Dodge City                                                      

A Laramie-Gunsmoke crossover            

By Badger (maryinmarshall@cs.com)

A Pre-Laramie Jess Harper fic

Summary: It was once mentioned in an episode that there was this bit of trouble Jess got into, back in Kansas.  It was more than a bit, actually, quite a bit.  Jess Harper really should have stayed out of Dodge City.

Author’s note: This is actually the first Laramie fic I wrote, starting six years ago when I at long last found episodes of Laramie, a show I had loved (and had not seen again) since its initial TV run. Thanks to Hired Hand, the best beta ever — your knowledge and excellence makes every fic better.

x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

 

PART ONE----

Jess Harper had never been to Dodge City, Kansas, before. Oh, he’d heard plenty about the wide open cowtown, and, having just finished up a job in Emporia, the young cowboy had decided to seek his fortunes further west. His decision to leave, of course, had nothing at all to do with the urgings of the marshal of Emporia, a short, thin, and entirely humorless starpacker who had blamed Jess for a shootout with a double-dealing cardsharp. And the information that the partner of the now dead double dealing cardsharp was headed to Dodge City had absolutely nothing to do with Jess’ decision to go to there, either.

Nope, nothing at all.

Except that Jess Harper was going to get his money back.

x-x-x-x

 

Miss Kitty Russell, the owner of the Long Branch Saloon, was just crossing the dusty street when the approaching rider caught her eye. Dodge City was a bustling town, and a lot of new faces rode down its busy main street every day. A few of them were there to stay but most were folks just passing through on their way to somewhere else.

The lone cowboy on the dusty horse paused in the street to let the lady pass. He pulled off his battered hat and smiled gallantly down at her, a cheeky grin on his young face as he waved the statuesque redhead on by with a respectful “Ma’am.”  

Kitty smiled up at him, noting the twinkle in the startling blue eyes and the friendly grin on the youthful face. “Why, thank you, Sir.”

“My pleasure, ma’am,” Jess answered gallantly, tugging the hat back on his head, watching the lady as she completed her trek across the street and stepped up onto the boardwalk. She was no longer a young woman, but slender and well dressed, and she still had the kind of good looks that could catch a man’s eye.

He was surprised to see the lady turn and enter the Long Branch Saloon.  Deciding to follow her, the just-arrived cowboy pulled his horse up in front of the establishment, dismounted gracefully, and wrapped the chestnut’s reins securely around the hitch rail. His spurs jangled loudly as he stepped up onto the boardwalk, crossed it in two strides, and pushed his way through the batwing doors. Stepping into the cool interior of the saloon, Jess paused to size up the place, peering around carefully as his eyes adjusted to the muted light after leaving the brightness of the mid-day street.

It was a typical cowtown saloon, but bigger and much neater than most he’d seen. The room was dominated by the long, gleaming wood bar, with a large mirror behind it that reflected the row of dust-free bottles standing on the shelf.  In mid-afternoon, the place was nearly empty and almost silent. At one table in the far corner a couple of morose-looking cowhands were nursing half-full schooners of beer, but the gaming tables stood unused.

Having looked the place over, Jess decided on a spot at the bar and strode over to it, digging a coin out of his pocket and flipping it onto the polished wood. “Whiskey,” he told the tall older gentleman who was behind the bar, busy wiping glasses.

The old man gave him a long look as if trying to decide if the newcomer was old enough to be served liquor, then retrieved a bottle from under the bar.

“It better be the good stuff,” Jess warned.

The bartender nodded and started to say something when an unexpected female voice from behind Jess replied in an amused tone, “Mister, here at the Long Branch, we only serve the good stuff.”

Jess spun around to find himself facing the statuesque redhead. A wide grin appeared on his face, and he touched the brim of his dusty hat with his right hand. “Ma’am. It’s real nice to see you again.”

She smiled in return, the expression lighting up her eyes, the humor still in her tone. “Please, don’t call me that, young man. I’m Kitty, Kitty Russell, owner of the Long Branch.”

He nodded, almost shyly she thought, and with a quirky twitch of his lip answered, “Jess Harper, Miss Kitty. Pleased to meet ya’.”

She couldn’t help smiling at his charm. He didn’t look much different than any of the dozens of cowhands who on any given day walked into her establishment. He was younger than most maybe, but there was something in his eyes, a thing she saw in the faces of the drifters out here on the prairies, that said he’d seen a lot more than a man of his tender years should have. This cowboy was of medium height and slender, with thick and curly, dark brown hair in need of a trim peeking out from under his battered black Stetson, and a lively sparkle lighting up the deep blue eyes. His clothes, standard cowboy wear of Levis, long-sleeved light blue shirt and a black unbuttoned vest, were covered with dust and he needed a shave.

It was the Colt he wore on his hip that gave her pause. It was not a cowboy’s gun at all, but a sleek weapon, low slung, and tied down to his right leg. She was close enough to note the filed-down hammer, and recognize it for what it was, and what that made him.

Gunfighter.

Maybe trouble.

Probably trouble.

Without losing her welcoming smile, Kitty stepped around behind the bar and took the bottle from Sam, the bartender. She filled a shot glass with a generous serving of whiskey, pushing it toward the young man and ignoring the coin he’d dropped on the wood surface of the bar. “This one’s on the house, cowboy.”

He grinned. “Thanks, Ma’a — Miss Kitty.” With a gloved hand he picked up the glass and tossed the drink down with a grimace, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Not bad,” he grinned, looking up at her. “You always treat newcomers so nice?”

“Only the gentlemanly ones, Mister Harper,” she answered with an amused grin.

“Jess,” he corrected automatically. He turned around, leaning back with his elbows braced on the bar and his thumbs hooked in his gunbelt, looking the place over with a keen eye. Turning back to face her, he noted, “Nice place you got here, Miss Kitty. You get many gamblers in here?”

“Oh, a few,” Kitty answered, still studying him.

“Ever heard of a gambler named Gleason? Nathan Gleason.”

“No,” She turned to the bartender. “Sam? Ring any bells?”

“No, Miss Kitty.”

The saloon owner refilled the drifter’s shot glass. “Any particular reason you’re looking for this Gleason fellow, young man?”

“Yeah. He owes me money.” Jess threw back the second drink. “Maybe he’s at one of the other bars in town. I think this place might be too nice for his kind. Guess I’ll go take a look. Thanks for the drink, Miss Kitty.” He set down the glass, touched his hat again, and turning on his heel, sauntered out of the Long Branch.

Kitty stared thoughtfully after him, frowning.

“Miss Kitty? Is something wrong?” Sam asked in his gruff voice, concerned.

She shook her head, her expression troubled. “I don’t know, Sam, but something tells me that young man is trouble clear down to his boots.”

x-x-x-x-x-x-x

 

Jess didn’t find Nathan Gleason that night, or the next, though he spent time in every saloon up and down the length of Main Street.

On his third night in Dodge, the drifter was seated alone at a table in the back corner of the Silver Spur Saloon, a half full schooner of beer in front of him. The Silver Spur was a long ways from being as classy as the Long Branch. The whiskey was watered down, the house dealers seemed awfully lucky, and the lights were dim, which considerably improved the look of the saloon girls, Jess had observed. He was sipping his beer, making the one drink last, when a familiar figure stepped into the room.

Nathan Gleason.

Tension singing through his whole frame, Jess sat up straighter and pulled his hat a little lower to cover his face. He watched from under the Stetson’s brim as Gleason strolled across the room and, after exchanging a few words that the cowboy couldn’t hear, joined a trio of poker players at one of the tables near the bar. Jess let the man settle in at the table and play a hand before he drained the last of his beer, climbed to his feet, and silently sauntered over to the poker game, every muscle in his lean frame alive with tension. His fingers flexed nervously, making and unmaking a loose fist, his hand hovering just inches from the Colt on his hip.

Gleason didn’t look up as Jess stopped across the table from him. "You fellas might want to watch your wallets, playin' with him," Jess announced, loud enough to be heard throughout the saloon.

The room went silent except for the sound of chairs scraping across the floorboards as their occupants hastily pushed them back from the table. Every head at the table, and those around it, swiveled around to look up at the newcomer. Gleason's eyes flicked upward at the cowboy and then he did a double take, his face going deathly pale, the cards dropping from his fingers to lie loosely on the table.

"That's a powerful accusation, mister," said one of the card players, a round-faced balding man in a rumpled suit, a drummer by the look of him. “Have you got facts to back that up, young man?” he demanded.

"I was in a game with him in Emporia, last week," Jess answered without looking at the drummer, his eyes still locked on Gleason.

The card sharp was making a quick recovery from his shock at Jess’ unexpected appearance. Though his face was still lacking its normal color, and the first beads of sweat had appeared along his forehead, Gleason answered calmly, "Harper, you lost in a fair game."

"Sure, if you think a fair game is two guys workin' in cahoots, with one of 'em dealing off the bottom of the deck an’ the other coverin’ his play."

"I did no such thing," Gleason declared into the dead silence that now gripped the Silver Spur.

"No, *you* didn't,” Jess agreed, his eyes snapping. “That night, your partner was the crooked dealer; you were just his cover," Jess explained, his hand hovering low near his gun, his fingers twitching.

"His partner here?" asked another one of the card players, a hard-faced cowboy, looking suspiciously at the others around the table.

"Nah. He's dead, buried in boot hill at Emporia," Jess answered.

"You've no proof I was cheating, or that that man you killed was my partner," Gleason disagreed, his eyes darting nervously around the room in search of an escape route.

"You shoot him?" the cowboy asked, looking over at Jess.

Harper nodded.

The three other men at the table as one pushed their chairs back another foot, clearing room for Jess to confront Gleason.

The cardsharp was sweating profusely now. Moving his hands slowly and carefully, he tugged open the lapels of his coat. "Shooting me would be murder, Harper. I don't carry a gun."

Jess was undeterred. "Smart move, Gleason. How about we go outside and talk about how you’re going to give me my money back?" he suggested.

The gambler cast a furtive look around, but no one was standing to his defense. "What, you think I'm crazy enough to go out there so that you can rob me and shoot me?" Gleason started to get up, his hand straying toward his coat.

Jess went for his gun. In one lightning move, faster than the blink of an eye, the Colt was out of its holster and pointed at the gambler who was pulling a handkerchief out of his vest pocket.

Hands shaking, all pretense of calm vanished, Gleason dropped the cloth.

The whole saloon had gone deathly silent.

Jess relaxed slightly but kept the barrel of his Colt pointed at Gleason's belly. "I don't want to shoot you, mister. I just want my money back. Forty-nine dollars. You count it out of that stake you just laid on the table, and I'll be goin'."

Just then, Jess heard footsteps in the doorway behind him and the unmistakable sound of a weapon being cocked. "Put it down, cowboy," said an authoritative voice from the doorway. “I’m a United States Marshal.”

Jess hesitated, his eyes still fixed on Gleason. "This ain't what it looks like, Marshal," he insisted.

"I'll be the judge of that, cowboy. For now, put the gun away, and you’ll get your chance to tell your story."

“All right, Marshal.” Very slowly, Jess slid his thumb off the hammer and dropped his Colt back into his holster, then carefully held his hands away from his body.

The marshal relaxed slightly, lowering his own gun. "That was a sensible move, mister. Now raise those hands in the air and turn around real slow," the lawman ordered.

Jess obeyed and rotated around slowly to find himself looking up at the biggest lawman he'd ever seen. The man was tall and solid, dressed in tan jeans, a faded shirt under a brown open-front vest, and pinned to that vest was the shiny badge of a United States Marshal.

Jess rolled his eyes. It seemed like he couldn't buy a break.

The marshal, his cocked .45 still in his hand, stepped closer, reaching down to take the Colt from Jess’ holster and checking his pockets for any hidden weapons. Finding none, he nodded at the card player. "You, mister, come on down to the jail as well."

The marshal marched both men out into the dark street and down the boardwalk to the lawman's office. He pointed Jess to a doorway that led to a cell block, nudged the young cowboy into the first barred space, and locked it behind him. Jess spun angrily around, wrapping his hands around the stout iron bars. "Hey, you said you'd listen," he complained angrily. “I ain’t done nothin’ to be in here….”

The marshal’s calm expression never wavered. "Just hold your horses. I'll hear his side of the story, then yours, cowboy."

The marshal retreated back into the office, closing the door behind him and leaving Jess alone. The drifter looked around confines of the dreary cell, kicked the leg of the lone bunk, then flopped down onto the lumpy mattress. He couldn't hear what Gleason was saying to the marshal, just a muted mumble of words and then the soft sound of the front door opening and closing. Finally, the marshal opened the door and walked back to stand in front of his cell, a pensive look on his face.

Jess looked up but didn’t get to his feet.

"I'm Marshall Matt Dillon,” the big man rumbled. “And you are?"

"Jess Harper."

"Where are you from, Harper?"

"Here and there. Used to be the Texas panhandle, before the war. Since then, I've been movin' around a lot," Jess answered sulkily.

"Doing what?"

"Working."

"At?" Dillon probed.

“This and that.”

The marshal glared, not satisfied with the answer.

"I’ve been a ranch hand and a drover."

Dillon looked the young drifter up and down. "You don't look like the ranch-hand type, not with that gun and that fast draw."
"I've been. Among other things."

The marshal fixed Jess with an assessing stare. "Have you been in trouble with the law?"

“Trouble, yeah. Crossed it, no."

Dillon nodded. "You've been in Dodge, what, two days?"

"Three."

"Where'd you come from?"

"Emporia."

"Is that where you met Gleason before?"

"Yeah."

"He says you shot a man there, a gambler."

"Yes. It was a fair fight, in front of a whole room full of witnesses. He drew first, I drew faster. And shot straighter." The tone wasn’t bragging, just matter of fact. And defensive.

That Harper drew faster, Dillon had no doubt. Walking the town on his evening rounds, he’d seen several men making unusually hurried exits from saloon and figuring that had to mean trouble, arrived just in time to see the youngster’s blazing fast draw. The veteran marshal wasn’t easily impressed. He’d seen a lot of kids who thought they were fast, but this kid was like greased lightning.  "The marshal in Emporia turned you loose?"

"Yes."

Dillon nodded again. He knew Emporia’s lawman well, and Walt Meyers would have kept the kid in jail if there’d been any doubt. "I'll be checking with him. Meanwhile, you can bunk here."

Jess leaped to his feet, taking hold of the bars, glaring at the lawman, his voice angry. “You’re locking me up? For what?”

“Disturbing the peace.”

“But I didn’t do anything!”

“You broke up that card game, threw around some serious allegations, and pulled your gun in a public place. That’s more than enough for the charge.”

“I didn’t fire my weapon.”

“I didn’t say you did, Harper. And you don’t have to, to disturb the peace.”

“If I’d wanted to disturb the peace of this town, there wouldn’t be any guessin’ as to my intent,” Jess insisted.

Dillon threw him a look and chuckled. “I don’t doubt that,” the marshal agreed and turned on his heel, going back into the office and ignoring the prisoner’s muttered complaints.

Left alone again, Jess flung himself back down on the bunk, bemoaning the unfairness of it all. Gleason was still walking around, with his money, and he was locked up for trying to get back what was rightfully his.

x-x-x-x-x

 

Early the next morning, Dillon came back into the cell block and, with the jangle of keys, unlocked the barred door and held it open. "Harper, you’re free to go.  Even though I don’t like what you did last night, I haven’t got a reason to keep you here.  There are no charges since I got there before you shot Gleason, or stole his money."

