Authors acknowledgment:

I want to thank Cat Hicks for her endless supply of commas, semi colons, patience, suggestions and knowledge.  

I also want to thank Revue Studios and John Champion for creating/casting such memorable characters as Jess and Slim, and for John and Bob for bringing them to life for us to enjoy.

And I want to thank John Denver for writing and/or singing such wonderful songs that they inspired me to write this story.

Author’s notes:

A well conditioned horse can travel roughly fifty miles a day.  It is assumed that Traveler would be extremely well conditioned and fit.  Modern endurance horse and rider teams will cover up to 100 miles a day during a competition.

Distances are about as realistic as I can make them by using Colorado and Wyoming maps from 1885.

Ranch hand wages are based on records from 1895.

Wildfires can travel up to 14mph more if the wind is right.

Disclaimer: I own only the original characters and places my imagination created.

 

                                                                            ******

 

Eagles and Horses

By Pat W.

Ch 1

Horses are creatures that worship the 
They gallop on feet of ivory
Constrained by the wonder of dying and birth
The horses still run they are free…       

Eagles and Horses by John Denver

***

Jonesy noticed it first not long after they had brought in that mustang stud that had been raiding local ranches for mares: the faraway look in the eyes of the dark haired man that had come to the station late summer last year. It was the same as the wild horse that paced the small turn out paddock. Jonesy would catch Jess looking out over ridge that flanked the station to the west, head slightly cocked as if listening to something only he could hear, and it deeply worried the older man.

 

The dark haired gunfighter cum ranch hand stood watching the Grulla-colored stallion move restlessly around the small enclosure, the animal’s eyes seeking westward, looking toward the ridge and the open range that lay beyond it and Jess sympathized with the mouse colored horse because he heard that siren call too.

 

"Jess! Wake up! Stage`ll be in `bout fifteen minutes so let's go get started with those fresh horses!" Slim called from the porch of the small ranch house. 

 

Jess shook himself out the mists of thought and, without a word, headed for the holding corral where the replacement teams waited.  Running a family ranch and relay station for the Overland Stage meant long days and hard work in any kind of weather; there was stock to care for, equipment to maintain and fences to ride all wanting to be done before anything else was. Jonesy had been a hand at the ranch for over twenty years and had stayed on after Slim and Andy's father had died suddenly to help with the running the relay stating as chief cook and bottle washer. He did as much as he could, but with a bad back, the heavy chores all fell exclusively to the young blonde rancher and his twelve year old brother, Andy.

 

That was until Jess had shown up at the station and the boy had taken a shine to the then unknown gunfighter. Andy was smitten with the idea of the Big Open as it commonly was referred to by the drifters and saddle tramps that rode it. The idea of coming and going as you please with no one to answer to appealed to the boy and he hung on the stranger’s every word as they talked while Jess enjoyed a cup of hot coffee and fresh apple pie. Slim and Jess' first meeting was not all that auspicious when the young rancher had found Jess showing young Andy the `dangers' of dealing from the bottom of a card deck and how to spot such a thing. Andy heaped coal oil on the fire by informing Slim that he was going with Jess when he left… and Jess was a bit startled by that himself. To Jess' credit, he managed to dissuade Andy, promising to look him up when he was a little older. An ironic chain of events ended up with Slim and Jess managing to capture an outlaw and his men and Slim offering Jess a job. Jonesy was more than a little surprised, and not a little skeptical when Slim told him that Jess was going to stay and help out for a while.  Of course Andy was over the moon.

 

It was the start of a strong friendship between the rancher and the gunfighter, the first link of that bond forged that late summer day, and links were added through the fall and the hard winter. Jess had proven to be a capable hand able to turn to almost any job Slim pointed him at. Anything from shoeing to harness repair, hazing cattle to winter pasture or riding fence, it seemed to be an innate skill despite the brunettes cavalier approach to work and the idea of a schedule. Now Spring was finally laying her gentle hand on the land making her older brother winter a fridged memory.  And Jonesy saw the signs and it deeply worried him. Gone was the easy laugh, the quick smile and, in their place, a silent longing, a haunted hungry look, a droop of the shoulder that belied more than physical weariness. Like the stallion that paced the corral fence ignoring any overture of kindness or attempt to create a bond, the young gunfighter was withdrawing away from that friendship, pulling more into himself.

 

Andy seemed to notice it far sooner than his older brother and broached the subject with Jonesy as they cleaned harness one bright morning.

 

"Jonesy?  What's wrong with Jess?" The young boy asked, rubbing away at dark leather strap in his had.

 

"Wrong? Well… I wouldn't say wrong so much as lost. See that stud over there he and Slim brought in last week? Jess is like that horse I guess…'

 

The boy looked at the restless horse and back to the older man in confusion "What d’ya mean Jonesy?"

"That there horse is pinin’ for the big open, he ain’t meant to be broke saddle, rather die `n have it happen. Too wild to be broke I guess…"


Andy pondered that for a moment and then, in a small voice asked a question he dreaded the answer to "Jess wants t’ go, don't he?"

 

Jonesy nodded, "Ah reckon he does, Andy boy, I reckon he does. See…, Jess ain’t like you `n me `n Slim. He's been on his own for too long, `most as long as you're old. Wandrin' gets in a man’s blood, becomes part of his soul."

 

Tears welled in the youngster's eyes. "But…  I want `m to stay…" he whispered.

 

The old man laid a gnarled hand on the boy's shoulder and squeezed gently.

 

Ch 2

 

Contrary to Jonesy's belief, Slim had noticed the change in Jess and it scared him.  He didn't know what the problem was, but feared the answer.  At twenty, the responsibility of running the ranch and being `father' to an eight year old fell squarely on his shoulders in a single day with the sudden death of their father, but he shouldered it. When the opportunity to run a relay station in conjunction with the ranch came from the Overland Stage Co, Slim leapt on it. With Jonesy as chief cook and all around handyman little Andy pitching to the best of his ability, they struggled to keep things going.  Most times they couldn't even afford to hire extra help for round up and branding and Slim worked from sunup to sundown.

 

Then Jess has shown up looking for a man that had cold cocked him and made off with his bankroll. Slim smiled at the memory as he rode the fence line looking for breaks, and poles in need of repair and or replacement. He could have killed the dark haired man as he showed Andy how to spot someone dealing from the bottom of the deck by blithely demonstrating the skill. Jess had proven to be more than met the eye though, despite the picture he painted of himself as a wild drifter with more than a working knowledge of the colt that hung low on his hip. The young rancher sighed as he swung down from his horse to check a weathered post leaning haphazardly, this one would have to be replaced.

 

The two young men had become friends quickly; there was a connection between them like two brothers long apart that once again had found each other. He loved his younger brother dearly, would lay down his life without hesitation for him, but Jess was something different and perhaps a bit more. He was someone he could talk to, oh, Jonesy was there to talk to, but the older man was more of an uncle than a peer.  With Jess he could share dreams of youth, sit in a saloon and enjoy a cold beer, or compete with for the smile of a pretty girl. Something he missed dearly in the past years was that companionship, and someone to help shoulder the burden he carried.

 

There was a passage from long forgotten book he always remembered, it reminded him of Jess:

 

“One man in a thousand, Solomon says,
Will stick more close than a brother,
and it's worthwhile seeking him half your days
if you find him before another.
Nine hundred and ninety nine depend
on what the world sees in you,
But the Thousandth Man will stand your friend
with the whole round world against you."

Kipling

 

Despite Jess' cavalier approach to work and just when it should be done, or his impulsiveness and hot temper that was quick to ignite, there was no one he would rather have his back in any situation. There was something different about Jess now though, and there was a growing suspicion that soon he would be called away by the Big Open. Slim knew what Jess was.  The dark haired man had never denied the fact that the rig hidden in the wall of the fireplace had one purpose and one purpose only. That kind of life meant that you never stayed in once place for too long, enemies could find you far too easily that way, people grew too close to you and you to them.

 

Slim had hoped that the stud they had finally captured and brought in would give his partner a reason to stay, but the horse had proved too like the gunslinger: aloof and unable to come to terms with his capture. If things did not change soon, they would have to either release the stallion or humanely put him down as the horse had refused to eat for the last couple of days.

 

Jess, too, had lost his appetite it seemed. Normally a hearty eater and always ready for one of Jonesy's special pies, the man seemed to exist on black coffee and air now. Food simply got pushed around the plate before being thrown for scraps for the most part. Both man and horse showed weight loss, and for Jess the loss of sleep as well if the bruised eyelids and dark circles were not enough evidence that something was wrong. The fear of losing Jess to the life of a drifter again made Slim short tempered with the man. They had several arguments over the last couple of weeks about silly things: where to hang harness, how to stack hay bales, but the biggest thing that scared Slim was the gun. Jess didn't realize Slim knew he was practicing with it again. It had taken some hard talking to convince Jess to take the weapon off and replace with a standard Colt Peacemaker. The gunfighter had proven to be almost as fast with the standard gun as with his customized weapon.     Slim sighed and shook his head again, forcing his mind to turn back to the job at hand and urged his horse into a gentle lope.

 

                                                                                        *****

 

Jess moved along the far northern pasture.  Once  he had finished changing teams for the morning stage had come through, he had headed north to ride the fence line looking for rotten posts or broken wire; Jonesy and Andy could handle taking care of the stock and other chores as needed. Reaching the summit of the ridge line, he pulled Traveler to a halt and stared out over the rolling hills toward the distant hazy mountains.

 

He had never intended to stay here for so long, but part of him was tired of wandering aimlessly. Moving from job to job, looking over his shoulder for new enemies and old, so called friends. People in his line of work didn't have `friends' and there were times he counted himself lucky to have an ally, but never counted entirely on anyone to watch his back, even if they wore a star. The only two things he had learned to count on in the years he had been wandering was a good horse and the nickel plated colt that currently rode in his saddlebag. Everything else was more than likely to let you down, man and woman alike.

 

Life had not been easy for the young gunslinger with the murder of his mother and siblings, he had pretty much been left on his own. Fighting for survival the only way he had known at age fifteen, he had taken odd jobs, hired on as a ranch hand and anything else that would put beans on his plate, coffee in his pot and cartridges in his belt. Time and practice had fine tuned an innate talent for sharp eyes and lightening reflexes and, in a couple of years, he was hiring his gun. Soon the name ‘Jess Harper’ was spoken with some fear and a lot of respect for his skill. He made a point of never seeking out a man to kill; there were enough that wanted to try his hand on their own for that. Sure, in the beginning he had run with the wrong element from time to time, but to the best of his knowledge, he wasn't wanted anywhere.  Well, nowhere important anyway. It didn't take him long to figure out that workin' from the law side of things in between gun jobs was a far better idea, and most times it paid better too. He'd done stints as a temporary deputy, helped escort prisoners and the like.  He had come to know a lot of good men, and had seen quite a few fall.

CH 3

Eagles inhabit the heavenly heights
They know neither limit nor bound
They're the guardian angels of darkness and light
They see all and hear every sound
Eagles and Horse

John Denver

 

The scream of an eagle drew his eyes skyward and, as he watched the raptor glide overhead, his heart lifted for a moment as followed the great bird as it soared lazily on warm currents, its eyes scanning for the smallest movement on the ground below. Again that voice called to him, pulling him away from this place of safety where he'd found something that he thought was forever lost to him… a friend.

 

The Big Open, that’s what they called it: miles and miles of nothingness and rolling hills that rose and fell like swells on the sea; mountains that seemed to try and scrape the clouds from the sky, they were so tall, and the dry, dusty plains that seemed to go on forever.  It had been his home for almost ten years and he had roamed it from end to end, corner to corner and just about everywhere in between.  There were few towns in the Big Open that didn’t know his name or his reputation with a gun.

 

They said that the Big Open got into a man's blood, became part of him if he roamed it long enough and that he needed to come back to it from time to time to survive. He'd been away from it for almost seven months, and seven months in one place meant one of two things: you'd given up, or you were dead.

 

The eagle screamed a second time, pulling his gaze skyward once more. It hung motionless for a moment and then folded its wings against its body in a steep dive, flaring them at the last moment, talons extended to strike a long-legged jackrabbit and rise once more with its kill.

Turning back to the task at hand, Jess lifted the reins and clucked to big bay gelding he rode.

 

"Come on, Trav’; move on," and he gave a gentle squeeze with his legs and the horse broke into an easy lope.

 

Riding a switchback line down the side of the ridge, Jess found a secluded glen and dismounted, pulled a set of hobbles from his saddlebags and placed them around Traveler’s forelegs, then stripped the saddle and bridle from the horse. Carefully he removed the worn plain brown gun belt and colt from around his waist, laying it on top of the saddlebags on the ground. He then strapped on a supple rig of black leather, tying the long thongs that kept the holster from catching on the gun around his thigh.

 

He pulled the blue-black pistol from its holster and carefully looked the gun over, rotating the cylinder, looking for any debris or dust that might have collected in the chambers before loading and sliding the weapon home again in its holster.

 

He then pulled on a pair of thin, skintight gloves made of calf hide. He had been very careful of his hands in the time he had spent here at the Sherman ranch and relay station. Cuts, calluses, ridges or anything of the like could cause problems handling the gun.  While working, he had made sure to wear heavy gloves of cowhide. Outside of his gun, nothing was more important to a gunfighter than his hands. A broken finger, dislocated thumb, or something similar could be the difference between life and death.

 

On the other side of the glen were several battered tin cans, some on rocks or stumps, others scattered in the grass or partially hidden. Jess had been coming out since the thaw to this place to practice. The first week he had despaired of ever getting anything vaguely resembling his natural speed back, his draw was slow and clumsy in his mind and, if anyone in Laramie had thought to call him out, he'd be dead rather than standing there. Long days of work with as much practice as he could squeeze in had paid off though, his muscles knew what to do, they just needed to be reminded just how to do it. In a span of three weeks, he was drawing almost as fast and fluidly as he had ever done. Glancing up at the sun, he guessed the time at about three or four o'clock, time enough to finish checking fence and get back to the station for supper.

Twin sisters Fate and Destiny had other ideas: a break in the fence required some quick ingenuity and not some small amount of sweat to make temporary repairs until he could get a couple of new posts made up and put in place, so it was well after dark by the time he rode in tired and hungry.

 

Slim was past angry with his so-called ranch hand, Jess was late yet again, making all the work Jonesy put into making dinner for four seem of little consequence. Jonesy, of course, made little of it and simply put a plate in the oven to keep warm. But by the time Jess rode in, Slim was in a fine rage.


“Where the hell have you been Jess?! Off skylarking again, while we’ve been sitting here wondering and worrying somethin' happened to ya?!" Slim snarled when the front door opened.

 

Jess stood in the doorway for a moment, speechless before his volatile temper took light. "Now wait just a damn minute there Slim, I was out doin' what ya asked me to, fixin' fences in the north pasture. What the Sam Hill do ya think I was doin'?"

 

"For all I know you took that damned gun and took off again.  Yeah, I know you’ve been practicing with it, I'm not blind. I've seen ya looking, know you're planning on movin' on sometime soon, jus' takin' off without so much as a by your leave. Well I’m not gonna let you hurt Andy like that `cause, for some reason, that boy thinks the sun and moon rises and sets on you, damned if I know why. You're just a plain no good drifter Jess an' that's all ya will be."

 

Jess stood there for another moment, Slim's words hitting hard and doing more damage than any bullet had ever done. He looked at the rancher as the blonde stood there, panting in anger, red faced, and fists clenched, looked him in the eye and then turned away, his shoulders slumped. He should have known, should have followed the golden rule of a man on the drift: `Never get too close, it'll only burn you later.'

 
“Right… I'll get my things then and be out in the morning'… if that's okay with you.'


“Just get out… And don't worry about comin' back either."


“I’ll just sleep in the barn tonight an’ be out ’a here first light,” Jess said over his shoulder, his voice tight and flat as he walked out and headed to the bunk house and his things.


Slim watched the dark haired man go, and with two angry strides walked to the door and slammed it in disgust.

Jonesy stood in the entrance way to the small kitchen, Andy behind him, his eyes big as saucers.  The older man glared at Slim as the tall rancher turned away from the door.

    

"What on God's green earth was that?' he hollered. `What did you just do, Slim?  What did you just do?! He's your friend."

 
"Was… He was my friend, or at least I thought so.  But you know it as well as I do, Jonesy, he was lookin' to leave. I just beat him to it is all."


"More like drove him to it." The older man shook his head in disgust and walked back into the kitchen, too angry with the younger man to say anything else.


Andy stood there and stared at Slim for a moment, looking at the spot where the gunfighter had stood a moment before, then back at his brother. "S-slim?" he whispered.

"Go to bed, Andy…'

"But…"


"Go…to…bed!" Slim thundered before stalking over to the cabinet where the `medicinal' bottle of whiskey resided. Pulling the bottle out, he poured a generous two fingers and shot it down, pouring a second and sitting at the small table that served as dining table, desk, and occasionally operating table in an emergency. He rubbed his eyes tiredly and stared at the closed door.

 

Jess stumbled through the bunkhouse door and, with a shaking hand, lit the small lamp that sat on a rough table in the middle of the room. In the bunkhouse Jess stumbled through the door and with a shaking hand lit the small lamp that sat on a rough table in the middle of the room. He threw his saddlebags on the low bunk and went to a dresser, started pulling his few belongings from it. A man on the drift never accrued more than what he could carry in his saddlebags: a couple of shirts, pants, heavy coat, oiled slicker and bedroll, not much to say of a man of twenty five. The most important and expensive things he owned were his horse and his guns, all of which said enough about him. Out of another draw he pulled boxes of forty-five cartridges and forty-four forty rounds for the Winchester repeater. The rest of his traveling gear had been stored in the barn, simple cooking utensils mostly. Done with his meager packing, the slender man sat on the edge of his soon to be former bunk and rested his elbows on his knees, face in his trembling hands.

 

What had just happened? He really had no idea what he had done to deserve such treatment from the man that, up until now, he had considered more of a friend than he could call any other in a long time.

 
Well, it didn't matter much now, Slim wanted him gone, so he'd go, and as much as it killed him to do so, he would go without looking back. That was how he used to do it; ride in, do a job, ride on without looking back.  He could go back to it again. It was always said, once you picked up a gun, you could never go back.  Seems as if they were right: no matter how hard he tried, there was no going back.

 

CH 4

 

Four strong winds that blow lonely
Seven seas that run high
All these things that don’t change come what may
Now our good times are all gone
And I’m bound for movin’ on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way

Four Strong Winds, John Denver

 

Jess rode hard, skirting Laramie and riding the back country to avoid anyone that would know him.  The best way was to cut all the ties that would bind him here, but he did regret not being able to say goodbye to Mort Cory.  Seven months in the territory had given him a good lay of the land and he was able to camp comfortable, near water and easy hunting.  Soon he would be hitting the Big Open and he would be truly on his own.  Nights were the hardest, they always had been for him; memories had a tendency to keep you company when you were alone at night.   He’d never thought to find a place where he would find peace enough to stay more than a couple of days, but he had.  Andy had been the reason at first, reminding him of his long dead younger brothers, but Slim had been the cement that had stuck him in place.

 

His first point of action would be to get his name back out there again, letting those in the market know he was available.   About four days south of Laramie lay the town of Red Buttes and that was where the gunfighter known as Jess Harper would re-emerge, ready to pick up his life where he had left off.   He had managed to squirrel away a little over a hundred dollars in the time he had spent working for Slim, enough to carry him for some time if he was careful.

 

Few people even briefly noted the tired rider and horse that rode into Red Buttes as twilight mantled the mountains, sending dusky purple streamers across the sky.  Red Buttes was not a big town, but sported a saloon, boarding house and two or three small stores.  Tying up in front of the Saloon, Jess swung down stiffly and slapped the bay horse affectionately on the neck.

 

“Horse, we’re getting’ soft,” He muttered, stretching sore muscles.

 

Walking up to the bat wing doors, he stopped briefly out of long ingrained habit to scan the interior for the layout of the room and its occupants.  A couple of ranch hands stood at the bar talking with the bartender while a few shop keepers occupied a couple of tables, sharing a friendly game of cards.  Unconsciously he settled the leather gun rig more comfortably on his hips and stepped inside, sliding to one side of the doorway as he did so.  With a few easy strides he moved to the far right-hand corner of the bar, away from the entrance and the short stairway that ran along the far left wall, a place where his back was to a wall and he could easily watch the whole room.  The bartender, a rather nondescript man, looked up from the conversation he was having with one of the ranch hands and ambled Jess’ way.

 

“Whiskey…”

 

The bartender nodded absently and placed a glass on the counter, pouring two finger’s worth of the red-amber liquid.  “Two bits,” he said, looking at the dark haired man expectantly.

 

Jess threw the coin on the scarred wood counter.  “Any place ta get somethin’ ta eat?’ he asked, taking a sip of the rough drink and wincing as it burned its way down his throat.

The bartender nodded his head in the direction of the street.  “Boardin’ House has decent food.  Been ridin’ long?” the older man asked curiously.

 

“Long enough…”Jess replied, his tone brooking no further conversation.

 

The bartender shrugged and left the taciturn man alone, returning to the far end of the bar.  Jess stood quietly as he sipped the whiskey.  Never much of a drinker, long experience had taught him that staying sober in a strange town was an extremely good idea.   Carefully he looked over the two cowboys standing at the bar; not that he expected to recognize anyone, he’d never been to Red Buttes before.  He noted their unremarkable clothing and rigs, an indicator that they were just what they appeared to be.  No gunslick worth his salt would let his tools of his trade get in such a worn state as the cowhands’ were.  The men at the tables were older, most likely shop keeps and the like, again no threat to him.  A flicker of motion by the bat wing doors drew his attention as a man stepped in.  Like the rest of the saloon’s occupants, the newcomer was a man that inspired little remark in his appearance or apparel except for one small thing: the tin star on his left breast.   

 

Sheriff Tom McGuire had been the law in Red Buttes for five years now and, if anyone had asked him, he would have said he did a pretty good job of it.  Not that Red Buttes was a wild town, far from it; the most excitement it typically experienced was the weekly arrival of the stage, with an occasional trail herd headed for Cheyenne.  Oh, drifters came through from time to time, but even they were of little consequence, usually moving on in a day or two after resting themselves and their horse.

 

Jess watched the lawman from the corner of his eye, he kind of reminded him of Mort Cory in size and age, but beneficent lawmen of any kind were few and far between when it came to handling gunfighters.  For the most part they simply wanted the gunman out of their town and back on the road as quickly as possible.  Some were nice about it, some weren’t, and some few decided to throw their authority around and make threats with a gun in their hand, a good way to get yourself killed by any stretch of the imagination.

Tom scanned the bar as he stepped through the swinging bat wing doors, nodded to a couple of the men sitting at the tables and walked up to the bar where Harmon Taylor stood behind the counter.

 

“Evenin’, Tom,” Harmon said, setting a mug on the dark stained wood and filling it with hot coffee.

 

“Harm…thanks.  Getting a bit brisk out there,” Tom said, then blew on the contents and took a sip.  “Anything interesting going on in here tonight?” he asked, and then turned his head in the direction Harm nodded.  Tom had learned very quickly how to read and judge men in a glance before acting and what he read from the man at the end of the bar puzzled him.  The low slung gun spoke of trouble, the shadow of beard spoke of days on the road, but it was those eyes that caused him to pause.  For a brief moment they reflected sorrow, pain and loneliness, but when the man met his gaze, a sardonic smile was playing on his lips, but all was locked behind his icy walls of blue with cold indifference. The dark haired man touched his hat in polite greeting before taking another sip of his whiskey.

 

“Talk to ya later, Harmon…” the lawman said as he move toward Jess.

 

“Sure, Tom,” The barman replied, absently picked up the empty coffee mug while watching his friend before he laid a cautious hand on the scatter gun beneath the bar.

 

It’s a strange phenomenon that seems to happen in saloons, a kind of hyper-awareness that occupants share no matter what they’re doing.  As Tom moved in the stranger’s direction, several things happened at once.  Complete silence—even quiet conversation stopped, eyes flicked between the known and the unknown, the law and the potential danger. A subtle tension filled the room.  The gunfighter made himself stand quietly, relaxed, as the Sheriff casually moved toward him.  He tossed back what remained of his liquor, then, rested his hands on the dark wood, watching the Sheriff's slow, purposeful approach.  When the Sheriff 'casually' thumbed the thong from his gun's hammer, Jess knew what was coming and let the "gunfighter" take over, thinking, "And so it begins.”

 

Ch 5

When you ask how I’ve been here without you
I like to say I’ve been fine and I do
But we both know the truth is hard to come by
And if I told the truth, that’s not quite true
Some days are diamonds, some days are stone
Some time the hard times won’t leave you alone
Some times the cold winds blow a chill in my bones
Some days are diamonds, some days are stone
                       Some Days are Diamonds John Denver

 

A month had passed since Jess had left, and life at the Sherman ranch and Relay station did not stop as Andy thought it might.  They had gone on as they had before the gunfighter arrived, for Jonesy, Slim and he.  The stage still came, horses still needed to be harnessed, cattle still needed to be tended.  Still, there was not a day that Andy didn’t look for that dark bay gelding with the star on its forehead to come over hill. 

 

Mort Cory watched Slim pull his rig to a stop in front of ‘Sims General Store’ for his monthly supply run and Andy wasz with him.  The tall, blonde rancher stepped down slowly from the buckboard, moving as if it took almost more effort than he was willing to put out.   Mort shook his head because the sudden departure of Jess Harper had been more of a hard blow to the young man than he had realized.  The lawman had surprisingly grown to like the young hot tempered gunman, despite his reputation with a pistol.  Harper was quick to flare into anger, his sense of what should and shouldn’t be often getting him in trouble.  He was, however, fiercely loyal to those he called a friend.  Mort sighed and stepped back into his office to gather up the little bit of information he had been able to garner from various lawmen that he knew were friends around the Wyoming and Colorado territories concerning Jess’ recent whereabouts and exploits.

 

Charlie Sims looked up and smiled in greeting as the two Sherman brothers walked in.  Andy, as young boys were wont to do, headed towards the small display of glass jars holding assorted sweets.

 

“Mornin’, Slim. What  ken I do fer yah?

 

“Just some supplies for the station, Charlie,” and the younger man pulled out a yellowed sheet of paper, handed it to the shopkeeper. He played restlessly with some fripperies on the counter for a couple of minutes, watching the shopkeeper as he moved from shelf to shelf, selecting various items and talking to himself as he studied the list, and finally asked ‘Charlie, you hear of anyone lookin’ for some work?”

 

The shopkeeper stopped his hunt for a particularly difficult item to find, turned and stroked his jaw in thought for a couple of moments then shook his head. “Nope, can’t say as I have, Slim.”

 

Slim sighed and rubbed his gritty eyes “Darn, sure could use another hand or two about now.” 

 

Charlie looked at him sympathetically.  “Anythin’ I can do?”

 

“No,  was just hopin’ to pick up a hand or two for spring branding.”

 

“How ‘bout over at the White Horse?  Most hands workin’ or not gravitate over there eventually,” Charlie suggested hopefully. ‘And, in the mean time, I kin finish fillin’ this for ya.”

 

Slim gave him a small smile and nodded. “Good idea, thanks, Charlie.  Andy, you wait here ‘til I get back, okay?… Help Charlie with loadin’ the supplies.  Hear me?”

 

The boy nodded absently, absorbed in the perusal of the glass encased candy. 

 

Slim headed across the dusty street to the White Horse Saloon to see if there were any potential hands looking for work.  As he stepped through the swinging half doors he noticed Carter Conway, owner of the Double C spread, his closest neighbor, sitting at a table with a cup of coffee and moved in his direction.  

 

“Slim!... How’s things at the Sherman ranch these days, boy?’  The older man asked in way of greeting.  ‘Join me for a cup this mud Abe calls coffee?”

 

“No thanks, will sit for some conversation though,” Slim grinned and pulled up a chair.

 

“Yer looking a mite rough, everythin’ good at yer place?”

 

Slim nodded wearily.  “Yeah,  just tired; forgotten jus’ how much I liked havin’ a hand around.”

 

“Heard that Harper fella lit out on ya a couple of weeks ago.  You doin’ it all yerself agin’ then?’

 

“Jonesy and Andy help as much as they can, but Andy’s only twelve ‘n Jonesy’s back ain’t so good, so tending the ranch falls on me for the most part.’  Slim stifled a yawn and rubbed his face with a gloved hand.  ‘Thought maybe I’d find a hand or two in town to help out with spring brandin’.

 

Carter looked thoughtful for a minute and then smiled, “Might be able to help you out there.   I jus’ finished up brandin’ at my place, so’s not so much to do right now.  I was gonna have ta let a couple of my boys loose until the fall roundup.  Seems that you gave me a better idea.” Slim looked at him curiously. “Go on”

 

“I’ll jus’ send ‘em your way for a bit, save me havin’ tah feed ‘em and pay ‘em while they just sit around gettin’ in tah trouble and making it fer everyone else.  An’ you need the help.”

 

Carter, that would be a great help! I can’t say how much I appreciate it.”

 

The older man smiled; he liked the Sherman brothers and the boys had been dealt a rough hand with the passing of their pa, but Slim had shown the grit to keep the place going.  “That’s what friends and neighbors are for, son, you’d make the same offer if it was t’other way ‘round. Yer pa and I din’ always see eye tah eye but, I knew where to go if I ever needed help.”

 

Slim leaned forward and grasped the other man’s rough, callused hand in thanks, giving him a genuine smile of gratitude. 

“Thanks again, Carter. I’ll look for your boys in a couple of days. Looks like you solved a problem that’s been eatin' at me for a while…Well I guess I better get goin’, Mort wanted to t’ talk t’ me and the day’s getting on.” Slim slid his chair back and, standing, gave his friend a farewell slap on the shoulder and a nod.  As he left, Carter noted that his step had just a bit more life to it as if a huge burden had been lifted from his shoulders. 

 

 A few moments later, Slim had a hip cocked up on the corner of Mort’s desk, waiting for the Sheriff of Laramie to finish some paperwork so they could speak.   Finally Mort put his pencil down with a sigh of relief, the tedious reports were the bane of his job.       

 

“Well, Slim, I told ya I’d put some feelers out, see what I could find out about Jess’ whereabouts and his doins,’  the lawman sighed, smoothing some invisible creases out of the papers in front of him before reluctantly looking Slim in the eye.  ‘The news ain’t good.  Just like ya thought, he’s gone back to the gun and killed a man that called him out in Dale Creek, then had another run-in about a week later in Granite Canyon.   Word’s getting around that Jess Harper is back and he’s taking on all comers an’ lookin’ for work.  The flies are flockin’ after him like an open jar o’ honey.”

 

“Rate he’s making friends, he won’t see another year,” Slim muttered and set the mug of coffee he held on the desk.  “What in god’s name is he thinking?”

 

Mort snorted and shook his head, a little anger tingeing  his tone.  “What’s he thinking?  I’ll tell you what he’s thinking, Slim.  He’s thinking that the man he thought was his best friend did everything but chase him off at the end of a gun.  He’s thinking that the only road left to him is holdin’ that same gun, an’, at the rate he’s travelin’ that road, I don’t give him that long.  Don’t matter how good ya are, there’s always somebody somewhere that’s better.” 

 

Slim flinched under the hard sting of his friend’s   words and, cocking his head at the man with the badge, he asked, “So how do we…I… get him to come home?”

 

Mort sadly shook his head.  “That’s the problem now,  isn’t it.  First ya gotta know where he is, and the last I heard, he was headed toward Cheyenne an’ who knows where after?  Then ya gotta make ‘im listen to ya, without drawlin’ on ya first.”

 

 Slim looked at him sharply.  “Jess wouldn’t draw on me, Mort.”

 

“Think about it, Slim: you left him no choice but to leave, told him not to bother coming back.  Why would he listen to you now? Why should he let you get within thirty feet of him?  Now, I know that you were just thinkin’ of Andy and how he was the last time Jess took off, and before that, your Pa’s death, but, boy, you went about it the wrong way.  Sometimes words bite harder than bullets.”

 

Slim clenched his jaw, and stared down at the desk for a moment, a flush of anger mantling his cheeks at the sheriffs hard words.  Suddenly he hauled off and slapped the half-full cup of coffee from the desk top, sending it to the floor in a flash of temper.  Standing, he paced around the room, running a hand through his hair.      

    

“No reason, I guess, no reason at all,” he ground out between clenched teeth.  “Andy’s drivin’ me half crazy the way he’s moonin’ about the place.  Always looking beyond the ridge, waiting for Jess to come riding back over it,’ he half-shouted, Slim gestured helplessly as he paced around the small office and glanced back at the older man behind the desk.  He shook his head and sighed in frustration.

 

 ‘I just don’t know how to make him understand Jess isn’t coming back, not this time.  Jonesy’s just as bad, he don’t say anything, but it’s there just the same.  The look, the blame for makin’ him walk out that door, not riding after him and bringing him back.’

 

He walked back to the desk and leaned over, placed his hands on its top, head hanging down between his shoulders for a moment, then looked up with a sigh.   

 

‘I just don’t know how to fix it.  I wish to all get out I could take those words back, make Jess come back over that ridge so I can tell him how sorry I am.”

 

The rancher straightened up abruptly, slapping a hand against the desktop and shaking his head in exasperation.  As he walked over to the door, he noticed the splattered coffee and the remains of the ceramic mug covering the rough wood floor.

 

Sorry for the mess.’  He gave a rueful shake of his head.  ‘An’ thanks for the information, but I’m bettin’ Charlie’s got my supplies ready, so I’d better get a move on or Jonesy and Andy’ll start to worry.”

 

CH 6

 

Now the face that I see in my mirror
More and more is a stranger to me
More and more I can see there’s a danger
In becoming what I never thought I’d be

Some days are diamonds, some days are stone
Some time the hard times won’t leave you alone
Some times the cold winds blow a chill in my bones
Some days are diamonds, some days are stone                                                                                               Some days are diamonds, John Denver

 

Jess startled into wakefulness, reaching for the nickel plated Colt that lay in its holster by his head, even before his eyes were fully open.  He had easily fallen back into old habits formed by the hard life of a drifter.

 

Three months of the Big Open had brought him well into Colorado territory and added four more dead men to the list of those that thought they could out draw him.  They learned a final, fatal lesson in how wrong they were.  The bewitching woman that was the wide nothingness had worked her sorcery on him.  Laramie was two hundred miles and a lifetime away and the reputation of the gunfighter known as Jess Harper was alive and flourishing. 

 

He lay quiet, listening for whatever had woken him from a dreamless sleep, but only the soft chirping of crickets and the distant call of a coyote floated on the cool night air.   Traveler, his blood bay gelding, shifted quietly as he dozed near-by.  Jess slid the revolver into is holster and lay back, staring at the night sky, waiting for the peace of sleep to come again.  Now was the loneliest time for him.  If Slim had run into Jess now, he wouldn’t have recognized his friend.  The high spirited, young man that believed in enjoying life to its fullest was buried deep beneath the cloak of the gunfighter.  In his place was a whip cord lean man with a stone face and cold eyes.  At night though, in the quiet stillness, the cloak slipped away and left a lonely drifter looking for some place to finally call home. 

 

Daybreak  found Jess stirring a small banked fire back to life to reheat coffee left from the night before as well as a couple of biscuits and the last of the bacon.  Supplies were running low; it had been a couple of weeks between towns and a chance to buy more.  Fortunately for him game was plentiful and hunting relatively easy. The long, rolling foothills of the Rockies played eastward into wide open plains, prime grazing for cattle. He was headed southeast toward Aroya, a small cattle town about fifty miles west of Cheyenne Wells.  The makings of a range war was brewing there.

 

Traveler stepped up next to Jess and gave him a nudge, almost knocking him ass over teakettle into the fire.  Swearing softly, he stood to give the big horse a slap on the neck.   

 

“Horse,  you need t’ mind your manners and knocking me into the fire isn’t gonna make the coffee cook any faster.” He stroked the sleek neck affectionately and absently combed his fingers through the heavy black mane, lost in thought.

 

About now things would just be stirring at the Sherman ranch, Jonesy in the kitchen, long white apron wrapped around his waist, the smell of frying bacon and cooking coffee, the snorting and blowing of hungry horses while Slim forked hay down from the loft.  Andy caring for his critters and feeding the chickens while the sun climbed over the ridge, burning away the remnants of night with bold slashes of pink and gold and meadowlarks heralded the new day with their flutelike song.  With it all would be a sense of peace, of family.

 

The gelding pulled away, lifted his head high, nostrils flared, ears pricked forward as he caught a scent on the cool morning air.  He snorted softly.  A firm hand clamped down on the quivering muzzle and the horse jerked back indignantly.  Jess held on preventing his mount from voicing a greeting as the man searched for what had alerted the gelding. 

 

About a quarter of a mile out, he spotted the outline of horse and rider.  Jess watched as the rider drew nearer until he was within shouting distance.

 

“That’s close enough, friend!” Jess called out as warning, stepped over to his saddle and pulled his long gun, then levered a round into the chamber, the sound bringing the horseman up short as his shout hadn't.  He held the Winchester ’73 in both hands across his body, muzzle pointed upwards he waited.

 

“Saw your smoke, wondered if you might spare a cup of coffee in passin’.  I’m down to chicory an’ dust an’ it jus’ don’ do the trick in the mornin’,” the stranger said in a deep, rich baritone before he pulled his tall, leopard appaloosa to a halt and stood slightly in the stirrups to take in the small camp.  ‘Been movin’ for a while now, sure would appreciate a cup.”

 

Jess smiled to himself, he knew that voice.  “McCullah?  Is that you?!”

 

The rider sat back in the saddle, his hand dropping to the butt of the forty-five on his right hip, easing the keeper off the hammer.  “I know you?”  He called cautiously.

 

“Well enough to know I can beat you on any day endin’ in ‘y,’… so keep your hand clear of that gun,” Jess  warned, bringing the rifle to bear.

 

The appaloosa sidestepped restlessly, earning a sharp check of the reins from his rider.  “Stand still you damned jug-headed Cayuse,” he growled at the horse and raised his hand away from the gun butt.  The other man’s voice was very familiar as well as the blood bay that stood nonchalantly grazing on scrub, but it took him a minute to call it to mind... .

 

“Jess… Jess Harper!  I heard you were dead!  Where the hell you been hidin’ son?” he said with a touch of humor in his voice.  He held tight to his mount’s reins, keeping the restless horse in place because even friends didn’t ride in uninvited it made for rather tense conversation for both parties involved.

 

Jess chuckled. “Not as much as some might like.”  He dropped the muzzle of the Winchester and waved at the rider.  “Come on in, McCullah, coffee’s gonna boil away if ya don’t get in here.” 

 

Jess had run with Steve McCullah a year ago down in the panhandle of Texas while moving cattle at the Stacked N.  Eventually both men heard the call of the Big Open and moved on, Jess north toward Colorado and Steve west to New Mexico territory.  They had gotten along well enough, the older McCullah acting like a brother to the younger Jess.  The life each man lead, though, did not encourage such relationships, such a thing could be considered a liability and a weakness to be played upon by enemies.  As the horse and rider came into the campsite, Jess backed away carefully, relaxed but wary.

 

“Still don’t trust much, do ya, Jess?”  Steve asked as he swung carefully down from the saddle.  McCullah was a big man, as sons of Texas were supposed to be.  As tall as if not taller than Slim Sherman with chestnut-brown hair that curled out from under the battered Stetson hat; wide of shoulder and lean of hip with hazy grey-green eyes that studied the younger man with deceptive nonchalance. 

 

Harper had changed in the year-plus since he had ridden herd on both the cattle of the Stacked N and the wild, hot tempered gunslinger.  Jess had lacked the true stone-cold killer instinct.  He preferred to fight for the man who was right rather than the one that would win.  Granted, he was not afraid to take a life, the war had burned that out of him well before the two men had met.  That, and the hunger to see his family avenged by putting a bullet between the eyes of the man that had murdered them.  Now there was a hardness, the edges were sharper, the eyes more cautious.  He wore the gun on his hip with a relaxed confidence that sent the message that here there was danger.

 

“Yeah, well, life teaches some hard lessons, and I’m a fast learner.”  Came the bitter retort as Jess slid the long gun back in its saddle boot.

McCullah cocked an eyebrow at the comment and turned to his saddle bags, untying one side and pulling out a battered tin cup and a small sack.

 

“Here, since you’re providing the coffee, the least I can do is share," he carelessly tossed the bag in Jess’ direction and leaned back against his horse.

 

The Colt seemed to leap from holster to hand like a bass leaping for a fly.  A flash of motion, a glint of sunlight on steel and the muzzle was pointed unerringly at the third button of the tall Texan’s shirt and the deadly warning of a hammer being thumbed back clicked loudly in the hushed, tense atmosphere as Harper stood in a half crouch, ready to move, his finger resting lightly on the trigger. 

 

“A might tense, aren’t ya, Jess?’ Steve asked quietly and pushed himself away from his mount, moved with deliberate care to the fire and squatted to pour himself a cup of the thick, bitter coffee that all horsemen on the move seemed to prefer.  He held the beat up tin cup in both hands and squinted up at Jess. 

 

‘You gonna put that thing away and have some of this, or just stand there like a darned fool?  I ain’t gonna draw on ya, Jess, ya know I ain’t ... unless you force me to.”

 

Harper released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, slowly eased the hammer down, and thrust the gun back into its holster.  Still holding the sack in his left hand, he picked up the cup he had set down earlier and poured himself a cup of the coffee.  He took a sip and winced at the taste: he’d run out of sugar a week or so back and had yet acquire a taste for coffee without the slight sweetening.  

 

“What brings you this way, McCullah?” he asked, picking up one of the biscuits that had been left sitting on a rock next to the coffee pot to warm.  He studied the man across the fire from him, realized he hadn’t changed much since he'd seen him last headed for New Mexico.  A few more creases around the eyes, a little leaner from hard travel, but still the same Steve McCullah for the most part.  As close a friend he’d had in a long time, since the death of his family ten years ago.  It had hurt when they had split up, and he had deeply missed the camaraderie they had shared until he had met up with Slim Sherman and that hole had been filled again.  He had told Andy that you got used to the loneliness of the Big Open, but he’d lied; you never got used to it, you simply tolerated it.

 

McCullah absently lifted his battered hat, running his hand through his thick hair before re-settling the Stetson on his head.   “I’m thinkin’ it’s the same thing that brought you: that range war brewin’ in Aroya.  I heard that the Hanging G was looking for some guns, and, well,’ he gave a sad laugh and looked Jess in the eye ‘you know how that goes with men like us.  Course the fact that I’ve run into some lean times helps too, heard they’re willing to pay good money for a man’s time.’  Steve paused and nodded toward the abandoned sack, ‘You gonna open that?”

 

Jess looked at the bag and pulled it to him, untying the draw string and pulled the mouth open.  He peered inside and a boyish smile spread across his face as he reached inside and pulled out a handful of dried fruit. This was a rare treat and popped a couple of pieces into his mouth, chewed with relish and tossed the bag back to its owner.

 

“So, you gonna answer my question?”  Steve prompted again, “or are you gonna’ make me guess?”

 

Jess finished chewing and took another sip of coffee.  “North, up Wyoming way. I followed a man who decided he needed my bankroll more than I did, ended up in Laramie late last summer.  Got caught up in a bit of trouble up there, almost got myself shot a couple of times.’  Jess smiled and shook his head at the memory of meeting Slim for the first time.  ‘Next thing I know I’m working at a Stage relay station.  Good people there, two brothers and another man running a ranch with the station on the side, ended up wintering over with them as an extra hand.  Thought I’d finally found that place I was looking for but…’  Jess glanced away from his friend, his throat tightening over the words. ‘But things didn’t work out that way. I decided to ride on after the thaw, head south again; weather was just too cold for me.”

 

Steve caught the anger and underlying sadness in Jess' tone, but decided not to remark on it.  Jess hated when people pried into his affairs, so, if he wanted Steve to know what had actually happened, he’d let him know in his own good time.  Instead he finished his coffee, and stood up, easing the kinks out of his legs.  He dumped the dregs from the cup, then stuffed it back into his saddlebags and scooped up the sack of fruit from the ground. He grabbed a couple of pieces before placing it in the saddlebag as well. 

 

“I don’t know ‘bout you, but I’ve got a long ride to Aroya and the sooner we get started, the sooner I get some decent coffee.”

 

“You sayin’ I make bad coffee?”  Jess laughed.  “Awful thankless coming from a man with no coffee at all.”

 

He dumped the remainder over the fire to douse it, kicking dirt on it for good measure.  In a few minutes the gunfighter’s few belongings were stowed either in their respective saddlebags or tied firmly behind the cantle of his saddle.  The whole process took less than fifteen minutes and the two men headed out, riding side by side at an easy lope. 

 

 

 

CH 7

When you are in doubt, be still, and wait;
when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage.
So long as mists envelop you, be still; be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists -- as it surely will.
Then act with courage.
Ponca Chief White Eagle (1800's to 1914    

 

Slim finished his breakfast and carried the plate and cup into the kitchen. “I’m gonna be moving stock all day today, Jonesy.”

 

“Alright, Slim, I’ll put together some food for you to take; more than likely ya won’t be back ‘til after dark,”  Jonesy said, cutting a couple of thick slices of bread. 

 

“Thanks; I’ll be out in the barn saddling up.  Give it to Andy when he comes out.” 

 

Slim walked to the side door and went out to the barn to saddle up Hawk, a cow pony that he and Jess had caught and broke together last fall.  The horse had natural cow sense, making for an excellent roping and cutting pony; in another year or so with some time and experience, he could be sold for a nice price.  A few moments later Andy trailed out to the barn with the food Jonesy had made up.

 

“Here ya go, Slim,” he said, setting the sack on a bale of hay.

 

“Thanks, Andy,” Slim said as he curried the chestnut gelding. He set the brush on the horse’s rump and turned to his brother. ‘Andy… I know it’s tough without Jess here to help and I miss him too, but we have jobs to do between the station and keeping this ranch running.  I need to know I can depend on you to do your job so I can do mine, which is make sure you have a place to sleep and food to eat.  That means that we have to get on without Jess.  Maybe someday he’ll come back.”  Slim tossed the curry comb brush into a box and saddled up his mount, led the gelding outside. He turned back to give his younger brother a smile.  “I’ll see you tonight so save me some supper!”  Swinging easily up into the saddle, he heeled the chestnut around and cantered out of the yard.

 

The sun was high and Slim wiped the sweat from his forehead with a swipe of his left forearm and pulled the loop of his canteen strap free of the saddle horn.  He absently unscrewed the cap and took a long swallow of the tepid liquid as he looked over the thirty some odd head of happily grazing cattle.  Moving any more than five or six head at a time by your self could prove problematic.  It seemed they had an agreement amongst themselves to cause as much aggravation as they possibly could to one cowboy in a single afternoon.       

 

When he had arrived at the southeast pasture where he had left thirty plus head to graze about three weeks ago, he only found sixteen.  The morning had been spent popping brush, scouring gullies and basically pulling reluctant cattle out of where they wanted to be and putting them where they didn’t.  It was exhausting, dirty and dry work for man and horse and both had been ready for a short break.  Fortunately the cattle decided that it was too much work to scatter again and were content with what graze there was left.

 

Pulling Hawk to a halt, he swung down, stripped the saddle, slipped the bit and secured him with walking hobbles to graze for a bit.  Slim had taken up residence nder a handy box elder, a tall, wide spreading tree that thrived in the dry, rocky soil.  For himself he pulled a couple of biscuits left over from breakfast, a hunk of cheese, and an apple from his saddlebag. 

 

There was a peace to be found here in this wild country, the peace that could usually settle his mind when he had a problem and needed to think.  The soft sounds of the cattle tearing the grass, the song of the meadowlark and the soft sighing caress of the early summer breeze calmed him.  He leaned back against the rough bark and his mind turned to Jess once again; the man just made him crazy. 

 

Mort had managed to keep track of him sporadically and had passed the information on. But there had been no news in over three weeks. It wasn’t a whole lot of time if he was just traveling, but enough to get someone like Jess into trouble just the same.  The good news was, if he had been killed, word would have spread like wildfire.  That’s usually what happened when a gunfighter with a reputation was gunned down.  The single thought of his friend – no, brother dying alone on the dusty street of some cow town caused him as much pain as the harsh words he had thoughtlessly thrown in the gunfighter’s face four months earlier must have caused Jess.  He had been so worried and angry that night, afraid that something had happened, angry that his friend might have just listened to the call of the Big Open again and left without saying goodbye. 

           

Andy wasn’t helping matters much, the constant questions about news, the accusing looks, watching, always watching for that figure on the blood bay horse to come over the crest of the hill. 

 

Things had improved somewhat, but the questions were always there lurking behind the eyes waiting to be asked.  The looks may have faded away a little for the most part, but the small boy standing by the corral fence as dusk settled, still waiting and watching until it was too dark to see anything.  That was the hardest thing to see.  Jonesy, after he got over his initial anger, had done all he could to support Slim, understanding what the young rancher was going through.  

 

The scream of a hunting hawk broke the young man’s ruminating and, stirring him into action, Slim pushed himself to his feet and picked up the heavy stock saddle and blanket, walked over to his grazing horse. 

 

“Time to go back to work, ol’ son,” he said, setting the saddle on the ground and flicking the blanket on the horse’s back, careful to smooth out any creases. The saddle was swiftly and expertly swung into place and cinched up, Slim kneeing the gelding in the belly when he tried to suck air.  With the double cinch tightened, saddlebags were slung behind the cantle and tied into place.  He popped the bit back in the horse's mouth and once the throatlatch was secure, the young rancher swung up easily, reining Hawk around, pointing him at the cattle.  It would take a couple of hours to move the small herd up to new pasture and he planned to be home for supper.

 

Night had already claimed the Sherman ranch house by the time Slim rode in on a weary Hawk.  Warm rectangles of golden light had beckoned them home as the rider and horse crested the hill and paused to take in the peaceful scene before beginning the steep descent.  The smell of wood smoke and cooking food drifted upward out of the small valley and he could hear the horses in the corral snorting and blowing as they moved about in the dark, gathering up stray strands of hay and kernels of grain.  Slim could see the inside of the house in his mind’s eye: Jonesy would have hot coffee, fresh bread and a plate on top of the stove keeping warm for him.  Andy would be doing his schoolwork, much to his disgust, waiting for the sound of a rider coming.  And Jess would be… Would be what?  Slim shook his head, breaking the train of thought.    He clucked softly to the chestnut gelding, urging him down the hill at an easy trot.

 

Jonesy heard the approach of the horse and knew it was Slim finally coming in.  He looked at Andy diligently working on his arithmetic.

 

“Andy, why don’t you go out and take care of Slim’s horse for him, I’m sure he’s tired and would like his supper hot jus’ like you ‘n me ate it.”    

 

The young boy had looked up with anticipation at the sound of hooves, and gave a sigh of relief, “Sure Jonesy, I was done anyway.” Closing his primer, he pushed away from the table and headed toward the barn.

 

Jonesy had set a plate of hot food on the table and was pouring a cup of coffee when the weary rancher walked in from the kitchen already freshly scrubbed.                                              

“That sure smells good,” Slim said as he pulled out a chair and sat down with a groan, muscles stiff from hours in the saddle.

 

“Andy caught a mess of trout after he was done with morning chores, so I figured it’d be a nice change from beef,” the older man replied as he poured himself a cup coffee and joined Slim at the table. 

 

Slim dug in eagerly, a long day in the saddle definitely made for a hearty appetite.  The fish was baked perfectly, flakey and tender.  He had to admit, though, he was hungry enough to chew bark.

 

Jonesy sipped his coffee while he watched his friend butter a still warm biscuit. 

 

“Oh! …’ the handyman exclaimed, setting the coffee cup down on the table suddenly and rising, ‘I almost forgot; a letter came for you today on the afternoon run.” He pushed his chair back from the table and walked over to the mantel where an envelope patiently waited.  He handed it over to Slim and sat down again, leaning forward with anticipation.

 

Slim studied the envelope for a moment, holding it up to the light, then, tore a strip off the short end.  He yanked a single sheet of paper out and read silently for a moment.

 

Jonesy shifted restlessly in his chair.  “Well boy, what’s it say?” he asked impatiently.

 

Slim looked up from the letter as he set it on the table.  “Looks like I’m going to be taking a trip.”

 

CH 8

 

So you speak to me of sadness
And the coming of the winter
Fear that is within you now
It seems to never end
And the dreams that have escaped you
And the hope that you’ve forgotten
You tell me that you need me now
You want to be my friend

By John Denver


The two gunmen pushed hard through the day to cover the remaining miles to Aroya, pausing only to water and rest the horses for an hour or so before continuing.  Although there had been no recent trouble with the Southern Cheyenne or Arapaho tribes, traveling through their territory could be problematic and they wanted no trouble.  Full night had fallen by the time two men splashed across Big Sandy Creek and on into Aroya, a three-quarter moon lent enough light to ride by.   There were few people left on the street by the time Jess and Steve rode in, most shops had closed for the night except for the saloon where a couple of horses were tied up, the hotel and sheriffs’ office still sported light through the windows. 

 

For the most part Aroya was a typical cattle town hosting a single street, which, along with the fore mentioned buildings, was claimed by a mercantile/post office, gunsmith and a small cafe and livery.

 

the two horses shuffled down the dusty street at a tired walk, Jess pushed his hat back on off his forehead and asked,   “Well, what’s your pick?  Bath, drink, or somethin’ to eat?” he asked, looking wearily toward Steve.

 

McCullah eased his position in the saddle and looked around. “I don’t know ‘bout you, son, but I sure could use a drink and something to eat.   My stomach’s pretty sure my throat’s been cut an’ I just rode ninety miles through Arapaho territory.  What is it ya think I want?”

 

“Bath it is,” Jess said with a laugh.

 

Both men reined over to the hitch rail in front of the small hotel and swung down stiffly, then tied their horses before they pulled their saddlebags and Winchesters from the saddle and climbed the stair to the front door. Inside, the small lobby was neatly, albeit sparsely furnished, dominated by a large grandfather clock that ticked quietly to itself in one corner and a long counter with a registration book carefully centered on it.  Two chairs and a low table sat by the single double-wide window to the left of the main entrance.  At the sound of the door opening a petite, silver haired woman stepped behind the desk from a small room behind the counter

 

“Evening, gentlemen; how may I help you?”

 

Jess stepped up to the counter and leaned his rifle against the front of the desk. “Yes ma’am, he said in his rough baritone. ‘We need a room with two beds for the night.”

 

The clerk turned, pulled a key from the board behind her and turned back, rotated the registry book to face the two men.   “Please sign here.”

 

As the two men did as requested, she looked them over. Jess felt her eyes take in their low slung guns, a key to their reason for being in town.  Men like them had probably been drifting in for the last week or so, men living on a hair-trigger like their guns, wolves come to play among the lambs.

 

                                                                         *****

The sun lifted its flaming head above the far eastern horizon, the heat of the day building swiftly.  Augustus Martin Barstow, a.k.a., Gus, was, at age sixty-three, a picture of a successful rancher.  Standing six foot three in his stocking feet, he was as straight as any oak. His deep auburn hair was lightly sprinkled with grey and his light blue eyes were still as sharp as any eagle’s. With wide shoulders that still seemed to be able to bear any load, his only concessions to age seemed to be the thickening around his waist.

