The Marshals: The Missing Scenes


by BadgerGater



Thanks to Hired Hand for the always excellent beta.

Missing scenes and epilogue that tell the rest of the story...Because there can never be too much of The Marshals. 2/4/11

Early morning, at Stillwater Crossing--

Jess Harper didn’t hear the shot that hit him, but he felt the bullet slam into his body with the force of a mule’s double-barreled kick to the chest.

The shock of it drove the air from his lungs and all but stopped his heart. In that instant, in that split second before the onrushing wave of blackness swept him away, Jess desperately tried to suck in a breath to replenish the oxygen that had been scoured from his lungs. It was like inhaling barb wire, his lungs felt on fire, and a wall of pain a mile high engulfed him.

Fortunately, there wasn’t enough time for his brain to fully register the agony his body experienced before the darkness crashed over him and he was swept into oblivion.

< --========-- >

Marshal Branch McGary sat on the riverbank cradling the wounded man, a terrible sinking feeling building in the pit of his stomach. “You hold on, Jess, hold on, you hear me?” he fiercely ordered the man he held, then turned and shouted across the river once more, “Patches, Reb, get over here! Now!”

Keeping an eye out for stragglers from the Buckner gang, Reb holstered his iron, ran for his horse, and threw himself into the saddle, spurring the animal to a gallop. He splashed across the river and stepped down, appearing suddenly by the marshal’s side, his face darkening when he got a good look at the wounded cowboy. The man was bleeding from a gunshot wound to the chest but still breathing, at least for the moment. He would be a goner pretty soon though, Reb figured, based on where the cowboy had taken that bullet. “Guess it was this poor cowboy’s unlucky day, ridin’ into our mess,” he observed candidly.

Branch threw his deputy a dark, worried look. “He’s not just some cowpuncher that stumbled into this, Reb. This is Jess Harper. He came from Laramie to warn us about the ambush; sprung their trap early an’ saved our lives.”

“Who’s Jess Harper?” the deputy wondered aloud, puzzled by his boss’ vehemence.

“One of the best men I know.”

Reb did a doubletake. That wasn’t the kind of praise his boss routinely heaped on the head of just any man. Branch was on the whole danged sparse with his approval. This fellow must be something special, except, now, of course, he didn’t seem to be anything except on the fast track to a pine box. The cowboy’s every breath rasped harshly as blood welled slowly from a deceptively small bullet hole near the buttons on the man’s deep blue shirt.

McGary was supporting Harper with one hand and with the other digging out his kerchief, futilely trying to use it to stem the flow of blood leaking slowly but steadily from the wound. The cowboy moaned, his head sliding uneasily from side to side, his eyelids fluttering to momentarily reveal eyes of a startling, vivid blue. His right hand reached weakly toward the center of his chest, as if to brush Branch’s hand away.

“Easy, Jess, take it easy. We’re gonna help ya,” the marshal promised, gripping the searching hand. “Patches, despite the odd way he talks, he’s good at tendin’ wounds. He’s fixed me up a bunch of times. You just hold on Jess; you’re gonna be fine.”

Reb was still trying to figure out who this newcomer was — the name Jess Harper meant nothing to him. “If he ain’t a cowpuncher, he ain’t a lawman, either,” he pointed at the badgeless shirt of the man dressed in what was ordinary cowboy’s garb.
“I don’t know what he’s doing for a living now days, but it don’t matter, Reb. He said Mort Cory sent him. ‘Sides, I know Jess from a few years back. He wasn’t much more than a raw kid then but already lightning fast, tough as the steaks from a ten-year-old steer, and hell on wheels in a fist fight. I tried to talk him into puttin’ on a badge an’ deputyin’ for me, but he wouldn’t. He’d sure be a good one — give you a run for your money, Reb,” Branch added pointedly. Jess moaned again, and the marshal looked over at his driver, scowling. “Patches, hurry it up!”

The Englishman had the wagon across the river now. He pulled the mules to a halt and set the brake before jumping down from the box and rummaging underneath the seat for his medical kit. Satchel in hand, Patches hurried over to the marshal and knelt beside the wounded cowboy. One look at the young man, and his dour face turned even more grim. “This does not look good, McGary. That is a very bad place for a man to take a bullet.”

McGary’s world-weary eyes looked even more worn. “I know that. Just do your best. We’ve got to save him.”

“Branch, you know I will make every attempt to help him, but I cannot promise anything,” Patches declared as he dug through his medical kit, pulling out a scalpel and a whisky bottle. He poured the liquid over the sharp blade and, unbuttoning the young man’s dark blue shirt, prepared to do what he could.

It would, as it turned out, be very little.

 

Part Two

Jess swam up out of the blackness, not far enough to emerge into the light, not far enough to be actually awake in any real sense, but just close enough to consciousness to grasp onto a dim understanding of what was happening around him. He could hear McGary’s voice, comforting and familiar, and he clung to it like a lifeline, somehow knowing he had a desperately tenuous hold not only on awareness, but on existence. Oddly, he was aware of the effort it took to breathe. He could hear his heart pounding and the blood running through his veins and feel a grittiness to each breath that was like gravel clogging his chest.

He grimaced at the sharp new pain of Patches probing at the wound, knowing that he was moaning but unable to stop himself, thankful when it stopped. Finally, he heard them talk about moving him but the words, dimly heard, didn’t register.

When they did pick him up, he was only vaguely aware that he was being moved, not understanding that they were shifting him from the riverbank into the tumbleweed wagon.

He sensed movement when the vehicle lumbered into motion, rough and jarring. That sensation was overshadowed by the constant burning ache flaring deep in his chest with every breath and by the helpless feeling of being swept along to somewhere he knew he didn’t want to go. He resisted, but he was too weak to hold out for long, and the dark soon overcame him once again.

He did remember coming around once more, in the tumbleweed wagon, alert enough to have a short but real talk with Mac’s deputy and discover they were on the way to Ironwood.

Because of him.

Risking all their lives to save his.

It only added to his distress, but there was nothing he could do before he faded out again.

The darkness wasn’t so bad, he decided as he let it wash him away. It didn’t hurt there.

All Jess would remember of the rest of that hellish journey was darkness and, with the rare scattered glimpses of the light, pain.

By the time they got to Ironwood, Jess was completely unaware. It was a good thing that he didn’t feel them move him from the wagon into the jail. They didn’t mean to be rough or hurt him, but there was only the two of them to awkwardly shift him from the wagon and carry him inside Patches fussing at them as he walked alongside.

The Englishman fixed Jess a cot in the office. Once there, the rare times the wounded man woke briefly he was disoriented and feverish, his strength fading with every passing hour. He was never aware long enough to truly get his bearings; the challenge of drawing each breath against the overwhelming power of the pain quickly exhausted him and he sank back down into the darkness.

He drifted, in and out, sometimes hearing snatches of their conversations, dimly as from a far distance but enough that eventually their words combined with the signals his body was sending him were enough for him to know that he was dying. He was fighting with every bit of determination that he could muster but even as he struggled, he understood that it was a losing battle, like a man sinking slowly and inexorably down into quicksand. Without intervention, without the help of the doctor, the grim fact was that he would die.

And Jess knew it.

He tried to make Branch understand, make his old friend see that his life wasn’t worth setting a killer free. And there was something else he wanted to tell McGary, but long before he was able to say the words, the pain won out again and he feel back into the darkness.

<--========-->

 

Patches did his best to comfort the young man, not that there was much he actually could do to help him. Wiping Jess’ face with a cool cloth, offering him sips of water to ease his dry throat, uttering soothing words when the pain seemed at its worst, simply being there so that the young man knew he wasn’t alone — it was all the Englishman could offer McGary’s friend. He hoped it did matter, at least in some small way.

His actions did seem to be helping — Jess appeared to listen and respond, quieting when someone was at his bedside, seeming more agitated when he was left alone. The cowboy didn’t complain, ever, though the Englishman could see that the young man was in great pain. Only occasionally he asked for water, and Patches helped him sip a mouthful or two each time, but mostly the wounded man dozed. The Englishman was a gentle soul, thankful for the periods when Jess fell into unconsciousness because then he didn’t have to watch the young man suffer.

He only hoped they could find the doctor in time.

When the shooting started outside, near five o’clock, Jess’ reaction stunned the Englishman. The wounded man reared up in his bed, like a warhorse answering the call of the bugle. He struggled to sit up, to get up, and Patches could barely hold him down, barely get him settled back on the bed.

And the effort had cost the man dearly, Patches could see that. When Jess finally fell back, his breathing took on a whole new, labored edge. Patches took a moment for a quick look out into the street -- the townspeople had come through to help the marshals, had stood up to the outlaws who were now being held at gunpoint.

Maybe now the doctor would come at last.

Maybe Jess would have a chance.

But Patches feared it was already too late.

 

<--========--> Later that day, in the Town of Ironwood,

Freed at last by Reb, Doctor Beaumont hurried across the street and over to the jail. He didn’t have to waste any time searching for his patient. The wounded young man lay motionless on a cot in the sheriff’s office, his skin pale, almost translucent except for the dark circles under his eyes and the bright fever spots on his cheeks. Every breath was an intense, draining effort, rough and harsh, the pain showing in the tight lines around the man’s eyes and furrowing his forehead. A bloodied bandage covered the center of his chest, and his face was slick with sweat. Even at first glance, the man looked weak and feverish and very, very sick.

He might already be too far gone to save, the doctor worried.

