Medicine Bow Livery. Stageline meeting finished early and I didn’t want to wait for the stage.” He laughed; it was a weak and silent laugh. “They fired that hard-line superintendent, Jess. Gave me a bonus, Tanners’ got it all…” his voice trailed off “not that it matters now… nothing matters except getting Mike back safely.”

Jess drew his gun and spun the cylinder, he knew it was fully loaded, it was just an old habit and hard to break. “Slim, Traveler threw a shoe, when you’re up for it can you take a look at it? I’ll take that horse outside, save some time.”

Slim nodded. “He likes to travel and he’s got stamina, Jess, but he’s a bit jumpy so go easy on him.”

Jess turned to Daisy. “Can you throw some grub together, Daisy? I’ll have to eat on the run.”

“Of course, Jess, I’ll just be a minute.”

Slim watched in silence as Jess headed for the door. He knew with dread certainty that they would never see him again if he could not bring Mike back safely. Jess would ride into the maw of hell itself, he would bargain with the devil and willingly, gladly surrender his own life to save the boy. Swearing to himself Slim pushed off the couch, and stood swaying on his feet while he waited for the room to stop spinning.

Jess secured his jacket at the back of the cantle, and retrieved his rifle from the front stoop. He shoved it into the scabbard and quickly adjusted the length of the stirrups, which were set for a very long-legged Slim Sherman. The big bay turned his head and pricked up his ears, liquid eyes questioning. Jess stroked his neck.

“We’ll find him, Drifter,” he whispered, the ache in his heart almost unbearable as Mike’s grinning face flashed before his eyes. So many good memories of fun and mischief, would he even get a chance to create new ones? With an angry grunt Jess tugged at the stirrup. He shut down all emotion save the cold, bitter fire that fed his thirst for vengeance and swung into the saddle.

“Jess!”

Slim leaned against the doorjamb for a moment and then staggered forward to grab hold of one of the porch supports. Daisy followed close behind him, a brown paper sack in her hand. Wordlessly she handed it up to Jess.

“It’s not much, Jess, just some sandwiches you can eat while… while you…” she shook her head, tears in her eyes as she gazed at the drawn, haggard features of the gunfighter who had so quickly become an irreplaceable part of her little family.

“Jess, don’t take ‘em on alone,” Slim entreated again, knowing his words fell on deaf ears. He straightened up with an effort, his head pounding. Daisy put an arm around his waist, she was much too waiflike to offer much support, but her mere presence was a comfort to him.

Jess gathered up the reins, his eyes haunted as he met Slim’s level gaze. “I’ll get him back.”

He nodded at them and swung the horse around. Slim and Daisy stood quietly, each needing the other’s strength as they watched him ride away.

“And if you can’t?” Slim’s voice was a whisper on the wind.



PART FOUR

Wolf Tanner cursed into the teeth of the keening wind sweeping down Purgatory Pass. Lemony gray storms clouds hung low over the peaks and the temperature was dropping rapidly. He drew his lips back in a tight grimace, long incisors gleaming. He was tired, cold and hungry, and cursed his ill-considered decision to let his brother take the boy along.

If Tanner had a weakness it was his brother Ben, younger than him by some five years. He had looked out for him for as long as he could remember. They’d never known their Pa, and one day their Ma had abandoned them outside the saloon where she hustled customers for drinks, and then she had caught the next stage out of town.

Wolf knew Ben wasn’t right in the head, but it made no never mind to him. He was blood kin and Wolf had killed men for just making fun of him. His brother was a gentle soul who loved all animals and small children, and Wolf had lost count of how many strays the big man had tried to bring along on the hard trail they rode.

He huddled deeper into his heavy winter jacket and wiped at his dripping nose with the back of his hand. Damn weather! Like to drive a man crazy. If it started to snow before they reached the top of the pass the trail would quickly become treacherous and hard to negotiate.

*****

Mike stared forlornly at the Christmas cookie in his hand.

It was a gingerbread man and it was missing both legs. The big man, whose name was Ben Tanner, had stuffed his pockets with cookies from the plate on the kitchen table before they left the ranch. Most of them were broken by now, but he would keep dipping his hand into a pocket and stuffing his mouth with cookie pieces, all the while grinning happily. He had handed him one and insisted he eat something to keep his strength up.

They had stopped to rest the horses in a small copse of trees that afforded some shelter from the wind. Mike had been riding with Ben Tanner, the man holding him securely between himself and the saddle horn. It was not a comfortable way to travel, and he was weary and sore. At least he had been allowed to put on his winter jacket and mittens before leaving home, but the higher they climbed the colder it got.

Mike took a tentative bite, and squeezed his eyes shut against the tears that welled up at the familiar sweet and spicy taste in his mouth. Aunt Daisy made the best gingerbread cookies, and the memory of seeing her get hurt by that man called Parker tied his stomach into knots. He refused to think about Slim being shot dead, somehow if he didn’t think on it he could pretend it never happened. Pretend he hadn’t seen Slim fall to the floor, his head all bloody.

He munched disconsolately, his face furrowed with worry. What was to become of him? He had heard Ben say he had always wanted a little brother, and that he was going to take good care of him. ‘But you couldn’t just snatch a kid and turn him into your brother, for goodness’ sake!’ Mike rubbed at his cold ears with his mittened hands. Everything had happened so fast that his mind was having trouble processing it all; one minute he was safe at home with Slim and Aunt Daisy, the next there were men breaking in the door and guns going off, Slim falling... He shook his head angrily; he was not going to think about that.

Mike looked up at Ben Tanner as the big fellow sat down next to him. Even Mike’s young mind realized that there was something not quite right about the man. He was big and all growed up, but he acted at times as if he were no older than himself. When they stopped to rest Ben had wanted to horse around with him, but Mike was having none of it. He was not afraid of the man, he seemed like a clumsy, gentle bear, but one of the gang had hurt his beloved Aunt Daisy and Wolf Tanner had shot Slim. ‘They’re plumb crazy,’ Mike thought, ‘and I can’t run away from ‘em, I’d never find my way back to the ranch. I have to stick it out... Jess’ll come for me.’

It was the one sure thing that he clung to with a fierce and absolute certainty. Jess would save him; he would catch up to them and kill the outlaws, and the two of them would ride back to the ranch together. Slim would be all right, and they would all celebrate Christmas in a few days, the way it should be, the way it was meant to be, the way it had to be... Mike wiped at the tears on his cheeks.

“Aw, hey there, lil’ feller,” Ben said and laid a big arm gently around his shoulders. “Don’t ya fret none, Big Ben’s gonna take real good care of ya. Ain’t nothin’ to be skeered of.”

“Lay off me,” Mike snapped and ducked away from the arm. “I ain’t scared; I just wanna go home.”

“Feisty, ain’t he?” Will Parker laughed. He sat on a fallen tree trunk chomping on a piece of jerky. He was tall with sloping shoulders and a broken nose that jutted at an angle; it gave his coarse, angular features an off kilter look.

“Reg’lar firebrand,” Charlie Hoyt nodded and screwed the cap back on his canteen. He wiped at his moustache, the run from his nose was turning into icicles. “Durn wind, one minute’s warm, next yer’re freezin’ yer backside off.” He shook his head and slung the canteen over his shoulder. “Hey, Ben, how long we gotta wait for Wolf anyways?”

Ben Tanner gave Mike a reassuring pat on the back and lumbered to his feet. His brother had rode back down the trail some time ago; Wolf offered no explanation, only saying they should sit tight and wait for him. Ben always felt lost when he was left behind, but his trust in his brother was limitless. If Wolf said to wait he would wait, need be to the end of his life, that was all there was to it.

“We wait till he comes back,” he said reasonably. He didn’t much like either of the two men, especially Parker. He ought not to have hit that nice lady back at the ranch, the one who baked such good cookies; she had only tried to help the young’un. That feller Sherman, well, he got in the way of Wolf’s bullet, no helping that.

Ben stopped thinking on it all. It just gave him a headache behind the eyes, a really hurting one that sometimes made him angry. He tugged at the scarf around his neck, pulling it up around his ears and squinted down the trail. A grin lit up his weathered face as he caught sight of a lone rider making his way towards them.

“Hey, fellahs, it’s Wolf, he’s back!” he cried and clapped his hands together in delight. Everything was right with his world again, and now they could move on towards Colorado, like his brother had promised.