"It was my money that *he* stole from me," Jess stubbornly insisted.

"It's your word against his, son."

"I'm not your son," Jess countered belligerently.

Dillon kept his voice calm. "That's true. But it doesn't change what happened."

"Yeah, a'course you'd take the side of a slick-talkin' card sharp," Jess sulked, glaring up at the big marshal.

"You want to swear out a complaint against him?" Dillon offered, not the least bothered by the angry scowl Harper was showing him.

"What good would that do?"

"None," the marshal admitted, "because it's still your word against his. Now, if there were any witnesses in Emporia…."

"No," Jess admitted, following the marshal out of the cell block and into the office where the loud-talking hillbilly deputy who’d brought Jess his breakfast was seated in front of the potbellied stove, feet up, and drinking coffee.

Dillon walked around behind his desk. He opened the drawer and pulled out Jess’ gunbelt, setting it on the desktop. "I don't have enough to charge you with anything, Harper, or you'd still be in that cell. This is your one and only warning, because otherwise, I *will* find a charge to lock you up on. Get your horse from the stable and be on your way out of Dodge within the hour. And I don’t want to see you back here."

Jess took his possessions off the desk, buckling the gunbelt around his waist and adjusting its fit on his lean hips before tying the thong around his right thigh. He picked up the Colt, spun the cylinder to check that it was still fully loaded, and dropped it smoothly back into the holster, feeling complete when he added his hat from the rack beside the door. He touched his hand to the brim of the Stetson, his voice mocking. "Thanks, Marshal. I won't forget Dodge's hospitality."

"I suggest you don't," Dillon answered sternly.

The marshal watched silently as the still angry Jess Harper strode out of his office and down the street.

The deputy, Festus Hagan, brought Matt over a cup of , and the big man took it, sipping the strong hot brew with a grimace.

"Mathew, that ‘un, he's almighty touchy for bein’ such a young 'feller,” remarked the deputy in his backwoods drawl. “I swear he’s got a chip on his’n shoulder bigger’n all a’ them there giganticus Rocky Mountains."

Matt nodded in agreement, brow still furrowed. He didn’t think Harper was a bad man, but like too many young men he’d seen adrift over the years, he was one who was on the brink, searching for an unknown something and all too likely to find it by the speed of his gun. "Festus, I think you’re right. I just hope I don't see him again, because I don't think it would be a good day for any of us."

x-x-x-x-x

 

Jess stalked along the boardwalk heading toward the livery stable, seething with anger, glaring at everyone he met. They all gave him a wide berth as he stomped angrily down the street, his hands clenched into fists at his side. Arriving at the stable, he stepped inside, found his horse and his gear, and quickly tacked up the animal. He paid the liveryman for his horse's keep and led the chestnut out into the street. When he looked back, Jess thought he could see the tall form of Marshal Dillon standing in front of the jail, watching him.

Turning his back to the street, Jess took the reins in his hand, gripped the saddlehorn, jumped up to set his left foot in the stirrup, and swung his right leg up over the horse's back. Settling into the saddle with the grace of a man who'd been riding since the time he could walk, Jess spun his horse around to point down the street.  With one last disdainful look at the town, he touched his spurs to the chestnut’s flanks and galloped out of Dodge.

The lone drifter camped that night in a clump of cottonwoods along a nearly dry stream a half dozen miles northwest of town. He didn't know where he'd go next. He was almost out of money and low on supplies to boot. He might get lucky and shoot an antelope or a deer, but a man got awful sick of a steady diet of wild game. He had a few days' worth of coffee left, along with some tobacco and papers to roll smokes, if he used them carefully, but those wouldn’t fill his belly.

His cartridge belt was still mostly full, and there were extra loads for his carbine in his saddlebags. He had, after paying the livery bill, a total of $11.29 left to his name.

He didn't have a job, and he really didn't have the prospects of one.

He needed the money Gleason owed him.

Even more important than retrieving the money was restoring the damage to his pride.

Gleason and his partner had fleeced him.

Jess made himself a bit of supper and laid down on his bedroll, still seething at Dillon and even more so at Gleason.

That's when he made his decision, and a nearly fatal mistake.

In the morning, he decided, he was going back to Dodge City and finish his business.

Jess rolled into his blankets and slept, not knowing it was the last time he'd sleep beneath the wide open sky and stars for a very long time.

x-x-x-x-x

 

PART TWO----

Jess was up early and back on the outskirts of Dodge a few minutes before nine. He pulled up

at the edge of town and considered his strategy. Riding down Main Street in broad daylight wasn't a wise idea. That marshal, or his talky deputy, were far too likely to spot him before he found Gleason. Deciding on a plan, he turned his horse to head at a right angle to Dodge’s main street. He rode until he found an alley that ran along the north side of the street, right behind the Front Street businesses.

He was letting the chestnut walk down the quiet and deserted alley when he spotted the man and the horses up ahead of him. Something about the scene striking him as odd, Jess pulled up in the shadow cast by the back wall of the hardware store and studied the situation.  There was nothing visibly out of place; the alley was quiet but it was as if the air was filled with tension.

He felt a shiver travel down his spine, and the chestnut, sensing his rider’s unrest, tossed his head and danced sideways, Jess reining him in without stopping his careful scrutiny of the area.

He looked up and down the alley, but he could still see only the one man, peering anxiously toward the street. He held the reins of three horses, pacing back and forth as if he were waiting impatiently for someone or something.  Jess took a good look at the animals — all three were tall, rangy mounts, sleek horses that looked fast and ready to run, and while they were carrying canteens and bedrolls, there were no lariats, pegging the riders as something other than cowboys.

Jess was silently weighing the implications of what he was seeing when a lone gunshot suddenly shattered the morning quiet. Quickly, more guns barked in answer, and then there was undecipherable yelling coming from the direction of Main Street, followed by the sound of running feet. Two men came charging from between the buildings and ran toward the horses. The man holding the mounts swung aboard his horse as the other two jumped for their saddles. One was carrying a saddlebag that looked heavy as he slung it over his horse's neck.

Suddenly, there was more shouting from the direction of Front Street, and now Jess could make out the words.  

“The bank’s been robbed!”

“They’re in the alley!”

“Stop them!”

More gunfire roared, creating one long, rolling echo like distant thunder. Jess heard bullets pepper the side of the hardware store, close enough that he clearly heard them zipping through the air like angry bees. He ducked back just as the bank robbers spun their horses and charged toward him.

Jess found his gun in his hand; he wasn't even aware of pulling it. He snapped off a shot at the outlaws, the need to be careful not to hit the townsfolk who were running along behind the robbers and shooting at them causing him to pull his shot wide. He didn’t get off another shot as his horse was suddenly rearing and spinning, wanting to follow the robbers’ mounts as they thundered past him at a dead gallop.

Just then a man stepped out of the rear door of the hardware store, at the same time Jess’ attention was drawn to the sight of more men running into the alley, guns drawn.

Out of nowhere, a bullet whipped past his head, far too close for comfort, and then someone yelled, "There! There they are! There’s one!"

Jess hadn't heard a volley of gunfire since the war that could rival the one that followed. He  saw one of the outlaws get hit, flung clean out of the saddle by the force of a well-aimed slug, and another slump against his horse's neck and slip to the ground. More bullets were flying wildly, slapping into the sides of buildings all along both sides of the alley as the townsfolk fired wildly at the fleeing outlaws.

Trapped amid all the confusion, Jess never saw the man who shot him.

He didn't hear the gun go off amid the thunderous cacophony of gunfire. He just knew that one moment he was sitting astride his rearing horse, fighting to gain control, and the next, something slammed him in the ribs below his right arm, nearly knocking him out of the saddle. There was a moment of stunned surprise before the pain hit and his side suddenly blossomed with fire, like hot acid was eating through his flesh. He tried to draw a breath but that just ignited a new inferno, this one sharp and stabbing and white hot, and rather than filling his lungs with oxygen, the attempt to inhale tore his breath away.  His vision went red and sparkly and everything in his peripheral vision went dark, like he was peering down a long, deep tunnel.

The sound of gunfire and shouting grew suddenly dim, and everything was happening absurdly slowly. Abruptly, Jess was acutely aware that he was falling, his gun slipping out of his hand, and he hit the rock -hard dirt of the alley with a jarring force that completely knocked the wind out of him.

Without knowing quite how he’d gotten there, Jess found himself lying with his face in the dirt and wet warmth spreading down his side.

He lifted his head and tried to move, to crawl away to somewhere far away from the raging pain, but his body couldn’t seem to follow his orders, as if his bones and muscles had turned to mush. The last thing he heard was someone standing over him shouting, "I got one of 'em! Hey, I got one of them outlaws."

Outlaws? Jess wondered. He tried once more to push himself up, to see who it was that the shouting man was talking about, but the swirling darkness rose up in a monstrous wave that crashed over him and swept him down with it, down into the depths of the swirling, all-consuming blackness.

x-x-x-x-x

 

Marshal Dillon, followed closely by Deputy Newly O’Brien, hurried into the alley.  Among the milling townsfolk, he could see that three men were down, two of them lying toward the end of the alley. One was clearly dead, sprawled face up with open but unseeing eyes staring up at the sky. The next was sitting up, hunched over, one hand clutching a shoulder wound that was seeping blood. "Watch this one," Matt ordered Newly, then walked back toward the hardware store to where the third man lay face down in the dirt. Something about the body looked familiar as the tall marshal knelt and rolled the man over.

Dillon was shocked to recognize the face of the recent occupant of his jail, the young drifter from Texas, Jess Harper.

Matt's face was grim as he looked down at the wounded man.  A dark stain was growing on Harper's shirt, blood leaking steadily from a small neat hole in the man’s side midway between his shoulder and his waist.

No one could sustain blood loss like that for long.

"Get this one to Doc's," Matt ordered his deputy brusquely. "Hurry. He’s in bad shape."

"Right away, Mathew," Festus Hagan motioned to several of the bystanders to help him lift the wounded man. Quickly they picked Harper up and hurrying, carried him toward Doc Adam's office, just across the  street.

 

Jess was dimly aware of movement, but he couldn't force his eyes to open. Pain spiked with every breath, agony tearing through him in roiling waves, and he groaned as he was lifted and jostled. He could feel the blood running wet and warm under his shirt, soaking into his clothes. He shuddered, feeling a sudden chill, and a moan escaped his lips as the pain spiked.

x-x-x-x-x

 

Doc Adams, clad as always in his rumpled suit, had heard the rattle of gunfire. He was halfway down the stairs from his second floor office when Festus and the men rounded the corner, carrying the badly injured drifter.

Doc stopped them long enough to look at the cowboy’s wound and confirm that the man was still breathing.

"There's another wounded outlaw over yonder, Doc, but he ain’t hurt near so bad as this feller," Festus told him.

"Get this one upstairs, now," Doc ordered, turning to follow the men as they carried the moaning man up the stairs and into the office.

Festus directed the men to lay the wounded cowboy on the surgical table. Doc removed his suit coat, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and began pulling out the tools of his trade-- surgical instruments, thick clean bandages, and a bottle of disinfectant. He cut away his patient’s bloody shirt and undershirt, revealing the neat round entrance wound along the young man’s ribs. There was no exit wound.

Just then the office’s outer door opened, and Kitty Russell bustled in, a look of concern on her face. "Doc, could you use some help?" she asked. She'd acted as Adams’ nurse on many occasions.

"Yes, thanks, Kitty. An extra set of hands would be a big help.” He pointed over at a cupboard. “Bring me some of those towels, would you?"

As Kitty got the supplies, she stepped up to the table. "Oh, no," she muttered, recognizing the charming young man she'd talked to a few days before. His blue eyes were closed; his handsome face deathly pale with tight lines creasing his forehead and drawing his mouth into a painful grimace.

"You know him?" Doc asked without looking up as he blotted the flowing blood, trying to get a clear look at the heavily bleeding wound.

"I met him the other day," said Kitty sadly, quickly recovering her composure. “His name is Jess Harper, from Texas.”

Doc was sorting through his medical instruments and finally found what he was looking for. Picking up the probe, he wiped blood from around the wound and gently inserted the medical tool into the wound.

The injured man moaned and shifted on the table.

"Hold still," Doc ordered him gruffly. He knew this was going to hurt his patient, it would have been a kindness to give him an anesthetic, but there was no time. The wound was bleeding steadily, the kind of blood loss that would kill a man quick. The bullet needed to be taken out, the interior damage repaired and the wound stitched without delay if there was any chance to save this man’s life.  

Kitty wiped some of the sweat off the youngster’s brow, holding his head steady as the physician  went to work. She watched Doc's lined face as he concentrated on his task, his gnarled hands steady on the forceps as he worked the instrument deeper into the wound.

The semi-conscious patient groaned again, louder this time, his breathing harsh and pain-filled.

Doc looked up at Kitty. “Hold him still now,” he ordered, and then, with a twist of the forceps, he reached in, quickly gripped the bullet, and extracted it.

The patient hollered and bucked upward, his shoulders rising off the table and then he slumped and fell back, totally unconscious.

“Doc?” Kitty asked, worried.

Doc raised his head. "He’s good, Kitty, and I can work now without hurting him more," the old medical man added kindly. Proceeding with practiced deliberation, the elderly doctor poured disinfectant on the wound and peering closely through his glasses quickly sewed up the blood vessel, thoroughly cleaning the wound and finally closing the incision with neat stitches. Done, he laid a thick bandage over the would and turned away, wiping his hands on a towel.

The old physician sighed, knowing his second patient was already in the waiting room. "That's the best I can do for him now. The bullet’s out, and the bleeding’s stopped. Whether he recovers or not, well, that will be up to him,” Doc explained. “Kitty, can you stay with him for a while? I need to see to that other man."

"Sure, Doc."

The elderly physician left the room while the tall redhead went to the porcelain pitcher and basin on the dresser along the far wall, pouring water from the pitcher into the basin. Kitty took the cloth she'd been using to wipe Jess’ face and dipped it in the water, wringing out the excess before using it to wipe his forehead and face one more time. She washed the blood from his hands and from his chest, the water in the basin turning pinker each time she rinsed the cloth.

Finally, gently, she brushed the thick dark curls off his forehead, wiping beads of sweat from his face with the cool cloth, and wondered if somewhere he had a family or friends who would worry about him.

Or grieve for him.

x-x-x-x-x-x

 

Kitty heard the posse go clattering out of town, chasing the lone fleeing outlaw. Otherwise, the afternoon passed quietly. Her patient lay unmoving on the table, his cheeks colorless, his breathing ragged, the handsome young face drawn tight, as if even while only semi-conscious, he was in terrible pain. She asked Doc about giving him laudanum, but there was a worry that the pain-killer could impair his breathing, Doc explained, so there was nothing she could do but watch.

She wiped his face and neck over and over again with the damp cloth, but that was all she could do for him, other than just to be there so he wasn’t alone. If he even knew.

The redhead was still sitting with Jess Harper when, hours later, she heard the office’s outer door open. Matt’s familiar tones questioned Doc in a low voice, words she couldn’t make out, and then he opened the door to the adjoining room where she sat with the patient.

