Dead Man’s Tale

by Theresa Wright

This is my first jaunt into the realm of Laramie and the two characters who stole my heart when I was but a girl of seven. This is dedicated to my mother, Lenora, who went to be with my father on May 24th 2011, and to her mother and my grandmother who followed her twenty days later. Thanks to Badger for her input on Jess’ character, and a special thanks to my beta of more than a decade, Kate(CMT), who has not yet ‘come over’, but who read and helped me get through this story. Much obliged, Pard! Feedback is appreciated at kirgissfair@gmail.com.

//God’s house is weeping!// Shaking his head at the awful thought, Father Michael placed another wooden pail on the floor of his tiny chapel. He stepped back, critically examining the path of several fat raindrops as they fell from one of many leaks in the ceiling. They landed in the empty bucket with loud plops. The sounds blended with similar ones coming from other strategically-placed containers and echoed throughout the sanctuary.

Sighing at the futility of his task, the elderly priest stepped to the threshold of his church, peering into the pre-dawn streets of Buckskin. Except for a single light seeping through the louvered doors of a nearby saloon, they were dark and deserted.

Father Michael shuffled outside onto the porch. Keeping his rotund body well beneath the building’s protective overhang, he reached down, grasped the handle of another pail, then startled at the unexpected sound of hooves nearby. Their deliberate plodding motions slung mud and water onto the tiny porch, virtually soaking it. Quick thinking and a single backward step saved the priest from a similar dousing.

Seemingly oblivious to their misdeed, three riders continued on their way. The old priest noted their heads, bowed against the inclement weather. Water ran in rivulets from the brims of their hats and onto the horses’ withers. As the men approached the saloon, Father Michael could see light reflecting off their waterproof rain slickers.

All three horses moved slowly and meticulously, each in sequence with the smaller man on the left turning his mount toward the saloon hitching post first. He was followed by the middle rider whose body slumped over his saddle horn. The third man, much taller than the first two, maneuvered his animal into position last.

Recovering from his near miss, Father Michael watched with heightened interest as the two flanking cowboys dropped from their horses and moved to help their companion from his saddle. For a moment, the middle man’s profile was illuminated by the light of the saloon, and Michael felt a sudden flicker of recognition. But the thought dissipated as the man’s boots touched the ground. Only the quick thinking of his companions kept the staggering drunk from falling face-down in the muddy street.

Shaking his head sadly at the revelation, Father Michael whispered the admonition of Solomon, “’Vinum ... bites like a serpent and stings like an adder’.”

A final glance showed the two mismatched cowboys moving the besotted third with effort toward the double doors of the saloon, but Michael couldn’t afford to waste any more time. Sunday Mass was only a few hours away, and the roof was leaking rain into the sanctuary. The priest crossed himself, mouthed a silent prayer of deliverance, placed another bucket on the floor, then hurried to the back room to find a mop.

**********

“Charlie, another beer! And make it a cold one this time!” For emphasis, Brace Chaney banged his mug down hard on the counter. Its impact caused four other empty glasses, lined up like soldiers in formation, to quiver and clink noisily against each other. The one nearest the edge tottered precariously before righting itself.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough, boss?” the stout barkeep asked, even as he set another filled mug before the saloon’s owner. It was Saturday night … no … correction … it was early Sunday morning. Business was dead and, with the wind and rain raging outside, he didn’t expect it to get better anytime soon.

“Well, I have to do something to liven up this place. Maybe I could hire a piano player. Of course, he’d probably only play slow songs and put all my paying customers to sleep.”

Charlie Frank glanced around the drafty, smoke-filled saloon. In the opposite corner was a small, pot-bellied stove that struggled in vain to eliminate the cold and dampness from the room. Its efforts to add warmth only succeeded in contributing more haze to the already overwhelming cloud of kerosene lamp and cigar smoke that hung suspended throughout the room. There were five tables, with four straight-backed chairs each, crammed into one corner near the stove. None of the seats were occupied. On the other side of the room were another five sets of tables and chairs, all of them vacant too.

“Where’s Nora? And Libbie?” Chaney drained the glass and rubbed the back of his hand over foam-coated lips.

Libbie’s in the kitchen. Nora went up to bed over an hour ago.”

“Alone or with a paying customer?”

Charlie’s eyes hardened, and his brows merged into one long graying arch. “All the ‘paying customers’ left. She turned in,” the barkeep said, shaking his head impatiently. After six beers, his boss’ simple brain got even simpler.

“Well, it’s not quitting time yet. If Nora is alone, she’s still got some unfinished business … with me.” He reached out an open expectant hand, and Charlie placed a bottle of whiskey in it. Chaney made a show of examining the half-empty container, then turned and slowly staggered up the stairs and onto the landing. When he reached the top, he stopped to stare at the oil portrait hanging on the first door. The semi-nude woman smiled at him seductively as she reclined on a blue velvet settee. Chaney rolled his eyes with disdain. “Been a while since she looked this good,” he said loudly enough for Charlie to hear. He held up a fist and pounded the door several times.

Mopping the worn and soiled countertop with a dingy cloth, the barkeep watched as the door slowly opened and the drunken owner disappeared inside. Shaking his head and chomping down on a cigar stump clenched tightly between his teeth, Charlie moved the empty beer glasses beneath the counter and, with a grateful nod, acknowledged the arrival of three new customers from the deluge outside.

A tall man and a teenage boy, seemingly preoccupied with their companion, headed directly for the warmth of the tiny stove in the corner of the room. Both helped the other man slide into a chair closest to the heat. The seated cowboy propped his elbows on the table and, with a fatigued groan, eased his head into his hands. The teen, clothed in a rain-drenched poncho, placed his hands on the seated man’s shoulders, squeezed them encouragingly, and murmured something Charlie couldn’t quite hear.

The exceptionally tall, long-legged man, damp tendrils of thick blond hair dangling from beneath his soaked hat, strode purposefully to the bar. He brushed ineffectually at the dampness of his garments, finally giving up with a resigned sigh.

“How can I help you, sir?” the custodian said in a voice loud enough to be heard by his employer, otherwise engaged, on the second floor.

“Two whiskeys and a sarsaparilla,” the lanky man replied, holding up a matching number of fingers. “And whatever food you’ve got that’s warm and filling.”

“Yes, sir. Drinks coming up. There’s not much in the way of food, though. Just day-old bread … some leftover soup from lunch. I can heat it up for you.”

“Andy … Jess … bread and soup okay for you?”

“That’ll be good, Slim,” the poncho-draped boy said around his concern for the seated man.

“We’re gonna need rooms for the night, directions to the nearest doctor, and a place to bed down our horses,” ‘Slim’ said as Charlie handed him the drinks.

“We got six rooms available upstairs, two with and four without companions. The livery is down the street …” he pointed to the left, “… at the very edge of town. And the closest sawbones is about a hundred miles south.”

The big man sighed his disappointment. “Thought that might be the case,” he said, looking over his shoulder at the boy. Two unoccupied rooms will be fine. Name’s Sherman, Slim Sherman. My brother, Andy…” he nodded as the standing youth came forward to take possession of the bottle of sarsaparilla and one of the whiskeys. Returning to his original place, he set the tiny glass of amber liquid on the table. “… and my partner, Jess. We’ve been on the road three days. Couple more to go before we get home … but with this weather and with Jess coming down with something … well, we had to stop.” He tilted his own glass upward, drank down the whiskey in one swallow, and then addressed his brother.

“Andy … I know it’s wet and windy outside, but we need to get the horses stabled first.”

Andy Sherman reluctantly placed his sarsaparilla on the table beside Jess’ as-yet untouched drink. “Coming, Slim.” He paused for a moment. “Jess, do you need anything else before we leave?”

The seated cowboy raked a sopping wet hat off his head, set it on the table, and finger-combed damp, ebony curls from his forehead. Taking a tentative sip of his whiskey, he frowned at the taste and licked his lips. “No, Andy. Thanks, but I think I’m feelin’ better now.”

“Okay. Slim and me’ll be right back.”

“Slim and ‘I’ …” the tall man corrected automatically and headed for the door. Andy shot Jess a pained expression, rolled his eyes, and then followed his brother out into the storm.

The remaining cowboy grinned in mock sympathy, nodding as the two departed, but Charlie noticed the cheery façade fade as soon as the saloon doors closed behind them. He studied the man’s expression intently, noting the drained look of exhaustion on his colorless face, the grimace of discomfort as he leaned cautiously back in the chair and wearily closed his eyes. Charlie was certain he’d never seen this man before, yet there was something familiar about the chiseled cheekbones, the tiny cleft in his chin, the unique curve of his brows …

“Charlie!”

Libbie Tyler appeared in the doorway of the small kitchen, a raven-haired beauty in a white peasant blouse and embroidered green skirt. She wore no stockings on her long, shapely legs, no shoes on her dainty feet but, when she entered the main room of the saloon, she resembled a queen greeting her waiting subjects.

“I see business is real good tonight, Charlie,” she said caustically, scanning the nearly empty room.

The bartender’s reply was a noncommittal grunt. Libbie was a beautiful woman, but she had a sarcastic streak that could make an onion cry. She was also the only saloon girl under thirty-five left on Chaney’s payroll.

“Bartender?”

The soft voice came from a darkened corner of the room; Libbie stopped and turned a curious gaze in that direction.

"Can you change our order from three soups to two? I don’t think I can stomach anything right now.”

“Certainly, sir. I was going to put the pot on to heat now. Can I get you anything else?”

"Nothing, thanks.”

In the corner, almost hidden behind the woefully ineffectual stove, a solitary stranger sat alone, passively nursing a whiskey. During her first canvass of the room, Libbie had failed to notice his presence. Her interest heightened, she walked forward, all the while appraising the cowboy. He appeared youthful – at least six or seven years younger than her own thirty-four – and was good looking in an unpretentious rugged sort of way.

As she reached the edge of the bar, Libbie noted with pleasure that his eyes followed her movements. This awareness made her stroll provocatively across the dusty, bare plank floor. Taking a position at the stranger’s right side, she dipped her fingers into the depths of his thick, wavy hair. “Hello cowboy!” She exhaled the words. “First time I’ve seen you in here. What’s your name?”

Black lashes whose length and thickness rivaled her own unveiled to reveal eyes the color of blue slate. “Har …” he started, then coughed, the sound thick with congestion. He took a quick sip of whiskey, reluctantly gave in to another bout of coughing. When he could finally catch his breath, he sought her face. “Jess, ma’am,” he said hoarsely. “Just … Jess …”

'Well, Jess ... Just Jess,” she teased, mimicking his hesitancy and vocal inflection, “I’m Libbie. Mind if I join you?” She couldn’t resist twirling one of his abundant damp waves around her index finger. His hand closed over hers and gently, but deliberately, disentangled it from his hair

“You’re very lovely, Miss Libbie, but I don’t think you’d find me especially enjoyable company this evening,” he said, offering up an apologetic, heart-stopping grin that only served to make the rebuff sting even more.

Embarrassed by the unaccustomed rejection, the saloon girl smoothed an imaginary wrinkle from her skirt and cast a furtive glance toward Charlie. He had returned to the bar and now stood wiping beer glasses with the same dingy cloth.

“Tell you what,” Jess said kindly. “Why don’t I buy you and your bartender friend over there a drink?”

Libbie gazed down at him, studying his handsome features. Smoky celadon-blue eyes looked up at her from beneath dark, aristocratic eyebrows. His angular cheekbones and narrow jaw only served to add to his youthful appearance. Libbie breathed in a deep sigh of regret and nodded her affirmation. “All right, Jess. I’m sure Charlie will be grateful to you.” She turned to leave, but he grabbed her hand, preventing her departure.

“Some other time,” he affirmed, flashing another devastating smile, “...when I’m better company.” It wasn’t a question.

“All right,” she said, marveling at his ability to soothe her bruised ego. “It’s a date.”

Cautiously, he leaned back into the primitive chair. The simple act seemed laborious as his weak smile dissolved into a frown, and his breath again caught tightly in the recesses of his throat. One hand moved protectively to knead his sweat-glistened forehead.

Libbie touched his shoulder tentatively. “Are you all right?”

Jess turned his face up to hers once more. “I’m fine,” he said, quickly brushing off her concern. “Bartender? Two whiskeys please! One for Miss Libbie here and one for you.”

Charlie set the glass he’d been scouring onto the counter. “Thanks, friend. Join us?”

“No.” The cowboy shook his head carefully. “All I need right now is a warm, dry bed.” With that, he bent forward, resting his head in his hands.

“I think he’s pretty sick,” Charlie noted as he poured a healthy shot of Chaney’s finest for Libbie and then another for himself.

The woman took the tiny glass, offered a quick toast to the oblivious Jess, and downed the drink in one swallow. She caught Charlie’s eye as he poured them both a clandestine second. “He must be,” she whispered, glancing once again in the silent cowboy’s direction. “When he touched my hand, it was like he was on fire. A shame really,” she said, tossing down the second drink. “He has the most beautiful blue eyes.” With that said, she flounced into the adjacent kitchen.

**********

His tangible world was steadily becoming an incomprehensible muddle of distorted sound and blurred images. Jess could recall being sick a time or two in his life, but he couldn’t remember ever feeling this bad. Every bone in his body ached all the way down to the marrow. Whenever he attempted to move, his muscles protested with a collective vengeance. Bending forward, Jess cradled his pounding head in the palms of both hands and silently groaned.

The malady had come on suddenly the previous morning, first robbing him of his appetite and then settling heavily in his head and muscles. As the day wore on, he grew increasingly worse, but he hid his discomfort behind a wall of moody silence. Besides, it was easier to just deny, first to himself and later to Andy and Slim, that anything was amiss. But, by early evening when the first droplets of cold rain started to fall, concealing his escalating misery had become a nearly impossible task. One accidental brush against Andy after dinner had revealed to his pard’s brother that he was in the throes of some awful fever and, despite his protestations, Slim insisted on finding shelter. They had ridden nonstop through the darkness and the deluge until they’d come upon this tiny nameless town.

It couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time. They had just spent a week in northern New Mexico Territory visiting one of Matthew Sherman’s oldest friends, Sam Carlson. His older daughter’s end-of-September wedding had been an excuse for Slim to see his father’s friend again and, as Andy had so aptly put it, to act the proud brother and show off the younger sibling Carlson had never met. He’d also pointed out that Slim wanted Jess to meet Sam and vice versa. Jess had just bought into the Sherman Ranch, and Slim wanted to use the opportunity to introduce his best friend and half-owner to Carlson.

The trip had been a wonderful diversion from the day-to-day ranching and stage-line responsibilities. Carlson and his family were open and friendly, the wedding a relaxed, joyous affair with lots of rich food, music, and dancing. The bride, Martha, was a vision in her blue gown and white lace bonnet; her groom, Nick Johnson, was all smiles throughout the entire affair. But three days ago an unexpected wire from Jonesy put a halt to all their merrymaking. The news was alarming: an enormous brush fire, fueled by an especially hot summer and equally dry fall, was raging only a few miles to the northeast of Laramie, and unseasonably strong winds were blowing the destructive flames southwest. The Sherman Ranch lay directly in its path.

Carlson had tried to persuade them to get a good night’s sleep before starting out on their five-day journey, but Slim couldn’t be dissuaded. It was decided Andy would stay with the Carlson’s until it was safe for him to come home, but the boy was almost fourteen, nearly a man, and protested vehemently. When Jess joined in the badgering, Slim reluctantly gave in. Hastily, they packed their gear and bid abbreviated farewells. The last ginger rays of the setting sun were kissing the horizon as they rode away from the Carlson ranch.

Unintelligible murmurs wafting from near the bar pulled Jess back to the uncomfortable present. He cracked an eyelid and winced. Through an eerie soft-edged tunnel vision, he could see Libbie and the barkeep huddled over the counter enjoying the drinks he’d bought. Or had he? He couldn’t remember if he’d paid for them or not. Sighing at his infirmity, he forced his heavy head up, reached into the left pocket of his jacket and found nothing. When he tried the right pocket, he discovered that it, too, was empty.

An abrupt unease sent icy pin prickles scurrying up and down his spine, and he shivered at their sudden invasion. Mentally cursing himself for the uncharacteristic lack of awareness, he focused his eyes for the first time since entering the saloon and examined his surroundings. The room was unspectacular with its ancient wooden bar, rickety furniture and cheap décor. Yet, he recognized the place immediately. After almost a decade, the whitewashed walls were several shades grayer, the bartender fifty pounds heavier, but he remembered well the saloon where he’d first tried -- and failed -- to kill a man.

“Damn!” The whispered expletive slid unbidden between his dry lips. From his vantage point, he couldn’t see the landing above his head, but he knew there were six rooms. He recalled at least three once held large door paintings of the saloon girls who worked and lived inside.

Purposely tossing aside his illness, Jess lurched unsteadily to his feet and backed up until he could view the second floor balcony. There were the remembered rooms, but only two still boasted portraits. On the second door was a painting he’d never seen before. It was of Libbie, sans clothing, astride a beautiful white horse. The first hosted the familiar face and long blonde hair of the delicate Nora. The nearly-nude woman stared back at him while lounging on a blue settee. Her soulful lavender-blue eyes had held his rapt attention as a sixteen-year-old boy. And the man who had painted both portraits was the same man he’d tried to gun down nearly ten years ago.

Every nerve in his body suddenly tingled to life, and Jess stumbled toward the bewildered saloonkeeper. Desperately clutching the metal bar rail to halt his forward momentum and stay upright, he looked directly into the much-older and heavier face from his past. “Where is he, Charlie?” he said, letting his hand rest instinctively on his gun handle. “Where is Chaney?”

Charlie frowned at the questions. “Sir?”

“It’s past midnight! Is he in the office? I remember he always loved to sit at his desk and count the night’s receipts.” Jess glanced at the kitchen entrance, noting the hint of green material just inside the threshold. In the blink of an eye, the Colt was in his hand, and he bolted for the doorway.