 

Gus Barstow had been one of the first men to establish their claim some forty years ago.  Through blood, sweat, tears and not a little loss of life, Gus built the Hanging G into a neat little empire covering some seventy-five thousand acres of open range on the western side of Aroya and encompassing a good portion of the Big Sandy Creek.  Ten years after Gus’ arrival, Cy Anders showed up to stake out the range that would become CA Connected.  Cy and Gus had been friends for many years, standing against raiders, rustlers, Arapaho, Cheyenne and whatever else the good Lord saw fit to throw at them.  Unfortunately for Cy, the narrow branch of The Big Sandy Creek that ran through his land had a tendency to dry up late summer in poor years, while the Big Sandy itself still ran.  That was at the heart of the problem brewing now because Cy had expanded his holdings until he rivaled Barstow’s land in size and number of head run on the range.  Without a reliable source of water, though, Cy ran the risk of losing a substantial part of his herd to lack of water. Spring had been dry with little rain and already there was talk of another drought pending.   Desperate times had lead to desperate measures which lead to fence cutting and stock killing.  Gus had confronted his friend, angry words were exchanged, threats and promises made and now the area bordered on a range war. 

 

         Men with a desire for wealth, and in possession of a fast draw, were pulled to Aroya like sharks sensing blood in the water and, like sharks, had little care for who got in the way. The two ranchers marshaled their cowboys like generals marshalling their forces.  “No man rode alone” was the standing order at the Hanging G, visits to town were limited to simple supply runs and then only with a well armed escort.  A week ago, Gus and his eldest son, Vince, had ridden into town with a few men to oversee the purchase of monthly supplies when the first gun-slick was spotted, a harbinger of things to come. 

 

Vince Barstow, the eldest of the three Barstow children, had pulled the heavy, high-sided supply wagon to a halt in front of the mercantile and wrapped the long reins around the upright shaft of the wheel brake before stepping down from the hard wooden seat. He was like his father had been some thirty odd years ago, tall and lean and met his father’s height easily.  He had grey eyes the shade of a water-polished pebble with a sharply chiseled face.  His thick shock of hair, the color of rich mahogany, curled over his collar and strayed out from under his Stetson. A second man climbed down from the opposite side of the wagon and two riders tied up at a second hitch beside the wagon and swung down as well.

 

Father and son walked into the store while the two hands stood watch by the wagon.

 

“Afternoon Mr. Barstow, Vince …’ the shop clerk said as he came out from the back room, unconsciously smoothing the white apron wrapped around his waist.

 

“Hey, Chet,” the younger Barstow replied and handed over a folded sheet of paper, “just coming in for supplies.”

 

The clerk took the proffered list and looked it over, lips pursed, eyebrows climbing as he read:  “Six rolls of double strand ‘H’ barb; a half case forty-five ammo: half case of forty-four forty cartridges.”  The clerk paused and looked up. “You getting’ ready for an invasion or somethin’, Mr. Barstow?”

 

Gus gave a dry laugh and glanced at his son. “Let’s just say we’re worried about coyotes and rattlesnakes, Chet.  How long would you say to fill the list?”

 

Chet looked back at the paper, scratching his head.  ‘About an hour or so should do it Mr. Barstow.”

 

Gus looked at his son.  “Vince, I want you and Wade to stay here n’ keep an eye on things, I’m gonna go over to Emmett’s and see if that new gun your brother ordered is in yet.  I’ll take Collins with me.”

 

Vince sighed and shook his head, “Pa, I’m sure that Chet here can take care of our order without me ‘n Wade babysitting. Ain’t that right?” 

 

“Ah, sure Vince, Mr. Barstow, I got Pete right out back if I need a hand with anything,” the store clerk assured the rancher and his son.

 

Vince shrugged and gave his father a cock-sure grin. “See?” No fuss. Besides, I wanted to go over ‘n talk to the sheriff for a bit.  I’ve heard some talk that I don’t like one bit, so I wanna see what Cal thinks.”

 

Gus Barstow glared at his eldest son for a moment, then snorted in annoyance.  “Well then, seein’ as you got it all figured, I guess I’ll get ta doin’ what I need to and meet you over at Cals’ office then.”

 

Vince grinned at the clerk and gave him a slap on the shoulder in passing as the younger Barstow followed his father outside.  The two cowhands looked around from where they lounged against the wagon as the men re-emerged.

 

"Collins, you're with me; I got a couple of things I need to do and I don't wann'a have to worry about who's at my back," Gus muttered as he stepped down from the boardwalk, watching as several men on horseback trotted by.  He walked around the backside of a buckboard, his long, quick strides belying his age, Will Collins in tow.

 

Vince watched his father until he was across the dusty street and headed in the direction of the gunsmith before turning back to the remaining cowhand and shaking his head. He chuckled to himself and stepped down into the street, Wade Williams following at his shoulder. 

 

Cal Sewell had been a lawman for the better part of his adult life.  Son of a harness maker, he had been drawn to the badge from an early age, leaving a younger brother to inherit the family business.  He drifted for awhile, picking jobs as he could find them.  He’d been a cowhand, deputy, driver for the Tumbleweed Wagon, even did a stint as a U.S. Marshal in Montana territory for a couple of years.  He finally tired of the time in the saddle and drifted back south, ending up in Aroya six years ago.  For the most part it was a quiet job, or was until Cy Anders had started pushing Barstow, fighting for water rights to the part of the Big Sandy that ran through Barstow land.  Gus Barstow, being the man he was, pushed right back, and just as hard.  Now that quiet little job was a hornet’s nest just waiting to be stirred.  In the last month alone there had been more fights and his jail had been busier than it had been in the last six months, thanks to the animosity between the CA Connected and Hanging G hands. 

 

The laughter and friendly poker games that had been the usual draw at the Three Diamond were long gone and a black tenseness lurked just behind those swinging doors for any man who passed through them.  Fights were more likely than not to be resolved with fast guns instead of hard fists, and the residents of Aroya were caught in the middle of the two factions.  He had heard the words ‘Range War’ bandied about and that was the last thing Aroya needed.  He’d seen one once, saw what it left behind, too: broken friends, a lot of good men dead and one nine year old girl laying in the dust.

 

The picture of that little girl in the street after being caught in a cross-fire, her blood staining the dirt was forever locked in his memory.  He remembered the silence that hung like a shroud over everything, the soul-wrenching scream of a heartbroken mother as she ran to cradle her child’s ragdoll-like body.  They never knew whose bullet did the killing of little Kellie Mae Simms.

 

Cal thrust those memories back into the furthest part of his mind and redirected his attention to the street.  He watched  Vince Barstow, accompanied by one of the Hanging G hands, thread his way across the street. 

 

“Mornin’,” the auburn-haired young man greeted as he stepped up on the boardwalk.

 

“Vince… Wade,” Cal answered, settling  the chair back onto all four legs.  Still cradling the .30-.30 in the crook of his left arm, he stood to shake hands, then leaned a shoulder against an upright.  “What brings you in today?”

 

Vince aligned himself alongside the older man, resting a shoulder against the opposite pillar.  Wade set his back against the wall. 

 

“Monthly supply run, plus Pa’s pickin’ up a gun for Scott.”

 

Cal nodded. “How is your Pa? Saw him headed over to the gunsmith.”

 

“He’s still top bull on the Hangin’ G even if he says otherwise,” Vince laughed.

 

Cal joined him with a brief chuckle of his own for a moment before his attention was suddenly drawn back to the street and a rider on a roan gelding.  His eyes narrowed as he studied the man, carefully whistling tunelessly through his teeth as he did, noting how he wore his gun low on the thigh, the alert way the man sat his horse and how totally aware of everything around him, like a cat ready to spring on a mouse, all pointed to one thing - gunfighter.  So, it was beginning already.  He had heard that Anders had put out a call for some muscle in that area of expertise, and the call was being answered.  But where there was one, there would be more, all flocking in like vultures to a kill.

 

Suddenly Cal realized who it was he was looking at and loosed a string of enthusiastic profanity because it was Wilke.  Anson Wilke, notorious for specializing in eliminating problems by shooting first, letting them lay where they fell and not worrying about asking questions.  Vince followed the sheriff’s gaze and, seeing the stranger on the red roan, assumed that he was the cause of Cal’s sudden swearing. 

“Who is he?”

 

Cal glanced at the young man next to him and, with a serious expression, hissed, “Anson Wilke.”

 

Vince mouthed the name, trying to place it and, unable to do so, finally asked, “The gunfighter?” since it was the only conclusion he could come up with.

 

Cal nodded, his lips tightening.“Yeah, that’s him.  Soon as shoot a man for money as look at him.’ He turned his look of disgust to Vince.

 

‘I’ve heard talk that Anders put the word out for some, lets’ say ‘men with special talents’ and it looks like what I heard was right.  And this is only the beginning.  Once one shows up, they’ll all start to flock in, the good, bad and indifferent.  When that happens, you can bet that blood ain’t far behind.  Be careful, Vince, you and all of yours, family and hands alike because the devil has jus’ come to town and he’s about to set up housekeepin’.”

 

CH 9

 

I have seen that in any great undertaking it is not enough for a man to depend simply upon himself

Lone Man (Isna-la-wica) Teton Sioux

 

Dinner at the Hanging G normally was a time to talk about the day, things accomplished, problems run into and plans for the days ahead.  Tonight however, there was an uncommon thread of tension between the two men at either end of the large golden oak table.   A stony silence encompassed the room as the remaining members of the Barstow family looked between the patriarch and his eldest son, each of them wanting the silence to be broken.

 

Sarah set her fork down and sighed in disgust and glared at her husband sitting to her right at the end of the table. 

 

“Enough is enough you two, either talk about what’s between you or let it go.  I will not have this meal, that Amy, Rebecca and I worked to make, ruined.”  She turned her angry gaze to the other end of the table. 

 

Across the table, Scott Barstow grinned at his sister-in-law in appreciation: leave it to Vince’s fiery tempered wife, his brother sure had his hands full with her.

 

Gus sat back in his chair, regarding his daughter-in-law for a moment, a small smile playing on his lips.  Redirecting his gaze, he stared at his son for a moment and shook his head ruefully: the apple didn’t fall far from the tree the saying went.  His son came by his stubborn streak honestly; any Barstow worth his salt would set his heels when balked at.

 

“Okay, boy make your point,” he said quietly.

 

“Pa, I was only saying that, what Cal told us in town makes a lot of sense, why all of a sudden would a gun hand like Wilke show up in Aroya?  There’s nothing here, no big bank to hit, no payrolls rollin’ through, we are, or at least were  a quiet town.  I’m saying that, the reason he came is because he was called… by Cy.  Anders is desperate, afraid, and there’s nothing more dangerous than a man that’s afraid he’s going to lose everything he’s worked all his life for and he’s desperate enough to do anything he needs to keep it.”       

 

Gus shook his head in disagreement.  “No, I can’t believe that he’d be so foolish, all he had to do is ask, simply ask for help.  I’d help him as much as I could, but I can’t just believe he’d go as far as hiring guns, and I can’t just let him take our water.  Our stock and fields come first.”

 

“It’s coming, Pa.  It’s coming sure as we’re sitting here,”  Vince said somberly, looking at his two brothers as he did so.

 

Sarah looked anxiously between the two men.  “What’s coming?”

 

Her husband looked back at her, “Range War.’ he replied grimly.

 

Scott and his younger brother Seth glanced at each other and then back to their brother. 

   

“Are you sure it’s coming to that, big brother?”  Scott asked softly, casting a concerned look at his own wife, Rebecca, who sat across from him. 

 

Rebecca returned his gaze, her clear blue eyes showing concern, but no fear.  She was born and bred here in Colorado and growing up in this wild land made a woman strong enough to bear what god and the country threw at them.  It was die at a young age, of a broken heart or give up and move back east.  The words ‘give up’ didn’t exist in the Barstow vocabulary in any way, shape or form for either the men or women. 

 

Scott turned his gaze back to his older brother, ‘Are you sure?” he asked again.

 

Vince nodded, “Cal said that where there was one gunman, more were sure to turn up, ‘Like vultures to a kill’ I think were his words.  I believe him, Cal’s been around, spent some time bein’ Marshal west of the ‘Divide’.  If he says that trouble’s coming and it’s carrying a gun, then I guess we better believe it, and get ready.”

 

Gus frowned. “Jus’ how do you propose we get ready?”

 

Vince returned his father’s un-wavering stare, took a deep breath and replied evenly, “I mean we should look to our own.  I know Bodie, Coop and the boys will stand with us, but none of us are equal to the likes of Wilke.  If it’s true that Cy has hired, or is going to hire himself a gun, then we should, too.”

 

For a moment there was a dead silence as if time stopped for the seven seated at the Barstow table, and then the dam broke.  The sound of one of the heavy chairs falling to the floor was like the sound of cannon fire as Gus jerked to his feet so quickly, it was like unseen strings had lifted him there.

 

“What in the hell are you talkin’ about boy!?’ Gus’ baritone voice was like the sharp crack of sound after a near-by lightning strike, his face almost black with rage.   ‘There ain’t no way on god’s green earth that I’m bringing in a gunsharp to fight my fight!”

 

Vince had leapt to his feet a blink behind his father. “Pa! Listen!  We can’t stand by ourselves against Wilke.  Hell, I count myself a fair hand with a gun, same with Scott and Seth, but we’re no match for somebody that lives or dies by their skill with one, nobody on this ranch is!  I’m saying we need someone that will fight with us, as well as for us. If it was just you ‘n me, Scott ‘n Seth, I’d say fight faster than a rattler strikes, but it’s not. I have Sarah and my boys’  to think about, and  Scott has Rebecca, with a little one on the way.  And what about Amy, your daughter?  Who’ll watch over them if anything happens to us?  Pa, if Cy Ander’s rides for the Hanging G with Wilke and whoever else he brings in at his side, the chance of us standing against him is mighty thin.”

 

Gus slapped his hand on the table in anger and frustration, shaking his head he looked down and then at each of his sons.  Holding the eyes of the three young men, he swore softly, “Damn Cy Anders, damn Anson Wilke, and damn me for agreeing with ya.”

 

                                                                           *****

 

Anson Wilke did not start out a bad man, he didn’t come from a poor or broken family, he had been well educated, well loved and well raised – none of which made a difference in the innate wrongness about him.  He had a smooth personality, charming and witty.   He appeared to most people as young man with a ready laugh and an easy smile.  To the weak he was something to be feared, to the powerful, a man to respected for his skill with a gun, but never trusted enough to turn their back on.  Wilke trusted only two things in life: himself and the Colt on his hip.  He didn’t live by that strange code of the gunfighter where these tough-minded men shared a mutual respect for each other.   Men with a greased holster usually found themselves with a pocket full of trouble most times than not.  Hunted and harassed by those that wanted the claim to fame of out-drawing a famous, or infamous as the case may be, gunman, the title of gunslinger held a strong allure.

 

The man on the roan horse pulled to a halt in front of the two-story ranch house.  Swinging down gracefully from the saddle, he slapped the animal on the neck and ran a rein through a ring attached to a hitching post.  He unconsciously settled the plain brown gun belt more comfortably on his hips before stepping up on the wide porch, with an economic grace, each motion flowing into the next.  He could have been called handsome by any woman’s standard and often was.  His hair, the rich gold of ripe summer wheat, was thick and wavy, curling around his ears and over his collar. Green eyes with flecks of gold danced in a lean, chiseled face and a cocky smile played upon his lips and this was the face that confronted Libby Anders when she opened the front door.

 

With a shocked half scream, the young woman jumped back from the man who was, himself, startled into stillness by the sudden opening of the door, his hand clenched to knock on the frame. The door slammed shut in his face with a loud bang.  

 

Anson recovered quickly from his surprise, dropped his hand to his side and called through the door using all his considerable charm.

 

“Ma’am?  My name is Anson Wilke and I’m here to talk with Mister Anders.”

 

He stepped back and waited, a smile on his lips.  He was positive that the pretty young thing that had slammed the door in his face was still standing on the other side.

                                       

Libby Anders was mortified by what she had just done.  The last thing she had expected to find on the porch this morning was a handsome man!  Cautiously she opened the door a second time, and was, again confronted the man’s smiling face.

 

“Oh, Mister Wilke, I am so, so sorry. I didn’t mean to be so rude!  I just didn’t expect to find anyone standing at the door,” Libby said, blushing prettily.

 

Anson, being a consummate reader of people, put on his best southern manners. 

“Why, I’m sure it was my fault of course,” he said in a slow, soft south Texas drawl he spent a long time perfecting for just such moments. He swept his Stetson off his head and gave a slight bow.  

 

Libby blushed heavily and swung the oak door open further to admit the visitor.  “Please, Mister Wilke, come in.  Let me introduce myself.  I’m Libby Anders and I think Papa is in his office.”

 

Anson laughed to himself.  It worked every time; Pa had always said that he could charm butter from a cow if he set his mind to it.

 

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said and urbanely stepped into a large living room furnished with heavy oak furniture.

 

“Have a seat, please, and I’ll tell my father you’re here.”

 

Anson selected a well-stuffed armchair and relaxed into it.  A moment later Libby reappeared.

 

“Papa will see you, Mister Wilke.  Please follow me,” she  said with a dimpled smile.

 

If Gus Barstow could be compared to the tall golden oaks that grew in the area, then Cyrus Anders was a solid red stone bluff.  He was a heavily built man with a florid face burned red by wind and sun, topped with thick, sandy hair.  His shoulders were wide and his arms heavy with muscle.  Standing, Cy extended a hand to welcome his guest.      

 

“Mister Wilke, I’ve been expecting you; please have a seat,”  Anders gestured to a chair set in front of the desk where he was working.

 

Leaning over the desk, Anson shook the proffered hand.

 

“Sorry it took me so long, Mister Anders, I was down San Antonio way when I got the message you wanted to talk to me and rode hard getting here.”     

 

Anders turned to the bar behind the desk. “I can understand that.  Drink?” he asked and picked up a decanter of whiskey and two glasses.  Set them on the desk and poured himself a drink, then held the bottle over the empty glass.

 

Wilke nodded, “Thanks, it was a long, dry ride,” and sat in the red upholstered chair that sat in front of the desk to one side, taking the offered half full tumbler Anders held out to him.  And took a sip.

 

“Smooth,” he said appreciatively and set the drink down on the polished desktop.  “Now tell me about this job you wanted me for.”

 

Anders leaned back in his big armchair.  “Well, trouble started last year.  We had a mighty dry spring and an even drier summer.  Water dried up faster than it fell from the sky.  Normally that branch of the Big Sandy that runs through my property has water in it all year through, but last year it dried up and I lost quite a bit of stock before my neighbor let me use some of his water, I had to do some things I wasn’t too proud of, stock killing and fence cuttin’.  Well, this year is shaping up the same way.  We had a dry winter, lots of cold an’ wind, but hardly any snow; spring was dry as well.  Now with summer coming on and that branch running low already, I don’t plan to lose any more stock.  The Big Sandy runs all year long and I aim to make sure I get some, no matter what I have to do.  I will not lose what I worked so hard for all these years.”  Anders shot back his glass of whiskey and waited for Wilke, watching the man over the top of his glass.

 

Anson studied the amber liquid in the shot glass for a moment.  “Are you sure you want this Anders?  Because once you start a range war, there’s no going back.  Word gets out that you’re hiring guns and your neighbor’s gonna do the same.  Next thing you know, more than just stock is getting killed; you in for that?”

 

Anders nodded. “Like I said, I’ll do what I need to in order to keep this ranch.  Now, about your fee…’

 

Anson smiled. “Five hundred upfront and, if I face any hired guns, then it’s another two-fifty for any I kill.”

 

Cyrus leaned forward, staring at the man across from him a moment, unsure of what to say. “You’re serious.”

 

Anson smiled, but it never quite reached his eyes. “As I sit here, Mister Anders.”

 

Cyrus closed his eyes and sat back in his chair, trying to massage away the headache he suddenly found growing behind them.  He sighed and nodded in agreement. “All right, you have a deal Wilke.”

 

Anders stood and walked over to where a small safe stood, unlocked it and pulled out a sheaf of bills, tossed it on the desktop.

 

“Here’s your retainer.  You can bunk in the room off the barn, its private.”

 

Anson picked up the bills and fanned them slowly, nodded in satisfaction, tucked them in a neat roll inside his shirt pocket.  “Pleasure doing business Mister Anders,” he said with a hard smile and walked out.

Over the next few days, word spread rapidly that Cy Anders had hired a new hand by the name of Wilke, a man not to be fooled with, a man with a grim reputation and a fast gun.  He was seen to ride with the CA Connected men when they came in town, flashing a predatory grin that held the warmth of a winters’ day.  After that, it seemed that everyday brought new faces to the town of Aroya, and its residents knew that what they had feared was happening.  They were caught in the middle of a range war, and the wolves had come to play. 

 

CH 10            

 

Jess and Steve sat in the dining room of the hotel enjoying breakfast.  A basket of biscuits, platter of beef steak, eggs and fried potatoes all bore the brunt of the hungry mens’ attack.  Jess leaned back, sipping his coffee.

 

“What time did you say that meeting with Barstow was?”

 

The Texan pulled a battered pocket watch out of his vest.  “About an hour, over at the saloon.”

 

Jess shot him a look.  “Last time we were in there, they just about wanted to lynch us and all we did was walk in.’ He growled, putting the coffee cup down.  ‘This town is walking on eggshells.  From what I hear, ever since that Anders hired Wilke on, the Barstows have had nothing but problems.  They’ve lost over fifty head to stock killin’ and fence cutting.  Men have been shot driving CA connected stock away from Hanging G water and grass.”     

 

Steve shrugged. “Well, guess that’s to be expected, knowin’ Wilkes’ reputation an all.  Man’s a walkin’ hair-trigger primed for trouble.”

 

Jess nodded. “I’ve heard of Wilke, he’s damned good.”    “Better than you?” McCullah asked quietly, quirking an eyebrow in Jess’ direction.

 

The younger man shrugged.  “Somebody has to be, won’t know until he tries.”

 

                                                                             *****

 

Slim rested his head back against the wall of the stage, trying to catch some sleep.  The letter he had received had been from the district office of the Overland Stage Company in Cheyenne.  They were looking at purchasing a spur line from a floundering company and wanted him, along with Dan Sellers, one of the district reps, to check out the existing relay stations along their route.  Arranging with Carter to ‘borrow’ a hand from him while he was away for a couple of weeks, he caught an eastbound headed for Cheyenne. 

 

Now he was closing in on Aroya where, for him, the trip southeast would stop and he would head back toward Laramie while Dan would continue onto Cheyenne Wells where the home office of the failing stage line was housed.  He was ready to get back home to the ranch, his brother and Jonesy.  He wanted to know if Mort had heard anything more about Jess, although it had seemed like he had dropped from the earth last he heard.  There had been no news at all of the gunslinger. 

 

Dan had friends in Aroya, a family by the name of Barstow that owned a large spread outside the town.  Dan had wired them to let the Barstows know they were coming and an invitation had been extended for Slim and Dan to stay at the ranch instead of in town.

 

Dan Sellers watched his traveling partner doze peacefully.  He could never understand how anyone could sleep in a stage coach, the wild rocking and bouncing left him feeling half sick and black and blue to boot.  Slim seemed to have perfected the art, his long legs stretched across from seat to seat braced him against the rock and bounce of the coach, while his head rested in the corner, arms folded across his chest.  He pulled his watch out; they should be making Aroya in about an hour. 

 

                                                                                *****

 

Vince Barstow stepped up onto his horse and looked over his shoulder, watching as his father did the same.  Cooper Ames and three other hands waited silently on their horses to ride out, their faces grim.  Things were not particularly safe in Aroya, despite the sheriffs’ best efforts.  Anders had hired Wilke just as the sheriff had feared he would.  Then things went from tense to outright deadly, open attacks on Hanging G men and property, fences cut, stock killed and men shot.  Two days ago when they had brought Cam in slumped over his horses neck, blood pouring out of a hole in his shoulder, it had taken very little for Vince to convince his father to meet the two men he had heard about.  It hadn’t taken very long at all for word to get out to the ranch and another gunfighter of some repute was in town.  One Jess Harper who, according to Cal, was the type of man that fought for the cause, not for the money.  Cal had ridden out the night Cam was shot to hear from the wounded cowboy just what had happened, and ended up staying for dinner, followed by scotch, cigars and a long talk between him and the male members of the Barstow family. 

 

“Jess Harper might be the man you’re looking for.  Gotta reputation for riding for the brand, win, lose or draw, he won’t quit on ya.  Fast as they come with a gun from what I hear.  Hadn’t heard anything about him for a while, thought maybe he’d gone down, but then talk started flying again.  Word is he’s faster than he’s ever been.  Came in a few days ago with another man, McCullah is the name, out’a Texas.  Not as fast as Harper from what I hear, but a steady hand in a fight.”

 

That had been the sheriff’s words to them that night.  A message was delivered to the hotel where the gunfighters had taken up residence, requesting a meeting between the two men and the Barstow’s the following morning.

 

CH 11

 

Jess finished his coffee and looked over his shoulder toward the front of the hotel.

 

“I think I’ll take myself outside, tired of being stared at,” he said, pushing himself away from the table.  He could feel the eyes on him as he made his way toward the front door and there was an uneasy feeling right between his shoulder blades.

 

Steve took a moment to carefully observe the occupants of the small dining room and he expected no trouble from any of them, but in his line of work, you trusted nothing and no one.  You learned that trouble had a whimsical sense of humor, popping up where it shouldn’t be and failing to show where it should.  He threw a couple of coins on the table and followed his partner outside.

 

For a small town, Aroya boomed on Saturday mornings.  Ranchers came in for supplies, wives shopped for staples, cowboys’ recovered from the night before.  Riders and wagons passed up and down the wide dusty street and the sound of an anvil started its song up the street at the livery as the blacksmith started his day.

 

Steve found Jess standing on the porch, watching it all go by.  The younger man stood quietly, left foot braced up on the rail, arms crossed and resting across his knee.  To someone who did not know the young gunfighter,  would have thought him totally absorbed in the ebb and flow of people around him, ignorant to all else that went on.  McCullah knew better. Jess had ridden the High Trail far too long to be so foolish.  Steve had noticed the tensing of muscles across Jess’ back and shoulders at the sound of the hotel door closing,  but the continual scanning of the street in front of him never broke away as he looked for potential threats.

 

Steve watched his friend for a moment longer as he had noticed something in Jess’ eyes he hadn’t expected to find: loneliness.  The Jess he knew, the one that everyone saw, was a man of cocky assurance, confident in his skill with a gun and in the knowledge that he could get along just fine on his own, thank you very much.  Evidently something had happened in the past year to change that. 

 

“You gonna just stand there?” Jess asked dryly, his gaze not moving from the street.

 

“We might as well head down to the saloon and get us a table and a beer to go with it.”  Steve suggested

 

Jess nodded in agreement, pulled out a his thin black gloves and slipped them on.

 

 

“Yeah…’  He removed his foot from the rail and, pulling his gun, casually flicked open the loading gate and checked the shells, then replaced it in the holster, leaving the keeper off.  ‘Let’s go.”

 

Behind them in the distance came the crack of a whip and the rumble of hooves accompanied by the jingle of harness.     

 

“Stage Comin’ In!” Came the call to make way for the coach and team.

 

The two men glanced at the coach as it rolled by them pulling to a stop in front of the saloon, a moment later the two gunfighters slipped between the swinging doors and into the cool dimness of the interior.  Each man stepped to one side of the doors allowing their eyes adjust to the low light.  Scanning the room quickly, Jess located an appropriate table and dipped his head indicating it.  Steve nodded and stepped to the bar.

 

“Two beers,” he called to the bartender as he slapped coins on the counter. 

 

The bartender eyed the two gunmen cautiously, recognizing them from a couple of nights ago.  He placed the foaming mugs on the counter and scooped up the coins, retreated to the other end of the bar where his sawed –off resided under the counter.

 

Steve sighed and ruefully shook his head: a man couldn’t even get a drink without being eyeballed by someone.  He worked his way back to the table and took a seat to Jess’ right, setting the beers down.

 

Jess had taken the seat facing the room, his back against the wall.  He picked up the beer in front of him and took a sip waiting. 

 

Outside, Vince and his father swung down from the saddle and tied up, noting the stage was unloading. Cooper Ames and the other men waited by the doorway to the saloon.   Vince spotted the portly figure of Dan Sellers standing and talking with a taller man with blonde hair.

 

“There he is, Pa. I’m guessing that’s Sherman he’s talking to,” and Father and son walked toward the two men.

 

“Dan! Good to see you,”  Gus boomed, patting his friend on the shoulder while shaking his hand.

 

Dan winced slightly at the older man’s grip, but returned the handshake with as much enthusiasm.  “Gus, you’re looking pretty good for an old man.  And, say this can’t be Vince, can it?” he laughed.  ‘You certainly can’t deny him as your son now, can you?’ He took the younger man’s hand. ‘Vince, it’s been, what?  About four years since I saw you last?”        

 

Vince smiled. “I guess that’s about right.  Last time I was up your way I was looking at some breeding stock.’   He paused and looked at the stranger standing next to Dan, extending his hand as he said, ‘You must be Slim Sherman from up Laramie way.  Vince Barstow,’ he tipped his head at his father, ‘And this is my father, Gus Barstow.  We’re glad you and Dan are staying out at the Hanging G for a couple of days.’

 

Slim took the proffered hand.  “That’s what Dan tells me; it’s mighty nice of you to put us up.  Some of the accommodations at the relay stations we stayed at were a little lacking in the comforts, like say, a bed for one.” 

Vince laughed, releasing his grip in deference to his father. “Well you don’t have to worry about that, we have plenty of room at the Hanging G.”

 

Gus took Slims’ hand and shook it heartily.  “Good to meet you Mister Sherman.”

 

Slim shook his head, “My father was Mister Sherman, I’m just Slim.”

 

Gus said, “Well then, Slim, you and Dan can leave your bags here, the boys‘ll see to them.  Vince and I have some business inside, but you’re welcome to join us for a drink.”

 

Dan perked up. “You buyin’, Gus?”     

 

“Naturally. Cooper, you come too, the rest of you boys wait here.”

 

The batwing doors swung wide as the group of amiably talking men stepped into the saloon, but Vince paused to look around.  Cal had given them a description of the two men they were meeting.

 

Jess suddenly became alert, sitting up from his relaxed slouch as he watched the group of what appeared to be ranchers come into the dim room.  Steve set his beer down and he, too, watched carefully.  Two of the men appeared to be father and son, each sporting dark auburn hair. 

 

“Looks like the Barstow’s have arrived,”  Steve said, straightening in his chair.

Suddenly Jess noticed a tall figure in the midst of the group and the hair on the nape of his neck prickled.  Slim!  His eyes narrowed and lips tightened with well-remembered anger and hurt.

 

Steve glanced over at his partner and noticed the change in his demeanor. What?” he asked, tension in his voice and his hand instinctively dropped down to his gun.

 

Jess took a deep breath and made himself relax, and,  glancing at his partner, shook his head. “Nothing; just somebody I use to know, that’s all,” he said, trying to keep a neutral tone to his voice.

 

“Friend of yours?”

 

“I use to think so. Now, I’m not so sure.”

 

Steve noticed the nervous twitching of the fingers on Jess’ gun hand as it rested on the table, a real indication of how agitated the man next to him was. 

 

The group drew closer to the table, and Vince noticed the two men at the back table watching them like hawks, waiting and coiled as tight as rattlers ready to strike.  Like a rattler, Vince knew that the wrong move would cause them to strike with deadly swiftness.

 

Vince touched his father’s arm, distracting him from his conversation with Dan.  He nodded in the direction of the table

 

“I believe that’s the table we want, Pa.”

 

Gus looked where his son had indicated and took a few long strides in that direction, the rest of the men following.

 

“Which one of you is Jess Harper?” he asked.

 

Cold sapphire met meet hard emerald.  The younger of the two men answered in a rough voice, “I am.”

 

 

Slim stopped dead at Gus’s question and stared at the dark haired man sitting so confidently at the table.  It had taken a moment for the name to register, but that voice was the voice he never thought he would hear again.  He stared at Jess and was shocked at the changes that the few months he had been gone had made.  Always slender, he was now positively lean, the planes of his face harder, sharper.  There was a cold glitter in those blue eyes where he remembered a mischievous twinkle had once danced.  There was no welcome in those hard eyes, no hint of friendship, only the frigid fires of anger and hurt burned there.         

 

“I am,” Jess said, flicking his gaze over the group of men standing by the table.  The shock of seeing Slim there buried deep beneath the gunfighters mask that he wore.  He locked gazes with the owner of the Sherman ranch briefly, and Jess let the anger and hurt shine through for an instant and then forced those emotions back down and away to be dealt with another time. He dismissed the portly man standing next to Slim as a non-threat, the ranch hand was alert for any sudden moves, but stood with confidence, at the younger Barstow’s shoulder.  The Barstows’ themselves regarded him with resolve to do what they needed to keep their ranch.  He’d seen it before in other men, other places other times, both good and bad. The assessment of each man had taken a bare moment and he turned his gaze back to Barstow the elder.

 

“Have a seat, gentlemen,” he said to the two Barstow men and pointedly ignored the rest.

 

Gus bristled somewhat at the dismissal of the other members of his group.  “I have nothing to hide from these men.” 

 

Jess looked at Steve who shrugged.  “It’s their war,” he replied to the unasked question.

 

Jess played with his beer for a moment, looking directly at the elder Barstow.  “So this is your game Barstow, you invited us to the dance, so you lead.”

 

Gus studied the young man in front of him and he was a little taken aback at the man’s age which he put at a few years younger than Vince.  When they had come up to the table, he had automatically assumed that Harper was the older man, considering the reputation the name carried. 

         

Four of the five sat down at the table and Gus locked eyes with the dark haired gunfighter again.  “Well, Mr. Harper, it seems we need your help.  I’ll be honest with you, I don’t like your kind’

 

“Our kind?” Jess repeated in his soft Texas drawl, leaning forward slightly, his muscles tense and eyes flat.

 

 

The sense of being in immediate danger caused the men at the table to draw back momentarily

 

“Men who kill for a livin’,”  Gus clarified.

 

The temperature at the table dropped several degrees.  Vince thought for a moment that the man across from his father was going to come across the table at him.  The air crackled with the tension as Jess smiled grimly and clenched his jaw until his teeth ached, the muscle jumping along the bone

 

“Is that what you think we are, Mister Barstow? Hired killers?” Harper asked through gritted teeth.

 

“Aren’t you?”

 

“Let me tell you somethin’, Mister. Barstow.  I’m only going to say it once, so you listen real close.  I never,… ever killed a man for money, no matter how hungry or how desperate I was. Now if what you’re lookin’ for is a hired killer, then you better walk away right now.”

 

Slim felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up, he had never heard that tone in Jess’ voice that he heard now, so hard and cold it could have cracked granite.

 

For a moment it seemed that the air around the table had been sucked away.  Cooper Ames, standing behind the two Barstows, tensed, hoping that he would not have to draw against either of the two deadly men that sat across from his employers.  He knew, though, if it came to it, he would try.  And he also knew without a doubt that he would die in that attempt.

 

McCullah watched each of the men at the table, gauging their reaction to the words.

 

Jess never was that much of a diplomat, he was too hot tempered for the job.  His gaze ran over each man, watching for that small flick of motion that would permanently end this conversation.  And he could feel the tension, the anticipation, coming off Jess in waves and Steve was surprised that the man was not vibrating with it.  Slim Sherman kept his gaze on Jess as well, but the look in them puzzled McCullah.  The look was that of a man looking at someone he hadn’t seen in a long time, and hadn’t expected to either.  The heavy set man seemed frozen in place, eyes wide with fear. 

 

The two Barstows had locked their eyes on Jess, waiting for what might happen next, making sure their hands remained in plain sight on the table top.  Behind them stood the ranch hand that had walked in with them.  He stood with one hand paused above the butt of his gun.

 

“I wouldn’t…” The words were soft and laced with a heavy south Texas drawl.

 

Vince let his gaze slide from Harper to the other gunfighter who was staring over Vince’s shoulder at Coop with deadly intent in his gaze. 

 

“Take it easy, Coop, nothing’s going to happen here today.  Isn’t that right, Mister Harper?’ he asked easily without breaking eye contact.  ‘My father did not mean to insult you, right Pa?”

 

Gus turned his head to glare at his son.  “Boy, don’t be puttin’ words in my mouth.  I say what I mean and those that don’t like it can go whistle,” the older man turned his gaze to the gunfighter across from him.

 

Slim watched the two men lock wills.  He knew Jess would not, could not back down from such a direct challenge, it simply was not in his nature.  He needed to do something to break the stand-off he was sure would end badly for all parties involved if nothing was done.  Taking a deep breath, he looked first at Jess, then at Barstow.

 

“Mister. Barstow, if I might say something?  I know Mr. Harper and he may be a lot of things, but a killer for hire is not one of them.’

 

Dan Sellers looked at his friend in stunned silence for a moment, he had heard rumors at the district office that Slim had hired a man with a dark, trouble and torn past with the last name of Harper, but had not connected the two until now

 

McCullah also studied the tall rancher, but for a different reason.  He had a feeling that this man was the reason that Jess was riding the high trail again, as well for the shadows of loss and loneliness he had caught in those deep blue eyes when Jess was caught with the gunfighter’s mask he wore, down.

 

Both Gus and Vince stared at the rancher as well, and they were taken aback by the statement.

 

“How do you know Mr. Harper, Sherman?” Gus demanded in a hard tone.

 

Slim looked around the table and, with a grim smile, replied, “He worked for me for over seven months, couldn’t ask for a better hand.”

 

Gus considered this for a minute before asking another question.  “You had no problem knowing his reputation?”

 

“Oh, there were problems, but not with his reputation.  And we worked through most of them.  Like I said, never had a better hand. I never meet a man I’d rather have at my back in a fight.”

 

“Enough, Barstow; you wanna know about my past, you talk to me,’ Jess shot a glare at Slim. ‘And ONLY to me, understand?” his rough voice taunt with anger.

 

Gus turned his gaze back to the gunfighter.  “When it comes to my family and my ranch, I’ll ask what I want of whoever I damn well please, Harper.  You don’t like it, you and your associate can ride out.  Nobody will try an’ stop you.”

 

Jess was quiet for a moment: he knew that McCullah needed this job; hell, he needed this job.  His bankroll was just about gone.  “Mister. Barstow, you came to us, asked us for help with your problem.  Now, if my reputation being what it is scares you too much, you say the word and I’ll ride, out nothing more said.  I won’t speak for my partner.  I will tell you this, though: you ain’t gonna’ find nobody else that can take down Wilke for you, and that includes my friend here.  Now what will it be?”

 

 

Vince looked at his father, silently pleading that he listen to what the gunfighter was saying.  Vince knew that Harper had just given his father as much of an opening as he was willing to, without making the older man back down, and not backing down himself.  He had a feeling that what Harper said about being the only one around able to take down Wilke, if it came to it, was frighteningly true.

 

Gus returned his sons’ look and turned back to Harper. “You puttin’ it that way, Harper. looks like I have little choice but to take you both on,’ he said grudgingly. ‘Now what’s it gonna ‘ cost me?”

 

 

“Eight-hundred between the two us; either of us have to face Wilke or any other gun Anders hires will be an extra two hundred per man. You supply housing, meals and any doctorin’ if we need it.”

 

Vince swore softly. “That’s a hell of a lot of money, Harper.”

 

“We’re takin’ a hell of a lot of risks.  One of us rides with you at all times, the other wherever you want ‘em. If there’s more than one of you out workin’ then each of us rides with a Barstow.  We make a suggestion, I expect it to be taken into consideration.  Steve an’ I have done this before, …you haven’t.”

 

Jess looked from father to son and back again, then leaned back in his chair and steepled his black gloved hands, waiting patiently for an answer.

 

Gus was faced with a decision he never had wanted to make; if only Cy Anders had come to him for help instead of taking things by force.  Looking down at the table for a moment, he turned to his son.

 

“Boy, I ain’t making this decision by my lonesome, this thing involves all of you. Scott and Seth already told me how they felt before we left this mornin’.  Now I’m askin’ your opinion cause eight hundred dollars is a lot of money to lay out for a start.  There’s bound to killin’ before this is over, it’s how this kind’a thing runs.”

 

Vince looked at his father, his gaze steady.  “I said it from the first Pa, we would need to hire ‘help’ to handle Anders.  If it takes eight-hundred or eight-thousand to hold what’s ours by blood, sweat and law, then that’s what it takes.”

 

Gus nodded. “Alright then,’ and he looked at the two patient gun men.  ‘Mister. Harper, Mister McCullah, we have a deal then.”  He extended his hand to each man who shook in turn.  He pushed away from the table and stood, and looked around the room.

 

“Well, now that our business is taken care of, I have a ranch to run, gentlemen.  Dan, Slim, let’s get your gear loaded on the surrey, it’s about an hour’s ride to the house.”

 

The sudden sound of scraping chairs brought a hush over the room as gunmen and ranchers stood.  McCullah took the lead, hesitating to pull his battered Stetson low over his eyes.  One of the most vulnerable  times for a gunman was when he was going from dark to light or its reverse: in the time it took for eyes to adjust to the change of light, either man could find himself dead.  McCullah stood to one side of the door and scanned the street and boardwalk for any hint of trouble before giving an ‘all clear’ nod.

 

Gus and his son headed directly for the doorway, but Steve held out a hand and halted them, “Hold on a minute, Mister. Barstow; I’ll go first,”  Steve said, taking the thong off the hammer of his gun and stepping through the door in front of the other two men.  He stood with his back against the outside wall of the saloon and took another long look at the traffic on the street.  

 

People, horses and wagons flowed by smoothly on the boardwalk and street, all busy with their own concerns, some pausing occasionally to greet and chat with a neighbor.  All except for a cowboy trying to look a little too innocent while loitering around the livery across the street while keeping one eye on the saloon.

 

Steve watched doorways, roof tops and windows across the street and found no other too casual-looking folks.

 

“Dirty green shirt across the street, Jess.  He looks just a little too innocent, don’t you think?” McCullah commented over his shoulder.

 

“I have him,” Jess answered from the shadowy interior  and had automatically taken up his partner's previous position inside.  He was watching the watcher as he adjusted his black felt hat, a gloved hand resting easily on the horn grips of his gun.

 

“I’m gonna’ walk across and get the horses.  Gentlemen, you let Jess come through first and then get mounted up without seeming to hurry.”  McCullah stepped off the boardwalk and headed to the stable with long easy strides.

        

As Steve waked across the street, Jess slipped out the door settled his back against the wal, wating, until his partner entered the stable. 

 

“Okay, gentlemen,” he said over his shoulder.

 

“What the hell was that all about, Harper?” Gus growled, pushing his way through the batwings.

 

“What you hired us for, Barstow, keeping you alive.  See that fella in the dirty green shirt?’ he tipped his head in the direction of the lookout.  ‘Good money says he’s on Anders’ payroll.  Soon as we mount up, he’ll ride out and let his boss know you hired yourself some guns, too.  Then the real fun begins.”

 

Slim and Dan located their bags and handed them to Cooper Ames to be loaded on the back of the surrey; Vince was already mounted and held the rein to his fathers’ horse. And Steve reappeared a moment later, leading their horses.

 

Jess took Traveler’s rein, still watching the possible threat across the street as the two Barstow’s and McCullah mounted.   Then he stepped up to mount, resting his left hand on the saddle horn.  Suddenly he felt someone behind him and a hand lightly touched his shoulder.  In one, continuous blur of motion, his hand dropped to his gun, pulling it free of the holster as he whipped around to his right in a crouch with the hammer at full cock and his finger on the trigger.

 

He came face to face with a very shocked and not a little frightened Slim Sherman!  Slim was pretty sure he had never seen a man move so fast before in his life. He licked his lips and made no sudden move, making sure his hand was well away from his revolver.  He tried to swallow, but found his throat amazingly dry. 

 

“Jess…’ he managed to whisper.  He had intended to tell Jess he was sorry for the words he had said in anger, now he was just hoping that he would live another five minutes.  He knew Jess was fast, had seen him draw a time or two when they were backin’ some trouble down, but then Jess had been with him, not drawing on him.  The words, sudden, quick, fast did not even begin to describe what he had just witnessed.

 

Jess stared at the man in front of him for a moment, inwardly shocked that he was facing Slim with a gun in his hand.  Outwardly, he let the cold fire of anger burn; it shone in his eyes and roughened his voice.  Swearing loudly, he slowly straightened, easing the hammer down and thrust his gun back into its holster, leaving the keeper off.

 

“For a man I always took for damn smart,  that was the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.  You want that brother of yours to lose the only family he has left, you try doin’ that again.  Darn it Slim!”,  turning back to Traveler who was standing patiently.

 

Slim stiffened at the words and cleared his throat.  “Jess, we have to talk.  There’s a couple of things that I want… No, I NEED to say to you.”

 

Jess stared that the man he had thought of as someone he could call brother, and the words that Slim had shouted tore through him again.

 

“Everything that needed to be said between us was said that night,’ he answered in a voice as hard as stone, although, inside, the pain that he had thought buried had bloomed anew, ripping fresh wounds in his soul. ‘Now, I suggest you get in that surrey ‘cause we’re movin’ out.”  He wheeled Traveler roughly and the horse snorted, ears flicking back and forth in confusion at such harsh treatment from one usually having such a gentle hand.

 

Slim sighed and walked to the waiting surrey where Dan sat pop-eyed, waiting for him.

 

“Slim, are you crazy?!”  he croaked as the younger man climbed into the seat next to the him.

 

Slim laughed subconsciously and looked at his hands that were shaking badly, his palms slick with sweat.  He looked at his friend and nodded. “I guess I must be, Dan. I must be.”

 

CH 12

 

Life like War is not art but simply a lesson in survival

 

Vince rode ahead of the surrey with Jess Harper: he was intrigued by the man.  Harper was not much younger than he was, but there was a darkness about the man that both drew and repelled him at the same time.  ‘What,’ he wondered to himself ‘made a man turn to the gun to survive?’

 

He cast a glance over his shoulder.  His father and one of the hands that had ridden out with them rode on either side of the surrey.  Gus was leaning over in the saddle as he talked with Dan and Slim.  McCullah and the second hand rode to the back just off the road to avoid the dust stirred up by the wagon and riders. Looking forward again, he stole another glance at the gunslinger. 

 

“What’s on your mind, Mister Barstow?” the dark haired gunfighter asked without turning his head, amusement coloring his voice.

 

Vince glanced away, momentarily embarrassed at being caught staring, then cleared his throat.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to…”  

 

“To… What?  Stare?”  Harper laughed bitterly.  “Comes with the job I guess.”

 

“How long you been doing your ‘job,’ Mister Harper?”

 

Jess turned a hard, icy glare on the rancher. “Long enough to do it better than most I guess.’ He said stonily, his tone indicating that the subject was not open for further conversation.

 

The two men rode on for awhile in silence, scattered snatches of conversation from the men in the surrey and Gus floating up to the front riders.  The three men were discussing the Overlands’ option to buy out the Sugarbush Stageline, whose stations Dan and Slim had been inspecting.  

 

Vince sighed to himself and took another stab at striking up a conversation with the silent gunfighter.  “When we get to the ranch, you and your partner will be staying in the Foreman’s house.”

 

Jess turned slightly in his saddle to look at Vince. “Won’t your Foreman be a little upset with that arrangement?” 

 

“Brodie likes to bunk in with the men, there’s a private room off to one side in there, so there’s nobody being put out if that’s your concern.  It’s not much of a house actually.  More like a little cabin, just one room with a couple of beds, its own stove an’ fireplace.”

 

“Long as the bed’s soft and the roof don’t leak, most anything will do.  Better than a bedroll on the ground,”  Jess replied dryly.

 

“I’ve heard it’s a hard life, drifting on the Big Open.”

 

“Sometimes yes, sometimes no, all depends on  the man I guess and how he looks at things.  The Big Open’s like a flirty woman, she’ll seduce yah with her charms.  Soft spring days, warm summer nights, tall grass with sweet, fresh running water and plenty of game to hunt.   Then, when she’s gotten all she can out of yah, she turns cold and hard.  She gives ya the cold shoulder with wind, sleet and snow.  You’ve seen it around this country, wind so strong it’d like to blow you out of the saddle and snow so deep, your horse can barely push through it.  It’s then you wonder why you’re out there, freezin’ and prayin’ to find a grove of trees or an overhang, just so you can get out of the weather for a little while.  Every once in awhile though, she’ll tease you with a winter day where it’s so cold your breath almost freezes, and you can hear the snow squeak beneath your horse’s hooves, but the air is as fresh and clean as a man could want, and the sky so blue you could almost swim in it.’  Jess smiled sadly, ‘Yeah, it can be a hard life, but it has its’ moments.”

 

Vince studied the man next to him for a moment, surprised at the depth of the words.  He had always thought of gunfighters as cold, hard men that simply drifted from town to town, selling their gun for money.  Obviously, at least with this man, he had been wrong.

 

Jess smiled a real smile, and Vince saw a different man for just a moment as it lit the deep blue eyes with laughter and, in that instant, Vince had a peek at what lay beneath that hard exterior that Harper kept so firmly in place.

 

“Didn’t think a man like me could appreciate what beauty there is around him, did you. I’ll tell you sometime of the things I’ve seen.  A sunset that made the sky red as fire, all brushed with gold, or moonrise over the canyons up north. Guess it’s because I never know if I’ll see another one that I look at each day as a gift and not a given thing.”  Falling quiet, Jess realized, even as he voiced those words, just how true they were.  On the drift, one never did know when their last day would come.

 

Vince was quiet for a long time, thinking about the wisdom of the young gunfighter, a man doomed by the choices life forced on him.  Finally, in attempt to lighten the dark mood that seemed to lay over them, he pointed ahead.

 

“Won’t be long now, Hanging G land starts just over that low rise up ahead house is about four miles further in,”  Vince said by way of reply

 

“How big a spread does your family hold, Mister Barstow?”

 

“Call me Vince.  We have seventy-five thousand acres with The Big Sandy Creek running through the middle of it.  That’s where the problem with Cy Anders stems from, his place is north of us and a branch of the Big Sandy runs through his land, but it has a tendency to go dry.  Last year was bad, real dry and Cy lost a lot of stock to lack of water. Pasture dried up and turned to dust.  This year is shapin’ up the same: dry, cold winter, and spring just as dry, so his water’s running low already and he’s scared. I don’t blame him at all.  Cy’s a good man, been a good neighbor to my Pa and us, but with the drought, he’s gotten kinda crazy. An’ now that he’s gone and hired himself a gun hand, we didn’t have much choice but to do the same.”

 

Jess nodded as he listened, he’d seen it before down in Texas: desperate men taking desperate chances to keep their land and livelihood.   

The riders crested the low ridge and Vince drew rein for just a moment on the shoulder of the road, Harper stopping alongside him.  A low, flat plane spread out before them, coated with short, touch buffalo grass and mesquite.  The silvery glint of the Big Sandy Creek ran in a curving line to their left, small groves of Downey Hawthorn and Cottonwood trees growing along its banks and, here and there, Bur and White Oak formed small pockets of shade.  A quarter of a mile away,  archway of wood and stone marked the boundary of Hanging G range, long ranks of wire and post fencing running in either direction to the right and left of the road as far as the eye could see.  Low rolling hills ran off to their right.

 

The surrey rattled to the crest and pulled to a stop as well and Gus Barstow stood in his stirrups and stretched.

 

“Welcome to the Hanging G, gentlemen, the finest spread east of the Rockies if I do say so myself.  And naturally, I do!”  Gus said with pride.  He turned in his saddle to address the two hands that had ridden out with them. ‘Ride on up to the house and let them know we’re coming, boys’.”

 

CH 13

 

The CA Connected hand rode hard for his employer’s  ranch with the news that had been long waited for… the Barstows had hired themselves some guns.

 

The sound of hooves out front brought Cy Anders to the front door and, standing on the porch, he watched the man he had sent to town dismount, his horse lathered and blowing hard. 

 

“You was right, Mister Anders, they done went and hired them guns that rode in.  They rode out toward the Hanging G ‘bout an hour ago, so I rode here fast as I could.”

 

Anders reached into a vest pocket and flipped a ten dollar gold piece in the cowboy’s direction, who, in turn adroitly caught the spinning coin.  

 

“Thanks, Mister Anders!” the young man called, grabbing up the trailing rein of his horse and leading the tired animal off to care for him properly.

 

Inside, Anson Wilke lounged on a stuffed horsehide couch.  Cy Anders came back into the living room.  “You heard?’ he asked gruffly.

 

Anson nodded. “I did indeed.  Now things get serious. I’ve heard of Harper, he’s the kind of man that will play by the rules; he never backs down from anything, no matter how high the odds. Hot Tempered, has a tendency to rush into things, but damn good, and fast, very fast.”

 

“Can you take him?”

 

Anson shrugged carelessly, “We’ll have to see, won’t we.” He gave Anders a shark-like smile that never reached his eyes.

 

“What about the other one?”

 

“McCullah?  He’s out of Texas, good man with a gun, wouldn’t stand against either Harper or me, but steady, thinks before he acts and that makes him just as dangerous.”

 

“You seem to know an awful lot about these men.”

 

“If I don’t know who I’m facing, then I’m dead and you lose.”

 

“So what do we do now?”

 

“Now I start riding out with the men rather than sitting here. Harper and McCullah are going to be riding out with any crew a Barstow is on.  We find out where they’re going to be and make sure that’s where trouble is.  The more chance of any of his sons’ getting hurt, the better chance that Barstow will back down and ease off.”

 

Cy stepped back for a moment; he really didn’t relish the idea of threatening any of Gus’ boys with physical harm to make him see he was being bull-headed about things.  The Big Sandy, in all the years he’d been here, had never failed and there was plenty of water to go around to his way of thinking.

 

“Papa, lunch is ready.’  Libby Anders came in from the kitchen to stand behind the couch Anson lounged on.  ‘You too, Mister Wilke.”

 

Anson half turned on the couch to look up at the pretty young woman behind him and shook his head.  “Miss Anders, I told you to call me Anson, it’s a lot less formal sounding,” he said with a chuckle.

Libby looked down at the handsome young man and smiled.  “And I do believe that you have been told to call me Libby several times, Mister…’

 

Wilke held up a warning finger, a smile playing on his lips, eyes dancing with laughter.

 

‘Anson,” Libby corrected herself with a laugh.  She found it very hard to believe that this charming and very handsome young man was a deadly killer.

 

Cy watched the by-play between his daughter and Wilke and it concerned him acutely.  Libby was at the age for getting married and, although she had no lack of suitors, she had not singled one out of the herd, so to speak, as of yet.  Anson Wilke was not the type of man he wanted his daughter interested in, no matter how good his manners or how much charm he had. Before the problems between the two families had started, Seth, Gus’ youngest, had been a regular caller to the Anders home.   