“The bullet is still in there,” the Englishman who had introduced himself as Patches told the physician as he gently wiped the young man’s face with a damp cloth. “I would have attempted to remove it, but it was simply too close to his heart for me to continue probing for it,” he explained.

The doctor nodded as he examined the patient. “It’s a good thing you didn’t keep trying. That bullet is in a dangerous location, very near his heart. Even I can’t be sure of successfully removing it,” the physician admitted.

He had just completed his examination of the wounded man when the door opened and the marshal hurried in, his expression tight with worry.

“Doc? How is he?” McGary asked, looking down at Jess. “Can you get that slug out?”

The physician nodded. “I can take the bullet out, marshal, certainly, though there’s a very real risk that I might kill him during the attempt.

“And if you don’t try?” Patches asked.

“He’ll be dead before the day is out,” Beaumont answered without hesitation.

“Then there’s no question about what to do,” McGary insisted.

“None,” Beaumont agreed. “But I must tell you, marshal, even if the surgery doesn’t kill him outright, I don’t know whether getting that slug out will save him or not. He’d have had a lot better chance even a few hours ago, before he’d lost so much blood and his fever went up.”

“We tried our best….”

The doctor waved an understanding hand at McGary. “I know, marshal. I’m not blaming you. You saved me from those men and I appreciate that. I’m just giving you the facts as I see them.”

McGary nodded.

“As weak and feverish as this man is now, I’m simply warning you that I can’t say what the outcome of surgery will be, marshal,” the doctor went on. “That’s up to the Almighty, and to him,” he nodded down at the young man.

Branch aimed a steely glare at the physician. “You do your best, Doc; just give him a fair chance. I know Jess and he’s as ornery as a mule and as tough as rawhide. As long as he’s got the strength to draw a breath, he’ll never quit. He’s come this far hangin’ on by the skin of his teeth, I know he can make it all the way.”

The medical man nodded. “Okay, let’s get to it then. I’ll need your man here to help.”

McGary looked over at Patches. “Do everything you can,” he ordered.

“You know I will,” the driver replied. He was very well aware that he and the marshals owed their very lives to the warning this young man had given them. McGary’s respect for Harper was clearly evident, and Patches knew that any man the marshal held in such high esteem had won it only one way, by earning it.

Not to mention the fact that he’d sat with Harper through most of this long day and he’d seen first hand what a fighter the man was. Too, he’d overheard the cowboy’s selfless requests to McGary, about not trading Buckner for the doctor. He didn’t know Jess Harper, but Patches was sure he’d be a man all of them would like once they did.

If he lived long enough to give them the chance.

As Patches and the doctor prepared to do what they could, the marshal walked over to stand beside the cot. Looking down at the young man, he spoke with an optimism he didn’t feel. “The doc’s here now, Jess. He’s gonna get that bullet out.”

“Mac.” Jess’ voice was so low and weak Branch could barely make out the words.

“Yes, Jess, I’m here.” The marshal sat in the chair beside the bed and grasped Jess’ hand, the wounded man’s grip feeling alarmingly weak. “No need for you to be talkin’ now; you save your strength. The doc here is gonna fix you up just fine.”

The blue eyes suddenly opened wide, feverish and far too bright, the dark-haired head lifting from the pillow with strength that surprised the marshal. “Doc? No! You didn’t! No!” Jess said forcefully. “You didn’t… you didn’t trade…” and then the effort was too much for him and he grimaced, gasping in pain and falling back onto the bed, his breathing harsh and labored, all his strength spent.

“Easy, Jess, easy,” McGary soothed. “We didn’t do what you’re thinkin’, boy. We’ve still got Vern Buckner back there in his cell, and we’ve got hold of his brother and the others now, too. Their outlawin’ days are done.”

That answer seemed to ease the wounded man, a shadow of a smile twitching across his lips. Jess sighed softly and his eyes closed. “Good. I ain’t worth…” each word that followed was an effort “a killer… goin’… free.”

Mac shook his head in disagreement. “Tradin’ a good man’s life for the right to hang Vern Buckner would a’been a bad bargain, Jess. You’re worth a hundred of his kind.”

Another weak smile crossed Jess’ lips. “Ain’t so,” he whispered.

“It is so, but it don’t matter none now anyway,” McGary insisted. “It didn’t happen, so there’s no need for you t’be worryin’ ‘bout it. This fracas is all over. Vern Buckner is still on his way to the gallows, and the rest of that bunch is gonna be behind bars for a long, long time. Because of you, my friend.”

Branch thought Jess nodded but the movement was so slight, it was hard to be certain.

“Jess, I gotta go now and take care of those men. I’ll be back after the doc’s done, and we’ll talk more then — you can tell me all ‘bout what you’ve been doing these last few years, huh?” Branch added, smiling and keeping his voice positive. “Knowin’ you, you’ve got some wild and woolly stories to tell.”

Jess’ too-bright eyes fixed on McGary’s face. “Wait… Mac… I need….” He paused, gasping for air, struggling to say more.

“What do you need? Name it, Jess.”

“Promise… Promise me....” The soft voice stopped as Jess grimaced, fighting to draw enough breath to talk.

McGary waited patiently, giving the wounded man the time he needed to gather his strength to tell him more. “Promise what, Jess?” Branch prompted gently, bending close to catch the fading whisper.

“Promise… you’ll… tell ‘em.... ”

“Tell who?”

“The … folks … back … home … at … the … ranch.”

“Tell your folks at the ranch?” McGary was baffled now, but he wasn’t sure how much longer Jess would be able to talk, and this seemed so important to his friend. Whoever these people were, wherever they were, Mac silently vowed to find them. “The folks at the ranch, Jess, I should tell them what?”

“Tell ‘em… I want… ‘em… t’know… these were… th’ best… best years... of m’life.” He was smiling faintly.

“You’ll be tellin’ ‘em yourself, Jess, sooner’n you think.”

Agonized blue eyes opened wide, briefly, this one word uttered more strongly than all the others, the hand gripping his with a sudden surge of surprising strength. “Promise.”

“Easy, Jess, easy. Of course you have my word,” McGary vowed. “I’ll make sure they know, but only until you can tell ‘em yourself, my friend.”

Jess’ eyes closed, the last of his energy seemingly drained from him with this task completed. “They… they... should know… I been… thinkin’… a’them.”

“I’ll be sure they know, Jess, don’t you worry,” the marshal promised. “I’ll see they get the word.”

McGary was sure of the nod this time, and then Jess’ eyes fell closed, his face relaxing as he let go of consciousness, his hand sliding out of the marshal’s grasp.

“He has family?” a surprised Patches, who had been standing nearby, asked.

Branch shook his head as he rose to his feet. “Not that I know of. His folks were killed when he was just a kid, though I remember he said somethin’ about havin’ a sister.” Branch sighed. “I imagine Laramie’s sheriff, Mort Cory, will know who his people are. You know, seeing how Jess is dressed, and the way his horse is geared up, it sure looks like he’s been doin’ cowhand work. Maybe he’s got good friends on a ranch somewhere around Laramie, or a girl, maybe even got him a wife, though that’s not likely, not unless he’s changed a whole heck of a lot since I seen him last.” McGary shook his head. “Hopefully, Jess’ll be able to take care of this himself, and I won’t need to worry about it.”

“Don’t be too sure of that, Branch,” Patches warned. “The doctor is not optimistic about his chances for survival.”

McGary fixed the Englishman with a determined glare. “That doc don’t know Jess Harper.”

<--========-->

 

Two hours later, Branch stepped up on the boardwalk and paused outside the door to the sheriff’s office, hand on the doorknob, unsure of what he’d find inside and unwilling to come face to face with the bad news he feared. If Jess had died, giving his life to save him and his deputies -- the lawman didn’t want to contemplate that possibility. Finally, taking a deep breath, he resolutely pushed the door open and stepped inside.

One look around the room and Branch sagged with relief. Jess was still alive. At the sight of his friend lying on the cot, McGary let out a breath that he didn’t know he’d been holding. Jess’ eyes were closed in a face as pale as the sheets he rested on, but his freshly re-bandaged chest was rising and falling gently in a reassuringly steady rhythm. A bit of the knot in Branch’s stomach unwound.

The doctor was standing on the far side of the room. He’d placed a basin of water on the desk and was washing his hands. The liquid, McGary noted, was a deep pink.

“Doc? How’s he doin’?” the marshal asked.

“The bullet’s out. He’s still alive though I’m not sure how, and I can’t guarantee for how long,” Beaumont answered honestly as he dried his hands, looking over at his patient with a worried frown, “But you were right, marshal. He is tough, and he’s young and healthy, so he’s got a chance, a better chance than I’d have given him even an hour ago.”

Branch sighed with relief. “Good. He’ll make it then.”

“Don’t be getting too optimistic yet, marshal. He has a long road ahead,” the physician warned, then offered, “but if he’s still alive in the morning, we can move him down to my office. That’ll be a better place for a recovering man.”

 

Part Three—Four Days Later

Jess opened his eyes to discover that he didn’t know where he was, and he didn’t recognize the man who was bending over him, talking earnestly.

Last thing Jess remembered, he’d been on a cot in the jail with McGary telling him that the Doc was going to dig the bullet out of him. Then the curtain of black had descended on him again, and he was aware of nothing, until just now.