“Harper …”

The barkeep’s whisper, cloaked in awe and dread, followed him, but he didn’t stop. He elbowed past the startled Libbie, who had been eavesdropping just inside the doorway, and headed straight for the adjoining office. Without bothering to knock, he bolted into the room, halting only when he found himself in a small, dark space. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he realized no one was there. Jess felt an unexpected relief wash through him, leaving him limp and sagging where he stood. It took almost all his reserves to turn around but, as he did, his eyes locked and held on a pair of large doe-like eyes. His breath caught suddenly in his throat as he recognized the young woman in the wall painting. She was as beautiful as he remembered with her long, chestnut-brown hair and peaches-and-cream complexion. Her left hand clasped the corner of a sheer piece of red fabric that fell from her right shoulder, bunched between her full naked breasts and pooled around her feet. Momentarily stunned into inaction, Jess felt the adrenaline drain away all at once, and the weakness that had plagued him for almost two days returned with a vengeance.

On shaky legs, he turned to leave, but his exit was blocked by Charlie and Libbie.

“Harper … I don’t know what to …”

“You know Ellyn always hated that painting,” he interrupted, shoving them both aside. Heading back to the front room, he paused at the entrance, scanning the area before leaving the relative safety of the kitchen, but the saloon was still empty. Neither Andy nor Slim had returned from ... he frantically searched his fevered brain for their location and finally captured the memory … the livery—they had gone to take the horses to the livery.

With the last vestige of his strength, he forced himself forward, staggering toward the doors of the saloon. He had to find Slim and Andy … had to get out of this place … out of this town.

With his gun still clutched firmly in his hand, he stumbled out into the cold drizzle. To the east, slender tendrils of daylight reached above the shadowed buildings, but there were no lights in any of the houses or businesses. On his right, a single beacon beckoned.

//The livery!// he thought as he stepped from the plank sidewalk into the muddy street. //Slim and Andy will be there … gotta warn them …//

The raindrops beat down on his uncovered head, trickling past his ears and oozing down his collar, but he ignored the chill they left in their path. His sole interest was on the tiny lit building at the end of the street. He got as far as the porch before his strength gave out completely, and he collapsed heavily to his knees. He continued to crawl toward the open door, but a hulking shadow suddenly appeared out of nowhere, obliterating his view. Huge disembodied hands reached out for him, lightly caressing his forehead and cheeks. For some reason, the touch was soothing, reassuring, and he felt himself relax. But the momentary peace was shattered when he was abruptly pulled upright. The world around him tilted nauseatingly, and he felt himself being dragged from his position on the porch. Again, the universe trembled, and the last thing he saw before it winked out completely was the Blessed Virgin, arms outstretched invitingly, floating toward him.

**********

“Boss!”

The barkeep pounded on the first door of the landing. It was several moments before the sleepy occupant finally cracked the seal and poked his tousled head out.

Chaney greeted his employee with a scowled, “What?”

“He’s back!”

The dark-haired man scratched at itchy stubble on his face, rubbed the sleep from his puffy eyes. “Who?” he asked finally, without much enthusiasm.

“Harper! He’s here in town, and he’s sick … real sick. Your nephew’s come back to Buckskin, Colorado, just like he said he would.”

**********

Andy Sherman waited just inside the ramshackle livery until his brother finished paying the owner for their horses’ board. When the transaction was complete, he emerged into what had now become a fine drizzle. Stopping, he waited for Slim to close the warped barn door, then ducked his head against the crisp wind. As they headed back toward the saloon, he noted dawn creeping up the eastern horizon. A faint glow dappled the tiny town in gray and black shadows, but he had a clear view of the saloon several yards away.

On his left, his brother hurried along with him, matching his stride, long-legged step for long-legged step. Slim’s face, bleak and colorless in the white light of early morning, seemed chiseled in stone. “Worried?” he asked, pulling his poncho hood tighter around his face.

Slim didn’t take his eyes off their destination. “Always,” he said.

Andy glanced at the sky, watching as the clouds scurried along at breakneck speed. He calculated their destination. “Looks like the storm is heading northwest of here. Ain’t it?”

This made the older Sherman pause and he, too, stared up at the steadily brightening sky. “I know. It’ll be a godsend if it doesn’t blow itself out before it reaches the ranch.”

“It’s a big storm, Slim … been with us most of the night.”

“And it’ll probably stay intact.” The older man glanced eastward once again. A single blue patch, bordered in quicksilver and coral, peeked through the vast gray expanse. “In fact, the edges of the storm are probably just reaching the Wyoming border. It’s not the first time we’ve been threatened by a fire like this. And it won’t be the last. But those clouds look promising.”

As they reached the saloon, Slim paused at the door and lowered his head. A tired sigh of resignation escaped his chapped lips.

Andy reached out a hand, rested it lightly on his big brother’s shoulder. “He’s going to be all right, Slim.”

“I know.” He sighed again, a weight-of-the-world sigh. “I just wish to God there was a doctor in this town.”

**********

It was a mystery to him how one’s skin could burn with such fire from within, yet at the same time, prickle with deadly cold. Jess pondered his predicament, all the while shaking and shivering as his benefactor, a faceless shadow, half-dragged/half-carried him through two doorways, back outside, across a muddy street, up several porch stairs, and into another building. Too sick to care and too weak to protest, Jess allowed the indignity. Just as he thought his bearings were returning, abruptly, his world upended as his soaked poncho was pulled up and over his head. His mud-caked boots, sopping wet socks, gunbelt, and outer clothing were likewise dispensed with and, when at last everything settled back into its rightful place, he found himself lying in a soft, dry bed. A cup of tepid liquid touched his lips. He sipped the brew, felt the back of his throat close up in reflex against the bitter taste and clamped his mouth shut.

“Drink,” a kind voice ordered. “It’s willow bark tea. Awful stuff, I know, but it’ll cut the fever and let you get some rest.”

//Rest!// Totally drained, Jess almost curled around the word, but there was something barring him from sleep … something he needed to do … somewhere he had to be … and there was danger too ... Abruptly, he sat up, focusing on the shadowed face of the man attending him. He knew this man. “Padre … Padre Michael? Is it really you?”

“Easy, Jess. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you at first. You have changed a great deal since last we spoke.” The heavyset man looked down at himself. “I, too, have changed, but obviously not in such a good way.” A grin brightened the severity of the priest’s expression. “God must have sent you to me, my son. A few years later than we’d planned, but you are here nonetheless. Now lie back. You are very sick. The tea will make you sleep, and sleep will cut the fever.” Father Michael crossed himself, then gently placed a pudgy hand on his patient’s shoulder.

In spite of himself, Jess yielded to the slight pressure, allowing his exhausted body to sink back into the pillows. But the mental and physical respite was only momentary. He struggled to sit up again. “No … no, Padre … my partner … his brother … they’re with me! They’re …”

“Your partner?”

“Partner, friend, employer … but he’s in danger … at the saloon. Chaney … you know he’ll … where’re my boots? I’ve gotta warn them…”

“Easy, take it easy, boy.” The hand was back and, this time, the force compelled him to lie down. “Don’t worry, Jess. I’ll find your partner … and there’s a brother?”

Jess nodded. “Andy … he’s thirteen…” He felt his awareness drifting and closed his eyes.

The cup was back at his lips. He forced himself to gulp the vile-tasting medicine, gagging several times before finishing it off completely.

“Good. Good!” his benefactor said. “Now lie back and close your eyes. The willow bark will work, but only if you don’t fight it. That’s it …”

Jess obeyed the trusted voice, relaxing into the warmth that now enveloped his being. Soft, sweet-smelling covers were drawn up over his chilled form, tucked carefully around his shoulders and neck.

Somewhere in the back of his mind a niggling worry tried to arise, but he quashed it with a single sigh of contentment. Far away, a cooling hand reached out, touched his forehead, and the last thing he heard before surrendering to sleep was a familiar voice intoning a long forgotten prayer.

**********

Slim entered the small saloon, and Andy started to follow, but his peripheral vision picked up movement to his left. Curious as to who else might be up at this ungodly hour, he turned his head in that direction. Across the street and down several houses, adjacent to the tiny church at the end of the street, stood what appeared to be a monk or priest – he couldn’t tell which – wringing out laundry on the front porch of his rectory.

For a moment the man seemed intent on getting every drop of moisture from the soaked cloth. He squeezed hard, unfolded the rectangular white cloth and shook it vigorously. Noticing Andy’s interest, the priest nodded his head in greeting and beckoned to him.

Bemused, Andy returned the nod and waved, then followed Slim into the saloon. Once inside, he found his brother engaged in a frenzied conversation with the bartender. Both men were talking fast and furious, so fast that Andy could only catch every other word. A quick glance toward the table where Jess had been sitting showed only empty chairs. But his friend’s hat and a barely touched glass of whiskey were still there. Alarmed, Andy hurried to join his brother. “Where’s Jess?” he asked loudly.

Slim stopped his tirade in mid-sentence. “Charlie here doesn’t know. Seems Jess just up and walked out of here fifteen or twenty minutes ago and didn’t tell anyone where he was going.”

The younger Sherman turned incredulous eyes on the saloonkeeper. “He’s too sick to even sit a horse. How could he just walk out of here?”

Slim joined the stare-down. “That’s what I already told him.”

The barkeep held their collective gazes for a short moment, then lowered his eyes to the ground. “I …” he began.

“Gentlemen!”

Abruptly, a deep male voice came booming from the second-floor landing. All three individuals’ faces tilted upward. A large dark-haired man, clothed only in tight-fitting black trousers, draped his naked torso casually over the railing. “I am Brace Chaney,” the man said, “the owner of this fine establishment.” He waved his hands around theatrically.

Andy frowned. A quick glance upward at Slim showed his reaction to be identical.

“And as this is my saloon,” Chaney continued, “I’m very sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but …” he paused, seemingly for effect. “Jess Harper is not welcome here.”

Beside him, Andy saw his brother visibly tense, his right hand move of its own volition to the weapon resting on his thigh.

“My partner isn’t well, Mr. Chaney. He shouldn’t be out in this weather. He needs to be in a warm, dry bed,” Slim said.

A burst of laughter erupted from above and went on for several long moments. Finally, “Did you hear what he said, Charlie? His ‘partner’ needs to be in bed. The famous … or is it infamous … Jess Harper needs a bed!” The hilarity began again and continued in earnest. Both Andy and Slim noted that the bartender did not join in.

Abruptly, the gaiety ended. "Harper once had a bed here ... several nights a week in fact. But there was a slight indiscretion on his part ... and he will not patronize my establishment again."

Slim grimaced, frustrated at the impasse. "Look, Mr. Chaney, I don't know what you've got against Jess, but he's in no condition to ..."

"But 'I' do, Mr. Sherman." Chaney smiled, showing a yellow-stained row of crooked teeth. He lifted his hands in mock surrender. “I know exactly what is between him and me, and I will have satisfaction this time. You tell your partner when you roust him from his hiding place that Brace Chaney will meet him in the street today … before noon! You tell him that I remember his promise, and I want him to try and keep it.”

Cautiously, Slim began backing toward the entrance, all the while keeping his eye on the man on the landing and his hand hovering over the butt of his gun. Andy took his cue from Slim. With his gaze never leaving the bartender’s face, he retrieved Jess’s weather-beaten hat and headed for the door.

“Just a minute ..." Charlie said. “The drinks … and the whiskey Harper bought after you left … nothing has been paid for.”

Slim and Andy exchanged puzzled glances, then the taller Sherman stopped. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled several coins out and tossed them onto the floor. They scattered across the wooden planks, skittering under tables and chairs.

“That’s for the food we didn’t eat, and the drinks we didn’t drink,” he said, his voice dripping disdain. “Come on, Andy. Let’s find Jess.”

**********

Shermans?”

There was urgency in the quiet voice. Startled, both Andy and Slim jerked around to find a short stout priest, garbed in the plain brown robe of his profession, standing in the middle of the muddy street. Nervously rubbing his thick hands together, he darted a glance from the pistol the tall man now pointed at him, to the closed door of the saloon, finally settling on the stern face of Slim Sherman. “Please!” He addressed the man with the gun, raising his hands hesitantly. “Don’t shoot. You are Mr. Sherman?” he asked, then turned toward the teenager. “And you are … Andy?”

Recognizing him as the man on the porch from only minutes before, Andy exchanged a puzzled glance with Slim. Nodding in silent agreement at the priest, Slim holstered his weapon. “Yes, I’m Sherman,” he said, scowling at the interruption. “And you are?”

The priest sighed as the gun was lowered and offered a weak smile of gratitude. “My friends, I am Father Michael, God’s humble ambassador to Buckskin for these past twenty-five years.” He gestured at Andy. “This is your brother?”

“Yes.”

Father Michael looked pointedly at the blond-haired man. “You do not look anything like your brother.”

Confused, Slim frowned. “I’m sorry, Father. I don’t remember meeting you. Can you tell me how you know us?

“Your partner … Jess. I’m afraid he is very, very ill.”

“What … you mean you know … how do you know Jess?” Taking advantage of his full six-foot, three inch height, Slim stepped forward and looked down on the nervous priest. “Where is he?”

Father Michael took a single defensive step back, but his reply held no hint of intimidation. “Your friend is my friend also. I met Jess when he was only a little older than you, Andy. He is safe. At my rectory. Follow me please,” he said, gesturing toward a small house at the end of the street. “I’ll take you to him.”

“Come on, Andy,” Slim ordered, already moving toward the building. “Father,” he continued, this time addressing the priest. “You knew … know my partner? From where? When? I don’t remember him ever mentioning Buckskin …”

“Later, Mr. Sherman. There will be plenty of time for answers. But right now … Jess … he asks for you.”

Silently, Slim and Andy trailed the man to a ramshackle house adjacent to a tiny church. In the early light of dawn, the tall rancher could see the dwelling was small with two, perhaps three rooms. The front porch was wide and decorative with brightly painted pots and vases housing a variety of late summer plants and herbs. In spite of the recent storm, it was swept clean of dirt and leaves.

“In here,” the priest said, opening the front door. He led them through another opening and into a side room.

Both brothers followed him, glancing around at the austere bedroom. The bland décor befitted a priest. A single brass crucifix adorned the wall, glinting golden as the autumn sun’s first rays peaked through two freshly-scrubbed curtainless windows. Across the room, a single white candle burned atop a worn cedar chiffonier. Next to it was a three-legged table that sported a tin cup, a chipped ceramic basin and several layers of ecru rags. In the middle of the room was an old-fashioned wrought-iron bed laden with pillows, blankets, quilts and the still form of …

“Jess!”

Both Slim and Andy hurried to the bedside. Father Michael joined them, stopping first to wring out a cool wet cloth and replace the warm one draped across Jess’ forehead.

“I have given him willow bark tea, but the fever seems to be higher still. I’ll replace the liquid in the basin with fresh water drawn from the well.”

Eyes glued to his friend’s still form, Slim murmured a quiet prayer of thanks and turned his full attention to the man in the bed. Covered to his neck with fresh-smelling bedding, Jess lay still as death, the only signs of life a hesitant rising and falling of his chest. Reaching out, Slim touched the back of his hand to his partner’s cheeks and forehead, then heaved a heavy sigh. On impulse, he slid the covers down and laid a hand on Jess’ bare chest. It was blazing hot too, slick to the touch and glistening with sweat.

“Slim? Is he … is he gonna be okay?” Andy’s hushed question echoed loudly in the sparsely furnished room.

“It’s bad, Andy, but Jess is strong and stubborn as any man I ever met. He’ll beat this. Looks like we’re just gonna have to wait it out.”

“But … what about the fire … the ranch … the stock?”

Pulling the covers back up, Slim pulled in a shaky breath. “What do you want me to do, Andy?” he asked harshly. “Leave Jess alone here? Ride out on my friend, my partner?”

The boy backed up a step, and his lip quivered at his brother’s unexpected outburst. “I … I just … I didn’t mean …”

Mentally chastising himself, Slim walked around the bed and put his arm around Andy’s thin shoulders. “I’m sorry, Andy. I didn’t mean to go off on you like that. I know you’re worried about the ranch … and about Jess. So am I. Try to think on it this way: buildings can always be rebuilt; stock can be bought at most any market. But you can’t ever replace a friend. I believe you told me that not too very long ago?”

Nodding, Andy flashed a weak smile up at Slim. “He’ll make it. He just needs some of Jonesy’s special remedy.”

Abruptly, Father Michael returned. “Here’s some cold water and clean washcloths to bathe him,” he said breathlessly. He placed the off-white basin, filled to the brim with clear liquid, on the bedside table. Straightening from his task, he reached out a plump hand, let it rest on his patient’s forehead. “Dios mio, he’s burning alive.” Clucking his tongue in distress, he bustled from the room again.

Slim dipped two cloths into the basin, wrung them out, then handed one to Andy. “I’ve seen this done before – if you can cool the entire body, get it chilled outside and in, sometimes that’ll break a fever.”

Working together, they sponged Jess’ face, chest, arms, and lower legs until he began to shiver. “See!” Slim said triumphantly, pointing to one forearm. “Goose flesh.” Checking his friend’s forehead and cheeks again, he smiled. “I think it’s down a bit.”

Mmmm … Slim …” Jess’ voice was raspy and weak.

The tall man laid a hand on his partner’s too-warm shoulder. “I’m here, Jess.”

“You’ve … gotta git yourself … and Andy …outta here! Chaney … you don’t know what he’s …”

“Don’t worry about him now. You’re safe with us. Just get better.”

“Andy?”

“I’m here too, Jess. Now you knuckle down and do what you always tell me to – mind what Slim says and be a good boy. Okay?”

This elicited a weak grin. “Andy?”