 

The two men followed Libby to the dining table at the far end of the great room.  Lunch was a light meal consisting of sliced beef, fresh bread, cheese, tomatoes and greens, plus a small bowl of early wild strawberries.  A tall pitcher of homemade lemonade waiting to be poured stood on the sideboard. 

 

The men ate in silence, Cy because he rarely talked during a meal, Wilke simply because the taciturn gunman had nothing to say.  Libby prattled on about the goings on in Aroya and the fact that the monthly church picnic would be this coming Saturday. 

 

 

Anson perked up at the mention of the picnic, “I take it that there’s a good chance the Barstows would be at this shindig as well?”

 

Libby paused for a moment and gave the man a puzzled look.  “Well, why wouldn’t they come?  Vince and Scott always bring their wives in.  Then of course, there’s the dance at night and Seth wouldn’t miss that.”

 

 Anson nodded thoughtfully and looked at his employer.  “Sounds like a good time for me to meet the Barstow family and their new hands, might even have a little fun myself,” he said with a harsh laugh.

 

Cy considered it for a minute, then nodded in agreement.  “Might just be at that, no gun-play though, Wilke:, too many not involved in this thing between Gus ‘n me could get hurt.”          

 

Anson gave Cy a hard look, then laughed again. “Don’t worry, boss, I won’t start anything.  You hired me to finish it.”

 

                                                                             *****

                                                        

Vince and Jess set an easy lope and rode between the low stone walls that surrounded the house and main buildings of the Hanging G.  Tall poles rising up on either side of them then crossing over the top, a stylized letter ‘G’ of iron hanging from the cross bars.  Three women stood on the wide porch along with two young boys, watching the men and surrey come down the road.  Sarah recognized her husband in front with a stranger, the surrey behind with Gus riding along side and another man she did not recognize riding behind.  The two boys dashed down the three steps from the porch.  “Pa! Pa!” they yelled as they ran toward the riders.

Vince grinned and drew rein.  “My boys,” he said to Jess.

 

The rancher was rewarded with another brief glimpse of that man behind the gunfighter mask as a grin flashed across Jess’ face as the youngsters’ raced toward their father.  Vince noticed though that the grin did not dispel the clouds that shadowed the man’s dark blue eyes.

 

“With that hair you couldn’t deny them,.”  Jess laughed as he pulled Traveler to a halt alongside the grey Vince rode.

 

Vince leaned down from his saddle to regard his sons, Nathan, age ten, and Samuel, age eight.  “Chores all done?”

 

The boys nodded enthusiastically,  “Yes sir! Me ‘n Sam helped Uncle Seth too!” Adam informed his father.

 

“Just what did you help Uncle Seth do?”  Vince asked curiously with a touch of concern.  Seth, his youngest brother at nineteen, was still a bit rough around the edges when it came to his nephews.  There was still a bit of youthful wildness left in him that sometimes translated to recklessness, causing him to rush where proverbial angels feared to. 

 

“Uncle Seth took some new rails out to the breaking corral and he let me drive all by myself! Sam drove some too, but Uncle Seth helped him.”

 

The surrey and the remaining riders clattered around them and came to a stop in front of the house.   Gus and Steve McCullah swung down from their horses and tied up at the long hitching rail as Cooper clipped a weighted ground-tie to the bit of each of the harnessed horses.  Dan and Slim stepped down from the wheeled vehicle.  Slim looked at the house, barn, surrounding out buildings and corrals appreciatively; this was the type of home he hoped to have someday.  

 

Gus walked up onto the porch and put an arm around one woman and beckoned to his two guests with the other, “Dan, Slim, come on up here. I want you to meet the ladies of the house.” 

 

Steve stood to one side, holding the rein to his horse, left to his own devices.  Looking silently at the amicably chatting men and women on the porch, he walked over to where Vince and Jess sat their horses. 

 

“Excuse me, Mister Barstow,’ he said. ‘You said there was a place for Jess ‘n me to bed down?”

 

Vince looked at the Texan for a moment and realized that his father had assumed that he would take care of seeing that the two new ‘hands’ were shown their bunks and where they could put up their horses.  Stepping down out of his saddle, Vince smiled thinly at the two gun hands as he tied his horse to a nearby corral post.

 

“Sorry, gentlemen, let me just talk to my father for a moment and I’ll be back to show you where you’ll be staying.’

 

Jess and Steve watched the man scoop up his youngest son in one arm and rest his free hand on the other boy’s head.

 

‘Come on you two, let’s go see your Paw-Paw,” he said, striding off in the direction of the house.

 

Had Vince looked back, he would have seen the real faces of the two hardened gunfighters: the hungry, lost expression of starving men that looked upon a feast they knew was not for them.   They would never live long enough to taste of the dishes known as love, home, and family, those sweet delicacies were not for those that lived and died by the gun.

 

Steve watched for a moment as husband greeted wife with a loving embrace and then looked away, turning to find Jess watching with the same yearning Steve knew could be found on his face at that moment.  Sighing, he pulled the thin gloves he wore off and, holding them in one hand, he idly slapped them in the palm of the other.

 

“You know that’s not for the likes of us,” he said softly.

 

Jess stepped down from his saddle and busied himself loosening the cinch, his jaw clenched, throat working as he struggled to put the feelings of loss, loneliness and despair away.  He leaned his head against Traveler’s shoulder for a moment, taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly, straightened and nodded.

 

“I know,”  Jess replied almost inaudibly, his voice was deeper, thicker with emotion than normal. Steve didn’t remark on it, as he too turned to loosen the cinch on his saddle.

 

 

CH 14

Vince stepped up on the porch as his father was finishing introductions.  Sarah walked over to her husband, wrapping her arms around his lean waist. 

 

“I thought maybe you’d forgotten about me,”  she said with a smile.

 

“Never happen.” Vince returned her smile and followed it up with a gentle kiss to the cheek.  Leaving an arm curled around her waist, Vince looked to his father who, with his hip hitched up on the low rail that surrounded the porch, was discussing cattle with Slim.  Someone had gone inside and brought out a pitcher of cool, fresh lemonade and glasses.

 

Rebecca had gone inside to put together some lunch while Amy sat with her father listening to the men talk.  Amy Barstow was a true child of the west.  She willingly embraced everything the country could throw at her and asked for more, the man that ended up finally convincing her she was indeed a woman and not a rough and tumble ranch hand would have someone that would work side by side with him all of their lives.  Much to her father and sisters-in-law dismay, she insisted on wearing pants instead of long skirts and blouses.  Amy was always on hand to help, insisting, even as a child, that she learn and help with the workings of the ranch, on hand for everything from foaling to branding and castrating.  If a man was injured, whether it was a splinter, broken limb or bullet, Amy was there with her kit, stitching and patching him back together. 

 

Vince smiled to himself.  He could remember the time she had tried to sneak along on a drive, and it would have worked too, if her hair had stayed pinned up.  He had thought Pa was going to split a seam, he was so angry with her, but his father had admitted later to Vince that he was as proud as he was angry with his only daughter.  Stepping forward, he cleared his throat in order to politely interrupt his father’s story.

 

“Excuse me sir, but I’m going to show Jess and Steve where to stow their gear and drop their bedrolls.  I figure they can use the corral next to the shed for their horses, there are no stalls, but the overhang should provide enough shade or cover should it rain.  Are we going to ride out after lunch, or do you want me to take them myself?”

 

 

 Gus thought for a moment, grateful that his son had offered him a way out of playing guide around the ranch.  “You do it; I have a couple of contracts to go over before finalizing them.’ Looking at Slim and Dan, he continued. ‘Dan know you’ve seen the place, would you be interested in taking a ride, Slim?”

 

Without hesitation Slim nodded enthusiastically, “I would love to see part of your spread, Gus.  After days of rattling around in a stage, a saddle will feel like a feather pillow let me tell you,” he laughed.

 

Dan agreed with as much enthusiasm that he most certainly did not want to sit on anything that moved for just the same reasons.  “I will be more than happy to make sure that the horsehair couch does not go neglected while they are gone.”

 

Amy slid down from where she was sitting next to her father.  “I think I’ll come with you, Vince, I haven’t been out riding in a couple of days and Spring needs the exercise.”

 

Gus frowned for a moment; he wasn’t so sure that he wanted his daughter riding all over the countryside with a couple of gunfighters and started to say so. “Now, Amy, I don’t want…’

 

He stopped when he saw the stubborn gleam in his daughter’s eye and decided to retire gracefully from the field of battle.

 

Amy gave him an angelic smile. “Thank you Pa, what can happen? I’ll have Vince and Mister. Sherman…’

 

“Slim, please, Miss Barstow.”

 

Amy laughed. “Only if you call me Amy.”  She glanced back to her father.  “Besides, Pa, I can shot almost as well as either Vince or Scott, and we’ll have those fancy gunslingers you just brought home with us as well, wont we?” and she directed her gaze out toward the two men who were loosening the cinches on their saddles.

 

Gus looked at his son for some assistance in this losing battle.  His eldest grinned and held his hands up in front of him.  “Don’t look at me.  She’s your daughter, so count me out.  You’re a big boy now, Pa, you can fight your own battles,” and he backed down the stairs, laughing.

 

The senior Barstow shook his head in rueful disgust. “Dan, Slim?  Don’t ever have children, especially daughters. They’re nothing but trouble.”

 

The two men chuckled while Amy leaned over and kissed her father on the cheek.

 

Maybe so, but you still love me anyway.”   After giving him a thank you hug, she hurried after her brother, very curious about the two men that had ridden in with her father and brother.  Looking at them from the porch, she had seen nothing truly remarkable about them, they simply looked like two more cowhands waiting to go to work.  There was a subtle change, though, to the way they stood as they watched  Vince approach them.  Their sharp gaze followed her brother as he came up to them and the relaxed stance disappeared. Everything about them reminded her of a trained hunting hawk she had once seen a few years back.

 

Under its little leather hood, the bird had been quiet, complacent, but when the hood had been removed, the bird had become tense, alert to everything around it. The hawk tensed, wings lifted slightly away from it’s body in anticipation of being launched into the air.  Eyes sharp, it gazed around, missing nothing as it assessed its surroundings. Talons opened and closed on a gauntleted arm in excitement as the bird waited to be released.

 

As she approached, their intense gaze focused on, appraised and dismissed her as no threat in a matter of seconds before flicking away to concentrate on Vince and what he was saying.

 

She came to a stop next to her brother and smiled at the two hard-eyed men.  “Gentlemen,’ she said and turned to her brother. “Well, are you going to introduce us, Vince?”

 

“Just getting to it, give a man a chance, Amy.” Vince replied with a smirk.  Nodding to the taller of the two men, he held out one hand and, in his best manner, grandly announced,  “Miss Amy Leigh Barstow, may I present to you Mister Steve McCullah, late of Texas, and,’ he turned to the second man, ‘Mister Jess Harper, late of Wyoming.”

 

Steve, in the grandiose manner of most Texans, swept his Stetson from his head and gave a slight bow.  “Pleasure to meet you, Miss Barstow,” he said in his rich baritone voice, a huge smile on his face.

 

Jess lifted his hat and tipped his head politely, a smile playing over his lips.  “Miss Barstow,” he replied in his soft North Texas drawl.

 

Amy, following along in the vein of the joke, smiled and batted her eyelashes in what she hoped was a coquettish manner, then executed a curtsey as if wearing a ball gown instead of dusty jeans and scuffed boots.  With her best southern belle voice she responded, laughing, “I am flattered of course, gentlemen.”

 

Finally, Vince could no longer hold a straight face and  laughed heartily at them.  “If you’ll follow me, gentlemen, I’ll show you where you can bed down,” and sauntered toward a small building with a narrow porch.  A single chair sat beneath the double window to one side of the door and a recent addition had been put on the left side of the house where a second entrance had been added.  Steve and Jess wrapped the reins of their horses around a short hitching rail, untied bedrolls and saddlebags and followed Vince and his sister inside.

 

As he stepped through the doorway, Jess came to a dead halt.  As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t make his legs carry him any further inside.

 

It was like coming home, almost as if he had stepped back into the Sherman ranch house, the interiors were so close.  A single table and chairs stood off center of the room, a large stone fireplace dominated the left wall, further down on the same side was an alcove where a small cook stove, sink with pump and short counter made up the kitchen. On the right were two doors separated by a short wall with small table that served as a desk.  Memories flashed quickly through his mind: Jonesy making coffee, the smell of fresh bread baking, apple pie cooling on the counter; Slim sitting up late at night worrying over the account books; Andy laboring with school work at the table.  It was a feeling of home, family, and belonging somewhere at long last.

 

Amy wrinkled her nose at the musty smell of a room long unopened.  Stray cobwebs hung from the rafters and dust lay liberally on everything.  Steve was wandering around the room, checking the pump, opening cupboards, and checking the wood box, Vince stood to one side idly watching him.

 

Amy turned to see what had happened to Jess and was surprised to find him still standing tensely at the threshold of the doorway, white faced, jaw clenched, his right hand opening and closing restlessly.

 

“Mister Harper, is everything okay?” she asked curiously, taking a tentative step toward him.

 

Her voice seemed to break him out of whatever had held him in place and he jerked like a man wakening from a deep sleep.

 

“Just fine, Miss Barstow,” Jess replied as he lifted the black felt hat from his head and resettled it hoping silently that she didn’t notice how badly his hand was shaking.  He finished walking into the room as though nothing had happened, noting that neither Vince nor Steve had noticed.

 

Going over to one of the closed doors, he put his hand on the knob, hesitating just a moment before he opened it.  He knew what he would find on the other side: a single bed set against the short wall to the left of the door, a dresser aligned against the wall to the right, a small closet in the far left corner and a single window on the wall across from the bed.  The second room was much the same.  He wasn’t sure how he would have reacted had there been an extra set of bunk-beds pushed against the left wall.

 

Steve ambled over to where Jess was and pushed the door open to one, and then the other of the rooms.  “They’re both the same; any preference?”

 

“Nah, I guess I’ll just take this one,”  Jess replied, stepping into the room.  He unrolled the mattress and tossed his bedroll and saddlebags on top.

 

Vince gestured toward the front door.  “I’ll show you where you can put your horses.  Amy, why don’t you go on up to the house and let them know we’ll be along in a minute for lunch?”

 

Amy looked around the small room and pursed her lips.  “Okay, but leave the doors and windows open when you come up to let the place air out a bit.  I think that Rebecca and I need to come over and clean this place up.”

 

Vince chuckled at his sister as she turned and headed for the main house.  “That’s a woman for you, never happy unless she’s rearranging your life.”

 

Vince lead the two men around the back of the cabin to where there was a small round pen with a trough waiting to be filled and an overhang from an old storage shed provided  shade. Steve unslung his canteen from his saddle and used a little water from it to prime the pump, working the handle in a steady motion until fresh, cool water flowed into the tank.

 

Jess stripped the saddles off both horses, hung them both over the top rail and led the animals into the pen.  He swung the gate closed behind him and pulled the bridles off the two horses, hung the headgear by each saddle.  He dusted his hands clean and joined Vince and Steve outside the corral after hooking the gate firmly closed.

 

“Well, gentlemen, let’s not keep the ladies waiting. If I know my wife, and I’m pretty sure I do, she’s holding everything up waiting for us.  And keeping men away from good food isn’t a way to make friends,” Vince said and slapped the two gunfighters on the shoulder as he walked between them headed for the main house.  

 

As the three men climbed the steps, Vince paused for a minute, hand on the knob of the door. “One thing before we go in.  Pa has a strict rule: no guns at the table, no exceptions.” 

 

The two friends looked at each other for a brief moment, concern written on their faces.

 

“No,” both men replied without hesitation, anger darkening their faces.

 

 Vince sighed and shook his head, thinking ‘Well, at least I tried,’ “Gentlemen, you are certainly going to make life interesting to say the least.”

 

The sound of voices and the thump of boots on the wide, well-worn planks of hawthorn brought Sarah around the corner, wiping her hands on the apron around her waist.  “It’s about time you showed up, Vincent Michael Barstow. I want you to know that your sons have just about wasted away from lack of food because you three have kept them waiting.’  But her stern tone was belied by the twinkle in her eyes.     “Now, are you going to introduce me, or let these two cowboys stand there, looking about as comfortable as a steer in a butcher shop?”

 

Jess suppressed a large grin as he eyed the feisty woman.  She was pretty, but not in an overwhelming way. Her brunette hair was pinned up in a no-nonsense bun, her oval face framed by slightly curled wisps of hair that had straggled free; deep brown eyes danced with life and humor as she studied the three wayward men in front of her.  There was no doubt in that moment that Jess envied Vince Barstow his life more than he had anyone else.  Here was a  man that had all the things Jess figured he was never destined to have.

 

He pulled his hat quickly from his head, and the young man revealed yet another layer hidden beneath the rough gunfighter exterior: the shy, charming man-boy that seemed to win over women easily.

 

He gave a soft chuckle. “Well, ma’am,” he said quietly, his north Texas accent thick. ‘I reckon that’s our fault.  Vince was showin’ us where we could put our horses.”  He looked out from under thick dark lashes that framed deep blue eyes, giving the impression of a boy caught doing something he shouldn’t have, the effect heightened by the way he shyly kept his head tilted downward after he spoke.

 

 “Well, Mister…’ Sarah paused and looked inquiringly from the dark haired man to her husband and back.

 

“Harper, ma’am; Jess Harper,‘ then he nodded toward his partner, ‘an’ Steve McCullah.”

 

Steve pulled his hat from his head. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

 

Sarah returned a gracious smile and turned back to her husband.  “Well, come on, let’s not keep everyone waiting any longer,” and made a shooing motion in the direction from which she had come.

 

Steve and Jess moved obediently the way she’d indicated while Sarah slipped her arm through the crook of her husband’s led the way back to the dining room.  As the foursome rounded the corner, conversation at the table stopped.

 

 Gus looked up with a frown of annoyance on his craggy face.  “Where you been boy?  We’ve been waitin’ on ya.” he grumbled at his son before looking at the two men that followed behind.   The frown hardened on his face as he glared first at the gunmen, then the weapons that still rode on their hips.  “I don’t abide with guns at the table,” he growled at the two.

 

Vince held the chair for Sarah, unconsciously pushing it in to the table for her.  “They know, Pa,” and pulled a chair out to side in his usual place opposite his father. “They politely declined to remove them,” and calmly regarded his father.

 

Gus banged a fist sharply on the dark wood of the table top. “I will not have guns at the table!”  He turned his angry gaze to the offending men who stood behind Vince.  “Gentlemen, you will either remove your gun belts or remove yourselves from my house.”

 

Steve and Jess exchanged looks and, the laughter of just a moment ago was forgotten as their eyes became cold and faces hard as their relaxed, nonchalant stance stiffened.  Neither said a word for a moment, then when Jess spoke, his tone was so cold, the people at the table almost expected frost to form.

 

“Mister Barstow, you came to us; you want us to do the job you’re payin’ us for, then you let us do it.  Like I said before, you don’t like the way we do things, just say the word and we ride out.’  Jess moved so that he could lean against the wall, hip-shot, thumb of his right hand hooked into his gun belt, hat held in the left, he was deceptively relaxed, eyes narrowed, watching  and waiting.  The next move belonged to Barstow.

The room was dead silent. Dan and Slim shifted uncomfortably, wanting to say something, but knowing it was not their place to.  The women sat quietly, white-faced at the table, looking first at Gus, then to the two men at the other end of the room.  The moment seemed to stretch on forever until Steve moved toward Jess, the soft chime of his spurs breaking the heavy silence.

 

“Looks like we got our answer partner, I’ll get the horses,” he said.

 

“Yeah, looks like,” Jess replied, straightening.  He replaced the dusty black Stetson on his head and sauntered over to Vince, extended a hand and nodded to the young man. “Vince, it was good meeting ya,’ he said sincerely.

 

Vince stood and accepted the proffered hand, thinking that in better times, there was a chance that he and Harper could have been friends.

 

Jess touched two fingers to the brim of his hat. ‘Ladies, a pleasure.’ His gaze moved on to the man at the far end of the table and he locked eyes with the older man for a moment before he nodded again, ‘Barstow.”  He turned to the remaining occupants of the table, ‘Gentlemen.” Then he held Slim’s eye for the barest of moments before turning away, heading in the direction his partner had taken, the only sounds the thud of boot heels and chiming of spurs, followed by the quiet click of the door as it latched behind him.

 

Vince stared at door as it closed, then whipped around to face his father.  “You can’t let them go, we need their help,’ then he placed both hands on the table, his head falling forward between his shoulders, eyes shut tight.  With a sigh, he looked up again, continued in a tense voice, “If we plan on keeping this ranch, Pa, we need them.”   

 

 Gus was silent as he regarded his eldest son.  Damn it, he was the lead bull in this house, and, by god, he did not want to be railroaded into doing something that went against his grain. But, again Vince was right; if they were going to hold this land that he had worked so hard to tame and make his, they needed Harper and McCullah.  He heaved a sigh as he looked at his son.  “Go on then, tell ‘em they’re stayin’.  Lord help me, they’re stayin’.”

 

Vince swore under his breath, “Pa, ya gotta’ stop doin’ this,” he muttered, and several long, swift strides had him out the door and headed across the courtyard toward the Foreman’s Shack.  He hoped he hadn’t missed the two men leaving.

 

Behind the shack, the two men were taking their time saddling up.  Steve glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the main house.  “Are you sure about this, Jess?  The two of us are ‘bout flat broke.”

 

Jess grunted as he lifted the heavy stock saddle off the rail, swinging it up on Traveler’s sturdy back.

 

 

Trust me, Barstow will send somebody.”  Rocking the saddle by its horn to make sure the rig was sitting right on the gelding, he reached under the  horse’s belly and grabbed a hanging cinch strap, ran it through the ‘D’ ring.  Then he heard the footsteps he had been waiting for.

 

Jess flashed an “I told you so” grin across his saddle and turned, casually, leaned against Traveler’s shoulder, schooling his features into neutrality.  “Vince, what can we do for you?”

 

 ince came to a halt outside the corral; Steve was in the process of tying down his bedroll, while Jess was still cinching up his saddle.  “I’ve convinced my father that he needs you here if we’re going to hold onto the Hanging G.”

 

The two men looked knowingly at each other for a moment, then Steve started untying the bedroll and Jess pulled loose the cinch.  Traveler looked curiously around at Jess.

 

“I know, ‘ole son,” he laughed as the bay gelding turned back with a snort of disgust.

 

With the horses once again unsaddled, the two men followed Vince back to the house, but this time Jess made them wait for a moment as he took his gun belt off.  After re-buckling it, he ran his left arm through the loop so the gun rested comfortably under his arm, allowing him to pull the weapon if he needed to.  Steve watched for a moment and then followed suit.  Vince smiled to himself, but did not remark on the concession to his father’s wishes. 

 

In the house, lunch had carried on as planned and the sound of voices and laugher covered the approach of the three men until once again they stood by the table.  Gus considered the two men for a moment, silently noting that they were not “wearing” their guns to the table and cast a questioning look at his son, who in turn tipped his head slightly in Jess’ direction. 

 

Vince once again occupied his regular seat at the end of the table opposite his father.  Two more empty chairs waited for Jess and Steve, one on either side of the table.  Steve moved before Jess and claimed the closest for himself, next to Amy and a second young woman whose name he did not know, leaving a chair next to Slim Sherman the only one open.

 

Jess shot a dart of annoyance McCullah’s way, before taking the chair, carefully draping his gun belt over the back of the seat.

 

Slim watched his former ranch-hand approach and he was disappointed, but not surprised when Jess totally ignored him as he took his seat, draping his gun on the back of the chair.  He wanted desperately to talk with his friend, but knew that it would have to wait for a more opportune time.

 

Rebecca had heard Vince and the two strangers come back while she was in the kitchen putting together sandwiches for the three of them.  The two men with their hard eyes, and low slung guns frightened her.  Unlike her two sisters-in-law, she was not born to this wild country.  Her family had come to Colorado a little over four years ago, her father, a veterinarian had opened a small office in Aroya and had garnered enough business for him to hire a young apprentice.  She had fallen in love with both this wild country and one of the men who attempted to tame it.  The idea, though, of men hiring themselves out to kill other men frightened and sickened her.  And yet, here were two of that kind seated here at the table, looking like any other man when they were not wearing those deadly tools of their trade around their waists.  Until you looked into their eyes.

 

Momma always said that the eyes let you see into someone’s heart and soul.  What she saw in the eyes of those two, both frightened and saddened her at the same time.  There was a darkness that lurked there, waiting to be released with swift ferocity. 

 

Gus considered the two men for a moment as they ate, and then looked at the three women still sitting at the table. “Ladies, if you will excuse us?  There’s some business to discuss.”

 

If he was expecting them to retire from the table, he was sorely mistaken.  The three women had discussed the threat that hung over the ranch as well as what and who exactly the two men who had ridden in were while they prepared the simple meal.  They agreed that, as members of the family, they were entitled to know what was going on.  For the second time in one afternoon, Augustus Theodore Barstow was unexpectedly told, “No”.

 

The elder Barstow was so taken aback at the sudden uprising of the women in his home that he sat speechless for about twenty seconds before his face turned beet red and he bellowed: “What in tarnation do you mean by, ‘No’?!”

 

Sarah, Amy and Rebecca had presented a united front to the patriarch of the ranch, and Vince was shocked to hear his brother’s wife stand up to her gruff, bossy and at times, over-bearing father-in-law.  It wasn’t that Rebecca was a mouse, oh no not at all, she and Scott had some win-ding arguments of their own and she had won her share of them.  Is was that she preferred not to stir trouble, unlike Sarah, his own wife, a real spit-fire who, it seemed at times, like now, truly enjoyed it.  He loved Sarah deeply, but sometimes he truly wished she would take a page or two from Rebecca’s books of life: “Know when to pick your battles” and “Let sleeping dogs lie”.

 

Then there was Amy, truly her father’s daughter in spirit and temperament.  Never one to back down from an argument, she didn’t look for them either.  She’d always been rough and tumble, but what could you expect with three brothers.  She could ride as well as, if not better than most of the hands on the ranch.  Amy spoke her mind and made sure that, when it counted, people knew her feelings and opinions.

 

Sometimes, that was not the wisest of paths to travel.  Vince knew more than a couple of people that felt Pa had let her run wild for far too long.  Men had a tendency to think of things in terms they were familiar with and, for cattle ranchers, it was livestock.   After all, what was a wild, strong-willed young woman but a filly simply needing to be gentled and broke to saddle?  Vince smiled at that though: the man who tried to put a bridle on her might want to count his fingers afterward. 

“Vince!’ Gus repeated himself sharply, ‘I said, since you’re riding out this afternoon, take ‘em over to the east pasture. Scott ‘n Seth should be over that way with fencing crews.  They can meet Brodie tonight, he’s out moving stock up to Jacob’s Well.”

 

Vince pulled an open-faced pocket watch.  It was almost two o’clock, just enough time to get out and get back before dark.  Looking up, he nodded to Jess, Steve and Slim.  “If we’re going to get out and get back, we’d better get moving.”

 

Twenty minutes later found the four men and young woman headed south-west across the long, low rolling hills of the Hanging G.  Vince, Jess and Steve rode together as Vince answered questions about the lay of the land and its boundaries in relationship to the CA Connected.  Amy rode next to Slim, chattering away.  She found the tall, blonde man quite attractive and hoped he would be willing to stay until after the social on Saturday. 

 

“Pa said you have a ranch and run a relay station up in Laramie?”  Amy asked brightly as she gently checked Spring’s impatient attempt to break into a lope.  The spirited mare tossed her glossy black head, snorting in annoyance.  Amy laughed, running a hand down the black and white mottled neck. ‘She’s dying to run, but Vince would have a fit if I just took off without some company.  Would you be willing to ride with me, Mister Sherman?”

 

Slim considered the young woman for a moment, and then smiled.  “That is the most inviting thing I’ve been asked to do since this trip began, Miss Barstow.  And you’re suppose to call me Slim.”

 

Amy laughed again and urged her horse up alongside Vince to let him know that she and Slim were going to ride ahead. 

 

Bemused, Slim watched her speak briefly with her brother before she wheeled her horse away, calling over her shoulder, “Race you!”  She set her heels to the more than willing mare and flew away with a whoop worthy of any Cheyenne. With the briefest of hesitation, he admired her skill as the pinto mare broke into a flat gallop, Amy leaning over her neck, urging greater speed.  With a call to the gray he was riding, he spurred the horse forward with a yell of his own.  The big horse dug in and threw himself into a gallop, flying after the fast disappearing horse and rider ahead of them.

 

Amy glanced back over her shoulder when she heard approaching hooves.  The grey gelding aptly named Wind was gaining with each stride, Slim leaning forward over the horse’s shoulder, a grin spread across his face.

 

CH 14

 

After a quarter mile Amy gently pulled Spring back to an easy lope, then down to a jog, letting the horse snort and blow.  Slim did the same with Wind; the gelding shook his head in annoyance, jigging between a jog and a lope, until the rancher took a firmer hand on the rein.

 

 

Amy reined Spring in as they crested one of many long, low rolling hills that made up this part of the Hanging G range and Slim drew up beside her.  Amy pointed to a small group of men in the distance, a wagon standing to one side.

 

“That should be Scott and his men down there.”  Relaxing her reins, her reins, she gave her a mare her head and the paint took off once again like a shot, but this time Slim was ready for her and did the same, Wind matching the mare stride for stride.

The sound of racing horses caused Scott Barstow to straighten from the job he was doing, thumbing back the brim of his hat he wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm.  He stared hard in the direction of the sound, a hand resting lightly on the butt of his gun.  The crew behind him stopped their work, setting tools down and loosening guns in their holsters, waiting tensely for the riders to appear.

 

Scott relaxed when he recognized his sisters ‘devil-may-care’ style of riding on that pinto mare of hers.  Her hat had fallen back from her head on its stampede string, leaving her long auburn hair streaming behind her.  The other rider was too far way to really see their face. 

 

“It’s okay, just Amy coming with company, “ he called back over his shoulder.  He could feel the tense men behind him relax; these last few weeks, they had all been wound up tighter than child’s top, waiting for the next attack by riders or  raiders, from the CA Connected.

 

Amy pulled Spring to a sliding halt in front of her brother, Slim right behind her.  The small cloud of dust they had raised wafted forward over the three of them.

 

 

“Arapaho on the warpath?’

 

Amy shook her head

 

“Stampede?”

 

Again Scott received a shake of his sister’s head

“House on fire?” Scott asked blandly, as he tried to keep a smile from his lips although laughter danced in his eyes.

 

“No, no and no!” Amy laughed as she swung down from the saddle.  “I rode ahead with Mister Sherman…Slim and his brother run a ranch and relay station up in Laramie.”

 

Scott took in the tall man that sat quietly, a leg hooked over the horn of his saddle, then extended a hand and he introduced himself.  “Scott Barstow, this little wild cat’s other big brother” he said with a grin(.,) ‘You came in on the stage with Dan, right?”

 

Slim nodded as he took the other man’s hand.  “Nice to meet you Scott, you can just call me Slim.  Nice spread you and your family have, I’m sorry that you’re having so much trouble right now; a range war isn’t a pretty thing.”

 

Scott lifted his hat and ran a hand through hair the same color as his sister’s before replacing it again.  “No…no it’s not; we’ve lost somewhere between thirty and forty head in the last couple of weeks to fence cutting or just outright killin’ em.  We lost three good hands, too.”

The thrumming of hooves alerted the group to more visitors; three riders crested the hill, riding a switchback down slope at an extended lope.  Again Scott watched intently, trying to make out a familiar horse and rider.   Finally he was rewarded when he recognized the big bay gelding that his older brother favored, but not the two men riding with him.  He had only a few minutes to wait until the three men pulled to a halt where Scott, Amy and Slim waited.

 

“Well, big brother, looks like Pa finally found a job you could handle,”  Scott laughed, looking curiously at the two strangers; of course he knew that they must be the gunfighters his father and brother had gone to meet this morning.

“It sure keeps me from having to work out here in this heat, little brother,”  Vince replied drily, resting his left forearm on the horn of his saddle, crossing his right over the top and leaning forward slightly.

 

“You gonna introduce me to our new friends, or are you gonna make me guess?”  Scott verbally prodded.

 

Vince turned toward the two men that had ridden in with him, saddle leather creaking softly.  Gesturing toward the dark haired man on the bay gelding, then the man on the appaloosa, “Jess Harper, Steve McCullah, my younger brother Scott.  These gentlemen will be helping us out with our little problem.”

 

Scott grinned. “So which one of you is gonna take down Wilke?”

 

“Neither of us,” Jess replied.  “We were hired to make sure he doesn’t take any of you down.  Now, if he makes the move on either of us,…well..”  the young man gave a hard, grim smile that chilled Scott and the others.  “Mister Anders might just find himself short one gunfighter.”

 

The hands that had been working hard to get the fencing up had stopped and gathered around the two Barstow brothers when Vince had ridden in, and they murmured among themselves at Jess’ confident statement.  The common cowhand was a jack-of-all-trades, blacksmith, veterinarian, drover, bronc buster, cook, harness maker and gunsmith, and, to varying degrees, he could handle a gun.  Some were drifters, moving from spread to spread working to get a grub stake and moving on, called by whatever lay beyond the next hill.   For most, it was a job they would do all of their lives at forty a month and found; others had dreams of having their own little piece of heaven, saving what little they could to achieve that dream and saving over half a lifetime to do it.  They took on whatever the job handed them: drought, flood, blizzard, scorching heat, long days and longer nights without sleep.  It was a rough life full of danger, from the cattle they moved to Indians, to the land itself, and it called for rough and tumble men that backed down from very little.  Few things made them ride a wide line around them: rattlesnakes and gunfighters being it, for the most part.  The two were lumped together under the heading: “just plain ornery and more trouble than they were worth,“ and here were two of ‘em right in their midst.

 

Scott walked over and reached up to the rider of the bay horse.  “Jess, I’m glad you were willing to give us a hand here.’

 

Jess leaned down and shook hands, noting the frank honesty in the clear grey eyes.  “Pleasure to meet you Scott.  My partner and I will do our best for you and your family”

 

Slim’s hand jerked convulsively on the rein causing the gray gelding he was sitting to snort and take a step or two backward.

 

Amy turned to look at him, a questioning expression on her face.  The rancher smiled and shrugged, urging Wind forward again. 

 

Hearing Jess call another man his partner so easily struck a harsh cord.  Perhaps the bond of friendship that he thought was so strong between himself and Jess had truly been shattered beyond repair.

 

Scott shook hands with Steve McCullah, thanking him in turn for his help, and then turned back to his brother.  “Seth and his crew are at the far northeast corner, last time I saw them.  I’m guessin’ you’re headed that way next?”

Vince nodded, “Yeah; we better get a move on if we’re gonna’ get out there and back before dark.  I’ll see you back at the house.”

 

Scott waived as the small group wheeled their horses away and headed off at a ground eating lope.  Again Amy gave Spring her head, letting the restive mare have her way, Slim and Wind in hot pursuit and, as before, the gelding gained ground with every stride.

 

The three men watched them disappear over a low rise and Vince smiled to himself.  It was good to see Amy have some fun.  The stress that hung over the family, house and ranch had worn down everyone, so it was good to see her smile.

 

By the time they reached Seth and his crew, the sun was well on its descent behind the distant Rockies.  The men were loading tools into a wagon; unused rolls of wire were loaded and stored under canvas.  Some were dumping ladles of cool water over their heads and shoulders, washing sweat and dirt away before putting shirts back on.

 

Seth, the youngest of the Barstow brothers, looked the least like their father; instead he was the picture of his mother.  He was tall, but lacked the bulk of his older brothers; lean and lithe he had a shock of thick, wavy brown hair kissed by the sun with red-gold highlights, his eyes brown with flecks of green. 

 

Seth eagerly shook the hands of the two gunfighters, openly admiring the low slung guns they wore with such ease.  At nineteen he still carried the wildness of youth in his veins, but tempered it with a good measure of common sense.  In him Slim saw Andy in a few years while Jess saw brothers long gone.

With the equipment loaded and the team hitched, Seth told his crew to head home and, with wild whoops, they ran to their horses, not needing to be told a second time, especially knowing that pay-packets waited for them back at the bunkhouse.

 

The sun was balancing on the horizon when the two brothers, Amy, Slim, Jess and Steve followed by the equipment wagon trotted into the yard, lights from both the main house and bunkhouse drew golden rectangles on the dirt; raucous laughter floated on the early evening air and the tantalizing smell of cooking food drifted from open windows.  Tired riders swung down from equally tired mounts as Vince paused and nodded toward the bunkhouse.

 

“Might be better to take meals in there, the boys don’t care if you wear a gun to the table,“ he said wryly.

 

Jess and Steve nodded in agreement before leading their horses toward the round pen to feed and bed the animals down.  Vince stopped mid-stride and turned back.

 

‘Oh; you’ll find hay and grain in the shed out there.  We’ll meet in the morning and decide just how we want to do things.  Roll out is at five-thirty.”

 

After watching Jess and Steve disappear into the shadows, he handed his horse’s reins over to Scott.  

 

“Take him over to the barn for me, would yah? I need to talk to Brodie for a minute”     

“Sure, Vince,” Scott replied, taking the rein and clucking to the horses, urging them to walk on toward the barn for a rack of hay, bucket of grain and a well-deserved rub down.

As Vince walked toward the bunkhouse, he saw a dark form standing on the porch, waiting for him and the flare of a match held close threw the wind and sunburned face of Bodie Ames into brief relief.

 

Brodie had been the foreman at the ranch for thirteen years.  His forty years of life rested lightly on his handsome features: dark eyed, dark haired, creases around his eyes from squinting into the sun and wind, long straight nose and a mouth that, when it hosted a smile, made a woman smile back.  Brodie was an introspective man, speaking on a subject only after he had given it due consideration.  He silently watched the eldest son approach and knew what was on the younger man’s mind.

 

 

“Evenin’, Brodie.”         

 

“Vince,” the foreman replied quietly, taking a drag on the cigarette that hung from his lips and waiting for the younger man to continue.

 

“I wanted to talk to you about our new…’hands.”

 

“Thought you might; heard there were some fireworks in the house today.”

 

“You could say that,”  Vince chuckled and then took a deep breath.  “I wanted to let you know that Jess and Steve will be joining you for breakfast and supper.”

 

Brodie was silent for a moment, the tip of his cigarette flaring in the darkness as he took another pull, letting the smoke trickle slowly out between his lips.  Flicking the butt away from him, muttered softly, “Damn it,” and scowled at the younger man standing next to him. “You know there'll be at least one hand that’s gonna want to try them.”

 

Vince nodded, “I know.  Hopefully the first one will be the last one.  I’d hoped that a least Harper’s reputation would keep things quiet in that direction.”

 

Brodie snorted. “Not a chance.  What’s this Harper like anyway?”

 

Vince thought for a minute. “Young fella, about Scott’s age I guess, maybe a little younger.  Dark hair, blue eyes, not too tall, but seems taller even when he’s sitting down.  Quiet, doesn’t say much.  You two should get along just fine. If you were to look past that gun on his hip, you might think he was just another cowhand on the drift.  But, look in his eyes…”  Vince shook his head.  “They’re cold, hard, no expression, like looking at a frozen lake: not much to see up top, but underneath…’ he trailed off.  Brodie would have to draw his own conclusions.

 

The mutter of voices pulled both men's attention toward the Foreman’s Shack where Jess and Steve were just coming around the corner.  Neither man could make out what was being said, but soft laughter came to them.  As the two dark forms came around the corner, Vince called to them from the porch of the bunkhouse. “Jess, Steve, come on an’ meet Brodie Ames, our foreman.”

 

Brodie looked over the two young men, taking in the wary, alert way they approached the darkened porch like two young lobos coming up on an unexpected kill, hungry, but not sure it was safe to take a bite.  But he shook hands with each man as they stepped up on the porch, taking their measure.  Despite Vince’s warning, Brodie was surprised at how young Harper actually appeared to be.

 

“Harper, McCullah, can’t say that, under any other circumstance, I’d be happy to meet you boys, but according to Vince here, seems we need your expertise,”  Brodie said, taking a moment to search the eyes of each man.  He found that Vince had been right: looking into Jess Harper’s eyes was like trying to look through the slats of a shuttered window, into a dim room.  You could see something, but not enough to really tell what was going on behind them.  What he did see was a man who didn’t know how to back down, would meet whatever came at him, gun loaded and at a flat out gallop.  

 

McCullah was another story.  He was older than Harper, closer to Vince’s age if not a year or two more, past his prime as a gunfighter.  The gut feeling he got from him as they shook hands: here was a man that would be steady as a rock.  Not as fast with a gun as he use to be, but would have your back in any situation, a partner to ride the river with.

 

Brodie nodded at the bunkhouse behind him.  “In here are some of the best hands you can ask for.  Some are still a little wild, boys looking to make their mark, but they’re good men.  I don’t want any trouble between you while you’re here.”

 

Steve gave a thin smile. “We don’t need to make trouble, there’s enough here to go around, but if someone comes lookin’ for it, then be sure, we’ll serve them up an extra helpin’.”

 

“That’s what worries us,” Vince said quietly.

 

Jess nodded, “What we need to do is let ‘em know that these dogs aren’t to be messed with.  Seems to me, we show our teeth a little, let ‘em know we bite,” and Jess nudged his friend. ‘How about a little practice tomorrow pard?  I’m feeling a little tight, say right after breakfast?”

 

Steve chuckled. “You’re right, Jess, I do feel a little stiff, really should keep loose.  Just like we did when we were ridin’ for the Stacked N, had a heap of ‘best friends’ after that.”  He sobered at the memory of that bloody job, and shook his head “We lost some good men in that one, didn’t we?”

 

The smile left Jess’ face. “Yeah, we did.”

 

The battle between the Stacked N ranch and the Rocking K down in south Texas was well known.  The Rocking K had been the larger spread, in need of more graze for its cattle and attempted to take over the Stacked N.  In the final attack, Rocking K had thrown everything it had at the Stacked N. 

 

For both sides the fight had been terrible and bloody and when the dust settled and the gun smoke cleared, forty-seven men were dead.  Between the two spreads there were hardly enough men to run one, let alone both.  Jess and Steve had stayed on as unpaid hands, working sunup to sundown, seven days a week to help Jim and his wife, rounding up livestock, re-setting fences, re-building corrals and barns.  The work had been unending.   Jess, Steve and the few surviving hands of the Stacked N, had worked until they dropped, but in the end the Stacked N survived and the Rocking K had not.

 

The foreman was thoughtful a moment.  “Might work, then again might stir the pot more than we really want.”

 

Vince sighed, “Well, let’s give it a try; I’ll leave it to the three of you to work out the details.  “He looked up at the main house, “You’d better get in and get some hot chow before there’s none left. Goodnight, gentlemen,” and he turned and headed toward the main house.         

 

Brodie swung the door inward where the smell of beef grilling and the murmur of low voices blended with the clink of poker chips.  The sound of someone singing softly while playing a guitar drifted through the opening on tendrils of cigarette smoke.

 

The Foreman paused in the doorway,  “Boys?...”  He waited until all eyes were turned to him with expectation.  “You know there’s been talk about the Barstows’ bringing in some extra men to deal with the problem we’re having with Anders and his men.  Some of you might of seen them ridin’ with Vince this afternoon, some of you didn’t.  They’re gonna be catchin’ meals with us…” Brodie paused as a murmur rose from the gathered cowhands.  “Now, I don’t want you pushin’ or prodin’ them into something you can’t handle.  It’s their job to be faster ‘n you; your job is to take care of Hangin’ G stock.  That means you, Hammer, an’ you too Jacobs.  I know you two fancy yourself quick, but I guarantee they’re quicker.”

 

Brodie stepped to one side allowing Jess and Steve to enter and, true to their nature, they stepped slowly into the room, hats pulled low to shield their eyes from the sudden bright lamp light, alert but relaxed.  They stood just to Brodies’ right.

 

There was silence for a minute then a voice called out, “Harper! You son-of-a-bitch, I’ve been looking for you.”

 

The quiet in the room took on a deadly meaning as the men looked at the dark haired gunfighter who seemed to have grown a foot taller.  They saw how his eyes scanned the room quickly, and every man his gaze passed over felt chilled by it.  Jess slowly slipped the keeper from the hammer of his gun, and stepped away from Brodie and Steve, standing with feet slightly spread for balance, and cowhands swiftly moved to what they hoped was safety.

 

Brodie started toward the voice, but was stopped by Steve McCullah who put a hand on his chest and pushed him back, out of the way.

 

A lean, lanky cowhand shoved his way forward.  He was younger than Jess by a couple of years and had a hungry look about him, like a man that just couldn’t get enough of anything life might offer.  A scar ran lengthwise along his right cheek, pulling his mouth into a perpetual half smile as it curved up to the hinge of his jaw and led to a notched ear.  He had a well- worn gun belt wrapped around his waist and his right hand hung like a claw above the butt of his forty-five.

 

Jess studied the man and tried to pull the face from his past, but came up empty.

 

“I know you?”  He asked in a tone that dripped ice.

 

 

“You should; two years ago in a town called Clayborne down south Texas way.  I was ridin’ with Charlie Unger at the time... and so were you!”

 

Jess’ eyes narrowed in thought.  He remembered the town of Clayborne, and he also recalled having just told Unger that they had come to a parting of the ways.  He didn’t like the way Unger and his crew trampled the line that separated the two sides of the law, crossing it whenever they felt the need to own something they didn’t have and someone else did.  True, he had strayed over that line from time to time, but that was a matter of survival, not greed.   He remembered now the lanky cowboy, Silas Jergen, a rough, ill mannered boy that thought he was quite the ladies man, had slapped one of the saloon girls around a bit, much to the amusement of Unger and the rest of his men.  All except for Jess who had been taught to respect women, no matter their vocation.  He’d stepped in to protect the girl, whose name he could not remember now, and advised Jergen that, putting another hand on her would not be a wise decision.  Jergen had not heeded the warning.  When Jess had stepped in a second time, Jergen had attempted to draw on the gunfighter and earned himself the scar he now wore.  Obliviously Jergen had not learned, or forgotten his lesson and was about to make the same mistake twice: trying to draw on Jess.

 

“You sure to want to try me again, Jergen?”  Jess asked with a grim, stony smile.

 

Silas Jergen looked at the gunfighter and, before he could reply, Brodie interrupted, “You take it outside, Jergen; I don’t want to have to clean up what’s left of your skinny corpse.”

 

The cowboy flicked his eyes at the foreman and then back at Harper.  Jess stepped to one side, gesturing to the door. 

 

“After you,” he said mockingly.

 

Jergen glanced around the room at the men he had been riding with for the last six months.  He’d not really formed a friendship with any of them, and they merely tolerated him. Curling his lip in a sneer, he stalked past Jess, who followed closely behind. 

 

Brodie, McCullah and the rest of the crew stood on the porch, watching, waiting.  The two men were faceless dark forms, wraiths enacting a scene that would become a symbol of with the west.  

 

For Jess, the world narrowed to just the two of them.  All color bled away to black and white as he re-enacted an oh, so familiar scene one more time.

 

The two men stand off from each other, the first is still and quiet, as silent as the shadows that lay around him.  The second is also still, but his breath cam in short, angry puffs between his taunts, words that are ground out between clenched teeth.  The words are meant to stir fury, to distract and delay.

 

The first listens to none of it, but simply watches and waits, letting the second’s anger and fear wash over him.

 

The second lets his anger feed on itself, lets it build until the moment it can hardly be contained, until it forces him to move.  Hand drops to gun, gun slides free of the leather sheath, muzzle rises to spew forth fire and smoke from a dragons mouth.

 

As the second moves, so does the first, a dark blur of motion and sound, gun to hand in a single action.  The pale light from the lamps in the bunkhouse flashes sharp reflections off the barrel as it flies free of its leather confinement, muzzle rising, finger tensed and then the roar of answering fury.  The echos ricochet off buildings and rattles windows as it rolls off into the distance.   For a moment after, all is still and silent once more.  The second stands frozen for one … two …three breaths, then knees give way and only one is left standing.

 

The world snapped back, full of sound and color, men running, voices shouting, bright red blood pooling in the dirt, the smell of burnt gun powder.

 

Brodie leaned on one knee in the dirt, and turned the body of Silas Jergen over.  He found a neat hole just to the right of the third button on the man’s shirt.

 

The Foreman looked up at the men how had gathered around him and the body and shook his head. 

 

Steve walked over to Jess, standing waiting for what was to come next.  Either he had just gotten them fired or he had proven a point.

 

The Barstow’s came running from the house, guns in hand. 

 

“What in God’s Name is going on here?” Gus shouted, looking from where Jess stood to where his foreman knelt in the dust.

 

Brodie stood and brushed the dust from his jeans, walked over to his boss.  “Seems Jergen there felt a need to see just how fast our fast guns were.  He called Harper out.  Appears they had a little history together that Jergen wasn’t all that pleased about.”

 

Vince walked over to where the man lay and nudged the body with the toe of his boot.  “Well, I don’t think he has to worry about it anymore.  Two of you boys take care of him, the women don’t need to find this layin’ around.  And throw some sand over that blood, too.”

 

Two hands stepped down from the bunkhouse porch and each grabbed an arm and a leg and headed off to take care of the burying.

 

Slim, gun in his hand, stood off to one side, worried for the man he had thought of as a partner, almost a brother, and wondered what had made him think that Jess could ever be tamed.  There was a wildness that wouldn’t be dismissed. Tonight was just a taste of the gunfighter’s dark past finding him.  Perhaps it was better that Jess had left, better that wild darkness could no longer touch Andy, he told himself once again.  Somehow, though, he was having a hard time convincing himself of it as he watched Jess stand there, Steve McCullah standing at his shoulder.  Deep inside, a voice said that was his place covering Jess’ back, just as he knew Jess would cover his.

 

CH 15

 

Gus glared at the two men standing shoulder to shoulder, waiting for whatever might come next, and then to his eldest son.  “Boy, I told you they were nothin’ but trouble, but no you said we needed ‘em!  Now I got a dead hand.”

 

“Pa, don’t go layin’ this at Jess’ feet, you heard Brodie. Jergen called him.  Harper was just the better man for the job,” Vince said angrily, coming to stand alongside Jess and Steve.  “You have to see that.”

 

Gus gave his son one last hard look and turned to his foreman.  “You sure that’s how it was, Brodie?” he asked gruffly.

 

Brodie nodded, “Just like I said, Mister Barstow, it was a fair fight. Jergen started it and Harper finished it.”

 

Gus studied the men that gathered around. “That’s how it was then, and this ends it.  Any of you have a quarrel with that?” the patriarch of the Hangin’ G paused for a moment and then gave a sharp nod. “Okay then, you boys’ have work to do come morning.” Turning on his heel, he headed back to the ranch house with long, deliberate strides, his sons flanking him.

 

Slim hung back, watching as the cowhands make their way back into the bunkhouse, talking softly amongst themselves.  He couldn’t quite make out what they said, but knew that Jess was subject of their conversation; he walked in the direction of the dark haired man.

 

Steve had stood silently at his friends shoulder, watching his back as the foreman examined the dead man, his gray-green eyes sharp and hard, moving constantly from one man to the next, assessing and moving on.  His hand had never strayed from the butt his gun from the moment Jess had been called until now. He watched as the cowhands dispersed back into the bunkhouse and the Barstows returned to the main house, leaving only the tall rancher that called himself Slim Sherman.  He watched the rancher walk in their direction and eased his gun in its holster.

 

 Jess, too, watched Slim approach and sighed inwardly.  He was tired and hungry; the last thing he wanted was a go around with Slim. Keeping his eyes on Slim, his hands busied themselves by flicking the loading gate on the Colt open, and rotating the cylinder before he thumbed the spent cartridge free, pulling a fresh one from his belt and sliding it in its place, then clicked the gate closed. Thrusting the gun home in its’ holster, he finally locked eyes with Slim.

 

“What do you want?” Jess asked wearily, his tone harsh and low.

 

If the abrupt question affected Slim at all, his face didn’t show it.  He came to a stop in front of the two men and nodded at his former employee.

 

 “We need to talk, Jess.  Alone,” and searched Jess’ face, looking for… something, he wasn’t sure what…Forgiveness maybe?

 

Jess’ face was shuttered, emotion locked tightly behind the gunfighters’ mask, but his voice shook with it.  “Like I said in town, we said all that needed to be said back in Laramie that night.  You said you wanted me gone Slim, I left.  Far as I’m concerned, we’re square.”

 

Pain flashed across Slim’s, face hearing the anger and bitter sadness.  “Jess I - I just wanted to let you know I was sorry.”

 

Anger boiled just below the surface and, Jess’ throat tightened with it, making his voice rougher than usual.

 

“Sorry…?”  He shook his head with a bitter laugh. ‘Sorry is a mighty small word for the things you called me that night, and it’s mighty small now.  I ain’t stupid Slim. I might not have gotten a whole lotta schoolin’ an’ it might take me a bit to see things sometimes, but I don’t have to be told twice when to git.”  Jess turned to Steve, “Come on pard,” he used the word deliberately, knowing that it would hurt, “Let’s see if there’s any of that stew left.”  Jess turned his back on Slim and stalked stiffly away.

 

Steve looked between the two men, seeing the look of deep regret on Slim’s face that Jess did not and he understood what was driving the younger man.  When Jess and he had split, he had hoped greatly that Jess would find whatever it was he seemed to search for just out of sight over the next distant hill.  If Steve read things right, for a while he had, and then for some reason it went wrong.  He looked at Slim for a moment, then sighed and turned to follow Jess.

 

“McCullah…” Slim called softly  

 

Steve stopped and half turned, looking back over his shoulder.  “Yeah?”

 

“Keep him alive if you can, McCullah; he’s a good man,”  Slim replied before heading back to the house.

 

Steve watched him go for a moment, then sighed and shook his head; this was a problem they didn’t want or need.  Jess had to keep his mind on the one at hand, not the one between him and the rancher from Wyoming.  Continuing to the bunkhouse, he muttered under his breath, “Yeah, he’s a good man alright: he’s a wild, wall-eyed Cayuse and ain’t meant to be broke to saddle, too.”

 

Jess stood on the porch waiting impatiently.  “What in the blue blazes did he want?” he demanded.

 

“Told me ta’ keep you alive, because you were a good man,’ Steve replied drily.

 

Jess laughed harshly, “Yeah, four months ago I was a no good drifter.” He laughed again in disgust, putting a hand on the door. ‘Come on, I’m hungry.”

 

Inside the hands had settled down again to their poker game, reading mail or mending clothing.  A few were already rolled in their blankets. One sat strumming a guitar and singing softly while a couple of others listened:

 

“I’m weary and tired, I’ve done my days ridin;
Nighttime is rollin my way.
The skies all on fire and the lights slowly fading.
Peaceful and still ends the day.

Out on the trail night birds are callin’,
 Singin’ their wild melody.
Down in the canyon cottonwood whispers
A Song of Wyoming for me.”

