The Reckoning


by Nachuma



Beta’d by Badger, approved by Gail. Who could ask for anything more?



*****

There was nothing special about them. They looked just like all the other dusty, trailworn drifters stopping in for a cool one before hitting the road again. And yet…

Fred polished the gleaming wood thoughtfully, watching the three men at the far end of the room. They were similar in looks, with sharp features and dark eyes. All three were rangy and rawboned, in dire need of a barber, and, despite wearing their guns low and tied down, their clothing seemed to mark them as cowhands rather than gunhawks. And yet…there was something about them that made him throw a quick glance at the shotgun placed carefully at arm’s reach beneath the bar.

There certainly weren’t enough other customers in the saloon to keep him busy. With a sigh, he turned away to survey the rest of the room: two men in a desultory poker game in the corner, and one man nursing a beer at the far end of the bar. No one was making any trouble—it was too blamed hot for that. The streets of Laramie were deserted in the midday sun; even the stray dogs had found some cool shadows to hole up in.

“Another bottle,” said a gruff voice behind him.

Fred turned, startled. The tallest of the strangers in the back was standing in front of him, idly flipping a coin into the air. His face was lined and worn—not old, but burned by sun and wind, with frown lines scored deep. His hair was long, black and matted where his hat had left its mark.

The bartender nodded and grabbed a whiskey bottle, wiped it carefully and placed it in front of the man. One more deft flip landed the coin on the polished wood.

“Just passing through?” Fred asked, surreptitiously checking the weight of the coin before slipping it into his apron pocket.

The man was already half-turned away, but he stopped for a moment as if considering. “More or less,” he said. He looked at the other two men briefly, then turned back to Fred. “Matter of fact, you might be of help. Heard there was an old friend of ours here in town—feller by the name of Jess Harper. He around?”

Well, Fred thought, that might explain that vague sense of danger—a lot of Jess’s friends seemed to have that in common. He relaxed slightly. “Oh, you know Jess?”

“You might say he’s a friend of the family. Where can we find him?”

“Well, he works out at the Sherman Ranch, about twelve miles east on the Cheyenne road, but he ain’t there now. I heard tell he went to Horse Creek to deliver some stock.” Fred paused, but there was no response. “Should be back any time now. You gonna wait for him?”

“Naw, we’re headin’ south. My brothers’n me…” the man nodded towards the other two who were listening with interest, “we’ll be pullin’ out at first light.”

Fred shook his head. “He’ll be sorry he missed you. Who should I say was askin’?”

There was an almost imperceptible pause, then, “You tell him the Johnston brothers were lookin’ for him.” His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.

Fred blinked, feeling a sudden chill. The man nodded at him briefly, grabbed the bottle and turned back towards the table in the rear. Fred watched him warily for a moment, then turned back to the lone customer at the far end of the bar. After all, it was none of his business.

* * * * *

The two men at the table watched as their brother made his way back to their table. The second man, dark-haired, with thin lips, a broken nose and a tanned face, looked around suspiciously, then leaned in to his older brother.

“I heard what you told that bartender, Tyler. If Harper ain’t here, why don’t we wait for ‘im?”

“’Cause he’s got a townful of friends here.” Tyler smiled wolfishly. “There’s lots of open country between here and Horse Creek. Feller could get lost real easy, with no one to blame.” They tossed back their drinks. The third man—the youngest, by the looks of it—didn’t seem to be enjoying it much. He was somehow softer—hair a lighter shade of brown that curled slightly around his ears and just a light downy fuzz on his cheeks.

“Drink up, Abel.” Tyler pounded him on the back and poured another round. The young man swallowed the fiery liquid and bit back the cough that tried to escape, as his brothers watched and laughed.

* * * * *

The trail was hot and dusty, a thin meandering line that circled high rocky outcroppings, sometimes on flat ground, sometimes rising to run alongside cliffs with sheer drops. The sun glared down and reflected off the bare rocks, throwing shimmering heat echoes on the road.

The Johnston brothers were hot and tired and more than a little on edge. They’d been riding all day with no sign of their prey and no way of knowing how long they’d have to wait.

Tyler pulled up his horse and looked around.

They were at a high point in the trail, barely wide enough for two horses to walk side by side. A rocky ridge ran the length of the road for half a mile, rising to fifteen feet high; the far side of the road fell off sharply down a boulder-littered slope to a dry riverbed below. The trail picked its way northward between cliffs and rocks, dipping and weaving but still visible for miles.

“This is as good a spot as any,” Tyler said, dismounting stiffly. “Lots of cover, and the closest ranch near a day’s ride away.”

“You don’t mean to bushwhack him, do you? You know that ain’t what Pa had in mind,” Abel asked worriedly.

“I aim to let him know why we’re here,” his brother said flatly. “Otherwise there ain’t much point, is there?” He glared at the young man. “You been bellyachin’ since we first crossed his trail back in Willow.”

Abel looked down. “It’s been so long, Ty,” he said quietly. “I’d bet you hadn’t even thought of him till we saw that poster down in Colorado. Can’t we just let it drop?”

The older man stared at him fiercely. “Just ‘cause we ain’t been doggin’ him don’t mean I forgot. You think Pa would want us to let it drop?”

“Pa’s dead,” Abel said stubbornly.

“So’s Zeke,” Tyler snapped. “And I promised.”

Abel raised his head to stare at his brother. “*You* promised. I didn’t.”

“You want out of this?” Tyler asked coldly. “Maybe you want out of this family?”

“Of course not!” Abel said sharply. “I’m as much a Johnston as you are. But I still don’t know…” he hesitated, and turned to his middle brother, who was watching silently. “What do you think, Reese?”

“Zeke was my brother,” Reese said slowly, looking from one to the other. “I don’t need no promise. I know what has to be done.”

“There you got it,” Tyler said triumphantly. “Now are you with us or are you cuttin’ out?” He pinned the young man with a penetrating stare.

Abel seemed to wilt under the force of that glare. “I’m with you,” he said sulkily, sounding very young. “I just don’t know what good it’ll do.”

“It’ll teach folks that no one can step on a Johnston and get away with it…no matter how long it takes us to find him.”

Reese looked down the long and very empty trail. “You sure he’ll come this way?”

Tyler nodded. “It’s the shortest route—cuts off almost two days’ ride from the main road.”

“Maybe he’s already gone,” Abel suggested hopefully.

“No fresh tracks.” Tyler glared at the two of them. “Good God, you two—you sound like two little old ladies worryin’ about a tea party!” He looked around. “It’ll be dark soon. He probably won’t get here tonight. Reese,” he gestured to the rock behind him, “you go up on that ridge and keep a lookout just in case. Abel’ll spell you in an hour.”

“What about you?” Abel asked.

Tyler stretched and grabbed the reins of his horse. “I’m gonna get a little shuteye.” He disappeared into the rocks to the left. Reese shrugged and stepped off his horse, handing the reins to his little brother, and headed up the ridge, leaving Abel alone on the darkening trail with the tired and dusty horses. With a sigh, he led them out of sight into the brush.

* * * * *

The cold night brightened to another blazing day, and there was still no movement on the trail. Abel watered the horses from their rapidly-emptying canteens and saddled them in readiness, then flopped down into the brush to wait.

The long hot day dragged on. Cicadas sang in the bushes; the heat seemed to scream in their ears. Reese was once again on top of the cliff, flat against the rock and scanning the distance, while Abel and Tyler sat in the shade of the rocks, idly slapping at some ants that were getting a little too friendly.

“How long do we wait here?” Abel asked crossly.

“Till he comes.” The answer was flat and immediate.

“I’d like to be in that bar in Laramie right now,” Abel sighed. “With a tall, cold beer.”

“We’ll get you that beer soon enough.”

Abel studied his brother worriedly. “Ty…you really gonna kill him?” Tyler turned eyes blazing with pent-up fury on him, and Abel quailed. “I mean, that ain’t gonna bring Zeke back. Or Pa.”

“Might make ’em rest a little easier,” Tyler said shortly, looking away.

“I don’t know,” Abel said quietly. “I think once you’re dead, you’re dead. You think killin’ Harper’ll make *you* rest easier?” Tyler snapped his head around to stare, then deliberately turned away to look towards the road. “I heard you, a few nights,” Abel said softly. “You been talkin’ in your sleep.”

Stung, Tyler turned sharply. “I never!”

“You do,” Abel continued, gently now. “You talk to Pa. Ty, you can’t make Pa proud of you. Not now.”

Tyler looked away. For the first time, Abel felt his brother’s fierce determination waver—just a little, just a faint crack.

“I promised, Abel,” he said, barely audible. “I never broke my word yet.”

Abel leaned closer. He had to get through to him—now, when his defenses were weakened. “But who’s to know?” he asked urgently.

He felt his brother go still, and knew he’d lost him again. “Me,” Tyler said flatly.

A short, sharp whistle cut through the air, and Tyler jerked upright. Reese scrambled down the slope behind them, rifle in hand and looking pleased.

“Someone’s comin’,” he said.

Reese and Tyler checked their rifles and stepped out into the road. Abel, steeling himself, pulled his handgun and followed behind.

* * * * *

The horse was moving slowly, picking its way wearily through the rocks and ruts on the trail. The man on his back was dusty and trailworn, eyes half-closed and drooping with heat. His black hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat; the black hat, pulled low over his eyes, was coated with white dust from the road.

The three men appeared from nowhere, so close that his startled horse shied and skittered sideways. “Whoa, boy,” he soothed the nervous animal.

The Johnstons held their weapons easily yet menacingly as the rider looked them up and down deliberately. “If this is a holdup, you’re in for slim pickings,” he said calmly.

Abel holstered his gun and grabbed the horse’s bridle, watching his prey. The man was younger than he’d expected, not in the least cowed by three armed men suddenly appearing in front of him, and Abel was puzzled. “Your name Jess Harper?” he asked.

The man stared at him with narrowed eyes, startlingly blue in the tanned face. “I don’t know you.”

Tyler stepped forward. He knew him, all right. He remembered all too well. “You knew our brother, back in Abilene. Zeke Johnston.”

Jess thought for a moment and shook his head. “Don’t sound familiar.”

Abel was outraged. Just a minute before he was ready to do whatever he could to get his brothers to change their minds, but those three words set off a fury inside. “You don’t even remember the name of the boy you killed?”

Reese moved up beside him, rifle rocksteady in his hands. “Maybe he just can’t keep track of ‘em all.”

Jess glared at the one who appeared to be the leader. “Look, mister. I don’t know what you want…”

“I want you to get off that horse,” Tyler broke in.

Without a word, Reese reached up with his left hand and swiftly yanked the man off his horse, swinging his rifle barrel with his right. It connected with the dark head with an audible crack. Jess’s hat went flying as his head snapped to the side and he landed hard, lying motionless in the powdery dust. Reese grabbed the gun from Jess’s holster and tossed it aside, then stepped back, rifle aimed and ready.

Tyler looked at his youngest brother, struggling to hold the now-spooked horse. “Turn him loose,” he commanded. Abel paused, confused, but it was Reese who spoke. “But…”

“Abel!” It was an order not to be disobeyed. Abel looped the reins over the saddlehorn and let go of the bridle, watching with a puzzled frown as Tyler slapped the bay on the rump and headed him south with a whoop and a holler.

“Now why’d you do that?” Reese asked, sounding aggrieved.

“Harper here won’t be needing him any more,” Tyler said, something like satisfaction glinting in his eyes.

Jess was just starting to rouse, shaking his head in an effort to clear it. He could feel grit under his hands and taste dust in his mouth and was puzzled for a moment, till he opened his eyes to see the three faces watching him intently. He stilled. “What now?” he asked flatly.

“On your feet,” Tyler ordered.