The teenager smiled down at the suffering figure. “Yeah, Jess, don’t worry none. We got your back.”

A wry grin that was more of a grimace lit the handsome features. “That so? Then who’s … got … yours?”

“Father?” Replacing the cloth on Jess’ forehead once more, Slim addressed the returning priest. “Is there anyone with medical knowledge in this town?”

“No, Mr. Sherman. But the livery … when the horses get sick … perhaps their medicine can be of help. I’ve seen it used before.”

Slim looked dubious. “With success?” he asked.

“Sometimes,” the priest said, glancing out the window. Suddenly, the mournful sound of a single church bell tolled. “We will talk later, Mr. Sherman. It is the Sabbath, and the Mass must be said. We will pray for our Jess’ recovery. There is much I need to tell the boy when he is well enough to hear. Please help yourself to whatever food and drink are in the larder.” With that, he turned and left.

“Slim.” Andy moved toward the door. “If what he says is true, it might help Jess. I can run over to the livery. They might have something like Jonesy keeps in our barn … you know … for medicinal purposes only.”

Slim pondered for a moment, and the boy hesitated. “All right. You go check and see what they’ve got.”

Andy moved to exit, but Slim called him back.

“Andy!”

“Yes, sir.”

Slim looked at his younger brother, then turned his gaze on his feverish partner. “You be extra careful, and hurry right back, you hear?”

“I will.” Andy flashed his patented crooked grin, glanced once more at his semi-conscious friend, and was gone.

**********

White paint chips flaked into the palms of his hands as Slim gripped the ancient window frame and hefted it experimentally. It lifted an inch, then caught in the damp wooden groove. Slim applied more pressure and, after a slight hesitation, it slid completely open. He leaned against the pane, propped a rod beneath it to hold it in place, then moved to the other side of the room where he repeated the process on a second window. With both windows braced open, a cool breeze filtered in, swirling through the stuffy room and cleansing the air.

Slim strode to the front window again, peering outside for the fourth time in as many minutes. Soft, muted sounds of Sunday morning hymns came from the little rustic church adjacent to the house. Lowering his head reverently, the older Sherman mouthed a silent plea for Jess’ recovery and his younger brother’s quick return.

“Padre?”

Startled by the unexpected sound, Slim turned toward his ailing friend.

Jess looked up at him with heavy-lidded eyes.

“He’s gone to say Mass, Jess.”

Moving to stand beside the sick man, he removed the cloth from the overheated forehead. Slim freshened it in the basin beside the bed, wrung it out, and returned it to its former position. He knew the act was one of futility. Something inside his friend was fueling a raging fever, and a soothing cloth to his brow was not a cure.

It took immense reserves of strength, but Jess managed another word.

"Andy?”

“He’ll be back soon,” Slim said, wondering if the reassuring words were for Jess’ ears or his own. “How are you feeling?”

When Jess didn’t answer, Slim leaned closer. The blue eyes were closed again, lashes fanned out, so lush and long they almost covered the gray-smudged skin beneath.

“JESS HARPER! YOU DEAD YET?”

The unexpected loud voice came from outside the rectory. Slim straightened, returning to the window. From its vantage, he could see the hulking form of Brace Chaney standing in the middle of the muddy street, both hands resting lightly on the front of his gun belt.

“Jess! You come on out now. I want to show you what we found in one of the stalls at the livery.”

Slim’s heart began to race. //Andy! Dear God, Andy!//

“You’d better come out and face me, Jess. If you don’t, that tall blond partner of yours is gonna leave Buckskin with one less relative.” At this, Chaney snapped his fingers.

From the saloon, nearly a block away, two burly men emerged. Between them hung a barely-conscious Andy, his body limp, boots dragging in the muck as they moved forward. They halted fifty feet to the right, just behind Chaney.

With a quick glance at his bedridden partner, Slim drew his weapon, held it furtively against his thigh, and hurried outside to the rickety porch.

Chaney shook his head in exasperation and snarled, “I don’t want you, big man. I want Jess. It’s high time we settled what’s between us.”

“I don’t believe you hear too well, Mr. Chaney. My partner is sick, barely conscious. He’s too weak to sit up, much less meet you in a fair gun battle. Now, I have a suggestion.” Slim lifted his arm, leveling the Colt directly at the gunman’s midsection. “Let my brother go … now!”

Shaking his massive head, Chaney grinned malevolently. In a silken voice, he replied, “And I have a suggestion for you, Mr. Sherman …”

Slim watched as the man flanking Andy on the left placed the barrel of a cocked pistol against the boy’s temple.

Chaney continued, “Drop your weapon – now! If you don’t, I promise, you’ll leave Buckskin all by yourself. No brother. No partner. It’s not really that hard to choose, is it?”

It was a no-win situation, and all participants knew it. Slim opened his mouth, took a long deep breath, then let it out in a rush through his nostrils. He lowered his pistol.

The gunman shook his head. “No, Mr. Sherman. I said ‘drop’ the weapon. Let me hear it hit the ground.”

Slim’s fingers loosened, and there was an audible thud as the firearm landed on the wooden porch floor.

“Thank you. Now, get Jess out here. I’ll give you five minutes to …”

“I’m here, Brace!” A distinctively deep, yet unsteady, voice came from the rectory entrance.

Jess Harper took a stumbling step over the threshold and onto the porch. Clad only in hastily-donned, haphazardly-buttoned trousers and a low-slung gun belt, he staggered to the top step and grasped the railing.

“Harper!” Chaney breathed the name. “I thought you were at death’s door.”

“No, Brace. You’re the one standin’ there … and you’re knockin’ mighty hard.”

“Jess …” Slim began, but his partner silenced him with a single stern glance.

“It’s been a long time, Jess. Do you remember the words you said to me the last time we were together?”

“If I recollect right, I made you a promise...“

Chaney grinned toothily. “Yes …” he said, nodding.

“...to send you to Hell.”

The sick man clutched at the railing again, steadying himself. Slim watched his knuckles go white with effort. “Jess, you can’t meet him like this. He’ll kill you.”

“But that’s the idea, Mr. Sherman. You see, I’m not just another cowboy out to make a name for myself by killing a famous gunslinger. This is personal—between me and Jess.”

“Then let the boy go, Brace. He ain’t part of this. Like you said, it’s ‘tween you and me.”

“Who is he, Jess?” Slim asked, his eyes still focused on the limp form of his teenage brother.

“Someone he hates, Mr. Sherman.”

Slim’s forehead wrinkled as he searched his memory. Had Jess ever mentioned Chaney? He came up with nothing.

“Shut up, Brace.” Jess took a hesitant step, pausing as a wave of dizziness washed over him.

Slim was beside him instantly, reaching out a steadying hand. “I’m not going to let you do this, Jess. It’s suicide.”

“Slim, they got a loaded gun pointed at Andy’s head. What the hell else do you expect me to do?”

He closed his eyes for a long moment, and Slim feared he was on the verge of collapsing. He watched as Jess drew a deep breath, laboriously forcing his body straight.

“Jess, don’t...” came from across the street, but the recovered youngster’s voice was cut short by a swift jab to his stomach. Andy folded in a crumpled heap, falling to the mud-covered street.

Jess took a step down with one bare foot, then a second. Never taking his eyes off Chaney, he pointed at the man who’d just abused a boy he loved like a brother. “When I’m finished with you, Brace, he’s next.” At ground level now, Jess turned and slowly made his way to the middle of the street.

“Mighty big talk for someone about to die, Harper.”

There was no answer, and Slim watched in awe as an amazing transformation began. Only minutes before, he’d left his fever-racked partner lying on his sick bed in Father Michael’s rectory. Now, Jess Harper, gunfighter, stood at the end of the street, barefoot, legs apart, body straight and tall, as though the illness had been forcibly cast aside.

Silence descended on the street of Buckskin, a stillness broken suddenly by a strong deep voice.

“Make your move, Brace!”

Slim could see hesitation in the gunman’s eyes, but Chaney’s hands settled casually at his sides. A quick glance toward Andy showed his brother slowly easing into an upright position. Awareness had returned just in time to watch the climax. He saw Andy open his mouth to speak, perhaps to stop the gunplay, but it was too late.

In the blink of an eye, Chaney’s hand twitched, but it never made contact with his pistol. An explosion sounded, followed almost immediately by another. Chaney gasped once, then fell limply backward.

Somewhere to his left, Slim heard a surprised yelp and turned to find that Jess had kept his second promise. The henchman who’d slugged Andy was writhing on the ground in pain.

His brother had regained his feet and freedom and was headed toward the rectory when the only gunman left standing reached for his pistol. His eyes and weapon were aimed directly at his departing prisoner’s back.

Slim dove to retrieve his discarded Colt, felt his fingers curl around it just as another gunshot sounded.

//God! No!// Lifting his head, he saw Andy, frozen in place, yet staring at something behind him. Slim followed his gaze. Another of Jess’ bullets had found its target. Andy’s second captor lay dead in the street.

**********

As all around him chaos unfolded, Jess Harper felt rooted to the ground. To his left, Slim stood on the wraparound porch of Father Michael’s house, staring out at the blood and devastation. Several dozen yards away lay the bodies of two men whose names he didn’t even know and, in front of them stood Andy Sherman. Still hunched over from his mistreatment by the two nameless corpses, Andy limped toward the last prone body in the street.

“Well,” Chaney coughed horribly. Flecks of spittle and blood settled on his face and lips. “Looks like you won, Harper.”

Jess viewed the dying man with a look of disbelief.

Still cautious, the smoking gun absently clutched in his hand, Jess forced his legs into motion. It took most of his waning strength to reach the fallen Chaney, and he collapsed to his knees beside him. He viewed the scene with a detached air, barely acknowledging the arrival of Slim and Andy. They hovered nearby, supporting him with their silent presence.

“You hate me, don’t you, Harper.”

“You know I do,” the younger man said. His body began to slump, his shoulders sagging forward. He could feel the fever rising, eating away at his adrenalin reserves.

“It’s a sin to hate your kin, boy.”

Jess’ head snapped up. “You ain’t no kin to me. You beat the hell out of Aunt Nan, Francie, me … and Ellyn …”

Chaney grinned malignantly. His crooked teeth were stained with blood. “You won’t be able to erase my memory so easily …”

“What do you mean?” Slim’s voice came out of nowhere, and Jess felt an arm curl protectively around his bare shoulders.

The dying man’s eyes flicked to Slim, then back to Jess. “Nobody ever told you the truth about your precious little trollop, did they, Harper?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. What truth?”

The glazing blue eyes bored deeply into Jess’ own azure. “Did you know Ellyn was with child when you ran away like the coward you are?” Chaney grew silent, reaching deeply for an unhindered breath. A horrible gurgling noise came from the back of his throat. He gasped once, then whispered, “Ellyn …..”

“Don’t you dare die with her name on your lips!” Jess grabbed the fading man and shook him with all the strength he could muster.

“Jess …” Slim’s gentle admonition stopped the abuse.

Limp now, Chaney’s head lolled backward into the muck. He managed a final whisper. “ …Time you knew the truth … Ellyn is dead … she died bringing your … bastard … into the world …” Laughter started, but a final hitching gasp cut it short. In the blink of an eye, Brace Chaney was dead.

Scalding bile rose threateningly in the back of Jess’ throat. Closing his eyes, he swallowed hard—once, twice—then waited to ensure that the sickness had passed before turning a disbelieving gaze on Slim. “It’s not true!”

A sudden welling of emotion – grief and sorrow – arose. The pressure grew more and more extreme and, when he was sure he would be overwhelmed with its intensity, he forced himself upright. Swaying and trembling with shock and weakness, he shrugged away arms that reached out to steady him.

A sob started deep inside, but he forced it back. Lifting his head, he noted the arrival of Father Michael followed by most of his congregation. The crowd gathered around as the priest fell to his knees at Chaney’s head. He made the sign of the cross and began to pray.

Jess watched the rites dispassionately. Then, “Don’t waste your breath, Padre. He’s already in Hell.” One final step was all the reserve he could muster. Collapsing, he fell into the mud-encrusted street.

**********

An eerie sensation slithered down his spine, making Jess shiver uncontrollably. It was a familiar feeling, yet strange, nonetheless. Slim had a foreign name for it … ‘déadya view’ … when it hits you square in the face that you’ve been here or done this before … at some other time … or some other place, but you just can’t put your finger on exactly when or where. Right now, he was experiencing ‘déadya view’ with a vengeance. His insides were ablaze while, outside, his body shivered with an all-invasive cold.

Besides the discomfort, the only other substantial elements in his twilight world were a familiar voice and large, but gentle, hands alternately soothing his nightmarish terrors or disturbing his restful slumber.

"Easy, Jess. . . we've got to get that fever down ...." and “Come on, Pard, just one more swallow …” played repetitively in his foggy brain. Blessed relief always followed, like bathing in an icy stream, and he would surrender to the respite of chilled water. Exhausted, but comfortable, he would doze peacefully for a little while. Then, he would wake again, drenched in his own sweat, only to be swallowed up once more by the blazing fires of Hades.

**********

The morning air, damp and heavy with a mixture of low-lying fog and acrid smoke, reeked of fire and death. Standing across the well-traveled dirt road separating him from the Sherman ranch house, Jess surveyed the remains of his partner’s property. To his left, the barn they’d just spent a week painting and repairing was a smoldering hulk of ash and cinders. The adjoining corral – actually a makeshift round pen of crudely-hewn wooden beams -- was heavily damaged, but the structure had obviously remained intact long enough to pen and kill most of the horses trapped inside. The carcasses’ positions showed that they’d tried to escape but, for most, it was all for naught. Near the side gate lay Jessie, the small filly Slim had named for him, and close beside was her mother. In death, their muzzles touched, almost as if the mare had kissed her baby goodbye, and Jess felt his chest constrict painfully with grief and loss.

Turning away from the tragic scene, he inspected what was left of the other buildings. The small bunk house had one wall left standing, but it teetered dangerously in the cool autumn breeze. To the right, the chicken coop, shower stall, and main house were completely destroyed, the latter obviously collapsing when the roof caved inward. Stumbling forward, he headed toward the still-smoking porch, carefully avoiding the charred remains of Jonesy’s chickens and Andy’s beloved pets. The stench of death – blackened and burned flesh, singed fur and charred wood -- assailed his nostrils, stinging his eyes. Tears and sooty mucus streamed down his face; gravelly phlegm coated his esophagus.

He cleared his throat, then shouted, “Slim! Andy! Jonesy!”

But his ears heard only the hoarse whisper of his own singed vocal chords. Then he was coughing, expelling the bitter taste of ash and dust, coughing so hard he doubled over. Collapsing to his knees, he finally crumpled to the ground. Rolling over slowly, he stared up into wispy strands of smoke and fog … remembering … the time before …

//Déadya view//

**********

Paralyzed with fear, Jess lay face down in the damp grass while all around him was chaos and gunfire. He heard the distinctive crack of a Winchester Yellowboy rifle, then another and yet another until they all blended into an explosion that became a burgeoning roar. Lifting his heavy head, he stared into the blazing inferno that was home.

“Ma! Pa!” His pubescent voice, already coarse and scratchy from hormonal changes, cracked and faded to a barely audible whisper. Terrifying screams for help from inside the burning structure were his only answers.

Frantic, he threw off the heavy cloak of horror and disbelief, scrabbling to his knees. A firm hand in the small of his back pushed him non-too-gently to the ground.

“Stay down, Jess! Be quiet!” his older sister hissed.

Tears streaming down his grimy cheeks, he turned to the frightened girl lying beside him. “But Ma … Pa … the babies … they’re in there! They’re burning to death, Francie! We gotta help ‘em. We gotta …”

More cries sounded from inside the house, coinciding with strengthening flames licking past the bedrooms and leap-frogging into the front room.

Jess felt the pressure of Francie’s hand on his back ease, heard her cry of disbelief and heartbreak at the renewed pleas. Freed, he heaved to his knees, bounded to his feet, then flung himself sideways into a nearby watering trough. Soaked to the skin, fifteen-year-old Jess Harper headed purposefully for the blazing doorway of his home.

“Jess! Noooo!” followed him, but he ignored the voice, racing headlong toward the burning house.

“Pa! Jace! Frankie! I’m comin’,” he cried, hurling his compact body through the roiling entrance. The instant Jess cleared the threshold, he was assailed by smoke so thick and caustic it sealed his nostrils, virtually shutting down his lungs and his ability to inhale. Blinded, tears streaming from his stinging eyes, he opened his mouth to call to his mother, but there was no oxygen left in his body. Abruptly, his legs and torso went frighteningly numb, and he felt himself falling, rag-doll limp, onto the super-heated floor. Someone or something grabbed what was left of the cotton shirt he wore, yanked hard, then dragged him from the wooden structure just as the first foundation beam gave way, falling heavily to the floor. Embers scattered everywhere, some landing on his arms and chest, leaving a scorching trail of burned cloth and blistered skin.

By the time he could pull in a shallow breath without coughing, the entire house was engulfed in flames. Mercifully, the only sound now was the crackling roar of the fire as it consumed everything and everyone inside. When his vision finally cleared, Jess found himself lying on the ground once more. He fixed his gaze on the burning house, feeling heat from the blaze blast his face and neck, singing the dark curls on his head. A grisly steam rose from his dampened flesh and clothing. The stench was nauseating, a malevolent mix of scorched hair, seared flesh and smoldering fabric.

Abruptly, a work-roughened hand dropped onto the stinging skin of his shoulder, squeezing gently. He winced at the contact but didn’t cry out.

“Jess …” Aunt Nan said sadly. “It’s no use, boy. They’re all gone ‘ceptin’ you, me and Francie.”

Jace … little Frankie?”

“They’re in heaven now, Jess.” This time, it was Francie, her words deliberate and detached. He could tell that she was shutting her emotions down, pulling away from the pain, erecting protective walls of indifference. It had always been his older sister’s way of dealing with life’s problems.