 

The men looked up as the two gunfighters walked in, most nodded a simple greeting while the poker players threw a glance their way and continued on with the game.  Brodie had retired to his room to work on some paperwork.  Jess and Steve walked over to the long stove where a heavy pot still sat over a low fire and a large iron kettle sat opposite it.  To the left and right were shelves that held plates and cups.  Full plates in hand, the two friends sat down at the long table, pulling over a basket that held a few cold biscuits.  As the two men ate, a weathered hand walked over and stood by the table, waiting to be acknowledged. Steve recognized him as Cooper Ames.

 

When Jess glanced up, the man tipped his head at chair. “Mind if I pull up a seat?”

 

“Go ahead,” Jess said and filled his mouth with another bite of stew.

 

“’Bout what happened tonight, boys don’t hold nothing ‘gainst ya.  They all know it was a fair fight.  Jergen didn’t do anything to make himself friendly here so, there’s no tears shed.”

 

Jess leaned back and drained his cup of coffee.  “We’re real happy to hear that,” he said sarcastically, and set the tin cup down on the table to rub his eyes wearily.  “Sorry; didn’t mean it that way.”

 

In the background, the guitarist continued to play softly and the men at the table listened for a few minutes.

 

Jess found the words sad and wistful, the tone in the singer’s voice striking a cord deep inside.

 

“Well, I’ve wandered around the town and the city,
Tried to figure the how and the why.
Well, I’ve stopped all my scheming
I’m just driftin’ and dreamin’,
Watching the river roll by.
Here comes that big ole prairie moon risin’,
Shinin’ down bright as can be.
Up on the hill there’s a coyote singin’
A Song of Wyoming for me”

  

The last notes of the song faded to nothing and the singer rocked his chair forward onto all four legs, stood with a yawn.  “That’s it for me, boys,” the cowboy said to the men that had gathered around to listen.

 

The poker game was winding down too, chairs scrapping back and men drifting toward the racks on the far end of the room.  A few of them stopped by the table for a minute. 

 

Cowboys were a peculiar breed: they lived by their own unwritten code, believing that a man had a right to live his life as he saw fit as long as he abided by that code.  They had a strong sense of honor, although the lines between right and wrong weren’t always straight or narrow.  They believed that a man not only had the right, but the obligation to defend his name and reputation, even if it meant using a gun to do it.  They had a strong sense of fair play and an even stronger sense of loyalty.  They rode for the brand, rode the river and rode the Big Open, didn’t back down or know the meaning of the word quit, and in order to get respect, a man had to earn it.          

 

The next few days fell into a routine: roll out at five-thirty and the two hired guns rode with their charges from sunup to sundown, Steve and Scott seeming to have hit it off with a mutual interest in good horses, while Jess watched over Seth.  Vince and Gus worked on much neglected and much maligned paperwork.  After a two day visit, Dan left for Cheyenne Wells, while for Slim, the return journey to Laramie would not begin until Monday, much to Amy’s delight.  Slim and Jess saw little of each other, the latter spending most of his time with the cowhands.

 

The morning of the “Aroya Fourth Annual Town Picnic and Dance to Follow” dawned as had its predecessors for the last month: warm with a brilliant blue sky devoid of any hint of cloud or moisture.  The hands lucky enough to have the day off were still blithely asleep as their counterparts moved quietly around the bunkhouse as they readied for another day of work in the unrelenting sun.  The fencing in the southern pasture had been finished and was ready to have cattle moved into it.  Due to the Big Sandy running through its lower quarter, the range managed to stay fairly green with tough buffalo grass.  Since all the Barstow’s would be attending the picnic, Jess would be staying behind and accompanying the family into town, while Steve rode with the crew moving cattle.  

 

To alleviate boredom, Jess had moved Traveler to the main corral and had set up some cans to practice on.  A gunfighter needed to keep sharp and loose if he was to survive in the hard reality that he lived in where, most times, it was literally kill or be killed.  Jess carefully set a series of four cans along the top rail, and stepped off ten paces, closing his eyes for a moment.  He slowed his breathing, rolled his shoulders and reopened his eyes.  For a moment he was still.  The only indications that he wasn’t carved from some dark stone were the restless movement of his right hand, and the slow rise and fall of his chest.  Then, in a blur of motion, drawing and shooting from the hip, he fanned the hammer of the Colt and the cans, launched into the air from the impact of the bullet, fell back to earth with a loud clatter as the echo of gunfire bounced off the surrounding buildings.  He flipped  open the loading gate, absently thumbed free the spent cartridges and inserted fresh in their place, rotating an empty chamber under the hammer and re-holstering the gun.  Resetting the cans, he changed angles and repeated the procedure.  As he worked, he was aware of a small audience of cowhands that had gathered on the backside of the corral, watching him practice with rapt attention, among them Seth Barstow who was more than impressed by Jess’ speed and skill.

 

“Hey Jess!  How you get so fast with that thing any way?” Seth called over the rail.

 

“Practice; lots and lots of practice.  A couple of hours a day sometimes.”

 

Walking back from resetting the cans Jess nodded at Seth who leaned on the top rail.  “Want to take a crack at it?” he asked as he reloaded.

 

Seth straightened and grinned like a kid at Christmas, “Really? Shoot against you?” he asked excitedly, the grin growing wider.

 

Jess leaned on the rail alongside Seth, and considered the four battered cans for a moment.  It would be good to know just what Steve and he had to work with should Anders bring the fight to them here at the house.

 

“Sure, you take the two on the right I’ll go for the two on the left.”

 

Seth skinned through the rails and pulled his revolver, flicking open the loading gate and rotated the cylinder, checking the cartridges before thumbing it closed again and replacing the gun in its holster.  Taking an easy stance, he looked to the gunslinger next to him.  Jess, to anyone watching, appeared as he had earlier when he as practicing alone: relaxed and calm.  But Seth could see subtle changes; there was an alert tension in his carriage now, as the fingers of his right hand curled and flexed restlessly.

 

“You call it, Seth,”  Jess said with a grin.

 

Seth took a calming breath as his brothers had taught him and shook out his gun arm.  “Now!” he cried, reaching and pulling the Colt as fast as he could, disappointed when he heard the double crack of Jess’ gun even as he was firing at the first can.

 

Jess glanced to his right and saw the look of disappointment on the younger man’s face. “Not bad, kid,” he congratulated by slapping Seth on the shoulder.

 

“I ain’t near as fast as you, though,” the nineteen year old sighed, holstering his gun.

 

“I’ve had a sight more practice at it than you,” Jess held the nickel-plated Colt in the palm of his gloved hand, looking at Seth.   ‘This has saved my life more times than I care to count, and caused more trouble than I needed.’ He paused, looking Seth in the eye.  What he saw in the boy’s face was the hunger that once burned in his.

 

Now what resided there in Jess was resignation, a weariness of the soul.  He smiled sadly.  “Seth, you don’t want this, you’ve got too much.’ He slid the gun into its holster and gestured around him. ‘You have far more than you realize boy: home, family, people who’ll stand with you no matter what.  I know a lot of men that would give all they’ve got, and then some, to have a quarter of what you hold so easy.” Jess paused again and his voice hardened; a hand unconsciously caressed the butt of the Colt as a man would caress his lover.   

 

“This life is for those that have nothin’ in front of them and hell chasin’ them.  Once you pick up a gun, you can’t never put it down, no matter how hard you try, how much you want to.  It sticks to you…’  The gunfighter paused, a far- away look in his eyes.  “It sticks to you, no matter where you go, no matter how many times you try to wash it off, people can still smell it.  The minute you ride into a town, they know who, and what you are and they can’t chase you out fast enough.”

 

 

Seth stared silently at the dark haired man for a moment. “What does?” he asked quietly.

 

Jess gave him a feral grin. “Death… Death sticks to you, rides with you, like a leech you pick up, feedin’ off you until it sucks you dry an’ you got nothin’ more to give.’

 

Unknown to Jess, Vince and Slim had walked over to watch, both men listening intently as the gunfighter spoke. 

 

 Vince hoped that Jess’ words would strike home for his little brother who was like a wild range-born colt, ready to run at the slightest sign of a rope to tie him down.

 

Slim listened because he had never heard Jess talk like he was now: the hurt, hardship, loss and longing in Jess’ voice so painfully evident to him, sharper than any knife and it cut him to the core.

 

Jess stopped and looked around for a moment as if trying to figure out just where he was, then he smiled at Seth, the darkness lifting for a moment from his face.  “I think we’ve practiced enough, how about buyin’ me some coffee?”  and he slapped Seth on the arm and headed in the direction of the bunkhouse while a couple of cowboys took their place at the impromptu firing range and the remainder gathered around to make a friendly bet or two on the outcome.

 

CH 17

What a cruel thing is war:  to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.  ~Robert E. Lee, letter to his wife, 1864

 

Vince herded his sons toward the surrey where Sarah and Amy waited, organizing several baskets stored under the seats.  Slim sat on the big grey that he had taken a liking to during his stay.  Gus held the reins for the second surrey, along with Scott, Rebecca and the remainder of the baskets.  In Vince’s opinion there was enough food to feed a small army, something Sarah insisted they were with the ten hands that were grouped loosely near the archway waiting for the word to head out.  He had to admire the women of in his family; they sure knew how to marshal their forces and keep them fed to boot. 

 

“Okay, boys; up with your ma and no roustin’ about back there,”  Vince admonished the boys as he lifted first Sam and then, turning to Adam, who gave him a disgusted look. As far as he was concerned, he was too old to need help into the coach.

 

Jess sat on Traveler apart from it all, watching the mustering of the ‘troops’ with amusement and a little foreboding.  The instinct that men like him depended on to survive was clamoring to be heard, and experience told him to listen and listen well.  Something was going to happen today, something ugly that would change the face of this whole thing.  Unconsciously he touched the forty-five on his hip, drawing reassurance from the cold iron.  He watched Vince lifting his sons into the surrey, listened to the laughter of the cowboys waiting to go, eager as little boys waiting for the candy store to open.   So far this range war had amounted to little more than skirmishes, feints to feel out just where Barstow’s weaknesses might be.  Yes, wire had been cut, cattle scattered and guns fired resulting in a few minor injuries.   But he had yet to spot Anson Wilke, despite both he and Steve riding out with the crews, and that made him nervous.  Not a good thing.  He knew Wilke’s reputation, that he didn’t hide and he didn’t back down from a fight, and his failure to appear at any of the previous attacks concerned him. 

“He cuts quite a picture doesn’t he?”  Sarah asked as Vince climbed onto the seat beside her, picking up the reins.

 

“Who?”  Vince asked absently as he adjusted the reins between his fingers.

 

Sarah smiled at her husband and laid a hand on his arm as she nodded in Jess’ direction.  “Him.”

 

Vince looked at the man on the bay horse for a moment, dressed in black except for a dark blue shirt that matched the blue of his eyes.  He sat tall and straight, silently taking in the chaos around him, one hand resting on the ever present Colt, the other resting on the horn, lightly holding the reins.  The bay horse stood just as alert, ears pricked forward, nostrils flaring slightly with each slow breath.  The horse had been brushed within an inch of his life; the rich mahogany coat gleamed in the bright light.  Together they looked, as Sarah said, quite a picture.

 

          “Okay, let’s get moving or we’ll never get to this shindig,”  Vince said, slapping the reins on the team of matched chestnuts.

 

With a whoop the hands headed out at an easy lope, straddling either side of the road.  Jess rode alongside one surrey while Slim rode with the other.  To Jess’ relief, there was no trouble on the ride into Aroya, but the sight that met him almost caused him to draw rein and head in the opposite direction. 

 

The street was full of people; bunting hung from the rails of porches, fancy paper lanterns, that would be lit after dusk, hung across the main street on low lines.  A series of tents had been erected and long plank tables set beneath where people could gather and eat.  Later the tables would be taken down and the dancing would be held there.  Several stores had their doors flung open or had small tables with wares set up for sale.  Just outside of town, large rope corrals were set up to accommodate all the horses and unhitched rigs stood to one side of them.

 

The Hangin’ G ranch hands quickly dismounted and, stripping their mounts, left their gear piled by the surreys and put their horses in the corrals.  Gus and his sons, along with Slim, found themselves dragooned into being mules and packing the baskets up to the dining tents.  The women busied themselves setting out sliced meats, cold chicken, pickled eggs; sweet and spicy pickles, apple and mixed berry pies for dessert were some of the delicacies that loaded the trestle tables.  That done, Sarah and Rebecca took command of their husbands before they could wander off, while Amy did the same with Slim, hooking her arm around his, and the couples headed off in three different directions.

 

Gus had found some cronies and stood talking stock and weather while enjoying a cup of hard cider.

 

eth stood next to Jess and had to bite a lip to keep from laughing.  The look on the bewildered man’s face resembled nothing more than a frustrated sheep dog watching his flock scatter to the wind.

 

“Don’t worry Jess, there won’t be any trouble here.  Cal hires on extra men to control any trouble makers, and the saloon won’t sell anything harder than beer or cider tonight,”  Seth said, laying a hand on the other man’s shoulder.  “Come on, lets’ see the doin’s,” as the rattle of the shooting range set up at the far end of town drew Seth’s attention and a grin lit his face.  “Hey, are you as good with a long gun as that Colt?”

         

“I ain’t half bad,” Jess said, looking at the younger man curiously.  Although he appeared calm, his nerves were jangling.  The closer they had gotten to town, the stronger the feeling had gotten that they were riding into trouble and the more he wished Steve were here to watch his back. 

         

 

Seth headed in the direction of the gunfire, Jess reluctantly at his side and the closer they got to the gunfire, the tenser Jess became, his hand riding firmly on the butt of his gun.  The youngest Barstow glanced out of the corner of his eye at the gunfighter walking beside him, noticed how tense, alert and trying to look everywhere at once as if expecting to be jumped at any minute.

 

“Somethin’ wrong, Jess?”  He asked carelessly.

 

Jess looked over at Seth, who had a quizzical look on his face.  The gunfighter lifted his hat and ran a hand through his hair before he resettled it, took a breath and shook his head with a laugh.  “Guess its bein’ around so many people, just not use to it.  Riding the Big Open, even two can get to be a crowd after a while.”

 

Seth nodded in agreement, but noticed that the tension around Jess’ eyes and mouth didn’t lesson one little bit.  Pointing to his right, he lead the way down a narrow alley and out to an area surrounded by hay bales stacked three high in the front and rope outlining a twenty foot wide by forty-five yards long area.  A plank of wood was laid across the top of the bales where several rifles and pistols waited.  A couple of men leaned across the board and were firing at targets posted halfway down the run.

 

Young men and cowboys were gathered around, calling encouragement to the shooters.  Three of them looked around when Seth called  Hey, Mac, Clay, Keith! Got some one for ya to meet!”

         

Two of the three were obviously brothers with white-blonde hair while the third had dark hair and dark eyes belying his Indian heritage.  

 

“Hey, Seth, come to try your luck? Nate Larson is shootin’ the pants off us like every year and braggin’ up a blue streak to boot,”  Mac Killison said as he walked over to shake hands with his friend, his brother Clay and Keith Cowels followed suit.

 

“Well, I’m not exactly keen on losin’ money, but I think we might be able to get some of it back.  That is if my friend here is willin’,” and Seth looked at Jess where he stood apart from the activity, watching the shooting with interest.

 

          “Who’s that, Seth?” Mac asked, although he had a feeling simply by looking at the man he already knew the answer.

 

Seth grinned. “Jess! Hey, Jess, come meet a couple of friends!”

 

Jess walked over to Seth standing with three young men, a small smile playing on Jess’ lips, yet failed to reach his eyes. 

 

Seth grinned and turned to his friends. “Mac, Clay, Keith; I want you to meet Jess Harper.”

 

The three friends looked stunned for a moment before Mac found his voice. “The…the gunfighter?”

 

Seth laughed at his friend’s reaction. “Yeah, unless you’ve heard of another one.  Jess Harper, the gunfighter.”

 

The jocularity around the shooting range died down for a moment as contestants finished firing and the winner was declared once again to be Nate Larson, a big, rawboned man that rode for Cy Anders. 

 

Nate was a braggart who thrived on the growth of his reputation with a gun, a man who was little liked by most people who knew him.  He claimed that he was the best shot in Aroya and took great joy in besting anyone who tried to beat him. 

 

             As Nate laid the rifle back down on the make-shift table and turned to gather his winnings, he noticed Seth and his friends standing to one side.

 

“Hey, Barstow,” he called in a nasal voice as he stepped in Seth’s direction.  “I see your pa let you come out to play with the big boys, and look, you brought your pet gun hawk too.  He gonna hold your hand while you take a turn shootin’ ‘gainst me?”  He snorted a honking kind of laugh.

 

Jess sized up the homely cowboy in one glance, understanding immediately the type of man Nate Larson was.  He was the kind who liked to start trouble and then back away to watch what would happen.

 

Seth started walking toward Nate, but Jess laid an arm across his chest.  “Let him talk, he’s just baitin’ ya,” he said softly.

 

“You know I can out shoot you any day of the week, Nate,” Seth hotly retorted.

 

Nate grinned, showing a set of yellow-stained teeth, “Maybe you wanna put yer money on the table... boy?”

 

“Nate, take it easy; that’s Harper, warned another CA Connected rider.

 

Nate eyed Jess and laughed.  “He ain’t much.”      

     

          The other rider swore under his breath; Nate wasn’t known for having a whole lot of common sense, although he was one hell of man with cattle.  “You don’t want to push him, Nate; you’re not even wearin’ a gun,” the other man argued.

 

Nate glared at the man beside him, shrugging off a restraining hand.  “Ah, Clip, what the hell you think I been winnin’ money with?  A pop gun?  Like you said, he’s Barstow’s tame wolf.  Ol’ Gus probably got him on so tight a leash, he don’t take a piss without askin’.”   He sneered at Jess and laughed.  “Ain’t that right, Harper?  You ain’t gonna draw on me, even if I had a gun.”

 

The onlookers turned their gaze back to where Nate and Jess quietly stood, the air thick with tension and anticipation.

 

Jess studied Larson as the man ragged on.  Nate was typical for the cowboy breed: lean and hard muscled from long days of physical labor, and he carried about four inches and twenty-five pounds more on him. 

 

“Step away, Seth,’ Jess said in a low tone.

 

Seth stared at the gunfighter for a second, pulling his three friends with him.  “Jess…” he hissed.

 

The gunfighter flashed a grin at Seth and turned back to the cowboy who wanted to brace him.  “I don’t need a gun to take you, Larson,” he said in a low, even voice, thumbs hooked carelessly into his gun belt.

 

Nate Larson blinked for a second as Jess’ words sunk in and a grin began to spread across his homely face. “You talk big for a little man, Harper.”  He stepped away from the crowd around him, swinging his arms and rolling his shoulders, never turning his back on Jess.

 

Jess disengaged the tie-down thong on his thigh, then slipped the buckle and pulled the belt free, holding out to Seth.  “Hold this,” he muttered as he walked in Larson’s direction.

 

Wordlessly, Seth took the belt and slung it over one shoulder.

 

The onlookers formed a half circle around Nate Larson, a few calling out bets as to who would win.  The two potential combatants eyed each other carefully, taking their opponents’ measure. 

 

“What ya waitin’ for, Harper?  An invitation?” Nate mocked as he moved forward, fists raised, a sneer on his lips.

 

Jess gave a harsh laugh. “Mister, you’re putting on this show, I just thought you wanted to sell tickets to it.”

 

“An’ I’m gonna’ finish it too,” the larger man snarled as he rushed forward, right fist swinging.

 

Jess waited until Larson was committed to the charge and, when the man was almost on him, slipped easily to one side.  Larson stumbled past, off balance.  Wheeling around at the end of his rush, Larson swore and came at Jess a second time, arms wide to grapple with the slighter man, but, again, Jess easily sidestepped the blindly rushing man.  “Stand still, Harper, or can you only fight a man with a gun in your hand?” the bigger man growled as, once again, he came to a staggering stop.

 

 

Jess shrugged his shoulders and looked at the men gathered around.  “Larson, can I help it if you keep missing?”

 

A couple of onlookers laughed and urged Nate to try again.

 

Larson ran the back of his hand across his mouth, coughed and spat into the dust.  Standing from the crouch he held, he slowly circled in toward Jess, causing the gunfighter to move away from the bigger man, keeping a wary eye on Larson as he did so.  The cowboy grinned at the slender man as he advanced, eying the rough ground behind the dark clad man and slowly driving Jess toward it.  All of a sudden he feinted left and moved forward and right, catching Jess off balance as he moved to avoid the anticipated punch.

 

A stone rolled under Jess’ boot, throwing the man backward, his arms instinctively pin-wheeling to maintain balance.

 

The bigger man saw the opening and lunged forward, catching Jess with a hard right fist to the ribs, eliciting a grunt from the gunman as he fell.

 

Jess hit the ground and rolled to his left, covering his now bruised ribs with his right arm.  He scrambled to his feet to greet the oncoming Larson with a swift left-right combination to the body, and, the bigger man doubled over as his breath left his lungs in a loud whoosh, kindly sticking out his jaw as he did so.  It was the perfect target for Jess’ follow-up haymaker.

 

Larson stood straight up from Jess’ blow, his eyes crossed before the big man went down like his legs had been cut out from under him.  He lay still. The entire thing had lasted about three minutes.  

 

Jess collected his gun from Seth and grinned as he re-buckled the belt around his waist, glancing at the prone man as he tied the thong around his thigh.  He sighed.  “I told him I could take him without a gun.”

 

Seth looked at Jess for a couple of seconds and then began to laugh helplessly, leaning on Mac’s shoulder for support.    “Mister Harper, my Pa is gonna split a seam when he hears about this, but you surely did warn Nate.“

 

“Hey, we gonna do some shootin’ or what?”  Clay asked, casually leaning against a tree.

 

“Of course I’m gonna shoot, that’s why I’m here!”  Seth retorted, walking toward the shooting range.  Some considerate person had dragged the unconscious cowboy out of the way so he wouldn’t be tripped over or stepped on. 

 

The four young men lined themselves along the rough rail, each laying down a dime to try their luck.  Previous shooters gathered around to place friendly wagers and Seth seemed to be the general favorite and, in the end, proved to be the better shot.

 

“You should see Harper shoot,” Seth said as his friends congratulated him.  “He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”

 

“You think you could convince him?” asked Clay, the youngest of the group at age fifteen and fascinated by the gunslinger.

 

The group of friends looked over at Jess where he lounged against a tree, watching the activity, arms crossed, one leg bent and his boot heel pressed against the rough bark.

 

None of them could see the loneliness in the man’s eyes as he took in the camaraderie.  Growing up, he’d never seemed to have time to have fun the way most young boys did.  His days were either spent working the fields with his pa and older brother, trying to eke out enough to keep the family from starving while making sure the landlord got his tithe, hunting, or some other chore that kept him busy.   He’d grown up fast out of necessity, missing out on a lot that childhood offered.  His best friends had been the plow horses and the farm dog, a stray that had wandered in one day and opted to stay, earning its keep by catching the occasional jack rabbit and discouraging the coyotes from making snacks out of the few chickens that scratched in the yard.

 

The dark clad gunfighter straightened as Seth and his friends walked over.  “Jess, come join us.”

 

Jess shook his head. “I don’t shoot for fun.”

 

Seth frowned in disappointment. “Come on, Jess, just a couple of rounds to show the boys what you can do.”

 

 

Again Jess shook his head. “Look, Seth, I said I don’t shoot for fun.  Most men only need to see what I can do once,” he said with a grim look at the young men.   “I’m not getting paid to fool around,” he answered, anger tinting his voice as he pushed himself away from the tree.

 

Seth glanced at his friends, helplessly shrugged his shoulders and sighed to himself, knowing his friends were looking to him to convince Harper.

 

What was that this morning then when you let me shoot against ya?” Seth asked in frustration.

 

 

“Practice,” Jess replied in a clipped tone.

 

Seth could hear the annoyance in his voice, but couldn’t seem to keep himself from asking again.  “Jess, please?  Just a couple of rounds. I’ll even pay.”

Jess smiled a wolfish smile, “You gonna pay for me to use my gun?” he asked softly.

 

Seth opened and closed his mouth, realizing that was what he had implied, but definitely not what he meant.  “Jess…I…”

 

“Sorry. I’ve already got a job,” Jess growled and walked away.

 

CH 18

 

Steve McCullah reined the big appaloosa in as he reached the ridge line of the low hills that made up this part of the Hanging G and looked down at the men moving cattle along the narrow track below him.  Skylining along the ridge made him feel like he had a target on his back.  Like Jess, he too had a bad feeling about the day.  If there was ever a time for Anders and his men to make a move on the freshly fenced south pasture, it was now with the Barstow family and half the hands in town.  From up here he could watch for movement in any direction, and he could follow along on the ridge for a couple of miles.

 

The heat of the morning was already building, signaling that it would be another hot day with little chance of rain. The sun beat down like a hammer using the dry earth as its anvil and the distant song of katydids could be heard from clumps of cottonwood and downey hawthorne trees.  The hills that rolled off to the northwest were dry and a uniform shade of brown-gold with rare patches of green while to the south, where the land flattened, it faded into lush shades of green due to the nearness of the Big Sandy Creek.

 

Steve swung down from the saddle to stretch his legs and back, the dry buffalo grass crackling and crunching beneath his feet.  The range was ripe for fire and the thought of it chilled him. 

 

A wildfire could wipe out hundreds of acres of grassland, along with any cattle that were caught in its path.  He had witnessed a wildfire once as a young man riding for his first brand.  The devastation had been staggering.  A twenty mile wide swath had been charred and the air was rife with the stink of it.  He didn’t know how far the blackened land went, but had ridden along its border for three days and hadn’t reached an end. The brand he had ridden for had been all but wiped out and, from a thousand head of healthy beeves, they had managed to save a little over half of them.  Of that, a third had to be destroyed due to injury leaving just over three hundred healthy head of cattle.  The cost of fodder went wild as ranches struggled to find enough to feed their hungry stock.  Small spreads went bust, unable to afford the price of feed and leaving a hundred men to scatter to the four winds in search of work.

 

He shook himself free of those memories and remounted to continue along the ridge, eyes scanning for any sign of trouble.

                                                                             *****

 

Sam Cutter had been foreman at the CA Connected for over ten years and he didn’t like what was happening one little bit.  Ever since the gun slick Anders had called for had ridden in, things had changed for the worse.  It was bad enough that Cy had turned to cuttin’ wire and killin’ stock to try and drive Barstow into seeing things his way, but what he planned now was down-right criminal.  If it had not been for the fact that Sam had a wife and two daughters to look out for, he would’ve resigned and ridden out.  Anders had hired a crony of Wilkes to keep an eye on things, one Zeb Hall, little known for his reputation with a gun, but well known for his willingness to take on any job and beat down any man that opposed him.  Earlier that day Hall had ridden out with five men, headed for north pasture with orders to start a burn that would pull most, if not all of the men left on the Hangin’ G away from moving their cattle onto that fresh green grass, allowing Cutter and his men to move a herd two hundred strong of very thirsty cattle onto Barstow land for access to green graze and fresh water.  Cutter’s deep fear was that the burn would become a wildfire, consuming the adjoining land, and causing loss of livestock and valuable graze.

 

                                                                              *****

 

As he scanned the horizon to his right, a frown creased McCullah’s forehead. There was a finger of smoke rising to the north in the otherwise flawless blue of the late July sky.  There were no Barstow crews up that way today.  He pulled his revolver and fired two shots into the air, a signal to the men below that he had spotted something. 

 

As the double crack of gunfire echoed and bounced off the hills around the group of men and cattle, Brodie and Coop searched the hills and finally spotted the dark silhouette outlined against the deep blue.  Bodie spat an oath and spurred his bay horse into a gallop, the horse grunting as it worked its way up slope toward McCullah, Coop on his little dun gelding riding right behind him.

 

Steve glanced back at the smoke.  In just a short period of time it had grown from the width of a single finger to a hand span wide and a cold fear thrummed along his nerves: fire!

 

A light breeze blew from out of the northwest and the rider imagined he could smell a hint of smoke in the air, although he knew it was a good hour and a steady ride to the top of the north pasture.  The appaloosa fidgeted nervously, feeding off the tenseness he felt from his rider.

 

“Steady son,”  Steve murmured, absently running a hand down the animal’s neck.

 

As the two riders crested the ridge, Steve nodded in the direction of the smoke.  “We got real trouble,” he said quietly, though tension was evident in his voice.

 

The two men looked north and Brodie swore venomously.

 

“Damn…damn…damn, you son of a bitch, you had to go and do it, didn’t ya Anders!  You just had to go and do it.”

 

The sudden sound of gun fire and rushing cattle drew their attention away from the distant smoke and back to the west where a large herd was rumbling toward them, driven by a dozen men. Brodie swore again with enthusiasm.

 

“Son of a cockeyed cowboy!  Cooper, you ride like the devil’s own is on your tail for town, we’re gonna need help with that fire!  McCullah, you’re with me. Anders knew our boys’ were gonna be in town damn it, kept his men out and the fire set as a distraction.  Now they’ve cut the fence and are movin’ CA connected stock onto our range!”

 

With a shout, Cooper spurred his dun into a flat gallop along the ridge in the direction of the ranch house, leaning forward, his weight out of the saddle and balanced over the horse.  Clumps of dry Buffalo grass flew backward as he raced in the direction of the ranch house and Aroya beyond.

 

Brodie wheeled his mount and charged down the slope, McCullah right beside him, reins in one hand, long gun in the other.  The men below had taken what cover they could find and were firing at the invading CA Connected riders.  Cattle mixed and milled in confusion, churning up thick clouds yellow-brown dust.     

 

“Let em go boys!  We got a fire burnin’ on the north pasture!   Blue, Kit, high-tail it back to the barn, load up a wagon with anything we can use to make a firebreak and get it up there as fast as you can!” Brodie shouted over the sound of bawling cattle and gunfire.  “The rest of you pull outta here now, head north as fast as you can.  We don’t get that fire out, it won’t matter who has water rights ‘cause there won’t be anything else left!”

 

Brodie and Steve pulled their Winchesters and provided some cover as the cowboys ran for their horses and, with a series of flying mounts that would have made any circus rider proud, they were galloping north.

 

The riders from the CA connected stared after the disappearing Hangin’ G riders for a moment before looking to their foreman for instructions.  Most of them knew that Anders had fired the range and it went against their grain, but they rode for the brand good or bad.

 


          Cooper pulled the lathered, heaving dun to a sliding halt near the large corral by the main house and stripped saddle and bridle off as quickly as he could, dropping the tack on the ground and herded the gelding inside, hating to leave the animal to his own devices.  He pulled his rope off the saddle and quickly built a loop as he studied the restlessly moving horses.  He picked out a rawboned roan and deftly flipped the loop over the animal’s head, then quickly saddled it before riding out at a gallop a little over ten minutes after he had ridden in.  But even in that short a time, the smoke cloud had grown thicker and, even now as he rode for Aroya, he knew I would gain speed and consume more and more precious grass.

 

                                                                               *****                

 

 Seth eagerly took his turn on a rank, black gelding with a bald face; the horse was well versed in how to dislodge an unwanted rider and had a saddlebag full of equine tricks to do so.  The young rancher had confidently climbed into the breaking saddle and nodded his readiness to the man at the  gate, who swung the hinged barricade wide.  The black simply stood in the chute, ears lazily flicking back and forth, ignoring the man on his back as the pesky human thumped blunt spurs into his sides.  Seth looked helplessly at the laughing men that lined the rail of the corral, sighed and shook his head, coming to the conclusion that the horse was dead-sided.  That was his first mistake: he relaxed into the saddle.  With a snort, the wiry animal threw himself out of the chute, catching Seth unprepared for the violence that ensued as the horse seemed to be able to move in a half-dozen directions at once as he sun-fished, crow-hopped, spun and twisted his way around the corral.  It was all Seth could do to hang on as he tried to move with the horse.  He was holding on for dear life and threw his left arm out to try and keep some semblance of balance, but with each bone jarring bounce, he could feel himself coming loose from the saddle.   He could hear the cheers and wild whoops as the horse bounced on stiff legs, suddenly dropping a shoulder as if he were going down, and then scrambling to re-gain his feet.  Seth felt like his arm was being pulled right out of its socket as he gripped the heavy bucking lines that were used on the hackamore bridle.  He could feel the vertebra in his back pop as he was whipped back and forth.  He clenched his teeth so he wouldn’t accidentally bite his tongue.

 

Jess watched the black horse fling himself around the corral in a desperate attempt to rid himself of his unwanted passenger; he had to admit Seth was one hell of a rider.  He felt for the horse though, understanding how it was to have something on his back that he couldn’t seem to get rid of.  The black suddenly went into an amazing series of jumps, snapping his hindquarters to the sky, twisting like a corkscrew as he went.  Jess could see at one point a good three fingers of daylight between horse and rider, and knew that they would very soon come to a parting of ways.

 

The horse landed on stiff legs and again threw his hind legs to the sky, but this time as he landed, he tossed his head backward as Seth rocked forward, catching the young man full in the face.

 

Blood streamed down Seth’s face from his broken nose and, slack limbed, he tumbled from the back of the plunging horse.

 

Two cowboys quickly tossed loops over the horse that continued to bounce around the corral and Jess and two other Hangin’ G riders skinned between the rails to the still form on the ground.  Kneeling on one knee, Jess cautioned the other men not to move the prone man, then, with a gloved hand, he gently slapped Seth’s cheeks and called his name.  After a few moments, Seth began to stir, moaning softly.  He raised a shaky hand to his pounding head and attempted to sit up, but was restrained by firm hands.

 

“Easy.  Stay down boy.  You took a pretty good whack to the head,” Jess said quietly when movement out of the corner of his eye cause him to look up.

 

Seth was more than happy to comply, his head and face felt like someone had hit him with the flat of a shovel and simple movement did nothing to improve it. 

 

A tall, slender man was sliding between the rails of the corral, bag in hand.  His long, quick strides brought him over to the fallen man and he knelt opposite Jess, nodded to the dark-clad man and introduced himself as Dr. Sid Fuller before proceeding to examine his patient. 

 

“How long was he unconscious?”  Dr. Fuller asked, using a thumb to raise the lid over each eye.  “Stay still, Seth,” he ordered sharply when the young man tried to pull away from the too bright knives of light that stabbed into his skull. 

 

“Just a minute, he started coming around just before you got here,”Jess replied.

 

The physician watched the pupil contract quickly with the introduction of bright sunlight and nodded with satisfaction before he moved on, and deftly took a wrist, feeling for a pulse as he pulled out a pocket watch and studied it for a moment.  Then he carefully counted his patient’s respiration before he efficiently ran his hands over arms and legs, feeling for any breaks or swelling, watching his patient’s face as he did to observe any reaction.  Finding none, he looked to his two assistants.

 

“Hold his shoulders for me if you would,” he said absently as he gently felt on either side of Seth’s nose and then, with a quick movement, clicked the broken cartilage back in place, eliciting a yell from his patient.   Looking up, he grinned at the concerned men.  “He’ll be okay, looks like the first round goes to the bronc’ though,” he said with a laugh as he pulled out a small, white envelope from his bag he handed it to Jess.  “He’s gonna want some of this later, for the headache.  Just have him mix a half spoon full with water as needed.

 

“I’m right here, doc,” Seth said hoarsely, tears of pain streaming from the corners of his eyes as he cracked open his eyelids and glared at the physician.  “Can ya tell ‘em to let me up now?” he asked aggrievedly, rolling his eyes at the two men who were still holding his shoulders.

 

“You can let him up, boys. But easy, Seth.  That horse knocked you a good one and broke your nose, but it should heal just fine now that I set it.  You’re gonna have a headache for a day or two, might feel a little dizzy and nausea might come with it.  That’s fine and I don’t think you have a concussion, but any vomiting and you send someone for me immediately, you hear?” the doctor said firmly, looking at Jess and the ranch hands that had gathered around.

 

“I got ya, Doc, ya don’t have ta’ yell,”  Seth said as he slowly sat up with help.  He kept his eyes closed until he was upright, and then opened them gradually.  That was a mistake, the brilliant sunlight bit into his brain with sharp teeth and the world tilted from one side to the other.  He could feel his stomach heave uneasily and he gulped air.  “Ohhh, god,” he moaned, leaning back against the two men that still half supported him.  A cold sweat broke out on his forehead and he paled.

 

 

“Easy, Seth, just take a couple of nice deep breaths for me,’ Doc said, looking back over his shoulder to call for some water.  A minute later a canteen was handed over.  He unscrewed the cap and held it to the queasy man’s lips.  “Just take small sips, boy. not too much or it’ll come right back up.”

 

Seth let the cool water trickle down his throat in small increments, feeling his stomach settle, thankfully.  “Thanks, Doc, that helped.’

 

“How you feelin’?” the doctor asked, taking back the canteen.

 

“Like someone hit me in the face with a horse,” he said with a chuckle, and then he winced, put his hand to his head and moaned,  “Ohhh, don’t let me do that again.”

 

“What’s that, Seth?”

 

“Laugh.”      

 

Once again the doctor looked to Jess and the ranch-hand.  “Let’s get him to his feet and see if we can’t get him over to my office.  Nice and easy now, Seth, no rush.”

 

Even with help, the effort to stand made his head pound and vision swim and each step seemed to drive a spike deep into his brain.  By the time they made it to Doc’s office, he was more than ready for the cool comfort of the dim interior.  They helped him lay back on a bed in the first floor spare bedroom of Doc’s house; he kept it ready for when he had a patient that needed to be watched over.  Getting his patient situated and comfortable, Doc mixed some headache powder with water and held it out to the grimacing young man.  “Here this will help with the headache, I want you to stay here for an hour or so and just relax.  I have some paperwork to catch up on so I’ll just be in my office if you need me; otherwise I’ll be in to check on you in a bit.”

 

Seth gratefully took the proffered cup and drank, wincing as he did so, not sure whether it was at the pain in his head or the taste in his mouth.  “That’s awful,” he said, laying his throbbing head back against the cool of the cotton-sheathed  pillow, his eyes closed.

 

 

Doc gestured toward the door and Jess and the ranch hand followed him out into the waiting room.  “I’m going to keep him here a couple of hours; he’s not going to feel like running around anyway with that headache.”

 

Jess grinned at the doctor. “Know just how he feels, Doc’. I’ll let his family know where he is and what happened.  I’m sure they’ll be back around to take him home later in the coach.”  He turned to the ranch hand and offered his hand. “Thanks for your help, appreciated it.  Let me buy you a beer?”

 

The hand returned the grin and shook the proffered hand.  “Well, kinda part of the job I guess, pickin’ up and dustin’ that boy off.  He can be a wild one, let me tell ya, some o’the things he’s done would, I guarantee, turn your hair white,” the man laughed and shook his head.  “By the way, name’s Bill Rankin.  Most just call me ‘Whip’.”

 

The two men were headed up the main street toward the pavilion, talking about ranching and cattle and the spreads they had worked for when the sudden sound of pounding hooves caused Jess to drop a hand to his gun and pull the keeper free of the hammer in one smooth action.  Both men looked down the street where a rider, pursued by a heavy dust cloud, galloped into Aroya, not bothering to pull up at the town’s outskirts and scattering pedestrians as he came.  As the rider closed the distance, Whip narrowed his eyes.

 

“That’s Coop on that roan; look at him come!  There must be trouble, or he’d never ride a horse into the ground like that,” Whip exclaimed, breaking into a run toward the rider, Jess at his side.

 

Cooper Ames thundered down the main street and practically threw himself from the saddle before the rawboned roan, lathered and heaving, staggered to stop. 

 

“Fire!  Fire on the north pasture at the Hangin’ G!” he gasped hoarsely as he stumbled, trying to keep his feet.  The  hour hard ride from the south pasture had taken its toll on the man and he reeled toward the pavilion with his dire message, his face streaked with sweat and grime.

 

 Whip and Jess each grabbed an arm to steady the man as he continued to push forward to the tent where onlookers stared in shock at the scene before them.  A cowhand had caught up the trailing reins of the horse as he stood straddle legged, nose almost touching the road, groaning in an effort to drag enough oxygen into its lungs.  Gently he began to walk the horse in order to try and cool the animal down before it dropped from exhaustion.

 

“What‘re ya sayin’, Coop?”  Whip asked sharply of the tired rider.

 

“Anders fired the north pasture.  Brodie and the men were headed that way, but they‘re gonna need as much help as they can get.  Where’s Mister Barstow?  I gotta let ‘im know.”

 

“What in Bloody Blue Blazes is going on?” Gus thundered as he pushed himself to the forefront of the clustered Barstow clan.

 

Slim stood slightly to one side, watching as the two cowhands and a grim faced gunslinger made their way toward them.

           

“Mister Barstow, Anders fired the North Pasture, and then had his men cut the fence south.  Drove in about two hundred head and hit us with about twenty guns.   Walker told me to high-tail it here so I don’t know what went down after that.  I done rode two horses into the ground getting’ here,” the lean top-hand slumped into a nearby seat, gratefully accepting a cup of water that Sarah had gotten off one of the tables.  

 

Gus’ face deepened to a brick red as his temper rose with each word Cooper uttered, until anger practically came off him in waves.  “Anders!” he roared, wheeling around to scan the group of men and woman gathered behind him.  “Cyrus Anders!  Where the hell ya at?!  Come on out here ‘cause I’m gonna kill ya...!” 

 

Vince stepped next to his father and gripped his father’s arms fiercely, staring hard into the older man’s eyes.  “Pa, we don’t have time for this right now, we need to get out there. Brodie and his men are gonna need all the help he can get!” he said urgently, giving his father a slight shake.  Turning to Whip, he started issuing orders:  “Whip, find every hand you can, get ‘em headed out.  Scott, see what help you can round up here. Seth…”  He suddenly realized that his youngest brother was not present and looked to Jess with whom he had last seen his brother.  “Where’s Seth?”

 

Quickly Jess explained about the bucking horse incident and that his brother was currently under the care of Doc Fuller.

 

Satisfied, Vince continued issuing orders, turning to the only man he felt comfortable leaving his family with.  He turned to the man from Laramie.  “Slim, can you see that my family gets back to the ranch safely?”  Turning back, he nodded to Jess. “You’re with me.” Looking around, he shouted at the people standing around him. “What are you waiting for?  MOVE!” he shouted as he spun on his heel and started in the direction of the horses, abut he had to come to a sudden stop because, in front of him, was Cy Anders.  And Anson Wilke appeared on the edge of the crowd of men and women.

 

 

“Anders…” Gus growled, his hand dropping toward a non-existent gun butt. 

 

Jess saw Gus Barstow stop to confront two men, and instinct told him to stay with the older Barstow.  His eyes locked on the man wearing a gun; although he had never meant him, he knew that this was Anson Wilke.  Slowly he turned to face the hired gun, the hair on the back of his neck standing up like the hackles on a wolf facing down a challenger.  He could see a hard glint in the man’s eyes and the unconscious curl of his lip flashed a snarl of warning.

 

Anson Wilke studied the dark clad man that stood across from him carefully.  Like Harper, he would have recognized his counterpart with or without a gun.  There was a certain something, a way about a gunfighter that let them recognize another with a single glance.  If a person were to ask seven men what it was, they would get seven different answers.   Some might say it was the comfortable arrogance in his walk, others said it was in the eyes, the wary alertness, and the way they continually scanned for trouble.  No small few pointed directly to the gun that rode low on the hip, waiting to be released from its leather confinement, and the hand that never strayed far from it.  Whatever the case, Wilke knew he had finally met the man he’d been waiting for.  Slowly he moved clear of Anders, slipping the keeper on his gun as he did so, and taking up a relaxed stance five feet away.

 

Harper gave a sardonic smile and mirrored the other man’s action, taking up the same easy stance, deceptively relaxed.  Then he waited.  The next move would be Wilke’s.

 

Scott watched his brother head in the direction of the rope corral and the horses, and then turned back to the men that had clustered around him.

 

“Tell us what ya need and where ya need Scott,” said Kip Edwards, owner of the Double T spread.  “Silber of the Lazy K and Long of the Cross Key ‘n me got our boys in town for this here shindig, you tell us where you need ‘em and we’ll get ‘em there.”

 

Ian Westmore pushed forward. “I’ll open the store and you can get whatever you need, Scott, no charge.”

 

Scott didn’t know what to say for a moment and stared agape at the men, at a loss for words for their unexpected generosity.   Recovering quickly, he organized the men that stood looking to him for leadership, sending one after a heavy wagon and team.  Thinking for a moment, he turned back to the store owner. “Ian, you have any plows in stock?” he asked.

 

Ian looked thoughtful for a moment and then nodded, “Yeah one or two.  Why?”

 

“I have an idea on how to cut a break,” he called over his shoulder as he hurried toward the harness shop.

                                 

                                                                             *****

           

It was not until he had reached the rope corral that Vince realized his father was not behind him.  Turning in confusion, he looked back up the street, easily picking out Gus’ tall form standing away from the throng of people milling about.  A feeling of dread filled him.  Torn by indecision whether to saddle up and ride hell bent for home or go to his father, he could only stand and watch things play out and pray that Harper could keep him safe.

 

Cy Anders stared hard eyed at his neighbor, and swore under his breath.  He had hoped to avoid a confrontation here in the street.   Movement to his left caught part of his attention as Wilke moved away from his side and suddenly he felt very vulnerable.  His hand seemed to move of its own accord, sliding along his hip where his Colt normally rested.

 

Gus, seeing the movement, smiled sourly.  “Think that would solve your problems, Cy?  What about Vince and Scott and Seth?  Don’t you doubt for a minute that they wouldn’t come after you and burn your place to the ground, and then where would that leave Libby?  Think man! I’m beggin’ ya use your common sense.  You’re a smart man, Cy, and we’ve known each other a long time, for good and bad.  Why didn’t yah come and talk with me instead of tryin’ to take?  Yah gotta know I would’a listened tah what ya had tah say.  What in god’s name possessed yah to fire the range, man!?  Are yah so desperate that you don’t care what happens anymore?  Look at yourself, standin’ there with a hired gun at yer side; look what you forced me tah go and do.” Gus shot a quick look of disgust in Jess' direction.           

 

“You think I want his kind on my place?  Hangin’ around my grandsons, my daughter?  They’re nothin’ but leeches feedin’ off a man’s trouble; they’re not like you an’ me.  Workin’ and sweatin’ for this land, pourin’ our life’s blood into it.  How much did he cost yah?  Five hundred… Eight hundred?A thousand?”  Gus snorted iand shook his head sadly.

 

“We were friends, Cy.  All yah had to do was ask fer help. I don’t mean hat in hand, beggin’ either, just askin’ instead. Comin’ in and takin’.  I would ‘a shared what I had with yah, as much as I could after I took care of my own.  But, no, you came on, hands wide open for grabbing up what you didn’t have, cuttin’ fence, scatterin’ stock.  Even killin’ some, that I could live with, but one of your boys killed Bob Sykes stone cold dead without so much as a chance to pull his gun.  Bob worked for me for more ‘n ten years, and the only thing I could give ‘im was a hole in the ground and a wooden cross.  Not much for a man that gave ten good years with hardly a complaint.” 

 

Again Gus paused, this time to look westward toward the smoke that continued to climb skyward.  Looking over at the two gunmen, he sighed and looked back at Anders.  “Put your tame wolf back on his leash, Cy, I ain’t got time tah play with him right now.”  Striding past Jess, he paused just long enough to call him away.  “Step back, Harper.  There’ll be other times you two can try and kill each other.  Today we have a fire to stop.”  Gus resumed striding toward where he could see Vince standing, waiting for them.

 

 

Jess slipped the keeper back over the hammer, taking several strides backward in the direction Barstow had gone, never taking his eyes off Wilke.  He saw Anders lean in toward the gunman, saying something softly and putting a hand on the younger man’s left arm only to have it shaken off angrily by the gunfighter.  Jess hesitated, waiting to see if Wilke was going to follow orders or try and press the issue between the two of them.  After a few moments, Jess allowed a smile to quirk the corner of his mouth.  Raising two fingers to the brim of his hat in a salute to Wilke, he turned his back and, with quick strides, headed in the direction Vince and Gus had taken.  The two men were mounted and waiting for him. Traveler, already saddled, waited alongside Vince’s big bay. Gus was mounted on the gray Slim had ridden in on.  With a swift, smooth action, Jess swung up into the saddle without the aid of a stirrup.  Together the three men spurred out of town chasing the cloud of charcoal gray that decorated the sky.

 

                                                                                 *****

 

Brodie Walker straightened from his task and looked in the direction the ranch house lay.  The rumble of hooves could be felt through the ground and twelve horsemen galloped into view on tired horses.  The rest of the Hangin’ G riders had come from town at last.   They pulled up near the equipment wagon where several horses were hobbled and inside were hoes and shovels waiting for them along with a three-quarter full water barrel, strapped to the side and a large cask sat by a rear wheel.  Brodie ran a grimy sleeve across an equally dirty forehead, swiping sweat away from his eyes, he spotted Bill ‘Blue Sky’ Thomas among a group of tired hands.

 

“Sky…Hey, Sky Thomas!” Brodie called, coughing his lungs clear of smoke laden air.  He walked to the barrel and ladled up some water for himself, took a long drink as Thomas walked in his direction.  “I need you and your boys on the east side.  We’re gonna try and circle this thing, try to cut it off from fresh grass to burn.  Anymore help comin’?”

 

The lanky salt and pepper-haired cowboy nodded as he bent to soak his bandana in the cask on the ground before he  tied it across his mouth and nose.  “Yeah, I heard a bunch of boys from the Cross Keys, Double T and a couple of other spreads are headed our way.”  Turning, he called the cowboys that had ridden in with him over and explained what they were going to try to do as they also wet down bandana’s and covered their faces.  Pulling out shovels and hoes, they hurried to their assignment.

 

Brodie watched them for a few seconds, then turned  back to his crew.  He could see by their movements they were tired, not that any would admit to it as a matter of pride.  They would work until they dropped or were relieved by fresh hands, whichever came first.  Stretching a sore shoulder and back muscles, he headed back into the fray and, in a little over an hour, they had managed to cut a break twenty foot wide by forty foot long along the west side of the burn, working desperately now to get in front of the fire.  They dearly could use more hands.  If they couldn’t get the fire contained, they stood a good chance of losing the whole north pasture or more.  Brodie lifted his hat and ran a gloved hand through sweat matted hair, the northeasterly breeze playing with a couple of stray strands.  Replacing the battered Stetson, he prayed that the wind continued to stay light.

 

                                                                        *****

 

The town of Aroya bustled, but no longer with the carefree attitude that was prevalent earlier in the day.  Now grim faced men loaded two freight wagons with heavy water barrels and tools needed to combat the demon that hungrily consumed precious acreage on the Hangin’ G.  A large group of cowhands sat idle, already mounted and waiting for the order to ride.  The women under the tents were busy, re-wrapping food that had been brought to share in celebration, but now would be taken, along with several of the plank tables, to the ranch to feed the tired, hungry men when they had at last wrested victory from the fire.  Some woman tore sheets for bandages and put together medicines, stowed them carefully in a third wagon as Slim finished harnessing the team of huge dun colored draft horses used to pull such rigs.  Seth, who had advised Doc Fuller that if he was not able to ride on the wagon next to Slim, he would walk home if he had to.  The children huddled together to one side of the tent, the gleeful laughter and joyful antics of the day forgotten under the heavy pall of tension exuded by the adults.  Several older women had volunteered to keep them safe and sound until their parents returned for them.

 

The two Barstow surreys stood to one side, teams harnessed and ready to move out.  Scott rode up on a borrowed horse to check on progress with the wagons under Slim’s care.

 

“How soon ‘til you’re ready to move out?”  He asked the tall rancher, checking harness on a patient team of draft horses.

 

Slim patted the heavily muscled neck of the near-side gelding and grinned up at the rider. “We’ll be ready when you say go.”

 

Scott nodded. “Five minutes then, it’s gonna take a bit for these wagons to get out there.”  Shifting in the saddle, he took a moment to locate his wife, sister and sister-in-law.

 

“Rebecca, Amy, and Sarah, we’re rollin’ out in five minutes, finish loadin’ up, ladies,” he called over to them.  Reining his horse around, he rode over to the waiting cowboys, speaking with a silver-haired man on a paint horse who listened intently nodding in agreement to whatever was said.  As Scott backed his horse away the group of ranch hands thundered off leaving a swirling cloud of dust behind them.  A moment later the crack of whips and driver’s calling to their horses signaled the departure of the wagons.  The women making the trip out to the ranch along with Doc Fuller who had his own rig followed behind, Slim and his heavy team bringing up the rear.

 

Sarah confidently guided the one surrey while Amy helmed the other.  Women of the west were as tough as, if not tougher at times, then the men that inhabited it. They had to be in order to survive the harsh conditions.  With little or no outside help they ran households, birthed children, raised families and at times, buried them as well.   They learned how to shot, plow fields, tend stock, and make coffee you could stand a spoon in.  They were wives, mothers, doctors, mid-wives, and teachers.  Left sometimes for days, weeks, or even months at a time by themselves, they adapted and survived, packed up and went back east or simply gave up.  Those that stayed and survived became the unrealized backbone of the wild, rugged country they called home.  The women of Aroya were of such stock, climbing into the wagons, and claiming seats in the surreys, they headed in the direction their men had gone.

 

CH 19

 

The two Barstows and Jess rode at a steady pace, conserving their mounts although, in reality, they wanted to spur them on, the rising cloud of smoke shaped like a crooked finger beckoning them to hurry.   They rode under the archway through the deserted yard in front of the house, spurred their tired mounts into a gallop, asking for all the horses had left. 

 

 

As they swung due north past the house, Vince called over his shoulder when Jess threw him a puzzled look, “We’ll cut the north range in the far quarter just this side of the runoff from Jacobs Wells.  The gulch there is deep and wide so the fire shouldn’t be able to jump it even if the wind picks up.  That’s where we can leave the horses.”

 

For the next thirty minutes the men rode silently, alternating between a fast jog and a quick lope.  The further north they rode, the heavier the air became diffused with smoke and the strong smell of burning grass.  As they crested a tall ridge they could see the devastation the fire had wrought on the prairie as the north range spread out before them. About ten acres had already been charred black and men could been seen on the backside of the fire, beating out hot spots that held embers that could be fanned back to life or(,) should the wind freshem, produce sparks that could be carried to fresh areas to burn.  Along either side, teams of men did the same in an effort to keep the crawling flames from widening their reach.   A thin red-black line outlined the mouth of the fire as it greedily consumed the dried grassed and low scrub brush that made up the plain that rolled out in front of it.  Some small distance and off to one side sat a heavy wagon carrying several water barrels with eight to ten men scattered around it, either standing or sitting in the grass, resting before they went back to fighting the fire.  To the right ran the gulch created by the runoff from Jacobs Wells, deep enough in some places that a tall man could stand in it and barely see over the edge, in others, a child could easily climb out.  For the most part it varied in width from three feet at its narrowest to more than ten at its widest.  Either edge was rough and rocky with sparse growth along it, on the far side of the gully stood a small herd of horses, either hobbled or picketed so they could graze. A haze of grey smoke lay over the whole scene.  

 

Gus stood in his stirrups, trying to locate the red shirt that Brodie Walker wore.  Not seeing it among the men at the wagon, he searched the forms of men working the fire, but between the smoke and distance, it was hard to tell.  Tapping the sides of his weary mount, Gus headed down toward the horse herd, the other two men following behind.  They quickly stripped tack and briefly rubbed their horses down with saddle blankets before they hobbled the animals and left them in charge of a young hand called a job boy, then jumped across the gully, striding over to the water wagon.