The marshal held his hat in his hands as he stepped up to stand beside her. “How’s he doing, Kitty?” he asked softly.

The saloon owner looked down at the still form of the drifter from Texas, his face nearly as white as the sheets he lay on, his breathing rough, and shook her head, sadness written on her face. “There’s been no change since Doc dug the bullet out. He says it doesn’t look good.”

“Doc told me he lost a lot of blood, but he looks strong enough; he might have a chance to pull through, with a little luck on his side.”

She looked up at the marshal. “How did this happen, Matt?”

“Young Harper here was apparently acting as a lookout for the bank robbers. You know Elias Kendry, he works at the hardware store.”

She did. He was the young clerk who often waited on her at the business that occupied the building next door to the bank.

“When all the ruckus started, Kendry went out the back door of the store, saw Harper in the alley with the bank robbers, and shot him as they were making a getaway.”

Kitty shook her head in disbelief. “And the others?”

“One’s in the other room. Doc’s fixed him up and he’ll be fine.  One’s down at the undertakers, and the other one got away with the money. We followed his trail out of town, but lost it along Huber’s Creek. Festus stayed on his trail, and I’ll be going back out to join him in the morning. Hopefully we can track down this fellah’s partner. ”

Kitty once more looked at the patient, her expression troubled. “He’s an outlaw? I just don’t know, Matt. He was alone when he came into town.”

“Kitty, you know that doesn’t mean anything,” the marshal reminded her. “He could have been acting as scout for the others.”

She couldn’t put into words what it was that she had liked about this particular drifting cowboy the moment she met him, but there was something about him that had left a deep impression on her. She hadn’t been swayed by his youth or his outward charm; she’d been in the saloon business for far too many years to be taken in by such things. But she had seen something likable about Jess Harper. “I just don’t see this boy as an outlaw, Matt.”

She didn’t want to believe he was an outlaw, but the facts appeared to say otherwise.

Then again, whether he was or was not might not matter at all. Even Doc wasn’t sure that he’d live through the night.

x-x-x-x-x-x

 

PART THREE---

Doc Adams pulled back the blankets and placed his stethoscope on his patient’s chest. The man’s heartbeat was steady and strong. The will to live was powerful in this one, Doc thought. Frankly, he was surprised Jess Harper had survived the surgery to remove the bullet, considering the large amount of blood he’d lost before arriving at the office. Adams, though, had been a doctor for many years, and after all that time nothing about the human body, or spirit, seemed impossible to him any more. The old physician had seen patients he’d expected to recover succumb to wounds he would have judged minor, and at the same time, he’d seen men survive horrific wounds he’d thought would kill them for sure.

He removed his glasses and wearily rubbed his gritty eyes. It had been a very long day and night for an old man. The other outlaw’s wound had been a minor one; he’d already been moved over to the jail, but this one was going to be under his care for many days.

If he lived that long.

Doc took the chair beside the bed, sitting down heavily, feeling immensely weary.

Soft footsteps sounded, and Kitty entered the room, carrying two enamel cups. “I brought you some coffee, Doc.”

“Thanks, Kitty.”

She handed him one of the cups and took a seat in the chair on the other side of the bed. “So how is he doing?”

Doc tasted the coffee, hot and strong, just the way he liked it. “He’s better than I expected. Honestly, I didn’t think he’d make it through last night. He’s got a long ways to go, Kitty, but he’s got a chance. He’s a tough one.”

She sipped her coffee and nodded.

Doc stroked his chin, shaking his head. “It’s a shame, though. If he does make it, he’s going to be spending a long time in jail.”

Kitty thought she saw a flicker of movement on the pale face, a hint of a grimace, but then it was gone, and he was unmoving once more.

x-x-x-x-x-x

When Jess clawed his way up toward the light, pain was the center of his existence. Every inhalation, every exhalation, every pause in between, hurt.  He fought for awareness, but the pain dragged him back down like a drowning man pulled under by a fast-flowing current. He tried to fight it, but he was so exhausted, and it was so persistent that he finally gave in and welcomed the onrushing oblivion, because there, in the darkness, nothing hurt.

x-x-x-x-x-x

Her patient had been increasingly restless for the past hour. Slight movements, flickerings beneath the eyelids, a frown or a grimace, all indicated approaching consciousness. Kitty had let Doc know what she’d seen, and he was relieved. This was the first real sign of improvement. Young Harper had been unconscious for two days while the pair of them had taken turns sitting at his bedside.

It was early evening of the second day when Jess’ eyes finally opened. There was a tiny flash of blue and a half-stifled groan, alerting Kitty to the change in the patient’s condition.

She thought of telling Doc, but he was finally getting some much-needed rest. Instead, Kitty pulled her chair closer to the bed and began talking softly to the wounded man. “Jess? Jess Harper? Can you hear me?”

The eyes opened once again, looking sleepy and unfocused, but staying open long enough to sweep around the room.

“Hello, Jess. Do you remember me?” she asked.

He turned his eyes toward the sound of her voice, but making them focus was still beyond him.

Kitty, though, was pleased to see his response and continued talking softly to him as he licked his dry lips and made a visible effort to form words.

His voice was raw and weak, but she bent closer and clearly heard him say, “Miz Kitty?”

“Yes, Jess.” Mindful of Doc’s instructions to get him to drink, she immediately offered him the full glass of water she’d had waiting, the liquid laced with laudanum to ease his pain. “Here, young man, drink this, all of it now.” She lifted his head a bit with her left hand, holding the cup to his lips with her right. He drank a couple of swallows, then coughed but drank more before his eyes drifted closed again.

He’d gotten less than half the dose of the drug, but still he slept soundly after that, the laudanum taking hold and keeping the pain at bay.

Most of the next 24 hours passed the same way. Jess would begin to stir, awaken with a raging thirst, drink more of the drug-laced liquid, then drift off to sleep for hours more of healing rest. It left him with only a vague awareness of someone giving him water, of a soft soothing voice talking to him, and a gentle hand smoothing back his hair.

And absolutely no knowledge of the trouble he was in.

x-x-x-x-x

 

It was the sound of voices that brought him around to full consciousness at last. Jess could hear the words as if from a distance, loud enough to disturb his rest, but too muffled and indistinct for him to make out what they were saying. Instead, he drifted near the surface of awareness, and for the first time wondered what had happened to him. His body ached, the worst of it centered in his ribcage along his right side, a steady throbbing pain, pulsing in time with his heartbeat and surging with each indrawn breath.  It made his thoughts dip and swirl, full consciousness floating just beyond his reach like leaves moving slowly with the current on a pond.

Trying to make sense of his situation, he could only pull disconnected bits and pieces out of his memory. He remembered falling, that was pretty much the extent of what he could recall, the hurt, and the fall, and the taste of dust in his mouth. He couldn’t quite grasp onto the rest of the memory; it kept sliding away from him like a fish slipping off the hook.

Just about then, Jess became aware that someone was calling his name. That caught his attention, and with an all-out effort he forced his eyes to open. It was day, the light so harsh and bright that it made his eyes water. He blinked slowly and finally focused on a face he didn’t recognize, a craggy but kindly old man’s face with a gray mustache and small round glasses perched on his nose.

“Awake finally, are you, young man?” the old timer asked, taking off the glasses and stowing them in his pocket.

“Wh-“ he started, then licked his lips and tried again. “Who’re you?” Jess asked, his voice a mere whisper.

“I’m Doctor Adams.” The old man smiled gently. “I don’t suppose you remember me.”

“No.” Jess’ eyes were shifting, looking around the room. He didn’t recognize it, either. “Where’m I?”

“You’re in my medical office. You’ve been here for four days now.”

That caught his patient’s attention. The blue eyes snapped back to focus on Doc’s face.

“Four days?” he asked, slowly. “What happened?”

“You were shot.”

Jess tried to look down at his body, but his head seemed to weigh a ton, and he lacked the strength to lift it far enough to see anything.

“You took a bullet in the side. It struck a rib, breaking it, and then damaging a blood vessel, causing severe blood loss. You were very lucky — a few inches further to the right and you’d have been dead before you even got close to my office.”

“Lucky. Right.” Jess didn’t feel lucky, there was nothing lucky about the pain he was feeling.

“There’s someone here who’d like to talk to you.” The doctor stood and spoke to a person Jess couldn’t quite see, someone standing just beyond the doorway. “Keep it short, Matt. Don’t tire him out too much. He’s still awfully weak.”

“Sure, Doc.”

A towering figure stepped into the room and loomed above Jess’ bed. Here was someone Jess recognized, Marshal Dillon. Good, maybe he was here to find out which rotten skunk had shot him. Jess tried to sit up a bit, but the slight movement sent a shaft of agony spearing through him, so intense it made the room spin. He sucked in a breath with a hiss and let it out slow.

The marshal was watching him with concern, then relaxed as he saw the young man fight back the pain and take a more normal breath. Matt sat down in the chair beside the ailing drifter’s bed. “Mister Harper.”

There was something ominous in the way the lawman said his name, Jess thought, but feeling poorly as he did, he couldn’t put a name to it. “Marshal.” A sudden idea hit Jess. “Was it that sidewinder Gleason who shot me?”

“No, son, it wasn’t.” The lawman shook his head, his face grim. “I have to ask you, what were you doing in that alley?”

Jess didn’t remember being in the alley and weakly shook his head no.

“You don’t have a reason for being there?”

Jess shook his head no again.

The marshal looked unhappy with his response. “Then I must inform you, Mister Harper, that you are under arrest for bank robbery.”

That statement jarred the last of the cobwebs out of Jess’ brain. “What?” He tried to push himself up on his elbows, and failed, falling back and breathing heavily, his hand going to cover the wound in his side.

The pain was rising in waves so big and wide he couldn’t breathe, much less speak, but he kept fighting it, needing an explanation. Bank robbery? Under arrest? What in the blue blazes had happened? Jess could feel his heart hammering in his chest, and that was kicking the pain up notch after notch to unbearable levels. “Marsh…” he tried to ask but the pain overwhelmed him, and he lost his fragile grip on awareness, unconsciousness re-claiming him.

x-x-x-x-x

 

Hours later, Jess awoke in darkness, the room only dimly illuminated by the faint glow of a streetlight filtering in from outside the small window. Someone was dozing in a chair across the room, a woman, Miss Kitty, he reckoned.

In those first few confused moments, Jess didn’t remember anything else, the how or the why of his situation, his mind numbed by the last remnants of the pain-killing drug the doctor had given him. But as he gathered the scattered thoughts in his brain, rounding them up and herding them together, reality crashed down on him.

He was in Dodge City.

He’d been shot.

And he was somehow under arrest for bank robbery.

Concentrating, he was able to remember some of it. He recalled riding back into town in search of Gleason and deciding to ride down the alley instead of Dodge’s main street, to avoid the marshal.  After that, there was only a confused jumble of bits and pieces skittering around in his brain-- gun shots and shouting, men running, horses racing toward him, drawing his gun, falling, his face in the dirt, and the pain roaring up out of the darkness like a living, breathing monster, consuming him.

He felt his heart racing along at express-train speed, his breath coming hard and sharp and reawakening the pain in his side.

He clutched his ribcage with his hand, unaware of the low moan that escaped him.

Quickly, Kitty was right there by his side. “Easy, Jess,” she told him, putting a hand on his arm. “Lie still.”

He looked up at her, his handsome face twisted into a grimace. “Miss Kitty, I didn’t rob that bank.”

“Don’t be worrying about that now,” she soothed him. “We’ll take care of that later.”

“I didn’t,” he insisted. “I didn’t have no part of it.”

She got him a glass of water, and helped him drink, and the laudanum Doc had added to it quickly corralled the pain and put him back to sleep. But she wouldn’t soon forget the look of panic she’d seen in his terrified eyes.

x-x-x-x

 

It wasn’t like he planned what he did.  When he woke up the next time, the idea was there, fully formed in his head, and he didn’t hesitate. Miss Kitty was still sitting in the chair across from his bed, sleeping. Jess braced himself with his left elbow, pushing himself until he was sitting up, jaw muscles twitching as he clenched his teeth to hold back any sound of pain. He swung his legs over and off the side of the bed, the air cold against his bare calves as the room spun wildly. The walls and floor and ceiling were all swapping places like a sunfishing bronc, so he closed his eyes and willed his brain to ignore the spinning. After a moment, it sort of worked— the world was only wobbling like a drunk cowboy, not whirling madly.

Bracing himself with his right hand, his left arm held across his body and the hand tightly clamped over the thick wad of bandages there, he put his feet on the floor and stood. His legs wobbled, knees shaking and threatening to throw him to the floor, but he fought for his balance and won, feeling suddenly triumphant.

He didn’t know where he was going; he wasn’t thinking of the incongruousness of a man in a nightshirt heading out into the street; Jess only knew that he had to get away. He wasn’t about to face the prospect of being locked up for something he hadn’t done.

Right hand braced against the wall to steady himself, Jess took a hunched-over step, and another, barely breathing. He stopped, fighting back another wave of dizziness, and when he could, he pushed on. Three steps, then four. He was all the way to the doorway when his strength gave out, his legs suddenly betraying him and buckling like rotten wood. Desperately, he grabbed onto the doorframe, sliding toward the floor with a groan of pain and frustration.

That was the noise that woke her, the painful sound he made, drawing her gaze to where the youthful cowboy was sinking slowly toward the floor. “Doc!” Miss Kitty called out as she hurried across the room to kneel beside Jess, easing him the rest of the way to the floor.

A moment later, the old doctor joined them, shirt only half-buttoned, stroking his mustache, and looking brusque and out of sorts.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Doc Adams asked his patient, glaring.

Jess didn’t answer. The dizziness was back in sickening waves, and it was taking all the strength he had to not throw up all over his rescuers’ shoes.

“Moving around like this, you’ll undo all the good work I’ve done in saving your life, young man,” Doc chided him.

“I didn’t rob that bank,” Jess muttered through clenched teeth.

“Let’s not worry about that now,” the old doctor instructed his patient. With Jess’ limited help, Doc and Kitty were able to get him back into his bed.

x-x-x-x-x-x

 

“The nurses around here sure took a turn for the ugly,” Jess complained when he awoke later that afternoon. Miss Kitty had been replaced by the hillbilly deputy he remembered from his overnight stay in the jail, Festus Hagan.

The patient raised his hand to brush across his face, only for it to jerk to a sudden stop just inches above the mattress. He lifted his head and looked down, discovering a handcuff encircling his wrist, the chain extending downward and out of his sight.

“Yer cuffed to the bed,” the deputy explained.

“What for?” Jess demanded, jerking at the cuff as he glared at the hillbilly.

“That escape attempt this mornin’,” Festus reminded him.

“I told you, I’m no bank robber,” Jess answered forcefully, then fell back onto the bed, his side hurting once again.

“You’ll get your chance to tell that to a judge soon enough.”

Jess stared helplessly up at the ceiling, fighting down the dread that swelled inside his chest. “I want to talk to the marshal.”

x-x-x-x-x

 

Marshal Dillon climbed the stairs to Doc Adams’ second-floor office shortly before noon, Festus having sent word that the prisoner/patient Harper wanted to talk to the lawman. Matt opened the door to the outer office to see Doc Adams seated at his desk, reading the morning paper and drinking coffee.