Mike got to his feet and watched as Wolf Tanner rode back into the camp. He was not afraid of any of the others, but that man scared him. Ben might not be quite right in the head, but his brother was a man without a heart. Mike had looked into those cold green eyes when Slim was shot, seen flecks of gold but no life reflected in them, the man smelled of wet earth, like an open grave. He trembled suddenly, and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket.

Wolf Tanner rode back into camp, his head bent to the wind. He dropped the reins and swung down, nodding to his brother.

“We’re bein’ followed,” he snarled.

*****

Jess Harper hit the trail that led to Purgatory Pass, Drifter eating up the miles with a choppy, but efficient stride. Slim was right, the big bay liked to travel. They had made good time; he figured he was no more than a couple of miles behind the gang. The wind was rapidly erasing any sign of their passing, but Jess knew the Purgatory trail; it switch-backed in some places, but there were no turnoffs or shortcuts.

The warm Chinook winds had slowly given way to dropping temperatures, and soft powdery snow was starting to drift across the trail. It settled on the Stetson pulled low over his forehead and turned Drifter’s mane into a mantle of white. The horse plodded steadily upwards showing no indication of tiring, but Jess missed Traveler. His old friend had saved his hide more than once, running from outlaws and, in some cases, the law. He could trust Traveler to let him sleep in the saddle while the horse steadfastly made his way through blizzards or rainstorms, and he could trust him to wait patiently on him if he was laid up on the trail somewhere, sick or shot up.

Jess drew rein for a moment and brushed at the snow settling on his shoulders. He looked skywards, saw the leaden cloud cover and shook his head slightly. If the weather really took a turn for the worse it would be tough going and he would have to slow down, but so would the Tanner gang. He had left the ranch with no clear plan of attack, knowing only that he had Slim’s blood and Daisy’s tears on his shirt front, and that he would get Mike back safely or die trying; it was as simple as that, there were no other choices to be made.

He reached into his saddlebag for one of Daisy’s sandwiches and encountered something brittle; his face tightened as he stared at the gingerbread man in his gloved hand. ‘Daisy.’ Jess’ breath hitched in his throat and his fist tightened around the little cookie; it crumbled and a wind gust took it.

Guilt, dark and unforgiving, ate at Jess with every heartbeat. He should have been there for them! Angrily, he blinked snow from his lashes. He had ridden the vengeance trail before, but never with so much to lose. The Tanner gang held Mike’s life in the balance, and he knew they would not hesitate to use the boy to tip the scales in their favor.

With four against one his only chance was the element of surprise; for that to work he would have to get ahead of the Tanners’, find a place to pick them off. Right now, with only light snow flurries, it was still fairly easy going, but he didn’t like the look of the storm clouds hanging low over the mountain peaks.

Frustrated, he wiped a gloved hand across his face. ‘Think, dam’ it!’ Wolf Tanner thought Slim was dead and that no one knew the direction they were headed. It was obvious from the pace they had been setting that they were not expecting anyone to be hard on their heels. He thought about the trail ahead. The slope to the left of him was almost denuded of trees from an earlier mudslide with sparse vegetation just beginning to make a comeback.

Drifter shook the snow from his mane, and pawed impatiently at the ground. He didn’t like the weather any more than his rider, and he was anxious to keep moving.

“Yeah, I hear you, boy,” Jess muttered. He made a decision and shook the reins. He turned the horse off the trail and onto the slope. Instead of following the switchbacks he traversed the slope and headed straight up. The going was rougher and the footing more treacherous, but Drifter picked his way without hesitation. Jess figured he stood a good chance of getting ahead of the outlaws, and then all he needed was to find a vantage point for an ambush.

*****

Wolf Tanner let Parker and Hoyt lead the way. He followed close on their heels letting Ben bring up the rear. Wolf couldn’t figure it, how had someone got on their trail so fast? The relay station owner was dead, but he probably should have killed the old lady too, maybe she had overheard them talking about heading through the pass. A stage might have come by, or a neighbor. He snorted angrily; he was getting soft, leaving the woman alive, and letting his brother take the boy.

He turned in the saddle and shook his head at the sight of his brother, slouched in the saddle with his arms wrapped around the youngster. Ben had a heart too big for this world, picking up wounded creatures along the trail and nursing them back to health, sometimes with the law breathing down their necks. Wolf knew they should have left the boy behind, but his brother was the one constant thing in his life, and he could not deny him. He had long since stopped wondering why that was.

The rifle shot took Parker straight in the chest and knocked him out of the saddle. His foot caught in the stirrup and his horse bolted into the trees, dragging him along. Parker’s screams were still echoing through the pass when the second shot caught Charlie Hoyt in the throat; he was dead before he hit the ground. His horse jumped sideways and tore off down the trail.

Tanner caught the glint of a rifle barrel further up, and with an oath he had his rifle out of the scabbard and levered a shot in the direction of the shooter. He heard a shout, and his thin lips stretched into the semblance of a smile. ‘Got ‘im!’

“Ben, cut across the slope,” he yelled and sent off two more shots. “Head for the trees!”

“What about the others?” Ben shouted, getting a firmer grip on the boy, who was squirming and yelling to be let go.

“Forgit ‘em, they’re dead. Now do what I tell ya! Hah!” Wolf jabbed his heels into the flanks of his horse.

Jess groaned as he pushed himself to his knees. Hands shaking he unbuttoned his jacket and pressed a hand to the hole in his shirt, blood pulsing through his fingers. Of all the dumb luck! Wolf’s first shot had caught him in the right shoulder, and slammed him backwards into the boulders he was using for cover. For a moment pain overwhelmed him, and he gasped for breath.

Two more shots were thrown his way, but they went wide. Jess struggled to his feet, the blood rapidly soaking through his shirt. Icy wind whirled snow flurries into his face, blinding him momentarily. He swiped a forearm across his face and risked a look. Wolf Tanner and his brother had left the trail and were in the process of traversing the slope, if they made it to the other side he would lose them in the trees. With an effort he bent and picked up his rifle.

Drifter, who had negotiated the steep trail with such steadfastness, turned tail when the shooting started, and headed back down the trail sliding on his haunches in his eagerness to get away. Jess moved cautiously downward to head off the Tanners, every step requiring more effort than the first. His breath came in short, painful gasps, the frigid air cutting into his lungs. He was losing blood much too fast; it was already soaking through his heavy sheepskin jacket.

‘Come on, Harper, you can’t give up now. They’ve got Mike!’ Doggedly he pushed on, grabbing at trees and branches for support, his hold on consciousness becoming more precarious with each step.

*****

At the higher elevation the slope angle suddenly increased, and a short distance below the cliff band at the top of the trail the weak layers were deeply buried, causing the entire snow pack above to become unstable.

The winds had contributed to the rapid buildup of snow on the sheltered slopes, and the wind slab was inherently unsteady with its poorly bonded, brittle structure. Heavier snow weighted down on the lower layers, where the snow crystals were shaped in such a way that it prevented them from bonding tightly. New snow settled onto the existing layers, while the buried layer continued to change as the shifting temperatures moved slowly through the snow pack.

The echo of the rifle shots boomed up through Purgatory Pass. The snow pack’s already tenuous hold on the upper cliff band wavered and shifted. It seemed to settle for a brief moment, as if undecided; in the end gravity prevailed and with a hollow groan it relinquished its grip on the slope and started to slide downwards.

*****

Mike had tried squirming loose when the shooting started, but the big man’s arms held him securely in the saddle. His heart beat wildly with the certain knowledge that it was Jess who had fired the shots that killed Parker and Judson. He tried not to think on the shout he had heard after Wolf Tanner returned fire; he remembered Slim once saying that Jess had more lives than a cat had whiskers, and Mike clung to that.

Wolf Tanner pushed on making for the tree line. He couldn’t be sure his shot had been a killing one, and wanted to put some distance between them and the unknown shooter. He didn’t think there was more than one; all the shots had come from the same direction. ‘How the hell had they been tracked down so fast?’

His ears caught a distant rumble at the higher elevations, and he gazed up at the sky, gunmetal grayness drifted among the peaks trailing tendrils of powdery snow. He cursed the decision to go through the pass and he cursed the relentless pursuer that had dogged their trail. Whoever he was, he was good; two shots, two kills.

*****

Jess stumbled into a tree and leaned against it for support. He squeezed his eyes shut against the fire in his shoulder. Adrenaline and pain was the only thing keeping him on his feet; the pain anchored him, kept him clear headed, and the adrenaline pushed him onwards when he thought he could go no further.

