The October evening was clear and chilly. The full moon was on the rise bathing the golden hills with a glow nearly as bright as sunlight. Winter would come soon and the wild hunting creatures, sensing this, sought their prey with a renewed sense of urgency. The wolf and the owl stalked old elk and jackrabbit. The great cat, stray cattle. And hidden in the rocks by the road to Laramie, crouched the deadliest night hunter of all, a man.
“Look, Becky, I don’t mean to sound like a jealous suitor or anything,” Grant Sutherland whined to the pretty girl seated next to him in the buggy. “But when I ask a girl to a dance, I expect she’s going to stay by my side and not go off prancing around with every cowpoke that asks her.”
Rebecca Hollingsworth rolled her eyes in the darkness, “For your information Grant Sutherland, I only danced with two other gentlemen – and those ‘cow pokes’ as you call them just happen to be two of the most successful – and handsome – ranchers in the area. I’ve known Slim Sherman most of my life and Jess Harper, well I feel like I’ve known him at least that long. They are my dear friends and I’ll dance with them whether you like it or not. Now stop your pouting. It’s a beautiful night with a full moon. Let’s just enjoy it.”
Only a little mollified, Grant clucked to his mare and they trotted out of Laramie and onto the Laramie Road towards the Hollingsworth ranch.
“No offence, Jess,” Slim Sherman remarked over his glass of beer, “but just once I’d like to leave one of these dances with someone other than you.”
“Ya think that’s bad,” Jess replied, “ I’m the one who’s probably going to wind up payin’ for the beer and takin’ you home.”
The men both chuckled as they casually eyed the new saloon girl. “What do you think of this fella, Grant Sutherland?” Jess asked. “Don’t he seem like kinda a spoil sport?”
“Well he sure didn’t seem any too pleased with us hoggin Becky like we did. Can’t says I blame him what with him bein’ new in town an a lawyer an’ all. I reckon he thinks he’s more important than we do. Drink up Pard – best we start home while we can still sit a horse.”
The night grew chillier and Grant scanned the road ahead for an appropriate place to pull over so that he could offer Becky the warmth of his arm around her while they gazed at the now magnificent full moon, his intentions somewhat less than strictly honorable. He was unaware that scarcely a quarter mile away, cold green eyes watched and waited – for him.
A half-mile back, Slim and Jess jogged along companionably, both enjoying a slight buzz from the beer they had consumed. As they approached a clump of trees, Jess pulled up. “Hold my horse, Slim, I gotta see a man about a – well you know…”
Laughing, Slim took Traveler’s reins and while he waited, he stood up in the stirrups to stretch his back. Just then two shots rang out from a ways up the road. Jess came running out buttoning his trousers. “You think that was a hunter?” he asked.
“Doubt it, “ Slim replied, “Not at this hour anyways.”
Grant and Becky stared in horrified surprise at the figure pointing a rifle at them from the middle the road. The tall green-eyed man had leapt out of nowhere firing two warning shots in the air. Grant placed his hand on the butt of his revolver, “What do you want,” he demanded in a voice filled with false bravado.
“I think you know – Simon,” drawled the stranger as he stepped closer out of the shadows and into the light of the overhead moon.
“You’re making a mistake, Becky said shakily, this man’s name is Grant not Simon.”
“Shut up,” whispered Grant, as recognition dawned.
“Good advice,” the stranger said to her. “Now, Simon, let’s you and I talk about the money I seem to be missing. I’m going to try to forget how you just rode off without so much as sayin’ goodbye. I’m sure that was just an oversight. I’m a reasonable fellow and if you will kindly pay me back with, shall we say, a bit of interest, I’ll be willing to let bygones be bygones and call this a loan amongst friends.”
“Sorry Hank,” Grant hissed, his hand tightening on his revolver. “I don’t happen to see it that way.”
“What are you talking about, Grant?” Becky asked, her face pale with fear.
In one smooth motion, Grant pulled his gun and at the same time pulled Becky in front of him as a human shield. He and Hank fired at almost the same time but their aims were distracted by the sudden clatter of hoof-beats surging up from behind.
Shot high in the shoulder by Grant’s bullet and seeing that he was out numbered, Hank clutched his arm and ducked into the nearby copse of trees where his horse was tied.
Hank’s aim had been somewhat more accurate and Becky now lay bleeding from a head wound in Grant’s arms. Slim leapt off his horse and into the buggy. “I I’ll get her to the doctor, Grant stuttered, you fellas go after him.”
“No, you take my horse and go with Jess,” Slim said as he tried to staunch the bleeding, “I know the quickest way to get there and you know what that guy looks like.”
Grant’s hand twitched nervously over his revolver now returned to its holster. He had no choice but to go with Jess although he deeply feared what Becky might say should she regain consciousness.
Hank’s tracks were easy to follow in the bright moonlight. Jess and Grant trailed him off towards Baxter’s Ridge and from there into the hills. Meanwhile Hank, using his head start to advantage had found some safety in a high area of overhanging rock. Tying his horse out of sight, he first tended to his wound, which he found to be painful but not serious. He then found a sheltered spot that offered a wide view of the trail below. Settling his rifle on a flat rock, he waited.
