Hollingsworth, Esq.  by Joyce Manley

Chapter One

Edward Hollingsworth, Esq.  

Though it pleased both men immensely that Mike and Andy had become fast friends…it was a cause for concern as well. Now Mike wanted to attend the same school as Andy had back east.

 

Slim and Jess were almost as excited as young Mike when he told them of his decision to follow in his adopted big brother’s shoes. Unfortunately, money had once again become a major issue for the Sherman ranch and the added expense would be difficult. But with the new Overland contract coming up for renewal they figured they could make do. Yet, when the two sat down to discuss their finances and saw them laid out on paper, well…they found they weren‘t as well off as they thought. Their only option: to take out a loan, after all the ranch was paid off and they were in pretty good shape.

 

So it was that one summer morning the two ranchers headed into town. The ride was pleasant enough, but as they neared the bank Slim began to slow his pace wondering if it was such a good idea to be taking Jess with him. His partner was never much for banks and bankers in particular. He always felt they were one step away from the lowest horned toad. But he took solace in the fact that just the night before Jess said he was going to deposit at least five dollars into his account so he did have legitimate business interests Slim reasoned. So shrugging off his doubt he once again picked up the pace. He chuckled at Jess. His partner always seemed to find it hard to keep up with his legs. Slim stood several inches above Jess with most of his height being in his legs, while Jess’ was in his upper torso.

 

Slim had taken great pains this time make sure he brought everything he felt Hollingsworth wanted and was pretty confident of getting the loan. Slim took a seat and waited to be seen. Hollingsworth had another customer at his desk and from what Slim could tell the customer didn’t look too pleased.

 

His first meeting with the new banker had not gone well. To Slim, a long time resident of Laramie and a successful businessman and ranch owner, being turned down for a loan had come as a complete surprise. He’d dealt with banks before and had a good relationship with the Laramie bank before it closed. The previous bank president Mr. Taylor would have never asked Slim to prove his financial worth. After all this certainly wasn't the first loan he'd obtained over the years.

 

The last loan had been to obtain funds to take Jess to Denver for emergency surgery after an accident almost crippled his partner. Then, like before, he hadn't been asked to prove the value of his spread, much less have in down in writing. All Slim had to do was to walk in, explain the situation and a few minutes later he walked out with the needed funds. That loan had been paid in full along with the balance owed on the ranch when Jess cashed the draft he’d received from Overland as compensation for his injuries. After they’d been sitting pretty until Mr. Taylor’s death and the subsequent robbery of the bank that took everything they had along with many others. Now it was back to the drawing board.

 

When he’d first approached the new banker he'd left the bank fuming with Jess trying to keep up spittin' fire. Now as he sat waiting his turn he had high hopes for a good outcome. After all he'd brought the requested paperwork and Jess was occupied so he had no worries about his partner flatting Hollingsworth as he’d threatened to do before. Yup, he had little doubt of being turned down this time.

 

He did miss Brandon Taylor though. Like his father before him Taylor had been good to the Sherman ’s and had become a good family friend. Brandon was well known for helping out folks and was sorely missed. Brandon had fallen ill and passed away six months ago. The grass hadn’t had time to grow before Hollingsworth stepped in, took over and changed the name from the Laramie Bank to the Laramie Bank and Trust Company. Hollingsworth it seems was a man of some means and had come from back east. It was his first time out west and Slim passed his 'hard to get along with’ attitude off to his just not knowing the people and trying to adjust to a different kind of culture. After all the wild and rugged west is a far cry from the more sophisticated east.

 

While Slim continued to wait Jess stepped in line to conduct his own business. The line wasn’t too long; no doubt due to the heat. Everyone it seemed wanted to conduct whatever business they had in the shortest period of time and head for the nearest tree, riverbank, or in the case of our two ranchers the saloon for a nice cold beer. Anything to escape the heat. Finally, Slim was acknowledged and with a gesture of chubby hand, he was invited to take a seat at Hollingsworth’s desk. As he passed the last occupant he noticed the down cast look on the man’s face and wondered. Could be anything, he told himself and again shrugged of his doubt.

 

Smiling confidently Slim handed Hollingsworth his paperwork. The bank president took the folder, opened it and slowly began to thumb through it, page by page. The longer Slim sat the more he began to feel like an unruly student sitting in front of the principal. He  shifted in his seat and tried to read the man’s face, but with all that hair he was having a hard time of it. Hollingsworth sported a large handlebar mustache and a full set of muttonchops. When they’d first laid eyes on the man Jess had made the comment that between the mustache and the muttonchops he felt the man had more hair on his face than on his head. Slim laughed at that. But now that he had the time to really look he saw the truth of those words. Finally, the bank president put the papers down and looked at the man seated in front of him. Slim held his breathe.

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Sherman. But I cannot approve the loan at this time. Perhaps in the fu…”

 

“I don’t understand Mr. Hollingsworth. I brought all the papers you asked for…” Slim countered.

 

"Yes, yes and I appreciate that. It’s not the paperwork, Mr. Sherman,” he stated as he closed the folder and looked at Slim over the rim of his reading glasses. Then taking a deep breath. “Look let’s be frank shall we? This bank is in the business of making money...not losing it..."

 

"I know Mr. Holl…”

 

Then as if ignoring him outright he once again opened the file and glanced down at the papers in front of him without even looking at Slim. "I see Mr. Jess Harper is co-signatory on your account and that you also have him listed as co-owner on your deed?"

 

"That's right," Slim stated, clearly puzzled.

 

"Well, Mr. Sherman as president of the Laramie Bank and Trust it is my duty to investigate all account holders to insure that we maintain the integrity of the establishment you understand..."

 

He had a bad feeling about this. "Ah, no sir, I'm not sure that I do," Slim said. “Mr. Hollingsworth, if it’s Jess you’re worried about I can assure you that he is a fine upstanding citizen and has…”

 

The heavy set man nodded. “That might have worked before Mr. Sherman, but I set a higher standard. I know the kind of reputation men like Harper carry.” The man shook his head. “No, I am sorry Mr. Sherman, but I don't feel that lending money to a man who employee’s a gun fighter as a hired hand is a good risk…”

 

That statement took Slim back for a moment. "Mr. Hollingsworth,” Slim interrupted. “Jess Harper isn't a gunfighter and is no hired hand, he's my partner and as you can see part owner of the ranch.”

 

"I see that. And I must say Mr. Sherman I feel quite uneasy about it. A man with a reputation such as Harper's has no place around decent folk, and is certainly not a good financial risk,” he snubbed and shaking his head, “no, no Mr. Sherman, I am afraid I cannot approve the loan at this time.”

 

Slim sat back and stared wide eyed at the man.

 

“Now of course, if you decide to release Mr. Harper of his employment we might have something to discuss but until th

 

Slim’s temper shot straight up...coming close to the sun’s heat itself. "Now wait a minute, Mr. Hollingsworth, you got no right to...." Before Slim had a chance to finish the sentence two men entered the bank, guns drawn and ordered everyone to put their hands up. Behind Slim, Jess had just handed his deposit to the pretty young teller and for a moment it was as if time stood still, then all hell broke loose.

 

 The sharp sound of a gun pierced the quite of the room as employees and patrons alike dove for cover. Jess, with his quicker than lightening reflexes together with years of gun fighting experience spun and fired all in one fluid motion. Slim with equal speed spun around just in time to see the first gunman go down taking a bullet to the shoulder, thanks to his partner’s skill. At the same time he saw Jess grab his right arm, his gun slipping from his fingers to skitter across the wooden floor, his face a combination of pain and shock. Out of the corner of his eye Slim saw Hollingsworth dive for cover like the rest, his substantial desk now becoming his fortress. It all happened so fast.

 

The second robber seeing what he was up against high tailed it out. Slim rushed forward gun drawn, grabbing his wounded partner, pulling him to one of the desks and ordering him to stay down like the rest. Then he stepped over the man on the floor, kicked the wounded robbers gun away from him and carefully plastered himself against the wall next to the door before taking a well thought out move to look and see where the second robber had gone, at the same time yelling for everyone to stay down again, including the now wounded Jess.

 

No sign of him, only the distinct sound of a horse galloping down the street. Leaving behind the merest sign of trouble, a blood trail from the bank to the hitching post right outside. It was as  Slim was holstering his gun that he turned to find Jess being assisted to a chair by the young lady who'd accepted his deposit only moments before. A growing blotch of red showed through his shirt sleeve, blood ran down his arm to partially cover the back of his hand and drip off the tips of his fingers onto the highly polished floor.  

 

"Jess!" Slim was at his side in an instant. Quickly removing his bandana he proceeded to warp the wound, at the same time yelling for someone to go for the doctor and the sheriff in that order.

 

From a quick look at the wound, it appeared the bullet had passed right through. "Easy, Pard," he admonished as he applied steady pressure to steam the flow of blood.

 

"It ain't bad, Slim. We need to get after..." Jess said and with a grimace started to rise. Just as quickly Slim tightened the knot and pushed him back down.

 

"NO! You're gonna stay right where you are till the doc gets here," he ordered.

 

"But...."

 

"Matthews and Charlie have already gone after him, Jess. Now just settle down,” he scolded gently.

 

By the time Mort rushed in, followed by the doctor, most of the patrons and employees were already on their feet a little shaken and pale, but unharmed, thanks to the quick thinking and skill of one Jess Harper. Looking around it took a little longer for Hollingsworth to crawl from beneath the safety of his desk. He stood for a moment, brushing off his clothing and straightening his sleeves, clearly shaken. His shock turned to anger as he surveyed his once pristine business, his eyes coming to rest on the man sprawled in the middle of the floor, bleeding, marring the highly polished wood. With smell of gunpowder hanging in the air mingled with dust dancing in the sunlight from the open door and the echo of gunfire still ringing in his ear’s, the bank president’s temper rose and he growled.

 

"Who fired that shot?" He demanded, his eyes searching the stunned faces.

 

"I did," Jess told him as the doctor removed Slim's bloody bandana and examined the wound. Jess had been right. It wasn't bad the doctor confirmed. "Looks like it might have nicked the bone though...it'll be painful, but you'll live."

 

The bank president eased around the fallen man as if he were a snake about to strike, built his courage and stepped over to Jess huffin' and puffin' like he'd just rode in from the hills with the devil on his tail. "How dare you discharge a weapon in my business," he spat. "Sheriff, arrest this man."

 

Stunned. Mort stared. "What?"

 

"You heard me sheriff. Arrest this man,” Hollingsworth pointed a stubby finger at Jess as he continued to brush dust from his suit. Obviously more concerned with his business and the condition of his suit than the man that had just saved his bank from being robbed.

 

Everyone, patrons and employees alike turned to stare at the man shocked at such a request.

 

"Now, wait a minute..." Jess said and started to get up. But a vice like hand clamped down on his shoulder and Slim gently but firmly pushed his partner back down, at the same time turning his full attention to Hollingsworth.

 

 "Hold it right there. No one’s arresting Jess,” then pointing to the unconscious man on the floor, “this yahoo and his buddy tried to hold up the bank, Mort," he explained as he stared at the bank president with a combination of disgust and shock.

 

"Mr. Hollingsworth, from what I see Mr. Harper here just saved your bank from being robbed," Mort stammered.

 

"That's right," Slim confirmed and watched in disbelief as the bank manager continued to brush the dust from his clothes.

 

"Discharging a weapon in an enclosed room,” he muttered aloud. "Cattlemen, robbers, gunslingers, lawmen who don't want to do their duty…," he continued to no one in particular, then looking up at Mort he spat. "I'll tell you one thing; it's not like this in New York ...I..."

 

Slim had already started to advance on Howard Hollingsworth, Esq. "Now look here..." when the doc’s words stopped him. 

 

"Slim, we need to get Jess over to my office," he said firmly.

 

Slim, turned to look at his wounded partner. The doctor closed his bag and stood waiting; beside him Jess had gone pale and was holding his arm. With anger marring his handsome features Slim stepped back to his friend, his hand resting gently on Jess' shoulder. His brow may have been furrowed with concern, but his eyes flashed fire.

 

"I thought you said it wasn't bad, doc?"

 

"It's not. But it needs to be cleaned and he's gonna need a few stitches and I can't do that here," he explained.

 

"Before you leave," Hollingsworth continued, this time pointing a shaky finger at the young teller he ordered Jess' account along with Sherman Ranch Accounts closed. "I'll have no part of gunslingers and their friends in my bank," he snapped.

 

Appalled at the attitude of the man, Mort raised his voice. "Mr. Hollingsworth!"

 

"I'll not have the likes in my establishment, Sheriff,” the heavy set man insisted. “That man’s dangerous. I know his type. Served two years in prison he did," he hissed. “No, no Sherman , you take your friend and your business else where." Then before Slim or Jess could level a retort he looked up at the still startled young teller and shouted. “Miss Brooks, I said close their accounts NOW!”

 

Slim's temper blazed. "Why you," he growled and moved to tower over the man. The tall Laramie rancher was about two seconds from rearranging the man’s face when from behind him he heard a raspy voice.

 

"Back off, Slim. He ain't worth it." Jess' calm demeanor came as a shock to both Mort and Slim. So much so that for a brief moment, both the Laramie sheriff and the rancher found themselves at a loss for words. It was usually Slim trying to calm Jess, not the other way around.

 

"Slim, I need to get Jess to my place," the doctor reminded him, his voice becoming urgent.

 

Without saying another word Slim wheeled back around and taking his partner by his good arm assisted him out of the chair. Then after casting another disparaging eye at the bank president he threw a supportive arm around his partner’s waist and guided him to the door and out of the Laramie Bank and Trust.

 

"Your account books," Miss Brooks called softly.

 

"I'll be back for them later, Ma'am. Got to get my partner over to the docs before he bleeds to death," Slim announced, his eyes shooting daggers at the still rattled bank president.

 

"It ain't that bad, Sli...."

 

"Hush," he scolded as he guided Jess through the door.

 

Mort, his emotions raw and his temper about as short as Slim’s, now stepped up to Hollingsworth. "Mr. Hollingsworth, I know living out west is a far cry from back east and I can understand how something like this could be upsetting…”

 

Hollingsworth started to say something, but Mort put his hands up to silence the portly man and continued.

 

 “A-n-d I know that compared to some back east we may appear to be somewhat backwards to you and not as well educated as those you maybe used to. But does your higher education include the words 'thank you'? You owe those men a debt of gratitude,” he said, pointing to the departing Slim and Jess, “they saved your bank from being robbed," Mort told him and waited. After getting no response, he turned on his heels and left the bank before he did what Slim wanted to.

 

By the time they’d reached the doc's office, Jess was beginning to feel the full effects. He was getting dizzy; his arm burned like fire and felt as heavy as lead, so much so that he could no longer lift his arm without help. Once the doctor directed Slim to assist Jess onto his exam table in the small back room, Slim was dismissed. He was glad Jess wasn't hurt badly, but the ungrateful attitude of Hollingsworth had set his temper ablaze and he was finding it hard to cool down.

 

The doctor had just finished and was speaking to Slim when Mort entered the office.

 

"Sorry, it took longer than expected.” The doctor was saying.  “Yes, Slim, he’s fine. The bullet nicked the bone. I had to remove a few bone fragments before I could stitch it closed,” he was telling Slim. “Make sure he keeps that sling on and takes the medicine I'm going to give you. He’ll be fine, just needs to take it easy for a few days. Don’t want him using that arm to soon and messin’ up all my hard work,” he smiled.

 

Slim nodded. "Thanks doc. How much do I owe you?"

 

"Nothing, Slim," Mort answered to the surprise of both men, causing them to turn and look at the sheriff. "This one’s on the bank. It's the least Hollingsworth can do. I'll see to it," he promised.

 

"Thanks, Mort. But I doubt you'll get anything out of that man.” Slim’s temper had finally cooled, relieved that Jess would be alright.

 

Jess came out of the back room still a little pale, his arm in a sling. His eyes fell to the sheriff and he immediately asked ..."You get 'im, Mort?"

 

"No, but we will, don't you worry. Now how about you? You alright?" He asked with a smile, knowing full well what the answer would be. The typical 'I'm fine' from Jess Harper.

 

"I’m fine. Told Slim, it wasn’t that bad," he said as he readjusted the sling to a more comfortable position. And glanced up just in time to see both his partner and their friend exchange glances with a chuckle.

 

“What?”

 

Mort smiled again. "Well, good. I've got paperwork to finish, I better get to it. See you boys around," he said and left the doctor’s office.

 

"Jess, I'll be out at your place in few a weeks to look at that arm and remove those stitches, provided Daisy hasn't gotten to ‘um first.” Then he shook. "Boy that Hollingsworth is a piece of work isn't he?" He chuckled softly, addressing Slim.

 

Slim bristled at the name. "No argument there, doc," Slim replied and held the door for his partner.

 

"Think you can ride?" Slim asked.

 

"Sure," Jess said, but as they went to step down from the boardwalk Jess swayed and Slim reached out a hand to steady him. He was just about to suggest that they rent a buggy when the doctor stopped them.

 

"I've got to go over to the Harvey ’s place. Jess, you're still lookin' kinda of pale, why don’t you ride with me and Slim can follow."

 

"That's a good idea, doc. Don't need to make things worse by fallen out of the saddle, Pard," he said with a grin before Jess had a chance to argue.

 

It was Jess’ turn to bristle and he shot his partner a stern glare.

 

"Doc, you think you could give me a minute? I've got to go back to the bank for something?"

 

"Of course.”

 

“Just remember. Murder’s against the law in Wyoming ,” Jess teased.

 

Slim didn’t say a word, just nodded and kept walking.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Back at the ranch

 

 

That night at supper everyone seemed oddly subdued. The usual lively conversation and banter between the two men noticeably absent. Daisy too seemed unusually quite; even Mike sat still and ate in near silence.

 

Finally, Daisy spoke up. "Slim, are you alright, dear?" She asked. The elderly housekeeper had been at the Sherman ranch for well over five years now and had come to know the two men well. Slim may have been the backbone of the family…but he was also one of the worst worriers she’d ever met.

 

Slim, lost in thought looked up to find the only ones at the table were he and Daisy. He'd been vaguely aware that Jess had turned in early...his arm hurting he figured. If Mike had said goodnight he either didn’t hear him or didn’t remember. "I'm fine, Daisy,” he said with surprise. “Just worried that's all. Not sure where the money's gonna come from now," he said shaking his head.

 

"Why don't you wait awhile. Let things cool down a bit, then go back and speak with Mr. Hollingsworth?" She suggested.

 

Slim chocked back a laugh. "You don't know this man, Daisy. He's an arrogant son of a b..." the normally calm level headed rancher caught himself and bit back the words just in time, cleared his throat and smiled his apologies.

 

"It wouldn't work," he said taking a deep breath. "Best thing to do is to see Mr. Long over in Pixly."

 

"Pixly? Slim, that's an awful long way to go for a loan."

 

He nodded acknowledging that it was. "But I don't see we have a choice. We can't be disappointing Mike. He’s got his heart set on going to that school back east .”

 

"Slim, I don't have much, but it should be enough to pay the entrance fee for the first semester, I think," she volunteered, as she rose to clear the table. Slim followed, picking up plates and cups as he went.

 

"No Daisy. I'm not going to take your money," he said gently.

 

 She opened her mouth to object but Slim beat her to it.

 

“Let’s just wait and see how things go in Pixly, before we do something rash." He told her and smiled as he pumped water into the dish pan.

 

The elderly housekeeper pushed him aside with a firm. "No, no now. You go on to bed, I'll get these. You look done in and Jess barely touched his food. I think that arm might be giving him some pain."

 

Slim nodded. "Yeah, I thought of that too," he said and handed her what remained of his partner's supper.

 

"Slim, if he’s not asleep see if you can get him to take that medicine the doctor sent, will you?”

 

He nodded and snagged the small bottle of painkiller off the table along with a spoon, gave her a kiss on the cheek and headed for bed. To his surprise Jess was indeed awake and sitting on the edge of his bed, deep in thought.

 

Slim closed the door gently. "Thought you'd be asleep by now, Pard. Arm hurtin'?"

 

The younger man just shook his head. "Not much. Told ya it ain't bad," he said softly.

 

"Well something’s wrong. I know how much you love Daisy's chicken and dumplin’s, you didn't eat much. Course you might be planning on plumping up Buttons,” he said and stepped over to get a better look at his friend.

 

His partner wore a frown and a pained expression. "I'm sorry, Slim. I shouldn't have..."

 

I knew it. Jess had always had a bad habit of taking on everyone’s troubles before he faced his own. Slim knew it wasn't just physical pain that had spoiled his partner’s appetite.

 

"You did what you had to do, Jess. It's not your fault. I'd have done the same thing. You just saw him first," he told him honestly. 

 

Jess shook his head. "No, Slim, no you'd da handled it different. Thought it through first. It ain't the first time I've let m’ gun do the talkin’ for me..."

 

"Jess..."

 

"The loan, Slim..." he said in a low voice filled with regret.

 

"Don't worry about the loan. And you’re wrong, Jess. I'd have done the exact same thing. Could have been a lot worse had you just stood there," Slim told him.

 

"Yeah," he chuckled softly. "Hollingsworth would've probably had me arrested for lettin' it happen,"  he said, shaking his head. "Slim what are we gonna...?"

 

Slim sighed. "I told you not to worry about it. Only thing you need to worry about is getting Mose to help you with the teams tomorrow, so you can let that arm heal. Tomorrow I'll go into Pixly and talk to Mr. Long, he’s a reasonable man and knows me,” he said with a smile. "Besides, it'll give me a chance to check out that new breeding stock Saunders says he wants to sell. On the way to Pixly I'll stop off at Jeb's place and ask him to give us a hand. Now stop your worrying and go to sleep; but first," he said, and held up the little bottle together with a mischievous grin.

 

"Oh, no!" Jess started.

 

"It’s for both of us Jess,” Slim told him, the grin continuing to grow.

 

"How'd ya figure that?"

 

"Well, I can sleep with your snorin', but all that moanin' and groain’...." Slim couldn't hold it any longer and burst out laughing.

 

"Yeah, right."

 

"If you don't Daisy'll come in and force it down you anyway. Might as well get it over with now and avoid the pain later…" he suggested.

 

Jess nodded his understanding took the offered dose, laid down and turned on his side. Pretty soon the little house was filled with the soft sounds of sleep.

 

 

 

Chapter Three

Slim leaves for Pixly

 

 

True to his word Slim left for Pixly early the next morning. The morning the stage rolled in right on time and with the help of Mose Jess switched teams, helped the few passengers back into the coach after sampling of Daisy’s pie and coffee and watched as it disappeared over the rise. The same scenario played out with the noon stage. All the while, Jess remained withdrawn and quite. Like Slim and Daisy, Mike was getting worried. It wasn’t like his adopted brother to be so sullen and sad. Shoot Jess and he (like his counterpart Andy) had pulled some real good pranks on unsuspecting family members (usually Slim) over the years. He was gonna miss that. His emotions were in turmoil. Though he wanted to follow in Andy’s footsteps, still he was sure gonna miss the ranch and his family. Andy had sure done well he reasoned. In no time at all he’d be a doctor with his own practice right alongside Seth Andrews. He missed Andy and wished he could see him once more before he left for school. Then he had a fleeting thought and it made him smile. Maybe Slim won’t be able to get the loan and I wouldn't have to go.

 

Slim didn't get back until late, way after supper was over. Mike wasn't sure what had happened at first. Just that Jess had gone out to the barn when he saw Slim ride in. Try as he might he couldn't see much out of the bedroom window. Finally he gave up and went to bed.

 

When the two stepped into the house, Daisy couldn’t help but stare. Slim looked terrible.