But it had never been his. He felt his fingers fisting until the knuckles turned stark white. His jaw clenched, nostrils flaring as he allowed the seeds of hate to grow within his youthful frame. “I’ll kill them for this,” he cried, his voice trembling with loss and grief. “It may take the rest of my life, but the Bannisters will pay for what they did tonight.”

“You hush that kinda talk, y’here, Jess! We’ll gather what we can salvage, and you two will have to come live with me and Uncle Brace since we’re pretty much your only kin. Only t’other one I recall is Aunt Bernice, but she’s up in age now…prob’ly dead. Come on now, ‘tain’t that far. Nothing we can do here anymore.”

Aunt Nan reached out to help him up, but he recoiled, crabbing backward. With effort, he stood, staring once more at the remains of his home and family. “My ma, my pa, and my little brothers are in that furnace. There is something we can do here. First, I’m gonna bury my family, and you two are gonna help me. Then I’m gonna get me a gun and go after those bastards. I ain’t no spineless coward like Uncle Brace, and I ain’t gonna live at no whorehouse …”

Unexpectedly, an open hand slapped his cheek soundly, throwing him off-balance and toppling him to the ground. He looked up to find his seventeen-year-old sister glaring at him. “You shut your filthy mouth, Jess Harper! There’ll be no more talk of revenge, and no more talkin’ back to me or Aunt Nan. I just lost most of my family too, little brother, and I ain’t gonna lose no more. Now you get off your lazy duff and help us get what we can from this ranch before the Bannisters decide to come back and finish the job.”

Momentarily stunned, Jess palmed his stinging jaw and stared up at his older sibling. She had her hands on her hips, hands that he now noticed were burned near-black from saving his hide. Guilt rushed through him, bringing the threat of tears to his eyes, but he turned away before Francie could see.

“What about Ma and Pa … and the babies?” he asked, struggling once more to his feet.

Ain’t enough left to bury, Jess,” Francie said, her voice void of emotion again. She turned on her heel and headed toward the small root cellar. “Now come on … we need to find the mare, load up some food, and get started. It’s at least three days ride to Aunt Nan’s house ...more than that if we gotta walk.”

The numbness and shock were wearing off, and Jess could feel the skin on his back and shoulders tingling to life. Unclenching his hands, he looked down to find blisters forming on his palms and forearms. Sighing, he turned his back on the ruin and destruction and headed for what was left of the storage shed. On one of the three shelves inside, his pa had a pair of work gloves that he obviously wouldn’t need any more. Jess reckoned they’d be a bit big, but they’d protect his hands and help him do a man’s work.

Patience had never been one of his virtues, but he was young, tough, and smart enough to realize that there would be time for revenge. The Bannisters would pay for what they’d done to his family, and the price would be their lives. But, for now, he had to heal, to grow, to survive.

For now…

**********

A palpable silence awakened him, and he struggled to open eyes restrained by exhaustion and heavy lashes. When he could see in the darkened room, the silhouette of a man loomed beside him, close enough to touch. Jess watched as the tall shadowy form stood, turned toward him and walked to the side of the bed. Long fingers slid beneath his neck, cradling his head, and a cup of tepid liquid touched his parched lips. Instinctively, he opened his mouth, sighing with relief as the quenching moisture slid down his raw and swollen throat. When he had swallowed several mouthfuls, he pulled his head back, and the pressure beneath his neck disappeared.

"How. . . long?” he croaked.

Slim Sherman looked away, toward the window facing the eastern horizon. "Sun'll be up in a couple of minutes ... that'll make four days."

" . . . 'm . . . sorry . . ."

"Sorry? For what?"

"Your ranch … all lost . . . saw it burning … but …"

"Must’ve been a nightmare, Jess. Nothin' to be sorry for. Those storms that followed us here headed straight for Laramie. Put out the fire about 10 miles from the ranch. Got word day before yesterday when a couple of cowboys from Cheyenne rode through.”

Jonesy?”

“Probably mad as a wet hen wondering where we got off to. We’ll catch hell once we finally get home, but there was no way we could leave you. Don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody that sick before, even during the war. When you weren’t lying still as death, you were yelling out of your head. You gave us a real scare, Pard.”

Jess shook his head, then wished he hadn't as the room suddenly spun around. When it stopped twirling on its axis, he watched as Slim returned the half-empty mug to the nightstand and sat down in the nearby chair. It creaked as he lowered his lean body into its softness, stretching his long legs out in front of him.

“Where’s … Andy …”

Sleepin’. He and that Father Michael have struck up a friendship. Once your fever broke yesterday morning, he and the padre started making rounds. You know, taking food to the poor, checking on the elderly, do-gooders doing good.” Slim paused for a moment, then continued. “He was real worried about you, Jess. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t too. How d’ya feel, Pard?”

“…tired …” he managed, then let his lids and lashes have their way.

**********

“Slim?” Andy asked as he gathered his and Father Michael’s dishes from the supper table.

His older brother picked up his own licked-clean plate, then reached for his partner’s. He noted that Jess had barely touched the scrumptious meal of beef tenderloin, new potatoes, carrots, onions and smooth, thick gravy. Three days had passed since his friend’s fever broke, but it was plain to all who observed that Jess wasn’t bouncing back as quickly as hoped. “Yeah?” he answered, sighing at the waste of good food and nourishment.

The teenager scraped the leftovers into an adjacent garbage can and carefully slid the dishes into the waiting pan of hot, soapy water. “What’s a bastard?”

Slim froze in mid-step, turning just in time to see what little color Jess had regained drain from his face. Abruptly, the recovering man stood, turned on his heel, and headed for the front door. A loud and firm slam echoed through the now hushed kitchen.

Andy lifted his face, noting his brother’s stern expression and then turned to the silent, but guarded, Father Michael. “What’s wrong?” he asked, his innocence blatantly obvious. “Did I say somethin’ …

“Don’t you ever … EVER … let me hear you say that word again!” Livid, Slim looked at the boy, pointing a long slender finger at him. “Do you understand me, Andrew Jackson Sherman?”

Puzzled by all three adults’ unexpected reactions, Andy frowned his confusion and nodded absently. “Sss… sure, Slim. I just wondered what it meant, that’s all.”

“Well, it’s not your place to wonder or to repeat horrible things like that,” Slim said scathingly. He dumped the remains of Jess’ meal in the trash and added the plate to soak with the others.

“Slim,” Father Michael finally spoke up. “Andy surely did not mean any disrespect. You can plainly see that he has no understanding of the word’s connotation. He is a curious child, merely seeking an answer to his question.”

“Yeah, Slim, I didn’t mean nothin’ …” the boy said sullenly. “It’s just the man that Jess shot … you know he said somethin’ about a bas … well, you know what he said.”

Visibly calmer, Slim massaged his chin, rubbing at the day’s coarse stubble. “I’m sorry, Andy. It’s just that that word isn’t very nice, especially when folks use it to hurt people.”

“I didn’t know. I’m real sorry, Slim. Should I tell Jess that I didn’t say it to make him feel bad?”

“No, you just do those dishes, and I’ll dry and put ‘em away,” Slim grabbed a dish towel and took his place next to Andy. “By the way, Father, thank you for the wonderful meal. I don’t know how we’re going to be able to repay your hospitality and kindness.”

Father Michael stood, replaced his chair under the table, and smiled. “I have already been repaid, Slim. Jess is getting better every day; I have a new friend in you; and I am blessed with a very eager and hardworking young assistant.” He beamed at Andy, and the boy grinned shyly in return.

Slim took a wet dish, wiped it dry and set it aside. “I’m glad Andy’s been a help to you. I’ve been so busy with Jess that I haven’t had time to do any repair work around the place to pay for our keep.”

“You owe me nothing, Slim. It’s been a joy having you and Andy as my guests. And I thought never to see Jess again. Praise the Lord he is on the mend. And, speaking of our young convalescent, I don’t think it’s very healthy for him to be outside at this hour. The evening air is damp, and colder weather is coming. I think I’ll ask him to come back inside. It wouldn’t do for him to catch a chill after what he’s been through.”

Father Michael made to leave, but Slim stopped him with a hand to his back. “Better let me go. He’s pretty riled right now. Knowing Jess, he’s liable to say or do something he’ll probably regret later, and I know you’re one of the last people he’d ever want to hurt.”

The priest reached up, patted Slim’s broad shoulder. “No, I must go to him. Like young Andy there, Jess is all pent up inside with guilt and questions. Perhaps I can help him by supplying some of the answers.”

The tall rancher’s brows drew together in concentration; his lips pressed into a thin line. “Maybe you’re right, Father. I know it’s none of our business what he did before we came to know him but, now, he’s like another brother to us. He’s been through enough already; I don’t want to see him in any more pain.”

“I understand, and I am grateful that he has found a family. Unfortunately, some of what I must reveal to him will hurt but, in a way, it will also free him of the shame I know he is feeling inside.” He lowered the volume of his voice to a near-whisper. “It is also none of my business how you raise your younger brother but, in my twenty years in this profession, I’ve found that even some knowledge of certain … shall we say … human biological … subjects … can prevent future problems caused by ignorance.” He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head knowingly in Andy’s direction.

Slim’s mouth went agape in shock at the implied suggestion. Quickly regaining his composure, he pursed his lips in thought, then nodded. “Yeah, I reckon it’s time for Andy and I to have that … talk. I think I was about his age when Pa… well, when Pa took me out to the barn and told me …” He felt the warm flush of embarrassment on his cheeks and smiled at his own naiveté. “It’s time,” he repeated, returning to find a stack of wet saucers and plates awaiting him.

“Sorry, Andy! Looks like I’m way behind on my half of the work,” he said, grabbing the top dish and rubbing it furiously with the dish towel. He heard Father Michael’s footsteps fading as the stout priest made his way to the front door. “By the way, Andy, when we’re done here, I think we’ll take a little walk together, get some fresh air. And I'll explain about that word and … other things a boy your age needs to know.”

"You don't hafta, Slim. I mean, it's not so important that you have to take me outside to tell me."

"No, but it is important that you understand a bit more than what growing up on a ranch has taught you. In fact, I think it's probably time we had a good, long brotherly talk."

His younger sibling stopped in mid-scrub and looked at him suspiciously. "What kinda 'brotherly talk'?"

Slim tried to look nonchalant as he placed another dry plate on the stack. "About life ... and love ... things you’ll need to know as you become a man."

Andy looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. "What kinda love?”

Slim felt the blood pool in his cheeks again. "Well, the kind that happens between a man and a woman. That kind of love."

"You mean like Ma and Pa had?"

In spite of himself, the tall rancher grimaced at the thought. He quickly quashed an unwanted visual in his mind. "Yyy ... yeah," he stuttered. "I reckon you could say that."

"Why do we have to go outside to talk? It’s dark and cold out there! We won't even be able to see each other's faces."

Picking up the dry plates, Slim headed for the cupboard. As he walked, he felt his lips tug into a lopsided grin. "Yep," he said agreeably. //That's the idea.//

**********

The sun’s nightly dip below the horizon transformed the mild October day into a damp chilly dusk. Slender wisps of cold air invaded every opening of his blue cotton shirt, swirled around his neck and torso, adding physical misery to his ever-growing burden of emotional baggage. Jess shivered, inwardly cursing his hasty departure from Padre Michael’s warm kitchen. Wrapping his arms around his chest to alleviate some of the discomfort, he paced the length of the porch, made a 180-degree turn, and retraced his steps. All the while, Brace Chaney’s last words on earth reverberated in his brain.

//Ellyn is dead. She died … bringing your bastard … into the world.//

The first woman…girl, really… he’d ever loved was dead. And, according to Chaney, it was because of him. But he hadn’t known. How could he when he’d run out on her, left her alone to deal with Brace by herself? He’d listened to Ellyn and to the priest, let their concern for his safety convince him that it was better for all if he moved on … disappeared for a while. So, he’d taken the easy way out …

Three months later, he was a seventeen-year-old private in the Army of the Confederate States of America, serving under Brigadier General Ben McCullouch. Beneath a clear, star-spangled summer sky, Jess and his fellow soldiers celebrated their victory over Union troops at Wilson’s Creek, Missouri. Unfortunately, it was the first of what would be very few conquests.

**********

Everything he’d endured in the past eighteen months was an ongoing nightmare. Seven relatives were in the Harper home the night the Bannisters attacked. Four had burned to death in front of his eyes, leaving only him, his father’s sister, Nan, and his older sister, Francie, alive. He barely remembered the three-day trek from the Texas panhandle to Buckskin, Colorado. He’d spent most of it draped across the back of his pa’s old mare, delusional or unconscious from the pain of his burns.

He did remember ‘Uncle’ Brace’s ‘warm’ welcome at his wife’s unexpected and obviously unwanted return: “What the hell are you doing back here, Nanny-Goat? And what do you want me to do with them?”

Aunt Nan’s tale of her brother’s and sister-in-law’s deaths, along with the two babies, didn’t seem to sway the huge man. Instead, he offered up an animated verbal tirade about too many mouths to feed already. Abruptly, he quieted and seemed to inwardly regroup. When he spoke again, his voice was gentle and filled with the milk of human kindness. “Well, honey, I guess we’ll just have to make do.”

Chaney stepped forward and embraced his wife, who, at this sudden, uncharacteristic display of affection, went stiff in his arms. Stepping back from the puzzled and suspicious Nan, he turned to Francie, smiling wolfishly. Placing a hand on his chin, he looked thoughtfully at Jess’ older sister. At first, Francie stared back, meeting his gaze with her head held high but, after awhile, she dropped the pretense of indifference and lowered her eyes to the ground.

“I ain’t no whore, Uncle Brace,” she said resolutely, although her voice was thin and reedy. “I’ll cook and clean for you or hire out to others as a servant, if need be. Jess here is small for his age, but he’s strong. He can handle a man’s work when he’s healed up. Right now, we ain’t got nowhere else to go, but we ain’t askin’ for charity …”

“…and I ain’t givin’ any,” Chaney snapped. He fixed another appraising stare on Francie, taking in every inch from her matted brown hair and unremarkable facial features to her work-roughened hands and too-thin frame. Moments later, he was examining Jess, noting the youth was short and wiry in stature, yet a barely concealed hatred of the situation and of his own inability to act on it was almost palpable.

The fifteen-year-old stood frozen to the spot, jaw clenched, glove-clad hands fisting and unfisting. Even clothed in the tattered remnants of his family’s tragedy, the saloonkeeper could still sense an overwhelming pride and dignity in the boy’s stance. There was no doubt Jess Harper was trouble in the making, but Brace had always enjoyed a challenge. Breaking this young upstart’s spirit might be something to amuse himself in this often boring town. Nodding to himself, he finally said, “Well, I reckon you’re both young and strong. You can stay so long as you work hard and ain’t a burden.”

His uncle went on, declaring Francie too skinny and plain to be one of his ‘special’ girls. He assigned her cooking, cleaning, and domestic duties at both the saloon and the shack Chaney sometimes called home.

**********

For his keep, Jess was charged with saloon chores – keeping the floor swept and mopped, spittoons clean and dry, and the bar tidy for Charlie, the newly-hired bartender. In addition, he was solely responsible for daily readying each of Brace’s three girls’ rooms for their nightly trysts. Every other day, he would stand outside the doors, awaiting the bundles of laundry, and study the strangely exotic paintings his uncle created for each prostitute’s boudoir.

Nora, the matriarch of the trio at 26, occupied the first room at the top of the stairs. Her door was a pristine light blue, and the decorative Chaney painting portrayed a delicate woman with long golden curls and striking lilac eyes. Wearing only a waist-hugging corset and translucent black stockings, Nora reclined seductively on a royal-blue velvet settee. After eighteen months of working in his uncle’s establishment, Jess had become intimately acquainted with both the velvet settee and the worldly Nora.

A raucous, loud, and plump woman, Rose resided in the second room. Although barely in her twenties, Rose looked and acted decades older with none of the prim sophistication, intelligence, or gentle beauty of Nora. Yet her charisma and contagious laugh had all the local men buzzing around her like besotted bees in a honey hive. For some reason, Chaney had stained her door a dreary green that reminded Jess of mold, but her painting was so ornate and bright that one hardly noticed anything else. Again, the woman in the portrait was posed sensuously. Auburn tresses haloed around her head, hazel-green eyes twinkling at some imagined joke, Rose played peek-a-boo in a mound of bright yellow flower petals. And, although she had tried several times to entice him into her room at no charge, Jess couldn’t bring himself to enter. He was not in love with Nora, but the thought of being with someone else seemed like cheating and, if there was one thing he was not, it was a charlatan.

The third room was rarely, if ever, decorated for long. When he and Francie first arrived, an ancient painting of a girl who resembled a very young-looking Aunt Nan was hanging on the door, but that particular work of art disappeared within hours of their first work day at the saloon.

A stream of nondescript young women paraded through the year-and-a-half Jess worked there – coming and going at a pace with which he, and Uncle Brace’s paint brush, could hardly keep up.

Finally, two weeks after Christmas 1860, Chaney announced that another new girl would inhabit the third room. Almost overnight, the cream-colored paint on the middle room door was sanded away to reveal fresh, unfinished wood. The next day, the wood was stained a beautiful mahogany and varnished to perfection.

Once Uncle Brace was sure the wood was dry, the brush-stroked image of a waif-like girl with large brown eyes and long flowing chestnut-colored hair suddenly appeared on the door. Jess found it hard to ignore the haunting sadness evident in her eyes or the paleness of the knuckles clutching a filmy red fabric between her exposed breasts. After her arrival, it was even harder to ignore the nightly sounds of weeping filtering from her room.

When questioned, Brace would say only that the girl was named Ellyn; she was seventeen and had been sent to work off a debt owed him by her father. He warned that she was ‘his’ and solely ‘his’ until he saw different, and he accentuated this with a threat to ‘tear the hide off’ anyone who might even think of trespassing on his ‘property’.