The marshal pulled the hat from his head. “Hi, Doc. How’s our patient doing?”

Adams set down his paper and adjusted his glasses. “Despite his little adventure this morning, he’s much better today.”

“No more escape attempts?”

“Unless he chews through those handcuffs you’ve put on him, he won’t be doing that again,” the doctor answered gruffly, disapproval plain in his voice.

Matt ignored the jibe. “No, he won’t. I got a message that he wanted to talk to me. Is he up to it, do you think?”

Doc stroked his mustache and sighed. “Oh, I suppose so. Go on in. Just don’t wear him out too much, Matt. Despite what he tried to do this morning, he’s still a very sick young man.”

Matt nodded, crossing the office and opening the door to the adjoining room. Harper was awake, looking longingly out the small window toward the street, and turned his head quickly to face the marshal. Using his left elbow, the patient hitched himself up on the bed a bit, clenching his jaw as he did so.

Beneath the nearly week’s growth of beard, Harper’s face had regained some color, Matt thought, a good sign that the Texan was on the road to recovery.  The tall lawman paused by the foot of the bed. “I heard you wanted to talk to me, Harper.”

Jess nodded and got right to the point. “You need to know, marshal, I didn’t have anything to do with your bank robbery.”

Matt said nothing as he studied the young man’s face. Harper’s voice had the ring of truth to it, and the blue eyes looked sincere, but then, a lie came as easy as the truth to the lips of a lot of outlaws.

Jess lifted his right arm, pulling at the handcuff that chained him to the bed. “There’s no reason for this.”

“Well, you are under arrest, Harper.”

Jess’ eyes flashed. “And I told you I’m innocent.”

“There’s people who say otherwise, young man.”

“Who?” Jess demanded, then grimaced as his side twisted with pain.

Matt answered calmly. “Several men say you shot at them.”

Jess closed his eyes, then reopened them slowly. “I was firing at the robbers, who were shootin’ at everyone, includin’ me.”

“That’s not how people saw it,” Matt answered. “Then there’s the store clerk who shot you. He said you were riding out with the outlaws.”

“You’ll take his word over mine?”

“He has no reason to lie, Harper.”

“He was mistaken!” Jess shouted, then gasped and closed his eyes, his breath rasping. After a moment, his breathing back under control, he opened his eyes and asked, “Marshal, I heard you caught at least one a’ them outlaws. Didn’t you ask him? He can clear this up; tell you I wasn’t ridin’ with them; that I never laid eyes on ‘em until that morning in the alley.”

The lawman sighed. “Yes, I’ve got a man locked up in my jail; he was shot in that alley that morning, too.  Sanderson is his name. I asked him a lot of things, including who his accomplices were, and who you were, but he’s not talking, not at all. Even had to search through wanted posters to find his name.”  Dillon paused, then added, not unkindly, “And son, you know it wouldn’t matter what Sanderson says about you. No one would expect him to admit knowing you, even if you were the best friend he ever had.”

Jess knew that, but his frustration that no one would believe him had risen so high it was nearly choking him. He was just a drifter, a no-account to people in a town like Dodge City, and no one would believe him if he told them the sun rose in the east. “But I didn’t do it!” he rasped out, his breathing once again labored.

Matt waited a moment, giving the recovering man a chance to catch his breath before asking, “Harper, if you weren’t there to rob the bank, then what were you doing in that alley?”

Jess knew he didn’t have an answer that would impress the marshal, not even the truth, but it was the only thing he could say. “I only came back to town to find that gambler who fleeced me, Gleason,” he answered defensively.

“And why should I believe that?” Dillon asked.

“Because it’s the truth!” Jess snapped, his breathing harsh.

Doc Adams suddenly appeared in the doorway, concern for his patient’s welfare showing by the frown on his face. He could see Harper’s agitation and knew it wasn’t good for a man just back from the brink of death. “I think that’s enough for now, Matt.”

“No,” Jess protested, pushing up on one elbow. “You have to believe me, Marshal. I was just riding through and — oh gawd,” he suddenly doubled over, left hand pressed to his bandaged right side, his face contorting.

“Matt, out, now,” Doc ordered, brushing past the marshal as he hurried to his patient’s side.

Jess sank back on the bed. “Please,” he whispered. “I didn’t, I didn’t…” and then the pain took his breath away and as much as he wanted to explain, he couldn’t say anymore.

When Doc offered it, Jess gratefully accepted the drug-laced water.

x-x-x-x-x-x

 

Matt Dillon descended the stairs from Doc Adams’ office and crossed the street to the Long Branch, lost in thought. Adjusting his hat when he entered, the marshal walked over to his regular table and, with a deep sigh, took a seat, removing the Stetson and running a hand through his hair. It was mid-afternoon and the saloon, as usual at that time of day, was nearly empty and very quiet, awaiting the evening crowd that would be loud and boisterous and quite likely troublesome. 

Even before Matt could make a request for his usual refreshment, Kitty had poured him a schooner of beer from the tap.  The redhead carried the beer over to his table and took a seat on the chair across from him, looking pensive. “Matt, about Jess…”

He was taking a first sip of his beer and set it quickly back down on the table with a loud thump. “Kitty, don’t you start in on me about Jess Harper.”
”He keeps saying he wasn’t part of that robbery, Matt.”

“He was in that alley, in the middle of that bunch of outlaws.”

“It’s a public alley, Matt. Anyone could have been there.”
Matt picked up his glass again and this time took a long swallow of the rich brew, savoring it before speaking again. ”But no one else was there, Kitty. And remember, I’d ordered him out of town the day before. Watched him ride away. He had no legitimate reason to come back to Dodge.”

“Matt, that’s only circumstantial evidence, and you know it. What about his story about that gambler, that the man owed him money?”

The marshal shook his head. “It’s one man’s word against another’s. There’s no proof who’s telling the truth. And Gleason’s gone, left on the stage yesterday morning.”

“What did the Emporia sheriff say?” the saloon owner demanded.

Matt took another drink of his beer. “Oh, he backed up Harper’s story about that shooting all right. Said the kid shot that gambler in front of a whole saloon full of witnesses, and every one of ‘em agreed the cardsharp drew first. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the bank robbery here, Kitty, and you know it.” The marshal took another drink of his beer and set the glass down on the table more carefully this time. “Though it does prove that he won’t hesitate to shoot a man.”

The redhead was still unconvinced. “I spent a lot of time with that young man, Matt. I just don’t see him as the outlaw type.”

Matt shook his head. She hadn’t seen Harper that night in the saloon, drawing his gun, the cold, deadly look in his eyes. “Kitty, there’s more than a few outlaws who are charming rascals one minute and cold-blooded killers the next.”

She sighed. “I know. Just….”

“Kitty, Elias Kendry saw Harper in that alley with his gun drawn.”

“A lot of men had their guns out that day,” the redhead defended. “What does your other prisoner have to say?”

Matt shook his head. “Sanderson isn’t talking.” He took another swig of his beer.

“Doesn’t that tell you something?” she suggested hopefully.

“No, Kitty, it doesn’t. I wouldn’t expect him to admit that Harper was in on the robbery if he was.” Matt pushed the empty schooner toward the center of the table, and looked directly across at her.  “Look, I’d like to find some proof that that Harper is innocent, I really would, but there just doesn’t seem to be any.”

“But….”

“Kitty, you know that what happens to him isn’t up to me, it’s up to a judge and a jury to decide his fate. But I’ll tell you, as things stand now, it looks like he’ll be going to jail for a long time.”

x-x-x-x-x-x

 

PART FOUR----

Jess continued to make slow but steady progress, taking a few slow tentative steps around the room, adding a few more each day; sitting up in the chair and gazing longingly out the window in the afternoons; eating his meals sitting at the small table. Always, there was a guard in the room, either the talkative Festus or the quiet Newly, as his constant companions except at night when he was handcuffed to the bed frame.

At the end of the week, Doc Adams finally gave his reluctant permission for Jess to be moved from the medical office down to the jail.

Doc suggested it would be best if the youthful prisoner was carried on a stretcher.

Jess flat out refused.

By the time he was dressed, however, Jess was no longer sure he hadn’t stubbornly bitten off more than he could chew. He’d almost passed out just bending over to put his boots on, but he clenched his jaw and finished the task.

Leaning heavily on Festus on one side and Newly on the other, and with Doc and Kitty fussing along behind, Jess shuffled across the office and out the door to the head of the stairs. Fighting back a bout of dizziness that made it hard to keep his feet under him, he made his way slowly down the stairs, one slow step at a time, pausing between each one, lips pressed tightly together in concentration.

Fortunately, it wasn’t far to the jail because Jess’ legs were shaking like jelly by the time the deputies helped him maneuver inside, across the office, and finally back into the cell block. Pale and shaking, he gratefully sank down on the bunk, leaning back against the wall, closing his eyes and thinking of nothing but subduing the stabbing pain in his side.

Guess he wasn’t nearly as healed as he’d thought he was, he concluded. Jess sat like that for long moments, unaware that the elderly doctor was watching him carefully with narrowed eyes. Finally, he opened his eyes and saw the old medical man looking down at him, worry written plain on his craggy face, while the marshal stood conspicuously in the background.

“Are you all right now?” Adams asked, his keen eyes observing Jess closely.

“Oh, I’m just about as right as a man could be, shot and in jail for somethin’ he didn’t do,” Jess answered testily.

The Doc stroked his mustache and shook his head, then turned to the marshal and issued orders. “Matt, you see that he rests. And be sure he’s got water available at all times, and that he gets, and eats, a decent meal. I’ll be by to check on him again later,” Adams reminded the lawman.

“We’ll take care of it, Doc, don’t worry,” the marshal promised.

Adams, noting his patient’s rapid breathing and the tight set to the lines on his face, patted Jess’ shoulder and offered, “I can give you something for the pain if you’d like.”

Jess shook his head. He’d had enough laudanum over the past days. The drug dulled the pain, but he wasn’t willing to trade that for the way it made him sleepy and slow-witted, like his brain wasn’t quite attached to the rest of his body. “No thanks, Doc. It ain’t so bad when I ain’t movin’. And it ain’t like I’m gonna be goin’ anywhere else for a while.” Carefully, he laid back on the bunk, shifting cautiously until he found a relatively comfortable position, and closed his eyes.

“Rest is the best thing for you,” Doc said kindly, and Jess heard the old man’s slow footsteps leave his cell, then the marshal’s heavier tread approach just before the dull clatter of the cell door being closed and the jangle of keys as it was locked.

“Holler if you need anything, Harper,” Dillon added.

Jess didn’t move. There were things he desperately needed, but nothing the marshal was going to give him, like the truth to clear him of this charge, like the key to this cell, like his horse and his gun so he could ride out of this town and never look back.

He still couldn’t believe this was happening to him — being shot as a bank robber and then jailed for a crime he hadn’t committed.

Something would turn up, he told himself; he had to believe that. He was innocent of bank robbery. But hard as he tried to find something positive to think about, his mind continued racing madly in ever-widening circles, seeking a way out of this mess, and finding none. Finally, overcome by exhaustion, Jess slept.

x~~~~~~~~~~x

 

The next morning, having heard the rumor while enjoying breakfast at Delmonico’s, Doc went directly down the street to the marshal’s office. His anger lent speed to his steps as he entered the office and confronted the lawman who was seated behind his desk. “Matt, what in tarnation is this I hear about you deciding to put Jess Harper on trial in a few days? Just because I let you move him over to the jail doesn’t main he’s not still in need of medical care.”

The big marshal threw his hands up in the air in front of him. “Now hold on there a minute, Doc. Don’t you go jumpin’ to conclusions. It wasn’t my idea.”

“Well then, whose idea was it?” Adams demanded.

“The new circuit judge, Harrison Clayton.”

Doc pointed back toward the cellblock. “That boy is still my patient,” he insisted vehemently. “I haven’t released him.”

“I know that,” Matt answered calmly, hoping to soothe the old man’s temper. He rose and moved across the room toward the potbellied stove where the coffeepot was simmering. “Let me get you some coffee, Doc, and I’ll explain.”

The old doctor shook his head. “I didn’t come here for coffee, Matt.”

“I know, Doc, but I sure need some,” the marshal soothed, lifting the battered pot and pouring a cup for himself and another for the elderly doctor. He carried them over to his desk, setting one on the edge of the desk near a chair for the doctor, and taking the other with him as he returned to his chair. “Just take a load off your feet, and we’ll talk about this.”

Still sputtering, Adams took the offered seat and picked up the coffee, taking a small sip before setting the cup back on the desk. “Let’s hear it, Matt.”

“Judge Clayton will be here on his regular rounds at the end of the week.”

“That’s way too soon to put that young man through the stress of a trial. Matt, you know he nearly died and he’s a long way from being fully recovered,” Adams started. “Why, he could relapse and….”

“Now, just you back up a minute, Doc, and listen to all the facts.” Matt leaned back in his chair. “I know you and Kitty like him, but that drifter is no boy. He’s a grown man and he is responsible for the mistakes he’s made.  As for the trial, if we don’t hold his trial now, on this visit by the judge, we’ll need to keep Harper and the other man here for another whole month. That’s a big expense for the town.”

“I know that, Matt, but…”

The marshal raised a calming hand. “Hear me out, Doc. Judge Clayton wired from Wichita, and he says he’ll hold Harper’s trial here, in the jail. That will make it easier on him.”

“This is a mighty small space for a trial,” the medical man observed.

“It will be a trial before the judge only, with no jury — it’s been done before.”

Doc stroked his chin thoughtfully. “That hardly seems fair, Matt.”

“It meets all the legal requirements, Doc. And to be honest, considering the case against him, I’d say it’s sure that he’ll be found guilty either way,” Matt reminded. “In fact, he’s liable to get more leniency out of the judge than he would from townsfolk. Everyone knows someone who lost money in that robbery.” Dillon didn’t have to remind the doctor that the money hadn’t been recovered, and a lot of people had lost their life savings. Sentiment was running high against the robbers, and it was going to be difficult to find twelve impartial folks for a jury, much less twenty-four for two trials.

The evidence, both of them knew, was straightforward. Harper had been all but caught in the act, and neither man could see any way the drifter would be set free, despite his continuing protestations of innocence.

“After the trial, we’ll keep them both here another week, even two if Harper needs that much time,” Dillon mollified the worried doctor. “He’ll be released from your care for sure by then?”

“If there are no complications, yes, he should be,” Doc admitted grudgingly.

“So it’s set then,” Matt summed up.

Doc stroked his salt and pepper mustache. “There’s no other choice?”

“Not really, Doc.”

The old man sighed, rubbing a hand across his chin and shaking his head. “It’s a shame, Matt. I think there’s a decent young man under that rough exterior.”

“I won’t argue with you there, Doc, but I’m afraid it’s too late. Harper’s crossed the line, and there’s no going back for him.”

x-x-x-x-x-x

 

The next day, Festus Hagan, spurs jingling loudly, walked back into the cellblock and informed the prisoner, “Harper, you’ve got yourself a visitor.”

Jess stopped pacing, wondering who could possibly be here to see him. If it had been Doc Adams, who seemed determined to continue fussing over him, or Miss Kitty, who’d brought him things to help him pass the time like a deck of cards and the local newspapers, the deputy would have announced them by name. Other than those two, he was pretty sure he didn’t know anyone in Dodge City — that someone else was there to see him was a big, and a welcome, surprise.