Waking up was an unexpected surprise, at least, waking up and finding that he was still among the living. He knew he’d survived because this place he was in, wherever it was, was far too nice to be hell, and far too painful to be heaven. Every breath still hurt, but not in the way it had before, not like breathing in broken glass, not where each inhalation was a Herculean effort to pull himself up out of the pit into which death was plainly bent on dragging him. Breathing was no longer a battle between the need to live and finding some way to endure the pain. Yes, he still hurt, but it wasn’t that intense now, not as bad as it had been, not pain so fierce and bright that it blinded him to the outside world. Now it was a duller but seemingly endless part of his existence, like a fire burning deep inside him, embers flaring anew with every breath but thankfully no longer that raging inferno about to consume him.

“Hello, Mr. Harper.”

The voice dragged his attention back to the world, and Jess turned his head to look up at the man, blinking as he tried to focus on the face hovering above him.

“Drink this,” the man held a glass to his lips and Jess sipped gratefully, the liquid easing the painfully dry feel of his throat. “Better?”

“Yeah,” he muttered hoarsely.

“Do you remember me?”

Jess shook his head, the slight movement requiring a surprising amount of energy.

“I’m Doctor Beaumont.”

“Doc?” he rasped, his voice feeling rough and rusty, like he hadn’t used it in a very long time.

“Patches and I have been taking care of you for the last four days, Mister Harper. You’ve been awake a couple of times today. We’ve spoken, but I’m not surprised you don’t remember me, considering the amount of laudanum I’ve been giving you.”

“Laud’num?” His brain was still fuzzy, the connection between it and his body still shaky.

“Yes. That’s a nasty wound, and you were in a good deal of pain. How is it now?”

“Better,” he answered honestly, though it still hurt, as bad as any pain he could remember.

The doctor laid a hand on his forehead and nodded, smiling. “Your fever broke last night and hasn’t recurred. I think you just might make it, young man.”

Jess smiled feebly. “Good.”

“It’s more than good, Mister Harper. It’s quite amazing. When I dug that bullet out of you, I wouldn’t have given a Confederate dollar for your chances of surviving.”

“Me, neither,” Jess admitted with a faint smile. “Where’s McGary?”

“The marshal and his men left early this morning to take their prisoners on to Cheyenne. Having the whole Buckner gang in that jail was straining the resources of the town. They said I should tell you that they’d be back through this way on their next trip. And McGary said not to worry; he sent a telegram to Sheriff Cory in Laramie, so your friends know that you’re here.”

<--========-->

McGary had struggled over the wording of the telegram, needing to keep it short while telling Mort Cory about the fate of his friend as well as what had happened to the outlaw gang. He scribbled down the words, crossed out and changed several of them, added some and removed others, and finally settled on the simple message: “Your warning received. Clint Buckner dead, gang captured. Vern Buckner still in custody. Wounded Harper staying in Ironwood.”

Unfortunately, the telegrapher, weary at the end of a long day, puzzling over the marshal’s less than stellar handwriting, inadvertently misplaced the period/stop. The message Mort received read: “Your warning received. Stop. Clint Buckner dead, gang captured. Stop. Vern Buckner still in custody, wounded. Stop. Harper staying in Ironwood.”

Mort, relieved to get word on Jess’ whereabouts, relayed the message to Slim Sherman, and no one in Laramie wondered, or worried, about his extended absence.

<--========-->

It was far from the first time Jess had been shot — he had plenty of scars to prove that — but he readily admitted to himself that this time was the worst. Taking a bullet in the arm or a slug in the leg, at least you could keep still and rest the limb, give the damaged part of your body a chance to heal. But hit in the chest, there was no break from the pain. He had to breathe, and breathing hurt, and there was no way to ease it without the Doc’s laudanum.

He didn’t like taking the drug; he didn’t like the way it made him feel heavy-bodied and thick-headed. He stubbornly tried to do without it, but the steady, droning ache prevented him from getting the rest he needed to heal. In the end he let the doctor convince him to take another dose, and, as the pain receded to a bearable level, he knew it was the far better choice.

The next few days drifted by uneventfully for Jess, time he spent mostly unaware of the passing hours. He did nothing more than sleep, a deep healing slumber until the last dose of laudanum wore off and the nagging pain woke him to take another dose and then sleep more.

But time and sleep heal and each day he grew stronger and began to think more eagerly, and determinedly, of home.

 

A week later

The doctor and his patient were glaring at each other across the room like warriors preparing to do battle. “You are *not* ready to travel, Mister Harper.” The man was incredibly lucky to be alive, or more likely, just too danged ornery to die, Beaumont thought.

“I know how I feel. And I feel ready,” Jess insisted.

The doctor shook his head. Considering Harper had been shot in the chest, a wound generally considered fatal, how long he’d had to wait for treatment, and the fever that had consumed him for days thereafter, by all rights the young man should have died. “It’s hardly been two weeks since you were shot, Harper. You have no business being up and about, much less bouncing across the countryside in a tumbleweed wagon.”

“I’m goin’,” Jess insisted. He had been getting out of bed for the past several days, even if only to take three steps across the room and sit for an hour or two in the chair, and half that time asleep.

Beaumont focused his scowl at his patient. The man did have a bit of color back in his cheeks, but he was still pale and weak, sleeping 18 hours out of the day and barely strong enough to walk across the room and back without assistance. A half dozen deadly complications could easily arise in his weakened condition, even without making such an ill-conceived journey. “There’s no need to rush. Laramie will still be there in a couple of weeks.”

“A couple of weeks?” Harper protested, biting back a grimace. “Doc, I need to get home.”

“In a pine box?” the doctor countered, and Jess subsided.

For a few more days.

Five days later the return of Marshal McGary and his men provided Jess with his opportunity to again press his case, and this time, he refused to give in. The young cowboy was adamant that he was going home. When the Doc wouldn’t give his medical approval for him to travel, Jess determined to leave anyway.

“I cannot be responsible for your health if you defy my advice, Mister Harper.”

“I’ll be responsible for myself then. I’m a grown man.”

“You aren’t acting like one.”

Jess glared.

The doctor sighed and, reluctantly, relented. “Okay, okay, you win. Go. But don’t try to say that I didn’t warn you.”

Giving up on trying to change the mind of his stubborn patient, Beaumont decided to try a new tack to thwart what he considered was Harper’s bad idea. He went in search of McGary, who he knew had arrived back in town just that morning, hoping that once he explained the situation, the marshal would see reason and refuse to take Harper with him. It took him only a few minutes to find the lawman having dinner at a back table in the saloon. Pulling up a chair and declining McGary’s offer to join him, the physician quickly updated the marshal on his patient’s condition, and his intentions. “It’s near a miracle that your friend is still alive, marshal. Harper should be in bed for at least another week, and even then, traveling that far would be a serious risk,” Beaumont explained.

“And what does Jess think, Doc?” Branch asked bluntly around a mouthful of fried potatoes.

“He thinks he can do any damn thing he wants,” the doc snapped.

McGary laughed. “That’s Jess. He told me, first thing when he saw me this morning, that he’d be ready to go with us tomorrow.”

The doctor shook his head. “I told him not to, but he insists.” The doc glanced hopefully at McGary. “You could tell him no.”

The marshal smiled knowingly, well aware of Jess’ stubborn streak. “A man has the right to make his own decisions, Doc, even bad ones.” McGary scraped his plate clean and picked up his nearly empty coffee cup. “If we don’t take him, he’ll probably try to ride his horse back to Laramie.”

The physician grimaced. “His leaving is entirely against my better judgment, but, short of tying him to that bed, I don’t think I can keep him here,” Beaumont admitted. “And to be honest, I think his fretting over going home may just be more harmful than the trip. Or so I hope.” The doctor looked out into the street at the tumbleweed wagon with a deep frown of concern. “I can’t imagine that thing gives a smooth ride.”

“No, it’s not designed for comfort, but we’ll make him a bed in the wagon, pad it up good with extra blankets and pillows, even borrow a couple of the mattresses from the jail,” McGary offered. “We’ll take it slow and easy, and stay on the main road. Laramie *is* right on our route, so it won’t take us all that long to get there. We’ll look out for him, Doc, I promise. He saved our hides — we owe him our lives and we all know it. He wouldn’t get better care from his own ma than he’ll get from us.”

Beaumont shook his head, unhappily conceding defeat.

 

Part Four

It turned out to be a long and unpleasant ride.

The doctor, grumbling and still trying to change Jess’ mind, nevertheless helped him get dressed and slip his left arm snugly into a sling. Once Patches and Mac arrived, together they walked beside him as he hobbled slowly outside. His knees felt weak and his legs were so wobbly he was afraid they’d dump him to the ground right there in the middle of the street, but Jess was so determined to get started for home that he’d have crawled out of the doc’s office and into the wagon, if that was what it took.

“We added some extra padding to make your ride more comfortable,” Patches explained as Jess eased down onto the wagon bench which was cushioned by a thick pile of blankets. “Not the kind of thing we usually do for our passengers. Comfort is not usually part of our job.”

Jess bit back a groan, determined not to let the least sign of pain show because then they might change their minds and make him stay behind. “Thanks,” he muttered through gritted teeth as he shifted, trying to settle into a comfortable position and finding it impossible.

Patches nodded smartly. “And you don’t have to pretend it doesn’t hurt, you know,” he said smugly, tucking a blanket around the young man.

Jess ducked his head and let a grin tug at his mouth. “I was hopin’ you wouldn’t notice.”

Patches huffed. “I don’t need to see it to know it. And not seeing it doesn’t mean I don’t know it, either, young man.”

Jess tried to puzzle out what the Englishman meant, but after a moment gave up trying.

“Anyway, Reb or Mac will ride with you, just to be sure you’re doing all right. We don’t want to be taking you back to Ironwood.”

“Yeah, one visit there was one visit too many.”