His clothes were rumpled, his hair was a jumble of golden hay, he was covered in dirt and totally exhausted. He virtually fell into the chair at the table.

 

“Slim, what in the world happened to you?”

 

Taking a deep breath and forcing a smile, he explained weakly. “You know those horses Saunders has?”

 

Daisy nodded. He’d already told Jess. So while his partner went to retrieve his supper from the oven he explained his disheveled appearance to Daisy.

 

“I made good time getting to Pixly. As a matter of fact better than I’d hoped. When I got to town the bank was still closed, so I decided to take the short ride over to Saunders place and check out his stock,” he explained as he reached to butter a piece of cornbread. “I no sooner got through the gate than I heard Saunders and his men shouting and looked up just in time to see his prime bull followed by at least a half a dozen walkin’ steaks heading right for me as fast as their legs could carry ’um. Like a bunch of run away train cars.”

 

“Oh Slim!”

 

Slim sighed and gulped down half a cup of coffee.

 

“So what happened?” Daisy asked.

 

Slim smiled. “I helped get ‘um back.”

 

Daisy gave her employer a dubious frown. “That doesn’t explain your clothes.”

 

From across the table she heard Jess laugh and turned to look in his direction.

 

“Daisy, when you gotta bunch of beefers comin’ hell bent for ya, you do whatever you can to let them have their way. Old Hard Rock here, didn’t have much time to think. He started to hop off Alamo and was…well, sorta half on  n’ half off…” he chuckled.

 

“Oh dear, are you alright?” She asked now concerned.

 

Slim smiled. “I am, Daisy.”

 

“Well I certainly hope he appreciated your help,” she offered and reached for the coffee pot to refill Slim’s coffee.

 

Slim nodded. “He did,” and glancing over at Jess who’d just taken a swallow of his own coffee added with a tired smile, “he gave us first pick at a good price. Come next week we can add another twenty two head to our own,” he said, with a weary smile.

 

Jess said little, just nodded. “How’d it go at the bank?”

 

Slim shook his head sadly. He’d had no success at the bank in Pixly either. Times were hard all over and the banks were getting more and more tight fisted. Daisy sat across from the two men and listened in silence. Slim seemed more depressed than ever and rightly so. They realized that if the boy didn't start school this semester he'd have to wait till next year and like Slim had said...

 

"Don't see it getting any better then either," he sighed and snagged another piece of roast beef.

 

The Sherman housekeeper sat and looked from Jess to Slim, her concern growing. It was obvious they were both worn down with worry. But something in the way Jess held himself alarmed her. He was withdrawn and tense. Both Slim and Daisy knew how determined the young man could be when he put his mind to something. Upon hearing that Slim had failed to obtain a loan, Daisy worried about Jess’ reaction and she was sure Slim would be too, when he was rested enough to realize it. She only hoped Jess would give them time. Time to make him realize that this was not his fault. She sighed and refilled Slim’s cup, but when she reached over to refill Jess', he covered his cup with his hand and shook his head. She had a deep growing fear this was not going to end without one or both of her boys getting hurt. If not physically than emotionally...of that she was certain.

 

During a lull in the conversation, Jess rested his elbows on the table and lacing his fingers together sighed heavily deep in thought, until Daisy nudged him and directed his attention to Slim.

 

The handsome blond had held out as long as he could. He now sat slumped in his chair, his chin resting on his chest, his right hand closed weakly around a half empty coffee cup, a fork half filled dangled from limp fingers in the other. Jess looked at his best friend and smiled as Slim, more than half asleep, tried to rouse himself but couldn't, only succeeding in jerking his body back into the chair instinctively to keep from falling. Jess couldn't think of a time when he'd admired a person more than the man sitting across from him now. He was more a brother than a friend and partner. And he chuckled when he thought of how many times Slim had become father as well, giving his younger partner fatherly advise when necessary. Not that Jess always took it.

 

Jess rose and gently removed the cup and watched with a smile as the folk dropped back onto the plate with a clatter, Slim didn’t even notice.

 

"Slim, Pard...." he called softly, shaking his shoulder.

 

"Humm." The taller man jerked his head up, opened his eyes and tried to focus. But just as quickly his eyes slid shut. 

 

"C'ome on, Pard. Time for bed," he said as he half lifted the taller man out of the chair to an unsteady stand. Slim, gave Daisy a groggy goodnight and allowed his Pard to put him to bed, clothes and all, minus the boots of course. Daisy always had a fit about them sleeping with their boots on. Jess had just pulled the quilt over his partner when Slim flung his right arm over his head, out cold, snoring.

 

Gotta teach old hard rock how to sleep in the saddle, Jess thought with a smile.

 

 

0o0o0o0o

 

 

Slim had slept well and was up bright and early the next morning. He sat watching as Daisy beat the flapjack batter into submission and wondered for the hundredth time how they'd ever gotten along without her.

 

"What?" She asked, feeling Slim’s eyes on her. Slim was sitting at the table his long legs stretched to their full length waiting for breakfast.

 

"Oh, nothin', just watching you work," he said with a smile. It wasn't hard to read Daisy this morning. She was as worried as the rest of the Sherman lot. Finally, feeling uncomfortable under Slim's gaze she turned to face him, batter dripping from the spoon into the bowl.

 

"Slim Sherman , what is wrong with you this morning?"

 

“Nothing. Just watching you fix breakfast,” he said cheerfully an added with a smile,  “and glad I'm not a pancake," he winked and reached to refill his coffee cup.

 

"Oh, you," she chuckled.

 

As he watched he stretched and yawned for the umpteenth time that morning. He didn’t even remember going to bed. But he must have, waking up in his dirty clothes was definite proof that he had. "Where's Jess?" He asked.

 

"In the barn I think. He said there was something he wanted to check on. He should be in soon," she explained. "I'm worried about him, Slim," she said solemnly.

 

"Yeah, I know. He tossed and turned all night. I heard him get up a couple of times. But I was so out of it, I couldn't force myself awake enough to ask if he was alright," Slim admitted, and felt bad that he hadn't. "I thought that arm might be giving him some pain.”

 

“I wish that was all it was. Something else is bothering him, Slim. But he won't open up to me," she said with a shake of her head, effectively throwing it back to the tall blond who continued to be content to just sit and watch as she placed spoonfuls of the beaten batter in the pan. Flapjacks were everyone’s favorite.

 

"And I think I know what it is too," Slim nodded after taking another sip of coffee.

 

Slim couldn’t be sure if it was something in the barn or Daisy’s flapjacks, but his partner seemed in a better mood as he cheerfully enjoying the fruits of Daisy’s labors with the rest. Soon however, the conversation turned to their immediate need. After being turned down by two banks, Slim was at a loss as to what to do next. Jess too kept coming up short on ideas. Then before breakfast was over Jess had once more withdrawn into himself and sat in silence. It’d been like that ever since that last visit with Hollingsworth. Up one minute and down the next. Slim shook his head sadly. He’d always told Daisy that if somethin' bad happened a hundred miles off and affected those he loved; Jess'd blame himself, as if his existence alone were the cause. It was the one fault in his friend's personality Slim had yet to reach.

 

 

 

Chapter Four

“We’ll find a way.”

 

 

For the next few weeks things seemed to return to normal at the Sherman ranch.  Stages came and went, horses were broke, fences mended and both Slim and Jess found themselves out chasing strays on what seemed a daily basis. But, it was at night when all was quite that the problem of how to get Mike back east loomed large and dominated every thought. Most for especially Jess. He’d brood and sulk. His mood turning dark the Texan would withdraw into himself, at times into a place even Slim couldn’t reach. On those occasions both men looked forward to the dawn. At least work would keep body and mind busy.

 

Always one to try and cheer her adopted family one morning right after breakfast Daisy started peeling apples. Her boys loved her apple pies, most especially Jess. She smiled to herself as she worked. It was one way she’d won him over after their first meeting. He loves his food, she thought. Perhaps a little sweetness would serve to brighten his mood she felt.

 

She’d just removed two freshly baked pies from the oven when the morning stage rattled its way into the yard. You could always tell when Mose is driving. The sound of terrified chickens running for their lives melted together with three tons of rattling steel and wood. The pounding of the four up coming so close to the house that it shook the floorboards. Daisy wiped her hands on her apron and wondered how close he'd come to Jess this time. It was a game the old driver and Jess had played for years and although the two got a kick out of it she worried that one day driver and rancher might actually meet, and she hoped to have enough bandages for the occasion. In the early days it had scared Slim too, but he’d gotten used to it and even looked forward to see who would win. Early on he’d tried to ease Daisy’s fears by pointing out how fast Jess could move. But, always in the back of the ranchers mind he wondered….would he?

 

Slim had just started to unhitch while Jess brought over the new team when Daisy stepped out onto the porch. She breathed in the fresh morning air and recalled how pleased everyone was when during breakfast Slim had suggested that what the family needed was a break.. That morning Slim had suggested a picnic to try and ease the families worries. “You could try for old Stubby again,” he told Jess. Old Stubby was one of the biggest rainbow trout’s the two had ever seen.  They’d both seen it, a slight smile crossed the younger man’s face and his eyes lit up. It was settled. Though Daisy said nothing they could tell she was already planning the menu.

 

"Ya ain't never seen the like of it, fellas,” Mose was saying. “The whole towns a buzz..." He suddenly caught sight of Daisy and paused, "Oh, ah...howdy Miss Daisy,” he said, cheerfully.

 

"Hello, Mose. Coffee’s fresh if you want it," she offered.

 

“Thank ya, Miss Daisy,” the old man chuckled nervously. Slim and Jess smiled. Mose had always been a little sweet on the housekeeper, though he’d never admit it.

 

"A buzz about what?" Jess asked with a grin.

 

"Why that blastin' outfits in town agin. Old Felicity Jones s’ got the whole town actin' like young colts after a fresh mare. He's payin' top dollar for men to help take his wagons over ta the diggin's out near Pixly way. Why I here tell he's even payin' a five piece a day fur some poor fella just to watch the horses," he chuckled. "But, I'll tell ya this....I wouldn't take that there job for all the greenbacks in Laramie . Noooo sir. I might be a lot a things, but stupid ain't one 'um," he said as he climbed back into the box. Then addressing Daisy, “Ain't got time for no coffee this mornin' Miss Daisy. But I do smell somethin' awwwful good comin' outta the kitchen,” he said with a wink.

 

"Just took an apple pie out of the oven. You're welcome to some when you get back this afternoon," she said returning the smile. “Provided we have any left,” she said tilting her head towards Jess and Slim.

 

“I’ll doer Miss Daisy. I….”

 

“How much did ya say he’s payin’, Mose?” Jess asked, his hand on the rear wheeler leaning  close.

 

“I hear tell he’s payin’ a hundnerd for the whole deal. Feller told me just before I left Laramie .”

 

“A hundred dollars,” Jess whistled. He hadn’t noticed Slim eyeing him from the back of the horse across from him.

 

“Yeah,” he laughed, “but it ain’t worth dyin’ fer,” he said as he reached for the reins.

 

“Make sure you stop on your way back, Mose,” Daisy reminded.

 

"I'll do that. See ya fellers," he shouted and slapped leather causing the team to jerk into motion. The coach clattered out of the driveway leaving in its wake a cloud of dust and sending chickens flying.

 

As they stood watching the coach disappear over the rise, Daisy questioned. “Felicity?”

 

Slim nodded and smiled. “Yeah, guess they really wanted a girl.”

 

Daisy returned the smile and disappeared back into the house.

 

Slim gave out a heavy sigh and shaking his head started to return to the house when the look on his partner‘s face stopped him. It was obvious what Jess was thinking.  “Oooh, no you don't.”

 

"What?" Jess replied innocently.

 

"You know 'what'. That's just pure suicide Jess, and you know it."

 

"I don't know it, and neither do you, Slim. This could be the answer. It'd bail us out," Jess sounded hopeful. “Why a hundred dollars could cover two years tuition and….”

 

"And pay for your funeral,” Slim growled.

 

Jess’ temper started to climb. "Let me remind you of somethin’ P-a-r-d. You ain't my boss no more. We're partners, remember?"

 

“I remember, and I'm trying to keep it that way," Slim shouted and turned his back, his long legs taking him half way to the house before Jess spoke up again.

 

"Look Slim, what if I just went along to take care of the horses. Ain’t no harm in that. Mose says he's payin' top dollar for…,” Jess sounded hopeful his tone changing.

 

“I said NO, Jess,” Slim said sternly. “I'm not about to go pickin' up pieces of my partner half way between here and Pixly. So you just get that fool notion right out of your head."

 

“Slim, I don't understand. I don’t even have to be with a hundred feet of...."

 

Slim spun around his eyes ablaze. "You don't have to be! Do you know anything about Nitro Jess? Have you ever seen it go off?"

 

Jess his brow furrowed. "No, but....."

 

"Well, let me tell you. It doesn’t matter how far away you are. I've seen men blown to smithereens when they were no further than the front gate to the house. No. No sir. You're not going", he said shaking his head defiantly.

 

Jess was puzzled. It wasn’t like his Pard to go off like that. Slim was usually the voice of reason, the one to think things out before sayin’ ya nor nay. Jess took a different stance and smiled coyly at his partner. “Awe come on, Slim…”

 

But Slim’s attitude didn’t improve instead he stepped up to his friend, getting close enough so that Jess could feel his breath on his face. “If it gets too hot,” he said, holding a finger up in front of Jess, then added another as he spoke, “if it gets too cold. It’ll go off. Then he put his hand on his partner’s shoulder and turned Jess around so that his back was to him and putting his arm on the shorter mans shoulder he pointed past Jess to the yard beyond. “You see that grass, Jess. Those rocks, the uneven ground. All of it, even a small pebble can set it off. That’s why it comes in wooden grates with each glass vile divided and packed tight with hay. Ya got one poor sucker walkin’ ahead of the wagon and another ahead of him to catch what the first might have missed, moving things out of the way…clearing the road of anything that might jar the wagon. No, no sir, no friend and partner of mine is gonna commit suicide if I have anything to do with it.” Slim was breathing hard and had a look come over him Jess had never seen before. But just as quick as his anger blazed it softened. Slim was like that. He could be madder n’ a hatter one minute and calm and compassionate the next. Most especially where family was concerned. 

 

“Look Jess, I  know it’s tight right now. And I know how much you want Mike to go to that school back east. But you got to remember one thing, Pard. Like me, you’re Mike’s guardian. He loves you, Jess. How do you think it'd make him feel if he knew you'd risked your life...or worse lost it trying to get him there?”

 

“He’s got you,” Jess replied, lamely.

 

“He needs both of us, Jess,” Slim raised his voice again more out of concern than anger. He couldn’t help it. He’d lost two members of his family doing exactly what Felicity Jones wanted and he wasn’t about to lose another brother.

 

Jess lowed his head. He hated to admit it, but Slim had a valid point. “How come you’re always right?” He asked, lookin’ back up at Slim and givin’ in.

 

Slim smiled. “I’m not. It’s just that you’re wrong so often it just seems that way,” he said with a grin, already backing away from his partner, his eyes twinkling.

 

“Oh yeah!” A second later and Jess sprang at the taller man, missed and took off chasing Slim around the house. By the time they’d reached the front again both were covered with dirt, breathless and laughing. The play would have continued had it not been for Daisy who’d stepped out onto the porch to see what all the fuss was about. She stood smiling at them. She always loved watching Slim and Jess play. Even though it often ended in ripped clothes, torn linens, broken furniture and the occasional chipped dish; still their horseplay made her smile.

 

Daisy cleared her throat loudly. “I hate to break this up, but have the two of you readied the buckboard? I’m not about to put our picnic fixings in a dirty wagon,” she said with all seriousness.

 

 

 

Chapter Five

Old Stubby

 

 

Saturday morning found the family busily preparing for sun, fun and fishing. Slim, helped Daisy pack the buckboard, while Jess retrieved their poles and Mike was assigned the important chore of digging for worms.

 

Finally, the family set out. The river that ran through Sherman land was banked by lush trees and thick foliage. The river itself was a fisherman’s dream with areas that spilled gently over large stones covered with thick moss. The stream was less than five miles from the house and ran a course adjacent to their southern most pasture. It was perfect. The river meandered through thick pines and wild sycamore trees, large boulders dotted the landscape as it made its way through the lush green of the pasture feeding both cows and the occasional four legged visitor. It was also where some six years ago Jess had tied Traveler to one of Slim’s ‘No Trespassing’ signs and had decided to take a snooze, when Slim interrupted him. Avid fisherman, Slim and Jess had long ago staked out a spot way up stream that offered the best fishing around. Not far from this a little up stream near a large outcropping of rocks the river slowed and pooled, making it perfect for fishing and swimming after.

 

It was above this location just off the Laramie road that Slim carefully maneuvered the buckboard. They had invited their neighbor and long time friend, Jeb Towers and his wife Lacy and their son Harlan to join them. Quickly alighting Slim helped Daisy down and the women began removing the picnic blanket along with various containers of food. Then after a short walk through a tree lined lane the families came to the river bank to Slim and Jess’ favorite fishing hole. A bend in the river where the water cascaded over several large moss covered stones to form a pool of sorts. It was in this area they’d spent many an hour fishing and hoping to lay a hook into Old Stubby, the ever elusive, trout. As this was the only area they’d seen him the two figured this to be his home.

 

Daisy was overjoyed to have another woman around to swap prize winning recipes and catch up on all the latest Laramie gossip. While the women chatted they watched with delight as the three men and two boys planted themselves rivers bank. After deciding on the most advantageous spot for catching the one fish that had eluded them for so long they settled down to business.

 

“Today’s the day,” Slim confidently declared and shoved his hand down in the old can in search of just the right worm to do the job.

 

“Oh, yeah,” growled Jess as he pinned his own juicy bait,” and what makes you think you’re gonna get him?”

 

“Cause he’s sick and tired a lookin’ at your face,” Slim grinned back.

 

“Not so boys. This time it’s MY turn,” Jeb announced confidently.

 

From down stream a short distance came another challenge…”Naw, we are!”

 

And with that the four went to fishing. They hadn’t had their poles in the water long before Jess mentioned Felicity Jones and his search for those foolish enough to help him haul his load of Nitro. He wanted to know how Jeb felt about it. Slim had thought the subject closed. But now it seemed Jess was trying to recruit a confederate for his side. Felicity Jones had a reputation as big as all Wyoming . He was well known from Wyoming to Texas for hiring out as many men as possible to help transport the deadly liquid. No matter if half never made it back to their homes and loved ones. Money was hard to come by and he could always count on more than a few to take the bait. Slim, was determined that Jess was not gonna be one of them and reiterated how he felt about Jess joining up with that suicidal maniac in front of Jeb; should their friend and neighbor side with Jones.

 

“I don’t know much about Nitro only that it’s real dangerous stuff and a lot of people are killed each year tryin’ to move it. Why?” He asked.

 

Jess looked from Jeb to Slim and shrugged. “Nothin’.”

 

You’re ain’t thinkin’ on joinin’ up with Jones are you?”

 

Next to him Jeb heard Slim take a deep breath.

 

“No. Reckon not.”

 

“Good. Don’t need to lose no more friends.”

 

Discussion over, fishing took precedence. All concentrating on catching Old Stubby.

 

It was a little after noon when the ladies called the men to dinner. And what a feast the two women had made; potato salad, Daisy’s fried chicken, summer peas, fresh baked rolls and coffee topped off with both a cherry and an apple pie. All through lunch both Slim and Jess kept trying to encourage Daisy to try her hand at fishing until finally, to their surprise, she gave in.

 

Oh what a joy! The two had rarely gotten the older woman to try anything new so this was a real treat. Slim hurried to the bank, pulled out his pole in preparation for her use.

 

“Hey, how come she gets to use your pole?” Jess whined.

 

“Because mines the newest. That’s why. And besides I got to it first. You’re too weighed down with all that pie to move quick enough,” he teased.

 

“Alright, then she gets to use my worms…”

 

“Ah no, she get’s mine,” Mike chimed in.

 

“Why yours?” Jess asked.

 

“Cause mines the juiciest and works harder,” he said with a smile, handing the wiggly creature to Daisy. All watched as the elderly woman took the poor creature and carefully attached it to the hook, swallowing several times until the disgusting task was done.

 

Argument settle, Daisy found herself a nice spot right at the edge of the river were the water pooled. It was the perfect place to soak ones feet while fishing. Here the river slowed to a nice gentle pace and after receiving a few fishing tips from Slim and Jess, Daisy sat about to try her luck at catching Old Stubby.

 

Beside her sat Slim, while Jess and Jeb took up a position on the other side along with Mike and young Harlan. Jeb’s wife refused to fish deciding to stand back and watch instead. They hadn’t been fishing long before Daisy began to complain. “I don’t know how you men can stand just sitting here, staring into the water waiting for something to pull your line,” she said with a shake of her head.

 

“It’s fun, Daisy,” Jess told her.

 

“You’ll see. Don’t give up so soon. Just wait till you catch your first fish. You’ll see,” Slim encouraged.

 

“I suppose,” she sighed.

 

“I know how ya feel, Daisy. Before I learned how all I wanted to do was skim stones,” Jess admitted.

 

Skimming stones sounded a whole lot better then sitting on the bank in the hot sun, getting a sore back and a numb rear end, she commented.

 

Skimming stones caught the attention of the two boy as well and pretty soon, fishing forgotten they began to beg Jess to teach them how.

 

“Alright, but do it up stream a ways will you?” Slim asked. “You’ll scare every fish from here to Laramie away if you don’t.”

 

So it was that Jess sat his pole and he, Mike and Harlan moved up stream. Once a proper spot was found where the water had pooled and was very calm. Jess explained that they needed to find stones that were as flat and as smooth as possible. The search was on. Pretty soon a collection of stones of various colors stood piled high next to Jess on the river bank.

 

Down stream the others couldn’t help but listen as Jess gave instructions to the boys. All watched with interest as Jess picked up a stone, showed the two how to hold it, then bending down he explained the wrist action and with the two boys watching, flung the stone with a quick snap of his wrist across the top of the water. The stone went spinning and jumping just barely touching the top of the water till it reached the other side. Excited the boys took their turns. Sinking most at first, but then each in their turn gaining more skill and with it confidence they soon stood skimming stones like their instructor. 

 

“Hey this is fun,” Harlan announced, all smiles.

 

The four adults left on the river bank couldn’t help but notice that the three up stream were having more fun tossing stones across the river than they were dropping hooks. Pretty soon the four adults joined them. Slim, amazed by Jess’ skill and talent, smiled as his partner’s stone seemed to fly across the water touching down here and there, spinning and touching and sailing again till it reached the other side. It didn’t take long before everyone was trying their hand at skimming stones, laughing, teasing and generally enjoying themselves to the full. All finding it more enjoyable than trying for Old stubby.

 

“Why didn’t you tell you about this before, Jess?”  Slim inquired as he searched the river bank for the perfect flat stone.

 

“Cause you never asked,” he said, his voice shaking as he flung another stone.

 

Not to be left out the ladies soon joined in. All had to admit that Lacy’s form was pretty good. Jeb’s was a close second, and Slim with those long fingers was neck in neck with Jess. But it was Daisy who ended what had turned out to be a completion of sorts. She’d just selected her stone, bent down, pulled her arm back, her fingers encircling it carefully, bent her legs and started to make her swing. She’d been standing barefoot close to the edge enjoying the cool water and when she swung her momentum cause her to slip sending both stone and Daisy into the river.