Jess stood slowly, keeping his eyes down till the world steadied. He knew he was in trouble but he wasn’t about to let it show, and so he raised his head defiantly, ignoring the spike of pain the movement caused. Blood trickled from a cut beside his eye and he swiped at it absently. “That make you feel better?” he asked, eyeing the brothers angrily. “I guess you don’t mind killin’ an unarmed man so long as he’s facing you, huh?”

“He’s right, Ty,” Reese said nervously. “We can’t just shoot him down like this.”

“Maybe *you* can’t,” Tyler said coldly. “I say he’s just a two-bit gunslick who goes around killing little boys, and he don’t deserve to be treated like a man.”

The move was sudden and vicious and altogether unexpected. While the three brothers were glaring at each other, Jess gathered his legs under him and launched himself across the dusty road, crashing into Tyler and knocking him back against the rocky cliff. Groggy, Tyler managed to push Jess away and into Reese’s waiting fists. Jess twisted and ducked, landing a solid right before being knocked backwards by the larger man. Tyler caught him and thrust him back at his brother.

Jess was fighting for his life, and he knew it. He couldn’t afford to hesitate; he seemed to be everywhere at once, punching, kicking, ducking, weaving….he was poetry in motion, if any of them had had the time to stop and admire. He stuck out a leg and hooked one of Tyler’s ankles, tugging sharply and sending the older man sprawling in the dirt. While Tyler struggled to regain his feet, Jess ducked Reese’s wild roundhouse swing and knocked him back with a vicious uppercut that slammed the bigger man’s teeth together with a distinct crunch. Reese went down like a felled tree.

Abel joined the fight then. He had held back, at first shocked by the suddenness of the attack and then trying to stay out of his brothers’ way; but seeing Reese fall and watching Tyler trying to pull himself up to rejoin the fight made him lose his temper. Nobody attacked the Johnstons! With a roar, he leaped forward, catching Jess from behind and pushing him into Tyler’s arms.

Jess was panting from exhaustion, wavering from the heat, and he still had two angry brothers facing him. They attacked on both sides, swinging wildly in uncoordinated rage, and he ducked and slipped between them, trying to gather his energy. As they turned to face him again Jess slid in low and tackled Tyler around the knees. The two of them landed on the ground in a grunting, twisting knot of flailing limbs, rolling back and forth across the rocky ground. Abel, dancing awkwardly alongside, managed to grab a leg and pulled with all his strength, but found himself holding on to a writhing, raging demon who kicked furiously, barely missing his head. He let go of the leg and Jess scuttled backwards, reaching the rocks at the edge of the road and using them to lever himself upwards just in time to be knocked back by Tyler’s furious lunge.

Jess was working himself up into a killing frenzy, rolling and twisting free, and suddenly the world came down to the two of them: Jess and Tyler, face to face, hands around each other’s necks, dangling over the cliff edge and towards the infinity of the riverbed below.

Abel saw an opening and tackled Jess from the side. Jess twisted in mid-air…

…and stumbled. Suddenly overbalanced, he teetered on the edge of the cliff.

There was a sudden shock, a look of recognition and resignation as he grasped at the empty air. It took Abel a moment longer to understand and he stood, frozen, as he saw Jess start to fall…

…and lunged forward, both arms outstretched to try to catch the windmilling arms….

…as Jess slid backwards over the edge in a swirl of dust and rattle of gravel.

There was a sudden silence at the cliff edge, broken only by the sound of Tyler’s heaving, choking breaths as he gasped air back into his lungs. Abel stood at the edge of the cliff, staring blindly at the roiling cloud of dust that hung in the air.

* * * * *

Tyler rubbed feeling back into his throat and stood shakily alongside Abel. Behind him, he could hear Reese stirring as he slowly came back to consciousness.

“I didn’t mean to,” Abel whispered, still staring down the cliff.

“You did what you had to,” Tyler coughed. Uneven footsteps came from behind, and a groggy Reese joined them, shaking his head and blinking rapidly.

“What happened?” he asked.

“He went over.” There was a note of satisfaction in Tyler’s hoarse voice. “Abel done it.”

The three leaned over to peer at the plume of dust that trailed down the rocky slope. It moved in a capricious breeze, gradually rising to unveil bare rocks and a dust-coated body lying in a twisted heap on the floor of the arroyo.

“You sure he’s dead?” asked Reese, staring at the unmoving shape.

Tyler took a deep breath and straightened up. “Well, if he ain’t, he will be. He ain’t climbing out of there alone.” He turned away. “Let’s get out of here.”

“What about his horse?” Reese followed his brother, still glancing towards the cliff edge. “Why’d you send him on? He’ll head for home sure as anything.”

Tyler shrugged as he walked to his horse. “So what? Horse comes in riderless, nobody’ll think of blaming us. What do you think they’d do if we showed up with Harper’s horse? Besides,” he added sharply as he climbed into his saddle, “we ain’t horse thieves.”

“They can track him to here,” Reese insisted stubbornly.

Tyler chuckled sourly. “Time that horse gets home, there won’t be nothin’ to find, ‘cept what the buzzards have left. He won’t go further’n the first waterhole he comes to. It’ll be a while ‘fore anyone finds him.”

“Let’s get the hell out of here!” Abel snapped, vaulting into his saddle in one quick move.

Reese mounted slowly. “Anybody’d think you wasn’t glad.”

“I don’t like killing.”

Tyler gave him a tight smile. “This ain’t killing. It’s justice—like a lawman.” He patted his youngest brother’s arm. “You’ll feel better after that beer I promised you. Let’s get into town.” He turned his horse back to the road.

“Not into Laramie?” Reese was startled.

“Why not?” Tyler reasoned. “We decided to wait for Harper after all. That way we can get to watch the fun.”

“I don’t much like your sense of fun,” Abel muttered.

“Let’s get that beer,” Tyler said easily. “We can skip Laramie for now if you’re feelin’ spooked.” He slapped his brother’s shoulders heartily. “Come on, Abel. It’ll make you feel better.”

The three headed south, back to the main road.

* * * * *

Light. Heat.

Pain.

Jess came to awareness slowly, found himself curled around a skunkbush that poked into raw skin through his shredded shirt. He blinked into the sun, wondering where he was, why he was, *who* he was. The sun was burning like a fury in the sky; he could feel the heat pounding his head and shoulders like a physical blow.

His head was heavy, eyelids weighing a ton each. He forced himself to blink. White everywhere…pale, washed-out world of brilliant sunshine. Alkaline dust and rocks blazed with reflected light. He closed his eyes and slept.

* * * * *

Heat. Pain. The light was dimmer now, not as painful; he could no longer see the blood-red inside of his eyelids. He could feel his body now…a cacophony of aches that reached a crescendo as he tried to shift ever so slightly. The world roared and turned white, then faded away.

* * * * *

Awake again. Dark this time…black against his eyelids. He forced them open and blinked furiously. Wavering spots of light above…stars. He could hear soft nighttime sounds: slithers, rustles, the distant calls of night birds and a soft faint flutter of wings.

He remembered his last try at movement and was more cautious this time. One finger moved slightly, joined by a second, then his hand slid along the rocky ground like an anchor dragging bottom. Gently, gingerly, it moved across his body and up to his face. He could feel the stickiness of dried blood in his hair and itching in his ear. His arm dropped as if boneless and the world went away.

* * * * *

Still dark. Cold now…a bone-deep chill rising from the ground and leaching into his core. He lay perfectly still, assessing his body: the roaring pain in his head that made the world shimmer with multicolored lights, the cold air biting at places that should have been covered: knees, feet, shoulders, chest. The aches that lay in abeyance, waiting to turn into full-fledged agony as soon as he tried to move.

Move. That one thought coalesced in his mind. Move. Move or die.

Slowly, feebly, he pushed himself over and inched into a semi-seated position. The world tilted and blurred. He took shallow breaths, trying to get air through cracked and broken ribs, left arm clamped protectively around his side as if to hold the ribs in place. He waited for the world to settle.

Vision returned, and with it the soothing night sounds, punctuated by the pounding of his heart. Move. He grasped the bush, ignoring the branches clawing at his hands as he tried to pull himself upwards.

Move.

The shadows were gaining depth; the sky was lightening, black fading into tones of gray. He was sitting now, heavy head wobbling as he blinked away the cobwebs in his eyes. The grays brightened, the sky showing shreds of pink and yellow. He tried to look around but could see nothing but vaguely menacing shapes that gradually formed into rocks and sage.

The sky clarified from charcoal to blue-gray to a translucent crystalline blue. He could see the steep slope glowing golden in the morning sun, his descent marked by broken brush and displaced rocks. He measured the distance with his eyes, and turned away. There was no way he would be able to climb back up to the road…at least, not that way.

He surveyed the ground around him: a dry riverbed cut through the rocky ground, about ten feet wide and lined with boulders and gravel and skeletons of long-dead trees. It roughly paralleled the road, and his muzzy brain picked out south…the way he had been heading…the way home.

Home. That was the thought that finally forced him to his knees, and then upright…nearly. Standing, wobbling and wavering for a few brief moments before his knees buckled and he slid back down. He faced south and thought again: home.

The sun rose over the cliffs and touched his face, already warm, already wet, though he wasn’t sure if it was sweat or blood. It didn’t matter. He inched forward to a boulder and crawled his way up it until he was standing once again. South. Home. He turned his face resolutely to the trail and moved his foot.

* * * * *

Slim Sherman was hot, tired, thirsty, and worried. The tall blonde swiped an arm across his forehead and stared down the dusty road as if willing his errant partner to appear.

Jess was already a day late returning from Horse Creek, and, although Slim knew his friend sometimes got caught up in some entertaining pastime, more often it was something more serious. He’d never known anyone to get into so much trouble with so little provocation—sometimes it seemed to him that Jess wore an invisible sign that said “pick me!” He sighed deeply and raised his hammer. No point worrying yet, he told himself, pounding the nails with unnecessary force. Plenty of time for that later.

A soft voice calling his name startled him and he whirled, hammer clenched in his fist, then dropped his arm sheepishly. “Sorry, Daisy. Guess I wasn’t paying attention.”

The petite white-haired woman held out a glass and watched him with motherly concern. “I brought you some lemonade.” She waited as he gulped the cool drink. “It’s hot today,” she ventured.

“Sure is.” Slim handed her the empty glass with a smile of thanks.

“You think Jess will be back today?” Daisy’s voice was hesitant.

“I hope so, Daisy,” Slim said, unable to stop another worried glance at the road.

“Maybe you should go look for him.”

The rancher forced a weak smile. “Now wouldn’t he just love that, especially if he just got caught by a hot poker game in town.”

Daisy shook her head reprovingly. “You know Jess better than that.”

Slim shrugged, trying to disguise his own concern; he knew the housekeeper considered everyone on the ranch as her children and he didn’t want to worry her unnecessarily. “Well, he wasn’t carrying any cash—just a bank draft made out to me. No one else can cash it.” He tried another unsuccessful smile. “I’m sure he’s fine. Just playin’ hooky.”

“Well, I intend to give him a piece of my mind when he gets home,” Daisy said firmly.

Slim grinned—a real smile this time, picturing the diminutive woman backing his fearsome partner into a corner. He knew she was the only one who could. “You do that, Daisy,” he said.

* * * * *

Jess woke, staring up into the cloudless sky, puzzling over where he was. Home—he remembered that. He was going home. He pushed himself upward, staring blankly at his hands. They were raw and red with bone-deep scratches, one still covered in shreds of black leather. He pulled off the pieces carefully, one at a time, and stared once again at his hands. His fingers moved, slowly flexing and stretching. He put them on the ground on either side of him and pushed upwards, ignoring the stabbing pain in his side.