Patches smiled. “On that, Jess, I do sincerely agree.”

Patches climbed out of the wagon and Branch climbed in and then Jess heard the Englishman harrup the mules. With a creak and a rattle, the tumbleweed wagon lurched into motion.

Jess had known the ride wouldn’t be pleasant, but it turned out to be worse than he’d thought it would be. Every bump, every rut, every rock caused the wagon to jolt and sway and threatened his fragile control of the steady ache that lived in his chest. He closed his eyes and tried to ride with the motion, find a rhythm like you needed when riding a rough-gaited horse, but he couldn’t. He shifted a bit, realigning himself on the narrow bench.

“You okay, Jess?” Branch asked.

Jess opened his eyes and looked up at his friend, determined to sound better than he felt. “I’m goin’ home, Mac. I couldn’t be better.”

He felt McGary’s hand on his shoulder, not sure if it was there to steady him against the wagon’s lurch and roll, or just for reassurance. He appreciated both, actually.

“We’ll get you there, Jess, I promise.”

They made slow progress. Patches insisted on stopping every two hours, claiming the mules needed a rest and the others, including a grateful Jess, all pretended to believe him. During the stops, Jess caught brief naps that helped maintain his strength. But even then, by nightfall he was totally exhausted, his body aching and overwhelmed by the effort it took just to breathe. He did remember Patches cooking supper, handing him a plate and telling him to eat it, but he’d been too tired to manage more than a bite or two, dozing off in front of the fire and not waking until Branch shook his shoulder the next morning.

<--========-->

In the late afternoon of the next day, Marshal McGary watched the reunion with delight and what he later recognized was a touch of envy.

They’d found the Sherman Ranch with no trouble. The lawman had fun hoorawing Jess’ friends about the dangerous man in the wagon, but it did his heart good to see the joy with which they greeted the young man. As a lawman, day after day he saw the underbelly of the world, all its ugliness and cruelty, the evil that men were capable of doing. It made a moment this good special; the kind of scene he’d stow away in his memory and recall for a very long time. It did a lot, he realized later, to restore his weary soul.

As Jess climbed carefully down out of the wagon, Branch first saw his friend’s hesitant expression, then Jess’ face broke into a brilliant smile of a kind he’d never before seen on the young man’s face. The reunion seemed to energize the wounded man. Branch watched him wrap his one good arm around the teary-eyed woman, hugging her tightly before slapping the shoulder of the beaming tall rancher, and finally ruffling the hair of the excited little boy. This was a Jess he’d never seen before, a man who belonged, a man fortunate enough to have found his place in the world and know it was home.

Jess really did have a family, and it warmed the lawman’s heart to see them all cluster around him, welcoming him home like the good book’s prodigal son. The marshal wasn’t a sentimental man, but this was a homecoming that suddenly made him long for a place like this, a home where he would belong as Jess so completely belonged here.

In the midst of the welcome, Jess turned to look over at him, his blue eyes bright in the pale, exhausted face, lit by a joy that spoke more loudly than shouted words. It was odd, Branch thought, that a face could show such conflicting emotions all mixed together -- weariness, joy, pain, and relief -- but in that moment, Jess’ did.

<--========-->

That night, after an exhausted Jess was tucked into bed and sound asleep, Branch told Slim and Daisy what had happened. He didn’t pull any punches, he told it all, about how Jess had saved them; how he’d been shot; how they’d been unable to remove the bullet; how they’d realized he would never reach Laramie alive and detoured to Ironwood to get him to a doctor. He told them how hard Jess had fought to survive and how close he’d come to dying. They were good people who obviously cared about the young man, and they deserved to know about Jess’ courage and determination.

There were only two things the marshal didn’t tell them. The first was how much pain Jess had been in. Jess’ friends didn’t need to hear about that, though he had an inkling both of them had a pretty good idea. And second, he didn’t tell them what Jess had made him promise. He didn’t think that it would be right now to reveal the personal things the man had told him when he’d thought he was dying. He’d survived, and Branch figured it was best to leave it up to Jess to speak his piece for himself.

Or, if he chose, not.

<--========-->

Early the next morning, the marshals and the tumbleweed wagon were ready to pull out.

“Thanks again for bringin’ Jess home,” the tall rancher earnestly told the marshal for about the tenth time.

Patches was already up on the driver’s seat, and Reb was mounted up on his horse, holding the reins of the marshal’s mount. Mike was kneeling by the hitching rail, showering good-bye pats on the big dog.

The marshal looked around at the quiet scene, so peacefully unlike the life he led. “Like I said, it’s us that owes him thanks, Slim,” Branch smiled at the rancher. “We’d have ridden smack dab into that ambush if not for Jess. He did a very brave, and a very foolish, thing, showing up at the crossing.”

Slim nodded, grinning. “That’s him all right.”

McGary’s expression suddenly turned serious. “You will look out for him? The Doc said he’s got to take it mighty easy for a while yet. He’s tryin’ real hard to act strong, but he’s a long ways from bein’ healed up.”

“Don’t you worry. Daisy will crack the whip over him and make sure he follows the doc’s orders,” Slim smiled over at the housekeeper.

“I’ll tie him down to that bed if I have to,” Daisy promised.

McGary looked at them, at their expressions that combined worry and relief and above all, a great affection for the young cowboy. Suddenly, he understood what Jess had been telling him that day before the surgery to remove the bullet. He’d made the man a promise then, but Jess had survived, and he’d not felt it was right to reveal a dying man’s thoughts. But suddenly now it seemed not only the right thing to do, but something he had to do. These people, this family Jess had chosen and who in turn had so obviously chosen him as well, deserved to know.

Mind made up, McGary spoke quickly. “I maybe shouldn’t be telling you this now. Jess thought he was dying at the time he told me.” The marshal saw the tall rancher flinch and Daisy’s gentle eyes well up with tears, yet he went on. “But I think you ought to know. He didn’t want me to trade Buckner for the doctor. Said I would be wastin’ his sacrifice,” McGary shook his head. “I couldn’t shake him on that fool idea. Me, I know he’s worth a hundred outlaws like the Buckners, and it still would have been a bargain.” Branch stopped as Sherman nodded. The lawman pulled his thoughts together and forged on. “That day, when he was thinkin’ he wasn’t goin’ to make it, Jess made me promise him something, that I would take a message to the people back at the ranch -- he talked about havin’ family here, and a home.” Mac raised his eyes to look into the face of the tall rancher who was blinking furiously. “He wanted me to tell you that these have been the best years of his life.”

He heard what was half gasp, half sob from the housekeeper.

“He’s made them pretty good years for the rest of us, too,” she added softly.

“Yeah,” Sherman’s voice sounded choked as the tall rancher took a step toward Daisy, putting one arm around her shoulder to comfort her.

“We think a lot of him,” she added.

“So do we.” McGary suddenly found it difficult to say anything past the lump filling his own throat.

“Well, we’ve got to get on to our next stop, but if it’s okay with you folks, we’ll stop back next time we come through this way, see how Jess is comin’ along.”

“Of course. You’re always welcome here, any time, all of you.” Sherman reached out a hand to shake the marshal’s proffered one. “I know I’ve already said it more’n once, but it’s true. We can’t thank you enough, marshal.”

Branch smiled. “Just take good care of him, Mr. Sherman, Mrs. Cooper. Jess is a good man.”

“We know,” Sherman nodded.

“We will,” she promised.

McGary turned to leave, then paused at the edge of the porch, hat in hand, looking back at them. “You know, I tried to lure him away from here, hire him on as a marshal, because he’s the kind of man I’d want guardin’ my back. He said he appreciated the offer, and that there’d have been a time he might have taken me up on it, but that now his family came first.” Mac shook his head in disbelief. “I never thought anyplace or anyone could tie that fiddlefoot down.”

“It hasn’t been easy, marshal,” Slim noted with a chuckle. “But don’t ever doubt that we appreciate him.”

“I can see that you do. Take care of him.”

“That’s never easy,” Slim admitted.

“I don’t imagine so.” McGary smiled, touched the brim of his hat to Daisy and headed for his horse.
Slim and Daisy stood side by side, waving and watching the tumbleweed wagon as it rattled out of the yard and up the hill.

”You know, Jess has more friends than just about anyone I know,” Slim mused. “Most of ‘em are trouble, but on occasion, he finds a good one, like Marshal McGary.”

“And like you,” Daisy smiled.

 

Part Five

Jess’ recovery was slow but steady, although the two-day trip home from Ironwood had exhausted him despite the frequent stops and the layers of extra blankets and pillows they’d used to cushion his ride. The trip had used up what little strength he’d managed to hoard during his days of recuperating in Ironwood and set his recovery back while his body slowly healed.

For the first few days that he was home, Jess did little but sleep, rouse long enough to eat, and then doze off again. But each nap got a bit shorter, each awake period a bit longer and soon, he began to feel a familiar restlessness. So it was no surprise to Daisy Cooper that after only a few days, her patient rebelled at his confinement.

“Daisy, I need to get out of this dad-blamed bed,” Jess announced on just his fourth morning back at home.

“You are not ready,” she insisted. “The doctor said you needed at least a week of bed rest.”

“Rest,” he complained. “How’s a man supposed to get stronger lyin’ around like some lazy old tom cat? My muscles are all goin’ to turn to mush.”

“A few more days…. ”

“A few more days and I’ll be plumb loco, Daisy!”

She frowned at his impatience. “Jess, you need time to heal. You nearly died.”