Having already had his ‘hide’ torn several times after ignoring similar warnings, Jess resolved to swallow his curiosity and his concern for Brace’s ‘property’. Every other day, he went door-to-door collecting and bagging laundry. Nora would always kiss him on the cheek and wink her invitation for the evening. Rose, ever the flirt, would lean forward as she handed him her sheets, offering a generous view of her full bosom and kissing the air as he expertly sidestepped her overtures. When he knocked on the third door, Ellyn, clothed only in a see-through lace negligee, would hurriedly offer a wad of linens to him. Her eyes were always swollen and red from sleeplessness and crying, yet she would drop her gaze demurely and whisper her thanks as she gently closed the door.

After a week of seeing and hearing this innocent girl in torment, Jess vowed that she might be worth some of his ‘hide’.

**********

“Jess?”

The unexpected voice made him jump and, of its own volition, his right hand reached for a gun he instantly found wasn’t there. Heart slamming in his chest, he sighed as he saw the priest standing just inside the screen door. “Padre … I … I’m sorry…”

Michael finished stuffing his bulk through the doorway. “No, I believe it is I who owe you several apologies, Jess. Please, you must come inside where it’s warm. If you stay out here in the damp night air, you could relapse, and you might not have the strength to recover next time.”

“Maybe it’d be better for all concerned if I didn’t…”

“Don’t think that, Jess! I have met your new ‘family’, and I know it would not be ‘better’ if they lost you. For four days, your partner never once left your side, even though he knew everything he owned in Laramie might be gone when he returned. Material worry never surpassed his concern for you. And the boy – Andy – well, it’s plain to see he worships the ground you walk on.”

Jess had the presence of mind to look chagrined. “I know …” he whispered, his throat taut with emotion. “But I don’t feel worthy of their friendship. Since learning about what I did to Ellyn, somehow, whenever I’m around them, I feel tainted … dirty. I’ve always felt kinda undeserving of what I’ve found at the Sherman Ranch. I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life that I can’t ever make up for, but none as bad as this.”

“You loved Ellyn, did you not?”

“I wanted to marry her. You know that’s what brought everything to a head on that last day.”

“Well, I know for a fact she loved you as well. That’s why she came to me ... the day Chaney found the two of you together. He would have killed you if you hadn’t fled.”

“I should’ve stayed and taken care of him then.”

“Jess, I promised you that nothing would happen to Ellyn or to me if you left. In fact, not only did I promise, but I swore -- which isn’t something a priest normally does -- that I would hide her until I could find a place where she would be safe and well-cared for. Chaney was a lot of things, but I was reasonably certain he wouldn’t defile the sanctity or the sanctuary of the church. But, if he had tried, he would’ve found many of my congregation standing guard day and night to ensure he didn’t get to Ellyn or me.”

The young gunslinger sighed. “I remember you having to practically throw me out because I didn’t want to leave her, and I’m grateful to you for all your help. I know Ellyn was too, but maybe she’d have had better medical care if I’d taken her to Galveston. With Francie and Nan’s help, she might not’ve died ...”

Father Michael suddenly looked uneasy, rubbing his hands together nervously. After a moment, he crossed himself, then sighed. “I assure you, Jess, that Ellyn was given the best treatment we could provide. After you left, I sent her to live with my brother, Jacob, and his two young sons. You remember him … he helped Nan and Francie escape to Galveston. After his wife passed away, he bought a large ranch a few miles north of Buckskin. Ellyn cared for him and his boys while she awaited the birth.”

“Padre …” Jess cleared his throat and peered off into the darkened street. “The baby … did … was it …

Again, the priest seemed to hesitate. He bit his lip and looked toward his small chapel. It was becoming increasingly clear to Jess that the padre was uncomfortable discussing the subject.

Finally, Michael replied, “The child is with her mother.”

A breathy sigh escaped, and Jess felt his body slump with exhaustion and grief.

The rotund priest squeezed his shoulder once more. “You’re tired. Come inside, Jess. What’s past is past and cannot be changed.”

Mutely, the younger man allowed himself to be led a few steps toward the door. Then, unexpectedly, he jerked away from the priest’s embrace. Fingers coiled into tight fists and eyes sparking anger, Jess stepped back. “How can you just calmly accept the injustices in life, Padre? Don’t you ever get mad at how good folk get stomped on while bad ones get to live like kings? And women…well, it seems that their lot in life is to suffer. My ma was never right after she had Frankie. Aunt Nan lived every day in fear of a man who was supposed to love and care for her. And FrancieFrancie couldn’t stand the thought of her husband being a murderer and deserter. She put a gun to her head and …”

Francie’s dead?” Father Michael put a hand to his mouth in horror.

“I found out a year or so ago … and now I learn that I killed Ellyn …” Again, his body’s weakness betrayed him, and he swayed.

The familiar sound of size thirteen boots on the porch steps was immediately followed by a set of strong arms steadying him. “I gotcha, Pard,” Slim said. Beside him, Andy looked up, eyes wide with concern and some other emotion Jess couldn’t recognize.

“Let’s get him inside and to bed,” the priest said to Slim. As they walked toward the bedroom, Michael continued the conversation. “You did not kill her, Jess! There is life, and there is death; both are intertwined. Think, my boy! How many times have you watched as a mare struggles to bring new life into the world. Sometimes the baby is born dead; other times, it lives but the mother does not. Then, unfortunately, there are times when both die. As it is with God’s beasts, so it is with humans. Ever since Adam knew Eve as his wife, and she bore him three sons, women have known that the creation of life could mean the loss of their own! They understand and accept it as a fact of life, and they joyously risk the sacrifice in order to bear children for the men they love.”

As Slim guided his partner to the bed, Father Michael pulled the covers down. Jess sat on the mattress, and Andy immediately knelt to remove his boots.

“…I don’t understand how they do it…” Jess mumbled, pulling his legs up and lying back on the pillow.

The younger Sherman arranged the boots under the bed, then stood to his full height. “But I do!” he said, excitedly. “Slim just told me about how we all get here and …”

“Shush, Andy!” His older brother glared at him. “I told you that was private, and you don’t need to be busting at the seams to tell Jess somethin’ he already knows.”

At Andy’s crestfallen face, the priest addressed all three. “Women endure the discomfort, the pain, and the risk for love. And they also do it because they are more courageous than we. God knew what He was doing when He made woman. We may be stronger in body, but women have a powerful inner strength.” Father Michael pulled the quilt up and over Jess’s legs and torso.

“Get some sleep, Pard,” Slim said, adjusting the covers on his side of the bed. “You need to get well so we can go back to the ranch. You owe me some double-shifts for scaring us half to death.”

Awww, Slim,” Andy teased, “You know Jonesy’s gonna have him in bed for another week after we get home, waitin’ on him hand and foot, feedin’ him biscuits and cheese, apple fritters and blackberry pie.”

Jess let his lips pull into the first smile he’d felt on his face in nearly two weeks. “Sounds kinda fittin’ to me. Another few days in bed, being waited on hand and foot. You ‘bout worked me to death before dragging me to that blamed weddin’.”

“Hey! Slim! Now that Martha and Nick are married, are they doin’ what you told me married folks do…”

“Andy!” Slim’s voice rose an octave, and his face grew warm.

Jess grinned again, enjoying the levity and gentle teasing. “Guess you finally got around to that little talk I toldja he needed, huh?”

The tall rancher blushed another shade redder, drew in a full breath, and pointed one long finger at his younger brother. “You! Bed! Now!”

For once, Andy didn’t argue. “G’night!” he said and scooted into the next room.

“Good night!” Slim said gruffly, then turned his gaze and his finger on Jess. “As for you …”

“Hey, I’m already in bed.”

“Then get to sleep! That’s an order from your boss and employer!”

Jess chuckled. “Yes, sir! Yes, sir! Three bags full!” he said, then sobered as the significance of the words hit home.

Slim didn’t seem to notice. He focused on the priest. “How about a cup of coffee before we turn in, Father?”

“A good idea, Slim!” He patted Jess’ shoulder affectionately, then followed Slim from the room.

An unbidden moan escaped as Jess watched them leave. Padre Michael’s words reverberated in his head … “What’s past is past and cannot be changed.” Except being in this town again brought the past to the forefront of his mind. All the ugliness and pain flooded back as if it were only yesterday.

**********

“You got that laundry, Jess?” Chaney yelled from the inner saloon office.

“Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full,” Jess hollered back.

“Well, don’t take forever! And tell Nanny-Goat I’ll probably be home for supper tonight, and it better be hot this time if she knows what’s good for her!”

“Will do,” Jess answered, excitement building inside at the thought of Brace’s absence. With his uncle gone, he and Ellyn could sneak out for a short romantic walk together. It was March 1861, and they had been clandestinely meeting for almost three months. They had also been plotting to free Ellyn from her forced employment, getting Padre Michael to marry them, and then running away to parts unknown where Brace Chaney could never find them. But, first, he had to ensure the safety of his sister and aunt.

Trudging the half-mile to where Aunt Nan and Francie waited, iron pot suspended over an open flame, Jess whistled a happy song. Once delivered, the women immersed the foul-smelling sheets into the water, lit a fire beneath the pot, added a cake of lye soap, and stirred the linens until all were submerged.

While they worked, Jess walked to the small house, helped himself to some leftovers on the stove, and then rested for the trek back. Once Nan and Francie had the laundry boiling to their liking, they joined him in the cabin, packaged up the clean, dry sheets from the day before, and then gathered around the stove to talk about their plans for the future.

It hadn’t taken long for Jess to understand why Aunt Nan had always preferred to visit his ma and pa for months at a time. So long as Brace was at the saloon, things remained smooth and quiet at the Chaney household. When Jess delivered the soiled linens, Francie and Aunt Nan would feed him lavishly and tell him how proud they were of his hard work and patience. But, invariably, his uncle would arrive unexpectedly and all hell would break loose. Brace always had complaints: the meal wasn’t to his liking or the women had taken too long with the wash or, worst of all, they’d fed Jess, and the boy would be lazy and useless to him for the rest of the day.

At this time, Francie would usually assign Jess an outside task to keep him from losing his hair-trigger temper and making things worse for all of them. Sometimes she even managed to lock him in the root cellar until Brace returned to town. He never actually saw his uncle slap or hit his aunt or sister, but the telltale red marks and soon-to-be bruises were always there whenever he emerged.

He knew his sister sensed the depth of his hatred of the man, and she would always beg him to be patient for just a while longer. They had survived almost two years in a hell hole; they could continue on for a few more days. Recently, Aunt Nan had received word via Father Michael that Aunt Bernice was alive and well in Galveston, Texas. Her letter invited Nan to companion her as her husband had recently passed away. With no living children, she reached out to her niece. Nan had responded immediately, offering both her and Francie’s domestic skills and Jess’ strong back and hands in exchange for a place to live. As soon as they received what she knew would be an affirmative response, all three would leave Buckskin, Colorado, and Brace Chaney forever.

“I don’t care if we stay or if we go, if he touches you again, Francie, I’ll kill him,” Jess had said matter-of-factly.

“Oh, Jess,” she’d responded, hugging him closely. “It wouldn’t be worth it. I know you’re itching to retaliate, little brother, but we had nowhere else to go after … after … well, anyway, he may be a brute, but he’s fed us and kept a roof over our head for nigh onto two years now.”

“I wanna shovel a dirt roof over his head … a six foot one! I’m tellin’ you, Francie, he lays a hand on you one more time, and I ain’t gonna be able to stomach it.”

“Jess,” his sister’s voice was tinged with sadness. “I’m begging you – please, leave him alone! He could hurt you bad … or worse, he could kill you …and I don’t think I could stand losing another brother.”

“I don’t give a damn about me! When I get done with him, he won’t hurt nobody else ever again. He ain’t getting’ away with beating on us no …”

“Don’t you give a damn about me?” Francie released him abruptly, forcing him to step back to maintain his balance. “And how about Aunt Nan?” she said, her voice rising in volume and temper. “Because if you do anything to make him mad, he’s gonna take it out on her too. Please, Jess!” Her tone turned pleading and desperate. “Just a couple more weeks, and we’ll be free of him forever.” She stared sadly into the steel-blue of his deep-set eyes, and a single tear slid down her cheek.

Francie, I’m full grown now, and all those chores he’s had me doing has made me strong. I don’t intend to just make him mad. I reckon to kill him for what he’s done to you … and others …”

“Jess, you’re scaring me. Murder is a hanging offense.”

“’Ceptin’ the Bannisters, I ain’t never seen nobody deserved killin’ more, Francie. You know what his business is, and it ain’t just selling whiskey and beer.” His voice deepened, whisper-soft and deadly. “What he does to Ellyn … it makes me want to …” His sister’s tears and anxious look stopped him from revealing any more of his yearning to kill Brace Chaney. He backtracked. “I still hear her in her room, crying … every night … crying like her heart is broke. Tell me that making a girl do what she has to do to make a livin’ is right! Tell me, Francie!”

“Well, I believe in the Lord, and I believe He’ll deal with Uncle Brace in His own way and in His own time. Nan expects to hear from her aunt any day now and, when she does, we’ll be free. Now, I need you to promise me that you won’t do anything to make it worse for yourself or us. Please!”

“I’m real close to 17 years old, Francie, and there’s talk in the saloon every night of war coming. You and Aunt Nan need to be safe, so when word comes, I want you to go. But I’m staying for a while. I’m gonna see if I can help Ellyn get outta here too.”

Francie touched the side of his face, being careful not to press a newly-discovered purplish bruise on his temple. “He did this, didn’t he? Because of Ellyn?”

“I … I love her, Francie.”

His sister’s angular face softened and a rare smile lit her plain features. “Does she love you?”

Embarrassed, he looked away. “Yeah.”

“Does Brace know about the two of you?”

“I don’t think so. If he did, I’d have more than just one bruise on my face.”

“What did you do to make him hit you?”

“I said ‘good morning’ to her when I was getting her laundry, and he heard her say ‘good morning’ back to me.”

“He’s crazy, little brother! You be careful ‘cuz I wouldn’t put it past him to do worse if he finds out.”

“Don’t worry, Francie! You and Aunt Nan get outta here just as soon as you can. Once I know you’re both safely away, then Ellyn and I can make plans to leave too.”

“Where will you go, Jess?”

“Somewhere where Brace Chaney won’t ever look.”

“But how will I be able to find out if you’re all right?”

“I’ll know where you are, Francie. It’s safer for all of us if you don’t know where we are.”

“All right, Jess. I think you’re both way too young to be running off together, and I’m scared to death what Uncle Brace will do if he finds out, but you’re pretty much of age now, and you’ve always known your own mind.” She hugged him again, kissed him on the forehead. “When word comes, we’ll be gone before the day’s over.”

“Sounds like you’re expecting it to happen real soon. In fact, sounds like you’re saying good-bye.”

“I got me one of them Harper-feelings like Ma always used to get. It’ll be today or tomorrow. I’m sure of it.”

“Well,” he said, hugging her close, “you tell Aunt Nan I said good-bye, and I love you both. Oh, and Brace said he was coming home for dinner tonight. Wanted me to remind Aunt Nan that it better be hot when he gets here.”

“”I’ll … tell her.” The reality of their upcoming separation was starting to kick in, and Francie bit back another flood of tears. “You’ll be in touch as soon as you can?”

“I’ll get word to you somehow, Sis.” Grabbing the packaged linens, he embraced her once more, turned around and, without looking back, headed for the saloon.

**********

Light from a full autumn moon, milky white and ringed in a hazy blue aura, seeped through the windows, turning everything in the austere bedroom to varying shades of gray. On his right, the flames in the fireplace hissed and spit as they struggled to stay alight. Lying on the floor in his bedroll, Slim sighed, kicked the blanket off and stood. Clad only in his long-johns and wool socks, the tall rancher stretched the kinks from his lean, lithe body, then padded across the room. He selected a few short twigs and two large logs, piled them on top of the smoldering embers, then jabbed and poked until the dry wood kindled and the fire blazed hot again. Straightening to his full height, he turned around, momentarily allowing the heat to warm his chilled backside, then walked purposely to the lightly frosted window and gazed out into the night.

“Can’t sleep?” Jess’ familiar voice, raspy deep and velvet soft, drifted across the shadowed expanse.

Slim looked back at his partner, noting the stark whiteness of his face in the gray-shrouded room. “I was cold, so I got up to stoke the fire a bit.” He turned around, peering up at the crystalline night sky. “There’s a blue ring around the moon,” he said staidly.

“Guess that means an early snow this year. I reckon we’d better head for home tomorrow.”

“I don’t think you’re ready to sit a horse for two full days of hard riding, Pard,” Slim said knowingly. He left the window sill and walked to Jess’ bedside, perched a hip on the mattress, and examined his friend’s pale features.

Except for the startling blue of his eyes and the charcoal smudges of suffering beneath, his partner’s face was colorless. Jess’ lashes were thick and black, the ends kissed honey gold by Wyoming’s summer sun. Likewise, his abundant dark hair was longer than normal, wavy tendrils falling onto his forehead and down to his always expressive eyebrows. Once they got back to the ranch, Jonesy would have a field day with his hair-cuttin’ scissors.

“Oh, I can ride, Slim. I think … well, I really wanna get outta this town. There’s way too many ghosts here…” His voice was hoarse and lower than normal. “…some I never even got to meet,” he finished, turning his face away from his friend.

“I know none of this has been easy on you, Jess. To tell you the truth, I thought you were a goner when you faced Chaney. You could barely stand, but I guess something inside you musta burned hotter than the fever.”

Jess’s reply was simple and straightforward. “They had Andy.”