He heard a shout, and squinted through the trees. The two riders were trying to make their way across to the opposite side of the slope, the horses slipping and sliding on the precarious footing. From Daisy’s description the big man riding point must be Ben Tanner. Jess caught sight of a small figure struggling in the big man’s grasp. ‘Mike!’ The relief that washed over him tasted bitter; guilt over not having been there to prevent what had happened was like an open wound, but it hurt far worse than the bullet hole in his shoulder.

He figured the man bringing up the rear to be Ben’s brother, Wolf Tanner, the leader of the outfit and the one who had shot Slim. Jess tightened his grip on his rifle and braced himself against the tree. The loss of blood was making his head swim and he blinked to clear his vision. Despite the cold sweat was running into his eyes. He had a clear shot from here, but he could only take out Wolf, trying for both would put Mike in harm’s way.

His hands shook and the rifle wavered. Jess bit back a groan of despair. Pain knifed through him as he nestled the rifle butt against his injured shoulder. Icy breath rasped in his throat, and he narrowed his focus to Wolf Tanner’s retreating form. The man had shot his best friend; he had kidnapped Mike, and one of his gang had beaten Daisy.

There would be no warning shot; for the first time in his life Jess lined up his rifle to shoot a man in the back.

*****

The snow slide gathered speed. It ripped up trees along the trail, picked up rocks and soil, became a chaotic and incoherent debris avalanche as it tore down the pass. The winds swirled up the blanket of snow that preceded it, and the sound changed from a deep-throated rumble to the deafening roar of a runaway train.

Wolf Tanner turned in the saddle and looked up at the pass. What he saw froze the blood in his veins. He had been in the mountains in wintertime before, and knew that the soft white mist that was barreling down on them hid a monster of destruction.

“Avalanche!” He yelled and rose up in the stirrups.

The shot that Jess had aimed between Tanner’s shoulder blades slammed into his lower back and his world went numb. His horse stumbled and they went down, the animal rolling over him, crushing him into the dirt. The horse managed to regain its footing, stumbling sideways down the slope. Wolf lay with his feet pointing towards the top of the pass, his eyes wide open. He was still alive; he felt no pain, but he couldn’t move. The shot had paralyzed him.

“Wolf!” Ben screamed and maneuvered his horse around to get back to his brother. He held the reins with one hand and Mike with the other. The boy pummeled him trying to escape, but he was no match for the big man’s strength.

Ben Tanner stared in horror at his fallen brother and then shifted his gaze to the mountain peaks. He had heard his brother’s scream and knew what was coming; Wolf was down and there was nowhere to run.

“BEN! BEN TANNER!” The hoarse shout came from the tree line ahead of him and a man came into view. He reckoned it was the shooter, and with a snarl of rage he reached for his rifle.

“TANNER!” Jess’ voice barely carried over the din of the approaching avalanche. He wavered, and wondered briefly why he was still on his feet. There was no way for him to reach them in time; his horse was gone and he would never make it on foot.

He gambled desperately. “Ben! Your brother’s dead. THROW ME THE BOY!”

Ben’s heart wrenched in his chest. Wolf was dead, who was going to look out for him now? He looked upwards again; the roaring white cloud was hurtling down on them. The youngster twisted in his arms, yelling at him to let him go.

“You kilt my brother!” He shouted, tears coursing down his cheeks. “He’s all I got, and you kilt him!”

Jess nodded in weary acknowledgment and took a few tentative steps towards them. He refused to look at the coming onslaught, and focused only on Tanner and Mike. Snow from the front of the slide boiled towards them. He was running out of time.

“Ben! You can’t save yourself. Don’t take Mike with you. Throw me the boy!”

Tanner looked down at the towheaded youngster; saw the pleading in his eyes. He would have been a good little brother to have around; he would have looked after him just like Wolf always looked out for him. Sadness furrowed his weathered face. Wolf couldn’t tell him what to do anymore - he would have to decide for himself.

“BEN! For the love of God!” Jess felt the snowy mist of the frontal assault of the slide, the sound thundered in his ears. “Let me have the boy!” The last was a mere whisper.

Big Ben Tanner rose up in the stirrups, and lifted Mike high over his head. He roared like a wounded bear, and with a mighty heave his powerful arms and shoulders launched the boy towards Jess. Then he jumped down and ran to his brother. He fell to his knees beside him, and lifted his head onto his lap. Crying uncontrollably, he brushed the hair from his brow and held him close. Wolf looked up at him, tried to say something.

“’s gonna be ok, Wolf,” Ben whispered. “I got ya, it’ll all be ok, reckon it’s my turn to look after ya.” He held his brother close and rocked him gently, his back to the destruction slamming towards them.

Jess heard Mike yelping in fear, his arms and legs wind-milling as he sailed through the air, and then he landed in his arms sending them both crashing backwards into the trees. Jess couldn’t hold back a cry of sheer agony at the impact with his wounded shoulder, but instinctively managed to wrap his arms around the boy. They tumbled end over end, but miraculously the worst of the snow slide skirted them, and only pushed them further into the trees.

The white noise of the avalanche drowned out Ben Tanner’s death roar and the scream of the horses as they were caught in its fury. It drove down the pass, tearing up the trail that had been there and then played itself out on the plains at the bottom of Purgatory Pass.

An eerie quiet descended, broken only by the softness of settling snow.



PART FIVE

Lazarus Jones sat in the old rocking chair by the window carving away at the little figure he had started on the day before. He had a talent for such things, but this time there had been no conscious decision to create what was quickly taking shape, and there was an almost feverish urgency to his whittling.

His tired eyes would rise up occasionally and gaze out at the waning day. The noise from the avalanche had died away and his world was peaceful once again. Snow drifted softly past the window. He waited.

*****

The temperature kept dropping and the warm Chinook winds that had destabilized the snow slab at the higher elevations turned into driving sheets of sleet, and powdery snow. It stung his face, tried to smother him and rendered him desolate, helpless.

Jess could go no further. Darkness laid claim to the world that surrounded him. He clutched his precious burden and his tears froze as they tracked down his face.

“LORD! Ain’t you got enough sacrifices for one day…” He coughed as the cold air tore at his throat; he was beyond exhaustion, entering that twilight realm bordering on death. “Are you listenin’… do you even care…YOU HEAR ME, LORD? You got four… four lives… you don’t need Mike… you can’t take the boy…!”

His soul numb, Jess rested his forehead against Mike’s cold cheek. “I ain’t much on prayin’, Lord, but not the boy… he’s so young, ain’t hardly started livin’ yet…”

He turned his face up to the leaden sky; he gave up on his grief and held on to anger.

“I WON’T LET YOU TAKE THE BOY!” Pain ate into him and he struggled against the despair and hopelessness that washed over him. He sank to his knees. “If you must have one more life… TAKE ME!” He bowed his head and his voice dropped to a raw whisper: “Take me…”

The melancholy howl of a timber wolf reached his ears, and with an effort Jess raised his head. He blinked snow from his lashes and gazed down at Mike; he had wrapped the boy in his own jacket and tucked him in towards his chest to shield his face from the wind. Jess raised a trembling hand and brushed at the snow that covered the youngster’s hair. He looked like he was sleeping, his face angelic and peaceful, but he was so cold, was he even still alive? Jess choked back a groan, it didn’t bear thinking about.

Blood from his wound seeped down along the inside of his arm, dripped off his elbow and pooled in the snow. He watched it as if from a distance. He wasn’t cold anymore, maybe it was fever, or maybe he was beyond feeling anything; in the far reaches of his exhausted mind Jess realized that he was dying. His thoughts veered and cartwheeled, turned to the ranch and the people who had opened their hearts to him, a drifter who rode the high lines and made his living with a gun. Agonizing loss and regret tore at the very fiber of his being.

Jess held Mike closer. “I’m sorry, Pard… I couldn’t keep him safe… I’m so sorry... Daisy, please forgive me... forgive me...”

The lonely silver snow whispered down on the kneeling figure and the child in his arms.