“But I didn’t.” Determined, he sat up and threw off the covers, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He swayed and gasped, his right hand flying to the center of his chest. “Agghhh.”

“Jess!” Daisy was quickly right there at his side.
”I’m fine,” he snapped. “It just hurts…,” he had to pause for breath, “…when I move too fast.” He was still wrestling with his lungs to get his breathing to even out to something close to normal.

She glared sternly at him. “And what does that tell you, young man?”

“It tells me that I need to get up!”

“Jess!”

“Daisy, please,” his tone switched from angry bluster to abject pleading. “I need some fresh air and blue sky.”

“You’ve got both right there,” she pointed across the room to the open window.

“It ain’t the same and you know it,” he protested. “Please, Daisy. I need to get out of here.”

The forlorn look on his face and the fact that he was pleading got to her. “How about I have Slim take the rocking chair out to the porch, and you can sit in the sun for a bit?”

He nodded with relief.

She smiled smugly. “Right after dinner.”

“Daisy!” he protested.

“Slim rode out half an hour ago. When he gets back, he’ll help you outside.”

“I can get there by myself.”

“Like that?” she threw him a pointed look.

He looked down, realizing he was clad only in his red-faded-to-pink longjohns. “I just might!” he threatened, contradicting himself by hastily pulling the blankets up to cover himself.

Daisy knew he was bluffing, but she could also see that he was boiling over with frustration and that wouldn’t do a thing to help his recovery. His distress was clearly visible, physical as much as emotional. He was taking hard, sharp breaths, and his hand kept fluttering back to the center of his chest, a movement she was sure he wasn’t aware of and one that indicated the pain still centered there. It showed, too, in the hard line of his jaw, the tight lines around his mouth, and the deep creases furrowing his forehead. “Jess, please!”

“Daisy, so help me….”

Losing her composure, she glared at him. “Jess Harper, you are the most stubborn, irresponsible man I know!”

“Good!” He snapped back at her.

They glared at each other, neither one giving an inch, and then finally she spoke, her voice soft. “I’ll get your breakfast for you.”

“Fine,” he snapped, knowing he was being churlish and unfair to her but totally unable to stop himself.

<--========-->

“How’s our patient?” Slim asked, having come quietly in the kitchen door to find Daisy standing in front of the stove, making the noon meal.

“Impatient,” she answered with a weary smile. “He’s been sleeping, but he wants to sit outside for a while this afternoon.”

“Is he ready to be up?”

“I think it will do him good to move about a bit, actually. As long as he doesn’t overdo it.”

“And it’ll get him out from underfoot for a while?” Slim suggested.

She nodded. “That too. He’ll need your help, though.”

Slim plucked a biscuit off the pan beside the stove, Daisy slapping playfully at his hand, and headed for the bedroom, wolfing it down as he walked.

Jess was sleeping when Slim opened the door, but the deep blue eyes popped open as Slim stepped into the room. “You plannin’ to sleep all day, pard?”

“Ain’t nothin’ else to do in here,” Jess groused.

Slim ignored his complaint. “Daisy says you want to sit outside for a while.”

Jess brightened. “She’s kept me locked up in here too long already. Man can’t hardly breathe, stuck inside.”

“The doc said not to overdo,” Slim reminded him. “You do need to take it easy for a few more days yet.”

“I know what I need.”

“And I need you not to overdo it, or I won’t get any work out of you until next summer,” the tall man countered.

Slim helped him get dressed, neither one saying anything, Slim waiting patiently while Jess moved slow and careful, but when he finally stood and took a step, his knees wobbled alarmingly.

Slim grabbed hold of his elbow to steady his swaying pard. “Want me to carry you out there?” Slim offered.

“No,” Jess snapped. “I ain’t no invalid.”

“Schuuure.”

“Just need to get my feet under me.”

“Right, tough guy,” Slim’s chuckle didn’t hide his worry.

Jess threw him a glare but the tall rancher held his ground, keeping a firm grip on the shorter man’s right arm. “You fall on your face and Daisy will blame me, so just quit your gripin’ and let me help.”

Jess glowered but gave in, leaning against Slim’s steadying arm around his back.

Together, Daisy hovering on their heels, they shuffled out of the bedroom, through the front door and then the three steps across the porch until Jess could sink gratefully down in the rocking chair that Slim had brought outside for him.

Jess bit back a groan as he lowered himself onto the seat, his left arm tucked protectively tight against his chest.

“How’s that?” Slim asked, his eyes filled with concern. Maybe this had been a bad idea, he worried, too much too soon for a man just started on the road to recovery. Jess’ face looked awfully white, and he couldn’t miss the odd hitch in the man’s breathing.

Jess sucked in a tentative breath, testing that he could handle the pain level, and finding it bearable, nodded. “Fine, pard,” he fibbed. He’d have lied to the preacher for a chance to get out of his bed and enjoy the view of a wider horizon.

Slim looked skeptical but stepped back. He brought another chair outside and set it near Jess’, the two of them eating lunch side by side with Mike sitting at their feet. Slim updated his pard on range conditions, a pending cattle sale, and news from the stageline. He didn’t have much time to talk, though; there was a stack of work waiting for him, what with Jess laid up and looking to be so for a good while longer. Still, seeing Jess up and outside had bolstered Slim’s spirits as much as it had raised Jess’. The rancher’s meal finished, Slim gave his plate to Mike, stood and stretched, then leaned over to ask, “Got everything you need, Jess?”

“More’n I need, Slim,” Jess answered softly.

Slim touched his shoulder. “Well, don’t go ridin’ the rough string this afternoon, eh? Leave them be for a bit longer.”

Jess nodded. Slim squeezed Jess’ shoulder then hurried over to his horse, mounted up and rode out, waving as he loped Alamo out of the ranch yard.

Daisy watched closely while Jess finished his food, or at least most of it, not criticizing that he didn’t eat it all.

“Thanks, Daisy,” Jess told her genuinely, smiling for the first time in what seemed like a very long time. “You know, food like this could call a man back from the pearly gates.”

Relieved, she patted his shoulder, laughter in her voice, forgiving him for their earlier quarrel. “You are a rascal, Jess Harper, but my favorite rascal.”

His smile widened and he squeezed her hand.

The sun felt heavenly on his face and he closed his eyes, savoring the warmth and strength of it. It was as if he could feel the power of its rays soaking into his flesh and bones; he could feel his body healing already.

Daisy took his plate into the house, and by the time she returned to the porch with a blanket and a fresh glass of water for him, his face was already relaxed into sleep. Carefully, she spread the blanket across his lap, set the water on the small table nearby, and tiptoed quietly away, letting him rest.

 

Part Six

That evening after Jess was in bed Daisy sat alone at the kitchen table. Slim brought her a cup of coffee and set it down in front of her. She looked gratefully up at him, thanking him silently with a weary smile.

“How are you doing?” he asked her gently, noting how worn out she looked as he threw one long leg over the chair’s seat and sat down across from her.

“Me? I’m fine,” she patted her hair back into place.

Slim raised an eyebrow. “You look tired.”

“That’s a delightful way to compliment a lady, young man,” she retorted, sipping daintily at her coffee before setting the cup back down on the saucer.

“It’s the truth,” he explained gently. “Look, Daisy, I know how hard this has been on you.”

“It’s been hard on all of us,” she corrected.

“Yes, but most of the burden has fallen on you, takin’ care of Jess on top of all the other work you do.” He nodded toward the bedroom. “And I know how difficult he can be. He’s givin’ you a hard time, isn’t he?”

She considered for a moment and then nodded. “He’s restless and frustrated. I’m worried he’s trying to do too much, too soon.”

“That’s Jess all right,” Slim smiled. His pard could goldbrick with the best of them on something minor, but after a day or two, his energetic and restless nature invariably had him chomping at the bit to get out of the house and away from Daisy’s well-intentioned mothering. “But it’s a good sign, Daisy. It means he’s feelin’ better.”

“I know,” she sighed.

“Things will get back to normal soon. ‘Til then, just remember what the alternative would have been,” Slim reminded her.

She looked up at him, her dark eyes brimming. “I don’t need a reminder of that.”

<--========-->

After that day, they settled into a simple routine, Slim helping Jess dress so that all of the ‘family’ could breakfast together before Mike set off for school.

On warm days, Jess shuffled outside to sit in the sun, dozing while Daisy worked. They had dinner together, the housekeeper making his favorite meals and urging him to eat just one more bite and then another. He read the newspapers that arrived on the stage, even tried his hand at a couple of Slim’s favorite books, Robin Hood proving to be the one that he actually stuck with until the end.

To pass the time he helped Daisy with whatever chores she could find for him to do. After all, he’d sewn on buttons and darned socks before she’d arrived at the ranch. His efforts weren’t artistic, but Daisy never criticized.

She put him to work peeling potatoes and apples, too. While moving his left arm pulled on his still healing chest muscles, he could hold them with his left hand and work the knife with his right. She watched carefully for signs that he was getting tired — his left hand starting to shake was always a dead give away — and then she’d suddenly announce she had all the apples or potatoes she needed, and he should go take a nap. He pretended not to notice how she was acting the mother hen, and she let him, maintaining their little charade that recognized both his need to keep his pride intact and her need to take care of him.

He helped Mike with his homework, though Daisy wasn’t sure how helpful he actually was. Jess’ spelling wasn’t much better than Mike’s, and his handwriting was worse, but the time the two spent together was so good for both of them that she couldn’t object.

Jess never lasted long after supper anyway. Even before the sun went down, his eyes would get heavy, and he’d begin dozing in the rocking chair or on the couch, and she or Slim would have to wake him and send him off to bed.