As they approached the base of the hill, Jess motioned to Grant to stop. “We’ll be sitting ducks if he’s holed up under those rocks,” he advised. Dismounting they continued on foot, staying out of the moonlight as best they could.
The first shot rang out above their heads when they were about a third of the way up. Huddled behind a boulder, Jess said, “You try and draw his fire. I’m going to try to get up behind him.”
Grant nodded in agreement and Jess began to carefully make his way up. He heard Grant cock his rifle but the shot that came soon after wasn’t aimed at where the first had come from. He suddenly felt a searing pain in his thigh and then, gratefully, a numbness. Knowing the blessed freedom from pain would only last a short time; he hustled as best he could to the shelter of the nearest rock. As he did so, two more shots ricocheted off rocks dangerously close to his head. Then he heard answering shots from above, not at him but in Grant’s direction. By the time he reached a scant shelter, his pants leg was soaked with blood and he was beginning to feel light headed. To make matters even worse, the pain had returned with a vengeance He cursed his lack of a bandana and used his narrow necktie as an ineffectual tourniquet. The bleeding slowed somewhat but not entirely. He now debated whether to aim his rifle above or below. The answer wasn’t long in coming as Grant fired several more rounds at him.
Hank observed the tableau below. His intention hadn’t been to hurt anyone, much less the lovely young lady. He had only wanted to scare his former business partner into giving back the money he’d absconded with. Now, it appeared an innocent man had been caught in the crossfire. He knew he couldn’t do anything for the young lady at this point but he could help this fellow. Leaving the relative sanctuary of his rocky shelter, he began to ease down the slope towards Jess. He was as quiet as he could be and stayed in the shadows. For a while, at least, it appeared Grant hadn’t noticed the movement.
Lacking any sort of a white flag, he called softly to Jess, as he got close. “Hold yer fire,” he whispered. “I don’t mean you any harm.”
“I know,” Jess replied, moving over and giving him room. “What the heck is goin’ on – mind fillin’ me in?”
“I’ll give you the short version,” Hank replied as he bent to examine Jess’ wound. “I’m a rancher from over Medicine Bow way. Jeez, yer’ leakin’ like a sieve.”
“Tell me somethin’ I don’t know,” Jess grunted as Hank applied his own bandana to the wound.
“Well anyways, Simon – err Grant – was my partner. I always thought he was a good guy – trusted him en’ all. Then he went and run up a bunch of gamblin’ debts. He never said nothin’ to me about it but I found out. Wasn’t long after that that the payroll and him both vanished at the same time.”
“Why not let the law take care of it,” Jess asked as he leaned back against the rock behind him, fighting a wave of nausea.
“Tried that – say you ain’t lookin’ so good,” Hank said with concern. “You gonna be sick?”
“Guess not,” Jess replied, closing his eyes as the dizziness passed. “So the law wasn’t able to do anything?”
“Law had more pressin’ issues, I suppose,” Hank replied. “Well, without that money, I was going to be goin’ through some mighty lean times en’ I figured I’d better do what I could. Looks like I made a mess of everything – first that young lady gettin’ hurt and now you. Look mister, that money ain’t as important as all that.”
Jess smiled ruefully. “Well speakin’ of pressin’ issues, we got us a pretty pressin’ one right here. You got any suggestions?”
“Looks like your bleedin’s pretty most stopped but if you move, you’re just goin’ to get it goin’ agin’,” Hank said thoughtfully. “Our best bet is to stand him off with out you havin’ to move any. You feelin’ up to handlin’ a gun if you can just stay put?”
“As long as I can stay awake, I should be ok. What’re you plannin’?”
“Thought I’d try to do what you were goin’ to do to me – get behind him somehow an get the drop on him.”
“You go ahead then,” Jess replied wearily. “I’ll do my best to cover you.”
Hank began carefully making his way down the slope, staying in the shadows as much as possible. Several times his feet dislodged pebbles whose clattering sounded unnaturally loud in the clear quiet air.
No sooner than Hank disappeared from view than Jess’ vision began to swim alarmingly. To make matters worse he started shivering so badly his teeth chattered. A lot of good he was going to be. He wondered how Slim was doing with getting Becky to the doctor. She had been so pale, he was very worried
The kindly old doctor finished applying a bandage to Becky’s forehead. “She’s a lucky girl, Slim,” he said. “She’ll have a bit of a headache but there shouldn’t even be a scar. The bullet barely grazed her.”
As he spoke, her eyes fluttered open and she looked about in some confusion. Settling finally on Slim’s familiar face, she gave him a woozy smile and then gasped as the memory of the evening’s events returned to her. “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “What happened to Grant? The last thing I remember is him pulling me in front of him when that strange man shot at us.”
Slim’s features darkened. “What do you mean, Becky?” he asked in a low voice.
“That man on the road. He said Grant’s name wasn’t Grant and that he had stolen some money and should give it back. Then Grant, or whatever his name is pulled his gun on him and that’s when I got shot.”