He took a step and bobbled, tilting drunkenly from side to side, left to right, one side higher than the other. He frowned and blinked down at his feet. He could see one boot, one torn sock. Offbalance, he sat suddenly and studied the boot. The heel was starting to wear down, rounding at the edges. Somewhere inside he vaguely remembered that he hated walking in boots. He tugged gently, then harder, until the boot came free all at once and he landed backwards in the brush, holding the worn footwear triumphantly in one hand. The world dimmed briefly. He dropped the boot and sat up slowly, then forced his way upright and took one tentative step. Level. He grinned, feeling oddly proud, and took another step.

The sun was overhead, burning through hair and skin and down into his bones. He could feel his flesh sizzle and melt. His eyes closed. He didn’t need to look anyway. He knew his direction. He plodded onwards.

* * * * *

Slim loaded the keg of nails into the buckboard and looked around. The town drowsed in the afternoon sun with only a few people moving slowly, sapped by the heat. Now that he’d completed the chore he’d convinced Daisy was necessary, he had time to do what he wanted to do…what he *needed* to do. He looked towards the sheriff’s office, noting the closed door and drawn curtains, then shrugged and headed across the street to the saloon. Maybe one quick beer…

* * * * *

Heat. Thirst. Throat closing, unable to swallow.

Jess could feel gravel cutting his palms and his knees, and puzzled over it briefly, looking down. There was a hand in front of him…at least, he thought it was a hand. It was oddly shaped, though, not his familiar strong fingers and callused palm; this one was raw and misshapen, red and white with huge sausage-shaped lumps that might be fingers splayed out at odd angles. He could see them dimly, vague shapes moving through white alkaline dust.

It didn’t matter. Home. He moved.

* * * * *

The interior of the saloon was cool and dim with a faintly damp, musty smell that Slim found strangely soothing. He scanned the room and smiled at the sight of Mort Corey tucking into an early supper at the back. “Beer,” he called to Fred as he walked to the sheriff’s table.

The sheriff was a big man and lately was tending towards a paunch, but Slim knew that advancing middle age hadn’t slowed him appreciably. They’d been friends for a long time, and there was no one Slim trusted more when he needed help—except maybe Jess.

Mort nodded and gestured at an empty seat and Slim dropped down heavily. The lawman studied his friend. “Trouble?”

“Jess,” Slim sighed.

Mort’s eyebrows raised. “What’s he done now?”

“He’s overdue. You haven’t seen him, have you?”

Mort took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. “Jess is a big boy,” he said, swallowing. “He’s been late before.” He looked at the tall man slumped in his chair. “Unless there’s something in particular…”

“No,” Slim interrupted. “Just…a feeling, maybe.”

Mort pushed his plate away and leaned back. Before he could speak, the bartender appeared with a mug of beer. Slim took it with a nod of thanks.

“Jess get back yet?” Fred asked.

Slim shook his head.

“Well, when he does, you tell him there were some friends of his lookin’ for him.”

Slim sat upright. “When was this?”

“Yesterday…no, day before,” Fred answered. “Said they were old friends…Johnston brothers, that was the name.”

“They still here?” Slim asked, looking around.

Fred shook his head. “Nah—they told me they were heading out in the morning. Going south.” He shrugged. “Just said to give him their regards.” He hesitated for a moment. “Didn’t look all that friendly though,” he mumbled, half to himself.

Mort’s gaze sharpened. “What do you mean?”

Fred paused to consider. “Oh, nothing in particular. They were kind of rough-lookin’, even for Jess…” He stopped at the look on Slim’s face and backtracked. “Not that Jess is…his friends…”

“I know what you mean,” Mort chuckled. “Jess has been known to pick up some odd strays. Brothers, you say?” he asked casually. “How many of ‘em were there?”

“Three,” Fred said quickly, eager to change the subject. “Kind of scruffy. Quiet, though. Didn’t make any trouble. They had a couple of drinks, asked after Jess and left. That’s all.”

The sheriff nodded, dismissing the bartender. “Well, let me know if you see ‘em again.”

Fred turned back to the bar, then paused. “Jess ain’t in any trouble, is he?” he asked uneasily.

“Nah,” Mort said, pulling his plate back and digging in heartily. “He’s probably just takin’ his time, lettin’ Slim here do his work.”

Fred nodded and returned to polishing the bar.

Slim was watching Mort with an unreadable expression on his face. “You know something,” he accused.

Mort shook his head and took another mouthful. “Nope.”

“You think there’s something going on between Jess and those…the Johnston brothers?”

Mort raised an eyebrow. “Do you?”

Slim sighed and drooped again, defeated. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just grabbing at straws. I do know Jess never mentioned ‘em.”

“Go home,” Mort advised Slim kindly. “Have supper with Mike and Daisy. Maybe Jess’ll be there by the time you get back.”

“Yeah,” Slim said, standing wearily. “Maybe.” He picked up his hat and hesitated. “You’ll tell me…”

“I’ll let you know if I hear anything,” Mort said easily. “Now go before Daisy starts frettin’ over you.”

Slim nodded glumly, tossed a coin on the table and headed for the door, eyes lowered. Mort watched him leave, a worried frown creasing his face. As soon as Slim disappeared, Mort dropped his fork and his pretense of eating and pushed his plate away sharply.

* * * * *

The world was growing dim again. Jess wondered vaguely if he was about to pass out, but saw the steep angles of the shadows and realized it was just the sun going down. How many days had it been? He felt like he’d been moving forever, that there was nothing in the world but this: white sand, gray rock, blue sky. Heat and pain and blazing confusion. Move one foot, move the other foot.

Home.

* * * * *

Supper was a silent affair, with Daisy working busily in the kitchen, Slim lost in thoughts and Mike, his young face uncharacteristically solemn, oppressed by the tension he could feel emanating from his adopted family.

The sound of hoofbeats in the yard galvanized them all.

“Jess!” Mike squealed, jumping up and heading for the door.

Slim felt a bone-deep relief wash over him and he closed his eyes for a moment as the tension drained from his shoulders. “It’s about time,” he grumbled. Daisy placed her bowl of mashed potatoes on the table and patted his hand comfortingly.

The boy’s voice from the door was heavy with disappointment and laced with fear. “It’s Mr. Kincaid.” Slim’s gut clenched and Daisy’s hand tightened noticeably on his as they went to greet their neighbor.

Tom Kincaid owned the neighboring ranch a few miles east and had been a good friend of Slim’s father. They hadn’t seen each other much lately, both busy with drying waterholes and thirsty cattle, but Slim knew he was a man to count on, and he pasted a welcoming smile on his face as he stepped onto the porch. What wiped the smile off with devastating suddenness was what Tom was leading behind him: Jess’s horse, dusty and tired and fully saddled. He heard Daisy gasp behind him.

* * * * *

The world was fading away, leaving nothing but vague outlines and faint sounds… ragged breathing, dragging and scraping noises, large, frightening shapes that loomed over Jess’s head. He could taste dust, feel it in his mouth, his eyes, under his hands and knees and in every hidden crevice in his aching body. Grit coated his tongue and the insides of his eyelids. Home, he chanted in his head as he crawled on into the growing dusk.

* * * * *

Tom could tell from the look on Slim’s face that the news was bad, and his own expression lengthened. “I take it Jess ain’t home,” he said quietly.

Slim shook his head tightly and ran his hands down Traveler’s dusty flanks and legs, feeling for any hidden damage. He noted almost absently that Jess’s rifle, canteen, saddlebags and bedroll, all coated with a thick layer of white dust, were still tied neatly in place. “Where’d you find him?” His voice was low and desert-dry.

Tom watched his neighbor sympathetically. “My boy was checking our waterholes to see how low we’re running. He found the horse by the spring in my upper pasture. He looked around some, but didn’t see any sign of Jess.” He nodded to the horse. “And by the looks of that saddle, no one’s been sittin’ in it for a while.” He cleared his throat. “So he figured, best come in and let you know. If you want, we can help you look.”

Slim swallowed hard. “Thanks, Tom.” He glanced back at Mike and Daisy, standing wide-eyed behind him and tried for an easy tone. “But chances are he was just thrown, or maybe the horse got spooked and ran off. He’s probably walkin’ home right now, cussin’ fit to curl your hair. I’ll head out at first light to pick him up.”

Tom threw a glance at the woman and boy and nodded understandingly. “I’ll bet you’re right.”

“Would you like some coffee, Mr. Kincaid?” Daisy’s face was strained but her voice remained calm.

Tom shook his head and tipped his hat. “No thanks, Mrs. Cooper. Mary’s holdin’ supper for me.” He turned his horse towards the road and stopped. “North end of the spring, Jimmy said.”

“Next time you get into Laramie…” Slim started; he hesitated, then took a deep breath and continued, “tell Mort Corey I’d like to see him.”

Tom paused, then nodded firmly. “I’ll make a point of it,” he said, and trotted slowly out of the yard into the rapidly darkening day.

* * * * *

It was dark again. There was nothing but heat within and cold without and the taste of dust in his mouth. Jess had long since given up trying to swallow. He could no longer feel the ground under his hands; he could no longer feel his feet. He caught a faint rumbling, a vibration through the ground. Herds of buffalo. Wagon passing nearby. Pounding hoofbeats next to his head. It could have been anything. It didn’t matter.

* * * * *

Slim was in the barn bedding down Jess’s tired horse when Daisy’s voice from behind startled him and he jumped. “That’s twice in one day,” he said, striving for lightness, and turned to see her holding a large pack in both hands. “What’s this?” he asked, taking it from her. It was heavier than he expected.

“There’s enough food there for three days,” Daisy said, “and some bandages and medical supplies.” She smiled sadly. “And I have your dinner wrapped and ready to go.”

Slim dropped his head. “You know me pretty well, don’t you?”

She reached out and placed a warm hand on his arm. “Yes, I do,” she said gently. “Don’t you worry about Mike and me. Just find him.”

Slim headed out into the twilight, leading a small brown mare he hoped Jess would be able to ride. He reached the spring late in the night, and, worried that his horses might accidentally destroy some sign, he purposely set up camp a safe distance south of where Traveler had been found. Despite the ongoing drought, the spring was lined with cottonwoods and the meadow still held some grass, and the picketed horses browsed peacefully in the darkness. The worried man dozed lightly, waking to the rumble of thunder and the first tentative drops of the light rain that stopped almost as soon as it had begun.

* * * * *

Something tickled his face. It seemed familiar and Jess tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids were swollen and he could only squint, seeing nothing but darkness. He sank back into the ground and listened. Pit-pat. Pit-pat-pit. Familiar. It touched his face again, cool and ephemeral.

Water. Drops of water, small and infrequent; they touched his skin and were absorbed immediately leaving no trace. He opened his mouth unconsciously, swollen tongue lapping blindly at the moisture.

Riverbed, the still-rational part of his mind said clearly. He pictured a wall of water racing through the arroyo, sweeping him before it, and sighed, imagining the cool water washing over him. The droplets hit his cracked lips and disappeared. He opened his mouth and let the raindrops sink in.

* * * * *

Slim was up well before sunrise, too restless to sleep. He broke camp as the first tendrils of light curled around the mountains and by dawn was studying the ground at the north end of the spring. Daylight found him following a trail of bent grass and faint hoofprints in the hard-packed soil. The day was already heating up, but dew clung to the tufts of grass and sparkled in the brilliant morning light.