“Harper?” the deputy asked again.

“Sure, I’ll see ‘em.” He’d talk to the devil himself to break the monotony of being locked in a cell, staring at the same four walls.

A minute later a middle-aged man Jess had never seen before was escorted into the cell block, a business-like type dressed in a neatly pressed three-piece suit. Jess took note of the man’s clean, soft hands and his pale, untanned skin.

“Who’re you?” Jess asked bluntly as the deputy unlocked the cell and gave the stranger admittance to the small, confined space, locking the door behind him.

“I’m your lawyer, Milton Howard.” The man held out his hand, offering to shake.

Jess ignored it. “I didn’t ask for no lawyer.”

“Everyone accused of a crime is entitled to a lawyer, Mister Harper. And the fact is, Miss Kitty Russell requested that I stop by.”

That surprised Jess, but didn’t change his mind. “Well, that was right nice of her, Mister Howard, but I don’t need a lawyer.”

Howard looked puzzled. “You have been charged with bank robbery, have you not? That’s a serious offense.”

“It’s a charge of which I’m innocent,” Jess insisted.

“And you think that will somehow save you?” the lawyer asked bluntly.

Jess looked down. He was pretty sure nothing was going to save him, because he had no way to prove that his story was true, only his own word, which meant nothing in this town, especially not when it was contradicted by a local man everyone knew. “No,” he admitted darkly.

“Then let me try to help you. Tell me your story.”

“I’ve got no way to pay you,” he admitted.

“That’s not a concern, Mister Harper. Miss Russell has taken care of that.” The lawyer sat down on the bunk. “Now, tell me exactly what happened.”

When Jess was done relating his simple story, he looked over at the lawyer, and the tiny bit of hope that had sprung to life with the attorney’s arrival just as quickly withered and died.

The lawyer was frowning pensively. “There’s no one who can back up your story?”

Jess shook his head no.

“Was there anyone you talked to, or anyone who might have seen you that morning?” the lawyer probed.

“No, I was camped out on the prairie, alone, and then I rode straight to town.”

“Do you have anyone who could serve as a character witness for you?”

“What’s a character witness?” Jess asked, puzzled.

“Someone who could tell the court about your good qualities, give the judge a reason to be lenient. Someone you worked for in the past, or, even better, a preacher you know?”

Jess laughed bitterly. “No.“ He’d never worked at any job more than a few months, which had never endeared him to any boss, and he hadn’t been in a church since his Ma died. He was a drifter, and for the past few years he had traveled alone, with no one to watch his back and no one to speak up for him.

Howard shook his head. “I’ll do what I can, Mister Harper, but to be honest, I’m afraid there’s not much available to me to mount an effective defense on your behalf.”

“I guess the truth just doesn’t matter, then, huh?” Jess asked sourly.

The lawyer’s rheumy brown eyes met Jess’ worried blue ones. “Unfortunately, young man, in a court of law, it’s not whether you’re innocent, it’s whether we can prove you’re innocent. And, to be blunt, from what I’ve heard from you here today, I don’t see how we can.”

x-x-x-x-x

 

Judge Harrison Clayton arrived in Dodge City on Thursday afternoon’s stage. A small but dapper man clad in a grey suit, a pearl grey Stetson, and shined black boots, he went immediately to the marshal’s office and informed Dillon of his strict timetable.

“I’ll try Sanderson over at the saloon at 9 a.m. tomorrow. When we’re done there, I’ll come back here, and we’ll try Harper,” Judge Clayton briskly informed the lawman. “If that’s the only business you have for me, I expect I’ll be able to stay on schedule and leave on the noon stage.”

x-x-x-x

 

Jess slept little that night and was far too nervous to consume any of his breakfast that morning, sending the uneaten plate of biscuits and gravy back to the cafe. He did drink his coffee, and the deputy brought him a second cup, but it burned like acid in his otherwise empty stomach as he waited.

This was the day his fate would be decided, and he both welcomed and dreaded the end to the growing uncertainty.

Sanderson, the only other resident of the cell block, was led away shortly before nine, leaving Jess alone with his roiling nerves.

He paced in the close confines of his cell as the minutes slowly ticked off the clock, but the constant back and forth movement did nothing to ease his growing sense of dread. His hands clenched into fists as he fought back the helplessness of waiting for his fate to be determined. Always before he’d been in charge of his own future— he’d fought for his life with his fists or his guns many times—but now his fate was going to be in the hands of others.

Near midmorning, the jail’s front door opened, and Jess heard the sound of several voices, and then Marshal Dillon came back into the cell block, the chained Sanderson walking in front of him. The lawman locked the now-convicted bank robber into the cell next to Jess and then turned to the young cowboy. The marshal’s face was grim as he opened the door.  “We’re ready for you, Harper,” the big lawman said, holding up the shackles he’d just removed from Sanderson.

Jess stared at the chains, quelling the rolling in his stomach and held out his hands, pleased to see that they weren’t shaking. The links felt as heavy as lead as Dillon fastened them around Jess’ wrists.

For a moment, the marshal’s eyes caught Jess’ with a surprisingly regretful look in them. “Let’s go,” Dillon said softly.
Jess swallowed, squared his shoulders as best he could, and preceded Dillon out into the office.

The judge was seated at a small table that had been placed beside the marshal’s desk. Right off the bat, Jess didn’t like his look— the man seemed stern and serious, and the unforgiving look the judge threw at him unsettled him even more.

Jess’ lawyer, Mister Howard, was waiting in a chair beside the stove, and Dillon led Jess over and had him sit beside the attorney. The only other people in the room were the deputy, Festus, and a young man Jess didn’t recognize, an earnest-looking, short, and thin youngster who appeared even younger than Jess, wearing a rumpled brown suit that was a size too big.

The judge rapped his gavel on the table and in a loud voice declared, “This meeting of the fifth circuit court of the State of Kansas is now in session. I’m Judge Harrison Clayton, and this court has been convened to hear the charge of bank robbery against,” he picked up a sheet of paper and read, “a Mister Jess Harper, formerly of Texas and with no current residence.”  He peered over the top edge of the paper at Jess. “You’re Harper?”

“Yes, Sir,” Jess managed to answer past the dry lump in his throat. His fists were clenched so tight his fingers were beginning to go numb.

“And your honor, I’m his attorney, Milton Howard,” the lawyer spoke up.

The judge looked at the man Jess didn’t know. “And you are?”

“Elias Kendry. I’m a witness, your honor.”

Jess glared—this must be the man who’d shot him, a kid who didn’t even look old enough to shave.

“All right, we’ll start with you, Mister Kendry.“ The boy stepped to the front of the room, placed his hand upon the Bible, and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and then took a seat in a chair placed near the judge. “Tell us what happened, Mister Kendry, and please keep it brief and to the point,” the judge instructed.

“Well, your honor, I work at the hardware store.”

“That’s located next to the bank?” Judge Clayton asked.

“Yes, your honor. Right next door. That’s how I heard all the commotion when the bank was being robbed. Mister Horace Dealey, he owns the hardware store, and a very good store it is, your honor. He went out the front and told me to go out the back. I got my gun….”

“Wait a moment, Mister Kendry, you had a gun?”

“Yes, Sir, I keep it in the office at the back of the store. I’ve been practicing with it. Just in case someone ever tried to rob the store,” he explained earnestly.

“Okay, go on with your testimony.”

“I got my gun and ran out the back, and there were the bank robbers, in the alley.”

The judge was making notes on a sheet of paper. “How did you know they were the outlaws?”

“They were the only people out there, your honor, and they had guns and were firing back at townsfolk who were chasing them.”

“Did you see that man?” the judge asked, pointing at Jess.

“Oh, yes, your honor. He was right there, with the others.”

Jess jumped to his feet, ignoring his lawyer grabbing at his arm in a vain attempt to stop him. “I was not with them!!”

The judge pounded his gavel on the tabletop, glaring at Jess. “Quiet, Mister Harper, you’ll have your chance to tell your side of the story in a few minutes.”

“But he’s tellin’ it wrong!” Jess insisted.

“Harper, sit down,” Judge Clayton ordered.

Howard pulled his client down into his seat, but Jess’ heart was pounding so hard he thought it would burst from his chest.

The judge turned back to the witness. “Proceed, Mister Kendry.”

“Well, in the alley, I saw that man,” he pointed to Jess.

 Only Howard’s hand gripping his arm kept Jess from jumping up again.

“He was on a horse, with his gun out, and I saw him shoot at the banker and…”

“I was shootin’ at the outlaws!!” Jess shouted.

The gavel banged again. “Mister Harper, be quiet, or I shall have you removed from this hearing.” The judge nodded once more at the store clerk. “Proceed, Mister Kendry.”

“The other outlaws were riding by, and this man turned his horse, plainly intending to go with them. So I shot him to prevent his escape.” The clerk smiled, obviously proud of what he’d done.

“Yeah, a real hero,” Jess muttered under his breath, “shootin’ an innocent man.”

The judge glared at Harper. “Your witness, Mister Howard.”

Jess’ attorney then got up and asked questions of the young store clerk, but he couldn’t shake Kendry’s story.

Marshal Dillon testified next, telling what he knew of the robbery, and that Sanderson had refused to say anything when questioned about Harper’s possible involvement.

“Do outlaws usually reveal such information, marshal? Lay claim to knowing their cohorts?” Judge Clayton asked.

Dillon knew the judge wasn’t asking because he didn’t know the answer; he was simply being thorough and putting the information into the court record. Matt looked over at Harper with a silent apology in his expression. “As you know, your honor, they don’t.”

Finally, Jess was called to the stand last, flexing his hands nervously as he sat down in the chair and swore an oath to tell the truth. “I was ridin’ into town, looking for an old acquaintance,” he began.

“Through the alley?” the judge raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, sir. I didn’t want to ride down Front Street and be seen by the marshal,” he admitted.

“And why was that?”

Jess was looking down at his restless hands. “He’d ordered me out of town the day before.”

“Why did he do that?”

“I’d gotten in a bit of a fracas, in a saloon, the day before.”

“With this same ‘friend’?”

“He wasn’t my friend. He was an acquaintance.”

The judge was looking skeptically at the defendant. “You appear to have been rather eager to find someone who was just an ‘acquaintance,’ Mister Harper.”

“He owed me money.”

The judge considered Jess’ answer, then asked. “So, you were in the alley.”

“Yes. There was a man there, holding a bunch of horses, and I thought it looked suspicious.”

“So did you act on this suspicion? Did you inform anyone on what you saw?” the judge asked skeptically.

“There wasn’t anyone around to say anything to,” Jess snapped, the tension getting the better of his attempt to stay calm.

“Then what happened, Harper?”

“I heard shots fired, and there were people yelling and some men were running into the alley. I drew my gun.”

“And why did you do that?”

“I could see what was happening, and there were people yellin’ about the bank gettin’ robbed, so it was pretty obvious they were outlaws.”

“But your shots did not hit any of them, correct?” the judge asked.

“No. I had to pull the shot wide. I didn’t want to hit any of the townsfolk coming on behind ‘em.”

“What happened next?”

“My horse spooked when the outlaws went charging past me, an’ I was tryin’ to pull him around when somebody shot me right out of the saddle,” Jess declared angrily, glaring again at Kendry who was shrinking down in his chair, not looking at all like a brave hero who shot bank robbers, Jess thought spitefully.

The judge sat back in his chair and studied Harper. “Do you have anyone who can testify in corroboration of your story?”

Jess looked blankly at the judge, not recognizing the word.

“Is there anyone here who can give supporting evidence of your claims?” the judge restated his question.

“No, sir, only me.”

The judge stared at Jess for a long moment and then asked, “Have you ever been in jail before, Mister  Harper?”

“Sure, for being drunk and disorderly, but never for anything serious.”

Judge Clayton shuffled through the stack of papers on the desk in front of him, found the one he was looking for, and waved it at Jess. “The marshal in Emporia jailed you for shooting a man there a few weeks ago, didn’t he?”

Jess bristled. “It was a fair fight, with a room full of witnesses, and he turned me loose after talkin’ to ‘em.”

The judge nodded. “Do you have a job, Mister Harper?”

“Not now, no.”

“How do you make a living then?”

“I’ve worked ranches and cattle drives.”

“Anyone around here who could verify your story?”

“No. The trail boss I worked for has gone back to Texas. And old man Peavey, I worked for him last summer down in the panhandle country, but he died back in December. So no, Sir, I don’t reckon there is.”

“Do you have anything to say in your own defense, Mister Harper?”

Jess looked him in the eye. “Just that I didn’t do it, judge, and that’s the truth.”

Judge Clayton looked around for any other witnesses, but seeing none announced, “I’ll adjourn to deliberate on verdict and sentence. We’ll reconvene in ten minutes.” The judge banged his gavel on the desk, got up, and walked out.

Jess sat in his chair, drained. The judge had watched him coldly during his whole testimony, and he had a bad feeling, a very bad feeling.

It was barely ten minutes before the judge returned, once again taking his seat behind the small table. He didn’t look at Jess, and if Jess’ hopes could have sunk any lower, they would have fallen clear through the floor.

The stern-faced judge rapped his gavel on the table again. “Court is back in session. I have reached my verdict. Will the defendant please stand.”

Jess pushed his chair back, the scraping sound loud in the small room, and slowly climbed to his feet, his knees shaking, dread coiling in his belly.

“Jess Harper, based on the evidence before me today, this court has no choice but to find you guilty as charged of bank robbery.”

Jess felt all the blood drain from his face.

The judge looked the ashen young man up and down. “I could offer a measure of leniency if you would assist this community in recovering the lost bank funds, Mister Harper. Tell us the name of your cohort who escaped with the money and where we might find him.”

Jess found it hard to gather enough air to speak — it was like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. The word ‘guilty’ was still reverberating inside his head. “I can’t! I don’t know who robbed that bank. I wasn’t part of it!”

The judge looked at him sternly. “This is your last chance, Harper.”

“I can’t tell you what I don’t know!” Jess insisted.

“Very well then. Jess Harper, I have no choice but to sentence you to ten years hard labor at the Kansas State Penitentiary. You’ll be transported there as soon as the doctor clears you as fit for travel.”

He said more, but Jess couldn’t hear any of it past the pounding of the blood in his veins. It seemed unreal, like he was watching this happen to someone else. This couldn’t be happening.

Ten years in prison.

Ten years!

Ten years for a crime he hadn’t done!

“You can’t send me to prison! I didn’t do it!” Jess shouted.

The judge hammered his gavel against the desk, his face dark and angry. “Silence! Mister Harper, you have been found guilty. Protestations to the contrary mean nothing. You would do better to admit your guilt and…”

“I won’t never admit to somethin’ I didn’t do!” Jess declared hotly.

“Get him out of here, Marshal,” judge Clayton ordered curtly.

Jess’ lawyer grabbed hold of one arm, Marshal Dillon the other, and they pushed Jess out of the office and back into the cell block.

Once back in his cell, Jess, chest heaving, spun around, ignoring the pain flaring in his side, his face showing his desperation. “Marshal, you gotta believe me, I wasn’t part of that bank robbery, I wasn’t. You can’t send me to prison for this. You can’t.”