*****

Lazarus Jones shouldered open the sagging door to the old trapper’s cabin. Swirling snow followed him in as he deposited his burden on the floor by the stone fireplace. He had brought in fresh kindling and laid a new fire only hours earlier, and despite the buckling, swaybacked roof and the wind seeping through the cracks, the cabin was warming up. He tore off his jacket and scarf and tossed them in a corner knowing there was no time to waste. He doubted he could save the man; he didn’t look to have a drop of blood left in him, but he prayed it wasn’t too late for the youngster. Gently he tried to pry the boy from the stranger’s arms, and jumped back when the man’s eyes flew open. Piercing blue locked on to him and a hand grasped the front of his shirt.

“You can’t... have... Mike,” the voice was hoarse with naked pleading. “Please, God... take me... leave the boy.”

Jones grabbed the hand that clutched at him, a bemused smile on his weathered face.

“Mister, I’m ‘bout as far removed from the Lord as you could hope to find,” he said. “Lie still now while I have a look at your young friend.”

“Who... are you?”

Lazarus straightened up and looked down at the stricken man on the floor. Saw a lean frame with a haggard face, black smudges under his eyes. Saw the sodden, bloody shirt, the tied-down holster; even weak and helpless there was trouble here if he wanted it. Yet, beneath the weary spirit reflected in the eyes, he sensed the beat of a courageous and unyielding heart.

“My name’s Lazarus, son,” he said.

The man blinked and Lazarus guffawed heartily. “No, I ain’tthat Lazarus. But my mother did a have a fondness for the Good Book. I’m Lazarus Jones, just plain “Lazy” to some folks, and you’d be...?”

“Jess... Jess Harper. Where... how’d you... find us?”

“Heard you callin’ out,” he said. “Wind carried the sound – found you some hundred yards from my front door.” He put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Now rest easy while I check on your Mike.”

Jess sagged back and let him take the boy. He watched the stranger gently gather Mike up and place him on the wooden deacon’s bench set up against the wall. Jess tried to draw a deep breath and it rattled in his throat. Snow melted in his hair, and the damp curls plastered to his forehead. The warmth from the fireplace reached him; his eyes drifted shut, and with a weary sigh he relinquished his hold on consciousness.

Jones removed the sheepskin jacket that enveloped the youngster. He reasoned it belonged to the man on the floor; he must have wrapped the boy in it to shield him from the cold, leaving himself only a worn shirt and vest. Lazarus grabbed a blanket and quickly tucked it around the boy, rubbing his chest and back vigorously. The boy’s eyes remained closed, but he felt him breathing softly against his neck. He was alive, and he needed to get some hot liquid into him. He folded the jacket into a pillow and tucked it under his head.

“Don’t you quit on me, boy,” he said softly, stroking the tousled hair. “That Jess there on the floor just ‘bout killed himself gettin’ you this far, I reckon you mean a lot to him so you can’t give up, you hear?”

He set a pot of melted snow atop the old potbellied stove and cut some strips of jerky to make a broth. While he waited for the water to boil he returned to the unconscious man on the floor. Lazarus took the cushion from his rocking chair and gently placed it under the man’s head. He put a hand on his forehead and frowned at the heat. Fever for sure, and his breathing was getting more labored.

“Let’s have a look at you, Jess Harper,” he murmured unbuttoning his shirt. He pushed it away from the wound; the warmth of the cabin had melted the snow and ice, and the fabric came away easily. The entry wound was small; he slipped a careful hand under the man’s shoulder and found no exit hole. The bullet was still in there.

Lazarus Jones sat back on his heels. Harper was so pale his face was almost translucent, was there enough blood left in him to even attempt to remove the bullet? He bowed his head and knotted his careworn hands into fists. The Lord didn’t believe in making things easy. If one didn’t make it how could he ever hope to explain to the other that he had let his friend die?

He spied his old hunting knife on the sagging mantle over the fireplace. It would have to do; he had no other implements with which to attempt to remove a bullet. He stoked the fire and unsheathed the large knife; there wasn’t much he could use for bandages either, except a threadbare towel, but at least it was clean.

The water in the pot boiled and Lazarus poured some into a small bowl, adding the strips of jerky to what was left in the pot. He stoked the fire, and wondered about the wounded man and the youngster that fate had brought to his doorstep.

A soft moan from the boy interrupted his thoughts. He filled a tin cup with the broth the jerky had rendered, and hurried over to him.

Mike was dreaming; he was sure he had turned into a piece of molasses candy. It was a sweet, comfortable feeling, kinda warm and fuzzy, like the soft quilt Aunt Daisy had made for his bed last Christmas. The one he sometimes wrapped himself in when he was allowed to be up late, and sit by the fireplace listening to Slim and Jess swap tall tales.

He yawned, and tried to burrow deeper under the covers. A hand brushed his cheek. He swatted at it.

“Go ‘way,” he groused, “still sleeping, Aunt Daisy…”

“Sorry, son, but I ain’t your Aunt Daisy,” a gravelly, unfamiliar voice said. “You need to drink some of this here broth, get you warmed up.”

Mike thought his eyelids must be glued shut since it was so hard to get them to work. Did molasses candy have eyelids? He giggled and opened his eyes, and stared in astonishment at the man bending over him. His mind, still traumatized by recent events, tried to process the ancient face, with its bushy eyebrows and tangled white beard.

“Santa Claus?” he whispered, awestruck.

Lazarus shook his head, a smile lighting up his weary eyes. “What’s your name, son?”

“Mike… Mike Williams.” With returning consciousness came recollection, and he saw the boy’s eyes widen in fright. He tried to sit up. “Jess! Where’s Jess?”

Jones put a hand on his shoulder to calm him, but the boy trashed wildly, almost knocking the cup of broth out of his hand.

“Let… him…go.” It was a barely audible whisper, followed by the telltale click of a hammer being cocked.

He let go of the boy and swung around. The injured man had pushed himself up on one elbow; he clutched his gun in his right hand and stared at Lazarus with eyes darkened by pain and anger.

“Lay still, son,” Lazarus admonished and handed the boy the broth. “Here, drink this while I look after your friend Jess. Go on now, it’ll be all right.”

Jess watched the tall, stoop shouldered man come towards him. Fever and blood loss had drained him of his last reserves of strength, and when Lazarus reached down to take his gun he could offer no resistance. He sagged back against the pillow, the knowledge that Mike was alive the only reality he needed.

“You... you’re the one who found us,” he breathed. “Lazarus... Jones?”

The man nodded and knelt down beside him. He laid a calloused hand on his forehead, and Jess’ feverish shivering eased. A sense of calm radiated from their rescuer, it enveloped Jess, he felt safe, they would be safe.

“You’ve got a slug in you, son,” Jones said as he placed the gun he had taken from him back in its holster. “It’ll have to come out.”

Jess shifted his head slightly on the pillow, and met the honesty in the whiskey colored eyes that looked down on him. He twitched a wry smile.

“You don’t think I’ll make it, do you?” he whispered. It was a statement more than a question, and he kept his voice low not to alarm Mike.

“That’s not up to me, Jess,” Lazarus replied. He placed the bowl of hot water and the towel on a stool next to them, and held the blade of the knife into the fire to sterilize it. “You have to trust in the Lord. He brought you here for a reason.”

Lazarus Jones placed the knife on the folded towel. He thought for a moment, and then walked over to the window. The carved wood figure seemed to look up at him expectantly, and he smiled and nodded. Kneeling down again beside the wounded man he took hold of his left hand, and pressed the little figure into his hand.

“Here, son,” he gently folded Jess’ fingers around it, “hold on to this. It’ll make it easier for you.”

Too far gone to wonder about it, Jess used his remaining strength to lift his head to look at Mike, and smiled when he saw that he was fast asleep on the bench, an empty tin cup dangling off one finger. He had bargained with the Lord for him, and if his own life was the price he would pay it gladly, and without fear.

Mike was safe; he had kept his promise to Slim and Daisy.



PART SIX

“Mort, up ahead,” Slim yelled and leaned forward in the saddle. “See the light?”

Sheriff Corey drew rein and squinted through the snow in the direction Slim was pointing. At first all he saw was forest and darkness, but then, as the wind shifted slightly, he made out a pinprick of light some few hundred yards ahead of them to the right of the trail.

He rubbed a gloved hand across his face. “Could be a trapper’s cabin, Slim.”

“If they made it this far they’d have shelter from the weather.” Hope surged through Slim. ‘It’s got to be them; please God, let them be safe.’ He spurred Alamo forward, Corey following close behind.