Slim could see the path Jess’s horse had taken, which he guessed led back to the Absaroka Cutoff—the rough trail that branched off from the road to Horse Creek to cut south through the mountains. Jess would most likely have taken the cutoff, Slim figured. He stopped, picturing the layout of the land in his mind. The trail wound south, cutting through the rough canyons at the west end of Mr. Kincaid’s land before finally hitting the Laramie road. It was dry eleven months out of the year and flooded the twelfth, and right now the Kincaids’ spring was the closest water till they hit the main road; but he knew that if Jess had still been riding, he wouldn’t have left the trail—not unless he’d needed the water awfully bad. And if that were the case, he’d be somewhere here, in the meadow between the road and the spring. If he wasn’t, that meant he was still on the trail.

He plotted the most direct route back to the cutoff and, hoping that he hadn’t misread the signs, mounted Alamo and headed west, eyes on the ground, trying to follow the faint path in the field and scan the rolling land to the sides at the same time.

* * * * *

Another sunrise and Jess was already moving, mindlessly crawling onward. He was shivering continuously now despite the growing warmth of the day—great wracking chills that shook his lean body and reawakened the agony of cracked bone and overstrained muscle. There was only one word that he kept in the forefront of his mind, whenever he could force it to focus: Home.

* * * * *

The sun was blazing overhead as Slim reached the cutoff. He stopped and took a long drink of water, surveying the road ahead. He’d brought every canteen they owned and had taken care to refill them all at the spring, knowing that, whatever had happened to Jess, they would need water to get home safely. The heat screamed in his ears; nothing moved except one lone hawk soaring on the thermals high above.

He studied the tracks and saw the fence ahead where Traveler had pushed through a broken rail. With a wordless apology to Tom Kincaid, he pulled off the remaining rails and led the horses through with a silent promise to come back and repair the damage as soon as Jess was safe and home. He turned north and headed up the trail, hoping fervently that he was going the right way and that he would find his friend alive and well.

* * * * *

Heat again. Nothing but endless sand and rock and sage and dust. Jess moved mindlessly, mechanically, like a windup toy that was running down. He could no longer tell day from night—there was only heat or cold. He had stopped sweating—he had no more moisture in him; and he alternately shivered and burned and doggedly rode out waves of nausea. His mind was blank, alternating red and white and black with occasional flashes of memory: a boy’s face; a white-haired woman’s, careworn and loving. A tall blonde man smiling at him and holding out a welcoming hand. He reached out to grasp it and felt grit and dust. His arms gave way and he dropped to the rocky ground and lay, gasping and shivering. A gentle touch, as light as a moth’s wing, brushed his reaching hands and he drifted into the welcoming blackness.

* * * * *

The trail was hot and dusty, rising gradually and narrowing, weaving between rocky outcroppings and giant boulders. A hogback ridge rose to his left and the road dropped off to the right, growing steeper as the trail wound upwards. Slim could spot occasional hoofprints in the dust, but had no way of knowing if they belonged to Traveler or some other horse. Anxiety spurred him on, and he nudged Alamo into a jog, scanning the road ahead.

The heat was intense, the landscape blurring and rippling in a shimmering mirage. He caught movement ahead and tensed, but saw only a bird wheeling and circling. And another…and another. His breath caught. The black shapes were sharp against the blue sky, wingtips like fingers pointing upwards. He urged his horse into a gallop, tugging on the lead rope. He could see the long necks now, the bald heads studying the ground below them, and heard their raucous cries.

They were off to the right, not on the main trail, and for a second Slim breathed a little easier, thinking that maybe some cow had wandered onto the trail and slipped over the edge. He dismounted and tied the horses to a sapling and walked stiff-legged to the slope, looking down.

A dry riverbed meandered below, marred with spilled boulders and scrubby sage and glittering in the afternoon heat. He blinked and squinted, trying to follow the flight of the vultures, and held his breath. Something was moving down on the flats below: a shapeless form, moving in an odd, uncoordinated series of jerks and angles and bobbing motion. Slim shaded his eyes with both hands under his hat and squinted…

…and the figure solidified into a shambling ragdoll of a man moving in fits and starts, sometimes on hands and knees, sometimes on his belly, but always, always in motion…

The air left Slim’s lungs in a sudden decompressive ‘whoosh’ that left him unable to breathe; he stared, frozen, for long seconds before his mind acknowledged what he was seeing and kicked his legs into action. He raced to the horses to grab his pack and the canteens, then turned to slide down the slope in a cloud of dust, half-running, half-skidding on the seat of his pants, mouth open and filled with grit, trying to form the name of his friend. As he landed in a heap at the bottom, he dropped his pack and ran to the stumbling figure.

Jess kept moving, oblivious to the tall man who knelt beside him and tried to push him down. The obscenely swollen and bloody hands reached out for another rock, another handful of sand, and Slim grabbed at them, trying to make them stop, then swallowed bile. He turned them loose: there was nowhere to touch that wouldn’t cause more pain, more damage. The skin was raw and worn nearly down to the bone in places, blood not running but thick and viscous.

“Jess,” Slim whispered, trying to push down the nausea. He could feel the heat radiating off the man in waves as Jess struggled on blindly. “Lie still.” Slim pushed him back down as gently as he could. He could tell his friend didn’t hear or, more likely, couldn’t understand; and suddenly Jess went limp, splayed flat on the rocky ground.

Slim stopped breathing for a second; then, pushing his hat off frantically, he turned the battered form over and placed his head against his partner’s chest, listening, holding his breath and praying, till he heard the uneven heartbeat. Slim closed his eyes for one long moment and finally remembered to breathe.

When he opened his eyes the sight was worse than he could have imagined. Jess’s face was nearly unrecognizable—red and raw with sunburn, crusted cuts and scrapes, eyes swollen shut and lips cracked and bleeding. Blood had matted in his hair and run down the right side of his face, where it had mingled with the dust to form a reddish-brown mud that had caked and cracked and peeled. He was breathing harshly and irregularly, struggling for each breath.

“Jess!” Slim shook him gently, then harder. No response. Frantically, he grabbed a canteen and dribbled a little water on his partner’s lips. There was no flicker of awareness, and so Slim tugged off his bandanna and soaked it in the tepid water, gently bathing Jess’s blistered face and then placing the wet cloth around his neck. Jess stirred slightly, and Slim felt a burst of hope. He dropped some more water onto the swollen lips, which parted slightly. He watched as his friend struggled to swallow and carefully gave him some more.

Too much. Jess coughed and retched weakly, losing what little he’d managed to swallow. Slim felt despair rising in his throat but pushed it back ruthlessly. There was no time for that. Forcing himself to be calm, he patiently fed his partner the life-giving water, one drop at a time.

The bandanna was nearly dry now, the water evaporating in the heat rising from the battered body, and Slim stopped drop-feeding his friend long enough to soak the cloth again, wrapping it around Jess’s neck and tucking it down under his shirt. Jess seemed to be breathing a little better now, the pinched look on his face easing as the water was absorbed into his parched body. Slim lay his partner gently back onto the ground and considered his next move.

He stood up, grabbed his bedroll and shook it out, piling rocks and scrounged driftwood to make a rough shelter to shade them from the burning sun. Sitting back down, Slim poured the remainder of the canteen gently down Jess’s chest, half-expecting to see steam rise as the cooler water hit the overheated flesh.

Jess’s clothing was in shreds, more skin than cloth showing, and barefoot, or nearly so, with just a few pieces of torn and filthy sock still visible. He twisted his head and muttered unintelligibly. Slim opened a second canteen and dripped more water onto the sunburned face, and the sick man quieted.

Slim closed his eyes, trying to think what to do. He knew he couldn’t leave his friend to go for help, but there wasn’t much he could do here, and with his horse at the top of the steep and slippery slope he didn’t know how he could get Jess home. A wave of despair flooded him, but he pushed it aside resolutely. He would think of something.

* * * * *

The sun was lowering, rocks casting long shadows in the dust, when Slim finally stopped his steady drip of water onto Jess’s face and lips. He’d emptied two canteens, and his friend was still blazing hot. He glanced up the slope once more, trying to decide what he needed to do…what he *could* do. Jess twisted and moaned again, and Slim reached out blindly, though he was unsure if it was Jess or himself he was trying to comfort. He pulled himself up onto nearly numb legs and checked his supplies: food that neither of them was capable of eating, two empty and two full canteens, and a pack of bandages and medicines that he had no idea how to use—not now, not for this.

The fear that had been gnawing at him suddenly bit deeply. Jess needed help. He needed a doctor. Slim had to get him home. There was no other answer. It was up to him to figure out how. He ran the trail in his mind, picturing the road, the riverbed, the pasture he’d cut across, and he suddenly remembered the spring he’d camped beside the previous night: softer ground, shade and cool water to lower Jess’s temperature. All he had to do was get there.

Slim stood and paced along the arroyo, trying to see in the gathering twilight. As he recalled, the road had dipped a mile or two back till it was no more than a few feet above the riverbed. He thought it through. He could do it. He could climb up, grab the horses and backtrack till he found a place where he could get them down to the arroyo, load Jess aboard and ride. Maybe even get him home that night! Energized, Slim turned back to his friend…and was faced with the reality of the helpless, delirious man muttering wordlessly in the makeshift shelter.

He would have to leave him. He would have to leave long enough to climb the slope, find a crossing place, and return.

“Jess?” he murmured, dabbing his damp bandanna at the hot forehead. Jess muttered and twisted away from the touch. “Jess, I have to go, but I’ll be back. Can you hear me?” The sick man made a low, guttural sound and Slim held his breath. “Jess?” No response. Slim leaned closer, voice edging on desperation. “Hold on, pard. I promise, I’ll be back. I promise. Just…just hold on.” He stood, fists clenched at his side. The sun was lower, the shadows lengthening and joining to form pools of darkness. It had to be now or it would be too dark to see the road. “I promise,” he whispered, and forced himself to turn away.

He took the hillside in long bounding strides, clutching at rocks and roots to keep from slipping back down.

* * * * *

It took longer than he’d hoped, straining his eyes in the lowering shadows, to find a place where the banks were shallow enough to ride down safely, and once they’d scrambled down onto the flat of the streambed, Slim kicked the horses into a gallop, praying wordlessly that they wouldn’t stumble or misstep. It was only the thought of his friend alone in the dark that made him so reckless, knowing that any injury to the horses would doom them all.

Night had fallen by the time he got back; he could barely make out the shape of his rough shelter, black against the ultramarine sky. He dropped his reins and flung himself across the sand. Jess was as he’d left him, shivering a little in the cool evening. Slim dropped more water onto the broken lips and took a deep breath. He was doubting his idea now, faced with the reality of darkness and delirium and knowing how long it would take, but there was no choice.

He knew Jess wouldn’t be able to sit a horse on his own and he didn’t want to risk tying him to the saddle, so he gathered his pack and tied it in place onto the mare, then pulled apart the makeshift shelter and wrapped Jess in the blanket.

Slim was wrung out by the time he managed to load the limp figure onto Alamo’s back. He jumped up behind his partner, catching hold before the sick man could slide, appalled by the heat that was still rising from Jess’s body. Suppressing another stab of fear, he urged his horse into a careful walk.

* * * * *

That nightmare ride would stay with Slim for the rest of his life: his friend slumping further into the saddle with each step, the blackness of the sky matching the terror in his heart. He could feel Jess shift and catch his breath with every bump in the road. The moon came up and cast a ghostly glow on the trail, the rocks, the wrapped form in front of him. With more light, he pushed the horses faster, holding tighter, trying his best to smooth out the uneven motion. The brown mare trotted easily behind, oblivious to the man’s panic.

And Jess shivered. Still radiating heat, he trembled and shook with a rising force that threatened to pull him from his partner’s protective arms. Slim murmured soothing words which grew increasingly more urgent as the delirious man thrashed about.

The shaking stopped as suddenly as it had started, and at first Slim was grateful; but as Jess went limp, flopping bonelessly against the supporting arms, Slim felt that knife thrust of fear again. Not a deeply religious man, he found himself trying to pray, but the only word that could make its way through his panicked brain was “please…” He repeated it over and over under his breath as they rode.