 

Shocked, Slim and Jess ran to the rescue, making as big a splash wading in as Daisy had made falling in they hurried to her aid, each swaying and staggering like two drunks on a Saturday night slipping and sliding on stones beneath their feet. On the bank Jeb, Mike, Harlan and Lacy stood frozen in place, mouths wide open watching. Slim with his long legs was the first to reach Daisy with Jess bringing up the rear. Daisy had slipped twice before the boys got to her and now sat  with her skirt billowing around her, water up to her shoulders. None had realized just how difficult it would be to pull the older woman out of the river. The river bed was covered with deep mud and layered with stones of various sizes each as slippery as the fish they’d been trying to catch and standing on them was close to impossible. Nevertheless, they helped her up and had started to turn her around and head back to the shore when Jess, being a little off balance had lost his owe footing and fell pulling both his partner and Daisy down with a resounding splash! Now all three sat in the river drenched from head to toe struggling to get up. Jess was the first to accomplish this feat followed by Slim who’s accusatory looks elicited a fiery glare from the other man. In between them struggled Daisy. But each time she’d gain her footing, she’d slip and down she’d go again.

 

Those watching from shore finally recovered and started shouting encouraging demands. “Help her!”

 

“We’re tryin’,” Jess shouted back.

 

Daisy sat with her arms below the surface her hands frantically searching for a hand hold.

 

Standing next to her were the two men, each searching for something to grab hold of that would allow them to get the woman out of the river while at the same time remaining gentleman.

 

“What’s the matter with you. For Peter’s sake pick her up,“ Jeb shouted at the two.

 

Becoming more and more exasperated Slim demanded in a harsh voice. “Jess don’t just stand there, grab hold…”

 

“Of what?” Jess shot back, his angry glare equaling his partner’s.

 

This was certainly a dilemma. Each man wanting to help, but each held back by their need to remain gentlemen. What to grab that was gradable for a lady, that was the problem. Each stood frantically searching trying to figure out what to do. Had Daisy been a man there’d been no question as to what to do. But Daisy was a lady and a lady of some refinement at that.

 

Finally, manners aside Slim reached down and taking hold of an arm started to lift the dripping woman out of the water as did Jess, when suddenly Daisy gave out a shout that nearly unhinged the two, causing them to loose their grab and sending the poor woman back into the drink. The next thing they knew Daisy, once again sitting in the river, began to scream and gyrate violently.

Now getting a good hold was almost impossible.

 

“Be still Daisy,” Jess snapped without meaning to.

 

Slim caught the tone and was not pleased and with hands on hips growled at his partner over Daisy’s wet head.  “Jess, you don’t talk to a lady like that…”

 

In the river Daisy looked up from her sitting position, a combination of exasperation and anger in her eyes.

 

“Oh, will you two just stop and help me up,” she demanded, slapping the water angrily.

 

Once again civility aside the two reached down to lift her from the water only to have her for the second time start yelling, screaming and jerking about, only this time she added laughter to the mix. Further unsettling her two rescuers. As far as Slim could see there was nothing funny about this at all. That aside Slim took an arm as did Jess and this time they successfully lift the woman out of the river only to have the gyrations and yelling begin again.

 

“Daisy! For Pete’s sake,” Slim growled.

 

Doing their best to ignore the screaming and jerking they staggered to the shore with Daisy between them. All the while the poor woman continued to yell and move about like someone on fire, her hair dripping wet had come undone and now lay plastered to her head in sliver strands. And once more, just before reaching shore she again began to scream and gyrate causing her two rescuers to loose their grip as she stood between them laughing and jerking like a drunken cowpoke on a wild brook tail. Only this time she started to slap her chest as well. It was obvious that something was inside her bosom that didn’t belong there. Then with a loud yelp Daisy pulled the neck her blouse open and plunging her hand deep within her bosom she fumbled around with something until she pulled a very large fish from within, Old Stubby!

 

Standing soaking wet Daisy glared at the giant trout and with a tone filled with disgust declared the fish to be “Fresh!” A symphony of laughter now replaced all the yelling, gyrating and screaming. Jess took command of the trout while Slim assisted a shivering Daisy out of the cold water and to shore where Lacy wrapped a much appreciated warm blanket around the dripping wet woman. 

 

Soon with laugher dying down, all stood and admired the beautiful trout. “Should we throw him back?” Slim asked.

 

Jess aghast stared at his partner.  “What?” He’d tried for over two years to hook this beautiful creature and now Slim wanted to throw him back.  “Why?”

 

“Cause it’s his home,” Mike answered.

 

Jess was right. After all this had been Jess’ quarry for a long time now, they’d leave the decision up to him. With all eyes on him, he shrugged and after taking a last longing look released the beautiful creature back to the river. Slim stepped up to his partner and smiling placed his arm around his friend’s shoulders.

 

“I think I saw him smile Jess,” Slim told him, staring into the water as the big rainbow trout swam away.

 

“Would be kind of a shame not to see Old Stubby greet us each time we come out here,” Slim commented.

 

“I Reckon. Even a fish needs a home. I do wonder how Old Stubby would have fried up though?” Jess mumbled as they set out for home.

 

And that was the end of the picnic. They had to get Daisy home and in dry clothes before she caught her death. All in all it was a successful outing. Though Daisy, Slim and Jess got wet, Jess lost his prize fish and they all came home with only enough for breakfast the next morning, it did serve a very important purpose: not once did the subject of all the worry and fret come up.

 

 

Chapter Six

Mose’ temporary replacement

 

 

Though tired out the two families were pleased and Slim was certain that the outing had served to lift his partner’s spirits. He couldn’t have been more wrong. By the time they reached the ranch Jess was almost as down as when they’d left. Slim knew it wasn’t just the loss of his prize fish; Slim was at a loss as to what to do next. 

 

Early the next morning just after breakfast the first stage rolled in without Mose. The aging driver was nursing a sprained back and would be out of commission for several days. Though Slim certainly wanted the best for Mose' health he did not like his replacement one little bit. The new driver didn’t seem to care who or what he scared. Standing near the corral Slim thought for sure the man was gonna park the coach in the middle of the living room, so close he came. Even Jess for once decided to put off playing his little game and went to work readying the fresh team instead. 

 

The new driver looked to be a little younger than Mose and was certainly better built, but rough around the edges. After downing two cups of coffee without even so much as a ‘thank you’ the driver climbed back into the box and pulling out a small package handed it down to Jess while Slim carefully maneuvered the team into place. 

 

“This here’s fur Overland ,” he said, with a grunt. 

 

“What is it?”

 

“Don’t know. Ain’t my business. I just deliver I don’t go lookin,'" then looking down at Slim. "Hey, you bout done there young feller?"

 

“Yup.”

 

“Good. Don’t like waitin’. Got people need totin’,” he said and spat into the dirt right at Jess’ feet. Jess stepped back and looked down at the spot and back up at the driver disapprovingly. Slim didn’t blame him. This fella could use a lesson in manners for sure.

 

Just before the driver reached for the reins Slim stepped up and took hold of the rear wheelers trace and looking up at the driver asked. “What’s your name?”

 

Jess recognized the look and decided to watch from a safe distance. His partner didn't often get his dander up, but when he did it was best to be as far away from the tall blonde as possible. 

 

“Masters. What’s it to ya?” The driver answered around a huge chaw of tobacco.

 

“Well, Mr. Masters let me tell you, this isn’t just a relay station, this is our home. So the next time you come barrelin’ in here we’d appreciate it if you leave the coach in the yard and not on the front porch.”

 

The man just laughed and spit tobacco juice at Slim’s feet as he’d done Jess.  “I ain’t takin’ orders from no relay station owner, Sherman,” he barked.

 

“You are from this one,” Slim snapped back. 

 

"Ain’t a damn thing you can do about it. This here’s my job. Now leave go the trace,” he said and jerked at the reins.

 

“You come driving in here again like that and I’ll show you what I can do,” Slim threatened, and jerked his hand away. A moment later and the driver barreled out of the yard as fast as he came showering the porch with dusk and pebbles causing chickens and Buttons to run for their lives.  

 

Slim and Jess exchanged annoyed glances as Slim took the package from his partner. Then suddenly Slim had a thought. 

 

Jess had made the comment that Slim wasn’t his boss anymore and for his part Slim had been bothered by the way he approached the subject. Jess was right, he wasn’t his boss, he was his partner and his friend. Slim had come off strong, too strong. But the very fact that Jess was intrigued by Jones and his money worried and scared the Laramie rancher. He cared a great deal about Jess. Over the years the ex-gunfighter had become more than a partner; as far as Slim was concerned Jess was his brother.  Jess was family…and Slim had always done anything and everything to keep family together. 

 

Slim stood for moment thinking. Over the years Slim had come to learn that his partner would rather have a horse under him any day than work. And certainly one thing that always seemed to put Jess in a better mood was a nice long ride. Making up his mind Slim took the package and approached Jess about delivering it to the Overland Regional Office in Laramie . He didn’t have to ask twice.

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

Package for Overland

 

 

Jess had planned to leave right after the morning stage. Both he and Slim figured it would still be cool enough to make the ride a pleasant one. But things don’t always work out the way ya want. That wild broomtail Slim had brought in a week ago decided to escape and in so doing destroyed half the corral tryin’ to bust out. Though Slim assured Jess that he could handle the repairs alone, Jess decided to stay and see the job through with his Pard. The two had just finished when the stage limped in with an axel about to drop. That was a two man job for sure. It took all morning and half the afternoon before they’d finished. Still after a quick shower and a bite of lunch Jess readied himself for the ride to town. 

 

Before he left Slim elicited a promise from his partner. “Remember, just deliver the package and stay away from Hollingsworth,” Slim reminded.

 

"Don't worry, Pard. I ain't fond of rattlesnakes," Jess had told him, mounted Traveler and headed out, looking forward to the ride.

 

Slim knew his partner was still smarting from the conversation they’d had at the river about him not joining up with Felicity Jones. He was also aware of the fact that he’d probably been a little embarrassed when Slim voiced how he felt about the man in front of Jeb. So it was his hope that during the ride Jess would work things out in his mind to see Slim’s side of it. He stood and watched  as Jess disappeared over the hill on the Laramie road and was satisfied that he’d done the right thing. He turned and headed back to the house and to the monotonous chore of doing the ranch accounts.

 

From there the day went on as usual. The noon stage rolled in, again without Mose, but a lot quieter this time. And left without showering the house with pebbles and scaring the animals to death. Obviously the new driver had time to think it over and took Slim’s advice to heart. The only disruption to the peace was of Mike storming into the house slamming the door behind him grumbling about being given too much homework. Unable to keep his mind on the accounts any longer Slim headed to the barn to muck the stalls instead. His mind on his partner and hopes that his mood would be better once he came home.

 

But as supper neared without a sign of Jess, Slim’s concerned turned to worry. "He should have been back hours ago," he thought. Of course Jess being late after a trip to town was not that unusual. He could have been delayed by almost anything; a pretty gal, a hot poker game, a long jaw with one of his poker buddies or…and it was the OR that he didn't want to think about. Jess had given his word to stay clear of the Laramie Bank and Trust and its president Mr. Hollingsworth, Esq. and he was confident that he would. It wasn’t Hollingsworth that concerned him. It was Felicity Jones. Though the promise between them had been unspoken Slim still worried. He’d met Felicity Jones well before Jess showed up and had come to know the man as well as one could know another. The man had an appealing personality, a real talker and often had a crowd around him, usually at the saloon telling tall tails of the benefits of the high explosive and eliciting as much interest as possible. And if that didn’t work he could always count on the whiskey doing the job for him. Slim was sure that many of his men were shocked to find that they’d been hired by the boisterous talker after sleeping it off. The very thought that Jess might be suckered into becoming one of them scared the hell out of him. Slim was certain that in his right mind Jess would have kept his unspoken promise and would have nothing to do with the man. But, in his state of mind Slim wasn’t so sure. “Yup most likely a poker game,” he kept telling himself.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

The house special

 

 

It was a beautiful summer’s day. Jess Harper kept a comfortable pace as he loped along enjoying the sun. The soft breeze in his hair and the occasional waft of honeysuckle together with the clean scent of pine trees made for a very pleasant ride. As he passed the Sherman Lake the sunlight sparkled as it danced off the water and he was reminded of his first meeting with his partner and friend. As he rode he smiled to himself when he remembered how surprised he was to see that tall drink of water standing over him holdin’ a Winchester . He hadn’t met a man with that much leg in years. He liked the man right off; and was surprised when Slim simply asked him to move on instead of taking him in though he had every right to for trespassing. He was also reliving their recent picnic and how funny it was that Daisy had caught Old Stubby without even tryin’ and without a pole and hook t’ boot. Yes, sir, he’d come a long way since his days on the drift. The happy memories added to the pleasure of the ride and he loped along happily. But the closer he drew to town his joyful day dreamin' begun to be replaced by the sight and sounds of Hollingsworth and his high minded attitude towards; not just him, but ranchers in general. So that by the time he actually pulled Traveler to a halt outside the Overland Offices, his mood had changed considerably.

 

So it was that he entered the Overland Offices glum and withdrawn and left the package with Mr. Anderson at the front desk without a word. Stepping out of the office he wondered how in the world anyone could stand being cooped up inside all day long. Though late in the day it was still hot, very hot. He knew Slim wouldn’t expect him to just leave the package and head home right away, not without satisfying a growing thirst first. So he headed for the saloon to get a beer, cool down a bit and try to figure a way out of their latest predicament. He didn't know how they were gonna do it, but somehow Mike was gonna go to that school back east if it killed him.

 

The Laramie saloon was not unlike most watering holes in the west with gaudy wallpaper and faded prints of famous as well as infamous saloon girls on every wall along with hanging lamps that didn’t offer much light. The dank smell of booze mingled with the scent of cow, horse and what Daisy called workin’ mans odor filled the air. Pausing just long enough to allow his eyes to adjust to the dim light Jess walked up to the bar and ordered a cold one. It felt good to get out of the heat and even though it wasn’t what you’d call cool inside, at least it was shade. The place was filled with men laughin’ and drinkin’ all crowded around the new arrival in town, Felicity Jones. Jess watched as a growing number of men, some he knew, some he didn’t continued to swarm around the man. “Like ants around a piece of candy,“ he thought.

 

As was his habit Jess took the cold beer to a table in the back of the saloon and set about to enjoy his brew as he watched Felicity Jones work his way into the trusting hearts of the town folk of Laramie . Slim was right. The man sure had a way about him. The beer tasted good and felt even better goin’ down and atmosphere in the saloon was jovial, it did little to raise his spirits. Jess was in no mood to be sociable and sittin’ in the saloon drinkin’ his beer wasn’t easy what with Felicity and his men makin’ such a racket. The man had a charismatic personality for sure. Even stepped over and talked to Jess for a time. To see if he could get another hand no doubt. But true to his word Jess turned him down. He knew his partner was only thinking of his well being and that he appreciated, but Slim’s concern for his health wasn’t gonna get Mike to that school. When he finished the first beer he called Judy over and ordered a second.

 

He hadn't intended on getting drunk. But with two beers under his belt and his anger growing for Hollingsworth along with a gnawing guilt, he needed something stronger and so upped his liquor intake to whiskey. And before he knew it he’d downed several shots, the picture of Hollingsworth making each go down a little easier.

 

Jess continued to brood and to drink. Logic told him he should stop, cork the bottle and go home, but the nagging guilt he felt just wouldn’t go away. That and the fact that Felicity Jones had bragged about how much his men were going to make and knowing within a month’s time he could have more n’ enough to send Mike to school and have a tidy sum left over didn’t help. But he’d given his word…maybe another drink would serve to numb the pain…at least for a while. Just one more drink he reasoned and reached for the bottle. Funny he thought as he tried to fill his glass once more…he hadn’t notice the glass movin’ before. And now as he looked up  the whole room and those in it had begun to look a little fuzzy around the edges. Jess didn’t care; another drink would fix that too.

 

By the time Felicity Jones and his hired suckers had left the saloon Jess’ eyes had grown heavy and he’d lost all track of time. He vaguely remembered Ruby askin’ if he wanted something to eat? Or did she? The more he thought about Slim bein’ turned down and him bein’ the cause the better the liquor tasted and he’d pour himself another drink, bein’ careful to fill the movin’ glass and spill as little as possible this time. When he finally realized he’d had too much, it didn’t matter anymore. Still he had the good sense not to try something rash, like standin’ up. After all nothin’ or no one was standin’ still anymore, everyone and everything had begun to swing or lean dependin’ on how he moved his head. The thought of facin’ Slim after this wasn’t somethin’ he looked forward to and stayin’ in the saddle was gonna be even harder. He gave a mental shrug and reached for the bottle again when suddenly a blurry shadow appeared in front of him.

 

 “Here cowboy,” the swaying image said, “let me give ya a hand there.”

 

The younger man swung his leg over a chair, took the bottle and refilled Jess’ glass. Within a few minutes a conversation of sorts ensued. From across the room Sam recognized it couldn’t have been much of one. Jess was far too gone to be makin' much sense. But all the same Sam did notice a few drunken nods and crooked smiles as Jess tried repeatedly to keep his eyes from fallin' shut. Finally, the younger man rose and after assisting Jess out of his chair, the two made for the door. Sam wasn't sure where they’d gone or what business if any they might have had. He was too busy to investigate, although he was concerned. He liked Jess and Slim a heck of a lot and in all the years he'd known Jess he'd only seen the ex-gun slick truly drunk once.

 

He recalled how surprised he was that Jess with his fast draw and rumored quick temper displayed no such tendencies with a belly full of Jack. As a matter of fact he was very pleasant and more talkative than usual. He laughed to himself when the thought how the two ranchers had sat at the back, both as full as ticks trying to carry on a conversation with each other. He was sure neither one could understand the other and was thankful when Mr. Allen poured the two into his buckboard and took ‘um home.

 

But this was different. Sam had too much experience not to know something was wrong. Jess Harper just didn’t come in and down a bottle for no reason. The cowboy had come in lookin’ for all the world like he’d lost his best friend. Now as he stood wiping the counter he hoped someone would help the man get home. But to his surprise a short time later Jess came staggering back in and with a great deal of effort and a few overturned chairs made his way back to the table and fell into the chair once more. 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

“Where’s Traveler?”

 

 

Back at the ranch Slim did his best to shove the worry aside; to persuade himself that his fretting was all for nothing. But by the time Daisy rang for supper, Slim’s worry had turned to full blown fear. He had to know what was keeping his partner. Supper forgotten he told Daisy he’d get something to eat in town and headed to the barn to saddle up. 

 

It was closing in on dusk when Slim Sherman reached town. He scanned the streets casually. Finding no sign of Jess he decided to visit with Mort before making an out and out search. He'd no sooner tied his mount to the hitching post in front of the Sheriff’s office when from across the street he spied Mort Corey and his deputy Charlie Wood struggling with a very drunk man. Slim stood grinning and shook his head, glad to be a rancher and not a lawman having to deal with drunks and such. But then as he watched something about the man seemed very familiar and his grin slowly dropped as he recognized the man stumbling between the sheriff and his deputy was none other then his own partner, Jess Harper.

 

 “What the…” he muttered and leaving the remainder of his sentence hanging hurried to them.

 

Jess was swaying and stumbling so badly it was all the two could do just to keep the man upright. Several times all three came close to falling. Shock mixed with anger took over and Slim couldn’t hold back.  "Jess, what the hell…?" He snapped.

 

“Never mind that,” Mort scolded, “just give me a hand with him. You can yell at him all you want once we get him to the jail. Charlie’s got to see what Walker wants over at the Freight office. He’s been yelling his head off for the past hour.”

 

Charlie relinquished his hold and stepped back to give Slim room to take his place.

 

You arresting him, Mort?” Slim asked throwing a supportive arm around his friend’s waist.

 

“No. Just want to get him some place safe so he can sleep it off.  I’d have sent him home, but in I doubt he could stay in the saddle. You wanna get a room over at the hotel?” Mort asked adjusting his hold.

 

“Like this? With Pert?” Slim almost laughed. The Laramie Hotel and Bath House was owned and operated by a smug little man with a hot temper who fancied himself and his eastern upbringing above everyone else. Like he was running a palace or something, Mort had said once when Pert refused to allow Jess to rent a room after Slim had been hurt. At that time Jess got so mad Mort had threatened to the lock the cowboy up before he calmed down.

 

As they struggled every now and again Jess would force his head up in an apparent attempt to talk to Slim causing him to loose any balance he might have gained and causing his helpers to struggle all the more. Jess was having too much trouble just trying to stand, and walking he found was near on to impossible. It would have been okay if the ground under his feet would stay in one place. Again at the sound of the familiar voice he forced his head up and his eyes open to see the face of his friend and partner swim into blurry view. That's when the hiccups started. He remembered how he hated hiccups, but he was in no condition to do anything about them, they'd have to play out on their own.

 

Thank God the sheriff’s office wasn’t far. Slim thought as he again adjusted his hold.  The two men with Jess stumbling between them made their way across the street. Jess almost fell twice, each time coming close to taking his caregivers down with him. Once as they tried to step off the boardwalk and the second when they reached Mort’s office and tried to step upon the boardwalk.

 

After what seemed an awfully long time they found themselves outside the sheriff’s office. Jess swaying between them as Mort relinquished one arm and fumbled for his keys. Slim again adjusted his hold when suddenly Jess appeared to heave.

 

“You gonna be sick, boy?” Mort asked, lifting the man’s head to get a closer look. “No, I guess not, just got the drunken hiccups I guess,” he tsked, shaking his head.

 

“Just get the door open will ya?” Slim snapped. His partner’s unsteady movements causing the tall man’s voice to jerk. Jess tried once more to look in Slim’s direction and that was his undoing, his legs folded coming close to taking the two men down with him. Jess didn’t appear to notice, instead he kept trying to talk to Slim his face within inches of Slim’s.

 

"Phew! Smells like he swallowed a brewery. For Pete's Sake,” Slim growled, finally lifting his partner’s arm and put it around his neck. "How'd he get like this any way?" Slim asked.

 

Finally Mort got the key in the lock, turned it and kicking the door open the three all but fell into the office.

 

"Sam said Jess came in around four had a couple of beers, then ordered a bottle, left with a stranger then came back about a little later, sat down and finished it," he said.

 

“The whole bottle?” Slim was beside himself. He'd seen his friend drunk only twice before and knew he could hold his own....but not a whole bottle. He didn’t know anyone who could do that.

 

“Yup. Said after he finished that one he ordered another,” the shift in caused the sheriff to stutter as he adjusted his hold once more. 

 

Slim’s eyebrows took a leap. Mort noticed and nodded. “That’s right.” Said at one point Jess tried to get up and fell flat of his face. Reckon that's where he got that bruise," he said, indicating a large growing bluish spot growing on the mans' cheek. "That's when Sam sent for me.”

 

“Yeah I noticed. Kinda figured he’d made contact with something. Not surprising in this condition.

 

“He bust up anything?”

 

Nah, didn’t do any damage to anything, except himself.”

 

Jess was aware his friends were trying to help and to his credit he did try and do his part. But try as he might he just couldn’t get his feet to go where he wanted and his legs were no better...they were like rubber and wouldn’t hold his weight, forcing both Mort and Slim to grab hold of anything they could to keep him upright.

 

Once inside Mort left Slim to deal with Jess while he readied a cell. All the while Jess struggled to remain standing and converse with Slim between hiccups. But Slim was having a hard time understanding a word his partner was saying. All he got out of it was that Jess had something for him. Then using Slim for support the intoxicated man desperately tried to fish something out of his pants pocket. But each time he'd miss and at one point would have fallen had it not been for Slim when he purposely plunged his hand down and missed his pocket altogether.

 

" Po ...pok keeps....mo..." he burped, "moo…vin.”

 

"It's not your pocket that's movin' Jess, you are," Slim growled. “Phew, Lord Jess. You smell like you cleared the saloon.”