Dillon had nothing to say.  He’d been surprised at the severity of the sentence, but he couldn’t argue with the guilty verdict. “I’m afraid the court has spoken, son.” The marshal’s expression was somber as he and the lawyer left, closing the door behind them.

“I didn’t do it!” Jess shouted after them, slamming his hands against the bars of his cell.

“Oh, shut up, Harper,” Sanderson said from the cell next door, smirking. “What you say don’t matter none now.”

x-x-x-x-x-x

 

PART FIVE----

Jess was lying on the hard bunk in his jail cell, trying to sleep, but it wasn’t the hardness of the bunk that was preventing his rest. It was the knowledge of what was going to happen to him in three days time --  he’d be transferred to the territorial prison.

He shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position, but his side still ached steadily. Even that couldn’t distract him from thinking about the fact that he was going to prison for ten years for a crime he hadn’t committed.

Ten years seemed like forever; it would be a lifetime in prison.

He didn’t know of any way out.

Filled with desperation and a growing sense of doom, unable to sleep, the young Texan got up to pace. Eight steps across the cell, then eight steps back; eight steps across the cell, then eight steps back. That was the limit of his world, eight steps across the cell, then eight steps back, and in a few days things were only going to get worse. He clenched his hands into fists until they ached and fought back panic.

He made one more circuit of his cell, each step pulling on the barely healed wound in his side, but he didn’t stop until the pain flared suddenly hard and bright, causing a hitch in his breathing. He stopped, grabbing the bars of the cell with one hand, the other pressed tightly to his side, resting his forehead against the cold steel. Jess stood that way, eyes closed, focusing on quelling the pain until he heard the door to the cell block open.

The youthful deputy, Newly, stood there, looking over at him.  “You’re supposed to be resting, Harper,” he suggested, not unkindly.

Jess raised his head to glare at the deputy. “Right. It’s real nice of you to be so concerned about my welfare.”

Newly shrugged. “I’m just repeating what Doc Adams said. Your wound isn’t healed.”

Jess turned and gingerly stepped over to sit on the bunk, still moving carefully. “I know. An’ I sure wouldn’t want to cause a delay in sendin’ me off to prison.”

The deputy shook his head, and Jess thought he was preparing to say something else when they heard the front door of the office open.

“Hello?” called a voice. “Hello? Anybody here? Marshal?”

Newly turned away from the prisoner and headed back into the office, leaving the door to the cell block ajar just enough so that Jess heard him say, “Howdy, mister. What can I do for ya?”

Jess couldn’t see what was happening, but he heard the newcomer ask, “Is the Marshal in tonight?”

“No, Sir, Marshal Dillon went out to the Wallace farm earlier this afternoon,” O’Brien answered in his usual friendly way, “but I do know he was expectin’ to be back for dinner. Can I help you, Mister? I’m his deputy, Newly O’Brien.”

“Oh, that’s….”

And then Jess, on his feet again, hands clasping the bars of his cell, heard the sound of a scuffle, a single muffled gunshot followed by a thud like a body hitting the floor, and the new voice was suddenly calling, loudly, “Sandy? Sandy, where you at?”

The outlaw in the cell next to Jess jumped to his feet, a smile creasing his sullen face as he hurried to the front of his cell. “Bill?” he shouted. “Bill! I’m back here. Back here!”

A tall unshaven man, gun in hand, darted into the cell block, and Jess immediately recognized him as the lone outlaw who’d escaped the shootout in the alley.

“Boy, am I glad to see you,” Sandy greeted the newcomer.

“Where are the keys?” Bill demanded.

“Deputy has ‘em,” Sandy answered.

Bill disappeared back into the front of the jail and a moment later returned, dragging the unresisting deputy. Newly’s eyes were half closed and he groaned weakly. There was a growing bloodstain around a small hole in his chest, several inches above the star pinned to his shirt pocket. The outlaw rummaged through the lawman’s vest pockets and pulled out a set of keys, fumbling through them as he stepped up to the door of Sanderson’s cell.

“Who’s that guy?” Bill asked, waving at Jess as he tried another key.

Sandy laughed. “He’s the man the idiots in this town convicted as being our accomplice. They pegged him as our lookout.”

Bill laughed as he turned and looked hard at Jess. “Him? I’ve never seen him before.”

Sandy laughed, too. “He was in that alley when we came out of the bank.”

“His bad luck then,” said Bill, just as he found the right key and unlocked Sandy’s cell door.

Jess was staring out at the two outlaws, his mind racing, and suddenly, he made his decision. “Hey, take me with you.”

“What?” Bill stopped, turning to him with a shake of his head. “You ain’t one of us.”

“Well, I’m going to prison for ten years anyway, I might as well actually commit a crime. I just want out. Give me a chance,” Jess pleaded.

Bill looked at Sandy, and Sandy shrugged. “He might deflect a little a’ the law’s attention from us. Split the posse.”

Quickly making up his mind, Bill stepped over the prone deputy, inserted the key into the lock on Jess’ cell door, and pulled it open. “You’re on your own, cowboy.”

“Thanks,” Jess hurried out of the cell and followed the two outlaws out into the main office. Bill had pulled back the curtain and was peering out the front window, checking up and down the street. “Hurry up. You heard what the deputy said. Dillon could be back any minute.”

Sandy was rifling through the desk. He found his own gunbelt and then tossed Jess his, each man quickly buckling on his gear.

Jess pulled out his gun, checking that it was loaded, his mind whirling, considering a wide range of possibilities, unsure of what he should do, but then the outlaw’s next words made up his mind for him.

“You ready?” Bill asked.

Sandy nodded.

“Then go finish off that deputy,” Bill ordered Sandy.

There was no indecision left in him now. Jess couldn’t let that happen; it was a fool’s chance, but one that he had to take. He raised his .45, leveling it at the two outlaws. “Drop the guns,” he ordered, quietly.

Both men spun to face him, surprised.

Sandy, caught in the midst of buckling his gunbelt, had no choice but to raise his hands in surrender, his iron clattering to the floor.

Bill had his gun out, and he dived to his right as he pulled the trigger.

Jess felt the bullet whip past his head, burying itself in the brick wall behind him. He spun and aimed and in the same fluid motion his finger squeezed the trigger, the Colt bucking in his hand. The outlaw leader grimaced, falling and clutching his chest.

With Jess’ attention focused on Bill, Sandy dropped to the floor, rolled toward the desk, and grabbed for his gun.

Jess shot him, too.

Jess’ ears were ringing from the gunshots fired within the small space, and the air was blue with drifting wisps of gunsmoke. He stood, looking around him at the disaster — both outlaws were dead, and with them went his last chance to clear himself. Maybe he should make a run for it. The nightmare image of spending years locked in prison once again filled him with panic.

Even as he took a deep breath and contemplated making a run for freedom, he heard the sound of booted feet on the boardwalk in front of the jail, accompanied by the all too familiar sound of jingling spurs.

The hillbilly deputy, Festus Hagan, dived inside the office, gun drawn. “Drop it!” he shouted.

Jess let the Colt fall from his fingers and slowly raised his hands.

Hagan was looking around at the dead outlaws and then at the man standing in front of him. “Where’s Newly, Harper?”

“He’s in back,” Jess answered, pointing with his chin. “That guy…” He lowered his left hand slightly to point at Bill, but raised it again quickly as Hagan’s gun lifted to point at his chest. “That guy shot him. But your friend’s still alive. Or he was a minute ago.”

Hagan kept his gun pointed at Jess. “You, young feller, you just get yer own self right back inta’ yer cell there, boy.”

Jess did as he was told, keeping his hands raised despite the way the effort was pulling at his side and raising a steady ache in his ribs. The deputy looked angry, and Jess didn’t want to give him an excuse to shoot.

Once Harper was back in the cell, Festus locked the door and turned away from Jess. Hagan bent down beside the wounded deputy. “Newly?”

The man groaned.

“Newly? Kin ya’ hear me?”
The deputy’s eye fluttered and he raised a hand to his head. “Wha’ happen’d?”

“You’ve been shot, Newly. You jest hold on. I’m gonna go get Doc.”

Festus threw a glare at Jess, then turned and hurried out of the cell block. Back in the office, he did a quick check and as he’d suspected, both of the outlaws were dead. By then, there was a host of curious faces peering in the office door, gawking at the scene.

He spied a familiar one and called out, “Bert, get Doc. And hurry. Newly’s bad hurt.”

 

Jess couldn’t see what was happening as he sank back down onto his bunk. His side throbbed, and he leaned back against the brick wall, closing his eyes, cursing himself for his stupidity. He’d probably just made things worse for himself, a whole lot worse. He could be charged with attempted escape now since Hagan had caught him outside his cell with a gun in his hand. He could even be charged with shooting the wounded deputy, maybe even face a murder charge if Newly O’Brien died.

It seemed like he’d just leaped from the frying pan straight on into the fire.

He watched listlessly as Hagan returned, bending down over his injured cohort who was stirring. “What happened here, Newly?” Festus asked.

O’Brien groaned, but didn’t answer.

Hagan spun to look at the one remaining prisoner. “What happened?” he demanded of Jess.

“Sandy’s buddy showed up to bust him out; he’s the guy lying out by the front door.” Jess stood up to point out the dead outlaw. “He’s the one who shot your deputy,” Jess explained.

Hagan’s eyes narrowed. “Go on.”

“They were going to leave me here, so I asked them to take me along. An’ then when they said they were going to kill the deputy, I told ‘em to put up their guns.” Jess answered listlessly. “I didn’t want to kill ‘em.”

“Oh really? That’s not usually the case with yer type.”

“I’m not one of them! I never was! I wanted them alive.”

“If you’re so all-fired law abidin’, then why’d you ask ‘em to take you along?”

“I’m facin’ ten years hard time for somethin’ I didn’t do, deputy. Would *you* stick around?”

Festus was staring at him again, silently assessing him.

“I didn’t want to kill ‘em, deputy. Maybe alive they could have cleared me,” Jess added, subsiding back down onto his bunk, his stomach roiling. Dead men couldn’t help him. He could barely breathe as suddenly he could feel the prison walls closing in around him.

Jess watched as more help arrived, and the wounded deputy was carried out of the jail and to the Doc’s office, leaving Jess alone in the cell block.

He lowered himself to his bunk, stretching out carefully, his side throbbing.

Ten years.

Ten long years.

Ten years was forever.

 

Jess tossed and turned and hadn’t slept at all when hours later Marshal Dillon came back into the cell block and asked him to repeat his story. The big lawman listened closely, saying nothing while Jess recounted the details of the outlaws’ breakout attempt.

When he was done, Jess asked, “How’s that deputy, O’Brien?”

“It’s still too early to tell.”

“I hope he makes it,” Jess replied sincerely.

“If he does, it’ll be because you saved his life, Harper,” Dillon said.

“And ruined my own,” Jess replied darkly.

“I do appreciate what you did, Harper, and I will put in a good word for you with the warden. It’s not much,” Dillon admitted with a shrug, “but it may make things some better for you.”

Jess sat up and looked the lawman in the eye. “Marshal, I know it’s only my word against that of others, but I promise you, I wasn’t part of that robbery.”

The lawman shook his head. “You were convicted in a court of law, son.”

“Wrongly!”

“Give me some proof, son.” Dillon found he, too, wanted to believe the man.

“My proof’s lyin’ out there dead,” Jess snarled.

___________

Jess’ only visitor the next day was a weary looking Doc Adams. The marshal opened the cell door and stood watch as the kindly old doctor made a final check of his patient.

“Lie down and let me take a look at that wound, Jess,” the physician asked, setting his medical bag on the floor outside the cell.

Jess laid back on his bunk and opened his shirt.

The Doc first listened to his heart and then his gentle hands probed the wound, causing the prisoner to flinch. “Still sore?”

“Some.”

“I expect there’ll be tenderness for another week or two.”

Jess nodded. “What about that deputy, that O’Brien fella?”

“I removed the bullet, but Newly’s condition is very serious. He hasn’t regained consciousness yet. And he may not.”

Great. He’d given up his one chance for freedom for a man who would probably die anyway. Just his rotten luck.

The Doc motioned for Jess to sit up and he did so, buttoning his shirt as the old man tucked the stethoscope back in his bag. 

“So, Doc, what’s your decision?” Dillon asked.

Adams looked up at the tall marshal and answered reluctantly. “I can’t say he’s unfit to travel, Matt.”  The old man shook his head. “I still wish.…”

Marshal Dillon frowned. “Doc, we’ve got no choice. The prison wagon is scheduled to pick him up in the morning.”

Adams turned back to the young man. “If I don’t see you, son, good luck.”

“Thanks,” Jess muttered, surly. “Thanks a whole bunch.”

x-x-x-x-x-x

 

That night was one of the longest, and worst, of Jess Harper’s short life. He didn’t sleep. hHejust lay staring up at the ceiling, his thoughts racing around in frantic circles, then pacing before throwing himself down on the bunk once more. His jumbled thoughts were a combination of anger at the town, the marshal, the deputies, the doc, the card sharp who’d taken him and started this whole mess, the store clerk who’d shot him, and mostly, himself. If only he’d had the good sense to keep riding, if only he hadn’t come back into town, if only he’d arrived an hour later, if only he’d gone back to Texas, if only he’d done anything but go to Dodge.

He wasn’t normally a man who second-guessed himself. He did what had to be done, and put it behind him, moving on. But he couldn’t move on, couldn’t avoid the past, not locked up with nothing to do but think.

He thought of his family. It was a good thing his ma was dead; she’d be heartbroken over seeing him go to jail. She’d always told him he was the family’s one chance to break the mold, the one who could make something of himself. And Francie, his sister, he hoped she’d never find out—that was why he hadn’t told the marshal about her when the lawman had asked if there was any family he wanted to contact. He didn’t want to bring shame down on her. It was better that she didn’t know, better that she think him lost or dead than find out he was in prison.

He picked at the breakfast Festus brought from Delmonico’s, steak and eggs and fried potatoes. He knew he should eat it, it would undoubtedly be the best food he’d be seeing for a very long time, but he had no appetite, only able to force down a few bites of the meal. When the deputy came to collect his tray, he looked at Jess sadly.

It was mid-morning when the prison wagon arrived. Before being taken out of his cell, Jess was fitted with heavy shackles, clamped tightly around his wrists and connected by a foot of thick, sturdy links of chain. Another set was fastened to his ankles, less than two feet of chain limiting his steps to an awkward shuffle. Once the restraints were fastened in place, weighing him down a hundred times more than their actual weight, he was led out of the jail, escorted by an armed guard.

Outside, Jess blinked at the too-bright sunlight — he wasn’t even allowed to keep his hat. He was shoved roughly ahead to the waiting wagon, a barred cage on wheels. Three men were already inside. One of the guards pointed his rifle at the men as the door was unlocked, and Jess climbed awkwardly inside, taking a seat on the rough wooden bench.

The door was locked behind him, the guards mounted their horses, and the driver lifted his reins and shouted “Get up” to the team.  With a bone-jarring lurch the wagon lumbered into motion. Jess looked up once, spotting Marshal Dillon and Deputy Hagan standing in front of the lawman’s office, Miss Kitty with them, watching him go, her face sad.

People turned to stare at the wagon as it rattled out of town, but Jess didn’t see them. He had his head down, unable to look at them, unable to meet their eyes.