* * * * *

It was late…very late…when Slim saw the dim shapes of the cottonwoods guarding the spring in the distance. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Almost there, Jess,” he murmured to the unresponsive man. He pushed Alamo into a lope, knowing that his friend no longer felt the jolting.

There was a darker shadow next to the pond—a large, amorphous shape that nickered as he drew nearer. Alamo snorted in response, and another shadowed figure stepped out and became a man, arm outstretched.

“We’re coming in,” Slim called wearily, unwilling to risk a challenge. He pulled his horse to a walk and moved slowly onward.

“Slim?” the voice was familiar, and concerned.

Slim took what felt to be his first real breath in hours. “Mort?” he asked, unbelieving.

The sheriff was alongside Alamo, arms reaching upwards to help. “You found him.”

“We could use some help,” Slim said, suddenly overwhelmed by the worry and exhaustion of the long day. Together, the two men eased Jess from the saddle and onto Mort’s bedroll. Mort left Slim to settle the sick man while he unsaddled the horses and picketed them next to his own sorrel at the water’s edge.

The sky was just starting to lighten when Mort rejoined his friends. Jess was still swaddled in the blanket while Slim gently bathed his face and chest.

The sheriff stood and watched in silence. Slim’s tense shoulders and clenched fists told Mort most of what he needed to know: Jess was in bad shape and Slim was worried sick. “Where’d you find him?” he asked quietly.

The rancher didn’t look up. “’Bout eight miles up the trail. Looks like he went over the cliff.” Slim swallowed hard, then continued. “He’s burned and scraped raw, and dry to the bone. I thought…”

“You thought right,” Mort reassured him. “It’s a good thing you got him here.”

“I need to get him home,” Slim said tonelessly. “Daisy’ll be frantic.”

Mort put a gentle hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Let’s take a look at him,” he said soothingly. “Then we can figure what’s best.”

Slim looked up, his tired brain finally kicking in. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Tom Kincaid told me about Jess’s horse,” Mort answered. “I figured just like you, I’d start lookin’ here and hoped I’d catch up.”

The fear receded—just slightly—in the sheriff’s comforting presence, and Slim sighed deeply. “I’m glad you’re here, Mort,” he said.

* * * * *

The rising sun illuminated the sick man’s face, and Mort bit back a gasp. This was bad…much worse than he’d thought from what he’d been able to see in the darkness. He reached out a tentative hand and flinched at the heat.

“I’ve been trying to cool him down,” Slim said defensively. “He’s just so…”

Mort could feel the desperation emanating from the young rancher. He knew the odds on getting Jess home were low and dropping as the sun rose higher, and he was suddenly, unreasonably angry at the whole unfair situation. Mind busily calculating possibilities, he looked at the spring thoughtfully. “Let’s put him in.”

Slim’s head jerked up and he stared from Mort to the water and back to Jess. “You think that’ll help?”

The older man shrugged. “It’s the best way to get him cooled down fast.” He frowned. “Maybe too fast…”

Slim was nearly at the end of his strength, and he paused briefly, feeling an unexpected sense of relief that someone else was taking charge, then shook himself sharply. This was his problem, and his responsibility. He nodded firmly. “We’ll worry about that if it happens,” he said. “Right now, he’s got to get cool.”

They gently stripped away the remaining shreds of Jess’s tattered clothing, trying not to wince at the innumerable raw scrapes and cuts and bruises that marked almost every inch of the lean body, and wrapped him loosely in a blanket. Together, they carried the shrouded figure down to the spring and laid him gently at the water’s edge. Slim pulled off his boots and gun belt and climbed in after his friend, moving him deeper into the water. Skin shivering with gooseflesh, he sat in the shallow end and supported Jess’s head, keeping the unconscious man’s face out of the water.

Mort busied himself straightening up the camp and making a breakfast neither one wanted to eat, then sat on a rock at the water’s edge, moodily drinking a cup of coffee. He phrased his words carefully, trying not to alarm Slim further.

“Did you see any…any other sign?” he asked.

Slim looked up, startled out of his thoughts. “Sign?”

“Any other tracks nearby? Anything that might show…”

“I didn’t see anything,” Slim shrugged, feeling every minute of the long night pulling at him. “I didn’t…” He gulped, eyes haunted, “…Once I found him, I just…the only thing I could think of was getting him home.”

“That makes sense,” Mort agreed. “You did the right thing.”

“I hope so,” Slim muttered, looking down at the still figure in his arms.

* * * * *

It was late morning by the time Jess was pulled out, dried off and wrapped in clean clothing from Daisy’s supplies and Slim’s blanket. Slim and Mort studied the swollen and battered face worriedly.

“Do you think I can get him home?” Slim asked.

Mort sighed. “I think if he got himself along that arroyo and you got him here, he can stand to travel a little further,” he said. “Just take it slow and easy.” He looked around and considered possibilities. “You want to build a travois?”

Slim thought briefly, then shook his head. “It’d take too long,” he decided, “and it won’t do him any good to go bumping across the field. I’ll take him on Alamo.”

“I’ll ride for the doc and send him out to your place so he’ll be there when you get home.”

Slim nodded gratefully. “Thanks, Mort. And tell Daisy we’re on our way.”

“I’ll do that,” Mort shook his head. “Then I’m gonna come back and start back-trailing him. I want to find out what happened.” He took a deep breath. “Jess is too good a rider to just fall off a cliff like that.”

Slim’s mind was already on the trail towards home. “It happens even to the best,” he said absently.

“I just want to know,” Mort said. “Things like that kind of itch at me.”

They broke camp, opting to leave the mare at the spring rather than waste time leading her back. *That’s two I owe Tom,* Slim thought distantly.

Mort helped get Jess settled on Alamo’s back, balancing him as Slim adjusted the swaddling blanket to shade the sick man’s head from the brilliant sun. “Take care,” Mort said quietly. “I’ll have the doc waiting for you.”

Slim nodded and urged his horse towards home. Mort watched them go with a silent prayer.

* * * * *

The trail seemed much longer than it had two nights before. Slim rode doggedly, counting off the landmarks to his unconscious friend as if encouraging him to hold on.

The sun was already slipping behind the mountains when the exhausted horse and riders finally walked into the yard. As Mort had promised, the doctor’s buggy was tied in front of the house, throwing a long shadow across the porch.

The front door opened before they could pull up and Daisy appeared, followed by Dr. Jenkins and a wide-eyed Mike. Slim had to force his cramped arms to release the wrapped figure and hand him down to the waiting hands, and he staggered when his feet hit the ground. Leaving Alamo to find his own way to the barn, they bustled Jess inside and into the bedroom, then a solemn Daisy shooed Slim and Mike out into the front room.

“Go take care of your horse,” she said, gently pushing Slim towards the kitchen door, “then wash up. Supper’s on the stove.” She smiled briefly. “You look like you haven’t eaten in days.”

“Daisy…” Slim started.

Daisy put a small hand on his arm and squeezed it lightly. “You brought him home,” she said softly. “Now let us take care of him. You take care of yourself.” With a sad smile, she turned back into the bedroom, closing the door firmly behind her.

** * * *

The sound of the bedroom door opening roused him and Slim jumped to his feet. Mike, who had refused both supper and bed, had fallen into a troubled doze at the table just a hour earlier, and now he jerked awake at the sudden movement. Dawn was just brightening the room; the lamp on the table guttered and spit. Two pairs of worried eyes watched as Dr. Jenkins walked to the stove, followed by a weary Daisy. In the dim light, she looked tired and…old. Slim caught his breath. For the first time since he’d known her, she looked her age, and it terrified him.

The doctor was fiddling loudly with the coffeepot. “That boy is either the luckiest fellow…or the stubbornnest…I ever met.” He poured a cup of coffee and sat down heavily.

Slim was as tense as a coiled spring. “Doc…”

“I don’t know how he did it, Slim,” Dr. Jenkins shook his head wonderingly. “I honestly don’t know how.”

“Will he be all right?” Slim’s voice was barely audible.

“That depends…” the doctor started.

Slim’s hands clenched. “Doc!” he nearly shouted.

Daisy stepped forward. “He’ll be all right, Slim,” she said soothingly.

Dr. Jenkins glanced from one frightened face to the next and looked abashed. “If he could come through what he did and still keep on walking, I’d say he can pull through anything.”

Slim felt his legs give way and sat suddenly. The doctor took a slow sip of his coffee as he gathered his thoughts. “It’ll still be touch and go for a while. Keep him still, get as much liquid into him as he can hold, and keep the room as cool and dark as you can. I’d say move him into the root cellar except that’d be too damp. Daisy, you know what to do.”

Daisy nodded and put gentle hands on Slim’s tense shoulders. “Yes, doctor.”

The doctor put his coffeecup down and shook his head again. “Never seen anything like it. He’s just too da…” he paused, looking at Mike, and finished, “…durned stubborn to die.”

Slim’s thoughts were jumbled with fear and relief and all the worries he’d been pushing aside for days. “Can I see him?” he said.

The doctor, still lost in thought, looked up. “What?” He thought for a moment. “Well, he’s sleeping. You can go take a look if you don’t believe me.”

Mike jumped up and ran to the bedroom door with Slim just a breath behind him. “Whoa, Mike,” Slim said softly, reaching out to grasp the boy’s shoulder. Mike waited anxiously as the tall man pushed the door open gingerly, and the two stood tentatively in the doorway, peering into the darkened room. The bandages shrouding the sleeping form shone ghostly pale in the dim light.

“He probably won’t be able to talk to anyone for a couple of days yet,” the doctor’s quiet voice was right behind them. “All in all, he was pretty lucky—just a mild concussion, a few cracked ribs, a whole mess of cuts, scrapes and bruises and a pretty bad sunburn—all of which should heal with time.” He hesitated, then continued. “He’s badly dehydrated and running a very high fever, but that’s to be expected. Just keep cool compresses on, make him drink whenever he’s awake enough to swallow, and keep your fingers crossed.”

“But he’ll be all right,” Slim interrupted.

“I told you already,” Dr. Jenkins answered mildly. “That depends on him. But I can’t see him quitting now.” He pulled the door shut firmly and turned to face the others. “Now leave him be—he’ll need a lot of rest.” He eyed the worried pair with a slight smile. “I think I’d prescribe the same for you.” He walked back to the table, gathering his bag and hat, then turned to Daisy. “I’ll be back in two days, but send for me if…”

“I will,” Daisy interrupted before he could finish his sentence. “Don’t worry.”

The doctor nodded at the three anxious faces and headed for the door. “Get some sleep, all of you,” he ordered, shutting the door behind him.

Daisy gathered herself. She was ineffably weary and worried, but she knew that she had to be strong for Slim and Mike’s sake…and for Jess, as well. And so, putting on a bright smile, she bustled over to the small boy still standing by the closed bedroom door. “Now,” she said easily, putting an arm around his shoulder, “I think you should listen to the doctor and go to bed.”

He hung his head. “But Aunt Daisy…”

She hugged him tightly. “Everything will be all right,” she whispered into his hair, propelling him gently but firmly towards his room. He went reluctantly and paused in the doorway, looking back with mingled dread and hope.

“I promise,” Daisy said quietly, and Mike shuffled inside. As soon as the door closed behind him, Daisy turned to Slim. “That goes for you, too,” she said firmly.

Slim looked startled. “But…”

“No buts,” she broke in. “You look terrible. You won’t do Jess any good if you make yourself sick.” She stopped his protests with an imperious hand. “I’ll wake you when the morning stage gets here,” she said, smiling affectionately, “and I’ll take a nap then. But for now…” she pointed at the door where Mike had just disappeared and glared in mock-ferocity, “…to bed, young man!”