 

“Oooh. You…r goo frien…par…d,” he belched and made a drunken attempt to pat Slim’s shoulder. Then he appeared to gag and Slim thought for sure he’d have a mess to clean up.

And was grateful when Mort stepped back in the room, keys in hand, grumbling.

 

“Don’t know why Charlie does that. Locks every cell before he goes to supper.”

 

“Here, hang on to him will ya, Mort. He’s been trying to get something out of his pocket,” Slim told him.

 

“Ssschlim, yooou…”

 

 "Yeah, yeah, Pard. You can tell me all about when you sober up," Slim told him, now more irritated than worried.

 

“He needs…” Mort started.

 

“What he needs,” Slim interjected sternly, “is a swift kick in the pants,” he paused as he tried to fish whatever it was Jess wanted to show him out of the mans pocket. But it wasn’t easy with Jess swaying and stumbling around in an vain attempt to keep his balance. At one point Slim thought he had succeeded, only to have Jess stagger to one side taking Slim, Mort and his pants pocket with him. Again all three came close to falling.

 

“Dad gum it Mort, hold him still,” Slim snapped.

 

“I’m trying,” Mort snapped back.

 

“Getting into this pockets like trying to hold onto Wiggles,” Slim groaned.

 

“Wiggles?”

 

“Yeah, one of Mike’s new puppies. We named him Wiggles because he never stops movin.”

 

Another try and Slim was about to give up when Mort came up with an idea. “Here help me get him over to the wall,” Mort suggested.

 

“The wall?”

 

“That’s right. A trick an old sheriff taught me years ago when I was first fool enough to become a lawman. We get him pinned to something that can’t move.”

 

“Well, it’s worth a try,” Slim conceded and helped move his intoxicated partner over to the only empty wall in the office. Mort was right, with the Laramie sheriff holding Jess against the partition, Slim was finally able to chase down the moving pocket and plunging  his hand deep inside, got a good hold and pulled out a wad of bills thick enough to choke a horse.

 

"Lord O' Mighty!” Mort exclaimed, momentarily loosing his grip he fought to regain his hold as Jess slowly began to slip down the wall, all eyes on the wad of bills instead of the drunken man.

 

“Jess, you got the loan!” Slim exclaimed excitedly.

 

“Slim!” Corey yelled out. “Afraid he can’t hear ya, Slim. He’s passed out.”

 

Money forgotten, Slim tossed the bills onto the sheriff’s desk and threw a supportive arm around the now unconscious Jess. Together the two struggled to get the cowboy into the last cell. At least it was easier carrying him then trying to keep him on his feet, they reasoned. 

 

While Mort concerned himself with pulling the slop bucket next to the bunk, Slim removed his partner’s boots and gun belt then he and Mort turned him onto his side just in case.

 

Mort straightened up with a sigh and stretched his back. “He’s gonna be sicker n’ a dog when he wakes up.”

 

Of that Slim was certain. Jess could drink with the best of them, but always paid the price later. Jess was no drunk and come morning his body was gonna rid itself of the nights celebrations. If that‘s what it was. 

 

“Good Lord!” Slim snapped, looking down at the unconscious man now snoring loudly. Slim stood and stretched his own tense muscles. His partner had pulled some real boners over the years, but getting soused had never been one of them. They were gonna do some serous talkin’ once Jess was sober enough to listen. “Guess I’d better see to that room,” Slim sighed.

 

"You're always welcome to stay here, Slim. That is if you don't mind the stench?" He said with a slight chuckle. "Especially when that liquor comes up.”

 

Slim nodded. “That’s a fact. Thanks, Mort. Reckon I will. Come morning he might need some help,” he answered, his hands on his hips still looking down at the sleeping Jess. He wanted an explanation and hangover or not he was gonna have it. “Guess I'll see to the horses then.”

 

“Go ahead. He’s not going anywhere.”

 

“That’s a fact. Sure hope he’s sober enough to sit a horse come morning,” Slim said shaking his head as he left the sheriff’s office.

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

Dirk

 

 

While Slim left to care for Alamo , Mort busied himself with preparations for the night all the while wondering how they were gonna sleep with all that noise. For the most part Jess Harper was a quite sleeper, but pour medicine down him or fill him up on booze and his snoring could rattle the walls.

 

Slim stood outside the sheriff’s office in the cool evening air and wiped his hand over his mouth all the while looking around for his partner’s horse. Not seeing the little bay anywhere he untied Alamo and headed down the street to the Dirk’s Livery searching the street as he went. He wasn't across the street at the Overland office, or Millers General Store, nor down the street at the Restaurant nor tethered outside the saloon where he should have been. In fact, he didn’t see Traveler anywhere. Slim calmly walked his mount to the Livery confident that he was sure to find his partner's horse there. But to his surprise there were only two horses in the livery and none of them Traveler.

 

Spying the Livery keeper at the back of the stalls he shouted. “HIYA DIRK,” and laughed to himself as he recalled the brief conversation he and Jess had had several months earlier about the old man. Dirk was almost deaf and in order to be heard you had to shout. Jess had made the comment that it was the only place in town were you could loose both your secrets and your voice at the same time.

 

 "GONNA LEAVE ALAMO WITH YOU FOR THE NIGHT. GIVE HIM A GOOD RUB DOWN AND SOME EXTRA OATS WILL YOU?”

 

"I’LL DOER, SLIM," came the cheerfully reply.

 

"Dirk, did Jess leave Traveler here this afternoon?" Slim asked, forgetting himself.

 

The old man just continued to grin and stepped over to take Alamo ’s lead. “Dirk…DIRK, I SAID DID JESS LEAVE TRAVELER HERE?”

 

“NO. I AIN’T DONE NO TRAVELIN,’” he exclaimed.

 

“NO, DID JESS LEAVE TRAVELER HERE?” Slim shouted.

 

"SURE DID,” he shouted back as if Slim was equally deaf.

 

Confused Slim cleared his throat.

 

"Well, where is he?"

 

“WHAT?”

 

“WHERE IS HE?”

 

"GONE."

 

"I can see that. GONE WHERE?”

 

“JESS LEFT OFF TRAVELER ROUND, OH FOUR I RECKON. TOSSED ME A COUPLE O’BUCKS AND ASKED ME TO SEE TO HIM,” he said as filled the bin in front of Alamo causing oat dust to dance in the air.  “I TELL YA, I TREATED THAT BOY LIKE HE WAS GOLD. GAVE HIM A NICE COOL STALL TO.”

 

"THEN WHERE IS HE?" Slim asked clearing his throat again. This shouting was hard on the voice and the addition of dust swirling in the air didn’t help. Dirk liked to hold the bucket high then pour the oats into the troughs. Said he did that because he loved the smell of fresh oats.

 

“WELL, THEN WHERE IS HE?”

 

“DON’T KNOW. FELLER CAME IN BOUT SIX AND TOOK HIM. SAID JESS SENT HIM. AIN’T SEEN HIDE NER HAIR OF ‘IM SINCE. I DID ASK WHERE JESS WAS THOUGH. YOUNG FELLER SAID HE WAS OVER T’ SALOON NURSIN’ A BOTTLE,” the livery man shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

 

But it was what Dirk said next that really got the ranchers attention.

 

“NEVER FIGURED ON HARPER SELLIN’ THAT LITTLE BAY. NOOO SIR.”

 

"SOLD!" Slim was stunned. “Jess sold Traveler,” he said aloud, but not loud enough.

 

“WHAT? YA NEED TO STOP THAT WHISPERIN’ SON,” Dirk said.

 

 "DID YOU SEE A BILL OF SALE, DIRK?”

 

 “WHAT?”

 

“Di…DID YOU SEE A BILL OF SALE?”

 

“BILL O’ WHAT?” Dirk shouted back, cupping his hand in back of his ear again as if that would make a difference.

 

“ SALE , DIRK. DID THE MAN HAVE A BILL OF SALE?” Slim shouted back.

 

“ SALE . YEAH, THAT’S WHAT I SAID. YA NEED YUR HEARIN’ CHECKED THERE BOY,” he shouted back somewhat annoyed.

 

Slim nodded. “YEAH, I’LL DO THAT. BUT DID YOU SEE ONE?” Slim pressed, becoming a little annoyed himself.

 

"NAW, I DON’T GET INTO THINGS LIKE AT, SLIM. FELLER’S GOT A RIGHT TO SELL WHAT HE WANTS  WITHOUT SOMEBODY STICKIN’ THEIR NOSE IN WHERE IT DON’T BELONG. NOW YOU TAKE THAT OLD MARE O’ MINE. WHY WHEN I GOT HER I….”

 

Slim left… the old man still talking. He needed to talk to Sam. The Laramie bartender had his hand on the pulse of the town and usually knew more about what was going on before the paper, Mort or even the Ladies Society League.

 

The saloon was quite and cool, a sharp contrast to a few hours earlier. Slim found Sam in his usual place, behind the long bar wiping it down. Sam kept the beautiful mahogany bar as slick as glass and had a reputation for being able to slide a beer clean down its length without spilling a drop. Slim remembered the afternoon he and Jess had stepped into the saloon for a beer and a young cowpoke from a neighboring town had started a fight. Both he and Jess had stepped back to watch. The young man was holding his own against his opponent who was about twice his size when he made a fatal mistake. He’d climbed upon bar in an attempt to give himself an edge and that was his undoing. That bar was like stepping on ice and down he went, opened his head up on the back counter and knocked himself out cold. And that was the end of the fight. From then on people began calling the bar Sam’s secret weapon.

 

Sam looked up from his task and smiled. "Howdy, Slim. Can I get you a drink?"

 

"I’ll take a beer. Like to talk to you if you’ve got the time?”

 

"Bout Jess?" Sam Petty had known Slim Sherman for well over ten years and had been introduced to Jess shortly after Slim hired him. He’d taken a liking to the young drifter right away and it wasn't unusual for Sam to be seen sharing a drink with either Jess or Slim or both on occasion when time permitted. So when Slim asked about Jess he was more than happy oblige. "Thought so. How is he?" He asked as he placed the frothy brew in front of the rancher.

 

"Over at Mort's sleeping it off."

 

The barkeeps eyes widened. “Now, wait a minute, Slim. I didn’t mean for Corey to arrest Jess. He didn’t do nothin’ to be…”

 

Slim smiled. “Relax, Sam. Mort didn’t arrest him, just wanted to get him someplace safe to sleep it off,” he a reassured him.

 

Relieved. "Good. Never seen Harper that drunk."

 

Slim took a sip of the cool beverage. One of the appeals of the Laramie Saloon was that it was the only one between Cheyenne and Pixly with an ice house out back. Though the beer might not be what you’d call cold it was at least cool. Slim wiped the froth from his mouth absently and looked around. “Yeah, he’s full of surprises. Can you tell me what happened, Sam?" Slim asked, turning his attention once more to the barkeep. From experience Slim knew he wouldn’t have to ask twice. Sam loved to talk. As a matter of fact once you got him started it was hard to shut him up. At least he wouldn’t have to shout.  

 

"Came in here little after four, ordered a beer and took a seat in the back yonder.” Sam tilted his head indicating a table in the vary back of the saloon. “The place was already hoppin,’ what with that feller Jones and his men. Danged if that man don’t have a flannel mouth. Had a crowd in here to bust the walls.

 

“S-a-m.”

 

Sam smiled an apology and continued. “Anyhow, Jess is sittin’ back there and when he finished the first beer he orders another . .. I didn't think much of it....as I recall the two of you usually polish off two each on a day like this anyway. But, then he up and orders a bottle from Ruby. I still didn't think much of it, cept..."

 

"Except what?"

 

He chuckled softly. “Slim, when you've been in this business as long as have ya get so's you can read people real good. It weren't hard to tell that somethin' was weighin’ on him.”

 

Slim nodded.

 

"Well, sir, like I say we was real busy what with Jones and his men and I kinda lost track of what Jess was doin.' But when I saw him next that bottle was goin’ down real fast. I had it in mind to go over and sit with him a spell...you know try and see if I could find out what was wrong...maybe even could get the whiskey away from him if I could. Jess ain't no drunk. Oh, he can hold his liquor, but two beers and half a bottle later, and well,” he chuckled, “let's just say if he was feelin' any pain when he came in, he weren’t when he left."

 

Slim took a deep breath and nodded, looked down into the mug and swirled the golden liquid around before looking back up at Sam, his face a mask of worry as took another swallow and continued to listen.

 

"Like I say, with Jones in here we was real busy. After I poured a few more beers I took another gander over at Jess. This time he weren’t alone. There was another feller sittin' with him.

 

Slim’s brow furrowed. “You know who it was?”

 

Sam shook his head no. “When I asked Ruby she said this fella ordered a beer and just sashayed over to Jess' table and sat down. At the time it looked to me like he and Jess was havin' a real good jaw," Sam laughed, "though I doubt with two beers and more n’ a half a bottle later Jess' words was comin' so's you could understand 'em. Well sir, after a spell I sees this feller help Jess up and they heads for the door. Now, Jess didn't leave no money on the table so I figured he'd be back, and I was right. Weren't no time at all before he comes staggerin' back in with this feller in tow. They sits back down and Jess finishes that bottle," the barkeep told him, with a worried look. “Next thing I know I looks up and the fellers gone. Never did see him leave. Now by this time Jess was findin’ it hard just keep his head off the table. I tell ya Slim, ain’t never seen Jess Harper that soaked,” he said shaking his head. “I was gettin’ kinda worried about him. Ain’t never good to get that drunk.”

 

As Sam talked Slim had a sinking feeling come over him. In the back of his mind he knew Jess had always kept his word. But, with all that liquor and Jones talking so big, he wondered if Jess had actually joined up with the man. He had to know.

 

“Sam, you don’t think he joined up with Jones do you?”

 

Sam recognized the worry and it made him smile. Their close friendship was something the old bartender had always admired. “No Slim. It was while Jess was gettin’ all liquored up that Felicity left with what seemed like half the town,” Sam told him sincerely.

 

“Anyway,” Sam continued. “I walks over to check on him. He was tryin’ to stand up so I reaches out and gives him a hand. When I finally got him up he was holdin' a wad o’ bills like I ain’t never seen in my whole life. Well sir, he stood there leanin’ up against the table and tried peelin' off one to pay for the brew and dropped the lot. Then when I goes to pick it up, down he goes flat of his face. Took some doin’ I tell ya to get that boy up again. He weren’t in no way gonna try and walk, shoot he was havin’ it hard enough just standin’. Anway, I takes a couple o’ dollars and handed it back, but he weren’t able to hold on to it, so I opened his pants pocket and shoved it in. Then I pushes him back down in the chair and sends Ruby to get Corey. I'm sorry Slim, I wanted to stay with ‘im, but I got a job and men need servin,’ Slim.”

 

Slim nodded. “I know, Sam. You did the right thing.”

 

“I got a couple beers for another table and I looks back over at Jess and the only thing holdin’ him up was the table. But, when I goes over to see if he’s alright he surprises me and up and orders another bottle..."

 

"He what!" Slim shouted, his voice echoing off the walls of the near empty saloon causing the only two remaining customers to jerk their heads in his direction.

 

The barkeep nodded and smiled. "Slim, when a fellers got that much liquor in him his mind stops workin'. Jess weren’t thinkin’ no more. Now I never knowd Jess to get in a fuss when he's been drinkin'....why most times he as calm as a new born calf. It's a wonder what with that temper of his...but still I didn't wanna take no chances. So I brought him another bottle,” Sam shrugged.

 

Slim, darn near choked...."You what!"

 

"Whoa, now hold on Slim; don’t go gettin’ your hair up. It ain't what you think. I like Jess a whole heck of lot and I know that if'’n you drink too much you can pison your blood. And I sure didn't want that to happen to Jess. But like I saids I didn't want no trouble neither. So I gave him a bottle of the house special..."

 

Slim looked puzzled. "House spec…” Slim shook his head and after taking a deep breath he sighed. "Well, what do I owe you?"

 

Sam laughed. "Nothin', it's on the house. Shoot Slim, it ain't no more n' bottle of water with a half a shot throwd in. See when ya get that drunk you're taster goes with your head...Jess didn't even notice it was different. Course he didn't get much down him neither. Poured most of it on the table tryin' to fill his glass before Ruby got back with Corey.”

 

Slim shoved the half empty beer aside. The drink had lost its appeal.

 

"What about his horse, Sam. Do you know what happened to Traveler?"

 

The barkeep thought hard for a moment then shook his head. “No, I sure don’t, Slim. When I brought the bottle to him he never said nothin’ about no horse. Tell ya the truth, I doubt he even remembered. And I guarantee ya he weren’t able t’ sit a saddle.”

 

Slim frowned and nodded.

 

“Only thing is..” the barkeep paused as if in doubt.

 

"What?"

 

"Well, when he came back in he looked like, I mean...now I can't be sure,” he said shootin’ an eyebrow up.

 

"Sam?"

 

"Looked t’ me like he’d been in a tussle...or maybe took a fall,” he said, looking up at Slim sadly.

“Wish I could tell ya more, Slim.”

 

Slim nodded. "Thanks, Sam,” he said and moved to leave, “you’ve been a big help.”

 

"Sure hope he's gonna be alright," Sam added sincerely.

 

"He will be. Till I kill him. Dang fool!” Slim mumbled, gave his thanks again and left the saloon. As he stepped out into the cool of the evening across the street Laddy Webster was already lighting the street lamps. He paused to watch for a moment and chuckled to himself remembering how the town council had insisted on those lights; like Laramie was a big city or something. Not everyone liked the idea, but the town fathers had won out and a few weeks later up went the lights. The only good thing as far as Slim was concerned was that it gave Laddy a job. Laddy Webster had been born and raised in Laramie . He’d always been a little on the slow side and once his parents died the town just sorta took him under its wings. The thought made Slim smile as he hurried down the boardwalk back to the jail. The whereabouts of his partner's horse was still a mystery and would remain so he figured till Jess was sober enough to tell him what happened. The thought that Jess had actually sold the little bay was something he couldn’t wrap his mind around. To believe that he’d have to hear it from the horses mouth… so to speak.

 

But as he neared the jail he recognized Dr. Wilkie’s rig and his worry reached new heights. Inside he found Mort standing next to the unconscious man, rag in hand. Something had happened.

 

“Mort? He get sick already?” Slim asked, his eyes traveling over the sleeping man’s form until Dr. Wilkie emerged from the back room his hearing piece swing around his neck.

 

“Doc?”

 

“Had to send for the doc, Slim. None of us noticed, but Jess has a knot on the back of his head the size of a goose egg.

 

The Laramie doctor knew the two rancher’s well; having treated both before. Running a ranch and relay station was dangerous work.  “Don’t worry. He’ll be alright,” the doctor soothed. The old doctor reached down and taking his patient’s pulse again stood and shook his head. “Let’s turn him on his side again. You did the right thing, Mort. He could have choked to death had you not. Got himself pretty banged up looks like. No broken bones far as I can tell, but he does have a concussion. It’s not too bad though, just enough to keep him off his feet for a few days. And away from the bottle. With the concussion together with the hangover he’s gonna have come morning is gonna make for one sick cowboy.”

 

“How much do I owe you, doc?’ Slim asked.

 

"Nothing this time. Just keep this boy away from the fire water for a while. That'll be payment enough." The old doctor pulled his stethoscope from around his neck, shoved it into this bag and shut it with a loud pop.  “Well, it’s about time I hit the sheets. Got to go clean to Sweetwater in the morning…”

 

Slim looked surprised. “I thought Sweerwater had a doctor?”

 

“They do. But night before last Dr. Harrison got himself kicked and now he could hardly move,” he said, then added. “You call me if you need me.”

 

The two nodded and the good doc took his leave.

 

“Come on boy, you and I have supper waiting over at Mollies,” Mort told Slim taking him by the sleeve and gently pulling him from the cell. But when Slim hesitated.

 

Mort gave another tug. “Come on. He’s not going anywhere. Charlie’ll  look after him.”

 

Over supper Slim told Mort what he’d learned from Sam. The whereabouts of his partner’s horse was still a mystery. When he told Mort what Dirk had said the Laramie sheriff was equally surprised.

 

“Dirk must have misunderstood, Slim. Jess’d never sell that horse.”

 

Slim grabbed another piece of cornbread, butter it and shook his head. “I don’t think so either. Not in his right mind anyway. But Dirk was pretty sure. Said a young fella came in and told him Jess sent him, said Jess sold him his horse.”

 

“Gear and all?” Mort was astonished. “That doesn’t figure. Who the blazes sells their mount gear and all?” Mort shook his head then after taking another swig of coffee he looked up at Slim.  “Dirk say who this young fella was?”

 

“No. And from what Sam told me I doubt Jess did either. Guess we’ll have to ask Jess when he comes to.”

 

Mort nodded. “If he can remember,” Mort said as he chased a piece of beef around his plate with his fork in an effort to collect the last of the gravy.

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

“You did what?”

 

 

Next morning Slim was awakened by the nauseating sound of someone getting sick. The tall rancher swung his legs over the bunk as the sour smell of vomit mixed with old liquor reached his nostrils almost making him gag. It had been a fairly peaceful night considering. Both he and Mort had slept well even though Jess’ snoring at times sounded like a freight train running through the place.

 

Slim grabbed a few towels and entered the next cell. Jess was laying on his stomach, his head over the edge of the bunk his face half in the slop bucket retching violently.

 

Finally, when the sickness had eased, Slim handed his partner a towel along with a damp cloth.

 

“Ohhh, gawd m’ head,” he groaned and squinted up at Slim through badly bloodshot eyes.

 

Slim leaned up against the cell arms crossed over his chest wearing an unsympathetic frown.

 

“We…well,” Jess slurred, “Go on ge…get it over wi….with. Say I told ya sooo oohhh I…” he never finished the sentence before having to grab for the bucket again.

 

“Don’t think I have to, Pard. You’re stomachs doing that for you.”

 

When this wave passed he reached down and suddenly a look of panic came over him as he started patting his pants pockets frantically. 

 

“Ssslim, my pa…” he gag again and spit into the bucket, “my pa…pants…” he stammered.

 

“Easy, Jess easy. Is this what you’re lookin’ for?” Slim said and held the bills up in front of the still inebriated cowboy.  

 

“Thank gawd. Thought I got ro..rolled,” he gagged and grabbed for the bucket again.

 

“I’m surprised you didn’t, shape you were in. You did get yourself banged up though. You know how?” Slim asked.

 

Jess spit into the bucket and wiped his face with the wet cloth again. Then pulling himself to a semi sitting position he leaned to one side and shook his head…too hard he discover. “Oooh,” he groaned and grabbing his aching head with both hands he eased himself back down onto the all too thin pillow.

 

A moment later and Mort appeared in the doorway. “Thought I heard voices,” he said, wiping the sleep from his eyes. “How you feeling?”

 

“Mo…,” Jess started but first things first and pulled the slop bucket closer.

 

Slim turned to Mort, eyebrows raised. “That answer your question. Then addressing his partner who’d fallen back on the bed gasping. “You get the loan?” Slim asked.

 

“No.”

 

“Poker?”

 

“No.”

 

Exhausted and breathing hard Jess wiped his face once more. “Nothin’ like that,” he sputtered.

 

“Well you sure weren’t in any condition to rob anybody,” Mort exclaimed taking the wad from Slim and thumbing through it, counting. “There’s more n’ two hundred dollars here!”

 

“Should b...be,” he burbed, “two hundrend and ten,” he slurred and ran the wet cloth over his face again.

 

“There’s two hundred and eight, Jess,” Mort told him.

 

“Mu…ust ‘ave paid for the whis..key then,” he groaned fighting back another wave of nausea and sincerely regretting his liquor intake the night before.