Slim looked grim. “Doc, is she going to be okay if I leave her with you?”
“No problem,” replied the doctor. “I’ll see to it that she gets home. My horse is in the livery stable – you’re welcome to take him.”
“Thanks, Doc.” Slim called behind him as he dashed out the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Becky.”
As he rushed past the sheriff’s office, Slim was relieved to see Mort Corey’s light still on. Pausing just long enough to fill Mort in on the situation, he continued on to the livery stable for the doctor’s horse and then met Mort out on the main street.
. Jess leaned back and gazed up at the sky. The moon had passed far across and in the east the sky was just beginning to lighten. Soon it would be dawn. He could still see Hank far below and about thirty yards to the right of where he could see the barrel of Grant’s rifle gleaming in the fading moonlight. Then he saw Hank starting to move again. This time Grant apparently had heard him as he suddenly swung the silver barrel to the right.
Summoning his last reserves of strength, Jess got up on his knees and sighted his rifle in Grant’s general direction. Taking a deep breath and aiming as best he could, he fired two shots.
Slim and Mort heard the shots just as they approached the base of the hill. Dismounting quickly and seeking cover, they were able to clearly see Jess. Directly below him some hundred yards was the tall figure of the stranger that Becky had described. To the strangers left, in silhouette, was one more figure, now aiming his rifle directly in Jess’ direction – this had to be the man known to them as Grant.
Jess had just reloaded and was about to take aim a second time when he was interrupted by gunfire coming not from below where Grant had been but over to the right and then to the left as well.
As suddenly as it had started, it all went quiet. Jess waited for a bit and then peered out. Coming up the slope towards him was Slim. Below him stood the sheriff and Hank both holding their guns on Grant.
“Hey pard! What’s keepin’ ya?” Slim called out to Jess. Jess tried to stand up to greet him but the effort was too much and he fainted dead away.
When next he awoke Slim was cradling his head while Hank rebound his leg. Seeing that he was awake, Slim smiled and said, “Boy, you just gave us a scare – next time you go swoonin’ like that, make sure there’s someone behind you to catch ya.”
“Where’d Mort go an’ how’s Becky?” Jess asked.
“He’s gone to take our friend Grant or whatever his name is to town. Hank’s goin’ to head over to the ranch to get the buckboard for you and Becky’s just fine. If I’d known how far we were going to have to lug you, I wouldn’t have let you eat that big dinner last night.”
Slim Sherman was exhausted from doing the chores of two men. His mood wasn’t improved at all by the sight of the Hollingsworth rig tied up in front of the house. For the last days there had been a steady stream of visitors to the ranch. His partner had been getting all the attention while he got all the work. Some things just never changed.
Jess Harper was holding court in his bedroom. Sitting up against three pillows with his injured leg propped up on two more, Becky Hollingsworth was gently mopping his brow with a cool wet cloth while her mother spooned broth into him. He smiled up weakly as Slim came in. “Since Daisy and Mike are still in Denver, Becky and her ma have been takin’ care of me today – haven’t ya ladies?”
Becky blushed daintily. Slim noticed that even the small bandage on her temple was becoming. “Poor Jess, Slim. He was just telling us he’s so weak and in so much pain that he can barely hold his head up. Isn’t that so, Jess?”
“I’m bearin’ up as best I can,” Jess replied nobly. “I just hope it won’t be long before the pain lets up enough for me to go out and help poor Slim.”
“Well,” said Slim, smiling broadly at Becky, “Since twinkle toes here is going to be laid up for a while, how’s about you and I takin’ in the dance on Saturday. For once, you’d be able to have me all to yourself.”
“I’d like that, Slim, and that’s a fact,” Becky replied. “But as you know, Hank’s been staying at the ranch with us waiting for the trial and we’ve become, well kind of friendly if you know what I’m saying. Well, anyway, he’s already asked me. Also poor Jess here tells me that he’s really not up to being left alone for a while yet. Are you Jess?”
Jess gave them both a wan little smile.
“Well,” said Becky, suddenly businesslike. “Since you’re here Slim, Mother and I had best be on our way. Hank’s dressing is going to need changing and he said this morning that some chicken and dumplings might be just the thing to ease the pain of his injury and all. You know Jess, you weren’t the only one hurt the other night.”
Thus with Becky giving Jess’ forehead one final affectionate pat and her mother handing Slim the bowl of broth, the two ladies made their exit.
Slim watched out the window as the ladies departed up the drive. Turning to Jess, he said in a voice dripping with sarcasm, “So, where would poor little Jess like the rest of his broth?”
Thinking better, he said, “Darn it Jess, I’m sorry. I know the last few days ain’t been no picnic for you either. It’s just with the worry and all; I get a little short tempered. I hope you don’t take it personal.”
Jess smiled at him mildly.
“And the other night when I said that just once I’d like to leave one of those dances with someone other’n you.”
“Yea,” Jess said benignly.
“Well I meant every blessed word of that,” Slim said as he ducked a flying pillow.