 

“Any of you boys know where Brodie is?”  Gus called out as he walked toward the group. 

 

A couple of tired men looked up from where they sprawled on the dry grass, then one started to climb to his feet until he was waved back down.

 

“Sit, Moss.  You seen Brodie?”  Gus asked affably.

 

“Yes sir; he’s up on the west side of the fire last I saw him.”

 

Gus nodded thanks and headed toward the fire, stopping briefly to wet down his bandana as did Vince and Jess.  The gunfighter also shucked his gun belt, knowing that it would be more of a hindrance than a help in this situation, leaving it with the wagon driver with a strong warning that he would be somewhat irate if anything happened to it.  He then grabbed up a heavy blanket with which to beat out the flames.

 

he contingent of hands from the Double T and Cross Keys spreads arrived about an hour later, their fresh arms, backs and legs more than welcome, but the sight that brought a tired cheer from the men was the sight of the wagons rolling in with food.  Soon the smell of coffee was vying with the harsh bite of smoke.

 

Gus was confused when his middle son showed up with two plowshares and quickly had two of the wagon teams hooked up to them until Scott explained that the plows could cut a firebreak much quicker than teams of men with shovels and spades. 

 

Jess paused for a moment to run a tired arm across his dripping face, and stretch sore muscles.  He looked around at the devastation wrought over the past five hours and slowly shook his head.  The sun was sliding behind the distant bulk of the Rockies, turning the sky fiery with veins of gold, pink, and purple.  Acre upon acre of what had once been good graze was nothing but charred ruin now.  Over time the vegetation would recover, but not enough to serve as fall pasture to some of the thousands of cattle that ran on Hangin G range.  Barstow would have to wait until next year to utilize this pasture again, without it to rotate to; precious hay stores would have to be tapped far sooner than the rancher planned.

 

About two dozen men had fought the low crawling blaze, literally beating the fire into submission with blankets and burlap sacks soaked in water.  Teams of horses hitched to sharp bladed plows cut wide swaths to be turned into fire breaks by men with shovels.  The powers that be had been with the dogged firefighters and the breeze had stayed light and out of the northwest all day.  There had only been minor injuries, mainly burns, although one man had stepped in a rabbit hole, twisting his knee.

 

The women that had come out from town, were, in Jess’ estimation, the heroines of the day, providing food and hot coffee almost as soon as they had arrived.  Those not involve with serving food carried canteens of water to the working men or assisted Doc Fuller in treating the burned men.  Jess had not seen Slim, although he had no doubt that his former employer was out there somewhere in the smoky twilight, fighting alongside men he barely knew, on land he had no connection with.  That was the kind of man Slim Sherman was though, first to lend a hand to a stranger in need, even one that trespassed on Slim’s land and taught his brother how to deal from the bottom of a deck, then threatened the peaceful stability of life at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station.   

 

Two figures approached out of the smoky haze, one of them Whip, the ranch hand who had helped him carry Seth to the doc’s office in town, the other a man he did not recognize. 

 

“Boss says come on in, fire’s pretty well out.  He’ll assign a crew to stay out overnight to watch for any flare ups,” Whip said in a smoke-roughened voice as he pulled a canteen off his shoulder and offered it to Jess.

 

Jess gratefully accepted it and unscrewed the cap, took a long pull of the tepid water.  It might not be cold, but it was wet and helped relieve the burning in his throat, from the smoke he had been inhaling all afternoon despite the dampened bandana he’d worn across his mouth and nose.  He poured a small amount of water into his left hand and bathed his face, trying to scour away the soot, ash and sweat, instead streaking it into a kind of war paint.   He handed the canteen back and nodded his thanks, then coughed and spat into the blackened grass. “Thanks,’ he said hoarsely.  “How much did Barstow lose?”
         

Whip looked thoughtful for a moment. “Somewhere between eighty and hundred acres of graze.  Would’uh been more if Brodie and his boys hadn’t been able to jump on it so fast.”  The older cowboy shook his head in disgust, then growled, “I ain’t ever seen the like of it, men burning up good range to get to another man’s water rights. “

 

“I have,”  Jess said with bitter anger.  “Down in the Panhandle, they burned out whole families, share croppers mostly, just to keep the range open.  Set fire to the houses with folks still in ‘em.  Burned ‘em right up; men, women, children, didn’t make no difference who was inside.”  Jess squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, still hearing the screams of his younger siblings, mother and father trapped in the blazing house, the smell of burning flesh and wood mixing in the air.  He abruptly pulled himself away from those memories, forced them to the back of his mind before opening his eyes again to gaze out over the burnt land before he looked back at Whip.  “I think it’s time Mister Anders and I had a little talk,” he said in a tone that had deadly menace to it. A cold, wolfish smile curled one corner of his mouth.

 

Whip regarded the gunfighter with no small amount of trepidation.  Although he had been friendly enough in town, Whip would not, judging by the look in Harpers eyes, want to be either Wilke or Anders in the coming days should they run across each other by accident.

 

The sound of voices and boots crunching on the charred ground broke the mood and Jess looked past the two men standing to his right and squinted through the lowering light. 

 

“That you, Jess?”  Steve McCullah asked, then coughed heavily.  He had been on the front-line of the fight alongside Brodie from the beginning.

 

“Yeah, it’s me, pard.  You ain’t soundin’ too good,”  Jess said.

 

“Breathin’ smoke’ll do that to yuh, boy,” and Steve gave a wheezy laugh that was cut short by another coughing jag that lasted longer than the first, causing tears to run down the tall Texan’s face as his lungs struggled to clear themselves and draw in enough oxygen. 

 

Jess watched with concern as his partner’s chest heaved with the effort, and shook his head.  “Doc needs to take a look at yuh, McCullah; I’ve heard men with consumption that sounded better.”

 

Steve cracked a smile as he carefully drew in a lungful of air, his teeth a startling white against the soot and smoke darkened face. “Yes, momma,” he said with a grin, then leapt back as Jess made a half-hearted swipe at Steve with his battered black Stetson.

 

Whip watched the antics of the two men for a moment, finding it very hard just then to believe they were a pair of deadly gunfighters and not a couple of kids foolin’ around.

 

“All right, let’s get over an’ get some grub before it’s gone,” Whip admonished and headed in that direction, the other three trailing behind.

 

Of the thirty some odd men that had banded together to battle the fire, a full two-thirds of them were gathered around the food tables, drinking coffee or stretched out in the grass in exhaustion, the remainder stationed around the burn site, keeping watch for any flare-ups.

 

Doc Fuller was off to one side, checking on a couple of men with burns and the one with the twisted knee, when Jess herded his partner over to him.  It appeared the motion of walking caused McCullah’s fight for breath to become more evident and even the Doc noticed as the gunman approached his impromptu first aid station.

 

“I’ll be right with yuh,” he said absently and turned back to the man reclining on the plank table to re-wrap his knee.  As soon as he was finished, he motioned for Jess and Steve to come in.  Straightening, he motioned for Jess and Steve to follow him over to an empty plank table, nodding at the table he pointed at Steve, “Have a seat,’ he said, holding up a hand to forestall any argument.  “It’s been a long day, I’ve heard all the excuses a man can come up with, so please just have a seat.”

 

Steve shut his mouth, shot a glare at Jess and sat on the table.

 

Doc pulled a stethoscope out of his bag and tuned to the gunfighter.  “Take off your shirt,“ he said, holding the metal bell of the instrument between his hands to warm it before using it to listen to Steve’s lungs. He pressed the bell against his patient’s chest and murmured instructions…

 

Obediently Steve attempted to take slow, deep breaths, which resulted in short spurts of heavy coughing. 

 

After listening for several moments, he walked over to where several small boxes sat on a second plank table.  Rummaging around, he pulled out a bottle of rusty-red colored liquid, consulted the label, nodded and returned to his patient.  “This is Camphorated Tincture of Poppy and it will help relax the muscles of your throat and ease the need to cough.  Your lungs are inflamed from the smoke you’ve been breathing all day, that’s what’s causing the wheezing, and coughing you’re experiencing.  I want you to take ten drops in water as needed, but do not exceed five times a day for the next week. 

           

No heavy work for that time and I want you to sleep propped up to avoid fluid building up in the lungs.  You listen to what I’m tellin’ yuh and you’ll be good as new in a week’s time, but if you fool around, you’ll be in bed for two.”  He poured a cup of water and returned, took the bottle from Steve, unscrewed the cap and carefully counted ten drops as they fell into the cup.  He handed the cup to the gunman.  “I want you to drink this now, then get yourself something to eat.  It might make you a bit sleepy so I don’t want you riding tonight, therefore you can throw your bedroll down near a fire and use your saddle to prop you up tonight.”

 

Steve took the cup and grimaced as he noticed the medicine had tinted the water the color of old blood.  He took a breath and swilled down the drought in one gulp.

 

 

By the look on Steve’s face, for a moment Jess thought his friend was going to spew the liquid, and whatever else happened to be in his stomach.  He quickly stepped out of the way as Steve’s face turned a pale shade of green, but with Herculean effort, the man managed to force the liquid down and keep it there, despite stringent protests from both throat and stomach.  Gasping and coughing, Steve turned a beet red as Jess pounded him on the back,

 

“Oh GAWD! Doc, that stuff tastes like week old horse piss!” he rasped in-between gasping and coughing.  “Jess! Stop, you’re gonna beat the stuffing right out of me,” he protested, sliding down off the table to get away from the ‘help’ he was getting.

 

 

Laughing, Jess stepped away from his friend. “Pard, you should ‘a seen your face when you drank that stuff.  Now you know why I stay away from them sawbones as much as I can, they’re always tryin’ to pour some gosh awful stuff down ya’,” he said, grinning in the physician’s direction.

 

Doc Fuller watched with a tolerant smile.  No matter how tough they tried to be, whether they lived by the gun or punched cattle for a living, they were still little boys when it came to taking their medicine.

 

“Some tough gunfighter you are. I guarantee you’ll live through the night.  Now get outa here and get something to eat, I got other patients to take care of.”

 

Steve stuffed the bottle in his back pocket, took the doc’s  to heart and headed in the direction of the food, Jess in tow.

 

Slim, standing near the camp fire slowly sipped coffee nearly thick enough to chew.  He needed it because he was bone tired.  He slowly gazed around the area, trying to spot Jess.   Vince walked over, carrying a tin plate with a piece of dried cherry pie on it in one hand and coffee in the other.  Slim gave him a tired grin.  “You boys sure throw one heck of a party, but I could have done without the fireworks, “he said and laughed.

 

Setting his coffee down on the dry grass, Vince chuckled in agreement. “You and me both, friend, we at the Hangin’ G pride ourselves on our hospitality.”  Vince took a bite of pie and closed his eyes in enjoyment, making an appreciative noise as he chewed and swallowed, then chasing the pie with another sip of coffee. He laughed. “Sorry, but nothin’s better ‘n Sarah’s dried cherry pie. You married, Slim?”

 

Slim chuckled, “No, not married, just me an’ my younger brother, Andy and Jonesy, are what’s left.  Pa was killed a couple of years ago, Ma died shortly after…’

 

Vince heard the residual sorrow in the other man’s voice. “Sorry to hear, he said sympathetically.

 

Slim shook his head. “We get by. Jonesy stayed after Pa died and I don’t know what I’d do without him.  God knows I can’t cook a lick, at least according to Andy and Jonesy, but I seem to manage out on the trail just fine.  But Jonesy, he’s chief cook and handyman around the place and can turn his hand to most anything.  Andy’s only twelve, but the boy does what he can, cleaning harness, feedin’ stock and helpin’ swap out teams when the stage comes in. We run about four hundred head on eight hundred acres.  Up until a while ago, if I was lucky,  I could hire on or borrow a hand for brandin’ and fall round up, and we we’re barely scrapin' by.  Then the Overland Stage came through and I was able to contract as a Relay Station.  Heck of a lot more work, but the money really helps.”

 

Vince listened with interest; he’d never considered how tough it must be for the smaller spreads just eking out a living by running a few hundred head, having grown up here on the Hangin’ G where there normally was more than enough to go around for everyone.   “You said that Harper worked for you for a while, how the heck did you two meet, if you don’t mind me askin?” he asked while continuing to enjoy his pie.

 

A wide grin spread across the rancher's face.  “Well, that’s a story and a half, so I’ll make it short.  One of Bud Carlin’s boys was bein’ held for trail in Laramie, so the Sheriff was pretty nervous.  He an’ a couple of his deputies, thinking Jess was one of Carlin’s men, took a couple of shots at ‘im and he high-tailed it outta Laramie.  I found him along side the lake that sits on my property, resting pretty as yuh please, right next to the ‘No Trespassing’ sign.  I came up on ‘im and told him to hit the road after takin’ his guns.  Well, nest thing I know, he’s ridin’ off with my long gun and Colt as well as having his own guns back,”  Slim laughed at the memory.  It had taken awhile afterward for Jess to let him live that one down.  “Add insult to injury, I come home to find him sittin’ at my table, eating pie, drinking coffee and teaching my brother how to deal off the bottom of the deck!  And my brother's talking about riding out with him when he moved on!”

 

Vince almost choked on a mouthful of coffee and tried not to spew the liquid all over Slim.  He manages not to, but coughed five or six times before he asked,  I’m guessing you didn’t really appreciate him showin’ up like that?”

 

“You guess right, I told him to pack up and move on, that we didn’t need any no account drifters hanging round the place. Jess was about ready to go a couple of rounds when I said that.  After that, Carlin comes in, hijacks the stage, pretends to be the judge, gets his man free and takes off, and Jess and I end up riding on the Posse to get the two of them back.  Well I guess he managed to save my life a time or two that day, an’ I figured I owed him something for that, so I offered him a job.  Just about floored me when he accepted.  Well, he rode with us for seven months, or close to it.  Best decision I ever made, he’s one hell of a hand and a good friend. Then, there were some words said that shouldn’t have been, mostly by me, and he packed his gear and headed back to the Big Open.”

 

Slim stared at the ground for a second, his throat tightening with emotion he wasn’t ready to share with anyone yet.

 

Vince was quiet as he studied the man sitting across from him.   There was more to the story, he as sure, but he wasn’t going to press.  He could see as well as hear sincere regret and loss in the other man’s face and voice.

 

Slim looked back up and smiled sadly, “I sure was surprised to see him sitting at that table as bold as brass, I never thought I’d see him again.” The words “alive at least” went unsaid, but were understood by both men.

 

Laughter and a familiar baritone voice made rougher than usual by smoke caught thier attention and again Vince noticed the haunted look in the cornflower blue eyes as Slim turned toward the sound, following the two men as they walked to the food table.

 

Jess laughed easily at the comment Steve made about doctors and their potions and then turned to the food table. The platters had been decimated, leaving little to pick from, but for the hungry men, it was a feast.  Best of all, Sarah had managed to save two pieces of pie for them.  Armed with plates of food and cups of the life sustaining brew known as coffee, Jess and Steve searched out a place to eat in peace.

         

A small cluster of Hangin’ G hands. along with Double T and Cross Keys boys, sat near-by, sipping coffee, talking and laughing, swapping ribald stories until one noticed the two men off to one side of them.  One of the Cross Keys hands, a fresh faced young man, leaned toward Whip as he drained the last of his cup.

 

“Hey, Whip; ain’t those the two gun hawks your boss brought in?” he asked, his words slightly whiskey-slurred. 

 

The older cowhand hand noticed the men passing a bottle around, but had declined when it was offered to him.  He glanced to his left and nodded. “Yeah, that’s Harper on the right with the dark hair and McCullah on the left.  Good men, jumped right in fightin’ that fire: who’d ‘a thought that about gun hands, always figured they keep to themselves unless there’s some gun play goin’ on.”

 

The youngster nodded appreciatively and took another sip of what apparently was more whiskey than coffee before he looked over at the two men again with a calculated gaze, eyes speculative.  “I heard that Harper's pretty fast with that gun.  Some uh yer boys wuz sayin’ that he and  Seth Barstow were shootin’ and that gun o’ Harper’s wuz comin’ outta that holster faster ‘n they ever seen.”

 

“Well, I ken say that he’s a darn sight faster than any man I ever saw,”  Whip replied cautiously because the young cowboy had a funny look in his eye that Whip didn’t like.

 

The cowboy nodded, glanced at Whip and looked back over toward the two gunfighters again, his hand resting casually on the butt of his forty-five.  “I’m pretty fast m’self, so ‘m told.”

 

          Whip’s eyes narrowed.  Although the boy’s words were slurred a bit, his eyes were still sharp and alert.  There was something going on and it made the older hand nervous.  The two Cross Key hands that had been sitting with the group had moved away and were no longer paying attention to their friend, so there would be no help there.  “Boy, I don’t know what yer thinkin’, but you’d better quit now if it’s going in the direction I think it is.  We've had enough trouble round here without addin’ gun play to it.”

 

“You worry too much,  Whip. I ain’t thinkin’ nothin, especially 'bout any gun play.  Too tired to be thinkin’ 'bout anythin’ but beddin’ down for the night,” and the young cowhand finished what was in his cup and climbed to his feet, slapped the dust from his jeans and waved a goodnight to the older man who watched him go with a feeling of relief.

 

                                                                    *****                                     

 

Jess watched his partner's eyes droop and his head head bob wearily as they finished the last of the coffee.  Between the long, hard day and the medicine the doc had given McCullah, the man was about done in.  Jess sat his cup on top of the tin plate the dry grass, and reached over to give his friend a nudge.

 

“Come on, Pard, let’s get you bedded down for the night 'cause I ain’t gonna carry your sorry carcass,” he said with a chuckle.

 

Steve, startled out of the half doze by Jess’ touch, automatically dropped his right hand to the butt of his gun before he was fully awake.

 

“Easy; just me, pard,”  Jess said quietly, laying a hand firmly on Steve’s arm to prevent the woozy man from drawing the weapon.  “Come on, let’s get yuh up.”

 

 

Steve shook his head slightly as if to dislodge the cobwebs lose and looked at Jess for a moment as he became more aware.  “Yeah, guess you’re right, Jess,” he muttered, slowly climbing to his feet and swaying slightly until Jess steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.

 

A few minutes later, Jess had his partner safely bedded down and already half asleep, the medicine doing its job in allowing the man to rest easily.  Stifling his own yawn, Harper headed in the direction of the fire.

 

Jess poured himself a final cup of coffee and slowly looked over the scene around him as he sipped it.  There were tired cowboys sprawled everywhere, either already asleep or well on their way to being so.  A couple of men, who, like him, had just come in, were talking quietly amongst themselves.

 

Quickly finishing the last of the hot liquid in the cup and tossing the dregs into the fire, Jess turned to head for his own blankets... and ran almost headlong into Slim.

 

“Whoa! Pard, hold up there a minute,”   the taller man exclaimed, the old term he had gotten used to using with Jess slipping out as naturally as the hand that automatically went out to steady the slighter man. 

 

But there was a sudden flash of anger and hurt in the gunfighter's deep blue eyes that he quickly masked.  He silently considered Slim  before moving to step around him.

 

          Slim did not remove his hand from Jess’ shoulder as the gunfighter attempted to go around him, but laid a second hand on the opposite shoulder, bringing Jess to a standstill. 

 

“Jess… we need to talk.  Please let me say my piece and then I promise I’ll stay away from you. I’m headed home Monday anyway,”  He stared down into Jess’ face, hoping to find some sign of the friendship they had been building over the months Jess had been at the ranch.

 

Like the emotions that had flickered in the blue eyes, a series of emotions ran quickly across the gunman’s face: anger, hurt, sadness, loneliness, but then they were quickly replaced by the hard indifference of the gunfighter’s mask.   Jess coldly returned Slim’s stare for a moment before slowly nodding; he was too damn tired to argue.  He gestured toward a spot away from the clusters of men, almost out of reach of the fires dim light.

 

When he reached the indicated spot, Slim turned and faced Jess who looked at him with an expression of indifference now firmly in place, his eyes wary.  Slim sighed; he had hoped that maybe Jess would be a little more receptive to what he was about to say.

 

“Jess, I need you to just hold your temper until you hear what I have to say.  Then do or say whatever you need to, short of shootin’ me.”   A small smile pulled at the corners of his mouth, “First, I’m sorry: sorry for the way I treated you and sorry for the words I said.  I was scared Jess, scared you were gonna take off on us and head back to the Big Open, scared enough that I chased you there myself.   I was scared how it was gonna effect Andy, I knew he couldn’t go through you leavin’ again, I knew I couldn’t do it again, Jess.’  Slim paused and shook his head.  “After you left, Jess, I realized just how much we needed you around the place, how much I depended on you bein’ there to help with fences, brandin’, breaking horses, and to just talk to or have a drink with in town.  You filled a hole I didn’t know needed fillin’ Jess.  The place just isn’t the same without you there; it’s empty.  Sure Andy and Jonesy are there, but it’s not the same, there’s nobody to stir up trouble,” he chuckled and looked at him to see what impact his words were having on the man.

 

 

Jess stood with his head tilted forward, the shadow from the black felt Stetson hiding his face from Slims view so he could not read it.

 

Slim's heart sank when he saw his head slowly start to shake back and forth and the gunman’s right hand opened and closed restlessly, a sign of the man’s inner turmoil.  Slowly the head came up and Slim was taken aback at the desolation in the look Jess gave him.

 

“I can’t Slim, I can’t do this with you every time you think I’m gonna take off to the Big Open, or I need to help a friend, or ride into town whether it’s for supplies or just a beer and a game of poker.   I was tryin’ Slim; you don’t know how hard I was tryin’ to be what you wanted me to be.  It’s just not in me to smile while a man throw’s some insult in my teeth.  Somebody call’s me, I’m sure as hell gonna answer.  I even put up my gun, cause you were worried about Andy, it just didn’t seem to be enough for you.  Guess I just don’t know what you’re lookin’ for Slim, or what you want from me, and I guess I’m tired of tryin' to find out.”  Jess dropped his eyes and stared at the dry, buffalo grass beneath his feet and waited.

 

The words, said so dispassionately by the hot tempered gunmen, hit Slim harder than a fist to the jaw or a bullet to the gut.  The words were a blow to his heart and soul.  “Jess, I want you to come back when you’re done here…’ but he stopped when Jess raised a hand to halt him.

 

“Slim, I can’t promise anything.  There's good money to be made hiring out, doin’ what I’m good at.  Maybe it’s all I was meant to do in this life is drift, maybe I’ll head up to Montana, or down to New Mexico where they haven’t heard of the name “Harper” and I can start clean.  Right now though, I have a job to finish.”  Jess started to turn away, but was halted again by a hand on his shoulder.  Half turning, he glared tiredly at his former employer, a frown creasing his forehead.

 

“Jess, just one more thing.   Don't think that gun is the only thing you’re good at.  Like I said to Barstow, you’re a damn good hand and a man I’d be proud to stand with anytime. I know of no one else I’d rather have at my back.”  Slim took his hand from Jess’ shoulder and held it out.

 

The gunfighter stepped back and considered it for a moment, a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes.  Part of him was tempted to just walk away, the other desperately wanted to be welcomed back, but Slim’s hard words still echoed in his heart.  Finally Jess looked up and met Slim’s patient gaze.  A shadow of a smile touched the corner of Jess’ mouth as he took the proffered hand firmly.  Whether it was in thanks or farewell, neither man could say.  Releasing Slims hand, Jess nodded goodnight and faded back into the shadow, headed for where he had left his bedroll.

 

CH 20                            


Smoke rose slowly from the low burning campfire where a large, black coffee pot sent out tantalizing streamers of aromatic steam.  It rested on top of an iron grate with tall legs that ad been placed across the fire.  A deep skillet filled with scrambled eggs sat next to it and long strips of bacon draped over an iron dowel sizzled above it.  The scents of boiling coffee and cooking food drew hungry men like bees to nectar laden flowers.

 

Amy looked up from the batter she was mixing, hearing  the mutter of low voices and chiming spurs.

 

Gus Barstow's bass rumbled through the early morning air as he laid down the law to his youngest son.  “Seth, you ain’t riding out with Scott, an’ you sure as hell ain’t ridin’ out wi’ me an’ Vince.  Doc’s orders were for you to take it easy for a couple of days.  You stay here make sure the fire's out, and then take your sister and the rest of the gear back to the house.  Slim here has to go back anyway and he’ll take the rig back into town with him.” 

 

Seth opened his mouth to protest, but his father held up a hand, forestalling the complaint.  “Boy, you ain’t got a thing to say that’s gonna’ change my mind, so better just step back and do what I told you.”

 

The four men walked over to the tailgate of a wagon where clean cups and plates waited patiently to be utilized by the slowly arriving hungry men that had remained overnight to ensure the fire was completely out.  

 

Gus walked over to his daughter, leaned over to place a kiss on her forehead.  “Mornin’, sweetheart.  Is that Johnny cake batter you’re mixin’?” he asked, dipping a thick finger into the batter.

 

 

          Amy frowned and slapped at the offending appendage.  “Pa!”   She said in exasperation, and then laughed at the look on her father’s face. “Yes, I am making Johnny Cake, now get your hand out of the batter.  I also found some preserves that the boys can spread on it.  Now shoo, go get some coffee or eat something, but get out of my kitchen.”

 

Gus laughed and shook his head; his fiery haired daughter was becoming more like her mother every day.

 

Several more men had joined Vince, Scott and Seth around the coffee pot, among them Brodie, Cooper, and Slim.  Vince was discussing the dividing of men among the many jobs that needed doing.  Scott was going to take a handful of men and head back south to check on the stock, see how many may have been lost through the cut wire, and drive the CA Connected cattle off Hangin’ G land.

 

“How many head of CA cattle would you say are on our range, Brodie?”  Vince asked, then forked some eggs into his mouth. 

 

The older man rubbed thoughtfully at his stubbled chin. “Ohhh … I’d say a hundred . . . a hundred-fifty head.  We were a might busy to get a good count,” he said with a thin smile.

 

“Cutting that many out’s gonna take a couple of days, Scott, so tell Seth to send a chuck wagon.  Coop, you and the rest of the boys need to move that herd up on the northeast side and down to the front pastures.  The graze is still pretty green there and there’s easy access to water as well.”

 

“What about me?” Brodie asked curiously, surprised that he was ramroding neither job.

 

“We’re takin’ a little ride this morning,” Vince said grimly.

 

The foreman somberly looked at Vince. “So he’s decided to face Anders down.  Who’s he takin’ with him, besides me?”

 

“You, me and Harper.  Pa doesn’t want to go with an army and set Cy anymore on edge than he already is.”

 

          “That man's been on edge for the last year, can’t blame ‘im..  Reckon he’s gone a bit crazy with the fear of losin’ his place, and him havin’ Libby to worry about as well.”

 

The “ching” of spurs announced the arrival of another hungry man and the rancher and foreman looked up from their conversation to greet Jess as he picked up a cup and poured himself some coffee. 

 

 

Amy walked over to the fire to remove the now cooked eggs and bacon and skillfully slid the former from the black iron skillet onto a tin plate, forked the bacon strips alongside them.  She set the plate on the tail of the wagon and rescued the chipped mixing bowl from her father.  The batter sizzled as she ladled it into the hot pan.  The thin batter only took a minute to crisp and the young woman had a stack on a dish next to several jars of preserves.

 

“Good to see you're, Harper, we've got some business today up at the Anders place,”   Gus said as he helped himself to coffee, eggs, bacon and Johnny cake slathered with wild raspberry jam.

 

Jess sipped his coffee. “How many besides you and me?” he asked quietly.  After the incident with the fire and the run-in with Anders yesterday, the gunfighter was not surprised that Barstow was more than ready to take the fight to Anders.  He was just sorry that he would not have Steve to watch his back. 

 

“Jus’ Vince and Brodie are comin’, I don’t need an army to say what needs to be said or do what needs to be done.”   Gus took a bite of egg and chased it with coffee.

 

 

Jess felt a prickle of apprehension along his spine.  He didn’t like going into an unknown, highly volatile situation with only three other men, none of whom were a known quantity when it came to handling a gun.  “How soon we leavin’?”

 

There was silence for a moment as the older man chewed and swallowed a chunk of Johnny cake, then chased it with coffee. “How soon can you be ready?”

 

Jess downed the last of his coffee, pulled a pair of thin black leather gloves on and pulled out the Colt.  He clicked the loading gate open and spun the cylinder, checking the load, then closed it again and slid the weapon back into its holster.  He met Barstow’s steady gaze with one of his own and replied, “Now.”

 

                                                                               *****

 

Slim was quiet, watching the Barstow’s ready themselves for their individual tasks.  He’d noticed Jess talking with Gus, saw the grimness take over the gunfighter’s features.  In that instant, he felt a cold dread that this might be the last time he would see Jess alive. Even if Wilke lost, the Jess he knew could die as well.  He’d be permanently replaced by the trail-hardened, world weary gunfighter that stood quietly checking his gun.

 

The men ate quickly as hungry men with a busy day were wont to do and soon Scott led his small group south, while Coop and the remainder headed northeast. 

 

Jess tossed the dregs from his cup and turned to leave, coming face to face with Slim.  He searched the tall man’s face for a moment, looking for what, he didn’t know, and then turned away to saddle  Traveler

 

“Jess...’  Slim said softly to his retreating back, “be careful and watch your back.”

 

There was no acknowledgment other than a slight hesitation in the departing man’s stride and the barest of nods.

 

Amy stood by the wagon, apparently forgotten by the two men as they parted ways.  She was the only one who saw the deep sadness on one man's face and grim determination on the other.

 

Jess pulled the clinch tight, kneeing the bay gelding in the belly as the horse tried to suck air.  With a lithe spring, he planted his left boot in the stirrup and swung his right over the horse's back, reining Traveler around.  He walked him over to where the other three men waited, uneasy about this whole thing.  Instinct told him -this was a bad move and no good would come of it because he just could not dismiss the itch between his shoulder blades.

 

“You ready for this?” he asked Gus Barstow as he rode alongside.  “Because it ain’t gonna be pretty.  From what you’ve told me, and what I’ve seen here, Ander’s isn’t one to back down and, even if he was, Wilke isn’t about to let him.”

 

“What do you mean, Wilke ain’t gonna’ let him?”  Gus asked as he held the gray gelding to an easy jog. 

 

 

Vince and Brodie closed the gap to hear Jess’ reply.

 

Jess was in full gunfighter mode now and his face held no emotion and his eyes were hard and flat like his voice.  “Wilke is a killer.  He wants that bonus that Ander’s promised him and not much is gonna keep him from collecting.”

 

 

“Meaning?”   Vince asked uneasily.

 

“Meaning he won’t take no for an answer when it comes to facing me down.  He wanted it bad back in town and Anders jerked his leash.  That didn’t make Wilke real happy.  He won’t back off as easy this time, if he backs off at all.”  Jess took a deep breath before he continued ‘Listen, Barstow I told you before this move is wrong, you have no idea what you’re facing...’

 

“You afraid of gettin’ killed, Harper?” Gus interrupted , his voice mocking.

 

Jess pulled up hard on the reins and Traveler snorted in protest, laying his ears back momentarily as he came to a sudden stop.  Vince and Brodie did the same to avoid riding over him and  Gus wheeled his mount to face the man he’d hired to protect his family.

 

Anger burned through Jess’ veins, darkening his eyes and deepening his voice. “Look, Barstow, I don’t know what’s eatin’ you.  You’ve been pushin’ me ever since you brought me and McCullah on.  You came to us and asked for help, we didn’t come to you.  Now if you’ve changed you mind and you don’t want our help anymore, then say the word, pay us our money and we’ll ride out'a here, no questions asked.  If not, then just shut up.  As for getting killed, that’s what you hired me for: to keep your family safe or die tryin'.  I ain’t afraid of dying, Mister Barstow, but I sure as hell don’t want to do it just because an old man doesn’t like what I do for a livin’.”  Easing up on the reins, Jess nudged the bay back into a jog, leaving the three men sitting their horses in silence.

 

Vince looked at his father, angry. “Pa...’ he started.

 

Gus glanced at his eldest son, said, “Leave it, boy,” and turned his horse's head to follow Jess.

 

Vince leaned over and grabbed the gray's bridle.  “No, Pa, you know Jess is right.  You have been prodding ever since you laid eyes on him. Let up and let him do his job.”

 

Gus was silent for a minute, then wrenched his horse's head around, pulling the bridle free of Vince’s grip.  He loped after the disappearing gunfighter.

 

Brodie gave Vince a worried look  and grimaced. “I got a bad feelin’ about this, Vince. Gus is on a tear and ready to chew up and spit out anybody that pisses him off.”

 

Vince nodded and as the two men urged their horses after the men ahead.  “I tried to convince him to wait until McCullah was up to going out with us, but he’s so almighty ready to take Cy down a peg or two that he can’t see straight.”

 

The remainder of the ride to the gates of the CA Connected was silent, the four men caught up in their own thoughts and keeping to themselves until Jess pulled Traveler up just outside the first archway that lead to the ranch house.

Wheeling the bay gelding so that he blocked most of the roadway that passed under the archway decorated with a large CA, Jess regarded the three men silently for a moment. 

 

“Anders knows you’re coming, and he’s gonna be ready.  Be sure of it.  If he wants to play it straight,  it'll be him, Wilke and one or two others waiting for us.  If he plays it dirty, then he’ll have men hidden all over, waiting for his nod to take you down.  Keep your hands away from your guns and no matter who says what to ya, you sit for it. Don’t bunch up,spread out a little, make it a little harder for them to take all of us at once.  Wilke wants me, so let me worry about him.  You deal with Anders and his hands.” 

 

Giving them a last, hard look, he wheeled Traveler and rode down the road toward the main house at a steady lope, leaving Gus, Vince and Brodie to follow.

                                                                           

                                                                                 *****

 

Cy Anders stood on the porch of his home and waited.  Since the setting of the fire and the unexpected confrontation in town, he had been furious with Wilke and the way he had braced Harper without being told to do so, then arguing when he had ordered him to step back.  The man was uncontrollable and he had been regretting hiring him.  Although the man was smooth in personality and quick with an easy smile or compliment, being around the deadly gunfighter unnerved him more than a little.  He had caught the man with his daughter not once, but twice, then he had warned him that he was to stay away from her.  The thing was, Libby had quickly fallen under the spell of that easy southern charm, and the last thing he wanted was to see her hurt in any way.

 

A hand had ridden in at a gallop a few moments ago, bringing word that the Barstows were coming.  Mind, it was just Gus and Vince along with their foreman Smith, but Harper rode with them as well, and what he had heard about Harper made him wonder if Wilke really could take the other man in a straight fight.  It had been Wilke’s  idea to fire the range.  At first he had been adamantly against the plan, but the gunman had made it sound reasonable after a time and now he was faced with not only the anger of the Barstow’s, but the people of Aroya as well.

 

                                                                                *****

 

Cutter eyed the thin plume of dust that indicated approaching riders, his gut tightened with anxiety.  He knew what it meant.  Gus Barstow had reached his breaking point and was coming to pay a visit.  The foreman of the CA Connected spread had been totally against the idea of firing the range, but Anders had stood firm once Wilke had convinced him that it was a good idea and he had had little choice but to go along if he wanted to keep his job.

 

                                                                              *****     

 

Nate Larson was also eager to see Harper again, after the   gunman had made him look the fool.  He wanted to get his own back.

 

Out of all the men that stood waiting, none was looking forward to the confrontation more than Anson Wilke.  It was the highlight of his week.  Being jerked back like he had been by Anders had angered him deeply because he had argued that right then was the time to remove Harper from play, but Anders had not wanted to make a move on Barstow or his hired gun in front of the whole town.  As if setting fire to Hanging G land wasn't enough.  Anders was desperate, and desperate men were easily led.  Now, when he took down Harper in front of both Anders and Barstow, it would demonstrate just who was in control here at the ranch.  He even had Libby Anders convinced that he was interested in her enough to possibly settle down, as if a man like him could ever do so. 

 

As the riders drew closer, Cy could make out Gus in the lead, his tall form unmistakable on the tall gray horse. Beside him rode Harper on a rangy bay and close behind him rode Vince and Brodie Smith.  Cy wondered where Harper’s partner, McCullah was, he had heard that Gus had brought in the second man the same time he had brought in Harper.  

 

As the foursome rode through the tall gateway the grim faced riders pulled mounts down to a walk and fanned out.   Riding from left to right was Brodie, Jess, Gus, and Vince.   As they rode in, Jess lifted the leather thong from the hammer of his gun and eased it in the holster.

 

Gus pulled his gelding to a halt in front of the house as Cy came forward to stand on the steps of the wide porch.

 

                                                                                    *****

 

Anson Wilke eyed Jess and he, too, slipped the thong from the hammer of his gun before he came to stand alongside Anders on the step.  Nate Larson held his place, his left hip cocked casually up on the rail of the porch, the muzzle of his Winchester laying easily across his left forearm as he watched the men on horseback.  Sam Cutter came to stand at Cy’s right hand, his long gun held in one hand.

 

“Morning, Gus; I sort'a expected you to be showing up sometime,’  Cy said affably and smiled as he came to a stop on the second step, using its height to put him on level with the mounted men.  He glanced at each of the men as he spoke, acting for all world as if this was nothing but a pleasant visit from neighbors.   “Vince, sorry I missed you in town the other day.  How are your boys doin’?  Gettin' big I’m guessin’.  Yeah they sure do grow up fast.  An’ Brodie Smith, I haven’t seen you in quite some time, expected you to be married by now, like Sam here.  You’re getting a little long in the tooth to be bossin' steers around, aren’t yah, Brodie? You been with Gus now, what?  Ten, twelve years?”

 

Gus shook his head sadly. “Cy, time for talking is long over.  You went too far firing my range and I aim to put a stop to this thing ‘cause it’s gone far enough.  I tried to be a patient man. Lord knows I ain’t always been one at times.”

 

Cy laughed bitterly and spat in the dust, looked his longtime friend in the eyes and sighed.   “I need more than just a handout, I need water now, an’ next month.  I needed it last month, Gus my stock’s dyin’ on the hoof.  Unless I can get some weight on'em, then sell for a good price, I’m gonna loose this place and I’ll leave Libby with nothin’.  I’m boxed in a corner, Gus and through the Hangin’ G is the only way out.  I’m only doin’ what I need to.”  Cy looked at the men that flanked him and at Nate who remained up on the porch.  “Now unless you have somethin’ to say that I wanna hear, my men will make sure you can find your way off the CA.”  Cy half turned to head back up the steps to the house, giving Wilke a significant look as well as at Larson who nodded slightly.  Continuing into the house, Cyrus Anders never looked back at his oldest friend and his son and the door clicked closed behind him.

 

 Wilke smiled grimly, but it never touched his eyes. Nate Larson stood slowly and walked over to stand next to him. 

Anson eyed the four men in front of him, his smile widening.

 

“Well, gentlemen, it seems you’ve worn out your welcome.”

 

Jess stiffened.  Without turning his head, he spoke in a low tone to the men on either side of him.  “Don’t turn away, back your horses up and keep backing until I say otherwise.”

 

“What?” Gus started.

 

“Don’t argue. Ander’s just turned his dogs loose and they’re just waitin’ for the right time to bite.” Jess hissed, holding Traveler in place as the three men did as they were told.

 

Larson gestured with the Winchester he held, indicating that the mounted men should move out and a sneer twisted his lips as three of the men reined their horses backward, the riders never taking their eyes off the armed men.

 

Jess locked eyes with Wilke.  Although both men appeared relaxed, their eyes revealed otherwise.  There was a glittering hardness that one normally only saw in birds of prey as they scanned for their next meal.  Neither man moved,  and, unless one looked closely, they appeared like statues.

 

Nate liked the feeling of power he had over the high and mighty Barstow family.  Chasing them off the CA at the end of a gun made him feel important.  And standing next to the gunfighter was like they were partners in this scenario.  He turned his gaze to Harper and felt anger heat his blood; he very much wanted to put a bullet in the man that sat so calmly on the bay gelding.

 

For his part, Anson ignored the cowboy that stood next to him.  He was after Harper and Harper only.  Among the ranks of gunfighters, Harper ranked high, not only in talent, but in morals as well.   He was known to have never drawn first or pulled a gun on an unarmed man; in their world he was respected.  Anson craved that respect of peers, and the increase in revenue it would bring when he hired his gun.

 

Jess listened as the three men retreated behind him.  The entrance to the yard was about thirty yards behind him and  backing a horse that distance would take some doing.  But the safest way to get them clear of effective range of Wilke's and Cutter's hand guns, he needed to take care of Larson and his long gun.

 

Larson was growing impatient waiting for Harper to make his move.  He was worried that the gunman might fall back without even making an attempt to pull iron, so he levered a round into the thirty-thirty’s chamber. 

 

The sound of the lever being worked was loud and threatening in the silence of the morning and Sam Cutter flinched at the sound, his hand dropping toward his gun. 

 

The three riders dropped their reins, hands flying to the weapons that rode on their hips, fingers curled around the  grips, muscles quivering in anticipation.  

 

The tension that had hung heavy on the air now was suffocating as the seven men faced each other silently.

 

Sweat trickled down Nate Larson’s back as his heart thudded with a mixture of fear, excitement and anticipation.   His breath came in short, quick pants, his eyes so wide that white surrounded each iris.

 

Anson swore under his breath. “Larson, what the hell are you doing?” he snarled at the cowboy.

 

Nate chuckled. “I owe Harper a little something from the other day, aim to get something back on him.”

 

Wilke barked a hard laugh. “He’ll cut you down before you can bring that muzzle to bear, so don’t be a fool.”

 

Nate glowered at Wilke, “Don’t be callin’ me any fool, Wilke, I can’t miss from less ‘n ten feet away.  Nobody's that fast, ‘cept Hardin or his like.”

 

“Try me, Larson,”  Jess answered, his voice low and even.  The cold tone was enough to freeze whiskey in the bottle. 

 

Cutter shuddered at the look in Harper’s eyes,  A dead man’s eyes showed more emotion than the gunfighter as he regarded the ranch hand.  “Nate, step back,” he said quietly.

 

“You stay outta this, Cutter.  I 'bout heard enough talkin’ here to do me a spell,”  Nate spat at the foreman.  “Harper, I say you can’t beat out the bullet in this here rifle.”

 

Jess ground his teeth; the man was determined to end this day six feet under.  “If you’re feelin’ froggy Larson, you just jump an’ we’ll see what happens.”

 

Nate threw Jess a venomous smile.  This was his chance to make a name for himself.  He carefully wiped a sweaty palm on the rough fabric of his shirt and returned it to its original position, index finger resting lightly on the trigger.

 

Sam Cutter glared at the cowboy. “Larson, don’t be a fool,” he hissed.

 

The cowboy returned the glare and then looked back at Harper, slowly stepping away from the other two men.  “Let’s get this done, gunfighter,” he sneered.

 

Jess reined Traveler around to face Larson as he moved away from Wilke and Cutter.  “You call it,” he said softly.

 

Nate shifted his feet and tried to swallow, finding his throat suddenly very dry.  Sweat trickled down the back of his neck and between his shoulders; his palms were slippery and he wanted very much to wipe them again on his shirt, but knew any move at this point would cause the man facing him to draw.

 

Jess sat as still as a statue on the bay horse, his hand poised just above the stag-horn grips of the nickel plated revolver, thumb restlessly touching each fingertip in their turn.  His blue eyes were locked onto the washed-out brown of the man facing him and a slight smile played at the corner of his mouth.  He could almost smell the fear on the man.

 

Suddenly Larson burst into frenzied motion, trying to bring the Winchester to bear and pull the trigger simultaneously, but to little effect as his shot went wide to Jess’ left.

 

In comparison, Jess was a picture of fluid motion, hand dropping to the gun, pulling it free of the leather holster, it’s muzzle coming clear as he fanned the hammer with his left hand.

 

 

Larson knew he was dead the moment he started his move, seeing the dark mouth of Harper’s gun come up even before he could bring his rifle to bear.  The bullet impacted just right of center, causing the mortally wounded man to lurch to the right, pulling the trigger as he fell.  The smell of sulpher, gun smoke and blood wafted on the light breeze as Jess calmly slid his pistol back in place to rest on his hip.

 

CH 21

 

In the great room of his house Cy Anders heard the twin report of guns one a rifle, the other a Colt.  For a moment he envisioned his friend of many years lying on the ground, bleeding out his life in front of his eldest son.  Pulling his gun he spun on his heel and rushed for the front door, flinging it open.

 

Outside, adrenalin already running through his veins, Jess flung himself from the saddle, using the bay gelding for cover as the door opened.

 

Vince and Brodie both instinctively pulled iron, but Gus shouted, “NO!” and spurred his mount forward.   

 

 Wilke tracked Jess as he too pulled his gun and moved for cover, using the stairs to the house as a shield. 

 

“What the hell!”  Cy shouted, looking around for the cause of the gunfire.  He came to a stop as there was a flurry of action from the men, those on the ground as well as mounted. 

 

Nate Larson lay sprawled and unmoving just to the side of the stairs.  At Gus’ shout, Cy looked in the direction of the archway where the Barstows and their foreman sat their horses.  Seeing the younger two men move to pull their irons, he lifted his own gun in defense..., And then Gus was between him, Vince and Brodie.

 

 “Stop, Cy; just stop!” Gus thundered, quickly glancing over his shoulder he called to Vince and Brodie, “You two, put your guns up.”  And then he looked at Cy again. “This what you want, Cy?” he asked harshly, looking pointedly at the dead man.  “The blood is here on your front step.  You want Libby to see this?  And you also want to think about Larson every time you walk out the front door?”

 

Vince and Brodie did as told, but kept their hands near the butts of their guns.

 

Cy hesitated for a moment before he holstered his own weapon, but when he looked around, he spotted Wilke crouched alongside the stairs, gun drawn, eyes locked on Harper.

 

“Put your gun up, Wilke,” Cy said gruffly.

 

“Not this time, Mister Anders.  Not... this... time.”  Wilke stood slowly, but refused to re-holster his gun.  He stepped out from where he had crouched and made his way between the fallen Nate Larson and Gus on his gray.  As he passed by Traveler, he gave Jess a hard look and with a silky smile, said, “I'll be waiting over there, Harper.  Care to join me?”

 

 

Jess watched the smooth-talking gunman walk casually past, as if he were simply taking a stroll down Aroya’s boardwalk on a Sunday morning.  And then he looked at Gus, waiting a moment to see if the older man would order him, as well, to put up his gun and walk away.

 

                                                                    *****

 

Seth rode along the line of the burn, Slim Sherman alongside him on a borrowed horse.  They had been checking the line and interior of the burn for any hot spots and had yet to find any, much to the youngest Barstow’s relief.

 

Seth was angry with his father, and with Doc for issuing the order that he take it easy for the next few days.  He had left Amy in the company of McCullah who, now that the smoke had dissipated, seemed to be able to breathe a little easier.  The two of them had been packing the remaining freight wagon that Slim would take back into town later this morning so he could catch the afternoon stage headed back toward Cheyenne.

 

The blonde rancher seemed to be very preoccupied this morning and Seth was convinced it had something to do with the dark haired gunfighter.  But he wisely held his questions in check, leaving the man to his own thoughts.  As the morning wore on, the tedious task was completed and, with the wagon loaded up, the four of them, plus a couple of hands that had stayed as well to help check, rode out for the ranch house.

 

                                                                                 *****

 

“Wilke, I said put your gun up! I hired you to do a job, and you take orders from me!”  Cy blustered.

 

Anson refused to listen and kept walking in the direction of Harper, pausing only to issue his challenge before continuing to the open area in front of the empty bunkhouse.

 

Anson sneered and shook his head.  “Anders, you were simply a means to an end.  My taking Harper down will make my reputation. Not that I actually have, or have any peers to speak of, but it sounds nice doesn't it?”  He turned his gaze back to Jess who was still standing beside Traveler.  “Well, Jess? I’m waiting, and I truly don’t like to be kept waiting.” He laughed, a crazy kind of laugh, and spun his gun on one finger.  “You know, I rode with this trick shooter for a while.  He showed me all kinds of things to do with a gun, outside of killin’ men of course. I taught myself that.  Long story short, after he taught me what he knew, he got boring, so I killed him.”

 

At the other man’s laugh, Jess felt the chill he had felt earlier this morning.  It was obvious that Wilke was just a little crazy.  When he realized that Barstow was not going to call him off, Jess glowered Wilke.  “You stop playing with that lead pusher of yours, you’re making me nervous.  It might go off by  accident. And you wouldn’t want me to shoot you just because it was an accident, would you?”

 

Anson smiled and, in a gentle tone as if speaking to a fearful child, sighed,  “Of course.  Now, I wouldn’t want to concern you, would I, Mister Harper?” and, with a last spin and flourish, Wilke slid the  blue-black forty-five back into it’s well oiled resting place.  He held his arms wide, palms up in a display of agreeability with a gentle smile that only flitted across his face before a strange blankness settled over his features. “Now, Mister Harper, I’ve accommodated you.  If you will be so kind as to do me the same favor,” he said in a low, hard voice.

 

Vince glanced at his father, then at Jess and back again.  Wasn't his father going to stop this?  “Pa...” he said in an urgent tone.

 

Gus cast a quick glance at his son and shook his head as if to say the situation was out of his hands and it would do no good to try and call Harper back now, not after he'd been called out.

 

Jess took a quick look at where the sun hung in the sky, realized that Wilke had not taken advantage of having the sun at his back.  Instead he stood crosswise to it, giving neither man an advantage or disadvantage.  Evidently Wilke had a sense of honor within that strange code that only gunfighters understood and lived by.   He walked slowly over to a point some twenty feet beyond where Wilke stood, 

 

Turning square to Wilke, he regarded the man, waiting for him to make his move, their eyes locked upon each other.

 

                                                                                 *****

 

Slim tossed his single carpet bag into the back of the wagon, and took a last look around the Hangin’ G.  Some day he too would have a place like this to hand over to his sons.

 

Turning, he shook hands with Seth and gave Amy a hug.  The Barstows were good people, “Seth, you tell your father thanks, okay?  I enjoyed my stay, although I could have done with a little less excitement,” he laughed, then turned to look at McCullah.  The tall man stood by the bunkhouse, looking up the road, waiting .  For a moment, Slim’s mind put the slender figure of his brother in a similar position for a similar reason: both waited for Jess to come back.

 

He climbed up onto the high seat of the freight wagon and raised his hand in farewell, then slapped the heavy reins on the backs of the team. “Get up,” he called to them and the wagon rattled forward.

 

As the wagon rolled under the archway, he seemed to hear a faint familiar voice call, “Slim?. . .” Turning on the seat, he glanced back over his shoulder. “Jess?” he called curiously.  He let the team move forward on their own while he gazed around the yard behind him, but nothing had changed.  Still, for a brief moment, the hair on the back of his neck had prickled and a he felt a chill as if the sun passed behind a lone cloud.  He shook the feeling and clucked to the heavy work horses, urging them to quicken their pace.

 

                                                                                       *****

 

The onlookers watched the scene play out in front of them, as it had in front of others in a hundred dusty towns, on a hundred dusty streets.  Two men facing each other, waiting, watching, seeming oblivious to all but each other, looking for the smallest movement, the tiniest twitch of muscle that would send them into motion almost too fast for the eye to follow, motion that would result in one, or both dead, or dying on that dusty street in that town and in front of strangers.

 

Anson Wilke felt a thrill when Harper finally stepped out into the open.   There was something about facing a man, one on one, in the street.  The best part was the moment just before iron was pulled, that sweet moment of anticipation, as life literally hung in the balance.  As the dark haired man turned to face him, Anson could hardly contain a giggle of excitement and contented himself with a broad grin instead.

 

“Well, Mister Harper,” Wilke said, sounding like a man who had just received his finest wish. “I am so very glad you decided to join me. I would have hated having to shoot one of the Barstows to get you to act.  But no matter, there you are and here I am.  Shall we ‘dance’ the dance, Mister Harper?”

 

The hair on Jess’ arms prickled.  He'd been wrong in his earlier assumption that Wilke was more than just a little crazy

no, now he KNEW he was crazy.  He slowly shook his head. “It’s your call, Wilke.  You made the invitation, I just answered.”

 

Wilke smiled happily, then sobered. “Well then, I guess I better get to it...” and his hand whipped to the ebony but of his gun, lifted it from the holster faster than the eyes of the frozen spectators could follow!

 

Jess was the mirror image of his opponent, the same swift action of hand to gun.

 

No one watching could say which man moved first, so evenly were they matched that the crack of the gunfire sounded like a single shot.  The noise still ringing in their in their ears and gun smoke stinging their nostrils, they stood frozen, anticipating who would be left standing.

 

For a moment, Anson Wilke stood with a triumphant smile on his face, but it faded quickly and turned to bewilderment as he attempted to re-holster his gun.  His movement was jerky and uncoordinated and puzzled, he looked down to see what was wrong..., and blinked at the spreading stain of bright red just  below and slightly to the left of the third button on his shirt.  All at once the Colt slipped from his numb fingers and, features slack, he  made an imploring gesture as he took a single. Staggering step, then collapsed like a rag doll in the dust.

 

Jess stood there, watching Wilke, then smoothly holstered his pistol and turned on his heel but took but a single stride before the pain took him to his knees.  He put a gloved hand to his abdomen and it came away slick and warm with his blood.

 

He looked up at the man who had hired him to keep his family safe and, attempted to climb to his feet, but failed.

 

Darkness edged his vision, crowding out light and consciousness, but one name danced in the back of his mind and he tried to force his lips to form the name.  He thought he whispered “Slim!” before his eyes rolled back and he, too, collapsed and lay still.

 

“Jess!” Vince shouted, the first to recover.  He skinned out of the saddle before his father could react and ran to the fallen man.  He knelt on one knee in the dirt and gently rolled the man over.

 

Gus heeled his horse over to where his son knelt in the dirt.  “Well? “

 

Vince shook his head. “He’s still alive, Pa, but it’s bad, real bad.  He needs a doc as fast as we can get him.”

 

Unnoticed by either man, Sam Cutter walked over to where Anson Wilke lay sprawled on the ground and kicked the gun clear, then squatted next to the body of the gunfighter.   “This one’s dead,” he called, standing to slap the dust from his jeans.  He walked over to stand next to Gus on the gray gelding and absently stroked the animal's neck when it turned its head towards him.  “How about him?” he tossed a thumb back over his shoulder where Vance knelt.

 

Gus looked down. “Still alive...” then turned in the saddle and called to his foreman who sat watching and waiting.  “Cut a line out'a here and get to town.  Bring Doc over to the house fast as you can.  Tell him Harper took down Wilke, but, if he doesn’t hurry, Wilke might have returned the favor.”  Then he dismounted and lead his horse over to the foreman.  “Take Wind here  as an extra mount.” He stopped to look at his son pressing a bandage made from a torn shirt against the wound.  Ride hard, Brodie,”

 

 

Cy Anders was still standing on the porch when Libby,  hearing the shooting and fearing for her father’s life, rushed outside.  Her father gathered her in his arms and turned her back to the scene to shield her from the men lying on the ground in their own blood.