Slim smiled tiredly. “Yes’m,” he said obediently. “For a while.”

As he moved past her, on sudden impulse Daisy grabbed his hand and clasped it tightly in both of hers. Startled, he stopped and, folding her in his arms, the two silently shared their fears and their hopes.

* * * * *

The nights were the worst. For two days Jess tossed and muttered in and out of delirium; believing himself still on the trail, he tried to throw himself out of the bed, tried to crawl forward. The times when Slim spelled the exhausted Daisy he often had to hold his friend down forcibly, to pry his reaching hands, heavily mittened in bandages, from the headboard where they were struggling to pull him one inch more, one inch closer to home…

Slim’s eyes were grainy as he strained through the shuttered lamplight to see his partner’s face, nearly unrecognizable under layers of grease to soothe the angry sunburn and the white gauze wrapped around his sunblinded eyes. The swelling in his face had started to subside but his lips were still painfully cracked, and it was a struggle to get him to swallow the water and broth Daisy constantly supplied.

It was the third day before Jess’s wanderings stopped. At first Slim thought it was merely exhaustion—that Jess was too weak to keep fighting—and fear rose in his throat like acid; he half-rose to fetch Daisy, when he noticed the easy up-and-down motion of his friend’s breathing—quiet, not the labored, ragged gasps of the fever. He placed a hesitant hand on Jess’s forehead and his heart unclenched at the feel of cool, damp skin; the fever had broken and Jess was sleeping. And with that, Slim dropped back into his chair and drifted off into the first peaceful sleep he’d had in days.

When he woke, he was covered in a light blanket and Daisy was sitting on the other side of the bed holding Jess’s bandaged hand. Jess’s face was turned her way, but with his eyes covered it took Slim a while to realize that Jess was awake, and talking in a voice so weak it was nearly inaudible.

“Just lie still, Jess,” Daisy murmured, wiping his face with a cool cloth. “You’re going to be fine.”

Jess tried to lift a trembling hand to his face; it got halfway up and fell back to the bed limply. “My eyes?” he whispered hoarsely.

Daisy and Slim exchanged worried glances. “They’ll be fine,” Daisy soothed. “They’re sunburned. The doctor has them bandaged for now. That’s why you can’t see.”

There was silence for a long moment as the sick man’s foggy brain struggled with the puzzle. It was too much, too hard, and his thoughts skittered off. “How did I get here?” he asked incuriously.

“Slim found you.”

Slim joined in then, standing over the bed and beaming. “Seemed like you didn’t need me,” he said heartily. “You were bound and determined to make it home on your own.”

Jess seemed to absorb this silently. “What happened?” he asked after a moment.

There was an uncomfortable pause. “We were kind of hoping you could tell us,” Slim ventured.

“Don’t you remember anything?” Daisy asked gently.

Jess tried to think; his ribs ached, his face burned, and his eyes were filled with glass shards. “I…I don’t…” He winced and reached again for his face. With a strength born of his mounting fear, he managed to raise his hands towards his eyes.

Daisy grabbed the shaking hands and guided them back down to the coverlet before he could do any damage. “Now, that’s enough,” she murmured soothingly. “We don’t want to tire you out. You go to sleep now—we’ll talk about it more tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow…” Jess mumbled faintly as he faded back into sleep. * * * * *

Jess was more awake the next morning, lying very still as Daisy changed his dressings. She felt a shiver of alarm at his demeanor but forced herself to keep up a cheerful chatter as she worked, hoping to raise a spark of her Jess in the silent and despondent figure.

“...and you’re the talk of the town,” she said brightly, skillfully wrapping clean bandages around his hands. “Sheriff Corey has been here every day. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to see you awake. Oh, and he found your hat and gun—I don’t know where. He brought them back two days ago. Mr. Kincaid and his son came by that first day while you were still asleep, and the Ladies’ Society sent a basket and an apple pie—which Slim and Mike ate, I must say.” Jess winced, and she paused. “Oh, is that too tight?”

“No,” Jess said shortly.

Daisy studied him. He was too thin and seemed as taut as a drawn bowstring. She wished she could see his expression, but in between bandages and grease his face was unreadable.

She sighed. Of all her new family, Jess had been the hardest for her to read, until she knew what to look for—or maybe, as she suspected, he had purposely let her see things he normally kept hidden. Either way, she missed the closeness they had always shared. Today he was silent and cold, as faceless as a stranger, and she knew it wasn’t just the bandages. She realized that she was seeing the hard protective shell that he showed to outsiders, and it hurt to be pushed away, especially when she knew how much he needed comforting.

She swallowed, then forced herself to continue lightly. “I’m afraid you won’t be doing any roping for a while. You know you wore nearly all the skin off your hands and feet, but it’ll grow back. They’ll be sore for a while, though, and probably a little stiff, but they should be back to normal soon.”

“What about my eyes?” Jess asked abruptly.

Daisy’s hands stopped in mid-air, then she gathered herself and continued. “Well, the bandages should come off in another week, then…”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Jess said sharply.

“I don’t know, Jess,” she said gently. “They were badly sunburned, but the salve should help. The doctor thinks there’s no permanent damage, so you should be fine, as long as you stay quiet, and…” she slapped in pretended anger at the hand that was trying to pry the bandage loose above his right ear, “…leave those bandages alone!”

Jess sighed and dropped his hand heavily to the bed. He turned his face away and simply withdrew—as if she no longer existed. Daisy finished the rebandaging and bent to drop a light kiss on his forehead before she left, ignoring the startled reflexive jerk he gave at her touch.

“Rest, Jess,” she murmured softly. “Things will get better. I promise.”

Just before she closed the door she glanced back, and in that one brief moment, thinking he was alone, he dropped the mask he had worked so hard to construct. He seemed so lost, so fragile, so utterly unlike her Jess, that her heart broke.

* * * * *

When he heard the door close, Jess grimly raised his hand to his face again. The only part unbandaged was the back of his wrist, and so he ran that slowly up his face, trying to feel the outline of the bandages, trying to work an edge loose, to peel away a corner, to see if he could see something.

Something. Anything. Anything other than the blackness that consumed him.

He couldn’t even blink; his eyes were glued down with ointment and pads that did nothing to ease the broken-glass feeling of his eyelids or the stabbing pain in his head.

He could only vaguely remember the events leading up to his fall, but he remembered the sense of danger, and the feeling of urgency. There was someone after him and he was helpless; and even worse, he was putting his family in jeopardy.

He tried to push himself up but the pressure on his hands was too much and he barely caught the cry before it could break through his still-raw throat.

It hurt. Everything hurt…his head, his hands, his ribs, but especially, his eyes. And the fear was even worse: the fear of being helpless, being trapped; being blind. He turned his face away from the door, away from the room, and counted heartbeats. He was afraid.

* * * * *

Mort Corey sat in the half-darkness of the room and watched the man sitting stiffly in the armchair. There was more wrong here than he could see, but he wasn’t sure exactly what. Slim and Daisy hovered in the background, pretending cheerfulness, but Mort could see the strain in their eyes and in their posture. Jess was unreadable, with the stance and expression of a gunfighter about to face his opponent. Mort felt a chill run down his spine.

“Well, it’s good to see you up. You sure look a lot better than the last time I saw you,” Mort said brightly.

“Sorry I can’t say the same for you,” Jess said flatly.

Mort chuckled, then leaned forward. “Do you remember anything at all about what happened?”

There was an odd hesitation, then, “No,” Jess said.

Mort studied him intently. “You sure?”

“…I fell,” Jess frowned. “I remember I fell.”

“There wasn’t anyone else with you, was there?” the sheriff asked casually.

“No,” Jess replied, too quickly. “Why should there be?”

Mort sighed. “Just askin’,” he said easily. He stood up and nodded at Slim and Daisy. “Well, I guess that settles that. Jess, you listen to the doc and Daisy and get well.”

Jess forced a smile. “You bet.”

* * * * *

In the bright sunlight of the front room, Slim faced the sheriff. “What was that all about?”

Mort hesitated. “Maybe nothing.”

Slim stepped forward. “Mort?” He let the word dangle into a question.

The older man sighed. “I found his hat and gun about six or seven miles from where you found him. That’s where he fell.”

Slim waited, but nothing else came. “And?” he prodded.

“And… there were signs of a struggle—and tracks of three other horses with his.”

“You think he’s lying?” Slim was taken aback.

Mort shook his head quickly. “No, of course not…but he’s still kinda rattled. Maybe he don’t remember everything yet.”

Slim was lost in thought, feeling the first faint tinglings of alarm. “Three horses, you say?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you find anything about those three brothers that were asking after him?”

Mort shook his head. “They’re not wanted anywhere that I can find.” He shrugged. “They seem all right, but I’m still checking ‘em out.”

“You think there’s something wrong?”

Mort shook his head again. “They appear to be just what they say, and without Jess’s say-so…” He trailed off and blew out a frustrated breath. “It just makes me itchy, like I said.” He shrugged. “If they turn up again I’ll have a little talk with ‘em.”

Slim sighed deeply. “Well, if Jess remembers anything, I’ll let you know.”

“You do that,” Mort said. Slim turned back to the bedroom door, but Mort’s voice stopped him. “And Slim—“

Slim stopped and looked at the sheriff.

“—He’ll be all right.”

* * * * *

The three Johnston brothers tied their horses to the hitching rail in front of the saloon and looked down the dusty street. Abel was pale and drawn, but his two brothers seemed cheerful and Tyler hooked a friendly arm over Reese’s shoulder as they headed for the door.

“I still say it’s stupid to come back here,” Abel muttered as they entered.

“Now what’s the problem? We ain’t done nothin’. It’s been more’n a week—I just want to see if they found him yet.”

The saloon was surprisingly busy for the time of day, with men gathered around the bar and gossiping over their drinks. Tyler looked around. “You go get us a table—I’ll get the beer.” He pushed his brothers towards the back of the room and went up to the bar.

Fred, looking harried with all the extra business, glanced up at the newcomer expectantly. “Three beers,” Tyler said, looking around. “What’s all the excitement?”

“Oh, just a local boy got into a scrape,” Fred said, drawing the beers distractedly. He put the glasses on the bar and looked sharply at the man in front of him. “Say, ain’t you the one asking about Jess Harper a week or so back?”

“Yeah?” asked Tyler, interested.

“Boy, are you in luck—but not as much as Jess. You come that close to never seein’ him again.”

“Oh yeah?” Tyler raised an eyebrow. “What happened?”

Fred leaned in close, eager to tell the story again to a new—and interested—listener. “Seems he fell off a cliff down on the Absaroka Trail. Got banged up pretty good, but he managed to walk—crawl, mostly—for almost twenty miles before his partner found him.”

Tyler straightened. “He all right?”

“Oh, like I said, he was pretty banged up. But the doc says he’ll be right as rain in a couple of days.”

“He say anything about what happened? Somebody push him?” Tyler asked, trying to sound casual.

Fred considered. “No…maybe his horse threw him. These cowboys, they’re kind of touchy about that. He didn’t say anything except he fell. You gonna go visit?”

“Maybe in a little while,” Tyler said. “You think he’s up to gettin’ visitors?”

Fred shrugged. “I don’t know. Sheriff Corey went to see him yesterday but I think that’s all. Maybe I’d wait another few days if I were you…if you’ll be around, that is.”

“Oh, we’ll be around,” Tyler said smoothly. “I wouldn’t miss seein’ friend Jess—and congratulatin’ him on his narrow escape.”

One of the men at the far end of the bar waved a furious hand. “Hey, Fred! How about some service?” he called.