Not knowing exactly how to react, Slim merely nodded. “Well, we’d both better get some sleep. I’m guessing it’s way past midnight.” He got up, then carefully smoothed and rearranged the quilts on the bed. “Warm enough?”

“Yeah … fine …” was the lackluster response.

Slim stopped his ministrations. “What wrong, Pard? I mean, I know you’re champing at the bit to get back to the ranch, and you’re upset because you’re not completely recovered yet. But you have to realize that in the last week, you came real close to meeting your Maker not just once, but two times. Now, why don’t you get some rest and tomorrow…?”

“It’s already tomorrow, Slim, and, with or without you and Andy, I’m outta here as soon as day breaks.”

The blond man frowned. “You won’t make it two miles in your condition and with weather coming in … well, this is one time I’m going to have to overrule you, Jess. I understand this town holds some bad memories for you. Believe me, I sympathize …”

“I don’t want or deserve your sympathy!” Jess struggled to sit up but, when Slim offered a hand to help, he pushed it away. Finally, he managed a slumped, upright position, but the glint of sweat on his forehead and his breathless voice confirmed his still weakened condition. “I don’t need anything except outta this damned hellhole, Slim.” There was a glint of desperation and some other emotion Slim couldn’t discern in his friend’s eyes and tone.

“I’m ridin’ out as soon as day breaks. Don’t try to stop me, Pard! That anger you spoke about before, the kind that burnt hotter than the fever? Well, I can feel it in me again, and nothin’ or nobody’s gonna keep me in this godforsaken town a minute longer than I hafta be.”

Stunned at the sudden, unexpected outburst, Slim regained his seat on the bedside. “You know I’m not one to pry into your personal business, Jess and, if I’m overstepping my bounds as your friend and partner, I know you’ll tell me. But why don’t you ‘deserve’ my sympathy? What could you possibly have done to think that?”

The younger man eased his weakened body back into a reclining position and, with trembling hands, pulled the quilts back up to his chin. Staring at the ceiling, he appeared to withdraw into himself. After a long, uncomfortable silence, Slim sighed and made to return to his bedroll but, just as he began to lift his weight from the mattress, Jess spoke.

“I killed her, Slim. I loved her and I tried to save her, but instead she died. All because of me.” His voice was fraught with grief and self-hatred.

“Jess …” Slim began, but his partner continued, his gaze stony, locked and unwavering, on the dark ceiling above.

“It happened the same day Francie and Aunt Nan left for Galveston. It was late March 1861, and neither Brace or I knew they had already hightailed it. The padre’s younger brother lived just a few miles outside of town back then…I think his name was … Jacob. Anyway, the priest arranged to have Jacob take them to the closest town with a stagecoach line, so they were gone when Chaney got to the house for dinner that night. I can recall it like it was yesterday. The weather was windy and still bitter cold. I’d just walked over a mile to pick up the wash for Brace’s girls. That was one of my jobs … delivering clean laundry to the saloon girls. I gave Nora and Rose theirs, waited until they went back into their rooms, and then I knocked on Ellyn’s door. When she answered, I handed her the bundle and whispered that Brace would be gone for a couple of hours. She leaned forward to take the package and whispered back that she had a secret to tell me. I remember wondering what it might be and got so excited that I ran all the way to the place we always met – behind the hay bales in the livery…”

**********

A telltale squeak at the back of the stables signaled Ellyn’s arrival. Meeting her just inside the barn door, Jess grabbed her and swung her around. When he set her down, they were standing beneath the side hay loft.

“Oh, Jess!” she said, purposefully keeping her voice low. She tugged at the wrists holding her waist, and he used the connection to draw her nearer.

“You said something about a secret?” he reminded her.

“Oh … that … I’m afraid whatever it was has gone totally out of my head,” she said with a flirtatious giggle.

“So, how can I make you remember?” he asked, bringing one of her arms up to his mouth. He brushed the inside of her elbow lightly with his lips, then planted several tickling kisses ending at her delicate wrist. He felt her shiver with delight as she laid her index finger on the tiny cleft in his chin.

“You might try that somewhere else,” she said boldly. “It might make my memory better.”

Jess maneuvered them further into the privacy of the barn, settling for a small alcove behind a tall stack of hay bales. Once he stopped, Ellyn snuggled against him, wrapping her small arms around his neck and lifting her face for an expected kiss. For a moment, he merely stood silent, drinking in her warmth and beauty. Then her parted lips met his, and he felt his body responding. He returned the kiss, encircling her waist with his arms and pulling her even closer. When they finally separated both were breathing heavily and quivering with desire.

“How long do you think Brace will be?” she asked.

Sighing resignedly, he collapsed into the softness of the clean-smelling hay. An instant later, she lay beside him, her head fitted comfortably in the crook of his arm. He drew her closer, capturing her face with his free hand, drowning in the depths of her soft brown eyes.

“I don’t know, and I don’t think I care,” he said, ignoring the growing hint of danger in the back of his head. Ellyn, her face and body bathed in the tiny beams of light filtering through the weathered roof and sideboards of the barn, snuggled closer, planting wanton kisses on his neck and nibbling at his ear lobe. When he felt her hand fumbling with the buttons on his shirt, he groaned aloud. Entangled in a web of passion the likes of which he had never known, he plunged into the joy of the moment.

**********

The abrupt sound of the livery doors opening and slamming shut startled him awake. Momentarily confused and disoriented, Jess sat up and glanced around. Beside him, Ellyn awakened and opened her mouth to speak. A quick finger to his lips warned her to keep silent, and she nodded, but her expression showed that she was terrified.

“JESS HARPER!!”

The thundering voice of Brace Chaney wrung an involuntary gasp from Ellyn, and Jess put his hand over her mouth. Their eyes locked and, in that instant, both knew their lives would now be changed forever. If they lived…

“Jess! I know you’re in here, boy! Might as well come on out and get it over with. You too, Ellyn! If I have to hunt for you, it ain’t gonna go good for either of you.”

Chaney was close, merely a few feet away from where Jess and Ellyn sat trapped in a hay alcove and, from the sound of his voice and footsteps, he was moving nearer.

It only took him a moment to make the decision. “Ellyn, stay here!” Jess whispered, forcing himself to remain calm, thus keeping the girl from panicking further. “I’ll go face him and, just when he makes his move, I’ll make a run for it toward the street side. As soon as you hear Brace chasing after me, you hightail it for the padre’s church and wait there. He’ll keep you safe!”

“Ellyn!” Chaney was just beyond the wall of hay, only a few steps away. “You’ve hurt me bad, girl! You been here goin’ on four months, and you know I ain’t never laid with you. I went slow, teaching you the ways to pleasure a man without sleeping with him. I was gonna make a good $200 from Ned Anderson by letting him be your first. He’s that rich rancher who rides through here after every cattle drive! He wanted a virgin, and I told him I had one. But now you’ve gone and let that no-good freeloading nephew of mine ruin you. I’m out $200 and I’ll bet there ain’t another virgin within a hundred miles of this town. Well, no use crying over spilled milk! Reckon I’m gonna have to show you what a real man can do, starting tonight. Now, both of you, show yourselves before I get real mad and start shooting!”

Jess rolled over, crabbing on his hands and knees toward the only opening.

“Jess! No!” Ellyn said aloud just as the intimidating figure of Brace Chaney, gun at the ready, blocked his exit.

There wasn’t time to think; there wasn’t time to plan. On instinct, Jess shot up, driving his head into the softness of his uncle’s belly. The unexpected move knocked the big man off balance and, momentarily stunned, he fell onto his backside. Not waiting for him to recover, Jess lashed out with his feet, raining brutal kicks to his side, his thigh, and his gun arm. The last blow dislodged the Colt, and Jess dove for it. All the while, he screamed at Ellyn to run, save herself but, when she emerged from their shelter, she stood frozen to the spot, seemingly unable to move.

“Run!” Jess cried as Chaney finally began to defend himself. Both man and youth struggled for possession of the weapon, and the younger man felt his grip being loosened. Desperate, he scored a solid knee to the groin, bringing a howl of pain from Brace as the man dropped his hold on the gun, grabbed his privates and fell to the ground.

Swiping it up, Jess pointed the Colt at his writhing uncle and thumbed the trigger back. Not taking his eyes or the gun off Chaney, he took a step toward Ellyn. She still seemed petrified, afraid to move or even speak.

“Ellyn,” he said softly, so as not to panic her further. “Get outta here … now! Go and don’t look back.”

“Jess,” she said, blinking back tears. “Not without you. Please … don’t make me.”

“Boy …” In obvious pain, Chaney snarled the word. “When I get up, you’re gonna regret you were ever born,” he threatened through gritted teeth. “And as for your whore … I’ll be spending a lot of time with her behind closed … whoof…”

Jess’ foot connected once more with Brace’s torso, knocking the breath out of him. “Please…Ellyn, I don’t know how much longer I can keep him down. Run … now!” he pleaded.

“All right. I’ll go. But promise you’ll come too?”

“As soon as I take care of him. Then we’ll go as far away from this town as we can get.”

She was already walking toward the rear of the livery, but she paused as she reached the large doors. “Jess,” she said, solemnly. “You’re not gonna kill him, are you?”

The words were barely out of her mouth, a split-second distraction as Jess’ attention fixed on her, when he felt a large hand encircle his ankle and yank him off balance. He hit the ground hard on his buttocks, his finger reflexively pulling the trigger. The gunfire was deafening as it echoed in the empty enclosure. Then Chaney was sitting on his chest, squeezing the breath from his lungs and pummeling his face with ham-sized fists.

“RUN!” he managed in between vicious blows. The sound of heavy wooden doors clanking together gave him a small sense of satisfaction. Ellyn was safe. Now he could focus all his physical and emotional strength on survival.

Gathering all his power to the center of his torso, he used his hands and lower body to rear up and unseat the heavier man. Chaney’s weight lifted as he tottered sideways, and Jess scooted back until he was completely free. Rolling to his knees, he struggled to stand, to take a step, but Brace grabbed a hunk of his hair and pulled him off-balance. A fist struck him in the lower back. His legs went numb but, before he could crumple to the ground, another hand took hold of his shirt and twisted him around. After that, the blows rained down mercilessly. He hunkered over, struggling to protect his mid-section, but Chaney merely concentrated on his face and head. After what seemed an eternity, he stopped trying to defend himself. Blood and sweat streamed into his eyes, making it impossible to see, and his mouth filled with a familiar copper-taste. At last, he collapsed, barely conscious, onto the dirt floor.

Toldja not to touch her, didn’t I?” Chaney growled, but his voice sounded breathless and winded. “Didn’t I, boy?” he said, accentuating the question with a vicious kick to Jess’ side.

Groaning at the impact, Jess curled into a protective ball. He could feel his heart slamming in his chest and his head thrumming and pulsing in cadence. A mixture of fluids -- blood, sweat, and mucus -- streamed from his nose, mouth and ears. He knew he was on the verge of passing out when his right hand touched and closed around the cold steel of Chaney’s Colt forty-five. Revived somewhat by the realization that he now had a chance, he clandestinely pulled the weapon toward his belly and coiled around it.

“Get up!”

He heard Chaney order him to stand, but he ignored the command.

“I told you to get up, Jess! Now!”

It had been a long time coming, but something fierce and ugly ignited within his soul. The years of holding his tongue and his fists for the sake of his sister, his aunt, and Ellyn were over. Flames of fury and hate, indignation and disgust, restraint and guilt rose up, fanning an uncontrollable rage inside him. Adrenalin rushed through his body, giving him the strength to rise on his own. Keeping his back to the older man, his hidden ace in the hole lay cradled and ready in his arms.

“Rose told me you were with my little trollop when I got back from an empty house. Guess it’s true about women scorned, eh! So now I know you were all conspiring against me. Of course, Nanny-Goat and your ugly sister ain’t no big loss; all they were good for was cooking and washing, but nobody runs out on Brace Chaney! You know where they’ve gone to, and you’re gonna tell me, but first, we’re going after Ellyn! She and I have some personal business to attend to tonight. And if I let you live, you can watch!”

“No.”

There was laughter behind him. “What did you say, boy?”

“You heard me, ‘Uncle’,” Jess said, his voice deadly and low. Slowly, he turned around, watching with smug satisfaction as the smile on Chaney’s face froze, then melted away as the larger man viewed the loaded gun. It was pointed right at his chest.

When Brace could find his voice, he tried reason. “Now, Jess! Put the gun down. You know you don’t have it in you to shoot an unarmed man. Come on, boy! I’m your uncle … you don’t kill your kin.”

“You ain’t never been no kin of mine, Chaney! You’re a bully and a whoremonger, and there ain’t nothingonna keep me from dropping your cowardly ass right where you stand.”

The older man’s face turned pasty white, and he took a tentative step back. Gesturing with his palms up, he attempted to maneuver out of point blank range. “Jess… please…I know I ain’t been the best uncle. I know I done wrong by my wife and your sister, and I ain’t exactly taken you into the business like I should’ve. But I’ll make it up to you … I’ll …”

Kinda hard to make things up when you ain’t breathing anymore, ‘Uncle’,” Jess said as he thumbed the trigger. At the same time, the livery door to the left opened. Jess flicked a split-second look, relieved to see the padre arrive, but the young man refused to be distracted. He stared directly into the panic-stricken face of his long-time tormenter. “I hope you’ve made your peace with whatever or whoever you believe in, because your time on this earth is through!”

Nooooo….” Chaney howled, dropping to his knees. “Please…I’m sorry for everything. Let me make it up to you.”

“Make it up to Ellyn, you bastard!”

“Jess! Don’t do it! Put the gun down, son!” Padre Michael’s voice filtered through the throbbing ache in his head.

Jess chanced a second glance at the priest. “Stay out of it, Padre! After all he’s done to Ellyn and Francie and Nan, you want me to just let him go free?” The weapon was growing heavier by the second, and his gun hand started to quiver and shake. He palmed the butt of the pistol with his left hand to steady it.

“You are not God, Jess! Vengeance belongs to Him.” The priest’s voice seemed closer.

“Stay where you are, Padre!” Jess ordered, never wavering from his stare-down with Chaney. “Where was God when the Bannisters burned my ma and pa and little brothers alive? Where was He these last two years while this…this sorry excuse for a man beat on his wife and my sister? And where was He when Ellyn cried every night over what my ‘uncle’ did to her?”

“He was always there…watching…planning…sending you to save her. Jess… Nan and Francie are safe now…and so is Ellyn, but she’s very worried. Put the gun down and come away from here. If you kill him, you’ll be a murderer, always on the run…or worse. Think, my boy! Your future is in your own hands. Pull the trigger, and you have your revenge, but what of Ellyn?”

“Padre…” Jess moaned as his strength of will began to wane. “He deserves to die for what he’s done!”

“I guarantee you -- one day he will pay for all the evil he has inflicted on innocents. Now, lower the weapon and step back. We will leave together, and I will take you to Ellyn.”

“Ellyn…” Closing his eyes, Jess whispered the name longingly. When he opened them, he saw Chaney had used his momentary inattention to hightail it for the back entrance. “Brace!” he yelled, lifting the pistol and firing, but the bullet went wild, impacting and blowing a large hole in one of the stored grain sacks on the loft. A cascade of oats and grain spilled down to mingle with the dirt and hay.

Cocking the trigger, Jess brought the gun up again, aiming and firing at Chaney’s fleeing form. This time, the slug grazed his uncle’s left arm, wringing a howl of pain and a string of expletives from him. As he reached the doors, he turned, his right hand pressing tightly against the small flesh wound. “You’re gonna pay for that, Jess Harper! You and that whore you’ve been sleeping with…”

“I didn’t get you this time, Chaney, but I promise…I swear…I’m gonna come back one day and send you to Hell!” Jess tried to raise the gun one more time but, suddenly, Padre Michael was there, handkerchief in hand, wiping away the blood and sweat from his face. He felt the weight of the pistol disappear as the priest took possession of it, and then he allowed himself to be led from the livery stable to the tiny chapel. When he entered the sanctuary, his legs gave way, and he fell to the rough wooden floor.

Then Ellyn was there, blanketing him with her warm, soft body, murmuring, “Jess … oh, Jess …” He smiled through the haze of pain, then allowed darkness to overtake him.

**********

“Afterward, the padre and his congregation hid me and Ellyn from Chaney until I was well enough to run out on both of 'em," Jess finished, contempt for what he perceived a cowardly act rife in his tone.

Wrapping his long arms around his chest, Slim left his bedside seat and busied himself with the waning fire. Hunkering down, he added several more logs to the disintegrating pile of wood ash. Brushing the shavings from his hands, he turned once more, letting the renewed heat chase the chill from his body. "Jess," he said quietly as he rocked back and forth on his heels. "I know you believe if you'd stayed, things might've been different, and I can see the truth in that."

"You can?" This time there was disbelief and a hint of curiosity in his friend's voice.

"Yeah, but I can also understand why the Father and Ellyn wanted you to leave. If you stayed, Chaney would've eventually killed you and maybe even Father Michael for protecting you. Then he’d have reclaimed Ellyn for himself and his saloon. Or you might've gone after Chaney. But we both know you weren’t as good with a gun back then – if you’d challenged him, he would’ve shot you down and left you to rot in the street. Otherwise, the only way you could’ve rid yourself and Ellyn of him would’ve been murder. After that, like the Father said, you'd have been on the run and, Ellyn, in her condition, couldn’t have gone with you. No matter what you think, Pard, leaving this town was the right thing to do at the time. If you’d stayed, the Father, Ellyn, Francie, your Aunt Nan –all would’ve been in danger. Don’t you see? You weren’t protecting yourself when you took off for the big open. It was really the only safe way out for all of you.”

Jess frowned, pondering his friend’s scenarios. The bright glow from the re-born fire warmed his pale features to gold and taupe. “I reckon,” he finally said, closing his eyes and yawning.