 

“Libby, please go inside and get something for bandages,” he said softly.

 

The young woman studied her father for a moment before she whispered, “Anson?”

 

Cy shook his head and squeezed her gently.  Dead, Libby.  I'm sorry sweetheart, he was no good.  He would have used you  and then thrown you away when he was done.”

 

Libby gave her father a small smile. “Oh, Pa-pa, you’re always trying to keep me safe,” she said gently.  “I knew  what he was, and what he wasn’t. He couldn’t fool me, you taught me too well.”

 

Pulling free of her father’s grasp, she looked where Vince knelt over the other fallen man.  She didn’t know much about Jess Harper other than he was just another gunfighter, a man who drifted and made his living with a gun in his hand.  Amy Barstow had told her at the celebration though, that he was different, he had honor and stood by what he said when he said it, and he didn’t back down.

 

“Will he live?” she asked, looking back at her father.

 

He shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t know, Lib. I heard Vince say he was hit bad, but some men die quick and easy, others fight until they’ve got nothing left to fight with.  Those men take a lot of killing.  I think, Lib, he’s one of the second kind.  Now run and get those bandages, Vince can use them.”

 

Cy walked slowly down the steps and went over to Gus because it was time that this situation came to an end before any more men died.

 

Vince ripped the sleeve off his shirt and folded it for a bandage.  He pressed as hard as he dared on the wound to slow the bleeding.

 

A fine sheen of sweat covered Jess' face and he writhed with pain and cried out with out completely regaining consciousness. 

 

Sam moved to steady him, holding him firmly as he spoke softly to the man,  even though he knew the gunfighter could not hear him.

 

Gus watched Brodie gallop away until the sound of approaching footsteps behind him turned him around to find Cy walking toward him, a determined look on his face.

 

“Gus, you’ve been right all along and I’ve been more wrong than I have been in my whole life.  We need to talk,” Cy said.

 

 

“Yes... Yes we do, Cy, but right now I have a man I need to get back to the Hanging’ G as soon as possible.”

 

You planning to double up with him?” Cy asked skeptically “He’ll never make it”

 

“No other way I can see to do it,” Gus grated,  tired of being pushed.

 

“I’ve got a wagon in the shed and a team in the barn we can have hitched in ten minutes,”  Cy urged.

 

“Too slow,” Gus answered, stubbornly shaking his head .

 

“No slower than riding double with a wounded man,” Cy snapped back, knowing he was right.  “You put Harper on the back of a horse and you might as well shoot him again and get it over with, it would be less painful.  We throw some hay in the bed, spread a couple of blankets and it’ll make for an easier ride for him.”

 

Gus looked at his friend a moment and realized that this was the first step in healing the breach between them: letting Cy help save a man who had come to fight someone else's war.  “Let’s get that team hitched then,  he said, standing to follow Cy to the wagon shed

 

“Sam! We need your help here!  Let's get the chestnut team in from the paddock, we’re taking Harper back to the Hangin’ G in the wagon,” Cy called as he ran to where the heavy horses stood, dozing in the sun.

 

Vince watched them go and shook his head, hoping it would not take a good man's death to heal a friendship and end a war.  “Jess, if you can hear me, stay with us.  We're gonna get you to a doc.  It’s gonna hurt like all get out, but you just stay with us.”

 

Libby came out of the house carrying a small pine chest with folded strips of white cotton sheeting on top, along with a couple of clean towels.  She quickly made her way over to Vince and sat the box down on the ground next to him. 

 

“I brought fresh bandages and whatever we have in our medicine chest,” she said sitting down on the dirt next to him.   She un-slung the canteen as well.  “Has he stirred at all?”

 

Vince shook his head and answered, “No,” lifting his hands and releasing pressure on the wound.  He pulled the soaked cloth away and  watched the hole in Jess’ abdomen for a moment.  Although the bleeding had slowed a bit, the bright red fluid so vital for life continued to flow sluggishly from the wound.  

 

Libby studied the bullet hole for a moment, trying not to flinch away from the blood.  “We need to clean that up a bit before we put new bandages on,” she said, handing the clean cloths to Vince to hold as she flipped the medicine chest open.  She rummaged around and pulled out a brown bottle  and sat it next to her.   She took one of the cloths and poured liquid from the bottle on it.  “Open his shirt,” she said, “then hold him down.  This is going to burn like fire.”

 

The sharp smell of alcohol stung Vince’s nose as he pulled open Jess’ shirt, revealing the neat hole left by the forty-five caliber bullet still inside the man’s body.  “You want me to do it, Libby?” he asked, unsure as to how much experience the young woman had treating bullet wounds.

 

Libby smiled and shook her head, “Ever since momma died, I’ve been Doc Fuller's nurse whenever he had to come out here.  I just need you to hold him when I clean this up.

 

Vince moved to one side so  he could place a hand firmly on Jess' left shoulder and right leg, hoping he would be able hold Jess down.  He nodded his readiness.

 

 

Libby gently wiped the area around the wound with the alcohol soaked rag, removing the drying blood.  The man beneath her hand moved restlessly and she paused for a moment to reassure him, talking in a gentle voice until he settled again.  She tossed the bloody cloth aside and took a closer look at the wound itself.  The flesh around the area was bruised and swollen, already turning a dark purple-red while dark red blood pulsed slowly from the wound.  She took a clean rag, wet one side with alcohol and pressed it against the hole.

 

This time Jess took a more active part in trying to remove whatever was causing him pain, pushing weakly at Libby’s hands.  His eyes moved back and forth under his lids and, after a moment, he opened his eyes to reveal pain-clouded  deep blue.

 

Vince moved around so  he was looking into Jess’ face. “Jess, you have to lay still.  You've been shot.  Do you understand? Try to lay still, Libby will be done in a minute.”

 

He waited, watching as the wounded man’s eyes wandered aimlessly and a confused frown puckered his forehead.

 

“S..S..Slimmm?” Jess asked weakly, his voice hoarse with pain.  He ran his tongue across dry lips.  “Water,” he asked, his eyelids fluttering closed.

 

“No, not Slim, Jess. It's Vince.  Vince Barstow, remember?  Now, stay with me,” and Vince gently tapped Jess’ cheek. “Come on now Jess, stay with me.”

 

Jess slowly opened his eyes again, squinting in  the bright light and slowly brought the face into focus.    He frowned, puzzled as he sought to put name and face together.  “Vince?  Whuh... where’s Slim?” he asked with an urgent tone of concern in his voice.

 

Vince braced against Harper’s weak, short lived struggle to rise, when it struck him that the concern was not for himself, but for Slim Sherman.  “Jess...Jess, stop.  Relax.  Relax, he wasn’t here. Slim’s fine, he’s headed home, back to Laramie.  In fact, by now he’s in town waiting for the stage.  Now, you need to lie back and relax so we can finish getting you bandaged up.  Then I'll give you some water.  Understand?”

 

Jess closed his eyes again, for a moment puzzling over Vince’s words before he opened them again and nodded slightly. “Yeah, understand.”

 

 

Vince grinned, “Good.  Now I'm gonna have to lift  yah up so we can get the bandage on.  And I'm sorry but it's gonna hurt like a house a fire.  But try 'n stay as still as you can.”  he moved around behind Jess and began to slowly lift him into a sitting position, pausing when Jess gasped in pain.

 

“That’s good, Vince.  Just hold him there for a moment so  I can  wrap the bandages.” Libby said and started wrapping strips of cloth around the gunman's lean middle, from just below his ribs to just above the waist of his jeans.

 

Afterwards, as promised, Vince offered the thirsty man several small sips of water.

 

Jess closed his eyes as the cool water trickled down his throat.

 

As Vince and Libby worked on Jess, Gus, Cy and Sam worked to get the team harnessed and hitched, throwing several forkfuls of hay into the back to cushion the ride for the injured man.  Cy then disappeared inside the house, returning with several blankets and spreading them over the hay, laying extras over the side for use as needed.  While Gus and Sam moved the bodies of Nate Larson and Anson Wilke out of the yard and threw a blanket over each of them, Cy climbed to the high seat of the wagon and drove over to where Libby and Vince where finishing their doctoring.  He could hear his daughter arguing with Harper.

 

“Mister Harper, please, just some Laudanum with water to help with the pain on the trip, she said holding a tin up to Jess who was steadfastly refusing.

 

“No.  None  of that awful stuff, ma’am.  I’ll take some whiskey if you have it,”  Jess replied, weakly pushing her hand away and even this small effort causing him to pant with the effort.

 

Hearing Jess’ request as he rolled up with the wagon, Cy told his daughter to go in and bring out the bottle of bourbon he kept in his office.

 

Libby hurried inside and gathered up the remaining clean cloths and the bottle of medicinal alcohol and put them in the chest.  She handed it up to her father before going to fetch the whiskey, shooting Cy a look that warned there would be discussion about it later as she did so. 

 

Gus and Sam, leading Traveler and Vince’s bay as well as a mount for Sam, came over to the wagon and tied  the horses  to rings on the side of the wagon with long lead lines.  Then  the two men lowered the tailgate and climbed inside.

 

“You and Cy are going to have to hand him up to us, Vince, then you ride on to the house and get a room ready for when we get there,” Gus said as he stood in the bed of the wagon.

 

The slam of the screen door announced Libby's return,   bottle in hand.  She handed it to Cy and, within a few moments, she was kneeling next to him as Vince supported Jess' shoulders.

 

“Here yah go, son,” Cy said, shaking his head, at the man's pale features and the sweat running down Jess' face.

 

Jess forced his eyes open and the faintest of smiles flickered across his lips.  “Obliged,” he mumbled as Cy held the bottle to his mouth.  The hard kick of the liquor burned its way down his throat and into his stomach, sending a warmth through chilled limbs as the alcohol was quickly assimilated into his bloodstream.

 

Vince reappeared next to Jess.  “Jess, Cy and I are going to lift you up to my father and Sam in the wagon, it’s gonna hurt like all get out, so if you wanna yell, then yell, okay?”

 

Jess nodded and whispered, “Gi’ me ‘nother shot of that ‘fore we start.” 

 

Cy tipped the bottle again and Jess swallowed another two fingers of the whiskey, re-igniting the fire in his belly.

 

Jess could feel the effect of the whiskey starting to kick in, the knife-like  edges of pain dulling somewhat.  Nodding once he indicated he was ready to move. 

 

The two men were as gentle as they could be, trying to lift him evenly, but pain is an insidious thing and the brief respite Jess felt was washed away in a tidal wave that brought tears to his eyes.  He bit his lower lip in an attempt not to scream despite Vince’s reassurance that it was okay to yell if he needed to. Although the wagon was less than five feet away, it seemed five hundred by the time the two ranchers paused, letting Jess catch his breath for a moment.

 

Libby, who stood by the tail of the buckboard,  had tears in her eyes, it was so obvious that the man was in agony, but still he refused to cry out.  Blood from his bitten lip ran down the side of his face and dripped into the dirt; tears trickled from his eyes and he shook uncontrollably in Vince and her father’s arms.  Yet he clung to consciousness, fighting the blessed sweet relief of oblivion with all he had.

 

Vince exchanged looks with Gus and then looked down at the man in his arms.  “Okay Jess, that was the easy part.  Now we have to lift you up so hang on okay?”

 

Again Jess nodded briefly.  “Do it,” he gasped, breathing in short, panting breaths.  He shivered again, wondering how it could seem so cold in late August.

 

Vince could feel warmth starting to radiate off Jess’ body,  but with injuries like this, it didn’t take long for the body to try and rally by pulling it’s defenses together in the form of fever.  “Okay, Jess, here we go on three.  One... two.... three.”

 

Jess yelled as if someone had reached in and was trying to pull his soul out.  His body bucked and twisted, trying to get away from the pain until, at last, his mind retreated and gave in to welcome oblivion.

 

Carefully the four men finished loading the injured man into the back of the wagon, laying him gently on the blankets that covered a thick layer of hay.  Stepping back, Vince lifted Libby up onto the tail of the wagon and then closed and latched the tailgate once she had moved to sit next to Jess.

 

After pulling his horse's rein free Vince vaulted into the saddle and reined his horse around. “Pa, I’ll see you back at the house,” and he wheeled the big bay around, spurring him forward, heading toward home.

 

Gus climbed up into the driver’s seat and picked up the thick leather lines, arranging them in his hands as he waited for Gus and Sam to mount up.  When the two men rode by at a lope, he whipped up the team.

 

Libby clung to the side of the wagon and watched her patient carefully as he shivered beneath a layer of blankets, the earlier pallor replaced by the flush of fever.  His head lolled as if boneless  as the wagon rocked over the uneven ground.

 

Ch 22

 

Slim tossed his carpet bag up to the Shotgun guard on the roof of the stage and took a final look around the small town.  It certainly had been an interesting visit to say the least.  Climbing into the coach, he found that he was the only passenger, at least for this leg of the journey, which suited him just fine.  Selecting a spot, he sat so he was riding forward and stretched his long legs across the gap between seats, bracing his feet against the other side.  The stage lurched into motion, the driver calling to the lead horses and slapping the leathers against their backs, and the four-up and coach rolled out of Aroya at an easy lope.  Slim glanced out the window as a rider on a grey horse thundered by, headed into town.

 

                                                                             *****

 

The gray beneath him was just about done as Brodie came roaring into Aroya and flashed past the stage as it hit the outskirts.  Pulling the exhausted animal to a halt in front of Doc’s office’, Brodie leapt from the saddle and ran into the physician’s office, leaving the sweat soaked gelding standing  spraddle-legged, head down, sides heaving and rein trailing in the dust.         

 

The sheriff, just back from his rounds, looked up from the   daily report he was working onand muttered under his breath. It was too early in the day for anyone to be riding hell-bent-for-leather down Aroya’s only street.  Laying his pencil down he pushed away from his desk, and standing headed for the door, pausing to buckle on his gun and grab his hat.  Once outside the only thing to catch his eye was a familiar grey gelding standing in the street.

 

Cal walked down the boardwalk to where the gelding stood, head down, lather drying on its flanks and neck.  Catching up the trailing rein, he stopped a passing ranch hand and had him take the horse to the livery to be properly cared for.

 

Then he noticed that Doc’s office door stood wide open and he cautiously went inside, one hand resting lightly on the butt of his gun.  He could hear a breathless voice talking urgently and relaxed as he recognized Brodie Smith from the Hangin’ G. Walking into the small room off the main waiting room, Cal found the two men.

 

Doc was packing his bag while Brodie spoke between gasping breaths. “Yeah, they’re all okay Doc, but Harper was hit pretty bad and Wilke and Larson are dead.  Fastest thing I ever saw in my life. Harper hit Wilke dead square, but Wilke’s shot hit Harper down low, just about here. . .” Brodie paused to point to a spot on his left side between the rib cage and the point of his hip.  “He was bleedin’ like a stuck pig, Doc; they were gonna take him down to the Hangin’ G, it’s a might closer to here than the Anders place.”

 

Doc Fuller nodded as he listened to the man talk as he methodically checked the chest-high, glass-paned cabinet for catgut, needles, Laudanum, gauze and various other bits and pieces that he might need.  When Brodie had burst in a few moments before and started relating the morning's events, Doc had sent Jimmy Coles the  young man who swept and helped him from time to time, to get his horse saddled and brought over to the office as well as another for Brodie.

 

Jim poked his head through the door, “Hey, Doc, horses are out front for yah.  Your horse is over at the livery, Mister Brodie.  Jake has someone walkin’ ‘im down.”

 

“Thanks, Jim, I more than likely will be out at the Barstow's for the rest of the day so, if anyone needs me, they can find me there, “the physician said, snapping his bag closed.  “Ready when you are, Brodie.  You coming too, Cal?” he paused, looking at the Sheriff questioningly as he made his way out of the office to his horse.  A minute later they were headed toward the Barstow home at a steady lope.

 

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

 

The ride back to the Barstow ranch seemed to go slowly for Libby, but her father had pushed the team as hard as he dared over the rough ground.  They had cut cross country not wanting to take the time to hit the road some two miles away northeast before turning due south.  When they had reached the fence line, Gus had jumped down and cut the fence himself with Sam offering to stay behind and splice the wire back together. 

 

Libby rode in the back, caring for Jess as best she could. Moving him had caused the wound to bleed heavily for a short period, but she had been able to slow the loss down with steady pressure on top of fresh bandages. Twice the man had regained consciousness and asked for water, each time she had been able to get him to take several mouthfuls before he faded out again.  The fever had been rising slowly over the trip, and his breathing was shallow and rapid as was common with fever.  Using a clean bandage, and some of the water from one of the canteens, she bathed his face and chest with the cooling liquid.  Libby was glad that, for the most part, her patient had remained firmly wrapped in the gentle arms of unconsciousness as the rough jouncing bouncing would have been agony for him.

 

Gus dropped back to ride alongside the wagon bed. “How’s he holding up?”  he asked.

 

“His fever’s getting worse, but I’ve been able to give him some water, so that helps.  Is it much further?  The sooner we can get him in a bed, the better it will be,”  Libby replied, grabbing the side of the wagon when it rocked hard.  “I’ll be happy when we get there for me too.” She laughed weakly.

 

Gus smiled back at her, and then squinted up at the sun. “About another half hour.  Vince should be at the house already, and Brodie, with any luck, is headed back with Doc.”

 

Jess moaned as the wagon bounced over a rough patch His eyes fluttered open and, fever glazed moved restlessly looking for something or someone neither Libby nor Gus could see.  His lips moved soundlessly for a moment, forming unheard words. His hand moved restlessly,searching for something until Libby grasped it and spoke softly to him, before leaning close.  She could just barely hear his words:

 

“S... sorry Slim, ‘m sorry. Tried hard to be w... what yah wanted.”

 

The forlorn tone in the sick man’s voice was heart wrenching. “It’s all right,” she whispered to him, wiping his forehead gently with a cool cloth.

 

Jess shook his head, whether it was in response to what she said or something only he could hear, she wasn’t sure.

 

“No g... good, n... never a... any good, tried... Slim?  Slim?”  Jess struggled to sit up, but his strength failed him and he slumped back down on the blankets.  Suddenly his eyes cleared for a moment and he made eye contact with the young woman that hovered over him.  “Tell him... tell him I’m sorry.  He was right; just b... born no good.”  With his last words, Jess sighed and relaxed, his eyes once again closing.

 

Libby felt her heart climb to her throat, whether it was in sorrow or fear for the man she couldn’t tell.  Laying a hand lightly on his chest, she felt its stuttered rise and fall as well as the racing of his heart. She leaned back against the side of the wagon with Jess’ hand still held firmly in hers, then she turned her face skyward and sent a silent prayer to the heavens above: 

 

“Oh Lord, look kindly upon this man, who by his own words has tried to do right.  He hath strayed from your path, and in doing so hath become lost.  Look past the violence that he has done in his life, Heavenly Father, and hold him in the palm of your hand.  Take the illness from both body and soul, restoring them to health.  Help him find his way to what he seeks, and give him peace as he continues his search for what he has lost and treasures most.  Amen.”

 

The remainder of the trip was quiet, Jess remained lost in the dark oblivion where he was pain free and Libby rested her eyes, head tipped back against the side of the wagon.  Sam easily caught up to the wagon and rode mutely alongside. A pall hung over the quintet while above them, unnoticed, a vulture soared on silent wings, easily riding the thermals it found, gliding in wide, sweeping circles around them as it rose and fell with the warm air.

 

 

                                                                       *****

 

At the house; the woman bustled about making sure that there were plenty of clean bandages, hot water and hot coffee.  Amy rode herd on her two nephews, keeping them out from under foot of their mother and aunt. 

 

Vince was at loose ends and the women  finally chased him out of the house, telling him to go wait for Brodie and the Doc.  Catching up a pinto horse that, once under saddle, was as eager to go as his rider was, Vince headed for the far archway that marked the border of Barstow land.

 

Not too long after noon, about a half hour after Vince had ridden out, the wagon carrying Jess rattled into the front yard of the Barstow home. Gus and Sam tied up at the rail by the corral while  Cy pulled the wagon as close to the porch stairs as he could.  Climbing down stiffly from the hard wood seat, he reached underneath, pulled out a weight and clipped a tie down that attached to both bridles to  it

 

Sarah and Rebecca, hearing the wagon, came out on the front porch to supervise the moving of the injured man to the waiting sick room.

 

“Where did Vince get himself to?” Gus asked as he walked back from tying up.   “We could use his help movin’ Harper upstairs.” 

 

Cy and Sam dropped the tail of the wagon and handed Libby down.  Cy moved to the back and rolled his shoulders, stiff from sitting on the hard seat for so long.

 

 

“I can handle this end myself, if you and Sam each take a corner, Gus.”

 

The sound of the wagon in the yard, and familiar voices brought Seth and McCullah from inside the barn where they had been working on harness.  The tall Texan wore an expression of deep concern laced with guilt at not being there to watch his partner's back.  Coming around the end of the wagon, Steve stopped to look at the man laying on the blankets..

 

“Aw, Jess, yah went an’ did it, didn’t yah,” he said sadly as he levered himself up into the wagon. “I’ll take an end,” he said, wheezing slightly.

 

Seth stood next to his father. “Vince said he gunned both Nate Larson and Anson Wilke, and that Wilke caught him with a bullet going down.”

 

Gus nodded. “Fastest dern thing I ever did see, I don’t think two men could draw any closer together and one still be alive.”

 

Together, with Cy and Steve on one end and Seth and Sam on the other, they carefully lifted the blanket that Jess lay on.  Even with careful maneuvering, Libby was glad to see her patient remain oblivious to their efforts to move him to the upper floor of the house.   The whole process left McCullah wheezing heavily and coughing so much that Rebecca was forced to make him sit down for a few minutes until he was able to breathe easily again.

 

Once Jess was safely in a bed, the two women stepped out while one of the men stripped him of shirt, pants, boots and spurs, leaving him in his summer long-johns and covered to the waist by a cotton sheet. Steve took custody of Jess’ gun belt, buckling it and hanging it over the bedpost behind the prone man’s right shoulder, much to everyone elses dismay.  To alleviate any argument, Steve emptied the weapon, putting the bullets in a bedside drawer. 

 

Stepping back in Sarah took charge, shooing out all the men.  In the room, Libby sat in a straight back chair by the head of the bed, gently laying cool cloths on Jess’ forehead and chest. She had done all that she could, now came the waiting for the doctor to arrive.    

 

“Hot... so very hot.”  Jess slowly cracked open his eyes, the bright light sharp and painful.  His head swam dizzily and he let it lay on the cool pillow beneath his head after an aborted attempt to raise it.  “Pillow?”  A frown creased his forehead.  The last thing he remembered was facing Wilke down, but, from what he was feeling, he had not been entirely successful.  If he had even succeeded at all, his middle felt like he’d been kicked by a horse or hit with a two by four, but he recalled neither happening.  His tongue ran over dry lips and he swallowed.

 

Letting his gaze rove around the room, he wondered where the heck he was.  Even the smallest effort, such as turning his head, made his vision dance with dots of gold and black.  Still, he needed to get his bearings, and managed to slowly turn his head to the left, bringing the form of a pretty, young woman asleep in a chair next to the bed.  To her right was a small nightstand with a pitcher and glass half full of water.

 

His body craved the liquid inside the blue clay pitcher; he could almost feel its cool contents trickling down his throat.  Jess tried to raise his hand toward the glass, but seemed to have forgotten how to make his arm move and simply ended up having it flop out and hit the sleeping form in the knee, startling her awake.

 

“Oh!”  Libby jerked up, straightening in the hard wood chair.  Bewildered for a moment, she stared around the room, trying to remember where she was.  Then she remembered the long ride in the back of the buckboard with the injured gunfighter.

 

Looking to the man in the bed beside her, she noted that his eyes were open and he seemed to be trying to reach to the cup of water.  “Hold on, Mister Harper, I’ll get you some water.”  Standing, she gently lifted him, settling the pillows behind him so that his shoulders were slightly raised.

 

Jess winced and groaned softly as Libby moved him and resettled the pillows, gritting his teeth to keep from yelling, tears of pain starting from his eyes.              

 

Libby apologized at the pain she knew she was causing but could not help.  Laying a cool hand across his forehead, she could feel the heat rising off his body.   Turning, she poured water into a simple clay cup, turning back to lift Jess’ head so he could slowly sip the cool liquid.

 

 

The liquid trickling down his throat was as sweet to Jess as any wine a rich man might drink, and he tried to fight her when Libby removed the cup from his lips, but had no energy to do so. 

 

“Stop now,” she admonished gently but firmly. “You can have more in a few minutes, after we make sure what you have stays down.”

 

Running his tongue across his dry lips for any droplets of water, he whispered hoarsely, “Where?” His voice sounding thin and weak to his ears.

 

Libby smiled “You’re upstairs at the Barstows.” Seeing the puzzlement in his eyes when he looked at her, Libby realized he had no idea as to who she was.  “My name is Libby Anders, Cy Anders is my father.”

 

 

“Wilke?” Jess whispered, coughing when his throat became dry and scratchy again.

 

“You killed him, he won’t be causing any more problems for anyone,” Libby said softly as she offered him another couple of sips of water.  The second effort seemed to drain the little strength the gunshot man had scraped together, and his eyes slowly closed.  Libby gently let his head rest back on pillows and resettled the blankets around him. 

 

She walked over to the sideboard to the left of the bed where a ceramic bowl of water sat, a clean white cloth next to it.  She dipped the cloth in the water, wrung it mostly dry then folded it and returned to the bedside,  laid it across Jess’ flushed forehead and sat down to wait once more.

 

Ch 23

 

Vince pulled the paint gelding to a halt and let him blow, hooked a leg across the horn of his saddle, getting comfortable.  He didn’t know how long he would be waiting for Brodie and Doc Fuller.   As it was he didn’t have long.   A streamer of dust rising in the distance told of riders coming at a good clip and, twenty minutes later, his patience was rewarded. 

 

Brodie and Doc’s horses were lathered and blowing hard when they rode under the archway where Vince sat waiting.  He slid down off the paint as the two men reined to a stop, then Vince held his rein out to the lean Physician.  “Doc, take Pete here, he's fresh and your horse is done in,” he said, catching a hold of the sweaty bay’s bridle. 

 

Without hesitation or question Doc swung down, black bag in hand, and accepted the fresh mount, stepping up into the saddle and urging the animal into a gallop, leaving the two men to come along in their own time.

 

“How is he?” Brodie asked, taking the moment to un-sling his canteen from the horn of his saddle and taking a long drink.

 

“Fever’s got him, but he was still alive when I left,”  Vince replied, stuck a boot in the stirrup and eased himself up on the tired horse’s back, heeled the animal into a slow jog.

 

                                                                      *****

 

Steve could stand it no longer, not knowing how Jess was and, while Gus and Cy were deep in conversation, he quietly excused himself and head into the house.  Inside he almost ran into Sarah Barstow who was carrying a tray laden with a tea pot and cup.  He put a hand out to steady the smaller woman, apologized and offered to carry the tray upstairs.

 

Sarah hesitated for a moment and read concern for his friend in the tall man’s face.  Smiling, she took him up on his offer, handing the wood tray over.  She watched the man walk carefully up the stairs with his burden, then turned and walked out onto the porch.

 

Steve balanced the tray in one hand, wheezing slightly, and tapped on the partially open door before he walked in.  The young woman that had ridden in the back of the wagon with Jess stood by the bedside laying a damp cloth on the flushed man’s face.   At the tapping on the door, she turned slightly, startled, so intent in her job was she. 

 

Steve grinned in apology as he walked over to the sideboard and set the tray down.  “Sorry, ma'am, didn’t mean to surprise yah.  Miss Sarah sent up some of that willow bark tea she was brewin’ for Jess.’   He paused and looked at his friend who was, beneath the flush of fever, the color of the bed sheets.  "How's he doin'?" McCullah asked, gravely concerned as he walked over to the bed and stood by the wooden chair.

 

Libby poured a cup of the tea, testing the temperature with a fingertip.  “He’s holding his own. I checked the bandages and he hasn’t bled through them so that’s a good thing, and the fever is a sign that his body is trying to fight off infection.  He’s even been awake a time or two, asked for water and has kept it down so far.  Let’s see if we can get him to take some of this tea, it will help with the fever,”  she replied, carrying the cup around to the bedside opposite Steve.  “If you’ll lift him, for me?”

 

Steve bent and carefully lifted Jess’ head and shoulders, wincing when his friend groaned and his eye's opened to gaze blearily at Steve’s face.

 

“Wha’ I ever do tah you?”  Jess mumbled, flinching at the pain caused by the movement.

 

McCullah smiled.  “Sorry, pard, your nurse here has somethin’ for you to drink.”  Steve threw Libby a wink. “How is it you get all the pretty one’s?”

 

Jess gave a weak smile and rolled his eyes toward Libby, “ ‘m better lookin’.”

 

Libby laughed... “Now, Mister Harper...”

 

“Jess ... ma’am... call m.... me Jess.” he stuttered in pain as Steve shifted his shoulder so Jess could lean back on him.

 

“Okay... Jess, I want you to drink this tea.  It's hot so be careful.”  Libby warned as she held the cup to the wounded man’s lips, trickling the liquid through them in small increments, pausing when Jess grimaced and half turned his head away.  “I know the taste is awful, but you have to finish it Jess.  Then Mister McCullah and I will let you sleep.”

 

Reluctantly Jess turned his head back and slowly finished the liquid, shuddering from the bitter aftertaste after taste.

 

When the cup was empty, Steve slowly lowered his friend back onto the bed, noticing that Jess’ eyes had already closed.  He sat down in the chair next to him, then gestured at the door. “Ma’am, why don’t you go get something to eat? I’ll stay with him till Doc comes.”

 

Libby walked around the bed and set the cup on the tray where the tea pot patiently waited.  “Thank you, I am hungry. I’ll just take the tray with me.  Hopefully doc will be here soon, but if you need anything...”

 

Steve laughed. “Don’t worry, I can holler with the best of ‘em.  Now go on an’ git,” he made a shooing motion with his hands.  As Libby was leaving, he turned back to his friend, picked up the dam rag that hung over the side of the bowl and proceeded to wipe the feverish man’s face and chest.

 

        Twenty-five minutes later a lone horseman galloped into the yard and Doc Fuller swung down from the saddle, unlacing his medical bag from the horn. 

 

Gus stood at the top of the steps. “Glad you could come so quick, Doc,” greeted, stepping to one side to let the physician pass by, then following along behind.  “Room at the top o’ the stairs,” he said before Doc could ask.

 

 

Doc Fuller nodded, pausing to look at Sarah who stepped out of the kitchen, “Hot water and clean cloths, plenty of both if you would please Sarah,” he said before continuing his ascent.

 

“I’ll send Amy and Rebecca up with them in a moment,” Sarah replied, hurrying back into the kitchen.

 

Upstairs, Doc sat his bag on the sideboard next to the tea pot, then pulled out a stethoscope and draped it around his neck.  He came around to the left side of the bed and paused for a moment, holding the metal bell of the instrument between his hands to warm it.  He never liked placing cold metal on a fever heated body and briefly warming it was a kindness easily done. 

 

He methodically listened to Jess’ breathing on both sides, then to his heart, then carefully placed fingers over the veins on the underside of Jess’ left wrist and pulled out his pocket watch, watching the second hand sweep around as he counted heart beats carefully.  Looking up after a minute, he nodded to the man sitting across from him who was watching with anxious expectation. 

 

“No fluid in the lungs so far and he has a good strong heart, two things in his favor.  Now, let’s take a look at the bullet wound,” he said, folding down the blanket and sheet.

 

As if on cue, Libby and Amy appeared at the door, one carrying a pitcher of steaming water, the other a pile of clean cloth torn in strips for bandages. 

 

“Come in ladies, I’m just about to get started,”  Doc Fuller said as he rolled up his sleeves, then pulled a long handled probe, a scalpel, and a pair of scissors from his bag and laid them on a clean towel that he had spread on the small night table next to him.  “Libby, if you will pour out that cold water  and add some of that hot along with about a third of this bottle please?”  he asked, handing over a bottle filled with a clear liquid. 

 

Once the young woman had done as he asked, Fuller brought the tools over, placed them in the bowl for several seconds then pulled them back out again and placed them on the towel as before. He then rinsed his hands with some of the bottle’s contents, wrapped the tools in the towel and returned to the beside to set the bundle on the nightstand again.  Uncorking the bottle of pain-killer, he measured several drops into a cup of water.  “Lift his head for me if you would, please,” he asked Steve.  Then with gentle pressure he opened the unconscious man’s mouth and slowly trickled the medicated water down Jess’ throat, careful to keep the man from choking.  After a moment he paused and studied the remaining amount in the glass.  Satisfied, he nodded to Steve to lay the man back down.  “Now we wait for it to take effect,” he said, pulling out his pocket watch.

 

After about five minutes had passed he checked Jess' heartbeat and breathing, then satisfied that his patient was sedated, the straightened and looked at his assistants.

 

“Right, then, let's see what we have here,” he said, picking up the scissors and cutting away the sweat and bloodstained bandage.  He peeled  way the bloody pad and the wrapping that held it in place, he grimaced.  Lead projectiles did so much damage to the soft tissues of the human body.

 

The area around the entry wound was swollen and an angry looking purplish-red color and a small trickle of blood trailed its way around the curve of Jess’ abdomen, leaving a drop of bright red on the white of the sheet.  Looking up at Steve, he sighed and shook his head, then turned to Libby.

 

“There was no exit wound, Libby?” he asked quietly, sighing again when the young woman shook her head.

 

Looking sadly at the man and two young women, he reached for the long handled probe.  “I’m going to need you to hold his shoulders for me; you need to hold him down as much as you can.  Same goes for you Libby and Amy, I need you to hold his legs.  Lie on them if you have to.  He’s not going to like me rummaging around inside of him with this while I'm looking for a wayward piece of lead.” 

 

The three assistants nodded in unison and took their places, looking at Doc expectantly.  “Okay, here we go then...”

 

For a man sick with fever, blood loss and a bullet in him, Jess Harper had amazing strength.  Steve leaned hard on Jess’ shoulders, using his own considerable muscle to keep the slighter man prone, and still it was a struggle.  Jess’ body fairly lifted itself from the bed, muscles ridged, tendons and ligaments straining against the force holding him place.  Eyes wide and staring, the man screamed!

 

Libby and Amy hung on for dear life to Jess’ twisting, kicking legs and, although they were strong for their sex, the young woman were no match for the struggling man.

 

Doc Fuller stopped his probing and straightened.  This was not going to work.  Picking up the glass once more, he deliberately encouraged Jess to drink more of the sedative mixture.  The struggle caused the wound to resume bleeding rather enthusiastically and Doc Fuller took a dampened cloth to wipe away the blood, then applied pressure until the flow once again slowed to a trickle.   Once he was confident that the additional sedative had taken effect, the physician picked up the long probe and returned to his task, this time his patient lay quietly. Within a few minutes the bullet clattered into a basin by the doctors elbow.  He picked  up a curved needle and a length of catgut and went to work closing the wound.

 

Ten minutes later the surgeon straightened from his task and dropped the needle strung with thin cat gut in the bowl of bloody water that already held the bullet. He took a moment to stretch then smiled at the expectant faces around the bed.  “This young man has the constitution of an ox, so, barring any infection, he should be up and walking in ten days to two weeks.”

 

Steve snorted, “Good luck with keeping him in here that long, doc.  Any time I’ve Jess sick or hurt, short of tying him down, we couldn’t keep him in bed more ‘n three – four days at the most, and in five he was back in the saddle, working.”

 

Doc Fuller smiled. “If I have to keep him unconscious, I will.”

 

“He’ll fight you on that too.  He hates the stuff, doesn’t like bein’ out of control he says.”

 

The doctor sighed.  He really didn’t need a difficult patient, the Lord knew he had enough of them already with the Barstow clan.  What was it that made men of the west think they were indestructible?  Well, at least for now, he was in charge, and he was going to make sure it stayed that way for long as he could. 

 

He poured water on a clean rag and gently wiped the blood from the wound and the area around it.  The cleaner the wound was kept, the better chance there would be no infection.  He fully expected that the fever Harper was now running would continue for the next day or two, and then break.

 

Wiping dry instruments after cleaning them  in fresh water from the pitcher, Doc Fuller carefully packed them back into his bag.  He looked his patient over once more while laying a gentle hand on the man’s forehead, then looked over at the two women.  “He’ll need someone to sit with him at least over night.  I’ll leave a bottle of Laudanum if the pain becomes too much for him.”

 

Steve laughed, “Doc, I’m tellin’ yah, you could roast Jess feet first over a fire and he wouldn’t admit that it was anymore than a little hot.”

 

Picking up his bag, Doc Fuller sighed and then smiled. “Well, I hope his stubbornness serves him well, it’s your job to keep him in that bed Mister McCullah.  Amy, if I could put upon you for a cup of coffee, I sure would appreciate it.”

 

“Of course Doc, and you’ll stay to dinner as well,.” Amy replied with a smile.  Hooking her arm through the older man’s, she led him toward the stairs.  “Now you come and have a sit down, Rebecca and Mister McCullah can keep an eye your patient until supper is ready.”

 

The two of them made their way downstairs, while Rebecca, in her quiet way, took charge and shoo’d the rest of the helpers out of the room before pulling the shade and lighting the small lamp on the sideboard before she went out.  She paused at the door to look at the tall man sitting in the chair next to his friend and  laying a cool cloth across Jess’ fevered forehead.  “Mister McCullah, you’ve been up here since they brought Mister Harper in so please go get something to eat.  I promise he’ll be fine.  I’m sure you’re hungry now so go on.  If I need help, I'll call, but I doubt he’ll even move.”

 

Doc Fuller was already seated at the table, enjoying his coffee while Gus and Cy warily sat across from each other cautiously discussing the weather or the lack of a change in it.  Amy had gone to check on what was keeping her nephews. 

 

Cy, his daughter, and Sam Cutter departed soon after dinner, wanting to get back before it was too dark.  The two ranchers bid each other farewell, the rift between them tenuously spanned by a tentative agreement to allow CA Connected cattle access to water at Jacob’s Wells.  Seth, Cooper, Vince, Brodie, and their work crew’s rode back in with reports that the cut fencing had been repaired and the majority of Hangin’ G and CA cattle accounted for.  Tomorrow a crew would drive the wayward CA cattle north to Jacob’s Wells where they would be met by a crew from their home range who would make sure they got back to where they belonged. 

 

Finally the emotionally, and physically weary Barstow clan retired for the night.  McCullah, who volunteered to take the first watch with Jess, was replaced by an insistent Amy around midnight. She would not allow him to sleep in the upright, hard-backed chair.

 

Jess slowly moved toward consciousness, forcing his way through fever induced dreams, and nightmares, ones that involved Wilke and Slim interchangeably.  Sometimes he stood facing a laughing, grinning Wilke who was impossibly fast on the draw, others he stood before Slim, the rancher's face dark with anger as he called Jess a no account drifter not fit to set down roots anywhere.  In still others, Slim gunned him while he stood helpless, unable to pull his gun.  His pleas for forgiveness, promises to lay down his gun at last and to give up his wandering ways did not go unheard by those who sat by his side, patiently washing his fevered flesh with cool cloths, murmuring words of reassurance that all would be well.

 

It was Amy that murmured the comforting words, calmed nightmares and gently tamped down feverish fires with a cool cloth.  She watched the man struggle with his fears, tears starting from her eyes when he asked forgiveness in such a forlorn tone that she thought her heart might break.

 

Standing to stretch her back in the dim light of daybreak, Amy stared at the man now sleeping peacefully at last.  His fever had finally broken, offering blissful release from his hidden demons for the man.  She studied his lean, handsome face, surprised at how young he actually was.  Strands of sweat dampened hair, tousled by his twisting and turning to escape unwanted dreams, strayed across a smooth brow and curled around his ears.  Long dark, lashes that would be the envy of any young woman curved along the line of the closed eyelids.  One arm was flung in crook above his head, while the other lay near his right hip, fingers splayed as if reaching for something.  For a moment she wondered what it would be like to feel the touch of one of those hands on her cheek and she blushed in embarrassment despite the fact she was alone.

 

Suddenly Jess breathed in deeply, letting it go in a soft moan as he moved in a long stretch, wincing when stitches pulled at the torn flesh.  Slowly dark lined eyelids cracked open revealing eyes the blue of a mid-winter sky on a cloudless day.  The eyes moved around the room, a puzzled frown puckering the handsome brow.

 

“S... Slim W... where?” the confused man whispered hoarsely, his eyes blinking slowly, closing as a hand moved down to rub them free of sleep that had collected in their corners.  His tongue ran sluggishly across cracked, dry lips.  “J... Jonesy, S... Slim... water?” 

 

Amy moved to pour a half cup of water and set it on the nightstand.  Bending over so she was in Jess’ field of vision, she smiled. “Mister Harper?  It’s Amy Barstow.  You're here at the Hangin’ G, remember?”

 

Jess made an effort to open his eyes wider when the young woman appeared beside him.  Blinking for a moment, he nodded.  “Yeah...” the gunfighter slurred slightly.  He was tired, very tired for some reason, as if he had ridden for days without sleep.

 

Amy smiled. “Good. Now ’m going to raise your head a little so you can take a couple sips of water.”  She gently lifted his head off the pillow, tipping his head forward slightly so he could drink.  “Not too fast now, we don’t want you getting sick from it” she admonished as he tried to gulp the water down eager for the liquid.

 

For a moment Jess thought he was going to be sick as his stomach clenched and then rolled uneasily at the water being offered it.  Breathing deeply, he concentrated in keeping the water where it belonged, but the effort tired him quickly and, with a small smile of thanks, he faded into sleep once more.

 

When he opened his eyes next, sunshine was streaming in the window to his right, the golden light brightening the room while warming it gently.   A snore caught his attention and he  turned his head to the left.  His pretty nurse had been replaced by Steve McCullah and for a moment, Jess wondered if he had dreamed her.  Reaching both arms above his head, he was surprised at how much effort the simple action took and he speculated on how long he had been out this time.  Vague memories of the doc working on him, intense pain and fevered dreams and nightmares flitted through his mind.  He opened his mouth to ask his friend for some water, but all that came out was a hoarse, croaking whisper that barely carried to his own ear’s, alone his nursemaid’s.  He coughed to clear his throat and lungs, immediately regretting the action as fire boiled up from his left side, telling him the decision to do so had not been a wise one.

 

This time though the sound was enough to bring Steve half way awake, dropping his sock-clad feet from the edge of the night stand where they rested;  He sat forward and studied his charge for a moment, noting the clear blue eyes looking back at him.

 

“Welcome back to the land of the living pard.  Was wonderin’ when you were gonna stop kitin’ around and get down to the business of wakin'.”  Standing, Steve groaned as he stretched long and hard, twisting slightly back and forth at the waist to loosen up the knots his back muscles had tied themselves into while he slept in the hard chair.  He reached over to the pitcher and poured a half cup of water.  “Here, let me get ya some of this, and then you can talk.”

 

Jess tried to squirrel himself up on the pillows behind him, but flashes of pain corrected his action very quickly and he lay still, gritting his teeth against it.

 

Steve shook his head as he regarded his friend.  “Let that be a lesson, you let me, or whoever’s in here, tuh help yah.  You don’t need to go tearin’ out any of Doc Fuller’s hard work now, do yah?”

 

Jess glared at Steve for a moment, then looked pointedly over at the pitcher and cup that resided just out of reach on the nightstand.

 

McCullah grinned, then leaned over to gently pull Jess into a more upright position so he could sip from the cup his partner held for him. 

 

Three long sips of cool water and Jess lay his head back against the pillow, closing his eyes for a moment and savoring the liquid running down his throat, convincing his stomach that yes, the water did need to stay put’ and marshaling his energy to ask a couple of questions of his partner. Finally he opened his eyes again.  “How long?” he asked, his voice a husky shadow of the rich baritone he normally spoke in.

 

“Since you gunned Wilke?  Three days. This is the morning of the fourth.  Your fever broke a couple of hours ago, thought you might be wakin’ up soon.”  Steve offered the cup of water again and Jess shook his head, his stomach was putting up a fight with what it had now.  “How you feelin’?” Steve asked, setting the cup back on the nightstand

 

“Rode hard ‘n put away wet.” Jess groaned and swallowed convulsively, he was not going to be sick if he could help it.

 

“Yeah, Doc said you would feel that way, say’s you’re to stay in this bed for the next four – five days...”

 

Jess snorted. “Be outta here in two.”

 

Steve looked at the worn, fatigue-lined face of his friend,  noting the gray color that had replaced the healthy tan and smiled. “Sure you will, pard,” he said gently. “Why don’t you get some more rest an’ we’ll bring yah some broth and tea.”

 

Jess wrinkled his nose at the mention of broth and tea.  What he wanted was a good thick, rare steak, potatoes and some hot coffee.  That was what built a man back up again after he’d been down with fever or shot or somethin’, not swamp water disguised as tea and wash water broth.

 

McCullah laughed at the look on his friend's face at the mention of broth and tea, he could almost hear the thoughts rolling around in Jess’ head.  “You let the women worry ‘bout ya for a day or two more ole’ hoss before you start kicking up a fuss.  You’ll be out there riding the Big Open soon enough.”

 

Steve walked over to the window that looked out over the main yard.  In the distance dark clouds were gathering again. The drought had finally ended, rain had fallen last night and stopped just before daybreak.  Along with the rain had come cooler temperatures at night, a sign that fall was on its way. 

 

During the day it was plenty warm, but at night frost had lightly touched the trees and grass, and the leaves were left with a tinting of red, orange and gold.  As he turned back from the window, Steve caught the merest flicker of something he never thought he would see in Jess’ eyes: fear, the fear of being alone again with the lady they called The Big Open.   Steve pretended not to notice and walked toward the bedroom door.  “I’m gonna let Miss Amy know to get that broth ready for ya,  he said, pulling the door partially closed behind him.

 

Jess closed his eyes wearily.  Outside he could hear the muffled neigh of a pony and the cluck of chickens as they scratched in the yard.  It made him smile sadly because Slim was always despairing about the chickens getting run down by the incoming stage.  Jess didn’t mind one bit, it just meant there would be chicken and dumplings, or fried chicken for dinner that night.  He felt tightness in his chest at the thought of Jonesy standing by the big iron stove stirring a pot of something, Slim sitting at his desk doing some kind of paperwork, griping about how Mose was always coming in too fast and running down a hen that was not quick enough to get out of the way.  Jess took a deep breath, a mistake, he discovered as he swore at the painful pulling of stitches, and pushed the memories to the back of his mind.

 

For two days rain fell with little let up, as if trying to make up for lost time.  Parched land that had been baked iron hard was unable to absorb the sudden onslaught of moister and rain ran across the ground in sheets.  Big Sandy Creek swelled until it threatened to jump its banks, but never quite did.  Along with the rain came a sudden drop in temperature, a sharp warning that fall was a short lived season in this country, and ranch life quickly swung back into action.

 

While Jess slept, rested and healed, Steve rode out with the Barstows and their hands helping to move cows and calves to a holding area for branding.  Normally there would be a fall round up, but the season had been so poor that cattle carried little extra weight for market and would have to be wintered over in hopes of fattening in the spring. 

 

As he healed, Jess’ temper shortened.  He was tired of being cooped up in the bedroom, left alone with nothing but his thoughts, memories and regrets.  The left side of his body had bloomed into a beautiful array of dusky purples, hazy reds, and sickly yellowish greens around the wound.  The sound of the ranch hands riding out in the morning, simply served as a kind of torture for the confined man and, when Amy found him attempting to slip downstairs for the third time in one morning, he snarled and snapped at her like a dog left too long on a rope. 

 

Amy drew herself up to her full height and glared at her charge, eyes flashing.

 

“Mister Harper!” she exclaimed in exasperation. “If I catch you again with so much as one toe outside of this bed, not only will I have Mister McCullah tie you down, but I will not cook that rare steak for you tonight and you will once again dine on broth.”

 

        Jess flopped back against the pillows on the bed in disgust, glaring his best at the auburn haired young woman in the doorway.

 

Amy felt for the man, but was only following instructions left by Doc Fuller issued no more than two hours earlier when the doctor had come by to check on his patient.  The doctor had okayed Jess sitting out on the porch for an hour or two, but under no circumstances was he to even consider anything more until the end of the week.  Amy glared back at the unwilling patient and sighed.  She didn’t know how she was going to keep him in bed another two hours, let alone off a horse for the next three days.

 

To say that Jess Harper was a poor patient was, at best, like saying that the grass was green or the sky blue.  However, Amy was not to be deterred in the following of doctor’s orders, Jess Harper notwithstanding.  Reaching into her bag of tricks she pulled out one that worked quite well with her nephews: bribery.

 

“Look, if you rest until after lunch, and promise not to try anything foolish, you can sit on the porch for a bit.”  She offered the concession like a mother offering a reluctant five year old a sweet in trade for good behavior.  She smiled when, after a moment, Jess rolled his eyes, sighed and nodded an unenthusiastic agreement.  Bribery worked for about twenty-four hours and then Jess simply ignored the young woman’s demands.  Despite Amy’s protests Jess climbed several times a day from bed and walked downstairs and out to the corral.  The first trip was slow and painful, muscles stiff from being trapped in bed, and by the time he returned to his room he was ready for a short nap.

 

CH 24

 

Jess leaned on the corral fence, watching as Traveler ambled over for some attention.  The big bay gelding swung his head over the top rail and nudged his owner.  Jess grinned and scratched the horse along the jaw line. 

 

“Ready to move on old son?”   Jess asked affectionately, watching the animal’s eyes droop half closed in pleasure. Jess was feeling that restless itch growing inside of him: it was time to go, and there was nothing to hold him here.  It was almost a week since the gun fight up at the CA Connected and the subsequent killing of Anson Wilke and Jess being shot as well.

 

Fever had claimed him for two days while his body fought off a minor infection and then Doc had confined him to bed for two more.  The Barstow women had proven quite a team of watch dog nurses, seeming to be able to sense the moment he tried to sneak out of bed.  They had also proven to be wonderful cooks and Jess appreciated each and every bite, with the exception of course of the broth and tea.  Now that familiar voice was calling to him, but this time she was singing a tune he had not heard in a long, long time: ‘Home... come on Home’ the voice seemed to say.  Home... Where was home?  On the trail, riding the Big Open?  Back at the Sherman place?  He didn’t relish the idea of riding alone again with the first option, and he had about as much chance of being welcomed back to the second as he did of flying, seeing as Slim had just about chased him off the place at the end of gun.  Still the thought of ‘home’ was a good one; he was tired of riding alone, living by the gun, not knowing where and when the next bullet would come.  He wanted to set down roots finally. 

 

The laughter of Vince’s sons as they wrestled with their youngest uncle drew his attention.  The two boys clung to their uncle like ticks to a hound; the youngest had arms and legs wrapped tightly around Seth’s left leg, while the eldest clung to his uncles back.  Both boys were giggling wildly as Seth slowly made his way toward Jess and the corral.

 

Memories of his younger brothers assaulted Jess as he watched, and he had to look away from the hilarity.  Pain stronger and deeper than any physical wound tore at his heart.  He tightly squeezed his eyes closed and pushed the pain deep down inside where it could be ignored.  The memories, however, he cherished for a fleeting moment before putting them away as well.

 

Traveler raised his head, ears pricked forward as a horse and rider came around the back of the house.  The gelding snorted and nickered at the big Appaloosa who returned the greeting. 

 

Steve pulled his mount to a halt and stepped down, tired from the branding that was finally finished.  It had been three days of sunup to sundown work that left a man worn out.  Steve leaned on the rail next to Jess, letting his mount's rein drop.

 

“Good to see you out here, pard,” the older man said in his soft Texas drawl. 

 

Jess nodded in agreement. “Good to be out, and now I’m thinking it’s time to move on.” Jess looked at his friend. “I’ll be riding out either tomorrow or the next day, you gonna come?  Or stay here and turn an honest dollar at forty a month and found?”  he asked casually, although he thought he knew the answer.  Steve had always been more cowboy than gunfighter, despite his talent with a gun.

 

Steve considered the slighter man next to him.  Although Jess had rebounded from his injury fairly quickly, there were still tell-tale signs that he was not completely well.  Some color had returned to Jess’ face, but there were still dark circles under his eyes and he tired quickly.  It would take some time for the bullet wound itself to close and torn muscles to knit together. But, Steve knew that, once Jess made up his mind to ride out, nothing short of tying him up would keep him here at the ranch.

 

He flashed a smile at his friend and laughed.

 

“You have me all figured out, don’t yah, Pard.  Yeah, I figure to lite here for a while if ol’ Gus ’ill have me.  Seems like ma nature’s plannin’ on an early winter, skippin’ fall entirely.  You know me,  I don’t like travelin’ in the cold.  Like to find me a place to hole up before we get sleet an’ snow flyin’.”

 

Jess nodded. “Yeah; but I’m bettin’ the old girl’s just playin’ with us, teasin' with frost and such.”

 

“Could be you’re right, but I rather be wrong in a warm, dry place with plenty to eat than be right and get caught out on the trail,”  Steve rejoined firmly.

 

 

“Yeah, well I’ve got miles I wanna’ make before real weather comes off those mountains,”  Jess said, straightening and giving Traveler an affectionate slap on the neck.  He walked toward the house that originally had been meant for Steve and himself.

 

“You’re going back, aren’t yah?” Steve called quietly, causing Jess to stop and turn back to look at him quizzically. “To Wyoming.  You're going back because you have business with Sherman, don't yah.”

 

Jess gave his friend a sad smile.  “Yeah, Pard, somethin’ like that,” he said, resuming his walk to the Foreman’s shack and disappearing inside.

 

Steve trailed along behind, catching up the rein of his horse as he went and tying the animal to the rail in front of the small house.

 

Inside, Jess draped his saddlebags across the back of one of the two wooden chairs and was filling them with his meager belongings.  Once again, his extra shells were put on top for easy access.

 

Steve watched in silence as his partner packed his belongings, his normally deft, nimble movements shaky and awkward, fumbling unsteadily with the straps that kept the bags closed.
        

Steve sighed and shook his head. “Jess, you ain’t strong enough to ride an hour in the saddle, let alone all the way to Laramie.  That's a good five, six days hard riding from here.”

 

Jess looked up from what he was doing. “I been worse an’ ridden just as far,”  he said quietly as he walked over to where his  sat patiently on a rack along with his forty-four forty resting in its boot.  He pulled the gun, carefully looked it over and worked the lever to chamber a round, listening and feeling the action of the rifle.  Satisfied, he methodically ejected the remaining rounds, counting them as he reloaded and slipped the gun back in its sheath.

 

“Doc’s not gonna be happy with you up and riddin’ so soon,”  Steve muttered.

 

Jess barked a sharp laugh. “Never stopped me before.”

 

“Jess, I’ll ride with yah.  Just let me square it with Barstow,  the lean cowboy cum gunfighter said, walking over to lay a hand on Jess’ shoulder.    

        

“No, you gotta good thing here, Steve; you always were more cow hand than gun hand any way,” Jess said firmly, tempering his words with a smile that was reflected in his eyes.