 

“How’d you come by two hundred and ten dollars, Jess?” Slim demanded, his patience running thin. “And where’s Traveler? Dirk says you sold him.”

 

The hung over Jess said nothing, just continued to wipe the cloth over his face.

 

“How’d you come by it, son?” Mort must have raised his voice without thinking because Jess suddenly grabbed his head and shushed him.

 

“ Oooh , Mo …Mort, not so lo…loud will ya? Enough with the questions, huh? I’m feelin’ awful sick rig…right now. Ju…oh gawd,” he groaned as he struggled to keep his stomach where it was for at least a few minutes. “Will ya ji…jist,” he burped, “le…let me sleep a li…little longer,” he said and threw one arm over his eyes to shield them from the morning sun.

 

Neither Slim nor Mort said another word, just left their friend to continue to sleep it off. It was gonna be a long hard ride back to the ranch Slim knew, so the additional sleep would do Jess good.

 

Stepping out into the office Mort closed the door and thumbed through the bills once more before handing them back to Slim.

 

“You think he really sold Traveler?” Mort asked.

 

Slim shrugged. “Dirk says he did. And I know for sure Jess didn’t have this kind of money on him when he left the ranch. No other way he’d come by it as far as I can tell,” Slim reasoned.

 

“Can’t imagine it,” Mort sigh, then slapping Slim on the arm invited him to breakfast. Reminding him that Jess wasn’t going any further than that slop bucket for a while.

 

For the next two hours the two men sipped coffee and finished off a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs, fried potatoes and fresh biscuits. It’d be close to noon before Jess was sober enough to sit a horse Slim figured. He’d rent one for him from the livery. Before they left Mollies Slim ordered a small breakfast for Jess.

 

Once Jess was woke up Slim did his best to get his partner to eat something. It didn’t work. Whatever when down, came right back up. It was gonna be a long ride home.

 

 

Chapter Twelve

Busted

 

 

As he figured, the ride home was rough…rough for Jess anyway. Between the liquor and that bang on the head his stomach was in no shape to hold anything and bouncing on the back of a borrowed horse didn’t help. Slim found he had to stop several times for Jess to be sick, leaving a trail of booze and sickness from Laramie all the way home.

 

But that wasn’t all. Jess worried how he’d be received by Daisy and told Slim so …after another unscheduled stop. Daisy had never seen either of them truly drunk. Oh she’d seen them over indulge once or twice during holidays and on special occasions, but never out and out drunk and certainly not fallen down drunk as Jess had been. Although he was able to stay in the saddle, he wasn’t what you might call sober; for that he was gonna need another good nights sleep. After all he’d consumed enough liquor to put both him and his partner under the table.

 

“Just do your best, Pard. We’ll tell her you got a bang on the head. That’s not lying,” Slim suggested. From atop his mount Jess kept trying to keep the swaying house and his stomach from moving too much and prayed that he could make it inside before Daisy saw him.

 

At the hitching post Slim helped his unsteady partner down. Not too bad, Slim thought. But the minute Jess’ feet touched the ground his legs folded beneath him and he ended up face first in the dirt beside the borrowed horse. Larry Millers horse tossed his head high and moved back, forcing Slim to grab hold of Jess’ collar and pull is partner to safety before the horse rearranged the cowboy’s face. But not fast enough to elude Daisy. When she heard the commotion she opened the door and stepped out, just in time to see Slim throw a supportive arm around Jess and help him up onto the porch. One look at those bloodshot blue eyes and the way he was leaning against Slim told her all she needed to know. That and the fact that the wind was blowing her way confirmed her suspicions.

 

“Jess Harper!” She scolded, then seeing the hurt look cross his face she lowered her tone. “Slim get him inside…”

 

Slim started to move forward, but Jess didn’t. “Jess?” His partner’s face suddenly took on a familiar unwholesome cast Slim had come to know well, he’d seen it all the way home.

 

“Da…Daisy,” Jess mumbled and grabbing hold of the porch support, leaned over and unceremoniously deposited the remaining contents of his stomach in the dirt…right in front of Daisy. Slim didn’t have to help him into the house…he could have just as easily walked right under the door!

 

“Ah, he, ah…got a bad bang on the head in town, Daisy,” Slim offered nervously by way of explanation.

 

“Ah huh.” Daisy noticed the typical glowing cheeks and in an attempt to make him feel a little better she smiled. “Now, now none of that. I’ve got something that’ll help settle your stomach. And after a nice long sleep you’ll get rid of the last of that liquor too.”

 

Busted! Jess threw an unsteady gaze Slim’s way, only to have his partner shrug his shoulders and offer his arm. Once Jess was settled and snoring away Slim headed back to kitchen and a much needed cup of coffee. And after pouring one for Daisy he took a seat across from her without a word. Finally, their eyes met and Daisy shook her head.

 

“Why do you men do that to yourselves?” She asked.

 

Slim drew a deep breath and smiled wearily. “I don’t know, Daisy. Just the nature of the beast I guess,” he told and tilted his coffee to his lips again in hopes of avoiding any further questions.

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

“You didn’t have to do that…”

 

 

It was well past supper when Jess finally crawled out of bed. Though Daisy had saved him a plate, the way his stomach was feeling he felt it safer just to drink coffee and forego putting anything solid into his already irritated gut. Slim had helped him outside where he now sat enjoying his brew and the cool night air, a drastic change from the summers heat. It felt good and he breathed it in deeply.

 

Sitting next to him in total silence enjoying his own coffee was his partner. Slim hadn’t said a word since they came outside. Every once and a while Slim would steel a glance at Jess. He was looking better, but Slim knew that looking better didn’t necessarily mean feeling better. It had taken the better part of two nights and a day for his partner to reach this point. Though Daisy worried, Slim assured her that he’d keep a close eye on him. Anyway, there were things Slim wanted to know, he’d have to wait for that though. Right now the best thing he could do was to keep quite and let the cool night air and his silence do the talking for him. Jess would open up when he felt like it.

 

Jess sat up a little straighter and stretched his back. Looking out into the yard things still seemed a little fuzzy. The hangover was mightier than Jess thought and that bang on the head had almost done him in. His head felt like it’d been stomped and he found he had to keep closing his eyes to force back the nausea that kept threatening to ruin this perfect evening. Though drinking coffee might not have been the best idea, it tasted good… he’d deal with the pain later. Right now he had to deal with something much worse…one Slim Sherman by name.

 

The fact that Slim had yet to say a word bothered the young Texan. Usually after he’d gotten himself in trouble Slim would come down on him like a mother bear. But, not tonight. Tonight he sat drinking his coffee and listening to the sounds of the night without a word. The two men knew each other well; too well maybe. Sherman ’s silence was deafening. Finally, Jess could take no more.

 

“Alright, let’s have it. I know you’re sittin’ there just savin’ up. Why not just go ahead and give me a good tongue lashin’ as you call it and get it over with. I know I screwed up. Got too drunk; though I really didn’t mean to, embarrassed myself and Daisy…and you. And most likely scared ten years growth out of Mike.”

 

“No argument there,” Slim said softly, without looking at him.

 

When Slim had helped the still swaying Jess into the house, young Mike had happily rushed to greet them. But come up short at the sight of his brother. Though Slim tried to ignore the look, it was unmistakable. Mike was scared. He’d never seen Jess in such a state. Jess had done his level best to clean up before they’d left town, but with his senses impaired he hadn’t done a very good job. He should have let Slim help as he’d offered, but Harper pride being as it is he’d refused. With his face still smeared with the remnants of blood mixed with dirt together with his torn shirt and pants he was a sight. And that smell, what on earth was that odor? Not to mention those once beautiful blue eyes were now outlined in bright red with wiggly lines running around them. Jess recognized the boy was uneasy and tried to alley his fears by reaching out to touch him, but Mike had pulled away and left as quickly as he came.

 

Last year the young boy had seen both Slim and Jess drink too much. But, then it was Slim who’d started talking funny and it was Jess who stepped in and removed the glass from his partner’s hand and ordered him to bed. Mike had thought little of it at the time. But, this was different. He’d never seen Jess in this condition and it unsettled him. Though Slim was certain Mike hadn’t noticed, the boy’s reaction had a profound effect on Jess as well.

 

“Between Daisy and Mike, looks like I got some repairin’ to do,” Jess admitted, sadly.

 

Still looking off into the darkness, Slim voice was emotionless. “Yup, reckon you do.”

 

“I know I made a fool of myself. So go on, yell, lecture, stomp, whatever you wanna do,” he said in that gruff tone he gets whenever he knows he’s about to be reprimanded. “Just get it over with.”

 

For a long moment his friend and partner said nothing, just sat calmly nursing his coffee. Then, just when Jess was about to give up, the tall blond turned to him. His tone surprisingly calm and friendly. Too calm Jess figured and that made him uneasy.

 

“Actually, Jess, I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

 

“What?” He asked, sharply. 

 

“I heard what you said, and agree with you.”

 

Puzzled. “And that’s it. No yellin,’ no lecture…”

 

Slim shook his head. “Nope,” then… “Would it do any good?”

 

Jess considered that for a moment and had to admit that it probably wouldn’t. “Doubt it,” he admitted.

 

“Well, then,” Slim shrugged. “How’s the head?” He suddenly asked, changing the subject.

 

Touched by his friend’s concern Jess answered without looking at him. “Hurts some.” He knew what Slim was waiting for.

 

“Slim, I…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get drunk, honest,” his voice was low just above a whisper and filled with shame.

 

It made Slim smile. “So why did you?”

 

“I don’t know. It just happened, that’s all. I went into Clancy’s downed a couple beers and then topped ‘um off with whiskey…and …thing’s just kinda got outta hand from there.”

 

“That all?” Slim was using his fatherly tone and Jess knew what that meant too.

 

Jess shook his head. They both knew it wasn’t.

 

“Thought maybe you might’ve joined up with Jones,” Slim said cautiously.

 

“Told you I wouldn’t,” Jess shot back defensively. “I guess I was…”

 

Slim nodded. “That why you sold Traveler?” Slim asked suddenly, emotionless again. It was a guess of course, but a good one he figured.

 

The dark haired man lowered his head and with a strained voice answered. “I reckon.”

 

Slim watched as his friend and partner got up to lean against the porch railing, his world still a little unsteady.

 

“Do you remember selling him?”

 

“Not exactly. I…I  must have, if you say I did,” his voice was hoarse and tinged with regret.

 

“You mean you don’t remember selling your own horse?” Slim’s voice raised slightly.

 

“I was drunk, remember!” Jess shouted and immediately regretted it. His head pounded twice as hard and the yard in front of him tilted then settled back into place. He was glad he was close enough to the support post to grab hold. This was not the time to be fallin.’ After all he’d made enough of a fool of himself as it was.

 

“Oh, I remember,” Slim said, eyeing his partner. “You remember coming home?” Slim asked, his tone even again.

 

“A course I do,” Jess sputtered. …“I think. Recall somethin’ awful bein’ poured down my throat too.”

 

Slim laughed at that. “That was Daisy’s elixir. You were sick as a dog all the way home. Course that whack on the head didn’t help your stomach none…not with all that liquor in you. Once we got home you were sick again and that’s when Daisy got the elixir down you,” he paused and tilting his head back. “That was about oooh, eleven o’ clock as I recall. You slept clean through lunch and supper.”

 

Jess said nothing, just nodded, carefully this time.

 

“You remember loosing your supper last night?”

 

“Yeah. After Daisy forced another spoonful of that God awful stuff down me,” he snarled. He did remember a shirtless Slim sittin’ on the edge of his bed holdin’ him so’s he wouldn’t fall flat of his face while he emptied what was left in his stomach into the chamber pot. When it had passed he felt as weak as a kitten. It took awhile before he drifted off again…but he slept clean through. Inwardly he smiled to himself. Slim had sat next to him till he fell asleep…like a good nurse.  

 

“Well, I think that ‘God awful stuff’ as you call it did you some good. At least you’ve sobered up and your stomach seems to have settle,” Slim said with a smile.

 

“True. Sure wish I could get rid of this headache though,” he complained.

 

“That’s not helping you know,” Slim said shoving a finger towards Jess’ coffee cup.  “You should be drinking water and be in bed like the doc told you.”

 

“I know,” Jess grinned.

 

For a time silence reigned and the two sat quietly looking out over the deep shadows of the Laramie mountain range. This habit of sitting out on the porch had started long ago. Slim recalled the very first time he and Jess, then newly hired had sat side by side sipping coffee and enjoying the cool night air.

 

It was while sitting out in the dark that Jess had slowly begun to open up to Slim more than seven years ago. It hadn’t been easy for the Texan to reveal himself Slim admitted, but reveal himself he did, piece by sometimes painful piece. And in turn Slim had confided in the young gunfighter; giving up long held secrets….secrets he would have never told another living soul. But something about this new hand elicited his trust. It had been a revelation of sorts for both men. Slim listened with interest as Jess shared some of his experiences on the drift. Slim Sherman, a gentleman and successful rancher, solid upstanding citizen and Jess Harper, drifter, gun slick unattached and according to his own admission undomesticated. As unlikely a pair as oil and water was forming a friendship. A friendship neither resisted. In Slim’s mind it was time. Although neither man would admit it, they needed each other. 

 

Behind him, still seated Jess heard Slim take a deep breath. He knew Slim was aware of the fact that he wasn’t the type to head for the oblivion the bottle to calm a worried mind. But it was obvious Slim wanted to know more.   

 

“So why did you?” Slim asked suddenly, his voice booming out into the darkness.

 

Puzzled. “Why did I what?”

 

“Get drunk?”

 

“I already told you that. I don’t…”

 

Slim, never one to beat around the bush stepped right in. “You were thinking of Mike weren’t you?”

 

Jess nodded. “Yeah, I reckon.”

 

“Jess we’ve done everything possible. Like it or not Mike’s just gonna have to wait till next year…”

 

“NO!” Jess shouted and grabbed his head with both hands. “It’s gotta be this year, Slim,” Jess insisted, grimacing in pain and breathing slow in an effort to keep his stomach where it should be.

 

For a long moment Slim said nothing. Just sat and stared at the man in the moonlight, the dim light illuminating just enough of the other mans face so that Slim could see the worry lines. 

 

“Why Jess? Why does it HAVE to be this year?”

 

“Cause he’s got his heart set on it Slim, and I ain’t gonna disappoint him,” he spat and tossed the twig he’d been chewing out into the darkness as he sucked in the cool night air.

 

“He does…or YOU do?” Slim pressed.

 

Jess didn’t say one way or the other at first. But then he looked down at the rough wooden planks and in a low voice. “Both maybe.”

 

“There’s more to it than that isn’t there?”

 

“I want him to have what I never did.”

 

“Jess?”

 

“I ain’t never been what you might call educated Slim.”

 

“Jess?”

 

 “Ma was and taught me what I know. Reckon I wasn't what you'd call a good student. What with that stubborn side o' me comin' out all the time and with my Pa snatchin' me and my brothers away just when Ma'd get started..."

 

Slim gave Jess a puzzled look that prompted his Pard to explain. It was never easy to get his partner to talk about his past so when Jess began to reveal another page of his life Slim was intrigued.

 

"It was hard on the panhandle. We was sharecroppers. My Pa needed all the help he could get. There was eight of us back then. Everyday Ma'd make time for us kids for learnin'. Half the time before she’d even get started Pa’d yell that he needed help and we'd have to get up and go," Jess said sadly remembering those hard years...years that stole his childhood away. “Even Francie and Laverne didn’t get much of a chance for learnin’,” he smiled sadly. “Laverne was real little and couldn’t do much. But Pa’d make her carry wood to Ma for the cook stove,” he paused and took a swallow of his now cold coffee.

 

Slim sat and listened, his eyes downcast. He recalled Jess’ reaction when he was telling him how wonderful it is to be a boy. “Best time of life,” Slim had said. He recalled Jess having no reaction at all. At the time it puzzled the rancher, but he said nothing and went about his business. But it was always in the back of his mind and he wondered.

 

Jess shook his head and smiled. "Ma was a pretty one, Slim. She had long dark curly hair and eyes so deep blue looked like ya could jump in ‘um.”

 

Slim smiled at that. It was obvious Jess loved his mother very much.

 

“Don't know what she ever saw in John Harper. He was dirt poor, stubborn and mean as heck. I used to think he could fight with the devil himself and come off the winner.”

 

"Maybe she loved him, Jess," Slim offered.

 

Jess huffed. “Maybe. They was married over twenty years and in all that time I only recall seein’ my Pa give my Ma one small gift. A wilted bunch of flowers. He didn’t even pick ‘um, Francie did. Anyway, once er’ twice a year we was herded off to school… it wasn’t much. Just an old broken down shack someone left, when they couldn’t make it on the panhandle.” Jess chuckled and stretched his back again, “it wasn’t taught by no regular teacher neither. Old man Cobb would come round and teach when he was sober enough t’ stand. Never did know where he came from. He was as hard as nails. Don't think he had anymore schoolin' than the kids he was teachin',” he smiled briefly, “his favorite thing was the belt. And believe me, you didn't have to do much to earn it neither. I remember once I stuttered when I was spellin' a word. He set me back a grade and I got the belt so hard I limped all the way home.”

 

Slim was aghast. "Just for stuttering?” To Slim who’d been raised with god-fearing parents who tended to lecture rather than use corporal punishment, the idea of whipping a child for such a small thing was beyond his understanding.

 

Jess gave way to a slight chuckle. "I mostly likely deserved it. I did more talkin' and playin'  than listenin'," Jess admitted. “When my Pa found out what happened …well, I got his belt too. I recall Ma steppin’ in and catchin’ a blow,” he laughed scornfully. “Ya know I think that’s the only time I ever remember my Pa sayin’ he was sorry.” Jess paused to take a swallow of coffee. "Come mornin' I could hardly get out of bed. But, when I heard my Pa yell I knew I'd better or I'd be on the receivin' end of his strap again. An eight year old can only take so much beaten.”

 

Eight years old! Slim swallowed hard trying to imagine the kind of life his friend had back then and wished for just on brief moment he could face John Harper and that so called teacher. Slim hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath until he spoke next, he had an overwhelming sense of protectiveness come over him for his partner and friend.  "But….you did learn, Jess. I'd say what your mother was able to teach you made an impression."

 

Jess nodded slowly.

 

"I just want Mike to have what I never did, Slim. That’s all.”

 

"I know Jess, I know. But, some of our best lessons don't always come from a classroom."

 

"What do ya mean?" Jess asked throwing his partner a puzzled look.

 

"Things that makes a man what he really is inside. Like what Mike’s learned from you…”

 

"What?” Jess interrupted suddenly. “Now you're mockin' me Slim..."

 

"No I'm not. I mean it."

 

Slim had gotten up and was now standing beside his friend. This was hard for Jess and for a brief moment Slim felt a ting of guilt, sorry for having brought up the subject. He had it in mind to apologize, but before he could open his mouth Jess spoke again. 

 

“Face it Slim, I ain’t like you. Never will be. As much as my Ma tried, I ain’t educated. I’ll never be as smart as you or as good as you,” he said, his voice a little shaky.

 

Slim was floored. All he could do was to stand and stare at the man in disbelief. Early on he’d learned this ex-gun slick turned rancher to be a very complicated man and he’d often been surprised and honored when Jess allowed aspects of his personality to show through. But, this…this was something different, something unexpected and it left Slim speechless. Slim wiped his hand over his mouth nervously, not knowing how to react or what to say. When he did speak his voice faltered and he stumbled over the words. “J…Jess…I…”

 

“Don’t know why you got it in your head to make me your partner,” his voice trailed off stubbornly fighting back long held emotions and sniffed not daring to look in Slim’s direction.

 

 Slim couldn’t be certain but he thought he saw moisture gathering under those long lashes. That statement took the air right out of him. “What!” Slim took another deep breath. “I made you my partner because….you’re my friend, and…”

 

“I don’t like takin’ charity, Slim!” Jess snapped. “Now you’re doin’ what you’re always tellin’ me not to…. your lying, Slim Sherman .”

 

“I am not,” Slim snapped back suddenly feeling very defensive. “I made a friend out of you because you needed it,” Slim swallowed hard…“and so did I. You wanna know why it took me so long to ask you to be my partner, to share this ranch with me?” Slim’s voice had an edge to it that made Jess regret the question. This was a side of his friend he’d never seen before and he wasn’t sure how to react. Instead he said nothing, just turned and leaned his back up against the railing, looked into those troubled blue eyes and watched as Slim chewed his cheek before answering. When he did speak his tone was sharp.

 

“Because I was afraid you’d say no…”

 

Jess knew he had struck a cord in the big guy he’d come affectionately to call Hard Rock.

 

Discerning Jess’ shock Slim nodded. “That’s right. See, you’re not the only one with fears, Jess.

 

I got ‘um too. Before my mother died she made sure I understood one thing; that if I ever decided to take on a partner it had to be someone I trusted and cared about. Someone I’d be willin’ to give ’m life for. Like a brother my Pa always told me. And I found that someone in you.” Slim turned away and looked past him out into the dark yard. But Jess could see his partner working his jaw and breathing hard. Jess had upset him without meaning to. To his surprise when Slim spoke next his tone was calm and reflective. 

 

“My Pa had a partner once, Jess. After my parents were gone I thought long and hard about taking on someone else to help out…but…”

 

“I…I didn’t know, you never…”

 

“I never told you because it’s one of those things you’d rather forget than remember,” Slim said sadly and turned his back to the yard, leaning up against the porch post shoulder to shoulder with is Pard.

 

“My Pa had a friend; or so he thought for several years. One day he got it into his head to make him his partner. You and I both know it’s a whole lot easier to run this outfit with two,” he said and looked over at his friend for confirmation. Jess gave a slight smile and nodded, agreeing that it was.

 

“Well, they agreed. My Pa was always one for doings the legal way…”

 

Beside him Jess laughed softly. “So that’s where you get your pen and paper side.”

 

Slim smiled. “I suppose,” Slim took a deep breath. “No sooner had they signed that agreement than Halberd Cummings started in on my Pa. Acted like Pa had signed over the ranch to him. Ordering things without my Pa knowing, dipping into the ranch accounts without even asking. Made life real hard for a time, till  my Pa’d had enough. You could only push Matthew Sherman so far…then look out…”

 

Jess gave out a gentle laugh. “I know. I’ve seen that Sherman freight train before.”

 

Beside him Slim laughed. “Next thing I knew Pa had gone into town, saw an attorney and broke the contract. Then all hell broke loose. Cummings came after Pa, claiming that he was the rightful owner of the ranch and my Pa and Ma were nothing more n’ hired hands,” Slim stopped forcing back the anger the memory always brought with it. “Pretty soon my parents found themselves in an out and out battle to save the ranch. All my Pa had worked so hard for was about to be blown away, like one of those Texas wind storms you’ve told me about. Took over two years of hard fighting to settle things. But my Pa and his attorney fought hard, and here we are.”

 

“What happened to Cummings?” Jess asked.

 

Slim shook his head. “Don’t know. But, we’re getting away from the issue. What about Mike?”

 

Jess again turned away to look out into the darkened yard again. “I just want Mike to have a proper schoolin' that’s all.”

 

 "I know that. But you didn’t have to sell you favorite mount to do it.”

 

“It was just a horse, Slim.”

 

Slim knew better. He could hear the regret in his partner’s voice, saw it in his face and in the way he held himself. “You and I both know that’s not true. You rode onto this ranch with that horse, Jess. Traveler was more n’ a horse to you. He was your friend.”

 

“He was a horse, damn it,” Jess snarled. Then lowered his head and slowly shook it. “Don’t make no never mind now. Mike’ll get to go to that school back east. He’ll get educated up like he wants, like he should.”