Still, she could see him making progress every day, slowly but surely building his strength at the same time his patience was wearing alarmingly thin, dipping toward the inevitable breaking point.

The first day Daisy caught him walking across the yard she hurried after him, scolding. “Just where do you think you’re going, young man?” she demanded.

“I’m just going to see my horse.”

“You aren’t thinking of riding?” she asked, aghast.

“No.”

“Then you should be resting.”

“Daisy, I rested this morning, and yesterday afternoon and yesterday morning and the day before that, and I’m all rested out. I need to move, to do something.”

“But ….”

“Don’t,” he snapped in frustration. “Just don’t say it. You’ve got to stop treatin’ me like I’m one of those fancy fine china teacups of yours, the ones you keep tucked way up on the top shelf ‘cuz everybody’s afraid they’ll break if you just look at ‘em crosseyed.”

“Jess….”

“Daisy, I know you’re worried, and I know you’re just thinkin’ of me, but I’ll never get better settin’ in that rockin’ chair and peelin’ potatoes,” he protested earnestly.

Reluctantly, she recognized the grain of truth in what he was saying. “Just be careful, please?” she asked, softly, putting her hand on his arm.

He curbed his temper and answered just as gently. “I will. I promise.”

So she watched him go, frowning with worry as he hobbled slowly out to the corral and stood leaning against the fence.

Traveler ambled over and stuck his nose in Jess’ hand. He rubbed the bay’s silken muzzle, inhaling the familiar, welcome scent of horse. He only stayed for a few minutes before shuffling back across the yard to sink gratefully into his chair on the porch, his knees shaking with the effort, but proud of himself, even as he knew how paltry an accomplishment it truly was.

The next day, determined to push himself farther, he ventured out to the barn. And the day after that, he strolled out to the yard when Mose drove the morning stage in, careful to stay out of the way of the horses but equally determined to be part of the excitement of the coach’s arrival.

“Well, I’ll be! If it ain’t Mister Jess Harper his own self,” Mose declared as he set the brake and climbed down off the box, grinning from ear to ear. “I was beginnin’ to think you’d gone back to Texas, boy.”

“You only wish,” Jess smiled.

Slim was already unhitching the spent team, and Jess backed out of the way, trying to hide the fact that he was finding it tiring work just standing there and watching. He tried to look casual as he retreated to the hitch rail and leaned back against it, grateful for its steadying support.

Mose squinted at him. “You’re still looking a mite peaked there, boy,” he commented.

“You should have seen him last week, Mose,” Slim declared, smiling at he brought the fresh relay team up to the coach. “Why, this is downright robust by comparison.” He set to work hooking the first wheeler when he realized that the buckle on a rein was broken. “Darn. Buckle’s bad….”

“I’ll get it,” Jess volunteered, feeling stronger for just that momentary rest he’d taken with the hitchrail for support. He headed for the barn, still walking slower than normal, but covering ground at a nearly healthy pace — well, maybe a good pace for a healthy eighty year old, he thought unhappily.

As soon as Jess was out of earshot, Mose turned to the rancher and asked quietly, “How’s he really doin’, Slim?”
Slim leaned over the rump of the wheeler. ”He’s doin’ darn good for a man who was this close to dyin’, Mose,” Slim held his thumb and first finger so close together a sheet of paper would barely fit between them. “Doc Tyler says he’s makin’ remarkable progress. But it’s too slow for Jess. He’s gettin’ itchy.”

“Well, young fella like that, I reckon he’ll snap back right fast.”

“Not fast enough for him.” Slim looked worriedly toward the barn. “I don’t know how much longer his patience will last. Or Daisy’s. He’s been a trial.”

“Ain’t he always?” Mose asked with a knowing smile.

<--========-->

 

Jess knew he’d been laid up too long when he began feeling bad for the workload Slim was shouldering. Chores, even his least favorite ones like fixing fence and cutting wood, were beginning to look good to him.

He was still more than a week away from the doctor’s okay for him to get back on a horse when the accident happened.

 

Part Seven

It was a cool day with low-hanging clouds scudding across the horizon, tantalizing them with the prospect of rain they desperately needed; it was late summer and the grass would soon be in short supply without it. Slim had left right after breakfast to check fences, and Jess was still sticking around the house, chaffing at the restrictions the doctor had placed on him, and which Daisy and Slim strictly enforced.

It was Saturday, so Mike didn’t have school. While Daisy was working inside, getting ready for the mid-day meal, the boy was helping Jess with the teams for the noon stage. Slim had harnessed them before he left, unwilling to let Jess toss the heavy gear over the horses’ withers. The recuperating cowboy had strict instructions from the rancher to do nothing more than lead the animals up to the stage and watch while the driver and shotgun did the actual work of hitching.

The change was completed as planned, Mose getting down to unhook the weary horses that had made the run from Laramie. The driver hitched the new team as Jess brought the animals over one by one, holding each horse in place as Mose worked.

Quickly done, and compensated with the promise of Daisy’s fresh apple pie on the return trip as his reward for the extra tasks, Mose returned to the box. He picked up the lines, called out to the team, and headed the stage out of the yard at a gallop, Jess looking longingly after him. With a sigh, he took hold of the lead ropes of the wheelers while Mike took the leaders, walking the tired horses over to the corral.

Slim had ordered Jess to leave the harnesses on until he came home -- no way should Jess be lifting and carrying the heavy leather gear. Unhappy about the restrictions but unwilling to risk the wrath of both Slim and Daisy, Jess conceded. He wrapped the wheelers’ lead ropes around the top rail of the fence, securing them with a slip knot, then walked over to help Mike tie the other pair. As he did so, he heard a rattle of chains and glanced down. A trace on one of the wheelers, a hammer-headed dark chestnut who had a tendency to kick first and look later, had come loose, falling down to dangle under the horse’s back feet. Even worn out as the animal was after a day’s hard work, the big chestnut somehow still found the energy to dance around nervously, threatening to tangle himself further.

Jess walked around, placing a soothing hand on the horse’s hip. “Easy boy,” he crooned, reaching down to pick up the trace. The movement was too fast; he got a sudden spike of pain in his chest, his breath catching, and making his head swim. Dizzy, he had to straighten up abruptly, taking a step back from the nervous horse.

“I’ll get it!” Mike jumped in, kneeling down to take hold of the chain.

“Tiger, no!” Jess yelled, just as the horse kicked.

The chestnut’s hoof connected with a thud, Jess couldn’t see where, and the youngster went flying, rolling over and over before crashing to the ground, limp and unmoving in the dust.

“Mike!” Jess ran to the boy, his heart pounding, his breath coming in hard gasps. “Mike.” The tow-haired youngster was lying flat, eyes closed, blood in his hair and more dripping from his nose. Ignoring the pain flaring in his chest, Jess bent down and picked up the boy. Hurrying toward the house, Mike unmoving in his arms, he shouted, “Daisy! Daisy!” There was a nasty dull throbbing in his chest and a hitch to his breathing that made him gasp for air like a just-landed trout as he carried the boy.

He was almost to the door when Daisy emerged from the house, broom in hand. At the sight of Jess and Mike, she dropped the broom, her hand flying to her mouth. “What happened?”

“Horse…kicked him.” Jess wasn’t aware of how hard he was breathing as he carried the youngster inside and set him down on the leather couch. The adrenaline coursing through his veins was overriding all other bodily sensations, even the still raw nerve endings of his so recently healed-over wound.

Daisy quickly bent over Mike, checking him.

“How is he? Daisy?” Jess hovered, heart thudding with fear, his fingers twitching restlessly. “Daisy?! Tell me he’s all right. Daisy!!”

She turned frightened eyes to him, her face full of fear. “He needs the doctor.”

Jess nodded and started out the door.

Daisy ran after him, tugging at his arm. “Jess, you can’t! You shouldn’t ride….”

“I’ll be fine, Daisy. You take care of Mike. I’ll be back with the Doc as fast as I can.” He turned and hurried toward the corral, caught Traveler and led the bay toward the barn, his heart pounding with a combination of fear and adrenaline. Flipping the saddle blanket into place on the horse’s back, Jess picked up his saddle. He’d never thought of it as heavy before, but it seemed to be made of lead as he swung it up onto the bay’s back, a sudden hard sharp pull ripping deep inside his chest. He stopped, gasping for air and coughing harshly, but he didn’t have time to wonder what damage he might have done to himself. Mike needed help, and fast, and he was the only one there to do it -- that was all that mattered.

He cinched up the saddle, slipped the bridle over Traveler’s ears as he slid the bit into the gelding’s mouth, buckled the throatlatch and led the horse out into the yard. Jess stepped up into the stirrup, his chest flaring with pain so intense it snatched his breath away before settling into a steady dull ache. With one last fearful look at the house, he turned his horse toward town.

He didn’t have time to think about how good it felt to be on horseback again. Traveler was fresh and full of energy after weeks of lazing in the corral and Jess loosened the reins and let the bay run. The thudding of the horse’s galloping hooves on the hard-packed surface of the road quickly ignited a matching throb in his chest, but he ignored it, concerned only with getting to Laramie as fast as he could and getting help for Mike. He’d worry about himself later.

Halfway to town, the hovering clouds finally let loose. Rain poured down in thick sheets before settling into a hard, steady shower that quickly soaked him to the skin.

Jess began to shiver.

By the time he reached the doctor’s, he was shaking so hard with cold that he could barely get the words out as he pounded on the door and, when it opened, stumbled inside. “M-Mike’s been hurt. D-Daisy n-needs you out at the r-ranch. R-Right away.”