The sheriff had sent the posse men back to town with the bodies of the two outlaws they had found. There was no sign of the Tanner brothers, and he suspected they were buried somewhere under the avalanche debris. They’d probably turn up with the spring thaw. They had come upon Drifter, the horse from the Medicine Bow livery stable, at the bottom of what was left of the trail, his reins tangled in a debris pile of broken tree limbs.

He was unhurt, and they left him there after making sure he was comfortable; they would pick him up on the way back. There was no sign of Jess or Mike, and neither of the two men wanted to voice what was going through their minds.

Slim bent his aching head to the wind and trusted his horse to pick the way. Alamo seemed to sense the urgency and plodded steadily through the snow. The wind shifted again, and when Slim raised his head the light he had seen was gone.

“Noooo…” he whispered. “I saw it... where in blazes...”

Alamo neighed suddenly and came to an abrupt stop. A tremor ran through the big animal, and he shook his head from side to side.

“Easy, boy, easy.” Slim stroked the horse’s neck and nudged him forward. “Ain’t nothin’ to be scared of – just the wind.”

“What’s the hold up, Slim?” Corey halted on the trail behind Slim.

“Don’t know, somethin’ seems to have spooked him,” Slim muttered. “Can’t figure it, he don’t scare easy.”

He slapped the reins and, to his surprise, Alamo lunged forward again now seemingly eager to move on. ‘Guess whatever it was is gone now.’

“Over there, Slim!” Corey yelled suddenly. “To the right through the trees.”

Slim peered through the snowy darkness and as the wind shifted again he saw it, the outline of a small cabin sitting in a clearing beyond the trees. There was no light to be seen, and no smoke coming from the chimney. Slim urged Alamo ahead and his four-legged friend moved willingly, chuffing puffs of frigid air as he picked his way. They passed through the trees and into the clearing; there were no tracks in the pristine snow leading up to the cabin and Slim layered calm over icy fear. If Jess and Mike had come this way... ‘No, it’s been snowing, any tracks would be covered by now. ‘They have to be here, they have to all right!’

Corey brought up the rear following in Alamo’s tracks. The sheriff halted his horse beside Slim and wrapped his reins around the saddle horn. He shook his head as he looked at the rotted cabin logs. The roof looked ready to cave in under the weight of new snow, and only a single hinge held the weather-beaten door. A sagging lean-to backed up against the far side of the cabin. Wind moaned through the eaves and rattled the door.

“Slim,” the sheriff began, but his friend waved him off and jumped to the ground.

The look on Slim’s face said it all. “They’ve got to be here, Mort, we got no place else to look.” His voice broke, and he turned away from the sheriff. He brushed an arm fiercely across his eyes and pushed open the door.

“I’ll tie the horses under the lean-to,” Corey said quietly.

Slim stepped into the old cabin and let the door swing shut behind him. He stood for a moment letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. The first thing he noticed was that the rough-hewn single room was oddly warm considering the weather outside. He saw an oil lamp in the single window by the door and grabbed it. It was obvious it hadn’t been used in years, but there was still some oil sloshing on the bottom. He scraped a match and touched it to the wick. The fragile flame threw scant light on the one room cabin and Slim caught sight of the boy, lying on a wooden bench up against the far wall.

“Mike!” he breathed. He put the lamp down and was across the room in two long strides. His foot crunched on something, and he looked down to see a battered tin cup under his heel. He kicked it aside and bent over the boy.

“Mike, are you all right?” The youngster’s eyes drifted open and looked up at him sleepily.

“Slim?” he said softly. “Are you... are you real, or am I dreaming again?” His head rested on a folded up jacket, and he struggled to free himself from the blanket he was wrapped in.

“Sshh” Slim stroked his cheek. “I’m here, Mike, you’re not dreamin’, I found you. Are you hurt?”

Mike shook his head, his eyes never leaving Slim’s face, as if he were afraid he would disappear. “Jess saved me, Slim,” he whispered. “He was hurt real bad, but he... he carried me... all the way here.” He turned his head and craned his neck to look around the room. His brow furrowed in consternation. “Where’s Santa Claus?”

“Huh?” Slim’s eyebrows traveled in the direction of his hairline. “What’d you say, Mike?”

“Santa Claus… he was here, Slim… he… helped Jess…” Mike yawned and lay back down, secure in the knowledge that everything would be all right now that Slim was here, his eyes drifted shut.

Slim bent over the boy and stroked his cheek gently. “We’ll get you home, Mike, you rest easy.” ‘Santa Claus!’ He crinkled a bemused smile.

“Slim,” Mort said gently, “Jess is over here.”

Slim swung around and saw the sheriff kneeling by a prone figure on the floor by the fireplace. He swallowed the fear that clutched at his throat and made it hard to breathe. His legs barely able to carry him he moved across the room. Dropping down on one knee he bent over his friend. Jess lay on his back, his eyes closed, black lashes shadowing his cheeks, ‘damn long lashes, girls always fancied ‘em,’ the irrational thought came out of nowhere. Gently Slim reached out and placed a hand on either side of the ashen face. Had he found him too late?

“I’m here, Pard,” he whispered. “I’m here, Jess.” He leaned in close, and relief flooded him as he felt a soft breath against his cheek. Mort reached a hand out to steady him as he rocked back on his heels.

“He’s alive, Mort!” Slim breathed. You hear me, he’s alive!”

“I can scarcely credit it,” Mort marveled, looking down at the unconscious man on the floor. “Looks like he’s been shot up pretty bad.”

“There might be some kindling in that box over there, Mort. See if you can get a fire going.”

Slim discarded his gloves and ran his hands quickly over his friend’s body. Nothing broken at least. He eased the bandage off his right shoulder; saw the raw wound it covered. Lifting him gently he looked for an exit wound in the back; there was none. ‘Damn, the bullet’s still in there.’ He probed the area around the entry hole.

Corey dropped some half rotted firewood on the floor by the fireplace. He took the lamp and held it high while he stuck his head in to examine the chimney. “Well, this won’t work - chimney’s halfway caved in and clogged with debris, Slim.”

When he didn’t get a response he turned around, and saw Slim’s stricken face as he looked down at something in his hand. “Slim?”

Wordlessly, Slim held out his hand and showed him a bloodstained bullet. Mort stared at it, and shook his head in disbelief as he realized what his friend was trying to tell him. He looked down at Jess’ unconscious form; saw the wound, the improvised bandage that Slim had pushed aside.

“Slim, if you’re trying to tell me...” Corey’s voice trailed off. “With what? How?”

“I don’t know,” Slim’s voice was a hoarse croak. “But there’s no exit wound, Mort, and the bullet ain’t in there.” He looked around wildly, caught sight of something gleaming on the floor by the fireplace. The sheriff followed his gaze and saw the large hunting knife. He picked it up gingerly; it was stained with what looked to be fresh blood.

“Good God,” he breathed. “Slim, Jess is right-handed and the bullet’s in his right shoulder. He couldn’t possibly manage it!”

Slim’s face was white with shock. His mind had trouble accepting what his eyes were telling him. Jess had made his way from the snow slide to this place, with a bullet in him and carrying Mike. He had cared for the boy, wrapped him in a blanket he must have found in the cabin, and then he had... somehow he had dug the bullet out of his own shoulder before passing out. Slim swallowed, heartsick at the thought of what his friend had endured.

“I’ll never know how, but he did,” he whispered. “There’s no other explanation, Mort. Mike certainly couldn’t have done it.”

Slim shook off the feeling of unreality. He took the canteen Corey handed him, and gently lifted his friend’s head. He managed to press a few drops between his lips, and eased him back down.

Jess coughed as the water trickled down his parched throat. He tried to pull away from Slim, and his eyelids fluttered. He fought the return to consciousness as it brought with it only pain, searing and knife edge sharp. An agonized groan escaped him, and he reached a trembling hand towards the hazy features that swam in front of his eyes.

“Slim?”

“Rest easy, Jess, you’re gonna be all right.”

Jess felt hands on his shoulders, a reassuring squeeze. Waves of heat radiated off him, and his forehead was beaded with sweat. He forced himself to focus, and gazed up at the concerned face that hovered over him.

“Slim... Mike, where’s Mike?” Urgency drove him to the surface, even though he wanted nothing more than to surrender to the darkness that beckoned him.

“Sshh, Mike’s all right, he’s over there on the bench, sleeping. You saved him, Jess.”