 

“But at what cost?”

 

When next he spoke Jess’ voice shook. “Don’t matter the cost. Slim, you know lots of words, some I ain't never heard of...and I…I want Mike to have the chance to know ‘um too. Want him to have what I never did. I really am what Hollingsworth said...a no account saddle bum…”

 

“Jess…”

 

 “I want somethin' more for Mike, Slim,” he interrupted.

 

"Jess, just because a man has an education doesn't make him special..."

 

"To me it does....I mean….”

 

“Jess?”

 

"Slim, I'm a growd man and I have a heck of a time just writin’ a letter. You don't know how that makes me feel...not bein' able to spell, put words together and cipher like you and Daisy. Sittin’ at the table tryin’ to make letters so people can read ‘um. Havin’ to ask for help. Slim, I don't want Mike to ever feel like at,” he said, his voice had a forlorn sound to it. A sound that touched Slim in a way he couldn’t explain.

 

Slim furrowed his brow. "I thought you liked learning, Jess?"

 

"I do Slim, I purely do. It's just that I…I just wish I didn't have to ask, ya know? Makes me feel… shameful, ya know?”

 

"You don't have to feel embarrassed around family, Jess," Slim told him gently.

 

The Texan suddenly slammed his fist against the railing in frustration. "Damn, I can't even talk right."

 

 "What?"

 

"Not like educated people like you and Daisy," he said, turning away to look back into the yard.

 

"You talk just fine, Jess. And as for feeling shameful is concerned, the only thing to feel shameful about is not asking. A person who refuses to ask is a person who doesn't want to learn. And that's not you. When you learn somethin' Pard, it sticks. Jess, there’s more to learn in life than what’s taught in school. Just look at all you’ve taught Mike.”

 

There’d been a lot of revelations this night between the two men, but Slim was totally unprepared for his partner’s reaction.

 

Despite the fact that the world around him suddenly spun out of control and Slim went fuzzy, Jess spun around to face his friend eyes flashing.

 

“What the hell does that mean? Mike ain’t learned a nothin’ from me, cept how t’ stomp around broomtails, mend a fence, chase a stray, slip and slid in cow and Lord knows what all…”

 

“That’s not true!” Slim snapped back.

 

“Oh, and let’s not forget how to draw a gun,” he laughed bitterly. He stopped and started to turn back around when Slim suddenly took his arm turning him back to face the tall blond instead. 

 

“Now you see here. He’s learned those things sure,” he admitted with a nod,  “but he’s also learned honesty, integrity. He’s learned what it means to keep your word. To finish a job once it’s started. And most important he’s learned how to be a friend. Those are things you can’t get out of a book, Jess,” Slim voice was gentle but firm. “You taught him those things. That’s something to be proud of.”

 

The two fell silent again, each trying to control their feelings. Each stinging from the emotionally charged words of the other. Slim trying to understand his partner and Jess doing the same, only falling short. He’d always felt a little inadequate around Slim even though he loved the man like a brother. As for Slim, this was the first time Jess had mentioned anything like this and it shook him. When full realization came to him Slim felt sick to his stomach. He had no idea he’d made Jess feel self conscious and was at a loss as to how to turn things around. He had to do something to reverse Jess’ thinking, but at the same time he knew that anymore discussion about his partner’s feelings would only cause more pain, so he bit back what he really wanted to say and changed the subject; for now.

 

“Still wish you’d have waited till we sold those steers…”

 

“Got the money now. That’s all that matters.”

 

“But Traveler, Jess….” that was something Slim just couldn’t get over.

 

“Drop it Slim, just drop it, will ya? What’s done s’ done,” Jess snapped back. And for a time nothing was said. Slim saw his partner chewing his lower lip. It was a mannerism Slim had come to know long ago ...Jess wanted to talk. He was just trying to find the right words, so Slim waited. Then to Slim’s surprise Jess took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and said his goodnights. But as Jess moved away from the railing he swayed and Slim quickly reached out to steady him only to have his partner push his hand away.

 

“Don’t need help, Slim. I’m alright. Got to get up early in the mornin’ that fence needs mendin’ in the lower pasture…”

 

“You’re not mending anything, Jess. Doc says you’re to stay in bed and by gum mister that’s exactly what you’re gonna do,” Slim told him then looked back over his shoulder with a grin, “least through tomorrow.”

 

The distraught cowboy just nodded and left Slim standing on the porch looking at his back as he disappeared into the house.

 

 

 

o0o0o0o0

 

 

 

At the Sherman ranch stages came and went, fences were mended and strays were chased and rounded up. But through it all Slim couldn’t get over the fact that Jess had sold his favorite mount. They’d put the money in the same hiding place as Jess’ old gunfighter’s rig in the fireplace chimney. There it would stay until time for Mike to go back east. But it was with a heavy heart. Traveler may not have been mentioned much, still the little bay was on their minds. One evening while Slim was in Mike’s room reading him a bedtime story, out in the living room Daisy and Jess shared a cup coffee when the subject of Traveler came up. 

 

“You didn't have to do that, Jess," Daisy told him softly.

 

Jess nodded. "Yes, I did Daisy," he said sadly. "It was my fault Slim didn't get that loan, pure and simple."

 

“That’s not true Jess, and deep inside I think you know that. Mr. Hollingsworth is a very hard man to deal with. I think he resents being out west. That’s not your fault,” she said and padded his shoulder affectionately before retiring to her room for the night.

 

Jess got up and taking his hat from the peg near the front door started to leave.

 

Concerned, Daisy stopped and turned back. “Jess, where are you going? It’s late,” she questioned.

 

“Gonna take a last look at the stock. I’ll be back,” he promised and left the house closing the door quietly behind him.

 

It was hard to get Mike to sleep that night. Slim had read at least two stories and still the little boy wanted a third.

 

“No, it’s well past your bedtime, Tiger,” Slim told him. But when he reached over to turn the lamp down the young boy unexpectedly spoke.

 

“Slim, why did Jess sell Traveler?”

 

Slim hesitated contemplating how to answer. He didn’t think Mike would fully understand. “When you get older Mike you’ll find there are things you just have to be done. And that’s what Jess felt.” Slim pulled the light quilt up over the boys shoulders.  “Now here, you get to sleep young man, or you’ll be too sleepy for school tomorrow.”

 

“I don’t wanna go to that school back east,” he blurted.

 

Surprised. Slim turned and sat back down next to the little boy. “What did you say?”

 

“I said I don’t want to go to school back east. Not if it’s gonna make Jess sad,” he said softly as if he’d suddenly said something very wrong and was about to be punished.

 

Slim smiled and gathering the young boy in his arms squeezed him gently.  “What would make Jess sad Mike, is if you didn’t go to school. What Jess did he felt he had to do. To be honest what Jess did was to prove just how much he loves you. Now, come on, under the covers with you. Get to sleep.”

 

Stepping out into the living room he was surprised to find it empty. A lone cup of hot coffee sat on the table, Daisy’s doing no doubt. Taking a big swallow he peeked into the room he shared with his partner and found it empty as well. Stepping outside he discovered his partner wasn’t on the porch either. Slim stood for a time surveying the darkened yard when he noticed the silhouette of a lone figure standing near the corral. Going back to the kitchen he poured another cup, the last and left the house.

 

"Goodbye, Jug head," Jess was whispering as Slim approached.

 

Knowing it was never smart to surprise his friend Slim scuffed at the dirt.

 

Startled. Jess quickly turned to find Slim standing close by.  “What are doin’ here?” He asked, sharply. Then smiled as Slim handed him a hot cup of coffee.

 

“Thought you might like the last of the coffee, Pard. You okay?”

 

Nodding that he was, the two friends drank their coffee in silence before heading for bed.

 

Slim knew his friend was hurting and he knew the only cure was to reunite him with his old mount. But how? He had no idea where to look for the bay or who would have been so irresponsible to have purchased a steed from someone in Jess' condition in the first place. As far as Slim was concerned to conduct a transaction as important as the sale of a horse with someone as drunk as Jess was tantamount to stealing.

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

Bill of Sale

 

 

Next morning found a determined Slim Sherman in town. He’d no sooner arrived then from across the street he spied Mort Corey. 

 

 Slim waved cheerfully. "Hi ya Mort."

 

"Hi yourself. What brings you to town this morning?”

 

"Oh, just had a few things to pick up. We got a fence over in the south pasture down in four places and we failed to pick up enough wire," Slim told him. 

 

Mort, not believing a word of it cocked an enquiring eye Slim's way. The excuse sounded lame but Mort had caught him off guard and he couldn’t think of anything else.

 

"Ah huh. How's Jess feeling?”

 

"Better. He had a hangover as big as all outdoors," Slim laughed. "Daisy confined him to bed once we got home. To tell you the truth I think it was a good idea. He was still pretty liquored up and with that bang on the head couldn't keep anything down.”

 

Mort shook his head and laughed. “You ever find out what caused him to get himself in such a state?"

 

"Naw, but I think I know," Slim told him.

 

"Oh?"

 

"Yeah, you know how Jess is Mort...somethin' goes wrong and he's the first one to step up and take the blame," he shook his head, "never seen the like of it."

 

"You mean Hollingsworth?"

 

"Yup."

 

From down the street near the saloon came a rather disparate cry. "Sheriff, hey Sheriff..."

 

"Well, looks like my breaks over."

 

Slim laughed. "No rest for the wicked, huh," he chuckled.

 

Mort frowned and took a step back as if he’d been hit. “Now, is that anyway to talk to the law in this town?" Mort smiled and gave his friend a slap on the back. "Before you leave stop over at the office and have a cup of coffee with me. Got some new wanted posters you can take with you.”

 

"Will do. Think I'll take a stroll around, see if I can spot Traveler. Can't imagine Jess selling him like that.”

 

"I know what you mean. That's been playing around in my head too." The sheriff said. "I'll keep an eye open. I hate to say this, but it wouldn't be the first time some yahoo took advantage of a man in Jess' condition. Hope that's not the case, but if it is...you let me handle it. I know how you get when it comes to that boy."

 

"Sheriff!"

 

Mort chuckled and shook his head. "I'd better see what Hutch wants before he rips his breeches."

 

Slim smiled as he watched Mort step off the boardwalk and head with purpose toward the barbershop.

 

He hadn't told anyone at the ranch what he was up to, but he suspected Daisy knew. He was glad Jess didn’t question him when he left. It was for that reason that he took Daisy’s small grocery list and climbed into the buckboard. He needn't have worried. Jess was so preoccupied with work and such he didn't bother to ask. And he knew why. Jess was missing his old faithful friend, his emotions were in turmoil and he was doing everything he could to keep his mind occupied….and immersing himself in work filled the bill. 

 

Slim left the buckboard parked at the feed store with a promise to pick it up along with the wire when he came back. Then he covered the town as best he could in search of Traveler. He talked to storekeepers and businessmen alike in search of his partner’s horse. Mr. Anderson at the Overland offices had promised to keep an eye out and as much as he hated to indulge in another shouting match with Dirk he’d gotten the old man to agree to do the same. Next stop was the saloon, he’d order a beer and talk to Sam again. See if maybe the barkeep remembered something he’d forgotten a little over two weeks past.

 

He stepped inside, paused for a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the dim light then walked up to the bar and ordered a beer. It wasn’t even noon and the saloon was already full. Not surprising with the summer sun on the rise, folks were finding shelter from the heat wherever they could. When he told Sam what he was doing in town the barkeep was in full agreement and promised to spread the word about Traveler. He again expressed his sorrow for not paying more attention to Jess and the man that was sitting with him. Unfortunately their was nothing new to tell.

 

“Aw, don’t worry about it, Sam. You were busy,” Slim soothed and took another deep swallow of the cool beverage. “Besides,” he said wiping a hand across his mouth, “it’s not your place to baby-sit,” he grinned.

 

Slim hadn’t been in the saloon long and had only half finished his beer when three strangers entered, ordered beers and took a seat within earshot of the rancher. As Slim stood enjoying his brew and the occasional chat with Sam he couldn’t help but overhear bits and pieces of their conversation. One of the men was talking about a horse that came awfully close to matching Traveler’s description. Carefully and without drawing too much attention to himself Slim eased down the bar to steel a glance at the three.

 

The one doing most of the talking was in the middle. A man of average height and weight about Jess’ age he figured with a thick mustache and head of hair to match. Slim called Sam over and whispered. “Does that man over there look like the man that was sitting with Jess?”

 

Sam pretended to wipe the already spotless bar down so he could move closer to get a better look without arousing suspicion. But, Sam had only seen the man for a moment and wasn’t sure.

 

“Can’t really say, Slim. Looks kinda like him. But I couldn’t swear to it. I’m sorry.”

 

Slim, his lips set tight gave a brief nod and continued with his beer. Then he overheard one of the men say something that caused his ears to perk up and the hairs on the back of his neck to stand at attention. He sat the near empty mug down hard enough to cause the last of the beer to splash out onto the bar as he turned to face the three. A second later as if on cue young Jamison, Dirk’s assistant came over and told him that Traveler was at the Livery.

 

That did it! He's first instincts was to grab hold of the man and drag them over to Mort’s. But, common sense took over and he thought first (unlike Jess who thought with his hands, rather than his head most times) though this was one of those times he wished he could be more like his partner. Instead he left the batwing doors swinging and came darn close to colliding head long into the very man he was rushing to see, Mort Corey. The Sheriff had just left his office in the capable hands of his deputy for a bite of lunch.

 

Mort laid his hands against the tall rancher’s chest to avoid being trampled. “Whoa there, Slim.” Something after you?” He chuckled, then lost his joviality when he saw the look on the man’s face.

 

"What’s wrong?"

 

Without a word Slim, grabbed the Sheriff's sleeve and ushered him inside the saloon to stand at the far end of the bar. "Those men over there," Slim whispered, indicating the three men seated at a table at the end of the bar with a jerk of his head.

 

"What about 'um?"

 

"The one in the middle has been sitting over there talking about how he suckered a man too full of liqueur to know which end was up out of his mount. A bay with a while diamond in its forehead, no more than two weeks ago. Mort, I'm sure they're talking about Jess,” he said with conviction keeping his voice low and his eyes on the men in question.

 

"Well, you could be right, but what are we to do about it?" The Sheriff asked.

 

"Mort, you and I both know that Jess was in no condition to make a sale like that. Shoot he couldn't even get a word out edgewise, much less have enough sense to sell his horse." Slim’s  jaw set in a straight line and that determined look told Mort he meant business.

 

Mort eyed the taller man for a second. "I agree. But, like I said. What are we to do about it? Sale was made, Slim," he said flatly.

 

"Well, we could at least ask to see a bill of sale," Slim suggested.

 

Mort considered that for a moment. He’d known the young rancher and his family most of his life. And he knew how dogged determined Slim could be when he set his mind to something. "You sure Jess sold Traveler to one of them?"

 

"Sure sounds like it, Mort," Slim told him.

 

"Have you seen Traveler?"

 

“No, but Dirk sent Jamison over a minute ago to tell me that he’s over at the livery right now getting a good rub down."

 

"And you’re sure it's Traveler?" Mort asked, still uncertain. Mort was a fine lawman and liked to have all the facts before wading into what might turn out to be trouble.

 

Slim tilted his head to one side and gave the older man a slightly annoyed glare.

 

The lawman threw up his hands as if in surrender. "Alright, alright. But, let me do the talking," he said, authoritatively. "I know you. You might not have Jess' quick temper but when you get started you're a hard man to stop and my back isn’t feeling all that good this morning.” He stated as he started to step around Slim, then stopped, turned back, eyed the young rancher and with a forefinger poked Slim in the chest. “You mind what I say.”

 

Slim nodded his compliance and followed the Sheriff over to the table. A few minutes later found, Slim, Corey and a rather irritated cowpoke all gather in the Sheriff's office. Mort had told the man he wanted to talk to him about a horse that had been stolen that fit the description of the one he’d ridden into town. On the way to the sheriff’s office the cowpoke told them his name was Owen Marx and he was going to work for Felicity Jones. They were to pull out the next day and he didn’t have much time.

 

“Look Sheriff I ain’t got no beef with no one in this here town. Now I got me a job to go to, so if’n you don’t mind I’ll…”

 

“I mind,” Slim said stepping up to the man as Mort closed the door.

 

The cowboy turned his full attention to the taller of the two and netting his eyebrows together he snarled. 

 

“And just who the hell are you?”

 

“Names Sherman, Slim Sherman. That horse you rode in here is my partner’s. That makes it my business,” Slim’s voice shook with anger.

 

“Alright…that’s enough,” Mort ordered sternly, knowing full well that if he didn’t get in between the two he’d have new furniture to order, a doctor’s bill to pay and two cells to fill.

 

Slim clamped his mouth shut, but didn’t move.

 

“The point is Mr. Marx we’d like to know how you acquired such a fine animal?

 

“Bought him right here in town, over at the saloon no more n’ two weeks ago. If it’s any of your business.”

 

“It is,” Mort’s tone continued to be stern as he examined the cowboys face as if trying to memorize every line. It was a skill he’d acquired many years ago and it had severed him well. He might not be able to pin a liar, but he could sure as shootin’ make one feel uncomfortable enough to give it up the truth….most times.

 

“Who’d you buy him from?” Slim asked his eyes never leaving the young mans.

 

“Got him over at t’ saloon. Now I got to be goin’.”

 

But as Marx moved to leave Mort held up his hand to stop him. “Not so fast, Mr. Marx…”

 

“You got a bill of sale?” Slim interrupted sternly.

 

At first the younger man started to object, but seeing that such an attempt would do no good he decided to try and reason his way out.

 

“Look, Sheriff. You and I both know that such a formal thing as that ain’t always done. Now, I told ya how I got that nag. Now I got me some celebratin’ to do afore I shove off in the mornin’ so…”

 

Slim stepped in front of the door his considerable size effectively blocking the man’s exit. Slim’s hand hovered over his .45 and kept opening and closing. The look in his eyes and the way he was working that jaw said it all. He was making Mort nervous. The Laramie sheriff shook it off and continued.

 

“Look Marx, I try to run a nice clean peaceful town here. And I don’t take kindly to people taking advantage of our citizens…”

 

“I got that nag from a drunk over at the saloon, sheriff…”

 

“Like I said, Mr. Marx I look out after my citizens.”

 

The stranger huffed a laugh and looked up at Slim. “Never seen a town so heated up over a town drunk afore. I kinda fig…”

 

Before the man could finish his sentence Slim moved closer. “The man you stole that horse from was no town drunk,” he growled. Then before Mort could stop him grabbed hold of the man’s collar and had lifted Marx a good three inches from the floor. The young cowpoke went pale and struggled against strong arms, his eyes as big as saucer plates staring down into Slim’s cold blue eyes…eyes filled with rage. 

 

“Sheriff, sheriff,” he begged in a strangled voice.

 

“Slim!” Mort shouted. “Slim put him down. NOW!” He ordered. But it wasn’t until Mort took hold of the ranchers arm and gave a mighty tug that Slim released his hold and allowed the man to drop to the floor with a thud falling flat on his rear.

 

The shaken cowboy scrambled to his feet and backed away. “I ain’t stole no horse. I paid for that nag fair and square sheriff,” he said his voice unsteady as he straightened his clothes backing away from Slim at the same time.

 

“Well, then you’d have a bill of sale wouldn’t you?” Mort stated all the while giving Slim a warning glare.

 

A second later and the sheriff’s door swung open. A younger man, unshaven and dirty  bellowed.

 

“Ya best be comin’ Marx. Jones wants to pull out first thing.”

 

Mort looked up and stepping to the door gently but firmly pushed the man back out. “He’ll be along. Right now he has business to attend to.” Mort told him and closed the door. Again he turned to the cowpoke…“Now, about that bill of sale.”

 

“Ya got cotton in yur ears Sheriff. Told ya the feller didn’t give me one.”

 

“Why not?” Mort asked, trying to keep an eye on both men. Mort took a deep breath, from the look on Slim’s face this was about to turn ugly.

 

“Well, I…I don’t rightly know,” he stammered nervously.

 

“I do. The man you got that horse from was so drunk he couldn’t tell you his name much less write out a bill of sale.”

 

“Yeah, well…I reckon he’d had a few,” his voice wavering, looking from Slim to the Sheriff and back again.

 

“A few?” Slim bellowed.

 

“Okay, okay, I reckon he was a little on the juiced side but…”

 

“I call that taken advantage,” Slim growled and stepped up to Marx towering over the cowpoke. Slim had a look come over him Mort knew all too well. He’d seen it before. Slim’s protective side was showing in all its glory.

 

 “Slim, I said let me handle this,” Mort warned.

 

“Didn’t you think it a little strange Mr. Marx that man should sell his horse with his gear?” Mort asked.

 

Marx would have to think about that one. “Look sheriff a man’s got a right to sell what is his don’t he?”

 

Mort nodded while keeping a close eye on Slim who was just waiting for the right moment to take Marx apart piece by piece.

 

“Yes he does, Mr. Marx. But, I’m the sheriff here and I don’t appreciate having my citizens taking advantage of.”

 

“I didn’t take advantage of no one…”

 

“Well, I say you did,” Mort told him, his tone changing to the official authoritative tone he used when about to lower the boom. But before he could finish his statement Slim did it for him.

 

“The man you got that horse from was so drunk he couldn’t think straight, didn’t know what he was doing. I call that takin’ advantage,” Slim’s voice boomed so loud people passing by outside paused to look in.

 

“Slim,” Mort said and taking hold of the mans sleeve again pulled him back a little. “I said let me handle this. Now you settle down,” Mort warned.

 

“All I’m asking Mr. Marx is to see a bill of sale,” Mort repeated.

 

“And I told ya sheriff, I ain’t got one.”

 

“In that case Mr. Marx I’ll have to confiscate the bay until I can talk to Jess…”

 

“What!”

 

“If he says he sold you his horse, then so be it.”

 

“Jess doesn’t remember,” Slim cut in, never taking his eyes off the cowboy.

 

“Well, if Jess can’t substantiate the sale then we’ll just have to consider the horse stolen property.”

 

The cowboy’s eyes shot wide open at that.

 

“Stolen! Now…now wait a minute sheriff…” Marx stutter, then yelled to the man outside. “Morgan get m’ horse and bring in that gear.”

 

It didn’t take long before the dirty looking cowboy brought in Jess’ gear, depositing the saddle and saddle bags on the sheriff’s desk before taking his leave.

 

“There now, that’s the gear. And that’s all yur gettin.’ I bought that horse fair and square, gave good money and…”

 

Marx suddenly became aware that the only one paying any attention to him was Slim who’d moved closer to the door as if to block it. The sheriff was going through the saddle bags searching for something. Finally he removed a worn leather wallet. Opening it he pulled out a piece of paper. Before saying another word he cocked an eye towards Slim and hoped Marx didn’t notice the silent cue between them. He didn’t and Mort all but smiled.

 

Mort shook his head and looked up at Slim. “Sure wish you had a bill of sale, Mr. Marx. Like I said I run a nice quite town here. I hate to see you tangle with the likes of Jess Harper.” He said as he unfolded the papers and scanned them. “Yup they’re Jess’ release papers alright.”

 

“Re….release papers?” Marx voice had a slight shake to it. 

 

Slim nodded. “Prison release papers. Hasn’t been out long,” Slim said.

 

“Sure wish you had that bill of sale,” he said softly then turning to Slim he spread it on real thick.

 

“Can’t remember selling his horse you say, Slim?”