 

Steve gave a wry smile and nodded. “Yeah, well that’s why I kept you around.”  He removed his hat and tossed it on his bunk, ran a hand through his sweat-matted hair.

 

“Jess, I...” The Texan stopped, not knowing what to say to the younger man.  Harper was the type of man that seemed almost destined to roam a good part of his life, never landing in one place long enough to set any kind of root in the ground permanently.  Always looking for that unnamed thing that only his heart could identify.

 

“It’s been a good ride, Steve, I’m glad I ran into yah,”  Jess said, returning the gesture of friendship.  The two men regarded each other for a moment, silently acknowledging that this might be the last time the friends saw each other.  Dropping his hand, Jess walked outside.

 

That evening Jess shared a final dinner with the hands of the Hangin’ G.  The men were generous in their thanks and wishes for a safe journey where ever the winds would blow him, shaking hands solemnly after dinner before busying themselves with personal chores or involving themselves in the nightly game of poker. 

 

Brodie invited Jess, Steve and Cooper into his room for a private drink.  The four men sat around the small table where a half empty bottle of Bourbon sat, a glass of the red-gold whiskey in front of each man.  Brodie lifted the glass in salute.

 

 

          “Jess, been an honor to meet the man behind the name, and find out there’s more to him than just the reputation.”  The older man downed the liquor in one shot, the other three men following suit.

 

Brodie picked up the bottle and poured another round.  Setting the bottle back down, he pulled an envelope from inside his vest.  “Gus sent this over.”  He slid it across the table to the gunfighter.  “He says you can get whatever supplies you need from the chuck, and there’s a pack horse out in the corral for yah, a bob-tailed clay bank, a good steady horse. I’ve used him a time or two.  You’re heading out at sunup?”

 

Jess picked up the envelope and tucked it away into the inner pocket of his black leather vest, nodded.  “Yeah, got a lot of ground to cover.  Tell Gus thanks for the loan of the pack horse.”  Jess took a sip of Bourbon, his lips pulling tight in a grimace against his teeth as the strong drink burned its way down his throat.  “Good stuff,” he said, shaking his head slightly.

 

Talk drifted toward cattle, weather, travel and places the four had been, as well as places they’d like to see.  It was almost like being back at the Sherman ranch after a hard day.  With Andy bed, Slim, Jess and Jonesy would talk quietly about ‘things,’ ‘affairs’ and ‘doin’s’ before calling it a night.  The routine settled the soul and relaxed the mind before heading to bed.

 

Dawn came as it usually did: far too early. Jess stretched, wincing and stifling a groan of pain as the still healing bullet wound pulled against its stitches.  Sitting up slowly, the gunfighter ran a hand through tousled dark hair as he yawned hugely, his breath pluming in the chill air of the room.  In the dimness of pre-dawn light, he could see his partner standing by the potbelly stove, stirring the coals back to life as he fed in thin strips of kindling.

 

Steve looked up and chuckled at his friend who sat shivering lightly on the edge of his bed.  “Got a little chilly last night,” he said as flames began to eagerly consume the wood and, adding a couple of thicker sticks, Steve shut the door with a clang, locking it in place.

 

Jess stood and shuffled over to the stove, clad only in long-johns.  He shivered again and chaffed his arms to encourage increased blood flow and basking in the building warmth, he glanced toward the window.  Outside he could see the sky fading from inky black to indigo and various shades of blue until it was almost white with the stark light of the rising sun with lines of pink and gold that reached upward, toward small fluffy white clouds and giving them a golden radiance. 

 

Warmed enough, Jess pulled on jeans and a shirt, leaving the shirt unbuttoned.  He poured water into a shallow bowl and washed quickly with the cold water.  He fingered his cheeks and chin, debating whether or not to shave, opting for the first.  Finally, bedroll rolled and t and carried under his left arm, Jess  picked up the stuffed saddle bags  them over his left shoulder, then  walked to where the Winchester and saddle rested.

 

He took down the sheathed rifle with his left hand.  He slipped his fingers in the hollow at the bottom of the pommel of the saddle, intending to hoist the forty-pound-plus  saddle over his right shoulder.    The spirit was willing, but his still injured body was not and Jess could not hide the gasp of pain as he attempted to lift the heavy stock saddle.  The sudden lightning bolts of pain that shot through his body made his knees want to buckle and he caught himself with his right hand on the wall, a cold sweat breaking out on his forehead.  He tried to breathe through it. 

 

Steve withheld any remarks of “I told you, you weren’t ready to ride,” took the saddle from the rack and headed to the door.  Outside, he slung the saddle over the top rail as Jess laid saddle bags across the saddle and leaned the rifle against the rails.  Nearby the clay bank gelding stood tied, its pack saddle already in place carrying a rolled, oiled ground cloth as well as Jess’ slicker and extra blankets.

 

In the bunkhouse, cowhands in various stages of dress, sat at the long rough trestle table laden with platters of bacon, eggs, ham and pancakes as well as a bowl of grits seasoned with butter and pepper. Conversation was limited as copious amounts of food and hot coffee were consumed, but heads turned when the door opened to admit the two men.

 

Greetings were murmured between chewing and sipping coffee as the two men grabbed clean plates and cups from the sideboard and occupied empty seats. 

 

There would be no good-byes today; anything that needed or wanted to be said had been done the night before.  Soon after, the men were pushing away from the table, some quickly finishing their morning ablations while others donned hats and gloves, then headed out to catch up their mounts for the day’s work.  As they passed by Jess, they silently laid a hand on his shoulder or tipped their hat and murmured a quiet “adios.”

 

Finally the two men finished their meal and walked out to the porch, the chuck silently handing Jess a bulging draw-string bag, and patted the younger man on the back before retreating back to the kitchen.  For a moment Jess was struck by the similarity of Jonesy and his departure from the Sherman ranch) and his throat tightened with emotion.  He slung the sack over his shoulder and he winced as the stitches pulled at the tightening of muscles.

 

The two friends walked silently over to the corral where Steve’s appaloosa gelding and Traveler stood watching the activity in the yard, ears pricked forward in interest.  Jess walked over to Traveler and laced his fingers through the heavy black mane, leading the horse to the rail.  He pulled the bridle off the saddle horn and, after taking a moment to warm it between his hands, deftly slipped the bit in the horses mouth. He slid the crown piece behind the black tipped ears and looped the reins over the top rail of the corral.  Now came the fun part: pulling the saddle off the rail and swinging it up on the waiting animal’s back. 

 

Jess took a deep breath and pulled the heavy saddle from the rail, swung it onto Traveler's back, swearing under his breath as the pain made him weak-kneed.   He swore softly and rested his head against the leather, bright flashes of light behind his eyes as pain just short of agony shot through his body and blurred his vision.  He closed his eyes and grit his teeth against the sharp stabbing in his left side, panting.  He reached down and pulled the cinch through the D-rings, kneeing the bay in the belly to prevent him from sucking wind and, with a final effort, pulled the cinch tight, set the buckle and looped the leather strap and snugged it, then dropped the stirrup.  Quickly he tied his saddlebags and bedroll behind the cantle and secured the rifle in place on the right side of the saddle. 

 

As he pulled the reins free of the rail, Jess noticed Steve waiting patiently by the gate, holding the lead rein to the packhorse.  The rest of the hands had already ridden out, headed for their day's work, Cooper Ames waiting on up the trail for Steve.

 

Jess’ mount was much less than his usual athletic style as he slowly levered himself up into the saddle, accepting the lead from Steve and dallying it around the horn.

 

The two men silently regarded each other.  Once again they were riding separate trails: one the drifter, the other the cowhand.  More than likely they would not encounter each other again.  Steve held out a hand.

 

“Smooth trails, and fair skies Jess,  Steve said, his voice sounding thick.

 

Jess looked somberly at his friend, then around at the house and surrounding buildings.  “Make a place for yourself Steve, you’re getting’ too old for driftin’,”  he smiled and took the man’s hand in a firm grip.  When he let go, he wheeled Traveler and the pack horse around, kneed the bay into an easy jog, heading west..

 

Steve sat for a moment longer, watching the lone rider.  “You too, Jess... you too,” he whispered, then reined his mount around, riding after Cooper.

 

CH 25

 

Mother Nature was kind to Jess, giving him two days of glorious Indian Summer weather, warm but not hot days with deep blue skies dotted with friendly, fluffy little clouds that seemed to band together like wooly sheep.  The clay bank pony was as steady as promised, nether balking or forging on the lead line, making life just a little easier for both Jess and Traveler. 

 

The nights were crisp, but not truly cold though frost tipped the buffalo grass and trees flamed into brilliant color, dotting the open range with splotches of  deep gold, fiery red, and brilliant orange. 

 

He found himself tiring quickly much to his frustration, his body unable to give him the long days in the saddle that he required to make Laramie in seven or eight days.  The first two days, he covered barely thirty miles each day, before the pain in his side demanded he rest. 

 

The first night it had taken him twenty minutes to unsaddle both animals, the weight of the tack almost driving him to his knees, and stitches free of their fleshy anchor.  But he ignored the blood that seeped slowly onto the bandages beneath the dark blue shirt just swore angrily, teeth clenched in pain, and settled the saddles on the ground for a comfortable back rest, then set about putting together a fire ring and gathering what kindling he could find.  The surrounding area, being fairly open, was not given to a whole lot of trees and pickings were scarce, so his fire was small and gave but little warmth. 

 

The chuck had been more than generous when filling the bag with basic staples, there were good sized bags of coffee, sugar, and flour as well as a quarter side of bacon, dried beans, two cans each of milk, tomatoes and, glory be... peaches.  Deeper in the bag were some small tart apples and a few potatoes.  At least he would eat reasonably well on the trail.  After putting coffee onto boil, he turned to laying out the ground cloth and spreading blankets on top.  Despite the fact that it had been dry for several days now, the warmth of the day faded from the ground quickly once the sun dropped below the horizon and a man didn’t want to bed down on the bare earth if he didn’t need to.   Once the horses were hobbled, Jess fried up some bacon and potatoes with an apple for dessert. 

 

The night was crystal clear and his breath smoked white in the cold air.  Jess slowly sipped the last of the hot coffee and tossed the remainder of his meager wood pile on the fire, watching the flames eagerly reach for the new fuel and listening to the wood snap and hiss as any moisture was heated.  He was alone... again... he sighed softly, and shook his head. What was he doing wrong?  No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t seem to find a place to light permanently.  Hell, even stray dogs seemed to have a better chance of setting down roots than he did.

 

Just what did he expect to happen when he returned to Laramie and the Sherman Ranch any way?  To be welcomed with open arms?  Slim had indicated that he wanted him to come back, but could he, after what was said?  In the distance a coyote sang to the moon, causing the hair on the nape of his neck to rise.  Part of him almost wanted to sing back, to echo the loneliness of the song, but he didn’t.  Instead, he tossed the dregs in his cup, banked the fire and climbed under the blankets, his gun belt tucked comfortably close, and closed his eyes to the world.

 

 

The sun glistened off the hoarfrost that lined the branches of the tough scrub and buffalo grass as Jess moved stiffly around his small camp.  He had needed to go rather far a field to gather some wood for coffee with beans and bacon, but the hot meal would be worth it.  Jerky and an apple or two would be lunch in the saddle.  He needed to push harder if he was going to make the pass to the west of Fort Collins before any appreciable snow fell.  The bleeding that had started from him tearing his stitches had finally stopped, but the wound was slightly inflamed and warm to the touch.  He would have to wash it out with hot water laced with some of the whiskey Brodie had given him the night before he rode out, then re-wrap it. 

 

Traveler and Pete, the clay bank gelding, watched the man as he bustled about, their breath looking like twin smoke stacks from a train as it plumed skyward.  Jess smiled to himself; ole Trav’ was proving to be quite an iron horse with all the miles Jess was packing on him.  The animal had been with him since Texas.  A rare find, Traveler proved to be a good all-around stock horse, able to cut, rope and otherwise work stock.  But not only that,  he had enough grit for any two horses Jess had run across, and a fair turn of speed when it counted most.

 

With coffee boiled, and bacon frying, Jess set about getting the rest of his gear packed up and the animals saddled.  The second chore was one he did not look forward to.  The torn muscles in his abdomen felt on fire as they tightened or stretched when he lifted the bulky pack and stock saddle into place, tightened the cinches just enough to keep them in place, but allow the animals relax.  Inside the wound, the delicate scar tissue that was forming tore and split, allowing bleeding to begin again.

 

Squatting on his haunches, Jess rubbed his eyes and then poured some strong, black coffee, adding only a little sugar to ease the bitterness.  Pulling the bacon off the fire, he added them to the plate that held the left over beans from last night and poured the grease into the empty can that he had saved.  Bacon grease came in handy for all sorts of things and, given the temperature, it wouldn’t take long to harden for travel.

 

It didn’t take long to finish his meal and finish packing his gear, douse the fire with the last of the coffee and stirring the ashes.  With the early onset of colder weather, he planned to ride west-northwest  in an almost direct line for Denver,  then swing north toward Fort Collins, turning northwest once more to follow the Laramie river and skirt along the Medicine Bow range of the Rockies west to Laramie.  The route would mean he would be missing most towns or settlements and supplies would have to be managed carefully.  It was possible he would be able to restock at the fort before continuing on, as long as he arrived before the snow in the high passes did.

 

After pulling cinches tight, and double checking the rigging on the pack saddle, Jess carefully levered himself up into his saddle.  Pain flared to life and the fragile scabbing that had formed as he slept reopened allowing the slow continued draining of strength and endurance. 

 

Riding the Big Open gave a man time to think about things, like where he was going in life, just what he was looking for, and what he would pay to not only find, but keep it when he found it.  Jess knew that he had found what he was looking for in the Sherman ranch, the sense of family and brotherhood, more importantly the sense of finally belonging.  He also knew that he would do just about anything to keep it, if he were ever able to get that back again.  Living a schedule on Slim’s terms took some doing; especially for a man that had been living by his own clock for almost ten years. But, he reckoned he would get used to it if it meant finally having a home again. 

 

Jess held the horses between steady jog, a pace they could keep up for the better part of the day, and occasional stretches at a strong lope.  Again Jess appreciated Traveler’s easy ground covering gaits; a man with ground to cover didn’t need to get anymore saddle sore than his horse.  The warmth of the day wore on, and Jess dozed lightly in the saddle, a habit born of necessity when circumstances called for him to leave a place rather quickly and keep moving for awhile.  About noon, Jess pulled the horses to a halt in a small clump of Downey Hawthorne that grew along the bank of some un-named stream.  Slowly swinging down, he grunted and pressed a hand against the wound.  He was going to have to take a look at that again while he let the horses rest and graze for about an hour.

 

Pulling hobbles out of a pack on Pete’s back, Jess slipped the bit on Traveler and fitted the walking hobbles both horses forelegs, then loosened the cinches and pulled some jerky, a couple of apples, and the canteen for himself, as well as a clean bandage.  Settling his back against the rough bark of a nearby tree, he tore a bite of jerky off and chewed slowly, taking a long pull from the canteen.  His gaze roamed over the open grassland, along the ridge of the distant rise and back to the stream.  “This,’ he thought to himself “would make some fine grazing land, could easily run a hundred head in this valley.”

 

Pausing, he shook his head and laughed softly, “Look at me,” he thought wryly. “Thinking like a rancher, a no-account drifting gunman with nothing to his name but two horses, a Winchester, the clothes on his back, and the gun on his hip.”  He didn’t count the money he carried in the envelope tucked safely inside his vest.  It was more money than he had seen in a long time, but wealth, he learned a long time ago, was fleeting. 

 

Chewing on the tough jerky, he sighed, looking toward hazy bulk of the mountains in the distance.  If he had any sense, he’d ride south toward warmer climate, like Mexico.  There was always some little war going on down there that needed another gun.  The thought was fleeting though, in his heart he knew he couldn’t turn away from Slim, Jonesy, and Andy.  Now that he was on the trail, the pull back toward Laramie was stronger than ever, the voice that called him there more insistent.

 

 

Finishing his meal, Jess set to the task of checking his wound.  Quickly he unwound the gauze that held the thick padding that covered the wound.  Frowning, he saw that the wadding was stained dark with both old and new blood, not a good sign.  Gently he worked lose the cotton cloth, wincing and muttering soft oaths when the fabric stubbornly remained stuck to the skin.  Using water from the canteen, he soaked the pad free and cleaned the skin around the wound.  Dropping the wet stained cloth to the ground when it finally pulled free, he knew he was in trouble.  The wound had been an angry red last night when he had cleaned it with the water and whiskey mixture, but now it was swollen and warm to the touch as well.  A scab had tried to form across the top of the wound, but his movement had torn it open several times and a thin serum of blood and green-yellow puss drained from it.  He knew what came next: he would have to open and drain the wound as best he could.  Bending, he picked up the wet cloth, peeling away layers of cloth until he had a reasonably clean area, then, taking a deep breath he pressed firmly on the swollen flesh around the opening. 

 

Teeth clenched, Jess rinsed the wound with water repeatedly until the it bled clean, wishing he had brought the bottle of whiskey that was in his saddlebag, but it would have to wait until tonight.  Quickly re-wrapping the wound, he refilled his canteen and gathered up the horses, the effort of tightening the saddles brought tears of pain to his eyes. 

 

The next day Jess pushed hard to make up the short miles he had gotten the previous two days.  A feeling of urgency filled him as he rode; he had to get back to Laramie.

 

Ch 26

 

Black tipped ears flicked back and forth nervously as Traveler snorted softly,  moving along  at a slow jog.  He was confused and frightened by the unsteadiness of his rider whose normally soft, reassuring voice that he knew so well had changed in tone, becoming loud and quarrelsome.   The trusted hand, so kind on the rein, was unusually rough and unsteady, sometimes pulling harshly on his mouth, other times laying lax on the pommel, letting him choose his own direction without correction.   Yet something kept him on a northwesterly course, some instinct telling the faithful mount that safety and security lay in that direction, therefore he held to it.

 

Jess floated in and out of reality, sometimes fighting inner demons, others hanging onto lucidity by his finger tips.  Despite his ministrations, the healing wound had become infected, bringing on the fever that now raged within him.  In one of his more coherent moments, he had pointed the horses toward Dilsworth, a small town just southeast of Fort Collins, praying that he could hang on long enough to get there.

 

The sun was well up when the bay gelding walked slowly down the middle of the single street of the small dusty town.  A few horses stood patiently at the half dozen hitching rails that evenly lined either side of the street and a single wagon sat in front of the mercantile while two men worked at loading supplies into it.  A handful of people moved up and down the boardwalk that ran in front of the small shops and saloon that made up Dilsworth, but they paid little attention to the rider on the trail-worn horse as the animal came to a halt in front of an empty hitching rail, nor did they seem to notice how the rider slowly slumped forward onto his mount's neck.

 

No one that is except the sheriff whose job it was to notice such happenings.

 

Henry Dickerson had been the sheriff of Dilsworth for almost twelve years and, although he was not as young as he use to be, his eyes were still sharp and missed very little.  As was his habit, he was sitting out in front of his office, watching the comings and goings of the small community.  His eye was the only one drawn for more than a moment, curious about the horse and rider as they made their way down the street and coming to a halt two doors up from his office.   A frown puckered his already creased forehead as dark eyes noted the loose-limbed way the man sat in the saddle, head tipped forward on his chest as if he were asleep and the horse had simply found its own way into town.   Something, however, told the old lawman that this was not the case, and, rising from the chair, he called over his shoulder to the boy sweeping out his office.

 

“Peter, go get Doc Sellers; tell him I have a patient for him.”

 

Cautious, he headed toward the still mounted man, absently easing his gun in its well worn holster as he went.  As he walked up the boardwalk past the mercantile, the two men paused in their work, watching the sheriff as he passed with purpose in his stride. 

 

“Trouble Henry?” the older of the two questioned as he jumped down off the tail of the wagon.

 

“Could be...” the sheriff replied, stopping for a moment.  “Either of you recognize that bay or the clay-bank?”

 

Both men shook their heads as the second man joined the first on the street and, exchanging glances, joined the sheriff as he continued up the boardwalk.

 

The bay horse snorted, shifting his feet nervously and rolling an eye at the approaching strangers, causing Jess to list to one side slightly.

 

“Whoa there, son,” Henry said quietly, coming to a halt so he would not spook the nervous animal any more than he already was.  The way the man hunched in the saddle he knew he was not asleep, but there was something definitely wrong.  Henry took a step forward, speaking softly in a reassuring tone.  Slowly he raised his hand and grasped the slack rein and Traveler shied anxiously, but did not attempt to pull free.  The movement however was enough to unseat Jess. 

 

“Catch him!” Henry called as he steadied the horse.  The two men jumped forward and barely managed to grab the man before he hit the ground and carried him over to the boardwalk.

 

“What do you have for me, sheriff?” a deep voice asked from the boardwalk.

 

Henry tied off the horse and turned to the questioner.  “Don’t know, Doc, he just came in this way,” he answered, stepping back up onto the boardwalk and crouching by the unconscious man.

 

Deftly he patted the man’s pants pockets and vest and,  locating a thick wallet, pulled it from an inside vest pocket.  He cocked an eyebrow at the three men surrounding him and opened the wallet, revealing a thick wad of bills and a worn, folded sheet of paper.  Pulling the latter free, he unfolded the sheet and quickly read it.  What he found caused his second eyebrow to join the first, hiding in his hairline.  The sheet stated that one Jess Harper had been found innocent of charges presented against him in the state of Texas and any and all wanted posters for those charges were null and void.

 

“Well, I’ll be shaved and shorn and called Suzie,” he muttered and looked at the three men gathered around him.  “Gentlemen, you are looking at Jess Harper.”

 

Doc Sellers snorted, “I don’t care if I'm looking at the President of these United States, this man needs help.” He studied the unconscious man for a moment, laying a hand on the flushed forehead. “Whatever else is wrong, he’s got a darn good fever goin’.”  Standing, he nodded to the two men who now stood to one side. “Take him on down to my office(,) I’ll be right there.”  

 

He looked back at the sheriff and sighed “Why do I know the name 'Jess Harper'?”

 

The lawman grimaced. “He’s the gunfighter that took down Anson Wilke over Aroya way during that little scuffle over water rights that was going on, got paid a nice price for it, too.” He waved the wallet that he still held in his hand, then shook his head. “You better go take care of your patient.  At least you know he can pay for your services.  I’m gonna lock this up in my safe in the office and make sure these horses get taken care of.  By the looks of it, this bay here may have saved his life.  I’ll be down after that to get his gun from you, so I can lock that up too.  We don’t need any trouble and neither does he.”

 

A half hour later found the sheriff sitting patiently in the tiny waiting room of Doc’s office.  The smell of Carbolic suddenly permeated the air when a door set in the wall across from him swung open and the physician walked out.

 

“Well, Doc?” the lawman queried, leaning forward, arms resting on his knees.

 

“He should be fine in a day or so, darned fool.  From what I found I can say that Anson Wilke did not go down without a fight.   Someone did a fine job of patching him up, more ‘n likely saved his life, but Mister Harper should have listened to his physician a little closer.  If he had, he wouldn’t be laying in that bed in the other room right now.  Seems he caught one of Mister Wilke’s bullets and the half healed wound became infected after Harper tore the stitches out.  I cleaned out the hole with carbolic, and stitched him back up.  Fever should start coming down pretty quick now that’s done, but he’ll be out for at least a couple of hours.  I gave him a pretty good dose of Laudanum before I started treating him.” Doc reached over and handed the sheriff Jess’ gun belt and Colt.  “He’s not going to be needing this for the next day or two, might as well lock it up with his other possessions.”

 

          Henry came to his feet as he accepted the bundle, looking at it thoughtfully before tucking it under his arm and turning toward the door.

                                      

                                                                              ******

 

Jess groaned softly and turned his head to one side, trying to figure out where he was and what in the seven blazes had happened to him.  He seemed to be making a habit of waking up in these kinds of situations and finding himself in places he didn't recall.  It was obvious that he was in a bed somewhere, but where?  He vaguely remembered pointing Traveler's nose toward Fort Collins, praying that he would make it there before he went under from fever.   He strained his ears and listened intently for sounds that might indicate he had, indeed, made it that far, but none were forth coming.  The only thing he heard was his own raspy breathing.  There were no calls from the night watch or any other similar sounds that would be common to a military outpost.   

 

Mentally he swore vigorously and, cracking his eyes open, he let his gaze wander around the dimly lit room.  One look it was obvious he was not in a jail cell of any kind, not that it had entered his mind.  He was, unfortunately, far too familiar with the feel of a cell cot to mistake the bed he was in for one.  No... he was in someone’s house, but whose and where?  He braced himself on the mattress with both hands and attempted to push himself upright.  A sudden, sharp pain made him fall back on the pillow, and he swore less silently this time.  He had forgotten about the bullet wound, but the sound of footsteps beyond the walls of his room alerted him to the approach of his caretaker or jailor. 

 

As the footsteps neared the door, Jess found himself looking for his gun belt, an instinct resurrected by his lifestyle of the last few months.  A gunfighter without his gun was a dead gunfighter in almost any given situation, and his was nowhere to be found.  Again he attempted to push himself upright, he be darned if he would meet his fate flat on his back.  He ignored the burning and pulling of new stitches as he struggled upright, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead in the effort.  He was surprised at how weak he actually was.

 

The door swung open to reveal an older woman.  “Good morning, Mister Harper.  Philip said you would more than likely wake up before he got back.”  She said pleasantly with a smile, stepping into the room.

 

Jess released the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding until now and relaxed back onto the pillows behind him.  “Ma’am,” he replied hoarsely, his throat was dry as Texas in summer.  He ran his tongue across cracked lips.

 

Seeing the action, the woman hurried over to  a sideboard where a lamp stood emitting low light, beside a small pitcher and cup.  “Here, let me get you some water. I know Laudanum can sure dry a man out.  Of course that fever you came in with sure didn’t help things.  Not to worry though, Peter took care of that wound in your side.”

 

Bringing the partially full cup over to his bedside, she made a “tsking” sound with her tongue.  “Now look at you. Here, let's sit up so you can take some of this.”  She set the cup on the nightstand gently leaned him forward, pulling the pillows that, in his efforts, he had pushed down behind him.  Fluffing the pillows, she gestured for him to lean back.  “There, that’s better now.”

 

Jess sighed in relief and nodded(.) “Yes Ma’am,” he croaked, leaning his head back against the headboard and looking hopefully at the water.

 

The woman smiled, “I didn’t forget; here now, take it in small sips until we’re sure it’s going to stay down for you.”   She handed the cup to him, steadying his hand as he shakily brought it to his lips and let a small amount trickle in.

         

Jess savored the cool water with its slightly earthy taste as it ran down his throat.  For a moment thought he thought it was going to make a reappearance as his stomach clenched for a second at the introduction of the fluid, but the feeling passed quickly and he finished the cup's contents.

 

“Thank you, Miss... Missus?” he said, looking at her questioningly.

 

“Oh, I guess you would be wondering who I am and just where you are.”  She gave a soft chuckle, “I get so caught up in the nursin’ part of things that sometimes I forget to introduce myself.  I’m Amelia Sellers... Philip – Doctor Sellers is my husband, so that would make me a Missus.”

 

Jess closed his eyes, suddenly feeling very tired.  “ ‘m indebted to yah, Missus Sellers... Doc too,” he said wearily, slurring his words slightly as sleep started to take hold again.

 

Amelia smiled and pulled the blankets up higher around him.  “Nonsense Mister Harper.  Now you get some rest, I’ll have some broth waiting for you when you wake up again.”

 

When Jess woke again with sun streaming in the window to the left of the bed, looking to the nightstand he found a cup of water waiting patiently for him.  This time his efforts to sit upright were far more successful and he emptied the cup of its contents and lay back. 

 

Almost as if she had been waiting outside the bedroom door, Amelia entered carrying a small tray with a steaming bowl and a plate with two biscuits.  Setting her burden on the table under the window she turned to Jess.  “Well now, you look much better than when you came in yesterday, Mister Harper.  Philip will be in to speak with you as soon as he finishes his coffee.  In the mean time, I want you to try some of this beef broth.”

 

Jess frowned. “All the same, ma’am, I'd rather have steak and eggs.”

 

Amelia laughed. “I’m sure you would, but this is what you’re going to get this morning.  If you eat this now, then I will see what I can do for you for dinner tonight.  Now, do I feed you, or will you do it yourself?”

 

Jess laughed. “Missus Sellers you sure know how to convince a man.”

 

“Amelia: you may call me Amelia.  Everyone else does,” the older woman smiled as she set the tray on Jess’ lap.  “I’ll be back for this later, just set it on the nightstand when you are finished with it.”

 

Yes  Ma'am,” Jess said as he turned his attention to a biscuit that sat on the tray, set to applying butter to its interior.

 

As he finished the last of the savory broth that Mrs. Sellers had brought up for him, the door to his room swung open a second time.  “You must be the man I need to thank,”  Jess said appreciatively as the man approached bringing with him a slight aura of Carbolic and antiseptic that clung to his clothes, confirming Jess’ guess.

 

“Well young man, I would thank your horse for bringing you here in the first place.  You were quite unconscious when you arrived.”

 

Jess grinned. “It wouldn’t be the first time.  Traveler’s the best horse I’ve ever had.”

 

Doc Sellers nodded absently as he set the black bag he carried on the table by the window and set about pulling a stethoscope from its interior.  “Now, Mister Harper...  or may I call you Jess?” 

 

He glanced over at his patient and, at the younger man's nod, continued.  “Well, Jess, you did a fair job of tearing open the good work my colleague in Aroya did.  Got yourself a nice infection, and fever to go along with it for your efforts.  Now, let me take a look at my work, I want to make sure that I got all that out.”   

 

Fitting the arms of the stethoscope around his neck he gestured for Jess to lean forward.  “Let me take a listen to your lungs first.  I didn’t hear any congestion when I treated you yesterday, but I want to make sure.

 

Jess grimaced at the pain in his side as he leaned forward, flinching slightly at the touch of the cold metal of the stethoscope on his back.

 

“Sorry, forgot to warm it a bit before I did that,” Doc apologized.  “Now take a deep breath... and another... umm hmm... and again.” 

 

Jess obediently breathed in and out, coughed and held his breath as the physician moved the bell around various parts of his back, sighing with relief when he was able to lean back against the pillows once more.

 

Doc straightened and smiled.  “Good, just as I'd hoped.  As clear as a bell and good strong heart, too.  Now we’ll just take a look at that bullet wound of yours.” 

 

Folding down the sheet, Doc revealed the square of white bandage.  He pulled a small pair of scissors out of a pocket in his jacket and gently cut the cloth away.  Although red and swollen, the wound was nowhere near the angry looking injury it had been yesterday.  The serous drainage of blood and pus was almost entirely gone leaving only a small amount on the inside of the bandage.  “This is going to hurt a bit, sorry,” the doctor said as he gently probed around the wound with his fingers, noting that the heat that been there was gone as well.

 

Jess grunted as the doctor gently pushed and prodded around the injured area.  As the healer pressed on a particularly sensitive spot, Jess hissed and swore loudly,  “Easy Doc! That hurts like the blue blazes,” he gasped.

 

Doc Sellers straightened. “Well, I did say it was gonna hurt a bit, but I’m done now.  Looks like I got all the infection out, now all you need is a couple of days rest, followed by about a week of light activity to let this mend properly.”

 

Jess shook his head.  “Can’t wait that long Doc, gotta make it though the high pass on the other side of Fort Collins before the snow flies up there, or I’ll be here till spring,” he answered vehemently.

 

“And I am sure that is what got you in the situation you’re in now, Jess.  A man’s body heals only so fast, and if you keep tearing that wound open, then you’re going to end up lying in a ditch along the road somewhere and you’ll never get to wherever it is you’re headed,” the doctor admonished firmly, giving Jess a stern look to emphasize his point.

 

Jess laid his head back on the pillows in frustration.  “Doc,  you don’t understand; there’s somethin’ I gotta do, someone I gotta talk to and if I wait ‘til spring, it’ll be too late,” he retorted in equally as firm a tone.

 

The older man studied his patient for a moment, seeing the drive and determination in the man’s eyes and knowing that he would not be dissuaded from his intention of leaving far sooner than the doctor recommended.

 

“Okay, Mister Harper, but I strongly encourage you to wait until the end of the week at least.  Let your body recover and get some of your reserves back,”  Doc Sellers entreated using his best persuasive manner, the one he used on stubborn patients. 

 

Jess shook his head, undeterred.  “Tomorrow, the next day at the latest.  I’ll need to get some supplies.”    The gunfighter hitched himself up higher in the bed, wincing at the pull of the new stitches.  “I’ll buy whatever medicines you think I’m gonna need for at least a week, maybe ten days.  How far am I from Fort Collins?”

 

“A day – day and a half, depending on how you ride,”  Doc Sellers replied.  “Why?”

 

Jess nodded, feeling relief.  He was closer than he'd thought to make in his fevered state, evidently Traveler had swung further north than he realized.  “I aim to make Laramie in a week, ten days at the most.”

 

The Doctor frowned and shook his head. “More ‘n likely they’ll be making a headstone for you if you push that hard in the condition you’re in now.  Laramie is almost three hundred miles from here and over rough terrain.”

 

Jess gave a small sad smile. “Been worse and ridden further.”

 

Doc Sellers studied Jess’ face and then sighed in defeat, seeing nothing but the truth in the man's determined eyes.  “Fine, I will put together some bandages, tincture of Laudanum and some other things that you might need.  In the mean time I want you to rest.  Goodness knows you’re body is going to need it.  If you’ll give my wife a list of supplies you will need, I’ll see to it that it’s filled in time for you to depart the day after tomorrow,”  The older man turned and walked toward the door of the room.

 

“Doc,” Jess called, grinning as the man paused in the doorway to look back.  “Thanks Doc, I appreciate that.”

 

Doc Sellers nodded and paused in the doorway.  “Oh, I’m sure you were wondering.  The Sheriff is holding onto your gun and wallet, he has them in his safe.”

 

                                                                                 *****

         

 

True to his word, the doctor readied a packet of medicines that he might need along the trail, while his wife took the short list of items Jess wanted to resupply: bacon, cornmeal, coffee and dried fruit as well as a good amount of grain for the two horses.  Once he was in the high pass there would be little graze available to the animals.

 

The morning of the third day as a patient of Doc Sellers found Jess walking toward the sheriff’s office.  His side was still tender and he moved gingerly.  The morning, despite the brilliant sunshine, was chilly and his breath came in long white plumes.  Inside the office the sheriff was finishing up some reports that needed to go out with the bi-weekly stage that came through and he looked up as the door opened.

 

“Well now, good to see you up and around Mister Harper,” the sheriff greeted.

 

“Doc said you were holding my gun and papers,”  Jess replied.

 

“Yup; right here in my safe.  Fixin' to leave us?” The lawman pushed back from his desk, leaning to one side in his chair so he could reach the heavy iron box that sat against the wall in the corner to his right.

 

“Yeah.  Figured you would be in a hurry to get rid of me, thought I would oblige you,”  Jess cocked his hip up on the corner of the older man’s desk.

 

With a few quick twirls of the dial, the door of the safe popped open and the sheriff pulled Jess’ bundled gun belt and wallet from its interior.   Laying them on top of his desk, he opened a ledger and made a few quick notations, turning the book in Jess’ direction when he was done.

 

“Sign right here. I took the liberty of counting the money for my records. five-hundred-eighty-seven dollars sound right to you?”

 

Jess nodded, picking up the softwood pencil that lay next to the book and carefully writing his name before turning the book back to face the older man.  Sliding his hip off the desk, he stood and picked up the well-worn leather belt, wrapping it around his lean waist.  He bent and quickly tied the leather thong around his thigh.  He pulled the gun out and flicked open the loading gate, rotating the cylinder to check its load.  Glancing up, at the sheriff, he silently held out one hand expectantly.

 

Sheriff Dickerson shook his head and pulled open the top drawer of his desk, removing five rounds of forty-five ammunition and handing them over to the waiting gunman. 

 

Swiftly reloading the weapon, Jess rotated the cylinder until an empty chamber was under the hammer and slid the gun back into its holster, lifting and dropping the gun to make sure it did not catch before he hooked the keeper over hammer and settled the belt comfortably around his hips.  He then picked up the thick, black leather wallet and tucked it inside his vest.  

 

“Have a good morning, sheriff,””  Jess said as he exited the office and headed toward the livery where Traveler and Pete would be waiting.  After a quick stop back at the doctor’s office to pay off his debt, he once again turned Traveler’s nose north and headed toward home.

 

CH 27

 

Well, Im weary and tired, I’ve done my days ridin
Nighttime is rollin my way
The skies all on fire and the lights slowly fading
Peaceful and still ends the day
Out on the trail night birds are callin
Singin their wild melody
Down in the canyon cottonwood whispers
A Song of Wyoming for me

 

Three days later found Jess pushing past Fort Collins.  The tops of the distant peaks were already turning white with the first snows of winter.  The air was cold now in the mornings and more often than not ice was likely to form in his canteen.  The horses’ coats were thickening quickly to accommodate the cooler temperatures.  The harsh beauty was not lost on the man though, the deep blue of the sky was like that of a winter lake and the nights, although sharply cold, glittered with the icy points of stars.  The howling of wolves could be heard clearly in the distance and, fortunately, plentiful game kept them further up the mountain.  The inner voice urged him on, something telling him to push as hard as he dared.  Looking to the west he could see clouds thickening in the distance.  He did not want to get caught up here in an early storm, although he had supplies enough for another week to ten days, but getting caught could cost him dearly later on. 

 

Night came on quickly, forcing him to find a campsite long before he wanted to stop.  Game was getting scarce as he climbed through the pass; there was limited access to the small mountain meadows that afforded him access to hunting and saving the supplies as much as he could became a priority.  The lonely nights gave him a chance to think about what he would say to Slim when he finally reached the ranch.  There was small comfort in the knowledge that Slim had extended the offer for him to return.

 

There was a lot that needed to be talked over, and Slim’s words still burned him deeply, a hurt that was not easily healed.  He still was not sure what it was that had set the rancher off that night and that frightened him in a way he was unfamiliar with.

 

He sipped hot coffee as he waited for the rabbit he was lucky to shoot.  The meat was lean, but seasoned with precious salt and a miniscule amount of pepper, it was ambrosia to a hungry man.   The bullet wound was healing well, although still painful if he did not watch how he moved.  The Doc had reiterated his warning about ending up in a ditch if Jess pushed himself too hard when Jess had said good bye.

 

Testing the cooking meat with the tip of his knife, he cut a quarter off and blew carefully on it before devouring his meal and one of the last of his apples and a small slice of cheese made up desert.  Adding more wood to the fire, he laid out his bedroll and went to see to the horses.  With limited access to grass he was relying more on the grain that Pete carried. Hobbling the animals with standing hobbles, he filled two nosebags with grain and fitted them over the noses of the two horses standing expectantly, ears pricked forward.  

 

He moved back to the fire, slapping his gloved hands together to encourage circulation.  McCullah had been right when he had predicted that winter would come quickly.  Down on the flats they might have another three weeks of progressively colder weather with little or no snow, but up here in the beginnings of the Rockies, winter was knocking on the door.  He needed to get clear of the pass and into the foothills that ran along the Medicine Bow range or he would be in real trouble.  Reaching inside his heavy fleece coat, he pulled out a rough map of the area and from what he could tell, he had at least three more days of rough trail before he would be clear.  He glanced up at the sky, watched the sharp points of starlight twinkling through the thick pine boughs over head.  If he was lucky the weather would hold that long.

 

He poured himself a final cup of coffee and stared into the fire, lost in thought.  He mulled over what he might say to Slim to convince the man to give him another chance at proving he could stay in one place more than a few months and remain out of trouble.  Unfortunately he could come up with nothing so, finishing the cooling liquid in his cup, he checked the horses a final time, removed the feed bags, banked the fire and rolled himself in his blankets.

 

Morning brought birdsong and heavy frost and Jess was glad he had been able to find a deadfall to provide sufficient wood through the night.  He quickly stirred the fire back to life, setting the pot of coffee left over from last night to warm over the rekindled flames along with day old biscuits and what was left of his rabbit dinner placed near the flames.  The meal was finished quickly and Jess set to breaking camp swiftly, saddling Traveler and placing the now much lighter pack frame on Pete.  He would find a place to sell the faithful animal in Wyoming and send the money via wire back to the Barstows.  He would miss the steady animal, but once across the border he planned to ride hard for home... Home: it had a good sound to it.

 

                                                                            *****

 

Slim looked at the sky to the west where heavy clouds were gathering over the distant Medicine Bow range.  There would be snow up there tonight, and falling here within the week. Slapping his gloved hand against his thigh, he whistled loudly, encouraging the some sixty head of cattle he and a couple of hands on loan from his neighbors were moving down to lower pastures. 

 

The week he had been home had been busy from sunup to sundown, riding fence-line, checking stock, stuffing the loft with hay for the horses kept down at the house for the few stages that would be able to get through once winter set in for good.  Jonesy had been busy laying up all kinds of canned goods. Andy had been put in charge of switching out the teams for the most part.  The drivers were willing to give him a hand when they needed to.

 

The Overland Stage company had been more than generous for a change with the check they forwarded to him for the time he spent checking the new way stations.  They had even thrown in extra for the hands he had needed to hire to take care of the place while he was gone.  Jonesy and Andy had both been full of questions the night he rode in from Laramie on a horse he hired from the livery, and he had been hard pushed to answer the questions as fast as they had been thrown at him.

 

During the long trip home he had wrestled with the decision whether or not to tell the two of them that he had run into Jess.  In the end he decided it was better not to, fearing that it would only build Andy’s hopes that the gunfighter might return to the ranch.  Running into Jess in Aroya had shown Slim a side of the man he had hoped to never see, a side that the younger man had only alluded to.  The cold, hard man that had faced him at the saloon, and again when he had made the mistake of surprising Jess afterward had disturbed him deeply.  The boyish laughter that he had occasionally noticed in Jess’ eyes was nowhere to be found in the eyes of the gunfighter.  He  had lost weight and had become lean and hard, trusting no one except perhaps the other gunman that Slim assumed he now rode with.  Giving himself a shake mentally, he turned back to the job at hand, worrying about Jess was not going to get these cattle moved.

 

The next morning found Slim changing out a team for the morning stage run when the sight of a horse cresting the hill where the road ran down to the station caused his heart to leap in his chest.  For a moment he thought it was Jess coming home, but with the sun behind the approaching rider he could pick out no other detail.  For just that single moment, all was right with the world, but as the rider approached he could see that it was Mort on his steady chestnut coming down the hill.  Dread filled Slim as his heart leapt again, this time in fear; an inner voice told him that it was not good news.  Finishing hitching the team into their traces with shaking fingers, Slim hurried to meet the older man as he tied his horse in front of the small ranch house. 

 

“Morning, Mort!” he called, trying to sound cheerful and hide the fear in his voice, but he failed miserably.

 

Mort nodded in greeting and then glanced at the house, his expression somber.  “Morning, Slim.  Uh... Andy around anywhere?”

 

 Slim shook his head. “No, he already left for school, why?”

 

Mort sighed.  He hated giving news like this. “Why don’t we go inside, Slim. I sure could use a cup of Jonesy’s coffee,” the  lawman replied evasively, turned and stepped up on the small porch.        

 

Jonesy, having noticed the sheriff ride in, had set out three cups on the table and was in the process of pouring when the two men came in.

 

Slim followed the older man inside, shutting the door tight against the cold morning air and went to sit at the small table across from Mort.

 

“It’s Jess, isn’t it?” Slim asked softly, glancing briefly at Jonesy as he took a seat.

 

Mort nodded, “I’m afraid it is....” He paused and looked sadly at the two men. “Jess hired on as a gun hand for a family named Barstow down in Colorado, a town called ...”

 

Slim nodded. “I know, I... ran into him down there...” he whispered.         

 

Jonesy glared at his employer, “You saw Jess and you didn’t say anything to me ‘n Andy?” he asked angrily.

 

Slim looked at Jonesy hopelessly, “It wasn’t Jess... not our Jess at least.  He was all gunfighter, riding with another gun named McCullah.  He’d changed Jonesy, he was hard, cold.  He... he drew on me, drew on me like he meant it.” Slim rubbed a hand across his face,  suddenly feeling very tired, old and plain worn down.  He looked at the two men, mutely pleading with them to understand his reasons for keeping quiet.  “I couldn’t let Andy know what Jess had turned into... I just couldn’t.” 

 

Mort bobbed his head in agreement, stirred two spoons of sugar into his coffee and took a sip of the hot liquid; he knew just how Slim felt.  “Well, I got a telegram from a friend of mine  down that way, seems that things got pretty excitable down there.  Push came to shove and the gunman this other family... Anders...?'  Mort looked to Slim for confirmation and, at the ranchers nod, continued.  ‘Anders had hired themselves a gun as well by the last name of Wilke.”  Mort paused again looking between the two men.

 

Slim knew what Mort was going to say next, knew as sure as the sun came up in the morning, and he didn’t want to know.

 

“There’s no good way of saying this... Wilke called Jess out.

 

Slim sat up straight, put his elbows on the table, clasping his hands in front of him and resting his head on them.  “No...’ he whispered.

 

“Jess beat him, not by much, but killed him clean.”

 

Slim closed his eyes. “No... please.”

 

“But... Seems that Wilke managed to get a shot off before he went down.”

 

 

“Please God, not Jess... not Jess.”

 

“Caught Jess in the belly.  According to what my friend heard, ... he died, Slim. I’m sorry... terribly sorry,.” Mort finished.

 

Slim lifted his head and stared at the lawman. “It’s not true...” he said hoarsely. “I’d know... Somehow I’d know if he was dead.”

 

Jonesy laid a consoling hand on Slims’ shoulder.  “Son...”

 

Slim glared at him. “I’d know, Jonesy.  Somehow I’d know.  He’s still alive out there... somewhere.”

 

Jonesy shook his head sorrowfully, “What are you going to tell Andy?  Word is bound to get around if what Mort says is true.”

 

Slim heaved a deep breath, trying to get his emotions under control. “Nothing until we can get this confirmed.  Mort, can you wire the sheriff in Aroya?”

 

Mort looked up and nodded. “Already did before I left town, but he’s out of town for the next week, some kind of deposition or something for an unrelated case.”

 

Slim jumped up from the table swearing softly. “Then there’s nothing we can do until he comes back?”

 

Mort rubbed his chin. “Well I could try sending a telegram to this Gus Barstow, the fella that hired Jess on, see what he has to say,  the lawman offered.

 

Slim nodded. “Gus is a good man and he knows Jess used to work for me.  Let's give it a try Mort.”  And a small bud of hope bloomed in Slims chest.  If anyone would know what happened to Jess, Gus Barstow would. Until they heard from Gus either way, Slim would continue to believe that Jess somehow had survived and was riding the Big Open somewhere.

 

CH 28

 

Jess shivered as he reined Traveler to a halt. He drew his thick shearling coat tighter around him before adjusting the scarf he had wrapped around the lower part of his face and neck, tucking the ends inside the coat. The weather had turned bitter as he crossed the border into Wyoming, and clouds layered the sky thick and heavy.  Mother nature, was done treating him kindly.  He'd come down out of the pass into a freezing rain, making the rough trail treacherous.  The horses scrambled to keep their footing at times.  Dry wood for a fire had been darned scarce last night and he had not dared to sleep for long stretches for fear the small fire would go out, leaving him to freeze. Sometime during the night the rain had finally stopped, but it left a coating of ice on everything.  After a sparse breakfast of leftover biscuits and coffee as hot as he could drink it, he packed up and rode out.  A stiff wind out of the north had greeted him once he was clear of the sheltering walls of the path, blowing almost directly into his face and smelling of snow. 

 

He rubbed his gritty eyes with a gloved hand; he’d been riding now for over six hours and fighting the wind and cold. Snow had started falling, if lightly, about two hours ago and common sense told him to find a place to hole up for the day.  The weather that he had noted three days ago had finally caught up with him.  It didn’t feel like a big blow, the snow was much too wet and heavy to really pile up and coming down off the pass the temperature had risen somewhat.  Still, a wise man went with his gut at times like this. He lifted the reins and clucked to Traveler, urging the horse forward and the sure-footed animal carefully picked his way along the trail.               Jess was glad he had thought to save the bacon grease because he had rubbed some in a thick layer on the sole and frog of each horse's foot and it would help prevent snow and ice from balling up in their hooves, causing problems as the snow continued to fall. 

 

Late afternoon found the two horses forcing their way through thick brush between the wide boles of tall white pine.  Stiffly swinging down from the saddle, Jess ground tied Traveler, then worked quickly to gather enough wood to start a fire.  The branches overhead had interlaced to form a roof of sorts keeping the ground beneath them fairly clear of snow with the surrounding undergrowth creating a wind break.  Half an hour of work brought what Jess hoped would be enough wood for the night.  With the sun setting, temperatures were dropping quickly.  Digging a fire pit took some determination in the frozen ground, but when he had it deep enough he piled tinder in it and pulled out a box of Lucifer matches, striking one on a rock.  He held it close to the fuel, his hands shaking with cold.   Thankfully the fire caught quickly and eagerly consumed the branches Jess offered it until he had a good blaze going.  Once the fire was going, he turned back to the horses standing patiently with heads down.  Stripping the tack off both animals, he filled their nosebags with a generous portion of grain which was happily received.  Dinner for him this night would be bacon and beans, there was no time to hunt and most game would have gone to ground  already.  Pulling the heavy cloth bag off the pack saddle, he took inventory of his supplies.  The dried fruit and apples were long gone, but coffee, corn meal, sugar and flour were still in good supply as well as bacon and beans. There was little salt left as the store in Dilsworth had not gotten their supplies when Jess had pulled out four days ago.  Grain for the horses was getting low, too. 

 

Pulling out a small pan and his coffee pot, he went to scoop snow to melt for water.  The horses would need some and his canteen would need to be refilled, as well as some for making coffee and the beans tonight.  After the animals had been watered and he had the beans and bacon cooking, Jess set about laying out his bedroll, placing the heavy oilcloth on the ground and then several blankets that Sarah Barstow insisted he take with him.

 

The wolf song not too far away caused the horses to snort uneasily as they moved closer to the fire for security.  Jess pulled his rifle and checked its action, making sure it was fully loaded before laying it on the blankets as a precaution.  Settling on the blankets to wait for his food to cook, Jess thought wistfully of the warmth in of the Sherman ranch house.  It was something that warmed both the body and the spirit and it was something he very much wanted to be part of again.

 

 

The howling of the wolf pack broke his reverie.  They were closer this time.  He glanced at the long gun on the blankets next to him, he was confident they would not come down off the mountain, but the weapon was comforting.

Morning dawned bright and cold.  A wind knifed down off the Medicine Bow peaks causing Jess to shiver so, his teeth chattered as he stirred the fire back to life.  The snow had fallen   steadily through the night, tapering off just before dawn.  A generous six or seven inches of heavy snow lay on the ground.

 

Coffee heating, he set about spreading a thick layer of bacon grease on the inside of both Traveler’s and Pete’s feet.  Once finished he quickly saddled the animals and offered them fresh water, topping his canteen as well.  Breakfast was meager: hot coffee and re-warmed beans and bacon but he wanted to get moving as the day would be long and cold.  Jess coughed and spat as the bitter  cold air burned his throat and lungs.  Ready to move out at last, he made sure the fire was well out and led the two animals from the small copse of pines. 

 

Brilliant knives of sunlight lanced off a million mirrors, the pristine blue-white snow reflecting the light that would eventually lead to its demise.  Jess squinted and swore because Slim had taught him about the dangers snow blindness last year. The horses would be okay for a few days, but humans for some reason were far more susceptible.  Pulling his scarf high over his face and the brim of his hat low, he managed to block most of the blinding reflection and the cutting wind.  He would have to rely on Traveler to find the safe trail for the next day or two, then he would turn  east toward the Laramie River and,, three days beyond that lay home.                                        

 

                                                                             *****

 

Slim straightened and leaned on the fork he was using to throw hay down into the paddock for the horses.  Although snow had fallen all day yesterday and into last night, it would not be enough to stop any stage runs today.  The distant crack of a whip drew his attention to the top of the road.  “Mose's ears must be burnin',” he thought to himself with a grin.  Adjusting the homemade goggles on his eyes, he continued with his chore.  Slim’s father had created the unusual eye-wear made of thin discs of wood with narrow slits cut into them so the wearer could see in a narrow field and be somewhat protected from snow blindness.  They were tied around his head with a pair of leather thongs.

 

Andy, of course, had been delighted by the first snow, ready to run outside as soon as his feet hit the floor.  Slim had to practically hogtie him at breakfast.  Later, when Slim had stepped out the front door to clear the small porch and steps of accumulated snow, Andy had pelted him with half a dozen snowballs before he could get his own back. 

 

Jonesy had stuck his head out the door to shout at them to stop being a couple of skitter brained fools and had been greeted with projectiles from both factions, causing the older man to withdraw, muttering dire consequences such as no dried apple cobbler for desert tonight.

 

Laughing, the two brothers dusted themselves off and headed into the barn to get started on the day’s chores.

 

Slim could hear the clunk of an ax on wood as Andy split kindling for the stove. Once the morning chores were done and the Stage sent on its way, Slim would harness a team and he and Andy would bring in a couple of deadfalls he had marked for cutting.  With snow this early, it was going to be a long winter. Throwing a last forkful of hay down, Slim leaned the tool against the wall, slid the loft door closed and latched it firmly.  Once down on the main floor of the barn he walked over to where Alamo stood watching curiously.  Slim stared at the empty stall next to the big chestnut horse for a moment and felt a tightening of his throat, his vision fogging.  How many times had he come into the barn to find Jess simply grooming Traveler, or offering peppermint treats to the two horses as he discussed the day’s events.

 

“Where are you, partner?” the rancher wondered silently as he pulled a single peppermint candy from his pocket and offered it to Alamo, stroking the animal’s neck fondly as he lipped up the treat, bobbing his head as he crunched the sweet.

 

Slim still refused to accept that Jess could be dead. Mort had sent off a telegram to Gus Barstow just under a week ago, but there had been no answer as of yet.  The operator had advised there were problems somewhere along the line and it could take a few days to fix.  Still, deep in his heart a small voice told him that Jess was still alive, out there somewhere... once again alone.  Shaking his mind clear of the depressing thoughts, he set about pulling out collars and harness for the work team, along with a set of chains to haul the deadwood.

 

 

Twenty minutes later found Slim and Andy headed up the rise that fronted the ranch, each leading a horse, Slim carrying a double bladed ax over his shoulder.

 

“Slim?”  Andy said he puffed up the hill, thick white plumes of breath streaming upward with every step.

 

“Yeah,  Andy?” Slim replied, panting slightly from the effort of breaking a trail through the heavy snow.

 

“You think Jess is somewhere warm right now?” his younger brother wondered wistfully, unable to see the expression on his older brother’s face.

 

Slim took a moment to control his emotions and forced a smile into his tone. “You know ol’ Jess, Andy.  He was shiverin’ with the first frost last year, remember?  Then the first snows fell, he didn’t think he’d ever get warm again.  Yeah... yeah I think Jess is somewhere warm, Mexico maybe,” he replied, hoping that Andy didn’t hear the tremor in his voice.