Jess heard the words, knew the voice that would not lie to him, but he needed to see for himself. He pushed away from Slim, and struggled up on one elbow. He looked around wildly until he spotted Mike resting peacefully on the bench. A relieved sigh escaped him; he sagged back down and rested his head against the pillow. He saw Mort Corey standing behind Slim, and vague recollections of the past few hours swam to the surface.

“Avalanche,” he whispered hoarsely. “The mountain came... came down on us... if it hadn’t been for...” his voice trailed off, and he blinked in confusion. “Where’s Lazarus?”

Slim sucked in a sharp breath and cast a quick glance at the sheriff. “Who?”

“Lazarus Jones,” Jess said. “The old man... this is his cabin...” His fragile consciousness wavered, and he reached a hand to grasp his friend’s shirtfront. “Take care of him, Pard... would’ve froze to death... if’n he hadn’t found us. He got the bullet out...” He coughed as agony stabbed through him. “Took care of... Mike... owe him... life...”

He relinquished his grip on his friend’s shirt; his eyes drifted shut.

“Jess! Stay with me, don’t...” Slim halted, seeing that Jess had passed out.

“Lazarus Jones,” Mort grunted and scratched his scalp. “Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.”

Slim swallowed, looking down at the unconscious man on the floor. “He’s delirious, Mort, burning up with fever. How else d’you account for it?”

Mort Corey sighed and stretched his weary frame. “I can’t, Slim. It makes about as much sense as Jess removing the bullet himself. You know the old legend about Lazarus Jones. If he were still alive he’d be well over a hundred years old by now.”

Slim nodded mutely. It was a local story steeped in myth, a story that got more embellished depending on who told it. The story of a mountain man who had taken a party of settlers through the Purgatory Pass, despite warnings to wait until spring. They had become trapped there on the mountain when an early norther’ blew in; the pass closed and everyone perished, over twenty men, women and children.

The wagons and the bodies weren’t found till the following spring. Lazarus wasn’t among them, most folks figured he died somewhere out there in the wilderness trying to save his miserable hide. According to the legend, Lazarus Jones haunted Purgatory Pass, looking to atone for his sins by helping stranded travelers. There were those who claimed to have been saved by him, although those stories were mostly attributed to a whiskey-fueled imagination.

“Mike called him Santa Claus,” Slim murmured. “I don’t understand...”

Mort Corey shook his head as he gazed down at the wounded man. “It looks bad, Slim,” he said quietly. “He’s lost a lot of blood.”

Slim didn’t dare give voice to the numbing fear that squeezed at his throat. He poured some water on his bandana and dabbed Jess’ face. “Mort, that old stove… see if it works, we need to boil some water, his wound needs cleaning.”

The sheriff took one look at the pot-bellied stove and shook his head. It sagged on three legs, and the stovepipe was missing. An old pot still teetered precariously on the stovetop, and Corey reached a hand to move it aside to see if there was anything he could do to make the stove work.

He swore and whipped his hand away. “Son of a…”

Slim shot him a quick glance. “What’s wrong?”

“Durn thing’s hot,” Mort grunted, and flapped his fingers.

They both jumped as a heavy wind gust slammed the door open; swirling snow danced in the opening and sifted into the room. The stove forgotten, Corey crossed the room and pulled the door shut. He secured the latch and brushed at the snow on his jacket.

“It’s too thick out there, Slim. There’s nothing we can do but wait it out; should be daylight soon.”

Slim could only nod. While Mort settled himself in the old rocking chair by the window, he shrugged out of his heavy winter jacket and draped it over Jess. Then he sat down on the floor beside him, and eased his friend’s shoulders up against his bent leg. With infinite gentleness he reached his right arm around Jess and pulled him close to his chest.

Exhausted, Slim rested his cheek on the fever dampened dark curls. He closed his eyes and prayed.



PART SEVEN

It was mid afternoon on December 24th, and in the Palace Saloon Sam Munson served up his special concoction of hot buttered rum sprinkled with cinnamon to the appreciative crowd at the bar. Most of them were men with no family to go home to, and the saloon was their place to ease the loneliness of the holiday. He regarded them all with a benign smile, and then reached under the bar to bring out his special holiday treat; a big tray heaped with cookies and bear claws that Mrs. Elders at the general store had baked for him earlier that morning.

“Whoooeee, Sam!” One of the men, a bewhiskered fellow with a face like a train wreck, grinned appreciatively. “Ya sure outdid yerself this year!”

Sam gave him a friendly wave and then turned as a cold gust of wind followed another customer in the door.

Slim Sherman removed his hat and slapped it against his pant leg. His tall, broad-shouldered frame seemed shrunken inside his heavy jacket, and Sam caught his breath at the sadness that shaded the sky blue eyes. Exhaustion lined the other man’s face as he stripped off his gloves and ran a hand through his hair.

Like most of Laramie, Sam Munson had been holding his breath ever since Slim Sherman and Sheriff Corey had brought Jess and Mike down from Purgatory Pass. The boy had rallied quick enough, youngsters were resilient that way, but Jess’ wound was infected and, combined with the loss of blood, the fever that took hold of him pushed him ever closer to the edge.

“What brings you to town on Christmas Eve, Slim?” he asked softly, wiping his hands on his apron and dreading the answer.

Slim heard the question, saw the worry in the other man’s face, and again wondered at how many lives Jess had touched in the short time he had been in Laramie.

He dropped his hat on the bar. “Pour me a whiskey,” he said in a low voice.

The saloon owner placed a glass before him and poured a generous measure. Then he poured one for himself and nodded at Slim. The din in the saloon seemed to retreat, leaving the two of them alone. Slim tossed down the drink, and wiped the back of his hand across his lips.

“Slim?”

Slim Sherman heard the question that was being asked, yet, how could he bear to even hear himself say the words?

“We’re losin’ him, Sam,” he whispered.

Sam leaned forward and rested his arms on the bar. He saw the truth of the statement in Slim’s tired eyes. His hands reached for the bottle to pour another shot, but Slim shook his head.

“I gotta get back,” he said hoarsely. “Jess... I only came because he wanted you to have something.” He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out an object wrapped in his kerchief. “It’s mighty important to him, Sam. He was holding it when we found him in that old trapper’s cabin.”

Wordlessly, Sam pulled away the red kerchief and stared in openmouthed astonishment at the intricately carved figurine in his hand. The workmanship was exquisite, every detail lovingly rendered. He held it carefully, reverence shining in his eyes.

“He said you’d understand.” Slim’s voice broke. He reached blindly for his hat and jammed it down on his head.

Sam set the little figure carefully down on the bar. He thought back on the day Jess had sat at the corner table, trying to find the bottom of a whiskey bottle. He shook his head at the wonder of it, and extended his hand to Slim.

“Slim, tell Jess I do understand,” he said quietly, “and tell him ‘thank you’ for me. I just wish there was something I could do for him.”

Slim nodded. “Yeah, we all do, Sam.”

The saloon owner watched him walk away; he had the tired gait of a man who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. Perhaps he did. A sad smile crossed his face as he reached to pick up the figurine.

“Hey, Sam, how ‘bout a refill over here?” one of the patrons yelled. “We cain’t celebrate Christmas with empty glasses!”

“Coming, coming,” Sam muttered. He put the little woodcarving down, and headed to the other end of the bar.

*****

It stopped snowing late on Christmas Eve. Darkness laid claim to the sky, and clouds shielded the moon and stars. He pushed Alamo along the road back to the ranch, grateful that the horse was so familiar with the trail he could pick his way blindfolded. Sensing his rider’s urgency Alamo stretched his long legs fearlessly, guided only by his knowledge of the oft-traveled route.

Slim had not wanted to leave Jess’ side even for a moment, but Jess had become so agitated that he gave in. Now, fear for his friend drove him towards home, praying that he would not be too late. ‘Lord, if has to be, let me at least be there with him.’

*****

Daisy Cooper tidied the already tidy basket of pinecones and holly; she straightened the red tablecloth, she moved some of the ornaments on the Christmas tree; she wept silently. Mike had finally fallen asleep on the floor in front of the fireplace, his arms wrapped around his dog. She had covered them both with Mike’s favorite quilt, and Buttons had looked up at her with sorrowful, knowing eyes. Instinctively, the little dog sensed the sadness that had overwhelmed his family, and he stayed close to the boy giving comfort.

She looked around the cozy little room, and her warm, maternal heart ached with the knowledge that one of her beloved ‘sons’ was dying. The maverick with the dark blue, haunted eyes; the one that sometimes blew into the house with a flashing grin to sweep her off her feet, and at other times withdrew from them all behind a wall of memories too dark to share.