“Get some sleep, Jess. If you’re set on headin’ out tomorrow, I’ll find us a buckboard. We’ll make a straw mattress and …”

“I ain’t gonna…” was cut off quickly by Slim’s edgy retort.

“You wanna start for Laramie tomorrow, you ride how I tell you to ride. Otherwise, we’ll stay here until your strength improves enough to sit a horse for two hard days of riding. Understand?”

Jess muttered something unintelligible under his breath.

Slim palmed his overheated buttocks and took a step toward his bedroll. “I didn’t quite catch that, Pard. What’d you say?” he asked.

“I said … you’re the boss …”

Slim allowed himself a quick smile, then swiped it away. He settled into his bedroll, turned onto his side, and cocooned the blankets around him. “I’m glad you remember that,” he said in a mock-serious voice. When his only reply was a soft snore, he grinned again. “’Night, Pard,” he said, snuggling into the covers. Within moments, he joined Jess in sleep.

**********

Nearly three hours had passed since they’d bid Father Michael and the town of Buckskin farewell. The goodbyes were bittersweet as all involved knew Slim, Andy, and especially Jess, would probably never return. Sensing his friend wanted a private moment with the priest, Slim tasked Andy to help him hitch a reluctant Alamo and unhappy Traveller to the borrowed wagon. Both horses’ reactions were to be expected since neither had pulled a buckboard in several months. But, even with the misbehaving animals, Slim could still catch the gist of the conversation. Jess was asking where Ellyn was buried so he could put flowers on her grave. As Father Michael shook his head, Jess’ horse stomped his hooves and snorted his displeasure. When he and Andy had both Alamo and Traveller calmed, hooked up and ready to go, Jess joined them. He didn’t even try to hide his grief and depression. Sighing his own regret at yet another disappointment for his friend, Slim helped his partner into the back of the buckboard, watching as the man snuggled gratefully into the soft, makeshift bed.

“Get some sleep, Jess,” Slim said. “I’ve got the map Father Michael drew for us. By keeping to the roads and driving in a north-northeasterly direction, he says the ride’ll be easier on you, and we’ll probably even save a couple hours.”

Without opening his eyes, Jess whispered a quiet affirmation.

The day was typical for the time of year. Scarlet, rust, orange, and varying shades of gold, brown and plum-colored leaves floated effortlessly in the cool breeze. Swirling around, they glided from their lofty perches to settle on the ground. Layer after layer formed a unique patchwork quilt of autumn, one that Slim knew would soon be covered by winter’s icy shroud of snow.

Above, billowing white clouds hurtled across the pale blue sky, intermittently blocking the late morning sun. Peering up, Slim frowned and abruptly pulled the team to a halt. Andy, who had been riding a few yards ahead on his own horse, steered the mare back.

“What’s wrong, Slim?” he asked, maneuvering his mount parallel to the buckboard.

“I don’t know. Something just doesn’t feel right.” Slim reached into his back pocket, pulled out the priest’s hastily drawn map, and studied it intently. Removing his hat, he examined the sky for several moments. An errant lock of blond hair fell onto his broad forehead, and he absently smoothed it back into place. Donning his hat again, he shook his head and examined the map once more. “These directions don’t make sense. According to Father Michael, this road goes directly north to the Wyoming border, but the sun’s position shows we’ve been heading east for the last half-hour or so.”

“East?” Jess sat up, plucking at bits of hay ‘sprouting’ from his thick dark hair. Finding a particularly fat shoot, he popped it into his mouth and chewed on it thoughtfully. “Why in blue blazes would the padre send us due east?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he hasn’t been this way in a while,” Slim answered. “I’ve travelled these parts a few times, and it just seems like we should be going that way.” He pointed left and glanced up at the sky once more for affirmation. “That’s northeast,” he said. “There’re a few ranches on that route. They’re pretty spread out but, if we get bad weather, at least we’ll be close enough to get help. This way …” he indicated the road they were following, “… I don’t think there’re any settlements in that direction.”

“Well, then I vote we go your way,” Jess said. “It’s for sure rain ain’t far off. Reckon it’d be better all around if we just head for where you know there are other folks.”

“Andy?” Slim questioned his brother. “Think you can check out the road for us … ride ahead and pick out the easiest route for a buckboard to travel?”

Y’mean like a wagon train scout?” The boy’s voice held undisguised excitement.

“Yep, just like a wagon train scout,” his brother said with a wide grin.

“You betcha! I’ll get us to the Wyoming border by nightfall.” The boy whooped with glee and kneed his horse forward.

“Don’t get too far ahead, Andy!” Slim shouted to the departing teen. This brought a chuckle from the back of the wagon, and he turned to view his recovering friend. “What’s so funny?” he asked as he clicked to the team.

“You …” Jess replied, an amused twinkle in his sky-blue eyes. “I don’t know how you’re gonna stand it when we get back to the ranch and you have to give Jonesy the mother- hen job back.” He grinned, then settled his weary body into the bed of straw and quilts. “Wake me when we get somewhere,” Jess said, closing his eyes.

“Yeah, you rest now, Pard, ‘cause when we get home, I’ve got horses for you to break and fences that need mending and cattle to drive and broken stagecoach wheels and …”

**********

By mid-afternoon, the fragmented clouds had almost fused completely, darkening to ominous shades of dove and deep slate gray. They blocked the sun’s position and dropped the moderate fall temperature several degrees. Both Andy and Slim were forced to don jackets, but a quick check of the still-snoozing Jess showed the bed of hay and mountain of quilts were keeping him warm and comfortable.

Despite Father Michael’s assertions that the northerly roads were uneven, rutted, and almost impossible to maneuver, Slim found that, in actuality, they were in better condition than the ones recommended by the priest. After about an hour of traveling the new route, Andy grew bored scouting a trail that already existed and asked permission to go further ahead. Mindful of the ‘mother hen’ remark from Jess, Slim agreed but made the boy promise not to deviate from the well-worn path.

Smiling at his younger brother’s enthusiasm and hoot of excitement, he watched Andy gallop forward and then disappear into a thicket. As he drove the team through the same narrow thatch of high brush and pine trees, Andy’s mare suddenly appeared directly in front of the wagon. Slim made an abrupt jerk to the right to avoid a collision while the boy reined in his jittery horse just short of Alamo’s snout.

“Andy! What in the …”

“Sorry, Slim!” the teen said excitedly. “I just ran into a boy about my age. Says his pa has a pretty big ranch just a little ways up the next hill.” He paused to catch his breath. “His name’s Adam, and he says we can stop and water our horses there.”

“Well, that’s good news, but what’s got you all stirred up?”

“He also invited us to supper. Says his ma’s got chicken, dressing, baked bread, potatoes, okra, and honey cakes for dessert.”

Slim felt his stomach contract with hunger at the mention of food. They’d had a large breakfast in Buckskin but only jerky and water for lunch. Unfortunately, he knew they were only a few hours ahead of a large storm front. If they stopped for any length of time, they might not make it to Laramie before the deluge hit. “Got to admit, that sounds wonderful, Andy, but we can’t stick around long enough for dinner.”

The boy’s face fell. “Awww…Slim…I’m hungry and…”

“And I’m hungry too. And, if Jess were awake, he’d probably be grumbling about his empty stomach, but we can’t take a chance on it starting to rain or snow. Right now, I think if we keep at this pace, we’ll make home by noon tomorrow.” He glanced at the sky. “That’ll put us maybe two or three hours ahead of this front…I hope.”

Andy sighed and steered his horse back onto the road. “All right! I’ll ride back and tell ‘im we can’t stay. But we’re still gonna water the horses, right?”

Slim clucked to Traveller and Alamo, and the wagon began to move forward again. “Yeah, we’ll stop long enough to let the animals drink. Oh, and remember your manners; thank them for us.”

“All right, Slim! See you there,” Andy said as he turned his mare and rode off again.

*********

A magnificent, two-story log cabin nestled in the base of a hillside was the first thing Slim saw as the wagon crested the last hill. Surrounded by tall maples and silver oaks, both molting multi-colored foliage, the structure was like nothing he had ever seen. Several chimneys indicated multiple fireplaces, and a wraparound porch held a large wooden swing, several well-used rocking chairs, and at least three snoozing felines. The windows were large and, even at several hundred yards away, Slim could see all boasted intricate crocheted curtains.

To the left was a large barn gleaming with fresh white paint and, in the adjacent corral, a beautiful bay mare and a golden palomino gelding with a mane and tail the color of fresh corn silk kept watch for their evening feeding. On the right, a harvest garden hosted ripening pumpkins, winter squash, cabbages and many other autumn vegetables. As he drew nearer, several long-haired dogs came forward, wagging their tails and barking friendly greetings.

He pulled the team to a halt at the front of the house, set the brake, and then spied Andy’s horse. She was helping herself to water from a nearby trough.

“Be right back, Jess,” Slim said. When he didn’t receive a reply, he glanced around to find that his partner was still sleeping soundly. Jumping down from the wagon, Slim searched for his brother, finally locating him near the large barn. He was conversing with a tall, blond youth who appeared to be a bit older than Andy. Behind them, another fair-haired boy, obviously two or three years younger, emerged from a storage shed adjacent to the barn.

“Andy!”

“Slim!” His brother gestured for the others to follow, and all three youngsters started forward.

When they reached him, the older boy looked the tall rancher up and down, then whistled. “You sure were tellin’ the truth, Andy! He’s a real big’un.” The pleasant youth shook hands with Slim. “Howdy! I’m Adam Donahue, and this is my younger brother, Michael.”

“Glad to meet you. I’m Slim Sherman, and I can see you’ve already met my brother, Andy.”

“Our pa’s on t’other side of the pasture, but he’ll be back real soon. Ma’s got supper on the stove and, like we told Andy, we’d be pleased if you’d join us. There’s plenty to go around.” As he talked, Adam started toward the house. Michael and Andy followed, but Slim held back.

“We thank you for the invitation, Adam, but as you can see from the sky, we’ve got weather comin’, and we’ve still got a long way to travel. My partner’s lying in the back of our wagon, recovering from a bad sickness, so we can’t afford to get caught in any kind of storm.”

Adam stop and turned back to address Slim. “I’m sorry ‘bout your friend. Hope he’s feelin’ better soon. And, yeah, Pa kinda figured on rain or snow too. That’s why he’s rounding up the milk cows from the pasture to put ‘em in the barn. Well, if you can’t stay for supper, come on inside for some apple cider anyway. We don’t get many people riding by, and Ma’ll be upset if you don’t eat or drink somethin’ while you’re here. You know how women are,” Adam said, wiggling his blond eyebrows knowingly.

Slim stole a look at the parked buckboard, undecided on whether or not to awaken Jess, when a petite woman came out of the house. Standing on the broad porch with her hands on her hips, Slim noted she was small in both stature and frame, brunette tresses caught up in a proper matronly bun. She wore a long-sleeved dress of dark plum accented with bits of off-white eyelet lace at the wrists and down the bodice. A muslin apron protected the skirt portion of the dress, and Slim estimated that she was near his own age.

“Please, come in, come in,” she said, flashing a wide, welcoming smile. With a final check on Jess, Slim turned and followed the boys onto the porch.

“Ma’am,” he said, removing his hat.

“Ma, this is Mr. Sherman,” Adam said, “and his brother, Andy. This is my Ma, Mrs. Donahue.”

“My goodness, Mr. Sherman,” she said, opening the door. “Aren’t you a tall one! Please come in and have some apple cider.”

Tantalizing smells of chicken and sage dressing, fresh baked bread, and sweet honey filtered from within, causing Slim’s stomach to growl loudly. Andy shot him a surly look as he pushed past him to enter the house. “Thank you, ma’am,” Slim said, frowning at his brother’s rudeness. “We really appreciate your kindness and hospitality.”

The woman bustled into the kitchen, retrieving glass tumblers and filling them to the brim, then doling them out, one-at-a-time, to each eager boy and man.

The blond rancher drained the glass in one gulp but, before he could set it down, Mrs. Donahue had retrieved it, refilled it, and returned it to his hand.

“Please, Mr. Sherman, sit down,” she said, indicating a chair at their large kitchen table. The boys tell me you can’t stay for dinner, but may I offer you a slice of warm bread and fresh-churned butter? How about you, Andy?”

The youngster didn’t hesitate. He plopped down on the first chair and smiled. “Sure, yes’m, I’d love some.”

Slim joined him, albeit reluctantly. “Thank you, Mrs. Donahue, but just one piece please. You see, I’ve been absent from my ranch for nearly three weeks, and my partner’s outside …”

“Well, why didn’t you say so, Mr. Sherman! He must come in and have something to drink and eat as well.”

“No, ma’am, you see, he’s been ill, and he’s asleep in the back of our wagon. He probably could use some good home-cooking, but right now, I believe he needs sleep more.”

“Poor man. I do hope he’s better soon. I’ll cut a few more pieces of bread, butter them, and wrap them so he’ll have something filling when he awakens. It’s too bad supper won’t be done for at least another hour. If you could just stay a while, I could pack some chicken and dressing…maybe a honeycake or two…” She busied herself, slicing several fat portions of the aromatic bread, slathering them with white chunks of butter, and doling them out to her guests. At her sons’ groans of disappointment, she put her hands on her hips. “I don’t want to hear it! You know if you gobble down bread now, you won’t have an appetite for supper.”

Adam merely grinned in agreement, but Michael huffed a sigh of disappointment as he watched Andy bite into the thick dough and chew contentedly.

Mrs. Donahue prepared four more servings, wrapping each separately, and placing all in a paper sack. “Again, I’m so sorry you can’t stay and eat with us. Jake will be so disappointed that he didn’t get to talk shop with another rancher.”

“I would’ve enjoyed the discussion, ma’am,” Slim said, handing her his empty glass and shaking his head at her offer of another refill. “And I know Jess is going to be miserable when he finds out he missed a delicious home-cooked meal.”

“Jess?” the woman said as she took the glass from Slim.

“Yes ma’am. My partner. Jess Harper.”

“Jess…Harper?” The glass slid from her fingers, shattering into a hundred tiny shards as it impacted the kitchen floor. Flustered, she bent forward and began to pick up the larger pieces.

“Let me help you, Mrs. Donahue,” Slim said, kneeling beside her and retrieving several small bits.

“No, no! Thank you, but I’ll take care of it,” she said, her voice reedy and tense. She retrieved a hand-brush and dust pan and swept up the remaining debris. “Boys!” Her volume was louder, but both her hands and voice trembled with anxiety. “Find your sister and all of you go get your pa. Tell him dinner will be ready shortly!”

“But Ma…we don’t know where she is…and Pa’s already on his way back. You know that,” Michael whined.

“She’s outside playing with the new kittens. Take her with you and go. Now!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Adam said, grabbing his brother’s shirt and tugging him toward the back door. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Sherman … Andy,” he called out over his shoulder as the heavy door slammed behind them.

“Bye, Adam! Bye Michael!” Andy responded, continuing to stuff chunks of bread and butter into his mouth.

Still seemingly flustered, the distraught woman grabbed an oven mitt, opened the stove door and absently checked her chicken dish.

“Mrs. Donahue?” Slim asked, puzzled by her sudden uneasy behavior. “I thank you for the cider and the delicious bread, and I apologize for breaking your glass. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”

She grabbed her apron, bunched it between her hands, then took excessive care in smoothing it out. “Yes, Mr. Sherman, there is,” she said resolutely. “Please go, and take Jess Harper with you. And once you’ve left, forget you were ever here!”

Andy froze in mid-bite and shot Slim a bewildered look. Slim responded with a head gesture, indicating the boy was to leave the house. “Wait for me on the porch, Andy,” he said.

The teen didn’t argue. With the last of his bread untouched, he strode through the kitchen and parlor. Leaving the front door open, he slumped onto the gray-painted steps. Two felines, a large yellow tabby and an even larger black and white cat, sidled up to him, begging for attention. When he saw his brother begin to stroke their backs, Slim returned his attention to the woman.

“Now, Mrs. Donahue, I’ll be happy to do as you’ve requested, but on one condition.”

“Please … Mr. Sherman … if you treasure family … take your brother and your friend and never come back here!”

“Why must we go and forget we were here? Did Jess do something to …” Slim went suddenly still, but his mind whirled furiously, recalling the past few days in Buckskin and the stories told by Jess and Father Michael. Michael … who had a brother named Jacob … who ten years earlier had two small motherless sons … and who took in a young woman in trouble … a girl, really … with dark eyes and chestnut-colored hair … a girl named …

“You’re Ellyn!”

At his revelation, the woman began to cry softly. “Please, Mr. Sherman, don’t tell Jess. He mustn’t know about us.”

“Us?”

“Let him think us dead,” she pleaded. “It’s the best thing for all concerned.

“Let him …?” The sympathy that had been building inside for her suddenly turned to anger. “Do you know how much pain he’s in, Mrs. Donahue? While you’ve obviously had a peaceful, tranquil life here, married to Father Michael’s brother, living in a large house with plenty to eat and lots of money to buy yourself pretty things, Jess Harper fought in a grisly war, barely managed to survive in a Union prisoner of war camp, roamed from job to job, hungry, friendless, and basically went through hell until he finally found a family. Andy and I look on him as more than a partner, more than a friend. He’s as much a brother to me as the young man sitting on the porch out there wondering what we did to set you off. When Chaney told him about … well … about your ‘situation’ … Jess wanted to die!”

“Chaney? Oh my God! He doesn’t know we’re here, does he?” Her eyes widened in shock and horror.

“No, ma’am, he does not! He kidnapped my brother, coerced Jess out of his sick bed, and challenged him to a gunfight. I know that right now Brace Chaney is burning in hell for what he did to you … and to Jess. But Jess has been weighed down with grief and guilt about running out on you ever since Chaney told him you were dead.”