Doctor Tyler took one look at him, appalled, dragging him further inside to his office. “Jess Harper, what in God’s name do you think you’re doing? You shouldn’t even be riding yet, much less riding in weather like this. You’re soaked!”

“There was n-no one else,” Jess explained, his teeth chattering. “S-Slim was out on the r-range. M-Mike was unconscious. I h-had to g-get here f-f-fast. He n-n-needs you, Doc. H-hurry!”

The doctor, frowning, stomped out of the room and returned a moment later with a blanket, wrapping it around the shivering man’s shoulders. “I’m on my way. You stay here and get dry and warm. That’s an order.” The physician glared at the cowboy, pointing at the fireplace before grabbing his medical bag and hurrying out the door, shaking his head. He’d said once before that Jess Harper had more grit than brains, and he’d just proved it again, the doctor thought disapprovingly.

Jess tried to follow Tyler’s orders. He stood close in front of the hearth, soaking up the warmth rising from the fire, holding tightly to the blanket as he paced, wondering if the tightness in his chest was worry or new damage he’d done to his barely healed wound.

He shivered again, his thoughts returning to Mike and the awful moment when the boy had been hurt. What had happened was his fault -- he was to blame. If he was so stove up that he couldn’t do a simple thing like take care of the horses, what good was he?

His thoughts raced -- how badly was Mike hurt? Would the doctor get there in time? Was the boy going to be all right?

He couldn’t bear to be here, not knowing what was happening back at the ranch.

He had to get home.

Making up his mind, Jess shrugged off the blanket and, in clothes still clinging damply to him, went back outside to his horse. Pulling himself up into the saddle, he set out for home.

The rain had passed, but as he left town and jogged out onto the open road, a chill wind kicked up, cutting through the thin material of his wet shirt, turning his blood to ice. He hunched his shoulders, shivering, dropping his chin down to his chest, his fingers wrapped stiffly around the reins, ignoring the steady ache in his chest.

<--========-->

 

How many times in the last four years had he made the ride from Laramie to the Sherman Ranch, Jess wondered. This time the ride seemed to stretch endlessly on and on, allowing his fears for Mike to grow. It was long after dark when he finally rode into the yard, pulling up in front of the barn to dismount, his whole body numb with cold and his legs wooden. As he stepped down, the world lurched, and he staggered like a drunken sailor, saved only by a fast grab at the saddle horn that kept him upright while he waited out the wave of dizziness. Finally, shivering, weaving only slightly, he walked unsteadily toward the barn.

The door stood open and he stepped inside, grateful to be out of the wind.

“Who’s there?” someone called from one of the back stalls.

Slim was somewhere toward the rear of the barn, Jess realized, doing the evening chores.

“Mike…how’s M-Mike?” the cowboy asked, stumbling to a halt and leaning back against one of the stalls, wrapping his arms around himself in a vain attempt to stop the shudders that were coursing through him.

“He’ll be fine,” Slim called out.

Jess sagged in relief at the news.

“Doc says he’s got a slight concussion,” Slim explained, finally stepping out from one of the stalls at the back of the barn, pitchfork in hand, “and he’ll have a bad headache and a sore shoulder for a few days, but nothing that won’t….” The tall rancher finally caught a glimpse of his friend. “What the devil? Jess, you’re soaking wet,” Slim noted with alarm, dropping the fork and hurrying forward to Jess’ side.

“’I’m okay,” Jess insisted through chattering teeth, “n-now that I k-know M-Mike’s g-gonna be all r-right.”

Slim shook his head. “And what about you, you dang fool? Weeks of recuperatin’ and you’ve likely undone it all in one day.”

“Haven’t,” Jess countered, shivering uncontrollably. “Just c-cold. I’ll be f-fine once I g-get warmed up a l-little.”

A saddle blanket hung across the nearest stall partition. Ignoring the dirt and sweat stains on it, Slim grabbed it and wrapped it around Jess’ shoulders. “Come on, we’ve got to get you inside by the fire.”

Slim walked beside Jess toward the house, one arm wrapped protectively around his friend who seemed unsteady on his feet. The tall rancher pulled open the door to the house and escorted Jess inside and up close to the fire. Keeping one hand on the cowboy’s arm to steady him, Slim snagged the rocking chair with his foot, dragging it closer to the hearth, and then all but pushed the unresisting Jess into it. Turning, he snatched the lap robe off the couch and laid it over Jess’s legs. “Stay there. I’ll get you some coffee.”

Shivering, Jess hunched forward, pulling the blankets tight around himself until Slim returned and handed him the hot, fragrant cup of coffee. Jess wrapped both hands around the cup, letting the warmth seep into his icy fingers and the steam rise up to his face before sipping gratefully at the hot brew.

Slim was pacing, throwing him looks that were a combination of anger and worry. “What were you thinking? No, wait, you couldn’t have been thinking.”

“M-Mike n-needed the d-doc.”

The tall rancher paused. “You couldn’t have stopped long enough to get yourself a coat? Or a slicker?”

“It w-wasn’t rainin’ when I left,” Jess defended himself.

Slim glared at his friend. “You ain’t even supposed to be ridin’ yet.”

“What did you expect me to do?” Jess countered, his anger flaring. “F-forget the doctor cause I ain’t supposed t’ r-ride? T-take the t-time to hitch up a b-buckboard and just m-mosey on into town like it was S-sunday mornin’?”

Slim shook his head, drew in a deep breath and calmed himself. “All right. I understand you were worried about Mike. I’d have been, too. But havin’ you back in a sickbed won’t help Mike, nor Daisy, either. And I can only handle one sick…family member… around here at a time,” he scolded.

“I know,” Jess answered softly, subsiding back into the blankets, consumed by another bout of shivering.

With a shake of his head Slim got up and went into the bedroom, returning with a blanket off Jess’ bed, pulling off the sweat-caked saddle blanket that was wrapped around Jess’ shoulders and replacing it with the other, clean one. “Daisy’ll have both our hides if she sees that in here,” Slim remarked, opening the door and tossing the saddle blanket out on the porch. Closing the door, he turned back to his friend, his face contorted with worry, “You feelin’ any warmer?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Good. Want more coffee?”

“Sure.” Jess relinquished his cup and burrowed deeper into the warmth of the blanket. “I didn’t meet the Doc goin’ back to town,” he suddenly realized.

Slim came back with the refilled cup. “He didn’t go back to Laramie. Said as long as he was out here he needed to check on Mrs. Felton, who’s been feelin’ poorly.”

Jess nodded, drinking more of the steaming liquid.

Slim was studying Jess. “You need to get out of those wet clothes.”

“They’re only damp.”

Slim frowned at him. “Either way, not good for ya. Come on.”

“I gotta see Mike first.”

Slim wanted a visibly exhausted Jess dry and warm and resting, but he knew the man wouldn’t concede, not until he was assured that the boy was all right. Giving Jess a hand up out of the chair, they walked together to Mike’s room, the tall man keeping one steadying hand on the shorter one’s shoulder. A quick glimpse at the sleeping youngster revealed Mike had a nasty-looking bruise on his forehead and the beginnings of a black eye, but he looked all right otherwise.

Daisy, sitting beside the boy’s bed, looked up and beamed at Jess, whispering, “He’s sleeping now, but he’s going to be just fine.”

Slim nodded to her and hurried Jess out of the room before she could ask how he was doing, escorting him over to the other bedroom. Slim dug through Jess’ dresser, finding dry underwear while quietly keeping one eye on the cowboy who was undressing himself slowly. He heard Jess gasp as he tried to pull his shirt off over his shoulder. “Let me help,” he offered, stepping over to his friend’s side. “What’s wrong with your arm?”

Jess looked away. “Nothin’s wrong with my arm.”

“That ain’t so,” Slim insisted, asking in a joking tone. “You take a spill off your horse?”

“No.”

“So what happened?”

“Just hurts some to lift it, is all,” Jess finally admitted, taking note of Slim’s skeptical look. “I got shot, remember?”

Slim’s worry spiked. Jess hadn’t been able to move the arm much at first, but he’d been using it more and more freely. This was definitely a step backward, and not a small one.

Once Jess was clad in dry underwear, he climbed without complaint into his bunk and burrowed under the blankets as Slim turned down the lamp. He was on the way out of the room when Jess’ soft voice stopped him.

“Slim.”

“Yeah, Jess?”

“Thanks. For helpin’ me.”

“Anytime. And you’ve done the same for me plenty of times.”

Jess had pulled the covers up over his chest, his hand resting in the middle of it, right where he’d been shot, his voice already sleepy and his eyes nearly closed. “I’m just really tired of bein’ sick.”

“I know, Pard.”

“Wears on a man.”

“I understand, Jess. But you’ve come a long ways already. It maybe don’t seem like it to you, but it’s true. You just need a bit more patience.”

“I’m about out a’ that.” Jess looked up at him rather sheepishly.

Slim chuckled. “Gee, I’d never have guessed that. Now go to sleep, huh?”

Jess nodded and dropped off into exhausted sleep.

<--========-->

“How ya doin’ this morning, Pard?” Slim asked early the next day as he dressed to go out to do chores.

“Stiff. Sore,” Jess admitted, moving a bit more slowly and carefully than he had the day before. He knew he’d set his recovery back with what he’d done, but it didn’t matter, his spirits were soaring. He’d done the job that needed doing, and found that reassuring -- he still had a job and a purpose and maybe he wasn’t back to doing everything just yet, but he wasn’t totally helpless; some things he could handle. After weeks as an invalid, it was a good feeling, almost good enough to wipe away the realization that he could barely move his left arm at all.