 

“That’s right. Said he doesn’t know what happened. All he can recall is that he and a young fella fitting your description Marx left the saloon. Next thing Jess knows he comes out and his horse is gone. Course he was so drunk at the time he…”

 

“I had to lock him up to keep him from tearing the town apart. He puts a lot a stock in that little bay. Lost the front door when he sobered up and found him gone,” Mort said with as much seriousness as he could muster. “Just got it fixed this morning.”

 

Their little ploy didn’t work. 

 

Marx’ eyes narrowed. “You two finished playin’ around, sheriff?” He asked.

 

But Mort wasn’t licked yet. Without skippin’ a beat the Laramie sheriff opened a desk drawer and pulled out a stack of wanted posters.  “You wanted anywhere, Marx?”

 

“What? No, I ain’t wanted. Now if’n your all done with these here games I got me a job to go to…”

 

“I might be. But like Mr. Sherman here says and I agree with him, I feel you’ve taken advantage of Mr. Harper. And since you can’t produce a bill of sale I’m going to have to confiscate that animal till I know for sure what happened. We’ll have to wait till Jess can tell us for himself that he sold his mount before I allow you to leave with him,” Mort said, his face stoic all business.

 

Marx raised his voice in protest. “Now see here, Sheriff…”

 

“Don’t be raising your voice to me young man. This is my town Marx and I’ll not have my citizens taken advantage of. You say you got a job to go to…then if I were you I’d be getting myself over to the Livery and renting myself another mount,” Mort advised. “Because the horse you say you bought is staying here. Till I can talk to Harper. If Jess says he sold him to you, then you can pick him up at the Sherman relay station, bout twelve miles south of here.

 

Marx was about to explode. But instead he jerked his hat off the desk and shoved it onto his head so hard Slim was sure he’d need help getting it off. “What about my money?” He demanded.

 

“Well, if the sale can be confirmed you’ll get your mount and if it can’t your money will be returned. But, if I find that you’re wanted, that just might complicate matters a bit. You get my meaning?” Mort asked.

 

Whether Marx did or not he didn’t say, just jerked the door open and stormed out. 

 

Slim was all smiles as he turned back to his friend.

 

But Mort didn’t look happy. “And you! Don’t you ever do something like this to me again,” he growled. The good Laramie sheriff shook his head. “Never seen the like of all the trouble from one man getting himself all liquored up,” then his manner changed and he slowly smiled. “Now go get that danged bay. And tell Jess he might want to hold onto that money before he goes and spends any of it. It just might turn out it’s not his after all.”

 

“Thanks, Mort.” Slim left the sheriff’s office with a big grin.

 

“Oh, get out of here,” he snapped, his eyes dancing.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

deserts in the barn…”

 

 

It was late afternoon by the time Slim started from town with Traveler in tow. Though he looked forward to uniting his downhearted partner with his old friend it was with a great deal of trepidation that he entered the long driveway that spilled out into the ranches yard.  The fact that Slim had stuck his nose in Jess' business was gonna take some explaining. The one thing the two had always respected was the others personal business and Slim had overstepped that unspoken rule. Of course the fact that Mort suspected Marx of being wanted somewhere might help some; he hoped.

 

First order of business; how to surprise Jess with Traveler. Slim slowed the team to a crawl as he carefully surveyed the yard. Then after finding Jess no where in sight he carefully made his way into the yard and quickly into the barn. So far so good. He silently mouthed.

 

As quick as he could he settled Traveler into his old stall, unhitched and let the team out into the main corral, all without seeing a soul. Relieved he hurried back to the barn, closed the doors and gave his partner’s mount a good rub down. He talked softly to the animal as he filled the trough with oats when all of a sudden he heard the squeak of the barn door behind him and his heart nearly stopped. His smile dropped as he cautiously he turned his back to Traveler (as if his body could hide the animal) to face whoever entered.

 

“Daisy! Lord O Mighty, you just took ten years off my life woman,” Slim exclaimed his hand over his heart his back against the stall.

 

“I’m sorry, dear,” she chuckled. “I thought you were Jess. He’s been gone for hours. I expect him back any minute.”

 

Smiling widely Slim stepped over, took her by the arm and gently pulled her inside closing the door behind them. “Not too soon I hope.”

 

Daisy looked into those stunning blue eyes and grinned. “Slim Sherman , you’ve been up to something?”

 

Still smiling he directed the elderly housekeeper to the last stall where Jess’ horse stood happily munching on oats next to his friend Alamo . Though he couldn’t prove it he could have sworn he saw the two equines smile.

 

“Oh Slim,” Daisy exclaimed clasping her hands together.  “Where ever did you find him. Jess will be so pleased.”

 

“It’s a long story, Daisy. I’ll tell you all after supper. It’ll make for some good laughs I’ll tell you that. I want this to be a real surprise,” he whispered as if Jess were within ear shoot.  “Been thinking all the way home how to pull this off. Where is he anyhow?”

 

“Mose told Jess that Mrs. Fletcher’s buckboard had broken down along that back road near the creek.”

 

Puzzled. “Mrs. Fletcher doesn’t have a buckboard.”

 

“I guess she bought one. Jess went out to see what he could do. He‘s been gone for hours. I’m getting a little worried.”

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t Daisy. Jess can handle himself.”

 

“I know. But still…”

 

Then as if on cue they heard a horse canter into the yard and Slim’s heart nearly stopped again when he heard Mike yell out a greeting to Jess.

 

Jess, tired, dirty and not in the best of moods was surprised when he saw both Daisy and Slim exit the barn. But before he had a chance to open his mouth, Daisy spoke up.

 

“Jess, are you alright?”

 

“I’m fine, Daisy. Just tired and dirty,” he said, as he started to lead his horse to the barn “Gonna take care of m’ horse, take me good a shower and get a hot cup of coffee, in that order.”

 

Slim and Daisy exchanged anxious glances. “Good idea, Pard. Here I’ll take care of your horse while you get yourself in the shower. Fried chicken tastes a lot better without swallowing half of Wyoming ,” he smiled avoiding his partner’s eyes.

 

Jess was too tired to notice the little grin Slim just couldn’t hide. Instead he handed Slim the reins and made a bee line for the showers. Daisy was just plating up when Jess walked in, clean and hungry.

 

As it turned out their neighbor had been suckered into purchasing a buckboard that wasn’t worth the boards it was made of. No sooner had the man left than the buckboard broke down. The neighbor, a widow with two kids had neither the skill nor the resources to make the needed repairs. So Jess to the rescue.

 

Slim went into the kitchen, grabbed the coffee pot off the stove and started refilling cups as Jess began to explain.

 

“Looks like Mrs. Fletcher got herself tangled with some yahoo sellin’ a buckboard cheep. Cheeps the word. Thing had more metal than wood. All four wheels need replacin’ and there’s not enough wood to call the tail gate a gate,” he said, shakin’ his head as he reached for the cornbread. “Sure’d  like to get my hands on the sorry son of a…” he stopped, his eyes drifting to Daisy who sat at the opposite end of the table with a scolding glare.

 

“Sorry, Daisy,” he said, shyly. “Sure ain’t no way to treat a neighbor; much less a helpless widow,” he grumbled gulping down the coffee and spooning a mountain of mashed potatoes onto his plate.

 

“You sure you didn’t catch up with him? The way you looked I wondered,” Slim grinned.

 

Jess shook his head. “Wish I had. Got throwd," he said around a mouthful of chicken.

 

"Oh Jess,” Daisy exclaimed. It wouldn’t be the first time one or both of the men had gotten thrown. Most times the results were just a few scratches and bruises. But both knew that when it came to Jess it could be much worse. Slim’s younger partner had a propensity for attracting not only trouble, but bruises, broken bones and worse. But Jess appeared to be just fine. Slim was sure the only injury was a bruised ego together with a few scratches that didn’t seem that bad.

 

It was hard sitting around the table trying to carrying on casual conversation knowing what awaited Jess in the barn. Slim had been chompin' at the bit all through supper. Finally with supper over Daisy served up her famous hot apple pie. No longer able to hold back, they’d no sooner dug in before Slim spoke up.

 

"I’d watch how much you eat of that pie, Jess. The rest of your deserts in the barn,” he grinned.

 

Fork poised in mid-air Jess stared across at his friend. "What?"

 

"You heard me. I got something to show you," he said, his grin growing those blue eyes dancing. He wasn’t the only one. For the first time during the meal Jess looked around and took inventory of the faces staring back at him. All wore silly grins. Except young Mike who was as clueless as his older brother. Slim knew better than to tell the youngest member of the Sherman lot. Mike was never good at keeping secrets. 

 

That did it. “What’s goin’ on here?” Jess' taste for Daisy's desert suddenly disappeared replaced instead by curiosity; he pushed himself away from the table and headed to the door, followed by Daisy and Slim with Mike bringing up the rear. As they neared the barn Slim reached out and tugged at Jess' sleeve. "Here. You might wanna take this with you," he advised and handed him an apple.

 

Now more puzzled than ever, Jess took the fruit and opened the barn door. As the four entered the occupants turned to look in their direction without uttering a sound, as if the four horses and two cows knew that this visit was a special one. At first Jess saw nothing out of the ordinary. But the familiar whinny of a horse drew his attention to one of the last stalls. Slim, no longer able to contain his excitement gave Jess a gentle shove toward the last stall with an encouraging, “Go on.”

 

Though the barn was relatively dim there was enough light filtering in to illuminate his partner’s face. When he neared the stall he stopped dead. Stepping forward carefully as if by moving too fast would break the spell his face virtually lit up with joy as he recognized his old faithful friend. Hurrying to the stall he stepped in beside his mount overjoyed to be united once more. Traveler nuzzled his master’s shoulder and nickered happily. As pleased to see his master as Jess was to see his horse. In his shock Jess held tight to the apple, until Traveler bent his head and nudged his master’s hand encouraging him to let loose. While Traveler munched on his treat Jess stood speechless stroking the strong neck. Overcome by emotion all worries and concerns just seemed to melt away. Even Daisy’s apple pie seemed to fade into the background.

 

“This is better than any apple pie,” Daisy whispered. Mike looked up at her and smiled. Then wrapping her arms around him she held him tight. While Slim place an affectionate arm around her shoulders…he felt her shake and smiled. The slight crack in the voice and the moisture forming under those long lashes told Slim his partner was overwhelmed. Slim couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.

 

"Slim, how...how’d ya…where’d ya? I mean where did ya fi...?"

 

"Wasn't all me, Jess. Mort played a big part in getting him back. Seems this fella that bought him has a habit of taking advantage of people or at least that’s how we got it figured. You were certainly in no condition to make such an important decision and we both know it..."

 

"But how...?"

 

"Never mind how. Just accept it," Slim told him with a smile. "Let's just say that Mort turned the screws a little. This fella finally gave in and gave Traveler back. Mort's gonna check and see if there's any wanted posters out on him."

 

"But what about the money?" Jess asked, his voice still a little shaky as he continued to stroke his faithful friend as if by dropping his hand would break the spell.

 

"Mort’ll let us know. In the meantime he says for you to hang on to it.”

 

Jess thought about that for a time then shaking his head. “Nah, I wouldn‘t feel right. Best we  take it back and let Mort hold it till we know for sure," Jess suggested.

 

Slim smiled. "And here you thought you didn't have anything to teach Mike,” Slim said his smiled so wide it hurt.

 

Once they sat back down to enjoy their desert Jess just couldn’t put it down and insisted that Slim tell him how he came to find Traveler and get him back. So as they ate Slim explained. When he came to tell Jess about how they’d planned to scare the livin’ daylights out of Marx by telling him Jess had just been released from prison and had destroyed Mort’s front door when he found his horse missing, Jess almost choked he laughed so hard.

 

That night Jess appeared to sleep better than he had in weeks.

 

 

o0o0o0o0

 

 

A week later and Mort showed up for what everyone thought to be a routine visit; but was not.  As it turned out Marx was free and clear. Jess had to either give back Traveler or return the money. Marx had left that decision up to Jess. The choice was clear; Jess would give the man back his money. It was a blow. But like Jess said himself...they were no worse off than they were before all this happened. And how could he give back what it took Slim and Mort so much effort to retrieve.

 

That night before Mike turned in he approached Jess, his left hand closed tightly behind him.

All stopped and looked at the young boy questioningly.

 

“What? Jess asked with a smile.

 

“Well, it ain’t…”

 

“It isn’t,” Daisy corrected.

 

“It Isn’t much,” he said softly and slowly opened his hand to reveal two small coins, “but you can have this,” he said with a smile.

 

No one said a word, all eyes on Jess and the young boy. Jess stared down at the small hand and gathering the little boy him his arms swallowed and blinked several times before he spoke.

 

“No, I ain’t gonna take your money, Mike. We’ll figure out somethin’.” Fearful of saying more without embarrassing himself he cleared his throat and slapping Mike’s rump he gently ordered the little boy to bed.

 

“Hey, Mike. You still wanna go visit your friend Allen in town?” Slim asked, and threw a glance over to Jess and Daisy. All agreed.

 

The young boys face lit with delight. “Zee’s yeah, can I really?”

 

“Long as Mr. and Mrs. Brooks don’t mind.”

 

Mike flew to Slim and threw his arms around his older adopted brother’s neck almost knocking him out of the chair. All smiles.

 

 “Alright, Tiger. Time to hit the sheets,” Slim reminded, tearing himself from the boys embrace.

 

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

A fancy dog?

 

 

Thursday morning turned out to be a mixed blessing. It had rained during the night and although it had served to cool down the squelching summer heat, it left in its wake a muddy mess. That night before she’d turned in, Daisy had persuaded Slim to let her go into town with him as she needed to pick up a few things she’d forgotten. They could drop Mike off on their way. Allen Brooks lived less then a mile from town. So right after breakfast Slim, Daisy and Mike left Jess to tend the ranch while they headed for town. The trip was indeed necessary as in Slim’s excitement on getting Traveler back he’d totally forgotten the wire. 

 

Allen was overjoyed to see young Mike and after much squealing and chattering the Brooks youngest son and Mike took off for adventures unknown. Before Slim and Daisy left it was decided that Mike should spend the weekend. He could go to school with young Allen on Monday and take the stage home after. 

 

Once in town Slim parked the buckboard and deposited Daisy at the general store. He’d walk over to the Feed and Grain with his own list. Knowing Daisy, she’d need the buckboard before he would. Slim only hoped the ranch accounts were big enough to support her list. Daisy’s small list unusually turned out not to be so small after all. It had always amazed Slim how women loved to shop. As for him and Jess, getting in and getting out was their prime concern.

 

Stepping over and around puddles Slim entered the Feed Store and left his list with the owner. They’d stop at the Feed and Grain on their way home. Slim paused on his way and watched as two of the towns urchins played in the mud puddles. He smiled to himself when he recalled fondly how he and his siblings loved to play in much the same fashion. He laughed to himself when he recalled how mad his mother would get when he and his brothers and sister would try coming into the house covered with remnants of the days fun. His daydreaming interrupted when he heard shouting followed by gun fire coming from somewhere down the street.

 

At the sound of ruckus Daisy stepped out of the mercantile to investigate only to have Mr. Millers pull her back into the store. Slim instinctively drew his gun and took cover. From his vantage point he couldn’t see the shooter, but he did see Mort running down the street gun drawn, ducking for cover whenever a shot rang out, all the while shouting for someone to “drop it.” Deciding to help his old friend, Slim ran after Mort taking cover wherever he found it. He finally caught up with his old friend a little past the bank where Corey had ducked behind a delivery wagon just in time.

 

“What’s going on, Mort?” Slim asked, breathing hard, bullets whizzing past him as he too took cover.

 

“Some yahoo’s trying to rob Coles Tack Shop,” he said, glancing quickly around the corner of the wagon in the direction of the Tack Shop.

 

“I was just over at the Feed and Grain and I didn’t see anything,” Slim offered. The Feed and Grain also housed Cole’s Tack Shop. Slim had left the place not more n’ five minutes earlier.

 

“Must have been hiding in the back,” Mort said and ducked when a bullet whizzed past taking a chunk of the wagon with it.

 

The yahoo’s turned out to be two well known trouble makers. Mr. Hawkins’s it seemed had always had trouble keeping his rambunctious sons in line. They were in their late teens and did nothing but annoy the citizen’s of Laramie and sponge off their father. Their pranks were often the source of aggravation and conversation from day to day. But this was no childish prank. 

 

From across the street someone shouted and a second later the two would be robbers sprang from behind the Tack Shop and made a mad dash across the street for the alley behind Mollies with Slim and Mort in hot pursuit. They’d learn later that one of the two had badly wounded Mr. Cole and had made an attempt to take off with the money box. But, their plan fell short when Mrs. Cole came at them from the store room like a barrel out of cannon, broom in hand, yelling to high heaven in a language they couldn’t understand. Giving up they’d high tailed it out of the store, but not before the staunch German born woman had opened a sizable gash on the younger of the two just above the right eye, blood running down his face and spattering his brothers as they made their escape.

 

The two would be robbers together with Slim and Mort entered the alley at virtually the same time. Again, Mort ordered the two to stop and throw down their guns. But instead of complying they turned and fired, barely missing Slim as the two took cover behind a stack of crates. The fact that Slim had nearly taken a bullet from one of the brutes fueled Mort’s anger. Plastering himself up against the back wall of a building Mort shouted another warning.

 

“This is your last chance, throw those guns down and step out here,” he ordered, only to be met by a chilly silence. But that was not to last. As Slim eased from behind his cover and Mort did the same the younger of the two stood and fired. Mort hit the dirt and fired at the same time. The youngest of the brothers went down and lay amongst the debris behind an empty store. The other disappeared among several large barrels directly behind Mollies Restaurant. As he did he fired and this time narrowly missed Mort. They both concluded that the older of the two was either a bad shot or had no desire to kill anyone. They hoped it was the latter. This game of cat and mouse was about to end in a way none of the men expected.

 

“You see him, Mort?” Slim asked, peering over his own stack of crates close to where their quarry disappeared.

 

Mort shook his head. “No, but I know he came this way.” They may have lost track of their man, but they were about to find him in a most unusual way.

 

Like the ranch, the rain that served to cool the morning had left the alley a muddy mess. Both Slim and Mort figured the slippery mud might work to their advantage, but they were about to find out that something else was far more effective. The back door of Mollies lead out into the alley and Hale Davies had just finished washing the breakfast dishes, opening the door he tossed the out the suds without looking…right in the face of Hawkin’s eldest son. Caught off guard the young man gave out a surprised yelp and with soap filled eyes stood straight up. Though he still held his piece, from the looks of him he couldn’t fire if he wanted to. His head and face were covered in dishwater, the suds stinging his eyes.

 

“Hold it right there,” Mort ordered.

 

Slim stepped beside Mort, gun drawn and waited for the young man to comply.

 

“It’s over. Put it down, son,” Mort shouted. With Slim at his back the sheriff hurried over, took the gun from the young man and replaced it with handcuffs.

 

“Sorry, sheriff. I didn’t know….” Hale stammered.

 

“Nothing to be sorry for, Hale. You did me a favor.”

 

“Burns,” the man shouted.

 

“I’ll get a towel,” Davies said.

 

“No need for that. A little pain’s good for the soul,” Mort replied and roughly pulled at the cuffs coming close to causing his prisoner to go down in the slippery mud.

 

“Good for the soul huh? Just how old is that saying?” Slim asked with a grin holstering his gun.

 

“At least five seconds,” Mort chuckled and gave the Hawkins boy another firm jerk. “Come on, son.” Then shouting over his shoulder he asked Davies to get someone to take the eldest of the Hawkins boys over to the doc’s.

 

They’d just passed the corner of Mollies on their way out to the street when from atop Mollies a stray cat screeched and a dog yelped. The dog ignoring puddles and men gave chase, right between Slim’s legs causing the tall rancher to lose his concentration and his footing to land with a loud splash in the middle of the larger of the many mud puddles dotting the alley. And if that wasn’t bad enough, having been slightly off balance in trying to transverse around puddles and holes he came down hard on his right ankle. The sound may have escaped the others, but the look of pain did not.

 

“Slim?”

 

The whole situation would have been funny had it not been for the fact that when Slim tried to get up he was unable. Mort reached out and taking Slim by the arm assisted him to his feet. But it was obvious that something was very wrong. Slim gave out a yell of his own once his right foot hit the ground, causing him to lose his balance and fall back into the same puddle for a second time, almost taking the sheriff and his prisoner with him. What followed was a short lived stream of vulgarities that would have made the devil blush.

 

“What’s the matter?” Mort asked, after Slim finally found his footing and was able to keep his balance.

 

“Don’t know. M’ dang foot hurts something awful,” he informed and grimaced as he once again tried to stand and found that he had to grab hold of a stack of crates for support which didn’t hold. He’d have went down the for a third time had Mort not grabbed hold to steady him.

 

The yell together with the rest of the racket brought several men running from the main street only to draw up short at the sight before them. There in the back alley stood their sheriff, one hand restraining his prisoner who was covered from head to toe in dishwater suds, and Slim Sherman, covered in mud, doing his best to keep his footing while holding onto Mort. Slim Sherman ’s a big man and with him not being able to stand on both feet it took some doing to get him to the doc. But with the help of a few of the town folk they managed.

 

Inside the small office Daisy Cooper waited and worried. An hour later and Dr. Wilkie emerged from his surgery wearing a rather comical grin and wiping his hands on a towel. Slim had told the good doctor what had happened and it had taken everything for the physician to curb his laugher.

 

“Well, the ankle’s definitely broken,” he informed, “but it’s a clean break and won’t require surgery. I’ve splinted it for now and gave him something for the pain. I’ll stop by tomorrow and see how his doing. You might wanna do the drivin’ Miss Daisy,” he said as his assistant helped Slim down the short hallway and into the small front room. “In a short while he’s going to be pretty sleepy.”

 

“Thank you, doctor. He’ll be fine.”

 

Dr. Wilkie handed Slim a pair of crutches with explicit orders that he not try and use them for a few days. Six to eight weeks later he’d see about removing the splints, but for the first few days he wanted the rancher in bed with his foot propped up.

 

“You might want to lay him in the back,“ the good doctor suggested.

 

“Don’t think we have enough room,” Daisy told the doctor, “the buckboards filled, “and we still have to stop at the Feed Store.”

 

“Let’s just go, huh?” Slim growled, impatiently.

 

True to the doctor’s word by the time they’d reached the half way point home Slim was feeling no pain. Whatever the good doc had given him had gone straight to his head. Several times during the trip he’d reach over to take the reins only to have Daisy push his hands away with a gentle, “No, dear.”

 

“Je…Jess won’t be hap….happy bout thiss,” he slurred.

 

“Jess has his share of injuries, I wouldn’t worry about it. He’ll understand. Slim, now no,” she scolded as he once again tried to take the reins.

 

“Got to wa….tch old Jassper, Daissssy. He’ll pull…”

 

“I know all about Jasper, Slim.” Beside her Slim was swaying dangerously.  “You just concentrate on staying in that seat. If you fall out I can’t get you back in,” she cautioned.

 

It was well after dinner when they arrived home. Jess came stomping out the back door to meet them, wiping his hands on the towel he’d tied around his waist, clearly not in the best of moods. He’d had to deal with two stages and two large repair projects when Mose split a wheel and two rear wheelers threw a shoe each. Slim had promised the night before that he’d make sure the forge was cleaned and fired up; he’d forgotten both. As a result of what Jess considered Slim’s negligence the afternoon stage pulled out more than an hour late with a very upset Mose taking it all out on Jess. Add to that the fact that his lunch had all but been ruined when he’d burnt the biscuits and then had to listen to the passengers complain about the poor service.

 

“It’s about time,” he bellowed as he approached the buckboard. “What’d he do, Daisy, get himself juiced in the saloon?”