Ellyn Donahue shook her head slowly, a faraway look in her eyes. “Ten years ago we were children playing in an imaginary world where Brace Chaney couldn’t touch us… two young people who believed that love could conquer all…except it almost got Jess killed! I loved him…I still love him…so I couldn’t let him stay in Buckskin. I told Father Michael about the baby, and together, we planned to make Jess leave.

“Because if he’d known, he would’ve stayed …”

“And Chaney would have killed him. After he left, Jake took me in, and I grew to love him and the boys. Father Michael married us a few weeks before the birth of our daughter. Please, Mr. Sherman, she knows no other father but Jacob. It would be cruel to tell her the truth.”

“Jess has to know, Mrs. Donahue! He has a right …”

Ellyn dabbed at her eyes with her apron. “Does he, Mr. Sherman? Our family is happy here and, from what you’ve told me, Jess is content with his life and ‘family’ too. If you tell him, he’ll want to be a part of her life. She’ll be pulled in two directions and, ultimately, she’ll have to choose between him and Jacob. Jacob is a good and pious man, a wonderful husband, and a loving father to all three of our children. Jess is … well, Jess isn’t …” She seemed to be looking for the right words.

“Good enough?” Slim asked, somewhat surprised that his voice held no hint of the resentment stirring inside him.

“…no …I don’t mean that … it’s just that ten years ago, he drank, played cards, and consorted with … ‘worldly’ … women … and I don’t need her to know that her real father sinned so horridly with the likes of …”

“Sins of the father, eh? How about your sin, Mrs. Donahue? You worked in the same saloon, did the same things the others did …”

“I never worked as a whore! Chaney was saving me for a special customer.”

“So what you’re saying is that you gave away free samples to Jess Harper …”

The unexpected slap to his cheek stung, but Slim’s only reaction was to offer Ellyn Donahue a look of pity and disgust.

She had the decency to lower her eyes in shame and regret. “I’m sorry, Mr. Sherman. I didn’t mean to do that. It’s just…that it’s difficult…for me to come to terms with my own sins. You’re correct in that I’m probably worse than Rose or Nora ever were. As I said before, I thought I was in love with Jess.”

“He didn’t think he was in love with you. I believe he still is.”

“No, he’s in love with playing the white knight and rescuing a maiden from an evil prince. We were young and foolish and, no matter what you think of me or of how I’ve lived my life since then, I have paid and will continue to pay for what I did. The constant fear of being found by Chaney …”

“…is gone now, thanks to Jess,” Slim finished.

“And the fear that one day Jess would come and take our daughter away. I don’t think I could go on living if that happened. You see…it was a difficult birth, and we both nearly died. The doctor told me I can’t have any more children …”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Donahue,” Slim said sincerely, “but it seems to me that you’ve been blessed with three healthy children. There are many women who would envy you. My own mother had five, but only two of us survived.”

Chagrined, Ellyn continued, “I look upon my inability to give my husband more children as punishment for my sins.”

“That’s between you, your husband, and God. But the other sin –- your biggest transgression –- that’s between you and me. Jess must know the truth, and I intend to tell him.”

Ellyn sniffled, wiped her nose with her apron, then untied it and set it aside. “I guess I always knew this day would come,” she said, swallowing hard.

Slim started for the door, then hesitated. He turned back to the distraught woman. “It would be better coming from you.”

“No. I don’t want him to ever see me again. I don’t think I could look him in the face. Besides, his family should be the ones to tell him.”

The blond man nodded, returned his hat to his head, and continued toward the door.

“Wait! Mr. Sherman, please. The chicken’s done, and the honey cakes have cooled enough for wrapping. Let me pack something to take with you. You said Jess could use some good nourishing food, and I know your brother is a growing boy. He’ll be hungry again in no time. It’ll only take a few minutes.”

“All right, ma’am,” Slim agreed. “We’re obliged to you. Andy?”

The boy looked up from petting what were now five cats. “Yeah?”

“Come back in and help me carry our dinner out to the wagon.”

“Dinner?” Andy said excitedly. “You mean, not just bread and butter?”

“Chicken and dressing, Andy,” Ellyn Donahue said with a wisp of a smile. “And honey cakes. Men need food that’ll stick to their ribs when they’re travelling.” She shot a look at Slim, still pleading with her large doe eyes for his silence.

Resolute in his purpose, Slim clenched his square jaw and pulled his lips into a thin line of determination. His partner … his best friend … his brother … deserved to know the truth.

**********

Jess awoke with a start, yet his innate gunfighter survival instincts kept him silent and motionless while he assessed the situation. The first thing he noticed was that the buckboard was no longer in motion. That was unusual but not exactly dangerous. The second was more ominous, an eerie feeling that he was being carefully watched. Opening his eyes to mere slits, he cautiously glanced around the wagon interior.

“Well, you are awake after all.” A child’s voice wafted from the left. “What’s your name?”

Jess opened his eyes completely, turned over, and stared up into a matching set of curious blue orbs.

“Howdy,” he said to the young girl leaning over the edge of the wagon lip. “Who are you?”

“I asked first,” she said, still scrutinizing him closely. She cocked her head questioningly. “And why are you sleeping in the middle of the afternoon?”

“So you did. Mine’s Jess…Jess Harper. And I’m sleeping here…” He sat up slowly and looked around. “Where is here?”

“You’re at our ranch – - the Double D,” she said, leaning further into the buckboard. “How old are you?

“If you’re not careful, you’re gonna fall,” he warned. “And twenty-seven. Why?”

“That makes you almost as old as my ma, and my pa’s way older than her. You got any brothers or sisters?” she asked, finally clambering all the way into the buckboard.

“Won’t you come on in and make yourself to home,” Jess said sarcastically while scrunching over to make room. “Do you?”

She settled into the hay, crossing her legs Indian-style. Frowning, she shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. “Two brothers. I keep asking Ma to get me a sister, but she says I’m all the girl she can handle. So, do you?”

“Do I what?”

The girl heaved a sigh of frustration. “You sure don’t listen very well. Have any family?”

“Depends,” Jess said, noting the child’s long ebony hair. Her face and forehead were framed by dark curling wisps. She was dressed in a long-sleeved blue calico frock with an ecru linen bib-apron, black stockings, and high-topped button shoes. None were worn nor frayed and, Jess noted, neither garment looked handmade. Whoever she was, her parents weren’t poor.

“On what?” she responded, placing her elbows on her knees and supporting her chin in the palms of her hands. Her china blue eyes were veiled by lush black lashes, giving her a striking exotic look.

“On what counts as family,” he finally replied.

Intrigued, the girl scooted closer. “Family lives together, plays together, works together, fights together … and they always have your back when you get yourself in trouble.”

“So you get in trouble a lot, eh?” Jess almost chuckled.

“Sometimes,” she admitted. “Ma says my middle name should be Trouble ‘cuz I take after my Pa.”

“Your pa gets hisself in trouble a lot, does he?”

“No,” she said, a puzzled look on her face. “Not really. Anyway…about your family?”

“Well, I reckon if we’re goin’ on your description of relatives, I have me two brothers and an uncle.”

“Older or younger?”

“One of each. Now why don’t you take your questions and run on home. I’m tired. I wanna lay down.”

“Lie down. Ma says ‘chickens lay; people lie’.”

“Reckon your ma’s right about that one…on more than one count. Now go along, whatever-your-name-is. I reckon my partner’ll be back soon with some grub, and we’ll be on our way again.”

“You mean your brothers? The tall blond man with the really long legs and the younger one with dark hair?”

“That’d be them. Do you know where they are?”

“Yep. They went inside with my brothers,” she said matter-of-factly. “I think Ma’s giving them something to eat.”

“Well, I reckon they’ll be bringing somethin’ out for me. I’m starving.”

The child sat back, demurely tucking her legs beneath her. “I’m sure Ma’ll pack something for you. And, you know, my brothers are like yours, I think. Ma’s my ma and Pa’s my pa, but Adam and Michael had a different ma than me. She died before Ma met Pa.”

“Adam and Michael, eh? Bible names.”

“Yeah, Adam’s from Adam and Eve…you know, they lived in the Garden of Eden until Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Maybe God shoulda named her Trouble. As for Michael … he’s named after Pa’s older brother.”

“You still ain’t told me your name.”

“I’ll let you guess.”

Jess lay back and pulled the quilts close to his chin. “If it’s a Bible name, honey, I ain’t read it in a spell. Besides, there’s way too many with all that ‘begatting’ and such.”

It’s ‘begetting’ and only men beget. Besides, it ain’t a Bible name. Ma says she named me special.”

“Well, if it’s ‘special’, how’m I s’posed to figure it out.”

“I’ll give you a hint. The first half sounds just like your name and the second half is …”

“How old are you anyway?” Jess asked, tiring of the lingering conversation.

Aww, that ain’t a guess.”

“Hey, you started the twenty questions, young lady!”

“Eight,” she said, then quickly added, “but I’ll be nine on the twenty-first of October. That ain’t far off.”

“What’s your pa’s name?”

“Jake.”

“And what’s your ma’s name?”

“El…hey, that’s cheatin’!”

Jesslyn? Jesslyn! Where are you, child? Come on in the house and wash up! Your ma’s got supper almost ready.”

Awwww, Pa!” The girl stood in the buckboard and prepared to hop down, but a large man reached out with strong arms and grabbed her before she could jump. He held her close, almost protectively. “Hello Jess,” he said calmly.

“Jacob,” Jess acknowledged evenly.

“I see you’ve met our daughter.”

Jess pushed himself to a sitting position once more, never taking his eyes off the girl. “I have. And your wife? How is she?”

“Ellyn and I have been married nigh onto ten years now.” He put Jesslyn down, patted her behind, and sent her running toward the house.

“Bye, Jess,” she yelled, swerving just in time to prevent a collision with Slim and Andy as they exited the house, arms laden with sacks of home-cooked goodies.

Stunned, Jess felt all the energy drain from his body, and he relaxed once more into the soft bed. “I don’t understand. Why all the secrecy, Jacob? Chaney told me they were both dead …”

“Once you were safe, Michael and I pooled our money, and I moved the boys and Ellyn as far away as possible. Telling Chaney she had died in childbirth was the only way we could think of to keep him from looking for her, Jess. It’s quiet here, off the beaten path and usual trails, and we rarely have visitors who’ve passed through Buckskin.”

Jess swallowed a lump that formed suddenly in the back of his throat. He looked away, staring at the distant clouds roiling towards Wyoming. “Do you love her, Jacob?” he finally asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Both of them…with all my heart,” was the staid reply.

Nodding absently, the recovering cowboy allowed a shadow of a smile to lift his lips. “Then be good to them.”

“You know I will. And I’m sorry you thought they were dead. We figured the same of you since you never wrote or contacted any of us. But, if it will make it you feel any better about the situation, both Ellyn and I always planned to tell Jesslyn the truth about her birth and her real father.”

“No!” Jess’ voice was firm, his tone emphatic. “Just leave it as it is, Jacob. Your daughter already said it: ‘Family lives together, fights together, plays together and works together. And they always back you up when you’re in trouble.’ Ellyn was in trouble, and I wasn’t there for her. But you were, and now you’re her husband and the father of two fine sons and, if I do say so myself, a beautiful and extremely intelligent daughter. No need to tell them anything different.”

“Jess?” Slim’s worried face appeared above him. “You okay?”

“’m fine, Pard, just fine. Time to move out?”

“Soon. But first, I’ve got somethin’ that needs telling…somethin’ you have to know.”

“If it has anything to do with the Donahue family, I already know. Let’s just leave it at that, okay, Pard?”

“You sure? I mean, this could change …”

“I’m sure, Slim. Now, please, let’s forget about everything else ‘ceptgettin’ home before the skies bust open. Besides, we need to let Mr. Donahue get to supper with his family.”

“All right. If that’s the way you want it.” Slim still sounded doubtful and hesitant.

But Jess was adamant. “That’s the way it has to be. Now, let’s get the hell outta here.”

As Slim vaulted into the seat, the buckboard jostled, and Jess winced, holding back the flood of emotions rushing through him.

“You absolutely certain you’re all right?”

“Yeah, Slim, I am.”

“Hungry yet?”

“Nah…just tired. I think I’ll sleep awhile.” Jess rolled onto his side, turning his back to both men and tugging the quilts over his shoulders.

“Mr. Donahue,” Slim smiled. “Please tell your wife we appreciate the wonderful food and apple cider.”

“I’ll do that. Take care, and if you’re ever this way again …”

“We won’t be,” Jess said, his voice muffled by layers of blankets.

“Goodbye, Adam! Bye Michael!” Andy called to the boys who stood on the porch waving. A girl, at least two or three years younger than Michael, also stood, gesturing farewell with her small hand. “Hey,” the teenager said, “I never learned their sister’s name.”

“It’s Jesslyn,” Jess replied.

“Funny name for a girl,” Andy said offhandedly. “Bye, Jesslyn!” he yelled as he steered his mare forward. Slim clicked to Alamo and Traveler, and both horses grudgingly began a slow walk toward the Wyoming border.

**********

The patter of raindrops on the roof and the soothing crackle of the hearth fire had a calming effect on the exhausted man. Sipping his second cup of Jonesy’s ‘for medicinal purposes only’-laced coffee, Slim lounged in his partner’s favorite rocking chair, staring at the flames’ hypnotic dance. He had almost dozed off when the sound of a bedroom door opening and then shutting brought him out of his stupor.

Jonesy bustled past him and into the kitchen, arms laden with a tray of barely touched mulligan. He grumbled under his breath as he scraped the plate clean of leftovers and dunked it into the wash basin.

Slim took another mouthful of the cooling brew, then stood and headed toward the stove to refresh his drink.

“Didn’t eat a dadblamed thing…work my fingers to the bone…cookin’…cleanin’…mending…healing. Don’t know ‘bout you boys …” Jonesy groused.

“Jess’ probably still full from all the food Mrs. Donahue gave us!” Andy closed the arithmetic book he was studying and grinned.

“From what you and Slim told me about what he’s been through, Jess needs proper nourishment – not fiddle-faddle sweets -- if he expects to get back to being a productive member of this family soon.”

Awwww, Jonesy,” the boy said as he pushed his chair back from the kitchen table and stood. “Those honey cakes weren’t fiddle-faddle. They were delicious! Besides, Jess only ate two of ‘em this mornin’.”

Slim stirred another spoonful of Jonesy’s ‘medicine’ into his cup and headed back to his comfy seat. “Well, I can truthfully tell you, Jonesy, we came mighty close to losing Jess…not once, but two times.” The tall blond eased his lanky body into the chair and stretched his long legs out in front of him. “It’ll probably be more than a week or two before he’ll be well enough to even help Andy with his chores.”

“My chores are just as hard as yours or Jess’!” Andy protested. “You told me, Slim. It ain’t how much a man does, it’s how well he does it.”

“Now, youngin’, don’t get your dander up. Slim didn’t mean anything by…”

“Andy,” Slim interrupted. “I wasn’t saying you don’t pull your weight around here. It’s just that you’re still a boy, and there are some things you haven’t got enough experience to be doing yet.”

Y’mean like what you told me in our man-to-man talk?” Andy glared at his older brother.

Slim felt his cheeks warming and knew it wasn’t from the fireplace or the spiked coffee. “Now, Andy, you know that conversation was supposed to be ‘tween you and me and nobody else.”

Jonesy, who’d been watching the discussion ping-pong back and forth between siblings, suddenly spoke up. “Slim! Did you go and tell that child about the birds and the bees? Y’know he ain’t old enough yet to know about such things…why, your pa would skin you alive if he knew."

“I’m goin’ on fifteen, Jonesy, and I am old enough! Slim told me all about being a man and how to take care of womenfolk and how babies get born. And didja know Jess and a lady named Ellyn did what Slim told me and…”

“Andy!” Slim took a large gulp of coffee, swallowed, and began to cough as the liquid went down the wrong way.

Across the room, Jonesy frowned and hurled, “Enough! Andy, them’s delicate matters. No need for you to be telling tales and such.”

The teen ignored the gathering storm clouds around him. “What’s so wrong, Slim? You told me I could ask you anything I wanted to about it. You know y’did!”

Jonesy was askance. “You told him what?”

Slim tried mightily to get a breath, but he continued to wheeze and cough. Finally, he looked down at the floor. “Yeah,” he croaked hoarsely. “I kinda…did. But that’s no excuse for running your mouth about private things, Andy.”

“You just said never to talk about it in mixed company. We’re all men here...or maybe…” He paused and a Cheshire cat grin lit his features. “Well, how about answering me this, Slim? Have you ever…y’know…done…y’know…been with …a girl?”

Jonesy’s eyes bugged, and his chin dropped in shock. “Andy! What in tarnation’s gotten into you? I can’t believe you’re actually asking your brother something so personal.”

Abruptly, Slim stood, placed his coffee cup on the table, and headed for the door. On the way, he grabbed his hat and shrugged into his rain slicker. He cleared his throat and coughed one more time. “Think I’ll head out to the barn and check on that new foal.”

“But, Slim!” Andy continued to protest. “You promised you’d answer any questions I had. That new foal is just fine, and you know it. Tell me. Have you ever been with a girl like Jess was?”

“You’re right. That foal’s just fine,” Slim said, opening the front door, “I’ll just check on the chickens to see how good they’re laying. Jonesy, you need some fresh eggs for breakfast, don’tcha?”

Sssshhuurre, Slim, you run on out and gather them eggs and leave me alone with this nosy, inconsiderate monster you’ve created!”

“Hey,” Andy said as another thought suddenly infiltrated his inquiring mind. He turned to their old family friend. “Say, Jonesy? How about you? Have you ever …”

“Andy…you let me be, y’hear? Slim … Slim, don’t you run off and leave me here defenseless …Slim, get back here!”

Smiling in commiseration, Slim Sherman pulled the slicker hood over his hat, closed the door behind him, and headed toward for the noisy, odiferous sanctuary of the hen house.

*****End*****



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