 

“I’d like to go south someday, maybe see Mexico.” the younger Sherman replied, apparently missing the trembling of in his brother’s voice.

 

There was silence for a few moments before Andy spoke again.  “Slim, do you... Do you think Jess  ‘ll ever come home?”

 

Slim sighed; he wished this brother would let the subject drop, but there were times when he was like a dog with a bone, wanting to just chew on a subject until there was nothing left.  “I don’t know Andy, that’s not a question I can answer.  I wish I could, but I just can’t.  He’s living a different life.”

 

Andy shuddered at the thought of his friend standing on a dirt street facing a stranger down.  “I know...“ he said forlornly. ‘I just want him to come home,'  he thought to himself.

 

Slim sighed.  Listening to his brother, he wished that some kind of news about Jess would come through.  Whether he was alive or dead, he and Andy needed to know.  Turning his eyes heavenward, he sent a plea skyward, the same prayer that he had sent many times over the last few months.  ‘God,  if it be your will, send Jess home.  Let him understand that I’m sorry.  And if you can’t bring him home, let him find a place to be happy.' 

 

                                                                              *****

 

Snow fell off and on for the next two day, coupled with the wind that seemed to blow straight through a man.  No matter how tightly Jess drew his coat, icy fingers found their way up sleeves and down his collar, setting his teeth to chattering.  Even when the sun did manage to break through, its light was weak and watery lending little warmth that was quickly whipped away by the wind.

 

Nights were bitter cold, although the wind usually died down around sunset.  The additional snow made all that more harder to find wood for a fire, but Jess did not dare a cold camp.  At the least he would be risking frostbite, despite the extra blankets he wrapped around himself, and at the most, some traveler would come across his bones come spring. 

 

Sitting huddled as close to his fire as he dared, Jess studied the small map he carried with him.  By his reckoning he would turn northeast tomorrow and head for the Laramie River two days distant.  Carefully folding the paper, he tucked it safely inside his coat.  Picking up his knife, he tested the meat sizzling over the fire.  He had been lucky in flushing a yearling doe out of a thicket, and although he hated not using all the meat himself, he knew that wolves, foxes, coyotes and various other scavengers would make short work of the carcass.   Coughing heavily he spat out thick mucus, and muttered an oath.  Last thing he needed was to get sick out here by himself.  Settling the horses for the night he wrapped himself in a double layer of blankets and stared into the fire.

 

He still wasn’t sure how he was going to approach Slim or what he was even going to say.  If he’d had any sense at all he would have headed south after leaving the Barstow place and found some place warm to hole up for the winter.  He’d been drifting for so long now that he was no longer sure he really could settle down for any length of time.   Still that voice that called him north would not let him stop or turn back, it pulled him on like a Siren's song promising a place to rest at last.

         

 

Unlike its predecessors, the following day began like one of those rare winter mornings where all was still, the sky a blue so deep that you could almost swim in it.  The wind had finally blown itself out  and there was only the faintest of breezes. Bird song could be heard from the brave few that did not fly south with their cousins.   

 

Jess was already up and moving, not wanting to waste any of the weather, so breakfast was cold biscuits, venison and water from his canteen.  He’d taken to sleeping with the leather bound container so its contents would not freeze.  Today he hoped to make at least forty miles, with luck that would bring him to the town of Kirby where he would sell Pete, get himself a good hot meal, a bath and bed. Swinging gracefully up into the saddle, he dealt with a bout of heavy coughing, again spitting out a wad of thick mucus,  and leaning on the pommel of the saddle until he caught his breath.  Reining the horses around he headed toward Kirby at a brisk jog that the animals could maintain easily. 

 

At mid day Jess drew the two animals to a halt to let them blow and rest.  By rotating between a brisk jog and walking the horses, he estimated they had managed to cover a good twenty miles in the snow.  He pulled the canteen from inside his coat and unscrewed it to take a long drink.  He stepped down out of the saddle and walked back to Pete’s pack, pulled the cooking pot out to pour a measure of water for each of the horses.  Traveler bumped his head against Jess’ shoulder, hoping for a scratch and a treat.  Jess grinned and scratched the gelding under his thick mane. 

 

“Almost there, Trav.  Tonight a warm stall and plenty of hay for you, maybe a warm mash, that would be good, huh?”

 

The horse bobbed his head, pawing at the snow as if suggesting they get on their way.  The gunfighter laughed, then coughed hard, slapping the gelding on the shoulder.  Stowing the pot back in the pack, Jess moved around each of the horses, checking their legs for any cuts, picking up  each hoof and searching for loose shoes or nails, making sure the snow was not balling up in the sole of the foot, and looking for any heel cracks   which could be extremely painful for the animals.  Finding none he climbed back into the saddle and urged the horses back into a jog.

 

Dusk was a spectacular display of flaming pinks, shining golds, and dusky violets, the moon just cresting the nearby peaks, a disc of silver displayed on a cloth of velvet indigo studded with diamonds as Jess rode into town more than ready for a hot meal.  Quickly locating the livery, he drew the weary horses to a halt, swung out of the saddle and banged on the door until an elderly, pot-bellied man poked his head out, demanding to know what in tarnation  he wanted.  Arranging for stabling for the two animals, including a good rubdown and a hot mash, he headed for the boardinghouse the stableman had suggested would have a hot bath, meal and room available. 

 

The boardinghouse was run by an older woman and her daughters who were more than happy to supply all three.  Jess, feeling relaxed and revived from the hot water, tucked into a plate filled with mashed turnips, steak, and biscuits with sweet butter plus several cups of coffee and a slab of dried apple pie with cream.

 

His appetite sated, Jess rocked back in his chair, stretched and yawned, the long day catching up with him.   The clock that hung on the wall in the entrance way of the boarding house chimed nine.  Pondering for a moment whether he wanted something stronger than coffee, he decided against it and pushed away from the table.   Thoughts of an actual bed and warm blankets rather than a mattress of pine boughs were far more appealing.  Bidding the two women at the counter a good night, he headed up stairs.

 

The sun was well above the horizon when it woke Jess from his peaceful slumber beneath a mound heavy quilts.  Stretching and yawning, Jess swung stocking feet over the edge of the bed.  The smell of coffee, baked bread, and frying bacon teased his nose and tantalized his taste buds.  Dressed and freshly shaven, Jess quickly buckled on his gun, tying down the leather thong.  He pulled the gun, and flicked the loading gate open to check the loads before replacing the weapon back in its holster.   Slinging his saddlebags over his left shoulder  and the long gun in his left hand he headed down to breakfast. 

 

The small dining room was far busier than it had been the night before, several of the tables already occupied.  The eldest daughter hurried between tables with the heavy coffee pot, refilling cups, while a second younger woman emerged from the kitchen with a laden tray.  Jess hesitated for a moment in the doorway, studying each customer, assessing them for any kind of threat they might offer.  His gaze stopped for a moment on a big man who was digging into a large stack of flapjacks oozing butter and sweet syrup, his eyes settling on the five pointed star on the man’s vest. 

 

The sheriff, feeling eyes upon him, stopped shoveling food into his mouth and returned Jess' appraising look with emphasis on the low slung gun. Holding Jess’ gaze for a long minute, the older returned his attention to the meal in front of him.

 

Seeing that the table he had occupied last night remained available, Jess headed for it, taking the chair that allowed him to watch both the kitchen and main entrances.

 

“Good morning, Mister Harper.” the younger of the two daughters greeted him with a sunny smile.  She was very glad that her older sister was in the kitchen with their mother at the moment, so she got the opportunity to take the handsome man's order. 

 

“Mornin’, Miss Kate,” Jess replied with a smile that lit up his eyes.

 

Can I fetch you some breakfast this morning?  We have steak and eggs, fried potatoes, flapjacks and fresh hot coffee.”

 

“Smells good, that’s for sure. Steak, eggs and fried potatoes with coffee, please.”

 

With a quick smile, the girl hurried to place his order and let her sister know to bring him coffee.

 

Motion to his left caught his attention as the sheriff stood and ambled in his direction.  Jess swore beneath his breath.  He was looking for no trouble and wanted none forced on him.

 

“Mornin’, Sheriff,”  he greeted, leaning casually back in the chair.

 

“You stayin’ long, Mister?” the lawman asked, his attentive gaze moving from Jess’ face to the gun on his hip and back again.

 

“Harper.  Jess Harper and I'm just passin’ through, ridin’ out soon as I finish breakfast.”  Jess watched the sheriff’s eyes, a small smile quirking the corner of his mouth when he saw the flicker of recognition in them.

 

“Harper, huh?” the big man grunted. “Well, you make sure you keep moving.  Folks here don’t need the trouble that follows your kind.”

 

“Not lookin’ for trouble, just needed a bed for the night, been ridin’ a while, horses needed a rest...’

 

Kate returning with Jess’ breakfast interrupted their conversation.  “Thanks, Miz Kate, sure does look tasty.”  Jess said with a grin.

 

“I’ll be right back with your coffee... Jess.” Kate hurried back to the kitchen.

 

Jess turned his attention back to the lawman across the table from him and noticed the dark look on the other man’s face.

 

“You leave that girl alone Harper, she don’t need no encouragement from you. Kate’s a good girl and she’s gonna stay that way.”

 

“Ain’t meanin’ no harm sheriff, just bein’ mannerly.”

 

“Well you see that that’s all you’re bein’ right up to the time your hindquarters kiss leather and you put your back to Kirby.”  The lawman pushed away from the table and returned to his table as Kate reappeared with the coffee pot.

 

The remainder of the meal was uneventful and twenty minutes later Jess pushed his chair from the table.

 

Outside the livery, he tightened the cinch on Traveler’s saddle.  The horse bobbed his head in annoyance, swinging his head around to grab at the sleeve of Jess’ heavy coat. 

 

Jess slapped the gelding sharply on the neck.  “Knock it off you gol’ dern jug-headed mule,  he growled affectionately.  It was good to see the horse feeling good after such a long ride, and still more to go.  Another hundred miles or so and he would be cresting the ridge that ran along the front of the Sherman ranch. He pulled the rein free from the hitching rail and swung up into the saddle.  The stableman had given him twenty dollars for Pete and his pack frame, but there was no telegraph in Kirby so Jess would have to wait until he hit Laramie to wire the money back to the Barstows.  Reining Traveler around, Jess heeled the horse into an easy jog, tipping his hat with a sardonic smile to the sheriff who stood outside his office as he rode past.

 

Once outside the town he lifted his horse into ground-eating ground eating lope and rode for the Laramie River some twenty miles distant, the last true obstacle that stood between him and what he hoped would be home for a long time to come. 

 

Fortunately, at this time of year, the river, although bitterly cold, was low and easy to ford, most of the tributaries frozen until spring thaw when it would easily jump its banks.  The other side of the river seemed different somehow to Jess, the air cleaner, sweeter.  It was almost as if he could catch the faint smell of chicken and dumplings cooking, fresh baked bread and dried apple pie cooling on their racks. 

 

Late afternoon found horse and rider a good forty miles from their starting spot that morning.  Having taken advantage of the horse’s renewed energy, Jess had let Traveler set his own pace, which for the most part was steady lope as if the horse knew what lay ahead of them and what closed in on them from behind.  The day had started out with brilliant sunshine and crystal blue skies, but Mother Nature, being of a fickle female persuasion, had grown tired of playing nice and a brisk wind began to blow down off the mountains, driving heavy, moisture laden clouds before it.

 

Jess kept a nervous eye on the approaching weather as he rode. This was not just going to be a simple blow, but, by the look of the clouds and how they lay across the sky, dark bellies hanging low as they prepared to give birth to a real howler of a storm, Jess knew he was in for more misery before he reached that warm hearth and apple pie.

 

Night found horse and rider huddled around a small fire in a narrow draw that blocked most of the sharp, biting wind that had grown in strength as the sun, beneath its thick quilt of clouds, slid behind the peaks of the Medicine Bow Mountains.  In the low hills that rolled off the mountain range, it was going to be harder to find shelter or wood to burn.  Tonight though, Jess had gotten lucky, finding a small copse of trees that lined one side of the draw.  After a quick meal of beans, bacon and coffee, Jess made one last trip to gather what wood he could find and built the fire up, the flames snarling and snapping amongst themselves for the opportunity to feed on the dry tinder.  Staking Traveler close to the fire, Jess rolled himself in his blankets and was swiftly asleep.  Sometime during the night the clouds gave birth to large downy flakes the size of goose feathers.

 

There was no true sunrise, just a lightening of the leaden sky.  The wind wrestled with the trees on the lip of the draw, bending them one way then another as snow fell steadily.  Jess was once again thankful for the extra blankets he carried, courtesy of  Sarah Barstow.  Still, his teeth chattered as he threw the last of his wood on the fire, the hungry flames hissing loudly as the snow hit them.  Breakfast was hot coffee and left over beans and bacon, bites eaten as he saddled up before he greased the soles of Travelers hooves. 

 

A half hour later Jess was again pushing hard for Laramie, this time, however, the wind was not chasing as it had the day before, but now buffeted and swirled around him from all sides.  Armed with icy fingers of snow, it drove thin knives of the white stuff into his face and eyes, then slid tendrils down the back of his coat or up a sleeve.  Even with the muffler wrapped over the top of his hat, down around his ears, across the back of his neck and around to the front of his throat, the ends tucked snuggly inside his coat, ice still formed on his brows and lashes while the wind whipped away his salty tears.  

 

Traveler, ears laid back, plodded in what Jess hoped was the right direction.  Getting lost out here in the middle of nowhere was not high on his list of things to accomplish today.  He had strongly considered turning back and riding for Kirby, but the thought of riding into the teeth of the storm did not appeal to him, so half frozen, he hunched over the bay gelding’s neck, praying that he was going in the right direction. 

 

 

CH 29

 

So don't be afraid of the darkness
And don't run away from the storm
Stand up and face your reflection
The feelings you try to ignore

                                    John Denver: Tenderly Calling

 

Slim threw two more logs on the fire, stared into the mesmerizing flames, watched the colors blend and separate from molten gold to blazing reds with a flash of green or blue as sap ran hot and then vaporized.  Andy sat at the kitchen table working on his school work despite the fact that there would be no school today or the next. 

 

In the kitchen Jonesy rolled and kneaded the soft floury dough that would be tonight’s biscuits. Outside the wind rattled windows and tore at shutters pulled closed to help keep the warmth inside the small house and snow piled high against the front of the house.

 

Feeling an unexplainable restlessness, Slim paced around the small living/dining area, coming to a stop in front of the shuttered window and staring as if could see beyond the wooden planks. 

 

Several days ago they had gotten a wire back from Aroya and Jess had indeed been badly wounded, but had lived and departed not long after, but neither the direction he had taken or what his intended destination had been was known.  Slim very much wanted to believe that Jess was headed back here... back home, but as the wind howled angrily, part of him worried that Jess was attempting just that.  With a sigh and a shake of his head, Slim returned to stare at the fire again only to repeat the uneasy pacing again a few moments later.  

 

Jonesy listened from the kitchen as Slim moved restlessly around the other room, and he muttered beneath his breath.  The younger man had been short tempered and snappish ever since the wire had come.  A very small part of him had truely hoped that the wild, devil may care, short fused gunfighter had met his match so that they might grieve and  continue with their lives.  He was not proud of it, but it was there, buried deep beneath the part that wished the young man that seemed to have exactly what both Slim and Andy needed in their lives, would come through that front door at any moment, covered in snow, demanding hot coffee and complaining bitterly about the cold.  Setting the biscuit dough aside to rise, he wiped flour covered hands on the apron around his waist.

 

Jonesy poured coffee for both himself and Slim, then, adding a liberal shot of ‘medicinal’ whiskey, he carried the cups out to the table and set them on the scarred wood.  He looked at the younger Sherman and  said quietly, “You done enough book work for today, Andy.”  He slid a glance over at  Slim standing silently and staring into the fire and then back to his own cup when the boy gave him a puzzled expression.

 

 Andy glanced around at his brother's back for a moment, then met the older man’s gaze.  He nodded and quickly gathered up his books and papers, retreating into his room and pulling the door three-quarters closed.

 

 Jonesy looked over at the elder brother, a man grown these past ten years, a picture of his father with his mother’s passion for wanting to fix things that weren’t in need of fixin’, takin’ in strays, and fightin’ other people’s fights.  Most times that passion was tempered by his father’s good sense, ‘cept when it came to Jess Harper.  He had warned Slim that takin’ in that particular stray would lead to nothin’ but trouble, but he’d been wrong.  It was true that the wild, footloose drifter that Slim had hired on the assumption that he owed the man for saving his life had turned the ranch upside down from the moment he had set foot on it.

 

More importantly, he was the bridge between Andy and Slim.  Sixteen years was a yawning hole between the two brothers sometimes, Slim being forced to grow up so quickly with the death of his father, and then his mother soon after, making him both brother and father to Andy.  There had been a bad time for a while where Slim seemed have forgotten what it was like to be twelve. The stress of trying to keep the ranch, putting food on the table and being father and brother to Andy was hard on him.  For Andy, Jess became the brother that he could have fun with, go fishing with, pull pranks and simply laugh with, much to Slims frustration.

 

On the other side of things, Jess was Slims confidant, his partner, a man to ride the river with.  No matter how angry Slim got with Andy, Jess was there to smooth things, allowing both sides to see the middle.  The Sherman brothers were not the only ones to benefit from the partnership.  Jess got something that had long been missing from his life: a place to belong.

 

They knew very little about the drifter's past other than the few hints that very little in his life had been pleasant, and he’d lost even that at age fifteen.  After that he’d drifted, done some things that sometimes slipped over line between law and lawless.  Jess, however, was a man that stuck by someone that he deemed friend, and Slim belonged among those precious few.

 

“Slim, come sit.  Coffee's getting’ cold.” 

 

Slim started like a man awoken from a dream and then walked over to take a seat at the small table, hands automatically wrapping themselves around the warm mug.

“Thanks,” he murmured, taking a sip and wincing at the bitter, whiskey laced brew.

 

The older man drew out a chair and took a seat across from Slim.  “You want’a talk about it?”

 

Slim sighed and looked at Jonesy with a small smile.  “You always could tell when somethin’ was eatin’ at me.”

 

“Boy, I’d have ta be blind and deaf to not know somethin’ is botherin’ ya, the way you’re wearin’ a hole in the floor, and tryin’ to stare holes in the shutters.  You’re thinkin about Jess now, ain’t ya?”

 

“He’s out there... somewhere, tryin’ to get back here.”

 

“Slim you don’t know nothin’ of the sort; for all we know Jess hightailed back south for the winter.  That wire you got from Colorado said they didn’t know where he was goin’.”

 

Slim regarded the other man for a moment, then shook his head.  “Somethin’ tells me that he’s out there in that storm.  I told him I wanted him to come back when he’d finished in Aroya. I told him to come home.”

 

Jonesy studied the young man across the table from him for a moment and then sighed.  “An’ you think he’s out in that storm tryin’ to do just that.”

 

“Yes... No... I don’t know.”  Slim jumped up from the table and resumed his restless pacing.  “I’m afraid that he is, and if he’s lost out there somewhere half frozen, then I’m afraid that he’s not even tryin’ to come home, that the lure of the Big Open was just too much for him and he went any other direction but north.  I made a real mess of things between him and me Jonesy and I don’t know if it can be fixed.  I hate to say it, but a very small part of me would be relieved if he rode on, then we could get back to normal...”

 

“Yeah, you and Andy sqabblin’ and scratchin’ at each other like a couple of tom cats.  You yellin’ at the boy to get his schoolin’ done or some such, him yellin’ back that as soon as he got enough money he was quittin’ this place.  Yep, good times,” Jonesy said sarcastically and he sipped his coffee

 

Slim came back to the table and sat once more, picking up the coffee mug a second time and staring at the dark liquid as if hoping to find an answer or two in its depths.  He smiled at the memory of finding Jess sitting at his table, cigarette between his fingers, deck of cards in his hands as he demonstrated just how to deal off the bottom of the deck.  

 

“Jess kept Andy here more than anything I did or said... gawd we need... I need him back here, he belongs here with us.”

 

Jonesy smiled into his cup, glad that Slim had finally realized what the older man had known for a long time.

 

Slim was silent for a few minutes as he sipped at the doctored coffee, yet his eyes strayed toward the window one final time and he prayed that the powers that be were watching over Jess wherever he might be.

 

                                                                                  *****

 

With a start, Jess suddenly realized that Traveler had stopped moving at his steady walk.  He also realized that he must of dozed in the saddle.  Sitting up, he firmly tapped the bay's flanks with his spurs, but the horse simply shuffled a few feet and then stopped again, bobbing his head up and down.  Swearing under his breath, the lean gunman swung down from the saddle to see what the problem was.  On the ground the snow topped his boots and Jess was glad he had pulled the heavy denim fabric over the outside of his footwear.   Taking the rein, he tried to lead the horse forward only to have the animal again take a few steps and refuse to move.  Fear momentarily gripped at Jess’ heart because, if he was stranded out in the middle of a storm with a lame horse, the likelihood of him seeing the Sherman ranch again was extremely small. 

 

He stood by the animal's shoulder and pulled the glove off his left hand with his teeth,  tucked it inside his coat.   He ran  his bare hand down the left foreleg, feeling for any swelling that might indicate a bowed tendon or inflammation and was vastly relieved when he found none.  Lifting the hoof, he quickly saw what the problem was.  Despite the layer of bacon grease, snow had balled up in the sole and making it difficult and somewhat painful for the horse to walk.  Letting the foot drop for a moment, he pulled his glove back on and grabbed the  saddlebag and, after a moment of rummaging, pulled out a hoof pick and set to work cleaning all four feet of their painful impaction.  With any luck there would be no bruising of the sole of any of Traveler's feet.

 

By the time he had finished the job, his breath was difficult to draw and wheezed painfully in his lungs.  He had to take a moment to cough hard, spitting out hick yellow mucous.  The cough and congestion were getting worse and it scared him, but there had been no doctor in Kirby and there was nothing to be done about it unless he had wanted to lay up in the small town until both had cleared.   Staying had not been an option open to him as far as the sheriff had been concerned and, even if it had been, he would not have taken it.  He simply wanted to go home.

 

Stowing the hoofpick  and its sheath in a pocket, he climbed back into the saddle and heeled Traveler into a shuffling jog.  As far as he could tell there was at least three or four hours of daylight left before he would need to find a camp of some sort.

 

                                                                                 *****

 

Slim finished forking hay down into the mangers of Alamo and the team of four that he managed to bring into the barn before the storm set in.  Making sure the water buckets were free of ice, and pulling his coat and scarf tight, he took the lantern down from its hook and headed back to the house where Jonesy had a dinner of chicken and dumplings waiting on the stove.  Stepping outside, he paused to study the sky. The wind had died down to a light steady breeze with occasional stronger gusts that set the snow to swirling into miniature white tornado's.  As the dusk had closed in, the storm had begun to abate and when he glanced skyward, he could see the clouds had a tattered look to them, letting cold starlight shine through the tears. 

 

                                                                                   *****

 

Jess huddled in the a hollow at the base of a long ridge, white pine and pin-oak forming a scraggly line that broke up the breeze and provided plenty of wood for the fire both man and horse crowded close to.  The smells of frying bacon, boiling coffee and cooking beans intermingled with the wood smoke as it spiraled skyward.  The snow had relented after almost doubling what was already on the ground.  After pouring a cup of the hot liquid, Jess cupped his hands around the tin mug savoring the smell as it steamed in the icy air.

 

Traveler snorted and sifted behind him as he munched on his grain.  The horse had shown no sign of lameness once the ice balls had been removed from his hooves, and for that Jess was eternally grateful.  How far they had actually come once the storm had hit he was not sure,  but he would not be surprised that they had covered less than twenty-five miles.  If that was correct, he would not reach the ranch until the day after tomorrow.  He would hit the town of Laramie well after sunset, if they could make time and distance tomorrow, but his trip was almost at an end if he was lucky.

 

The food finally done, he ate quickly, added wood to the fire for the night, rolled himself in his blankets and was quickly asleep.    

 

CH 30

Home, come on home

Ye who are weary come home
Softly and tenderly calling
Home, come on home

John Denver: Tenderly Calling

                                              

Traveler loped along the road to Laramie, Jess rocking in the saddle to the horse's movement.  They would reach Laramie somewhere between lunch and dinner at their present rate, although Jess estimated it would be closer to the second than the first.  High above, a hunting eagle rode thermals, its lazy gliding shadowing the horse and rider's progress.  The closer to town they got, the more anxious Jess became.  He was still unsure  how Slim would feel about his return, despite the rancher’s request that he come back,  so part of him wanted to turn tail and cut a path back the way he’d come.    Still, he rode on, unable to turn away from this path he had chosen, needing to see the place and people that he might have called home and family one more time.

 

The sun seemed to remember that it was only late September.  As it climbed higher in the sky, its warmth chased winter back and birds brave enough to challenge winter’s cold hopped among the branches of trees scattered along the roadside, searching, searching for missed seeds.  Whether it was the knowledge that home was only a few hours away, or the warmth of the sun or a combination of both, Traveler seemed to cover the miles between them and Laramie with ease, bringing the road weary companions to Laramie's outskirts.

 

No one paid attention more than a brief glance at the horse and rider trotting their way down Laramie's main street, more intent on making their way home to a hot dinner and a warm fire than a road weary man and horse to give more than a cursory glance in their direction.

 

Drawing rein in front of the livery, Jess swung down with a groan and banged on the narrow door of the livery until it swung open revealing a face Jess remembered well. His reception, however wasn't exactly what he'd expected...

 

“What in the blue blazes do you want stranger?  Ah'm eatin' mah supper,” the man growled.

 

“Need a stall for the night.  And he needs a good rubdown and hot mash.  He's come a long way today an' deserves a good pamperin'.”

 

The livery owner stepped the rest of the way through the door and squinted at Jess more closely.  That voice was familiar.

 

“Ah know yah, mister?  Seems ta me I heard yer voice afore.”

 

          “I reckon you should have, I worked for Slim Sherman a while back.”  Jess stepped out of the shadow of the building,  “Name’s Jess Harper.”

 

“Jess... Jess Harper, ya say?  A ghost of a smile lit his face before it bloomed.  “Yeah, I remember a feller workin’ fer Sherman by that name, heard he took himself off and made himself a name as a gunfighter.  Yeah, ah sure do remember you,  Jess Harper.  Word is yer as fine as cream gravy with that lead pusher of yer’s.  Never reckoned ta see ya back here,” 

 

Jess sighed inwardly; he should have realized that his reputation would precede him.  “You have a stall for my horse or not?”

 

The stableman shrugged. “No matter ta me what ya do fer a livin’, yer coin spends as good any.  Hold on an’ I’ll open the door fer ya.”  The man disappeared inside for a moment as he unbarred the big double doors and swung one wide. “Fust on the left. That’ll be four bits with rub down and mash.”

 

Jess fished the coins out of a pocket and dropped them in the man’s waiting hand as he lead Traveler past and into the stall.  Quickly unsaddling the tired animal, he dropped his saddle on an empty rack and   hung the bridle on a nearby hook.  Untying his saddlebags and bedroll, and pulling his long gun free, he looked over his shoulder at the livery owner. 

 

“Hotel still down the street?”

 

“Yeah, they don’t serve no supper no more though, not since Miz Wood opened her place cross the street.  Don’t think Amos minds that much, god knows he couldn’t cook a lick.  Miz Wood now, she kin take boot leather an’ make it taste like heaven.”

 

Jess nodded his thanks and headed in the direction of the hotel, with luck he’d be able to get a hot bath before getting something to eat.

 

          The stableman watched the gunfighter walk away, and then wiped his forehead with a dirty sleeve; it came away with a good measure of sweat.  Making sure the bay horse had fresh water and hay for the moment, he swung the big door closed and then slipped outside, headed for Mort Corey’s office.  The sheriff would want to know who had just ridden into town.

 

                                                                                 *****

           

Mort was just finishing going through some flyers that had come in on the bi-weekly stage, carefully studying them before either filing or posting them as they warranted.  When the door of his office flew open so suddenly that he had his gun half drawn before he realized  it was Earl Puttin standing in front of his desk.

 

“For god’s sake, Earl don’t come busting in like that, I almost shot you!”  Mort half shouted in exasperation as he sat back down in his chair, letting his gun slide back into its holster.

 

“Sheriff, yer never gonna guess who just rode in ta town.”

 

Mort rocked back in his chair and sighed, “Alright Earl, who just rode into town?  Is it the James boys, or is it the Younger brothers?”

 

“None a them varments, sheriff.  It's that Jess Harper that rode in ‘bout fifteen minutes ago, lookin’ to put his horse up for the night!”        

 

 Mort sat forward so suddenly that Earl jumped back in surprise.  “You sure it was Jess Harper?”

 

“Sure as ah’m standin’ here!  Tol' me his name own se'f, bold as brass 'bout it, too!”

 

“I’ll be darned, he’s come back after all,” Mort muttered to himself.  Slim had told him that he’d asked the gunfighter to return to the ranch.  Mort hadn’t held out much hope that the drifter would, but, as usual, Harper had surprised him yet again.

 

“What’s that ya said sheriff?” Earl asked, leaning forward, a puzzled look on his face.

 

“Nothing you need to worry about, Earl.  I’ll take care of Harper, you go on back to your place.  And thanks for letting me know about Jess.”

 

You gonna run ‘im out a town?”  the Liveryman asked with more than a little eagerness.  Word of Jess Harper and Mort Corey clashing might just him a drink or two.  But the sheriff shook his head, dashing the man’s hopes.

 

“On what grounds?  He just rode in, looking for a stall for his horse and a hot meal and bed for himself I’m betting.  Can’t run a man out for wanting something other than his own cooking to eat, an’ the hard cold ground to sleep on.”  Mort snorted, “Go on Earl; like I said I’ll take care of it.”

 

                                                                                *****   

 

Amos Williams had given Jess the same look that he’d seen in the stableman’s eyes uncertainty mixed with a little respect and a lot of fear.  Unlike Earl though, Amos had recognized Jess right off, giving him a queasy smile as soon as he read the name scrawled in the register.

 

“Welcome back, Mister Harper.  You... You've been gone quite a time. Are you just passin' through or … stayin' a spell?”  the older man asked in a weak, quavering voice. 

 

“Don’t know yet, Amos.  Got some unfinished business here,” Jess replied as he picked up his gear and took the proffered key. 

 

If the gunfighter was what they expected to see from Jess Harper, then that was what they would get.  It hurt him to see that look in the eyes of a man he thought of as at least an acquaintance, if not a friend.  The gunfighter firmly in place, he gave the man a cool look, “I’m gonna want some hot water for a bath.  Been on the trail a long time.”

          Amos looked away from the other man's cold eyes.  “Certainly, Mister Harper, boiler's hot, so I'll fill the tub right away, Sir.”

 

Twenty minutes later, Jess was scrubbed clean, freshly shaved and dressed in the cleanest of his meager supply of clothing.  Running fingers through damp hair as he stared at himself in the mirror, he almost didn’t recognize the man that looked back at him.  His hair was long and curled around his ears and over the collar of his shirt.  His face, burnt from wind, sun and cold, was lean and angular, his eyes hard with a haunted look to them.  Riding the Big Open in winter was hard on a man but, where he’d be lean before, he was now nothing but whipcord and bone and his clothing hung on his frame.  He buttoned up the heavy shearling coat, picked up his John B and headed out in search of a hot meal.

                                               

                                                                                   *****

 

Mort had finally chased the liveryman out of his office and now he sat staring at the top of his desk as if the stained, aged wood held some answers as to which Jess Harper he would find at the café: the cold, hard gunfighter or the devil-may-care rancher.  And just what might happen if he found the first instead of the second?  He stood and settled his gun belt around his waist, pulled his heavy coat on and grabbed his hat as he went out the door, heading for the café. 

 

He slowed as he stepped onto the boardwalk, the paused at the window of the café to look inside.  Two customers, one at the counter, the other at a corner table facing the door, were eating.  The third man...

 

He paused, frowning, for a moment stunned at the changes seven and a half months had wrought on Jess.  There was a lean, hungry  almost feral look about him.  Call it "haunted." Mort had seen men come back from the War who had that appearance, as if they'd strayed too close to the boarders of Hell and barley managed to escape from the brink...

 

Martha appeared, carrying a laden plate piled with a thick steak, mashed potatoes and two biscuits, and, all at once, the hard man became the boyish cowhand in a flash, a devilish grin wiping away the hard mask for just a moment.  Maybe the old Jess Harper wasn’t buried too deep beneath the gunfighter after all. 

 

                                                                                       *****

 

Jess smiled up at the older woman, said “Thank you ma’am, sure looks mighty good and...” 

 

The sound of the door opening made Jess to turn his attention to the possible threat, his hand instinctively dropping to the butt of the Colt on his hip.  But it was a familiar figure who stepped through the opening and Jess let his hand fall away from the gunbutt, yet never took his gaze from the man that stepped inside.  He had dreaded this moment almost as much as the one when he faced Slim. 

 

Mort casually unbuttoned his jacket and hung it and his hat on a rack by the door, the room warmed by the large stove in the kitchen,  and sauntered toward the table where Jess sat. 

 

“Evenin', Martha.  How about a cup of that fine coffee of yours please,” he said amicably.

 

The woman looked suspiciously from the young man to the older lawman and hurriedly set the laden plate down. “Of course Sheriff, you just have a seat and I’ll bring it right out.  I still have some of that cobbler left if you like.”

 

“That’s fine, Martha.  I’m just gonna take a seat here with Jess, we haven’t seen each other in quite a spell,”) Mort looked pointedly at the woman and then to the kitchen, a clear sign she should leave and then to the young man at the table.

 

“You don’t mind,... do ya Jess?”

 

Jess didn't miss much and locked gazes with the older man. “Course not, always a pleasure to get a chance to talk with an old friend,” Jess answered and leaned back in the chair, forcing himself to relax.

 

Mort slid into the chair opposite as Martha hurried away to get his coffee.  He studied Jess a while longer, taking a good look at him.  The Big Open had not treated him kindly in the time it had held him in its sway.   He’d lost a good ten pounds or more, there was a sense of wary alertness in him that was found in the wild things that roamed her trackless miles, an aura that surrounded men who were either on the run, or lived by the speed with which they drew their gun.

 

“Been a while, Jess.... .”  he said quietly.

 

Jess returned Mort’s steady gaze.  “Yeah, that it has...” he picked up his fork and knife. “Mind if I eat?  Be a shame to let somethin’ that smells this good get cold.”

 

“Go ahead, you look like you could use a good feed.”

 

“Beans, bacon, an’ coffee do that to a man on the move.”

 

“Been riding the long trail, Jess?”

 

The gunfighter forked steak and potatoes into his mouth, chewed and swallowed, following the food with a third of the coffee in his cup before answering.

 

“All trails are long in the Big Open, sheriff,” he answered tersely, buttering a biscuit and popping half into his mouth.

 

Mort let a small smile play at the corners of his mouth.  “I’m not askin’ as a lawman, Jess. I’m asking as a friend.”

 

 

“Friends don’t usually ask a man ridin’ the Big Open what trail he’s ridin’, it ain’t polite.”

 

“A friend that’s spent time worryin’ about that man would.”

 

Jess was silent for a minute, and then sighed and put his fork down. “The trail I been ridin' is straight and narrow. It ain’t always been that way, but that was a long time ago.”

 

“I’m glad to hear that, Jess.”

 

The two men looked up as Martha returned with Mort’s coffee and cobbler.  Seeing Jess’ plate, she tsk’d. “Sheriff, you need to let this man talk less and eat more.”

 

Mort chuckled. “Jess isn’t the kind a' kinda man to let talk get in the way of eating good food.”

 

Jess proved him right by digging back into his meal with enthusiasm.  “Sheriff’s right, ma’am.  And this is best cookin’ I’ve had in quite a time.”  He finished the last of his coffee and looked up hopefully.  “Sure would appreciate some more of that coffee, an’ if there’s any of that cobbler left, too?”

 

          The woman had to smile at the little boy grin the dark haired man gave her, his eyes twinkling with laughter.  “You finish what you got there, young man, and I’ll bring you some cobbler with cream,” and she hurried back to the kitchen to get the large coffee pot to refill Jess’ cup.

 

Jess put his attention back on Mort, “So, sheriff, what can I do for you?”

 

Mort did not miss the cool, emotionless tone and felt saddened by it.  He had hoped that the younger man would remember the friendship that they had begun before he’d left. 

 

“Well, Jess, I guess I’d better know what you’re doing here in Laramie.  Is it business, or driftin' through?”

 

This was the moment Jess had known would come, the one he feared.  And fear made his words sound harder than he meant them to.

 

“Depends...” he answered cautiously, his voice rough.  He glanced down and herded the food around on his plate with his fork, his appetite suddenly gone.

 

Mort wasn’t fooled by the tone though, he saw the uncertainty in Jess’ eyes before he'd looked away.  He shifted forward in his seat, positive that, what he saw along with uncertainty was the hunger to come home again.

 

“Depends on what, Jess?” He thoughtfully asked.

 

“Slim...”  Jess replied in the same rough voice, raising his eyes to meet Mort's again.

 

Mort smiled and leaned back with a feeling of relief.  He knew then that he'd been right, that Jess wanted very much to come back, to pick up where he and Slim had left off.  He just wasn't sure how to go about it.

 

“He know you were coming?”

 

Jess shook his head. “He told you we crossed trails a month back?”

 

Mort nodded, waiting for Jess to continue.

 

“He said he wanted me to come back to the ranch, guess he thinks things can be the way they were.”

 

“And can they?”

 

Jess sighed and looked Mort square in the eye. “I don’t know...  I jus’ don’t know.  The things he said... He didn’t say em ‘cause he was angry, he said ‘em cause he meant ‘em, 'cause they were true.”

 

Mort was taken aback at the desolation in Jess’ voice.  The pain that Slim’s words had caused, seeped through the gunfighter’s hard exterior like blood from a newly opened wound.  Jess had taken to heart the words said in anger and the damage was still there. 

 

“Jess, what happened that night?” he asked quietly and for a moment turned  thought he had pushed too hard because his expression hard and his eyes grew cold and distant, but then Jess ran a weary hand over his face and gave him a bewildered look.

 

“I don’t know.  As I’m sittin’ here I honestly don’t know.  I was just late comin’ in for supper, and Jonesy was makin’ chicken and dumplin’s too.  I was headed in when I found some fence down and stopped tah fix the break, but it took longer than I thought it would, an’ it was well dark before I rode in.  I walked in the door and Slim starts askin’ me where’d I been, accused me of bein’ off skylarkin’, an’ he was all worried somethin’ happened to me and the like.  Well I was dog tired an’ I guess I yelled back that I was doin’ what he sent me to do: fixin’ fences on the north pasture, what’d he think I was doin’?  Well he just went on sayin’ that for all he knew I’d lit out without so much as sayin’ adios, said he knew I was practicing with my rig, and that I was plannin’ to ride out an’ he wasn’t gonna let me hurt Andy again by leavin’,” Jess paused and lifted his coffee cup draining it.

 

When he looked at Mort then, the gunfighter was gone only a very lost cowboy was left.

 

“I’d never do nothin’ to hurt Andy, rather cut off my right hand first.  But Slim was right, I was practicin’.  It been too long since I’d handled that gun, an' a man like me, with my reputation, he can’t afford to be out of practice.  But, I was tryin’ to be what Slim wanted me to be, just a hired hand, but that ain’t in me I guess.  I was feeling that itch of bein’ in one place too long, I wasn’t used to havin’ to answer to schedules, or another man’s rules, but I was tryin’.  The Big Open, she’s a seductive lady, pulls a man in and takes eveythin’ he’s got to give, then betrays him.  Well, Slim, he says I’m nothin but a no good drifter an' that’s all I’ll ever be.  I’m not real educated, but by god I know when to cut dirt.”  Jess reached down to the Colt on his hip and pulled it from its holster, laying the weapon on the table. 

 

“This isn’t what makes a man.  It's what’s inside him, it’s how much sand he has an' doin’ what’s right even though it kills him to do it.  It’s tryin' to change what he is.”

 

Jess stopped talking for a moment and looked out the bay window to the darkened street.  “Guess it’s not the same for a gunslick like me, man picks up a gun and nobody will ever let him put it down again.  I don’t wanna bring down no trouble on Slim or Andy but, a man’s past, it rides in his war bag for the rest of his life.  So... I reckon I’ll be moving on come sun up.”

 

Jess started to pick up the Colt and re-holster it, but Mort stopped him.  The gunfighter flashed a warning, but Mort could be as stubborn and bull-headed as the next man and kept his hand on Jess’ arm.

 

“Jess. Sit.  Have another cup of coffee and Martha's just bringing out that cobbler you wanted,” the sheriff said quietly, locking gazes with the sad blue eyes across the table.  For a moment he thought he had lost the gamble and Jess would walk away a final time.  Then he saw Jess’ shoulders sag and the weariness in his face and knew that he had won this round at least as Jess relaxed back into the chair.  Mort glanced at the doorway of the kitchen and nodded slightly, telling Martha to bring the coffee and cobbler out, glad that she had understood that he and Jess needed to talk. 

 

“Jess, I’ve known Slim quite awhile.   He’s a man of strong beliefs, but he’s a man willin’ to give someone a second chance, too.  He was holding that ranch together by shear will sometimes, he never asked for help unless there was no other way around things.  Most times he just buckled down and worked harder and longer.  Heck there were times when he'd be out riding fence for days, an' young Andy might see his brother maybe two... three times in a week if he was lucky.

 

Then you showed up, turnin’ things upside down an’ inside out, and takin’ some of that load off Slims shoulders.  You showed Slim that he was still a young man, an’ how to have fun again, what it meant to know someone had his back in a tight spot.  Sure, you ‘bout drove him loco sometimes with that gun of yours, and you runnin’ off to help a friend whenever they hollered for it.  He’d worry somethin’ awful whether you’d come back all shot up or if you’d even come back at all.  There were a couple of nights when he’d come in and go in that saloon and just sit there with a bottle and never take a drink, then ride out again.

 

He’s not lookin’ at what you were so much as lookin' at what you are, an’ what he sees you wanna be... what you can be with a little time and someone that has your back no matter what.  So Jess, what I’m sayin is: go out to the ranch, talk with Slim and listen to what he says, an’ take a good hard look around at what’s waitin’ for you if you want it bad enough.  Then, if things aren’t what you’re looking for, or what you thought they were, ride out, and if it comes to that then it’ll be a sad day for the both of you.”

 

Mort finished and leaned back in his seat,  suddenly tired.  Looking at his cup he realized that, at some point, Martha had refilled both men's coffee and left a plate of cobbler for both of them.  Rubbing his eyes with one hand, he sighed, took a sip of the still steaming liquid, and waited.

 

Jess was still for a moment before he unintentionally mimicked Mort’s actions.   He took a bite of the cobbler, chewed and swallowed, nodding appreciatively. He looked up at Mort,  gave him a small smile and nodded.

 

“Thanks, Mort.”

 

        “It’s what a friend does for knot-headed mules they’d otherwise call friend.”

 

 

 

 

 

CH. 31

 

I try to keep it together
I never let on that I'm scared
Still sometimes I fall to pieces
Scattered and lost everywhere

Just when it feels like there's no one
To mend all my broken down dreams
I hear a voice deep inside me
Tenderly calling to me

  John Denver: Tenderly Calling

 

 Slim and Andy were in the corral harnessing up a fresh team for the expected morning stage as the sun, just cresting the ridge, spilled rivulets of gold over the snow.  The loose stock moved around the enclosure looking for missed strands of hay from breakfast and somewhere in the distance a hawk screamed.  The breath from the two brothers and horses streamed skyward in the frosty air, misty fingers reaching for the sun’s warmth.

 

Andy absently ran a brush over the back of a dark buckskin gelding, his eyes staring out over the ridge.  He’d tried to stop watching for Jess after he’d been gone for a couple of months, but just couldn’t.  Now, as he watched, the outline of a rider appeared.  At first he had thought it a trick of his imagination, but as the horse and rider began their descent, he knew they were real.

 

“Slim... Slim look!” he said urgently, never taking his eyes off of the mounted man.

 

His older brother swore softly,  having trouble with a cold and stiff piece of harness and was more than a little frustrated. 

 

“Not now, Andy,” he muttered.

 

“But, Slim...”

 

“Andy....”

 

“It’s Jess … and he's come home.”

 

The whispered words caused Slim to drop the leather strap he’d been struggling with and look in the direction Andy was staring.  There was no mistaking the way the rider sat in the saddle, despite the fact that the horse and rider were simply dark silhouettes backed by the sun; there was no doubt in his heart that Jess was indeed coming home.

 

“Andy, go on inside.”

 

“But, Slim!” Andy protested, turning to look at his brother, a stubborn jut to his young jaw.

 

“Please Andy; just do as I say for now.” Slim said in a firm voice as he returned Andy’s glare,  then looked away to see that the approaching pair had reached the bottom of the ridge.

 

The boy muttered a couple of things that Slim pretended not to hear and slipped between the rails of the fence, slowly walking in the direction of the ranch house.

 

Slim opened the gate and stepped out of the corral, making sure it was firmly latched when he was through.  Part of him wanted to shout for joy, another wanted to swear at length, a third part was simply stunned that the gunfighter had actually returned.  All he could do was stand and wait for the rider to draw that familiar bay gelding with the star on his forehead to a halt.

 

For a moment the two men silently looked at each other, as Mort had before, and Slim was shocked at just how thin Jess’ wind and sunburned face appeared.  He could hear wheezing as the gunman breathed and wondered how long that had been going on.  Jess was not one to worry about his own well-being when he got it in his head to go somewhere or do something.  A gunshot was a scratch, and pneumonia just a cold as far as he was concerned.

 

“Howdy, Jess,” he said quietly.

 

“Slim, you mind if I step down?” the gunfighter asked, his voice void of emotion.

 

Slim’s heart sank as he gestured for Jess to do so and, looking into Jess’ face, he knew he was looking at Jess Harper, the gunfighter, not the ranch hand.

 

Swinging down from the saddle, Jess stood at Traveler’s shoulder, absently running one of the reins through his fingers.  He tried to read the rancher's thoughts and failed.  He glanced down  a moment, then looked back up and locked eyes with Slim.

 

“You asked me to come back when I was done in Aroya. I'm done.”

 

Slim nodded and shifted his feet. “I appreciate you doing that.  It must have been a hard ride.”

 

Jess shrugged, then looked at the ranch house, then to the barn and then back to Slim.  There was so much to be said and Jess had no clue how to start such a conversation, so he simply waited for Slim, who was, unknown to him, in the same fix.

 

Fortunately Andy had reported Jess’ arrival to Jonesy who now watched the two men with growing frustration from the living room widow.  Unable to stand it any longer, he pulled the towel from around his waist and stomped to the front door, throwing it wide and shouting at the two men to come inside before they froze in place.

 

For a moment the two men were united in their appreciation of Jonesy’s unfailing practicality as a brief grin crossing each face. 

 

Jess paused to tied Traveler to the corral before following Slim to the house as he had done so many times before, his stride slowing as he approached the front porch.  Stepping up, he hesitated in the doorway as if one more step would change his life forever, and indeed it could. 

 

“Jess, you get your sorry hide in here, you’re lettin’ all the heat out,” Jonesy groused as he set two cups of steaming coffee, along with fresh bread, butter and apple jelly on the table.  Men talked better over food it seemed and he planned for these two mule headed fools to do just that.

 

Andy stood by the fireplace looking very much like a lost soul caught between heaven and purgatory, wanting to sit with the two men who were his brothers, one by blood,  the other by something just as strong but he couldn’t put a word to.

 

Jonesy laid a gnarled hand on the boy’s slender shoulder, “Come on, Andy, let’s you an’ me finish gettin’ that team ready. Mose’ll be comin’ in soon.”

 

Reluctantly Andy followed Jonesy outside to finish harnessing the team that had been left standing along the corral fence.

 

At the table, Slim had taken his usual seat and was applying butter and jelly to a slice of bread, his forehead creased as if the task took all his concentration.    

 

Jess still hovered just inside the door, muscles tensed; he looked like some wild animal ready to flee at the slightest provocation.

 

“Coffee’s gettin’ cold, you gonna sit?”  Slim asked blandly as he bit into the bread and chewed in appreciation.

 

Jess moved toward the table, unbuttoning his heavy coat as he came.  Pulling out his usual seat, he slid into it and laid his hat on the table next to him.

Slim eyed Jess, taking in the fact that the man had not removed the heavy coat.  “Gonna get warm in here with that on.”

 

Jess shrugged, “Don’t know how long I’ll be stayin’.”

 

Slim ground his teeth; the gunfighter was not going to make this easy.  “Jess...”

 

Jess added some sugar to his coffee; stirring, he stared at Slim before taking a long sip and placing the mug back on the table.  “Slim, you told me ride out an’ don’t bother comin’ back, an’ you meant it.”

 

“Jess... I...”        “Let me finish before you go off on a tear.  Them words you said...” the dark haired man paused and looked away, the muscles of his jaw flexing as he clenched it tightly.  He took a deep breath, forcing unwanted emotions back down.  When he looked back, the gunfighter was firmly in control again, his voice flat and hard, his eyes glittering with anger.

 

“They jus’ ‘bout killed me when you said ‘em.  Sure, they were true, I was practicin’, and I had to keep you, ‘n Andy ‘n Jonesy safe should trouble come ridin’ over that ridge looking for me”.  Jess snagged a slice of bread and started applying a liberal layer of jelly.  “You didn’t even think of just who I was when you hired me on, did ya Slim?  Didn’t stop to think just what kinda high binder you were takin’ in.

 

“See, I was lookin’ for a place to light for a while, been ridin’ with the ‘Lady’ a long time, and, thanks to Pete Morgan, I was just about flat busted.  Would’a thought you’d run me off for good when ya caught me showin’ Andy how to deal.  But, ya didn’t and ya still didn’t ask any questions either.  Jus’ took me on faith I guess, not many ‘ill do that for a ‘no account drifter’.

 

Slim flinched to hear his words thrown back at him and he hung his head as he listened to Jess talk, his voice low and hard.       

 

“You asked me to put my gun up for Andy’s sake an’ I did.  Can't tell ya how much that scared me, not wearin’ my rig.  I’d ‘bout jump outa my skin every time some stranger come ridin’ in to the ranch or I rode into town for the first couple of weeks, got used to it though.  Got used to a lot of things pretty quick: hot food that wasn’t beans an’ bacon, a real bed every night, not just a blanket on the ground, an’ a solid roof over my head instead of stars.  Yeah, a man gets used to things he hasn’t had in a long time, pretty quick.”

 

Jess paused to eat the slice of bread in three quick bites, washing it down with more coffee.  “So I tried my darnedest to make sure I kept those things.”

 

Slim choked down a sardonic laugh, “You sure as heck had a way of showin’ it Jess”.

 

A brief smile flitted across Jess’ face, but it didn’t reach his eyes.  “Like I said I’d been on my own for quite a spell, took a bit to settle back in.  So I became a cowhand, I’d done it before, was pretty good at it too, and as we went on I got to thinkin’ maybe this time I’d found that place I’d been lookin’ for.  A place to set roots an’ give up flirtin’ with the Lady and ridin’ the high trail for good, but then spring came round, and I could hear that voice of hers callin’ to me, tellin me ‘bout places I’d never been.

 

“The snow was meltin’ in the passes and an’ I knew... I knew that, if I stayed that eventually my past was gonna find me here, an' you, Andy an’ Jonesy would be right in the middle of things 'cause of it.  I couldn’t let that happen, so I got out my rig and started getting my hand back.  Seven months is an all-fired long time for a man like me to stay in one place, sooner or later some owl-hoot was gonna turn up and stir the pot, an’ I had to be ready for it.  Guess I really didn’t have to worry all that much after all.”   Jess looked past Slim’s shoulder at the sound of the expected stage coming in, watching as Andy sprang into action to unharness the tired team.  “He’s grown some,” he said

Slim turned to look out the window. “Boys do that,” he turned back and caught Jess’ eye.  “He’s missed you, Jess...”   Slim looked away, then down at the table and sighed. “I missed you too, pard,”he  desperately wanted to say as well, but, for some reason, the words wouldn’t come.  He looked back up into Jess’ expectant face and sighed again.  Where to start?

 

“You’re wrong about me, Jess, wrong that I didn’t know what kind of man you were, or the reputation you most likely carried with you.  Mort thought I was plumb crazy takin’ you on, and there were some sure-fire times that I agreed with him, and just about everyone else. Andy, though, he thought you were the sun, moon and stars come together and I didn’t stand a chance of changing his mind, so I kept you on no matter how often I wanted to tell you to ride out.  Jonesy, well, he figured you’d light out on your own without havin’ to be told, but until then, he was just glad to have someone else deal with switchin’ teams.”  Slim picked a second piece of bread and idly began tearing small pieces off.  “The longer you were here, the more I hoped that, maybe, you’d see the light of being a ranch hand and not a gun hand, and when I convinced you to put up that hair-triggered widow maker of yours, I thought I’d won, beaten that demon that was riding your trail.  I’ve hired on hands before, some good workers, others not so much, but you... you pretty near drove me plumb loco, disappearin’ in the middle of a job to take Andy fishin’ or some other thing you thought was more important, frustrating me every time I looked cross-eyed at you.  You were like some bangtail just off the range, rollin’ your eyes and rarin’ back whenever someone came at you with a rope to tie you down.  There were times I was just about ready to let you run, but somethin’ kept tellin’ me to keep at you, that you’d steady down into something I never expected to have: a partner, somebody to ride the river with, who’d have my back no matter what.”  Slim locked eyes with the man across from him, “And I want that back Jess, I want you back where you belong.”

 

Jess was silent, stunned by Slim’s words, emotion tightened his throat. He swallowed a time or two, then suddenly pushed away from the table, moving to stand by the window, watching Andy and the stage driver finish harnessing the team.  His eyes roamed over the barn and corral, toward the west where rolling pastureland stretched for miles.

 

Slim watched him silently, unsure as to whether he’d said too much or just enough.  As Jess moved slowly toward the door his mouth went dry, he felt such a sense of utter loss that he wanted to weep with it.  Closing his eyes, he rested his head in his hands, not wanting to watch Jess leave once more.  He could hear the soft ring of spurs, and the clump of boot heels as his partner moved to the door.

 

Jess, his back to Slim didn’t see the rancher’s reaction as he walked to the door.  Shrugging his shoulders, he slid the heavy coat off and hung it on a hook by the door.  He slowly untied the thong around his thigh and unbuckled the gun belt around his waist, carefully wrapping the belt around the holster.  Holding it in his hands, he stared at it a long minute and walked over to the table.  Wordlessly setting the bundle on the wood table, he waited.

 

At the sound of approaching footsteps Slim raised his head, but kept his eyes shut  as they came to a stop next to him.  When he opened his eyes, he saw the gun belt on the table and looked up, a grin spreading from his mouth to his eyes split his face.  He laid a hand on the bundle and said softly, “Welcome home, pard.”

 

                                                                               ~~~   FIN   ~~~

 

 



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