Fred shook his head. “I’m comin’,” he called back. “Well, give Jess my regards when you see him,” he told Tyler as he moved down the bar.

“We’ll just do that,” Tyler muttered to himself as he picked up the beers and headed for his table.

Reese and Abel were watching the room and their brother curiously. Tyler plunked the beers down and sat stiffly, lost in thought.

“What’s the matter now?” Reese asked.

Tyler looked at Abel. “You still feelin’ bad about Harper?” he asked. Abel glared at him and took a long pull at his drink.

Tyler smiled grimly and lifted his glass in a mock-salute. “Well, you can stop it. Harper’s alive.” He swallowed a large gulp. His brothers sat up straight and stared at him. Tyler placed the glass carefully back on the table. “We didn’t give him enough credit,” he grunted, a faint glimmer of what might have been respect in his eyes. “He’s some stubborn. He managed to crawl home.”

“Then we didn’t finish the job,” Reese said.

“I’m finished,” Abel said flatly.

Tyler slammed a fist on the table. “Just because it didn’t work don’t mean you’re finished. We got another chance now. We can do it right this time, and be sure.”

“He killed our brother, Abel,” Reese said, leaning forward. “And he damn near killed Tyler, too. Now you were all set to get him yourself the other day. Nothin’s changed since then.”

Abel stared down into his half-empty glass. “No, nothing’s changed,” he said bleakly.

Tyler nodded, satisfied. “Well, let’s drink up and go find this Sherman Ranch.”

They drained their glasses and headed outside, through the cheerful crush of men. Fred had his back to the door and didn’t see them leave.

* * * * *

They sat on the hill overlooking the small ranch and watched the scene below. It was a picture-perfect day: sun shining down on the neatly tended house and garden, sleek and well-groomed horses dozing in the corral and a small boy playing mumblety-peg in the shade beside the door. The Johnston brothers watched in puzzlement.

“Don’t look like anywhere you’d expect to find a gunslick,” Reese said. “You sure this is the right place?”

“Sherman Ranch, twelve miles east on the Cheyenne road,” Tyler said. He looked around. There was no one in sight but the boy. “This is it. Let’s go see.” They rode down the hill slowly.

At the sound of horses, Mike stopped his game and stood to watch the men approach. There was something about them that made him suddenly uncomfortable, and he darted into the house. Abel’s frown grew deeper, but Tyler and Reese seemed unconcerned and they rode easily into the yard.

As they approached, a small, white-haired woman came out of the house and stood on the porch watching them, the boy peering from the door behind her. “Good afternoon. Is there something I can do for you?” she asked.

“Is this the Sherman Ranch?” Abel asked politely.

She nodded. “It is.” The three men exchanged glances. Daisy felt a sudden shiver of fear, and she edged closer to the door.

“We’re looking for a friend of ours,” Tyler said, leaning over to watch her closely. “Jess Harper. We heard he was here.”

Daisy nodded again. “He’s here. But I’m afraid he hasn’t been well, and he’s not up to seeing visitors yet. If you’ll leave your names, I’ll tell him you called.”

“I’d surely like to see him, just for a few minutes,” Tyler said, smiling unpleasantly. “We left some unfinished business last time we met, and it’s settin’ kind of…uneasy. I’d like to get it settled.”

Daisy could feel the fear rising in her and she pushed it back hard, lifting her chin stubbornly. “Not today. He’s asleep right now.”

Tyler dismounted and slouched up to the porch; Daisy could feel the malevolence radiating from him and she stopped herself from shrinking back by sheer will.

“Maybe I didn’t make myself clear, ma’am,” Tyler said, moving closer. “This is important to me and my brothers. You tell him the Johnston boys want to talk to him—I think he’ll see us.”

Daisy forced herself to meet his eyes steadily. “I don’t care who you are, Mr. Johnston,” she said firmly, drawing herself up to her full height. “Jess needs his rest and I am *not* waking him. Perhaps you can call back in a few days…” Tyler put one foot on the porch step and this time Daisy couldn’t stop the reflexive flinch, but she took a deep breath and raised her chin determinedly.

“Tyler…” Abel began.

Slim appeared around the corner, wearing a leather blacksmith’s apron and holding a rifle loosely in one hand. “Something you want, mister?” he asked, raising the rifle casually to cradle it in his arms, finger near the trigger.

Tyler relaxed and raised his hands with an insincere smile, and suddenly the menace disappeared and he became just an unkempt man standing in the afternoon sun. Slim watched him warily.

“We just wanted to see Jess,” Abel called from his horse. “We’re old friends. I’m Abel Johnston, that’s Tyler, and this—” nodding at the silent man beside him “—is our brother Reese.” He looked at the grim faces around him. “We’re sorry to hear Jess is feeling poorly. We’ll come back some other time.”

Tyler and Slim were eyeing each other like two dogs with hackles raised. “Tyler?” Abel called, turning his horse to leave. His brother stayed in place, studying the tall rancher with narrowed eyes. “Ty!” Abel called again, sharper.

It broke the spell. Tyler pulled himself back to the present, looked around as if memorizing the house, the people and the surroundings, and stalked back to his horse, mounting in one fluid move.

He nodded to Daisy, who was still standing stiffly on the porch. “Sorry if we discommoded you, ma’am,” he said politely, tipping his hat in an exaggerated gesture. “We surely didn’t mean any trouble. You tell Jess we dropped by, y’hear?”

“I certainly will, Mr. Johnston,” Daisy replied evenly.

As they turned to leave, Tyler paused and looked back. “Tell him we’ll be back, too—to clear up that unfinished business.”

Slim joined Daisy on the porch and together they watched the men ride out. Daisy slumped down and placed a fluttery hand on her chest; Slim put a steadying hand on her shoulder and studied her worriedly. “What was that all about?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Daisy said, trying to will the rapid pounding of her heart to slow. “But I have a feeling Jess does.” Pulling herself upright, she marched into the house.

* * * * *

Jess slept until suppertime, and, no matter how anxious Slim was to question him about the visitors, Daisy insisted on leaving him undisturbed. She prepared the invalid’s meal and, when Jess finally woke, Slim carried it into the bedroom for her. She knew how much Jess hated feeling helpless and especially hated having to be fed, and she was silently hoping that Slim could distract him long enough to take some nourishment.

She felt a tug at her heart as she watched her problem child sitting sullenly in the darkened room. Jess was propped up on pillows and leaning against the wall, and he stiffened as he heard the two sets of footsteps enter. “Come to watch the show?” he asked grumpily.

Daisy seated herself at the bedside and took the bowl from Slim, placing it carefully in her lap. Slim leaned casually against the wall. “Not much of a show,” he said lightly, refusing to take offense. “No, I got a few questions if you’re up to it.”

Daisy filled her spoon and guided it carefully to Jess’s mouth. “Careful,” she said, tapping his bottom lip gently with the spoon, “it’s hot.” Jess turned, startled, and opened his mouth. Daisy deposited the spoonful and returned to the bowl while Jess swallowed slowly.

“There were some fellers here lookin’ for you,” Slim said.

Daisy brought up the next spoonful and Jess opened his mouth obediently.

“Name of Johnston.” Slim was watching carefully, and he noted that Jess stiffened slightly and his restless fingers suddenly stilled. “You know ‘em?”

Jess pushed away Daisy’s proffered spoon moodily. “Maybe.”

“Who are they?”

Daisy’s spoon tapped insistently and Jess swallowed another mouthful. “Just some fellers I met a while back.”

Slim tried to keep the sigh out of his voice. “How do you know ‘em?”

“I knew their brother. Years ago, down in Abilene.” He pushed Daisy’s hand away again peevishly.

“Now Jess,” Daisy coaxed, offering the spoonful again. “You have to eat to get your strength back.”

“I wish you’d both stop babyin’ me!” he snapped.

Slim lost his patience. “We will when you stop acting like a baby!” He regretted his outburst, and forced himself to speak calmly again. “Now what do these Johnstons have against you?”

Jess frowned. “What makes you think they do?”

“Because…”

Daisy looked up and shook her head forcefully, and Slim continued with only a slight pause, “…I can read men. That kind, anyway.”

Jess could feel the tension, knew something was wrong, and once again he cursed the bandages that kept him from seeing his friends’ eyes. He turned to Daisy. “They didn’t hurt you, did they, Daisy?”

“No,” she said.

“But they scared you.” It wasn’t a question.

Jess could hear the smile in her voice. “I don’t scare easily.”

“I know that,” Jess muttered. He turned towards his partner’s voice. “I’ll handle it, Slim.”

Slim was disturbed at the anger that was apparent even through the bandages, but he bit back his first instinctive response, knowing that it wouldn’t help to point out the obvious. After a long pause, he said in a very quiet voice, “Jess, we just want to help.”

His friend’s tense shoulders relaxed suddenly as he breathed out deeply. “I know. It’s just…” there was a note of anguish in his voice that twisted Daisy’s heart. “…Slim, it’s got nothing to do with you. Or with Daisy. I don’t want you mixed up in this. It’s something that happened a long time ago—long before I came here, and I got to take care of it myself.”

“But how?” Slim sounded frustrated.

“I don’t know!” Jess half-yelled. “As soon as I can get up and around…” “Maybe they’ll get tired of waiting and leave,” Daisy offered hopefully.

“They’ll be here,” Jess said darkly. “They ain’t goin’ nowhere. They’ve waited this long, a little longer won’t matter.”

Slim shook his head. “We got to tell Mort.”

“NO!” Jess barked. He reached out blindly, and Slim leaned in to grasp the wildly searching hand, which clamped on to his wrist tightly. “Promise me. Promise me, Slim—you stay out of it, and keep Mort out of it. I’ll let you know if I need help.” Slim glanced at Daisy, who was sitting frozen in place. Jess tightened his grip painfully. “*Promise!*”

Slim dropped his eyes to the ground. “All right,” he said softly.

With a half-nod, Jess turned his hand loose, and reached towards Daisy. “Now, I’m ready for some more of that dee-licious soup,” he said grimly.

* * * * *

Daisy confronted Slim later that night after Mike had gone to bed.

“You *are* going to talk to Mort, aren’t you?” she asked.

Slim looked away. “Daisy…”

She shook her head angrily. “You boys. Always think you can handle things on your own.” She stepped closer, thrusting her chin forward. “And I don’t care if you gave your word. *I* didn’t. So if you won’t talk to Mort Corey, then *I will!*

Slim chuckled unexpectedly. “You win, Daisy,” he said, shaking his head admiringly. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow.”

Daisy smiled sweetly. “In that case, I saved you the last piece of that apple pie. It’s in the oven.”

* * * * *

It was actually two days before Slim finally made it to town, a broken stagecoach axle and a colicky horse forcing him to change his plans. He’d fretted and kept close to the house, but there was no sign of the Johnston brothers or any other hints of trouble, although he’d made sure that the rifle was kept loaded and placed over the fireplace out of Mike’s reach.

Jess was growing increasingly restive, secretly practicing walking on painful and unsteady feet whenever he was left alone. He knew what he had to do, but he couldn’t make his still-shaky body follow his orders, and so he kept everyone at arm’s distance with his uncertain temper and sullen silences. He could hear himself saying things he didn’t really mean and he felt a guilty pang at the disappointment in Mike’s voice when he sent the boy away with sharp words.

*Have to keep them safe* he told himself sternly.

It was while Slim was working in the barn, trying to avoid his prickly partner, that he found the forgotten bank draft from Horse Creek still hidden in Jess’s saddlebags, and that gave him the final impetus to go into Laramie.

The day was warm with stormclouds brewing on the northern horizon as he loped down the road, his mind busily trying to figure out what he could tell the sheriff without breaking his word to either Jess or Daisy. He still hadn’t decided what to say by the time he finished his business at the bank and found himself heading to the sheriff’s office.