Daisy sighed wearily; emotionally she was at the end of her tether. Four days had passed since Slim and Sheriff Corey had brought Mike and Jess down from Purgatory Pass. While Mike had quickly bounced back from his ordeal, Doctor Collier had stayed at the ranch the first two nights, working tirelessly to save Jess’ life. He managed to staunch the infection, but Jess had lost more blood than his body seemed able to replenish and, combined with a relentless fever, it had left him in a borderland that was beyond the good doctor’s reach.

Jess slept most of the time, waking only when she changed his bandages or sponged his brow with a wet cloth. He asked for nothing, and his eyes, for once naked and unguarded, thanked her for every little kindness. It broke her heart to see him so weak and helpless.

Why was this happening? Why now, when Jess had finally found a place he could call home, where he was cherished? There had been too much violence and death in his life, and so little of warmth and family. Yet, in the short time he had been with them, she had seen him change from a troubled gunfighter into a man she would trust with all their lives. She had seen Slim turn to him like a brother and she knew, with absolute certainty, that Jess would sacrifice his own life to save the other, because the alternative was not a price he was willing to pay.

Daisy had nothing but prayers left, but they went unanswered.

*****

Slim stabled Alamo, giving him extra care; the horse was tired, he had pushed him hard to get back to the ranch. Normally Traveler, in the next stall, would be nickering and begging for attention with his head over the stall to talk to his friend Alamo. Tonight he just stood quietly, watching them, his eyes solemn.

“Jess,” Slim whispered. He realized that as much as he needed air to breathe he needed the friendship of the man who now lay dying. He stroked Traveler’s warm nose, felt the horse blow softly at his neck and Slim’s legs buckled. He sank to his knees and gave in to emotions held in check for too long. The sobs hitched in his throat; he bowed his head and cried for his friend.



PART EIGHT

Jess drifted back to consciousness, and opened his eyes to find himself alone in the room he shared with Slim. The door to the living room was ajar, and he heard Daisy moving about in the kitchen. The fresh pine scent of the Christmas tree reached him along with all the good cooking smells, and he wished again that he had the strength to be there with them.

He had no illusions about his condition; it required an effort just to draw a breath, and he knew this was one he was not going to walk away from. But Mike was safe, which was all that mattered, and the boy would grow up with Slim and Daisy to look out for him. Regret for all the good things that were not to be stung his eyes. ‘You’re feelin’ sorry for yourself again, Harper.’

Jess’ thoughts drifted to the trapper’s cabin and Lazarus Jones. He couldn’t figure it. Slim had told him the legend about the old man, but it changed nothing. Jess knew what had happened; in that moment in time when they needed him the man had been there. Real or not, without his help Mike and he would have frozen to death in the snowy pass; perhaps one life saved was all the miracle Lazarus was allowed.

Jess felt consciousness fading again and closed his eyes with a weary sigh. Maybe it was time to stop turning his back on the peaceful darkness that beckoned him. NO! He clawed his way back to the surface. He wasn’t ready yet, there were things left unsaid, he needed more time, please God, just a little more time…

“Slim…” it was barely audible.

“Right here, Pard.” Slim sat down on the edge of the bunk.

Jess gazed up at his friend with eyes that were no longer shaded with suffering; the pain had long since left him. He felt lightheaded, the threads anchoring him to this world becoming ever more gossamer.

“Slim, I don’t know how much... how much time I got left, but I want to...”

“Don’t talk like that, Jess,” Slim interrupted his voice scratchy with emotion. “You’ll pull through this; I can’t run the place without you.”

Jess moved his head restlessly. Exhaustion lined his face, and there were midnight shadows under his eyes. He grasped at Slim’s hand, and searched for the right words.

“I need you to... to know how much these last few months have meant to me.” Jess’ voice was a whisper of sandpaper. “Ain’t never amounted to much, just a drifter with a fast gun... till I came here. You and Daisy ‘n Mike took me in, treated me like family... made me feel like I belonged...”

His vision blurred and he blinked to clear it. “Reckon it must be late... gettin’ dark. Slim, d’you mind lightin’ the lamp?”

Slim looked at the lit oil lamp on the nightstand throwing a comfortable light around the room. He squeezed his eyes shut against the despair that washed over him.

“Sure, Pard, I’ll take care of it.” He heard a soft sound and turned to see Daisy standing in the doorway; she motioned that she did not want to disturb them, but remained where she was, her hands knotted in her apron.

“I wanted to... get Mike a Christmas present,” Jess said softly. “Didn’t have money for it, but Traveler... he’s a good horse,” the words came faster, almost stumbling in his hurry to get it said, “Slim, I know you wanted to start Mike out with a pony, but...”

Slim bit down on his grief, and put a hand on Jess’ shoulder. “Easy, Jess, no more of this kinda talk. You can tell Mike he...”

Frustrated, Jess tried to push himself up on his elbows, but his strength failed him and he sank back against the pillows.

“Traveler... he’ll be good for Mike. They like each other.” He paused, and his breath rasped in his throat. “You can sell my saddle, and...” He paused and gestured towards his gun, hanging off a peg on the wall.

Silently, Slim retrieved it and laid it carefully on the bed. Jess stroked the smooth, black leather and rested his hand on the gun butt; he didn’t have the strength to draw the weapon.

“I want you to sell it, Slim,” he said. A bleak smile touched his lips. “It’s a good gun, and it’s got some... some history. Put the money in the bank... for Mike.”

Slim drew a sharp breath, not trusting himself to speak. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Daisy turn and stumble back into the living room, her shoulders shaking.

“Jess, I can’t... there’s no need to...”

Jess clutched his hand, eyes tense and pleading as he looked up at his friend. He had to make him understand.

“Please, Slim,” he implored. “Please, I got nothin’ else to give... the gun... make it... make it mean somethin’!”

Slim Sherman and Jess Harper gazed at each other, each man seeking, and finding, the unconditional love of a brother. For a heartbreaking second time stood still for both of them, and they let only good memories flood their hearts.

Jess closed his eyes; he didn’t think he could bear to hold on to the moment much longer. “Slim, could you… could you leave the bedroom door open, it smells so good in there, reckon Daisy’s cooking up a storm…”

“Oh, I think I can do better’n that, Pard.” Slim gave his hand a tight squeeze, and got to his feet. “Hang on, I’ll be right back.”

Jess managed a wry smile. “I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

Slim found Daisy in the kitchen, aimlessly stirring a pot of cranberry sauce for the turkey that was roasting in the oven. She found solace in mundane, ordinary things. The tragic events of the last few days not withstanding they still had to eat, and it was still Christmas Eve.

Mike had roused from his slumber and sat at the table, still wrapped in his quilt and with Buttons on his lap. He stroked the little dog, and looked at Slim with eyes still blurry with sleep.

“Jess is gonna die, isn’t he?” It was a statement, not a question, and his voice was shockingly devoid of emotion.

“Mike, we don’t know that,” Slim began, but the youngster just shook his head and pulled the quilt tighter around him. Buttons squirmed closer to him, nibbling on the edge of the blanket.

“Jess is gonna die, and it’s all my fault,” Mike whispered. He had no more tears, he was all cried out. “He came to save me, and I got him killed, Slim.”

“Oh, Mike, of course you didn’t,” Daisy said softly. She moved the sauce off to one side, and hurried over to the distraught child.

Slim bent down and tilted the boy’s chin up. “Mike, look at me. Come on now, look at me.

“You were kidnapped, Mike, there was nothing you could have done to prevent it. Yes, Jess saved you, of course he did, had I been able to I would have been there with him. It’s just the way things sometimes work out. It can’t be undone. Bad things happen to good people.”

“But it’s not fair,” Mike wailed. “Aunt Daisy, Slim, why does Jess have to die now? He never had a real home until he came here, no family, nobody...” his voice broke and he buried his face in Buttons’ soft brown fur. “It’s not fair that there’s nothin’ I can do for him.”

Daisy and Slim regarded each other over the bowed head of the boy. How to comfort him and make him accept the inevitable, when they themselves could not accept the reality of the situation.

“There is something you can do for Jess,” Slim said softly. “It’s Christmas Eve and we’re going to try and make it the best Christmas he has ever had. I’m going to move him in here with us, Mike, where he can see the tree. Help me move the couch from the window over by the fireplace.”