 

“Now Jess,” she chided.

 

Ignoring Daisy, Jess continued to rant. “Gettin’ forgetful in your old age, ain’t ya Pard? That forge was as cold as Taylor ’s behind this mornin’ and I….”

 

It wasn’t until Slim forced his eyes open to meet his partner’s that Jess noticed how Slim was slumped next to Daisy, his eyes half closed but surprisingly not bloodshot as one would expect. That was a puzzlement. But when he spoke Jess was certain that he’d down more n’ a few. Jess was about to lay into him for gettin’ drunk and leavin’ him to all the work when Daisy explained that Slim had had an accident and that it was the painkiller and not whiskey that caused his partner to look and sound two sheets to the wind.

 

His anger replaced by concern, Jess lost the attitude and took a closer look at his friend. “What happened?”

 

“He broke his ankle,” Daisy told him.

 

“He what? How?”

 

“Slllip on a pod…puoddle,” Slim slurred and struggled to open his heavy eyes with little success.

 

Puzzled and more than just a little amused. “What the world were you doin’ steppin’ on a dog?”

 

“Noooo, not a doug, I to..old youuu, a po…ooll,” Slim slurred angrily, his eyes sliding shut again.

 

“Daisy what…?”

 

“He was helping Mort go after some men who tried to rob the Tack Store and slipped in a mud puddle, and broke his ankle poor dear,” Daisy explained. “The doctor gave him something for pain and ordered him to bed for the a few days.”

 

Jess’ grinned widely. “Thank goodness. I’d hate think my Pard flattened one of them fancy dogs from back east,” Jess teased, and held out his hand to help Daisy down. Then he reached up to assist the very drugged Slim out as well. Only to have Slim slap his hand away drunkenly.

 

“Now Slim, you let Jess help you,” Daisy scolded.

 

“C’ome on Pard, you look like ya had one too many. Here,” he said and once again took hold of Slim’s arm ignoring the big guy’s attempts to push him away. Getting a man as big as Slim Sherman out of the buckboard without him being able to help was one thing, but Slim was about as drunk as they come and was fast becoming as limp as one of Daisy’s noodles. Daisy watched and held her breath while Jess pulled Slim from the buckboard.

 

Daisy threw her hand up to her mouth as both men came close to falling.

 

“Jess!”

 

“I got him,” Jess assured her, then with his smile growing added. “It ain’t easy gettin’ a rubber band this big out of a wagon,” Jess laughed. “Hold the door will ya Daisy?” Then carefully and laboriously assisted his partner into the bedroom they shared. Slim slept through the night and past breakfast the next morning, his foot propped up on several pillows according to doctor’s orders. 

 

Though Slim couldn’t be sure, the last thing he remembered hearing was howls of laughter coming from his partner out in the living room followed by Daisy’s scolding as he described how he struggled to get Slim undressed and in bed.

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

Ping, Ping

 

 

A later week found Slim sitting out on the porch, a splint from his ankle clean up to his knee watching Jess work. Though it had only been a week, Slim reminded Daisy everyday of just how much he and Jess were alike. Slim was finding it harder and harder to just sit and watch. He wanted to get out and work along side his Pard. It took both Daisy and Jess to insist that he follow doctor's orders and do only the lightest of chores. That turned out to be the books, as Jess had refused to allow him to even soap a harness. Daisy laughed at that. When it came to Slim, Jess was every bit as good a nurse as she was.

 

The money dilemma seemed to have been put on the back burner so to speak, until the afternoon stage arrived and Mike bounced down with news that the school back east was gonna start enrollments in two weeks. He tried not to show his disappointment, but couldn't hide it from his family. And once again, a dark cloud settled over the little house. All through the night both Slim and Jess tossed and turned, unable to let go of their problem. That night they’d put their heads together once more, each throwing out a hopeful solution only to discover it to be as useless as the last.

 

Finally, Daisy Cooper could take no more and announced the next morning that she and Mike were going into town. She wanted to finish her shopping. Both men gave her a look that screamed shock. Slim figured she’d cleaned Millers out…and now she wanted more. Daisy recognized the look and smiled.

 

“I hadn’t completely finished when got hurt,” she told Slim. “Mr. Millers still has a few things he’s holding for me,” she said. “And you still haven’t picked up that wire.”

 

They couldn’t argue with that. So after consuming a large breakfast Daisy and Mike prepared to leave while Jess readied the buckboard. Both men watched as the buckboard disappeared over the rise. Neither of them had a clue as to what Daisy was up to. And guessing only brought up more questions.

 

Slim could take it no more and begging like child asked Jess to let him work in the barn with his Pard. But, no dice. Dr. Wilkie’s instructions were clear, Slim was to keep off that leg and the hay strewn barn floor was too dangerous for a man on crutches Jess felt. Jess insisted Slim remain inside and do the dishes while he took care of the new string of horses he and Jeb had acquired earlier that week.

 

"You're not going to be breakin'?" Slim warned.

 

"No...not yet..." Jess answered as he buckled on his gun belt and threw a grin over his shoulder at his overly concerned partner.

 

"You know what the doctor said. You forget about your back?" Slim was out of his chair now and hobbling over to stand face to face with his young partner. Jess had healed well from the accident that nearly crippled him a year earlier, but is back still gave him fits on occasion. As a result he’d been barred from doing the breaking. His main job was to gentle ’um up. The riding  was left to Slim, Jeb and Gandy when he was around.

 

"How can I. You won’t let me," Jess spat, more out of frustration than anger.

 

Slim recognized it and back down. "I'm sorry, Jess. I guess this whole situation has me tied in knots," he said, gently.

 

"Yeah, I know, Pard. Me too," he said with a smile and a slapped his Pard's back to drive the point home.

 

"Just don't do too much. Let Jeb do the riding, please," Slim pleaded.

 

Jess nodded. “Just mind how you treat those dishes. Them’s Daisy’s favorites ya know?” Jess cautioned.

 

Daisy wasn’t gone long and came back with the last of her shopping along with the wire, hammers and two boxes of nails. Once they sat down to supper, Daisy lowered the boom and left the two young men speechless and staring in disbelief.  "I invited Mr. Hollingsworth to supper come Sunday," she informed them.

 

"You what!” The shock was shared and so was the shout.

 

"Daisy...wh...why?" The two stunned ranchers stammered.

 

"There’s been so much worry about sending Mike to school…”

 

“But, but Daisy…”

 

“AND with the two of you doing everything you can...well, I just felt I had to do something," she told them as she cut open a biscuit.

 

Slim sat back and regarded this tender woman in complete shock. Jess did the same only he put his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands. Both felt as if they been sucker punched. 

 

Finally, after regaining his wits Jess spoke up. "Daisy, just what are you thinkin’ invitatin’ that snake to supper?" Jess asked, raising his head to look at the women that sat directly across from him.

 

"Let him get to know us, Jess. After all you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar you know," she said flatly without looking at the two ranchers.

 

Neither could think of a retort to that.

 

 

o0o0o0o0

 

 

 

Slim forced himself up with the help of his crutches and slowly made his way to breakfast. He found the table fully set with bacon, eggs, grits, fresh baked biscuits and smiling faces.

 

“How do you feel this morning, dear?” Daisy asked, pouring him a cup of coffee.

 

“Tired. Had a hard time sleeping last night,” he said and yawned widely as he snatched a look at Jess who sat next to him with a rather sour grin.

 

“Tell me about it. Kept me up half the night tossin’ and turnin,’” Jess grumbled.

 

“You did no better. Leaving for the outhouse twice as I recall. And just when I was about to doze off,” Slim growled.

 

“Huh,” Jess huffed, “you got that…”

 

“Alright. Let’s all mind our manners shall we?” She reminded sternly.

 

“Why? For Hollingsworth?” Slim snarled.

 

“Well, it’ll be good practice,” she said, as she passed the platter of eggs to him. “Mike, elbows off the table, please.”

 

“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied, kindly.

 

Before breakfast was half over Jess rose from his place, grabbed a couple of biscuits, thanked Daisy for breakfast and headed out.

 

“Whe…where are you goin’?” Slim asked, forcing down a bite of buttered biscuit.

 

“To get supper,” he said with a grin and left before anyone could say another word.

 

“Come again?”

 

“Jess said Jeb told him he saw some wild turkeys over near the stream,” Mike explained, his mouth half stuffed, eliciting a scolding glance from Daisy.

 

Slim recalled Jess saying something about seeing turkeys near the pond a few days ago. Slick trick to get from under foot and all the work Daisy had planned for them as far as Slim was concerned. But that was not to be.

 

Sunday was supposed to be a slow day. Overland never ran a stage on Sunday so it was usually a time to kick back and enjoy life. But as soon as breakfast was over Sergeant Daisy put not he and Mike to work, cleaning, shinning and polishing just about anything they could reach. Since Slim was unable to get around he was in charge of polishing the silver. Sitting at the table wearing a sour look he dipped the rag once more into the thick gray silver polish and cursed the fact that his partner and so easily gotten away with doin’ nothin’. “You just wait Jess Harper, I’ll fix you,” he grumbled. All this just to sit down a share a meal with the most hated man in all Laramie .

 

Soon everything in the house and out (Slim figured) was clean as a whistle and shinning like the sun. Slim, now turning his attention on trying to impress Hollingsworth with their financial standing hobbled over to his desk, sat down and started pulling out the paperwork he figured he would need. As he worked he couldn’t help but smile. Daisy had put Mike to work peeling apples while she fussed with the fixing for a turkey supper. He had to admit a nice turkey supper did sound good. But his smile turned to a frown when he glanced up and saw Jess’ best rifle still mounted above the desk.

 

“What the….? Mike,” he called.

 

“Yeah, Slim.”

 

“Didn’t Jess say he was gonna bring home supper?”

 

“Sure did,” he replied unpeeled apple in one hand and a knife in the other. Mike looked up from his task and asked. “Why?”

 

Looking up at the rifle above his head he questioned. What’s he gonna do, kill it with his bear hands?” He ask sarcastically.

 

“Naw,” Mike laughed, “he took a slingshot.”

 

Stunned, Slim turned to stare at the boy. “Slingshot! What the hell is he gonna get with a slingshot?”

 

“Slim, watch your language please,” Daisy’s voice boomed from the kitchen.

 

“Sorry, Daisy. But didn’t Jess say he was gonna bring home a turkey?”

 

“I really don’t know. But I’m sure he is. Why?” She asked without going to look for herself.

 

“Because he left the means of gettin’ one,” he said and pointed to the rifle hanging over the desk.

 

Daisy peaked around the corner, saw the riffle above the desk and shrugged.

 

Slim leaned back in his chair, shook his head and mumbled. “Inviting the likes of Hollingsworth to supper, cleaning the house till it sparkled and now Jess goes out hunting for turkey with a six gun,” he mumbled.

 

“What dear?”

 

“Nothing, Daisy. Nothing at all,”  he said and turned his attention once more to the task at hand.

 

Jess had been gone almost four hours now. Slim continued to sit and rifle through the papers becoming more and more irritated at his tardy partner and his seemingly total disregard for the more important things. “Hunting. Jess Harper will do anything to get out of work,” he muttered to himself, knowing all the while that such a statement was not true. Jess had always done the work of two and seldom if ever left a job undone. He was just tired, worried and irritated at having to bow down to Hollingsworth again. And add to that the fact that he was becoming a little worried about his partner. “Killing a turkey doesn’t take this long,” he thought, “not even with a .45.” He was certain Jess had just forgotten the gun, although how he could do such a thing was beyond him. The picture of his partner aiming his six gun at turkey made him smile at least. 

 

Finally, after gathering everything he thought Hollingsworth might ask for, Slim accepted a glass of lemonade from Daisy and closed the books. He’d watch for Jess from the porch and hobbled out to take a seat next to his partner’s favorite rocker to wait. He didn’t have to wait long. Jess came cantering into the yard, a look of triumph and satisfaction on his handsome features. As he neared the hitching post the corners of his mouth turned up and he smiled widely.

 

“Hey, Slim. I got supper,” he said cheerfully. “I see you’ve been hard at work,” he said eyeing the glass of lemonade in Slim’s hand.

 

Before Slim had a chance to answer his eyes fell to the sack slung over the cowboy’s saddle horn and the fact that whatever was in it was moving.

 

Hearing Jess’ voice and anticipating a huge thirst and a nice big turkey Daisy hurried out with a large glass of the tart drink and handed it to Jess who took it gratefully. But she saw no bird of any kind.

 

"What’d ya get?" Slim asked, puzzled at the moving sack.

 

“Frogs a’ course,” Jess said with a smile and handed the empty glass back to Daisy with a ‘thank you.’

 

“FROGS!” Everyone said in unison.

 

“Yup. Was thinkin' on gettin' a rattler, but I kinda figured Hollingsworth might balk about eaten one of his own," he chucked.

 

Slim stared, mouth opened, stunned into silence.

 

 “Jess, dear, I’ve never in my life cooked a frog. Just how do you do it?"  She asked, her eyes fixed on the moving sack.

 

"Ya don't cook the whole frog, Daisy. Just the legs," Jess explained with a smile, removing his hat and wiping the sweat from his brow with his sleeve before setting the hat firmly back on his head.

 

Finding his voice Slim blurted. "What!" Slim was beside himself. Upset by the fact that Daisy hadn't fixed a single thing other potatoes, peas and corn, waiting for Jess to bring home the bacon; so to speak. They’d all been anticipating turkey…Jack rabbit, Quail even Squirrel. But, FROGS had never crossed their minds.

 

To stunned and shocked to see the humor in this, Slim’s anger flared.  "Jess Harper, if this is your idea of a joke, so help me I'll...."

 

"Ain't no joke, Pard," he answered, a little hurt that Slim didn't see the value of his prize.

 

"What is the matter with you man? Hollingsworth is coming for supper. We got to make a good impression, Jess,” Slim whined.

 

"I know. And we will. It ain't no joke, Slim,” Jess said knowingly.

 

“Frogs! Jess have you lost what’s left of your mind…frogs, what on earth are you thinking?”

 

“Slim, calm down and let him explain,“ Daisy advised. “Jess what makes you think…” she paused as the sack moved again, her eyes growing larger with each ripple of the gunny, “what makes you think that Mr. Hollingsworth will like frogs no matter how their cooked?”

 

“Cause Annie Green told me the other day that Mr. Hollingsworth is from back east and comes from a real promenade family…”

 

“All the more…” Slim interrupted, totally perplexed and growing angrier by the minute.

 

Daisy turned a disapproving eye on the tall rancher. “Let him finish,” she scolded.

 

“She said he’s always talkin’ about how bad the food is here and how much he misses the fine food back east. Reckon he must miss the food they serve at them fancy eaten places back there. When I asked her what they served she said it was common for them to serve frog legs, n’ somethin’ with a lot of sauce, even snails and such. They’re considered a delicassacy."

 

"Snails," Slim said, his eyes growing wider by the minute and now seriously beginning to doubt his friends sanity.

 

"Yes, dear. They call them escargot. It’s French," Daisy added by way of  explanation.

 

"Iscar got?" Jess asked.

 

"No, escargot...the 't' is silent," she told him.

 

"Then why don't they just call 'em snails?" Slim asked.

 

"Shoot, Slim, then nobody'd  eat 'um," Mike supplied and hurried over to examine the still moving sack.

 

"Jess, I don't know about this." Slim stammered.

 

"Don't worry, Slim. I think Hollingsworth will be real impressed, us goin' out of our way just for him."

 

Slim sighed, still eyeing the moving sack. "Well, could you’ve at least kill 'um first?"

 

Jess gave his partner a sour look. "There dead, Pard."

 

Slim’s eyes nearly popped out of their socks and he took a tolerant breath. "Jess, I don’t know how they do things down in Texas , but here in Wyoming when we kill something, it stops moving!”

 

"I know that,” Jess shot back.  “They just do that...somethin' about nerves or what not," Jess explained.

 

"So, then you've had these before, have ya?" Slim asked.

 

"Yup," he reply. “When I was a kid,” Jess replied cheerfully.

 

"Just how do you fix frog legs Jess?" Daisy asked and stepped away from supper as it gave a jerk.

 

“Ya bread 'um and fry 'um, like chicken. As a matter of fact they kinda taste like chicken. Here," he said as he reached for the sack, "I'll clean 'um for ya,” he said and untying the sack slung it  over his shoulder, the contents still moving.

 

"Thank you. I'll get everything ready," Daisy told him and hesitated a little before leaving to prepare the delicacy.

 

Slim cleared his throat. "Jess, just tell me one thing. Why would you take a slingshot, sit on the edge of a pond half the day, knockin'  frogs in the head and bring 'em home to fry up, knowin' all the while they taste like somethin' we got walkin' around us in the first place?"

 

"Told ya, cause their a delicasscy, Slim. Figured it might make Mr. Hollingsworth feel right at home," he said as he headed for the barn. Then looking back over his shoulder he added with a grin... “Course I could still go back and get that rattler.”

 

Slim had to admit he couldn’t very well argue with that. After all he had heard that Hollingsworth had been likened to pond scum and worse. But this meal was special and they had to make a good impression....it was their last chance. And here Jess is gonna give the man frog. Slim returned to the comfort of his easy chair shaking his head in dismay.

 

A short half hour later found Daisy dippin' pink little legs into egg wash, then dredging them in flour. Shaking her head as she worked. She could hardly believe she'd been pressed into service to fry frog legs. But, here she was laying the little guys in the skillet watching them float around in the deep fat, like little men in their long johns, until…“OUCH”! They once again started jumping, splattering hot oil on her and everything else. Quickly grabbing a lid she covered the skillet and waited. Shocked at the fact that she was defending herself against supper.

 

Out in the living room Slim had moved from his easy chair to sit at his desk once more, going over his paperwork to make sure he had everything in order. As he read he became aware of the fact that he was re-reading the same paragraph over and over. Something was distracting him. It didn’t take long before he became aware that his attention was split between what he needed to read and the annoying sharp pinging sound emanating from the kitchen.

 

"Mike," he shouted. "Leave Daisy's pots and pans alone. I’m trying to read.”

 

"It's not, Mike, Slim. It's supper," Daisy exclaimed, her voice a little on the high side, her eyes fixed on the skillet. Sizzle, sizzle, ping, ping.

 

Puzzled. “Supper?” he muttered. Then grabbing his crutches he hobbled into the kitchen as fast as his broken ankle would allow to find Daisy plastered up against the far wall, eyes wide staring at the skillet, spoon in hand like a soldier poised for the attack.

 

"What the hell!” he exclaimed as he cautiously approached the skillet and listened. “Sounds like suppers tryin' to get out?"

 

"Uh huh," she nodded, her voice a mixture of fear and disbelief all rolled into one. Then after swallowing hard she added with not a bit of humor. "I guess if I were swimming around in hot oil in my underwear I'd be trying to get out too," she commented still eyeing the skillet and listing for the next 'ping'. "Jess says when they stop jumping their done," she told him.

 

Slim his eyes as big as Daisy's pulled out a chair and fell into it. "Dear God," he exclaimed his hand to his head.

 

But to everyone's surprise (except Jess) supper went fairly well. Mr. Hollingsworth actually seemed to enjoy his frog legs. But whether it was Slim’s over active imagination or not it looked like he dished up more potatoes and peas then frogs. On the other hand Jess and Mike ate away, while Daisy and Slim nibbled. Hollingsworth didn't stay long after, just long enough to finish off a piece of Daisy's fresh homemade apple pie and a cup of coffee.  Slim figured he either enjoyed desert or wanted to wash away the frog or both before he left. At any rate, they got the loan.

 

“Kinda figure Hollingsworth  felt sorry for a family who had to go out an knock frogs in the head for a meal,” Slim told himself.

 

That night after supper while trying to sleep, Slim's mind just wouldn't leave those little frogs alone. The picture of Daisy defending herself against supper was just too much and he lay chuckling to himself.

 

Jess rolled over onto his back. It had been that way shortly after Hollingsworth left the ranch. It seemed that no matter what was, Slim found it funny, he laughed most of the night and now....

 

Exasperated Jess growled. "What are you laughin' at now?"

 

Slim laughed. "Tell me, J…Jess. Wh…when you were sit….sittin' out at the pond, did ya aim first or just sta…((laugh).. stare 'em down?" He asked and fell into fits of laughter once again.

 

“Aww go to sleep will ya,” Jess begged.

 

"Ping, Ping ," Slim said under his breath and burst into hysterical laughter once more "Ne...never knew it wa....was so hard to ki...kill a fr...frog," Slim said his arms wrapped around his chest to ward off the pain of laughter. "Ne…never thought I lived to see the day wh...when su...supper was tr...tryin' to escape!” He just couldn’t help it. The very idea of this tough gun fighter partner of his sittin’ on the edge of a pond, slingshot in hand knocking frogs in the head was just too much.

 

“Tell me Je…Jess, did you give ‘um a fair chance or did you draw first?” Then biting back laughter he did his best to sound serious. “And just how do you draw a sl…slingshot?” He asked and busted up again.

 

"Oh for Pete's sake," Jess exclaimed got up, pulled his pillow off the bed and with blanket trailing behind him headed for the door.

 

Slim gaining some control managed. “Whe…(laughing) where are you goin’?”

 

“T’ sleep on the couch. You can stay in here and ping all you want,” he snapped and with that he shut door behind him.

 

The last thing Jess remembered hearing was the sound of Slim's laughter with the occasional 'ping ping’  thrown in. He went to sleep secure in the knowledge that at last Mike would be attending the same school Andy had attended back east.

 

 

 

THE END

 

 

 

Epilog:

 

A few months later an article appeared in the Laramie paper announcing the fact that the Laramie Bank and Trust Company was closing its doors. It was found that Edward Hollingsworth, Esq. had been dipping into bank funds. He’d been caught with his hand in the till as it were,  when of all people Mort Corey had made a withdrawal and questioned his balance. When Hollingsworth couldn’t explain an investigation was launched. A week later and Hollingsworth was busted. And that was the end of the Laramie Bank and Trust Company and the end of Edward Hollingsworth, Esq. as well. Much to everyone's delight.

 

It was discovered that Hollingsworth had squirreled away most of the funds to pad his own private account in a bank in New York . Once the bank was notified of the doings of Hollingsworth and after being told that the man was under lock and key they released his funds and closed the account. Most everyone in Laramie got back a percentage of what they’d lost. Slim and Jess received about eighty percent of what had been stolen.

 

As for Mike attending school. A week before he was to leave the family sat down to consider their options. When it had been Andy’s turn to go back east he’d had Jonesy to run herd on him. But for Mike there was no Jonesy to see that he kept up with his studies and stayed safe. Finally, after much discussion a heart rending decision was made. Daisy would accompany Mike. Daisy had a close friend who lived not too far from town they could stay with her. So it was settled. Daisy contacted her friend and would leave with Mike a few days later.

 

The day Mike left was filled with mixed emotions. Though happy that Mike would get the education they wanted him to have so badly, they were gonna miss the little guy and Daisy too.  They’d miss her motherly advise, her tenderness, her cooking, most especially her apple pies. But like Slim said, ‘they’d make do.’ The important thing was that Mike was not alone. Daisy worried of course, but the two assured her that they’d be alright. After all,  ‘they’d done it before,’ Slim told her.

 

Finally, it was time to go. With hugs and kisses all around they loaded up Mike and Daisy and waved a their goodbyes. Standing together the two men watched as the stage, little Mike and their dear Daisy disappeared over the ridge. Turning back to the ranch, arms draped over each other’shoulders anticipating leather steaks and rock hard beans they entered the now empty house.

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgments: I want to thank Mary Brown for her tireless efforts in assisting me. I do appreicate her input and patience. Thank you, Mary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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