“Well, that’s what happens when you haven’t sat a horse for weeks.” Slim smiled, reaching down to place a hand on the cowboys’ forehead. “No fever. That’s good.” He straightened and looked sternly at the dark-haired cowboy. “Now you take it easy today, huh? I can’t have you settin’ a bad example for Mike.”

Jess nodded.

<--========-->

With two patients to fuss over, Daisy was frazzled even before she started breakfast, but Jess came to her rescue. He took her place at Mike’s bedside and refused to budge, looking none the worse for the events of the day before, she thought hopefully. He played cards with the boy and several games of checkers, read to him from his favorite books, and told him tall tales of his time as a drover back in Texas.

They were finishing up their lunch when Mike finally asked, “Jess, what happened to you in Ironwood?”

“I don’t rightly remember, Tiger,” Jess fudged, ruffling the boy’s hair. Truthfully, he had only vague impressions of the time, and they weren’t ones he was anxious to remember any better. He recalled being helpless and in pain, feverish, and over it all lay the dark certainty that he was dying, his life slipping out of his grasp no matter how hard he clung to it. They weren’t memories he wanted to recall any clearer, not now nor ever, and he surely wasn’t going to share what he did remember with the boy. “I got shot and spent a lot of time in bed, sleepin’.”

“It hurts to get shot,” Mike recalled the time he’d been wounded during a bank holdup a few months before. “Did you hurt a lot?”

Jess rubbed his jaw. “Yeah, but it wasn’t so bad, Tiger. The doctor fixed me up real good.” He knew Slim never wanted anyone to lie to the youngster, but this white lie was better than telling the boy the ugly truth. “And I kept tellin’ myself that I’d be home soon and then everything’d be just fine.” He did remember bits and pieces of the rough ride to Ironwood in the tumbleweed wagon, the pain of every breath as he fought for his life. How he’d tried to ignore the pain by keeping his thoughts fixed on getting back to Mike and Daisy and Slim and the ranch. The need to get home had been the one thing that had kept him going while he lay on that cot in the sheriff’s office, waiting for a doctor who seemed never to come.

He’d been pretty out of it, but not so much that he didn’t know that Branch and the others were keeping something from him. He kept hearing snatches of their muted conversations. With nothing else to think on, he’d finally put it together, figured out just what was going on, that Buckner’s brother wanted to trade the missing doctor for Vern’s freedom.

He couldn’t let them do that.

He’d tried to tell Branch that, warn him not to make such a bad deal, but he wasn’t sure the marshal had heard. Or would listen.

After, there was darkness, and gunfire and shouting, and then someone talking to him, and he thought he’d managed to talk to someone, tried to tell them something important, but he really wasn’t sure.

And then his next real memory was of waking up in the doc’s office, his chest radiating pain with every breath. Even now, weeks later, he still didn’t feel like he should, especially since yesterday. He shifted uncomfortably, his right hand rubbing absently at his chest, but nothing made the steady dull ache go away. Every movement of his left arm hurt again, pulling something deep inside his chest that he knew oughtn’t to feel that way. He kept his arm tucked in tight against his side, hoping no one would notice, but he knew it was hard to put anything past Slim. Or even more so, Daisy.

<--========-->

Later that day when Doctor Tyler returned to the ranch to check on Mike, Slim hurried out from the barn to intercept the physician outside as he tied up his horse. “Doc, I want you to take a look at Jess while you’re here, too. He ain’t sayin’ anything, but I can tell he’s hurtin’ a whole lot more today,” the rancher explained worriedly. “He can’t hardly move his arm.”

“That’s no surprise, Slim, not after his ride to town yesterday.”

“No, it ain’t,” Slim agreed, frowning.

“Don’t worry. I’ll check him over.”

The doctor quickly examined the boy and pronounced him as on the mend, then turned to Jess. “Now I’ll take a look at you.”

“No need to be worryin’ about me, Doc,” Jess insisted. “I’m doin’ fine.”

“Fine or not, I want you checked out after yesterday, pard,” Slim ordered, scowling. “And no arguin’.”

Jess glared at Slim, but he went with the doctor into his bedroom. He needed the physician’s help to remove his shirt, but once it was off, the doctor had him lie down, checked the wound which was healed over but still looked red and ridged with scar tissue; took his pulse and temperature, and listened to his lungs.

“Well, I can’t see that you did any damage with your adventure yesterday.”

“It wasn’t an adventure,” Jess snapped, sitting up with a grimace.

Tyler nodded. “Fine. It wasn’t an adventure. It was a damned fool thing to do.”

Jess scowled, but the doctor ignored his look.

“Now tell me about your arm.”

“My arm?”

“You’re holding it in against your chest, like moving it hurts.”

“It’s been hurtin’ since I got shot.”

“True, the bullet did damage muscles that move and lift your arm, but they’ve been healing very nicely. You were moving it more freely the last time I saw you, and that was just a few days ago.” The physician looked sternly at his patient who was stubbornly saying nothing. “Jess, I’m on your side. I know you don’t think so, but I am. And I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s going on.”

Jess looked down for a moment, then nodded, and relented. “I can’t hardly lift my arm since yesterday. I think maybe I tore somethin’ up inside,” he admitted reluctantly. Scared as he was that he’d done permanent damage to himself, he still would have carried Mike a hundred miles, no matter the consequences.

The doctor’s face turned pensive as he studied his reluctant patient. “Does it hurt when you’re just sitting there?”

“No.”

“That’s good. Lift it for me.”

Though his arm felt like dead weight, Jess tried to raise it, sweat popping out on his forehead and grimacing painfully at the sharp stab of pain as he managed to lift it nearly to shoulder level, but couldn’t move it any higher.

The doc put out a hand to stop the motion. “That’s enough. I don’t think you’ve torn anything around that wound. I think you’ve just pushed past what your body was ready to do, like pulling a muscle.”

“Just from carryin’ Mike? He ain’t that heavy. And I do that all the time.”

“Since you were shot?”

“No,” Jess admitted.

“For the past few weeks, you’ve hardly used that arm at all, Jess,” the doctor explained patiently. “You know broken bones take six to eight weeks to heal, and the rest of the body needs time, too. That bullet did a lot of damage, and then the doctor digging it out, no matter how careful or skillful, couldn’t help but do more. There’s muscles and nerves and cartilage in your chest, all of it easily damaged and slow to heal. You need to go easy with the lifting for a while yet.”

“I *have* been goin’ easy,” Jess complained.

The doctor nodded. “Except for yesterday.” He snapped his bag shut and fixed Jess with a pointed stare. “Don’t push too hard; when it hurts, stop. And have the good sense to stay in out of the rain. I don’t want to be back out here treating you for pneumonia.”

<--========--> < --========-- > < --========-- >

Daisy, with Slim’s help, managed to keep both of her patients occupied, and following the doctor’s orders, for three days, although it wasn’t easy. She’d finally managed to get Jess to follow the doctor’s ‘take it easy for a few days’ order by cleverly insisting she needed help to keep Mike corralled, per the doctor’s instructions. And then she’d slyly enlisted Mike as a co-conspirator to keeping Jess out of trouble, using the very same excuse.

Finally, though, Mike’s bed rest orders were up. Slim and the boy had snuck out of the house early, both wearing suspicious looks that left the housekeeper wondering what trouble they were up to.

She soon found out.

Jess had just finished helping her with the breakfast dishes and sat back down at the table with another cup of coffee when Slim, with Mike following on his heels, came back into the house.

“You ready, Pard?” the tall man asked with a wide grin.

Jess looked over at Slim. “Ready for what?” he asked suspiciously.

“Come on Jess, we’ll show ya,” Mike took hold of his arm and tugged.

Cautiously, Jess got up and headed for the door. Slim’s Alamo was tied to the hitchrail next to Mike’s pony and on the far side stood Traveler, saddled and ready to go. Jess’ uncertain look blossomed into a smile.

“Thought today we’d all ride that fence along Stone Creek and stop for some fishin’ before we come home,” Slim suggested with a grin. “That is, if you’re interested.”

“I heard the fish are a’bitin’,” Mike declared.

“Slim?” Daisy asked worriedly.

“Doc told me it was okay for Mike to ride, and Jess too, but not more than an hour for either one,” Slim threw a warning glance at the dark-haired cowboy, “so long as someone else saddles up your horse for a few days yet.”

Jess grabbed his hat. “Well, what are we waitin’ for then?” He looked back at Daisy. “You want to come along?”

She laughed. “Oh, my heavens, no. I’m looking forward to a whole day of peace and quiet without so much as a single one of you men underfoot.” She grinned and waved toward the door. “Now out, go on, shoo, all of you, and leave an old woman in peace.”

Jess looked at Daisy and then stepped quickly over to her, leaning down to kiss her cheek. “Thanks, Daisy. For everything,” he whispered.

She blushed and patted his arm. “We made it through, didn’t we?”

“Wasn’t easy,” he admitted.

“Now that’s true,” she agreed with a laugh, waving him out the door. She stood on the porch and watched as the men in her life mounted up on their horses, Slim lifting Mike atop his pony and jumping into his own saddle, noting how he watched Jess mount with more than his usual care, and then they set their spurs to the horses and loped out of the yard.

Daisy sighed happily, and turned around to look at the house, smiling.

Jess was back in the saddle. All was once again as it should be.

 

Xxxxxxxxxx The End xxxxxxxxxX





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