“Really?” Mike sat up quickly, and Buttons fell off his lap with a startled yelp. The quilt slipped off Mike’s shoulders, and the pooch became entangled in it. Dangerous guard dog that he was he attacked it fearlessly, and got himself completely buried under it. He yapped and growled fiercely, rolling around on the floor and dragging the blanket with him. His hapless antics were a welcome relief from the sorrow that had been hanging over the little ranch house, and Slim twitched a small grin at Daisy.

“Slim, do you think it’s safe to move him?” she asked quietly as Mike headed over to the couch.

Slim’s smile faltered. “I don’t think it makes much difference any more, Daisy. Better to have him in here with us, where he can see the Christmas tree, the holly, all the candles...”

“I can’t bear the thought that his first Christmas with us is going to be his last,” Daisy whispered as she turned back to the stove. She stirred the saucepot with one hand, and wiped away traitorous tears with the other.

Slim and Mike moved the leather couch from its customary spot under the window. They pushed it close to the fireplace, and turned it so that it faced the Christmas tree in the corner.

An ache in his heart Slim tousled the boy’s hair. “Thanks, Mike, now you go help Daisy set the table and I’ll bring Jess in here.”

He hurried back to the bedroom, wishing away the fear that each moment with Jess would be the last, that he would turn to him only to find him gone.

“Ready, Jess?”

“Yeah…Sorry, Slim, I’ll need a hand up…” Jess looked at him sheepishly.

“Don’t worry, I got ya.” With that Slim bent down and unceremoniously scooped his friend into his arms, blankets, pillows and all.

“Aw, Slim… put me down… I can make it…” Jess protested, his face flushed either with embarrassment or fever, or both. He struggled feebly, but Slim just tightened his grip.

“You’re not ridin’ a lone trail anymore, Jess,” he said quietly. “You need help, so just accept it.”

Holding his burden close he carried his friend away from the aura of fever and medicine, and settled him gently on the leather couch. Daisy fussed with the pillows and made sure the blankets were tucked in.

“Oh, Jess, are you sure you’re up to this?” she asked worriedly, smoothing the wayward, dark curls off his forehead. He looked so fragile, as if a breath of wind could blow him away.

Jess gave her the ghost of a smile; he turned his head and rested his cheek against her cool, comforting hand for a moment. “Thanks, Daisy,” he whispered.

Mike scooted on to the edge of the couch and Buttons, not wanting to be left out, jumped up and draped himself across Jess’ legs. Reminding them both that Jess was hurt, and to be careful, Daisy headed back to the kitchen to rescue the turkey before it pecked on the oven door to be let out.

Slim figured Mike and Jess needed some time to themselves and sat down at the roll top desk, and with one eye on the two on the couch, he tidied up some last minute paperwork. There had been a reward posted for Will Parker and Charlie Hoyt, enough to cover the money the gang had stolen from the ranch; the bodies of the Tanner brothers likely wouldn’t surface till next spring.

“Are you feelin’ better, Jess?” Mike asked hopefully, his face furrowed with concern.

Jess nodded faintly, and reached an arm out to him. Mike crawled up on his left side, and Jess wrapped his arm around the slight figure, and held him close.

“Yeah, Tiger, everything’s just fine,” he murmured. His lips brushed the tousled, sandy head of his little friend and he smiled faintly at the truth of that statement.

The warmth from the fireplace was soothing, and the Christmas tree, with its homemade ornaments and shining star was magical. Jess couldn’t recall ever having been in a home where they had a decorated tree. Most of his Christmases had been spent in a saloon or alone on the trail somewhere, always looking over his shoulder. Here, at the Sherman ranch, he had found his restless spirit anchored by love and friendship.

Jess watched Daisy bustle back and forth between the kitchen and the dinner table; Slim was slouched by the roll top desk, muttering about paperwork on Christmas Eve. Jess sighed contentedly and leaned his cheek against Mike’s hair; his breathing slowed and his eyes drifted shut. He was weary of the struggle; the warm darkness that promised peace beckoned him again and this time he welcomed it.

It was time to let go.

*****

It was going on midnight, and Sam Munson had just poured the last of his merry band of revelers out the door. He stopped for a moment on the sidewalk, and drew a deep breath. The winds had finally died down and the air outside was crisp and clear, stars rioting across the night sky. It would freeze tonight for sure.

He doused the lantern outside the saloon, and went back in. There would be some cleaning up to do, but at least no one had started a fight and busted up the place. He grinned and scratched at his chin. Everyone had behaved themselves tonight; must be the Christmas spirit.

Sam walked back behind the bar to empty the cash register, and fetched up short when he saw the woodcarving Slim had given him. He had placed it next to the Nativity scene to keep it out of harm’s way, and after Slim left the place had gotten so busy he’d clean forgot about it. He shook his head as he wondered about how the exquisite figurine had come to be in Jess Harper’s hand in that old trapper’s cabin.

It was enough to make you believe in Santa Claus again.

*****

The boy carefully wriggled out from under Jess’ arm, and got to his feet. Buttons looked at him, but didn’t move. He had inched his way up from the end of the couch to where he now had his wet little nose tucked under Jess’ hand. The animal sensed that the spirit of this human was fading and instinct told him to stay close, to guard the flicker of life that still wavered, as if undecided.

“Slim, Aunt Daisy…” Mike’s voice had a catch in it, and Slim shot up, his heart in his throat.

He was across the room in an instant, striving to calm the desolation in his heart. Daisy came hurrying in from the kitchen, eyes wide and stricken. They both knew they were losing Jess, yet it seemed so achingly cruel that he should be taken from them now, on Christmas Eve, a time that was supposed to be filled with joy and celebration.

Jess opened his eyes as they sat down on either side of him. He felt Daisy’s small hand in his, and closed his fingers around it. Mike, his face pale and solemn, stood next to her, clutching her other hand.

He had no fear of dying, but it saddened him that he wouldn’t get to see Mike grow up, that he would not be there to stand at Slim’s side when his friend finally found the woman he wanted to marry. Suffused by a sense warmth and peace Jess looked at Daisy and Mike, wishing he had the words to thank them for the love they had given him; perhaps they did know.

Slim’s hand was on his arm, and their eyes met. Jess felt his awareness fading, and reached a hand up; his fingers brushed at the wetness on Slim’s cheek.

“Don’t grieve, Pard,” he whispered. “Please don’t. I always figured when my time came… I’d die alone... in a gunfight... on the trail or in a town where no one cared. Dyin’s easy when… when you’ve got your… your family with you.”

“Oh, Jess,” Slim breathed. He saw that his friend was slipping away, and silently begged the heavens for a miracle, to let them keep Jess with them, it wasn’t his time, it couldn’t be, ‘God, this is all so wrong, he’s been through so much, please don’t take him, give him back to us…’

*****

Sam Munson pulled a chair over to the Christmas tree and climbed up. He teetered precariously as he tied the carved Christmas angel to the top of tree with the silk ribbon that had given him such trouble a few days ago. This time he had no difficulty securing it, and he marveled again at the workmanship of the carving; the rapturous expression on the angel’s face and the hands turned upwards in prayer. His angel had been restored to him, and his Christmas was complete.

Sam jumped down and discarded his apron on the bar. Turning off the lights as he went, he headed for the door. He grabbed his winter coat and as he reached for the door handle a sound reached him, an ethereal, musical tinkling and he swung around.

The saloon owner caught his breath as he stared in openmouthed wonder at his Christmas tree. The angel was not so much perched on top of the tree as hovering over it; the figure appeared to grow before his eyes, and for a moment it seemed to be consumed by radiance from within, its wings spreading in joyous celebration...

*****

...and at the Sherman ranch a gallant heart rallied and a weary young man found a last reserve of strength; he turned his back on death’s open door and walked back into the light.



EPILOGUE

High up in Purgatory Pass the snow had stopped and the moonlit landscape lay tinged with silver and ice.

The world around him slowed to a halt and, soft as a caress, a gentle wind stroked his forehead. The heavy mantle of guilt and sorrow fell from his shoulders, the wrinkles of time relinquished their hold on him and his weary old body straightened; he stood tall and proud again. His time was at hand. He closed his eyes and gave thanks.

Heeding the call whispered on the wind Lazarus Jones picked up his staff and turned his face to the heavens. His footsteps left no imprint in the snow as he walked towards the light.

His days of atonement were over; he was finally going home.

The End





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



Back to
Fanfic