All day, the wagon trundled across the prairie, bouncing and rattling. They stopped once for water and to let the men relieve themselves, but they were quickly herded back into the wagon.

As the afternoon wore on, the heat was oppressive, but even worse was the rising sense of doom that clutched at Jess’ heart. He let his eyes roam across the flat Kansas prairie, drinking in the wide open vistas and the distance to the far horizon. He’d spent most of his life free as the birds that soared overhead — he didn’t think he could bear being locked away from the big open. He had spent time in prison before, a few endless months in a Yankee prison camp that had taught him about the brutality of caged men. He knew prison was a merciless place, every man for himself, every man fighting to survive. He knew he was strong enough to live through it, but he wondered how twisted he’d be by the time he emerged.

Ten years was an awfully long time.

Exhausted, Jess dozed.

x-x-x-x-x

 

It was early evening when they finally arrived inside the prison walls, and the wagon’s door was opened at last. Jess climbed stiffly out, and stumbling wearily, followed the other men as they were marched by the guards into a building constructed of rough stone, just inside the walls. There, the chains were removed and they were given prison uniforms, each with a number printed on the striped shirt. Once they’d changed into the prison garb, they stood waiting for several minutes in a hallway before being ordered into a tidy office, it’s wood paneled walls lined with bookshelves.

A well-dressed and stern-looking man sat behind a very large desk, writing something in a tally book.

He ignored the newcomers for a moment, then set down his pen, closed the book, stood with deliberate casualness, and walked toward them, stepping around them and looking them over from head to toe like a prospective buyer judging horses. “I am Mister Greenwood, warden of this facility. You men are here because you’ve been tried in a court of law and justly found guilty of crimes against the people of Kansas, and you are here to pay for those misdeeds,” he announced self-righteously. “Life here is simple. Keep out of trouble, work hard, and you’ll be fed and treated well. Break the rules, and the punishment will be harsh and swift.” Then he returned to his seat behind the desk and, one at a time, ordered each man to step forward and state his name, and spell it if he could. He compared each one of their answers to the accompanying papers handed to him by the guards before writing the information into a thick notebook.

The warden nodded, dismissing them, and the guards escorted a weary Jess and the others out of the building, across the hard-packed dirt of the yard, and into a barracks-type building. Each of them was handed a dingy and worn bed sheet and a single thin, rough blanket.

“Welcome to your new home, gentleman,” sneered the guard whose shoulders carried sergeant’s stripes. “Pick an empty bunk. Roll call is at sunrise. You get breakfast before going out to work. At meals, in line, while working, and after lights out, convicts are silent, unless spoken to by a guard or the warden. Then you answer, with an appropriately respectful Sir.” He looked around at the newcomers. “Do you understand?”

There were nods and mumbles.

The guard stepped forward, raised his voice threateningly. “Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir,” Jess mumbled along with the others.

The guards left and Jess heard the door being locked behind them, a sound that hit him like a blow to the gut.

He turned slowly then and looked around. The room was cramped and dark, smelling sourly of sweat and fear and unwashed bodies. The bunks were filled with men. A few listlessly raised their heads to look at the newcomers, but most didn’t bother, instead simply pulling their blankets up tighter around their shoulders.

Jess walked down the row of beds until he found an empty one, put the sheet in place, and set his blanket on the end of the bunk.  Wearily, he pulled off his boots, stretched out on the lumpy mattress and tried to sleep, but tired as he was, he failed to find any rest at all.

 

It was barely dawn when the barracks door was flung open, and the men were ordered out of bed.

Jess got up slowly, dressed, and made his bed as he saw the others do, then joined the silent line shuffling to the dining hall for breakfast. The food was bland, oatmeal without any molasses for sweetness or flavoring, but he ate what he could force down. The single cup of coffee he was given was weak, and he longed for the strong brew he’d gotten used to on trail drives and in ranch bunk houses.

The men weren’t allowed to linger over their food, but were quickly ordered outside.

The Kansas State Penitentiary was unfinished. Every day the prisoners were marched across the compound and put to work building another set of barracks and extending the prison walls.  Guards armed with shotguns roamed the area watchfully as most of the men were assigned the job of breaking, shaping, or carrying rock, Jess going with them.

Suddenly a burly guard put out his hand and stopped the new prisoner. “You’re Harper?”

Jess nodded, then, at the guard’s scowl, remembered, and answered sullenly, “Yes, Sir.”

“I don’t know what your pull is, Harper, but you’re on light duty today, warden’s orders.” The guard pointed to a wooden bucket with a dipper. “You go with Horace here on water duty. Draw it from the well over there, then make the rounds. Give the men all they want.”

Jess was led over to join an old man who stood beside the well; two buckets already filled sat near his feet.

“Howdy,” Jess said, having forgotten the no talking rule until he saw the look of panic cross Horace’s wizened face, and the old man scurried quickly away.

x-x-x-x

 

All during the long day, the men worked in an eerie silence.

Jess drew and carried bucket after bucket of water. If this was a “light work” job, he really wasn’t eager to get a taste of the regular work tasks. He barely had a minute to rest and lugging the heavy buckets pulled at his side, pain quickly building to a steady burning ache that sapped his energy.

Jess thought the day would never end. When the guards finally blew their whistles and called a halt to the day’s labors, it was nearly dusk, and Jess was so tired he could barely stumble with the others to the dining hall.  Mechanically, he ate the tasteless food and hard bread, cleaning his plate, and despite the poor quality, found himself hungry for more.

Arriving back at the barracks, Jess walked wearily back to his bunk and sat down heavily, exhaustion pulling at him. He really was far from recovered from his wound, he decided. Too tired to so much as take his boots off, he sat, elbows on knees, looking down at the floor, his thoughts drifting, weighed down by despair.

After his first day, Jess had already come to the conclusion that being in prison was a lot like being in the army— people ordering you around while you ate poor food, endured miserable living conditions, and tried to avoid getting assigned the dirtiest jobs.

He was trying to find the energy to remove his boots when four of his fellow prisoners walked down the narrow aisle between the bunks and stopped at the foot of his bed, staring down at him. Jess stared back -- he didn’t know who any of them were, but he didn’t figure they were likely to be the welcoming committee.

“What’s your name?” the biggest of the newcomers asked.

“Harper, Jess Harper. What’s yours?”

The ringleader ignored Jess’ question. “What’re you in here for?” one of the men asked.

Jess looked up at the man. He was big, quite a bit taller than Jess, and broad shouldered and thick bodied to boot, probably weighing half again what Jess did.  He had deep-set, dull eyes and a scar that started on his nose and sliced across his cheek to end near the bottom of his right ear, giving him a menacing appearance.

“I asked, what’re you in here for, boy?” the man demanded again.

“Bank robbery. But I didn’t do it.”

The man laughed, a nasty, humorless, cackling sound revealing broken and missing teeth, and poked the man beside him with an elbow. “Ain’t that what they all say, Abel-- I didn’t do it.  I hear tell, there ain’t a single guilty man in this whole place.”

“In this case, it’s the truth,” Jess snapped. He already had the guy pegged as the bullying kind, the kind he’d have to stand up to if he was going to survive here. He didn’t feel ready to challenge anyone quite yet, but it looked like he had no say in choosing the time or place for a confrontation.

The man ambled closer to where Jess sat. “Why Abel, he’s just a kid. Why don’t you stand up when you’re talkin’ to me, boy? Show some respect to your elders. Maybe explain why you got that gravy job today while we were all breaking our backs pounding rocks, huh? Pretty soft job for a newcomer — you got a pull with somebody here, huh? Think you’re somebody special? Figure you’re better than the rest of us, do ya’?”

Jess said nothing. He knew this scar-faced tough didn’t care that there was a reason for Jess’ assignment; the man was just angry, and Jess looked like an easy target.

“I’m talkin’ to you, boy.” The man jabbed Jess in the chest with one thick, dirty finger.

He’d had enough, more than enough, actually.  He looked up at the big man, a challenge in his glare as he slapped the hand away, growling, “I wouldn’t do that again if I was you, mister.”

Scar-face, furious, grabbed Jess’ shirt.

It was the wrong thing to do.

Jess Harper was out of patience.

A surge of adrenaline roared through him, overriding his exhaustion, fueled by the anger and frustration that had been building inside him for weeks now, ever since this whole string of bad luck had started dogging him.  With a fierce smile, Jess threw caution, and common sense, to the winds. He exploded up off the bed, sinking his right fist deep into the big bully’s gut. As the air whooshed out of scarface’s lungs and he folded forward, Jess followed up with a left-right combination to the face that rewarded him with a crack of breaking bone as the bully dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes.

Bully boy’s partners were momentarily stunned at the sudden turn of events, giving Jess time to spin and land a roundhouse left to the jaw of the man scarface had called Able. Able was smaller than his cohort, but still a big man, much heavier than the lightly built Jess, and the cowboy felt the blow rattle the bones from his knuckles all the way up to his shoulder. His side rewarded him with a deep sharp stab of pain, but Jess ignored it, suddenly feeling free at the release of finally being able to fight back against something. Without a pause, his breath already catching in his chest, he swung toward the third man who was rushing at him, throwing every ounce of his lean frame behind his punch and rocking the man back on his heels before another right to the jaw put him down.

Jess didn’t have a chance to savor his success as the fourth man abruptly piled into the fight. As he rolled with a punch that caught him a glancing blow, from the corner of his eye he saw men all around them jumping off their bunks, shouting and urging the combatants on.

By then, guys two and three had picked themselves up and rejoined the brawl. Outnumbered three to one, Jess quickly found himself overwhelmed and on the bottom of a pile of humanity, dimly aware of the sound of men shouting as blows rained down on him. A fist slammed into his face, cutting his lip, and he took blow after blow to his ribs before what felt like a boot to the kidneys and then a solid punch connected with his jaw, momentarily making everything go gray. He lashed out with his feet, making contact with something or someone, and then abruptly, despite the roaring in his ears, he realized that the room had gone silent and that weight was being pulled off of him a bit at a time. Finally, he was dragged to his feet, a guard pinning his arms behind his back. Jess shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. The coppery taste of blood filled his mouth, and there was more leaking slowly from his nose as he realized he couldn’t take a deep breath.

Another guard was holding the last guy who had been pulled off Jess. The big guy who’d ignited the confrontation was still down on the floor, rolling around and holding his face, blood streaming from his obviously broken nose.

At least that gave Jess a momentary feeling of satisfaction.

“What’s going on here?” demanded a third guard, this one the familiar guy with the sergeant’s stripes, looking accusingly from the other prisoners to Jess and back again.

They all glared at each other, but no one said anything.

“What happened here?” the guard demanded, but again, no one answered.

“Bring ‘em all, then,” the sergeant ordered the other two guards. “We’ll let the warden sort this out.”

All five of the combatants were marched out of the barracks and marched across the open square to the warden’s house. There they waited a few minutes while the guard spoke to Greenwood, and then they were escorted into his office, one at a time.

Jess was the last to be called before the warden. By then, his nose had stopped dripping blood, and one eye was puffed up and pretty well swollen shut, but he still couldn’t straighten up or take a decent breath. When the guard finally came for him, he shuffled in to stand before the warden, bloody but defiant. Greenwood, Jess noted, didn’t look so neat and unruffled as he had the day before. His florid face was sweaty and red with anger.

Jess fidgeted, flexing his sore hands.

“Mister Harper,” the warden said in a tone that reminded Jess of the lectures the schoolmaster, old Mister Harris, used to give him. “Your first full day here and already you’re in trouble. That does not bode well for your future. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I didn’t start it.”

“That’s what the others said.”

“Well in my case, it’s true,” Jess declared angrily, looking the man in the eye.

The warden turned away from Jess and walked around behind his desk before once again turning to contemplate the belligerent new inmate who stood before him. He’d seen this kind in his prison before, all too often. They walked in as surly tough guys, rebels, men determined never to give in to authority, never accepting their fate, never admitting their wrongdoing. This one looked younger than most, but he was clearly a troublemaker nonetheless, the kind who disrupted the system unless they were broken early. The kind who needed to be taught a lesson, like a wild horse that had to concede defeat and accept the loss of its freedom.

The silence stretched, interrupted only by the loud tick-tick of the clock on the mantle above the fireplace. “Marshal Dillon put in a good word for you, Harper. He said you did a good turn back in Dodge City, maybe saved the life of his deputy.”

Jess nodded.

“Dillon is a man whose opinion I respect. Usually, he’s a very good judge of character, but in your case, it seems he may have made a grievous error.”

Jess had nothing to say. He tried to stand straighter, but the stabbing pain in his side caused him to grimace and give up the attempt, his shoulders slumping.

The warden was still assessing the young man. “Have you been in jail before?”

“A Yankee prison camp.”

“Ah.” The warden nodded. “Then you are not unaware of how a place such as this is run. Unfortunately, Harper, notwithstanding Dillon’s speaking up for you, I cannot allow an incident like this to go unpunished.” He signaled to the guard. “Three days in solitary. And Harper, just so you know, the others got the same.”

“I didn’t start…”

The warden slammed his hand down on the desk, his voice harsh, all semblance of his gentlemanly image vanished. “That makes no difference, here, Mister Harper. You *will* learn to follow the rules.” Greenwood looked over at the guard. “Get him out of here,” he ordered, and then turned away, dismissing him.

Jess was marched out of the warden’s quarters, across the compound, and into a building he hadn’t been inside before. The long, dim corridor was lined with heavy, solid doors on both sides, each having only a single small window, set high. It smelled even worse than the bunkhouse, a thick airless miasma that at the first breath felt like it was choking the very life out of him. Jess walked along in a daze, stopping when he saw a lean and bearded face suddenly appear at one of the windows, the man’s eyes looking haunted and wild.

“Get going!” The guard gave him a shove forward and Jess stumbled on.

Finally, near the end of the corridor, they reached an open cell door, and he was pushed roughly inside. The guards backed out, the door clanging solidly as it was closed. The rasping sound of the bolt being shoved home echoed hollowly through the room, and then Jess was left alone with nothing but the sound of his pounding heart.

The room was bare, a tiny six feet by six feet and just barely tall enough for him to stand without hitting his head. The only window was a very small one in the door which opened out into the dim and featureless hallway. There was a bucket in the corner, empty, but it’s smell indicating its intended use, and nothing else — no bunk, no blanket, no window to the outside world.

Jess closed his eyes and reopened them slowly, but nothing changed. With despair clutching at him, he wrapped his arms around his aching ribcage, retreated until he felt the wall at his back, then let himself slide slowly down the cold stone to sit slumped on the floor. He laid his head back against the unyielding rock, arms still clasped around his stomach, and tried not to think of anything at all.

He stayed seated on the floor while the dim light in the hallway slowly faded and his world became pitch dark, as black as his spirit.

The night was an endless and miserable one. Jess dozed in fitful, restless bits and pieces, jerking awake over and over again to realize the nightmare was real.

Sometime after dawn he heard the sound of footsteps, muted talking, and barked orders, and the clatter of doors opening and closing. When the sounds finally reached him, he opened his eyes to see a guard peering in the small window at him. “Stand to the back and stay there until the door is re-locked. When you’re done, set the empty bowl and cup by the door, if you want it refilled tonight.”

It was almost beyond him to get to his feet — a night sleeping on the cold stone of the floor made his bruised and battered body nearly immobile. Jess put a hand down on the floor to push himself up and with a groan managed to get stiffly to his feet, every muscle vigorously protesting the movement. He stood against the back wall while the door was opened and a mug and plate were set inside. Then the door was closed, the key grating in the lock.

He hobbled over and gasped at the pain in his side as he bent down to pick up the meager ration of bread and water that was his breakfast. Between the pounding his kidneys had taken and the remaining soreness from his wound, bending was a misery-invoking movement. Shuffling back across the cell, he once again slid down the wall to a seated position; He broke bits off the dry bread and forced himself to eat it slowly, making it last, then sipped the water gratefully.

The liquid slaked his thirst, but there wasn’t enough of it to wash the dried blood from his face or soak his swollen hands and sliced knuckles.

All during the long day, there was nothing to do but pace until the pain became unbearable, then sit and wait. The thick stone walls of his cell muted the sounds from inside as well as outside, so there was nothing to break the numbing sameness of the passing hours.

The evening meal was a repeat of the morning one, the guards taking away his empty mug and plate and bringing him water and bread.

He ate the hard, tasteless bread to ease the gnawing in his empty belly, drank the water to quench his thirst, and then paced until the constant motion made his side ache so deeply he could no longer stay on his feet. Exhausted, he sank down to sit on the floor, closing his eyes and trying not to remember the feel of freedom.

He had three thousand six hundred and forty-eight days to go, but he knew he’d go crazy, plumb raving  loco, long, long before that.

x-x-x-x-x

 

PART SIX----

 

The late morning sun was shining brightly in the window of his office as Warden Greenwood worked at his desk, tallying the expenses of the prison. His clerk knocking loudly at the door before stepping inside was an unexpected, and unwelcome, interruption.  Greenwood glared and snapped, “I told you I did not want to be disturbed this morning, Rupert. I’ve got this report to complete.”

“Yes, Sir, I know, Sir. I’m sorry Sir, but he’s insisting,” the man answered nervously.

“Who’s insisting?” Greenwood demanded, annoyed. He wasn’t expecting anyone, and visiting day wasn’t until Sunday.

“Marshal Dillon from Dodge City. He says he needs to see you now, warden.”

Greenwood frowned. “Dillon’s here? Now? Did he say why he’s here?”

The clerk shrugged. “It’s something about a prisoner, Sir. He says it’s urgent.”

Greenwood laid his pen aside and carefully closed the account book he was studying. “Send him in then.” The warden rose, pinning a smile on his face despite his displeasure at the interruption, and greeted the big lawman from Dodge City with a hearty handshake. “I didn’t expect to be seeing you, Marshal.”

Dillon took the offered hand, then, getting directly to business, pulled an envelope from the inside pocket of his vest. “I didn’t expect to be here myself, Warden, but I came to give you this. I wanted to present it in person, in case you had any questions, and see that the order is carried out immediately.”

Greenwood took the paper and read it quickly, surprise showing clearly on his face. “This is highly irregular, Marshal, highly irregular.”

“Yes, it is. But this is a highly unusual case,” Dillon pointed to the bottom of the paper. “Everything’s all legal and proper. You’ll see that’s the circuit judge’s signature right there.”

Greenwood tilted the paper to better catch the light. “Yes, I recognize it.” The warden opened the office door and shouted out into the hallway at one of the guards, “Mister Hames, bring the prisoner Jess Harper here to my office. Now.”

Hames saluted and hurried outside to get retrieve the man from his cell.

x-x-x-x-x

 

It was somewhere near the middle of his second day in solitary, he reckoned. Jess had no real way to gauge the passage of time, but when he heard the doors of the cell block open and the footsteps marching down the corridor toward him, he knew it was too early for the guards to be bringing him his next meal. Besides, there was something unusually urgent in the rapidly approaching footsteps. They didn’t pause at any of the other cells, either, but came right down the line to stop in front of the door to his. He heard the key rattle in the lock, and then the door opened, letting in light that, though it was dim, made him squint at the unexpected brightness of it.

“Warden wants to see you, Harper. Now,” the sergeant ordered briskly.

Any chance to get out of the dark and confining space was welcome, but why did the warden want to see him? Jess had an ugly feeling that all it could mean was more trouble, as with a painful groan he pushed himself to his feet.

The guards watched, not helping, but at least no one shoved him along as he hobbled slowly out of the cell and back down the long hallway. The longer he moved, however, the more of the stiffness worked out of his body, making walking easier. The deep ache was still there in his side, though, as he made his way to the building’s exit.

Jess paused in the doorway, squinting uncomfortably at the brightness of the day, his eyes watering and causing him to stumble when he stepped out onto the hard-packed ground. Shuffling along slowly, he made his way across the open to the warden’s quarters, noting with surprise that there were two horses tied to the hitch rail in front of the building.  He stopped. One of the animals was a big sturdy buckskin, and the other was a nice chestnut that looked a lot like the horse he had owned. He barely contained the sudden wild desire to run to those horses, vault into the saddle, and race away, riding like the wind, out of this place and far, far away. He knew it was impossible, knew there were guards with rifles watching his every move, and he’d only get a bullet in the back for such a foolhardy stunt. Yet every fiber of his being ached to be back on a horse, to be free from this place, out in the fresh air under open skies. Seeing the horses so near yet so far compounded his misery a hundred times over.

“Get goin’, Harper,” the guard ordered gruffly.

Reluctantly, Jess turned his gaze away from the horses and limped along. At the base of the stairs, he realized that stepping up onto them was a task nearly beyond his battered body. At the first step, Jess bit back a groan, surprised when one of the guards put a helping hand under his elbow. With the guard’s aid, he made it up the last two steps and into the welcome shade of the building’s porch.

He didn’t have to wait to see the warden this time. As soon as they were inside the structure, the clerk nodded, and the guards escorted him right on into the office.

Marshal Dillon was seated by the desk and pushed himself to his feet as Jess was marched in. At the sight of the young man’s black eye and swollen, bloodied face, the lawman’s expression turned thunderously dark, and he spun around to challenge the warden. “Mister Greenwood, what happened to this man?”

“It was not anything done by my guards, Marshal Dillon, I can assure you of that,” the warden answered defensively. “He got into a fight with other prisoners in the barracks two days ago.”

The marshal turned back to ask Jess. “Is that true, Harper?”

“Yeah,” the young cowboy admitted sourly. “What’s it to you?” He was wondering what Dillon could possibly want and then a horrible thought suddenly came to him. Had that deputy died? Was the Dodge City marshal collecting him for another bogus trial and this time a hanging? Swaying, he clenched his hands into fists and fought back the swelling sense of dread that filled his chest.

“Has he been seen by a doctor?” the lawman demanded, once again glaring at the warden.

“No. The doctor’s only here once a week. He’s due the day after tomorrow, on his usual schedule.”

Dillon was livid. “At least you could have let him clean himself up.”

“He’s been in solitary for his part in the fight.”

The marshal pulled himself up to his imposing full height, towering over the warden, his words harsh. “Mister Greenwood, this man, as you well know, is still recovering from a serious gunshot wound. Treatment like that could kill him.” Shaking his head unhappily, Dillon turned back to the prisoner. Despite the marshal’s obvious anger, there was something in his expression that provided Jess with a sudden wild surge of hope. “I do have good news for you, Harper. Deputy O’Brien woke up two days ago,” the marshal began.

Dillon’s first words ended Jess’ darkest thoughts and raised a tiny spark of optimism in his chest. “I’m glad to hear it.” But he was pretty sure the marshal hadn’t ridden all this way just to update him on the deputy’s condition.

“Yes, it is good news, Harper. I’m sorry it took me so long to get here, son, but I had to catch up with the circuit judge first to get your conviction set aside.”

“What?” was all a stunned Jess could say, not believing his ears.

“When Newly woke up,” Dillon explained, “he told Doc Adams that after he was shot, he was conscious long enough to overhear those outlaws talking to you. It was clear they didn’t know you, and that you weren’t a part of their bank robbery.”

Had he heard the marshal right? There suddenly didn’t seem to be enough air in the room. Jess’ head spun, utter disbelief overwhelming him, and he staggered, fighting to keep his feet at the astonishing news. Had the marshal just said that Newly O’Brien had remembered enough to clear him?

Dillon fumbled with the hat he held in his oversized hands. “The state of Kansas, Dodge City, and myself, we all owe you an apology, young man. You were telling the truth. I’m sorry about all this, and that,” Dillon pointed to Jess’ black eye and battered face. “I’ve come to see that you’re released immediately and, if you’re willing, have you ride back to Dodge with me.”

Jess was still finding it hard to believe the news. He was desperately afraid that none of this was really happening, that he was back in solitary and he was imagining this; that it was all just a crazy, fevered dream of the kind he’d had while laid up in the doc’s office, just like the last few days, the last few weeks, had all seemed like an unending nightmare. “You ain’t kiddin’, marshal?” he finally asked.

The big lawman smiled. “No, Harper, I’m not kidding.” The Dodge City lawman turned to the warden. “Now, is there some place this man can clean up? I want to be back in Dodge tonight.”

x-x-x-x

 

Marshal Dillon waited in the warden’s office while Jess was taken back to the barracks, given the chance to wash and shave and put on his own clothes. It didn’t take him long to clean up and change clothes — he wanted to get away from this place as fast as he could. Leaving in the next minute wouldn’t be soon enough to get out of this rat hole. Putting on his own well-worn cowboy gear that Dillon had brought for him had never felt so good — a plain blue work shirt tucked into his familiar Levis, his black vest, and the blue neckerchief knotted at his throat. The marshal had even brought his hat, battered and scuffed and dirty as it was, but it was his. Lastly, he lifted his foot up onto the worn bench and buckled the spurs onto his boots.

When Jess finally emerged from the barracks, transformed from prisoner to cowboy, he spotted Dillon waiting for him at the hitch rail, holding the reins of the two horses. The marshal handed the reins of the chestnut to the cowboy before turning to mount up on the big buckskin.

The newly freed man could only nod as he took the reins in his left hand, wrapping his fingers around the leather that was suddenly more precious than gold. With his other hand he stroked the forehead of the chestnut, inhaling the familiar, welcome scent of horse.  Getting a close up look now, he recognized the horse carried his own worn saddle and bedroll, gear he’d been sure he would never see again.

“Gabe down at the livery hadn’t sold your horse yet, or your gear,” Dillon explained.

Jess nodded and then, with a deep breath, he set his left hand onto the horse’s neck. With his right hand he latched onto the horn and jumped, sliding his left foot into the stirrup and swinging astride the horse. The mount lacked his usual grace as his side flared painfully, but he didn’t care — it felt so right and so good and so free to be back aboard a horse. A smile flitted across his lips, the first one he could remember wearing since the day he’d ridden down that alley and right into the midst of a nightmare. He ducked his head and said, genuinely, “Thanks, Marshal.”

The big lawman nodded.

Side by side they rode out through the gate, Jess’ whole body tense, never losing his nervousness until he heard the heavy gate close behind him, sure that this was all some cruel trick, that before he could leave, someone was going to call him back.

No one did.

The prison walls were now behind him, and he was free.

The feeling was exhilarating.

He took a long deep breath and expelled it slowly, ignoring his aching side as he rode along beside the marshal, drinking in the clean fresh air, the perfect blue of the sky arching overhead, the wide open range stretching all around, and the rhythmic feel of the horse moving beneath him, precious things he’d never before appreciated enough, he realized.

“Harper.” Dillon moved his horse up alongside Jess’ mount.

Jess watched, wondering what the big man was going to say.

“When Newly O’Brien told me what he heard those outlaws say, he also told me something else. He said he heard one of them order the other to shoot him. And that’s when you shot them.”

The young man kept his eyes fixed on the horizon, on the gloriously wide open expanse that surrounded him. “I couldn’t let them kill an unarmed man, Marshal.”

“A lot of men, in your situation, wouldn’t have worried about that. They’d have just made a run for it.”

Jess shrugged. “Wouldn’t have been right, lettin’ him die. He didn’t seem like a bad sort.”

Dillon nodded. “I meant what I said about that apology, Harper. A mistake was made, and a bad one, and I’m sorry for it.”

Jess turned to look at the marshal. “And I meant what I said, thankin’ you. A lot’a lawmen would’ve let me rot where I was, rather’n admit they were wrong.” He looked down, then back up at the marshal from Dodge. “And I guess I owe that deputy a mighty big thanks, too.”

“Not as big a one as he owes you.”

“I think we’re even, marshal.”

They rode on in silence for several minutes.

“So what are your plans?” Dillon asked.

Jess smiled. “Haven’t had time to think on that yet.”

Dillon nodded. “I reckon not. Just do me a favor, Harper. You might try stayin’ out of trouble from here on out. I know you’re good with that gun, as fast as most any man I’ve seen, but livin’ by that iron’s a good way to end up on boot hill, or right back in there where you were.” Dillon waved a hand at the prison they’d just left, its towering walls receding in the distance behind them.

Jess shuddered. “Oh, I ain’t never goin’ back there.” He paused and thought. “Trouble seems to follow me, Marshal, especially here in Kansas. Maybe I’ll head further west. Colorado, I’m thinkin’. Maybe all the way on up to Wyoming or Montana. I’ve heard it’s wide open country.” Jess pulled his horse to a stop, having suddenly made up his mind. “Marshal, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll skip going back to Dodge.”

The lawman looked disappointed. “There’s folks there who’d like to see you, Jess. Newly wanted to thank you in person for saving his life, and Doc wants to be sure you’re doing okay. He’s pretty particular that way about his patients. And Miss Kitty was planning on buying you a drink.” Matt could see that Jess was unconvinced. “You know they’re the ones who insisted I couldn’t just send a wire to the warden but that I should ride all the way over here to make sure you got released as soon as possible. And that you got your property back.”

Jess took off his hat, wiping sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, and set the Stetson back into place, thinking carefully before replying. “I’m much obliged, to all a’them, an’ you, Marshal, and I’d appreciate it if you’d thank them for me. But I reckon I don’t rightly feel like bein’ in Dodge, nor any other town, not for a spell anyway.”

Matt Dillon nodded. “I do understand, son.” He reached out one of his oversized hands, engulfing Jess’ smaller one as they shook. “Good luck, Harper, wherever you go. Remember, you’ve got friends in Dodge.”

Jess smiled, “Thanks, Marshal.” Then he spun his horse and spurred the chestnut into a flat-out gallop, , away from the prison, away from Dodge, out onto the prairie, relishing the feel of the wind in his face. He let the horse run until the animal was winded and blowing, and then he pulled the gelding down to a walk.

By dark, he was more than a dozen miles northwest, camped out under rustling cottonwoods along a rippling creek. Jess picketed his horse and spread his bedroll beneath the trees. Exhausted as he was, he reckoned he’d fall asleep as soon as he stretched out on his bedroll, but sleep eluded him. He lay there, listening to the familiar gentle night sounds of frogs calling in the creek, crickets chirping in the grass, the cottonwood leaves rattling in the wind, and the soothing sound of his horse cropping grass. Mostly, though, he gazed up at the infinite sea of stars. He’d never before appreciated them so much, nor the freedom they represented.

He would never take them for granted again.

Late in the night, Jess Harper finally dropped off into sleep, a free man, still searching for his destiny and a place he could call home.

 

~~~~~~~~~~The End~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

 

 



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