* * * * *

The three Johnstons were sitting at the front table in the small café with the remnants of a late breakfast in front of them. They were the only customers and the waitress threw them a cautious glance before heading into the kitchen in the back.

Reese pushed back his plate sulkily. “He’s doin’ this on purpose,” he said.

Abel looked up around a mouthful of bacon. “Doing what?”

“Makin’ us wait,” Reese said. “Maybe he thinks he’s gonna sweat us.”

Tyler smiled and finished his coffee. “I think he’s the one doin’ the sweatin’,” he said.

Abel shook his head. “I think we’re the fools, sitting and waiting.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Tyler nodded.

Abel was astonished. “You mean you agree with me?”

“Sure,” his brother said easily. “It’s time to stop waitin’. Time to start doin’.”

He stood and walked to the window, peering out into the street and eyeing the sheriff’s office directly opposite. Slim stepped out of the office and turned back for one final word, and Tyler drew back out of sight.

“The sheriff’s already suspicious, askin’ us all those questions,” Abel frowned. “How do we keep him out of it?”

“We’re fine upstanding citizens,” Reese said. “We done nothin’ wrong.” He grinned. “At least, nothin’ he can prove. You heard him. Harper ain’t said anything…yet. And we can fix it so he don’t. But it better be soon.”

Slim patted a leggy chestnut tied to the hitching rail and headed towards the general store. Tyler watched him speculatively. “We can’t do anything till Harper comes out of that house,” he said.

“Yeah. Imagine having a kid and an old lady to protect him. Some big-time gunslick,” Reese grumbled.

“So how’re we gonna get him out of the house?” Abel asked plaintively.

Tyler was still looking down the street, a pensive expression on his face. “We’re gonna give him somethin’ to come out for.”

“What’s that?” asked Reese.

Slim left the store, tucking a small package into his pocket, and walked over to his horse. He swung himself into the saddle and headed east out of town at a slow jog.

“Something he cares about,” Tyler said, tossing a coin onto the table and picking up his hat. “C’mon.” He was out the door before the others realized it. With startled glances, they grabbed their hats and trotted after him.

* * * * *

Slim’s day had not been going as well as he’d hoped. The ride to town had given him too much time to think and to worry, and his talk with Mort hadn’t eased his mind much.

Trying to keep *both* his promises, he’d been vague enough that Mort had finally lost his temper and told him to either spit out what he was trying to say or get out. That had nearly started another row as Slim, already short-tempered with worry and lack of sleep had snapped back; and it wasn’t until they were nose-to-nose with their backs up that they both realized the folly of arguing and settled down to talk.

Mort already knew about the Johnstons, Slim rationalized; he’d only promised Jess to keep Mort out of his fight, and so he told Mort what he’d learned about the Johnston brothers: that Jess had known their brother years before back in Abilene, and that they didn’t seem very friendly. He carefully avoided mentioning their visit or the implied threat, but he figured Mort would know there was trouble brewing. He left town feeling a little better that he’d managed to sidestep his promise to Jess while still keeping his word to Daisy. He was lost in thought, trying to decide what…if anything…he should tell Jess about his trip to town, and so he didn’t see the three men until they stepped out from behind a tree ahead of him, weapons aimed and ready. Slim took a deep breath and slowly raised his hands.

* * * * *

Jess sat in bed and concentrated all his remaining senses.

The doctor had been out the day before and proclaimed him “healing well,” but Jess had his own deadline and he knew his time was running out.

He focused, reading his body like he used to before a gunfight, running a mental checklist.

Arms…sore but working. His shoulders were still stiff but he could ignore that. He knew he could lift a rifle if he had to, but doubted that he could hold it for long…the strained and torn muscles still trembled after only a brief time. So—short bursts only.

His ribs still stabbed when he took a deep breath or moved too quickly. Most rough-string riders had to work with cracked or broken ribs at one time or another and he knew he could ignore them; they wouldn’t be a problem.

His hands were another story. The new dressings were thinner and he could finally feel his fingers. He flexed and opened them slowly, checking their range of motion; not enough. They still couldn’t grasp, much less manage the strength or the subtle motions of cocking a hammer or pulling a trigger. He pushed back a wave of despair.

Time. He just needed time.

His feet were a little better. He could stand and even walk for short distances, though it felt like he was walking barefoot across cactus. That didn’t matter. He could do it.

His head still ached terribly, but his mind was sharp and clear and he no longer felt the stabbing pains when he turned his head or tried to think. It was getting better every day.

And that left his eyes. And he still wasn’t sure what he could do about that.

The doctor had changed the dressings, removing the protective pads long enough to peel back his blistered eyelids and examine them. Even the dim light of the darkened room had caused excruciating pain, and as much as he wanted to open his eyes and make sure that he could, indeed, still see, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He felt Daisy’s soothing presence and her warm hand on his shoulder throughout the examination, but he refused to be comforted.

Time. The doctor had said, with time…

Time was what he didn’t have.

He breathed through the pain and listened. Birds chirped and insects buzzed. Daytime. The room was warm and stuffy with the afternoon sun hitting tight-shuttered windows. He could hear Daisy humming to herself in the kitchen and smelled the yeasty aroma of baking bread. Mike grumbled and turned pages at the kitchen table—trouble with his homework, Jess guessed. A horse snorted and stamped in the corral. He listened harder. No hammering, pounding, or rasping. No work sounds. Where was Slim? Jess knew that his partner had been staying close to home while he was recuperating, and he knew it had to do with the visitors the other day.

He thought about the Johnston brothers…about Zeke Johnston. It had been so long ago, and he hadn’t thought about it…about him…in a long time. He frowned, replaying his memories. Could he have done anything differently?

He could barely remember the boy’s face. Tall and skinny, dark-haired, with a mean twist to his mouth. That’s all he could remember.

Jess had just come off a cattle drive—a hard push to the railhead, with long hours and an old wrangler who’d taken a dislike to him and spent most of the drive with his spurs in Jess’s side. Jess had needed the money and so had put up with the needling with bad grace, and he was looking forward to some time alone.

There’d been a crowd of teenaged boys drinking in the saloon that afternoon, whispering amongst themselves and throwing looks at where Jess had been eating his supper peaceably in the corner. Finally, with the others urging him on, one had come swaggering up to him, adjusting his gunbelt and puffing out his chest. Zeke Johnston he’d called himself, like it was a name Jess was supposed to know.

The cowhand knew what was coming, and wanted no part of it. “Go home, boy,” he’d told him, in a voice that would have sent a smarter man running for cover, but the kid was either too young or too stupid to recognize the danger.

Jess admitted that he could have tried harder, but he’d had a rough couple of weeks and his temper wasn’t long enough to measure; and so when the kid had dumped Jess’s still-full plate of food into his lap, he’d stood up to give the boy what he was asking for.

He was just too damn young. Jess was feeling old and worn out, and he didn’t want to bury another kid just for trying to prove he was the stud-duck in the pond, and so he’d placed his shot to notch the boy’s ear, hoping that would make him rethink his future. The look on the young face made him wonder if it mightn’t have been better to shoot him and get it over with—a mix of astonishment and fear and pure hatred, spurred on by the jeers of his friends behind him.

“Go home, kid,” he’d told him wearily and turned towards the door. That’s when he’d heard a hammer click behind him in the sudden silence and he’d twisted and fired instinctively.

* * * * *

Supper had come and gone, and Slim hadn’t returned from town. Mike had been sent to his room to finish his homework as a worried Daisy prepared Jess’s meal. She was listening tensely for Slim’s return, and so when she heard hoofbeats coming into the yard she heaved a sigh of relief. She hadn’t realized that she had been holding her breath until she was forced to ex

hale. Something was wrong. The horse had stopped, but no footsteps came towards the house. Heart pounding, she peeked through the curtains, and what she saw nearly stopped her heart.

Tyler Johnston sat alone in the center of the yard, in the lengthening shadows of the late afternoon. Watching. Waiting.

Daisy was frightened but determined, knowing that, with Slim away and Jess asleep—she hoped—it was up to her to take care of her family. She closed her eyes briefly and gathered her courage, then, resolutely, she pulled the rifle down from the wall and checked the load. She gave heartfelt thanks that Jess had taken the time, back when she’d first arrived at the ranch, to make sure that she knew how to handle the rifle, even with her fighting it every inch of the way. Oh, they’d had their battles, to be sure—with her steadfast determination that she’d never fire a weapon in anger and his stubborn insistence that she at least know how, for Mike’s sake if not her own. She prayed silently that she’d never have to use that knowledge.

Everything seemed to be in order. She threw one more worried glance at the closed bedroom doors and turned to the front window. As she peeked through the curtains, she heard a loud thump and a string of muffled curses through the bedroom door. Well, Jess was awake, she thought, and it sounded like he was trying to tear the bedroom apart, board by board. She sighed and hoped he’d stay put, though she knew that there was little chance of that.

The door to the second bedroom opened and Mike’s curious face peered out. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“Mike, dear, please stay in your room,” Daisy said distractedly.

“But Aunt Daisy…” he started.

Daisy shook herself back to face him. “Please, Mike. There might be some trouble and I need you to stay out of the way.”

“But…” “Mike!” she snapped.

The boy’s face dropped. “Yes, ma’am,” he said sulkily and went back to his room, closing the door harder than necessary behind him. Daisy sighed and added another to her list of sins she’d have to repay later.

A wobbly Jess appeared from the first bedroom, supporting himself awkwardly on the doorframe. His shirt was unbuttoned and his hair stuck up at odd angles and he had a determined twist to his mouth that made Daisy’s heart drop. She leaned the rifle against the wall and leaped forward to catch him as he staggered. Shaking her head and clucking under her breath, she guided him to a chair and smoothed his hair down briefly. Still hoping he didn’t know about the man outside, she tried to bluff, knowing that Jess could pick up her emotions and would probably try to do something reckless. “What are you doing out of bed?” she scolded, reaching to fasten the buttons he hadn’t been able to manage with his bandaged hands.

He wriggled out of her grasp, so tense he was practically vibrating. “What’s wrong?” he said.

She couldn’t tell him; *wouldn’t* let him risk himself just for foolish pride. She opened her mouth, trying to find words that would ease his mind, but before she could say anything, he snaked out a hand and grabbed her arm. His face was pale with pain but determined. “Daisy?”

She sighed, knowing she couldn’t lie to him. “One of the Johnston brothers is outside. He’s just standing there, waiting.”

“Where’s Slim?”

“He went to town this morning and he’s not back yet,” she admitted.

Jess’s grip tightened fractionally then released. He pulled himself painfully from the chair and felt his way across the floor in the direction of the door. Daisy trailed after him, putting a comforting hand on his arm.

He stopped by the door and turned his face to the light. “Do you see the others?” he asked tightly.

Daisy twitched aside the curtains. “I only see one.”

Tyler’s voice cut sharply through the door. “Harper! We know you’re in there!”

Jess was trapped in his worst nightmare: his family was in danger and he was helpless. His hands clenched unconsciously and pain flared in still-mending nerves. He leaned back against the wall, trying to think, and felt something hard bump against his side. A bandaged hand traced it mindlessly till recognition clicked into place: the rifle. An idea flickered into life and he cocked his head thoughtfully at the door, trying to consider all the possibilities. He forced his hand to close around the stock and lifted the rifle, but his thickly wrapped fingers refused to fit into the trigger guard.

Jess knew what had to be done. He tightened his mouth and thrust the rifle at the woman hovering beside him. “You have to shoot, Daisy.”

She jerked her hand back, appalled. “Oh, Jess…”

He pushed down his roiling emotions and held the weapon out steadily. “Just get his attention,” he said evenly. He could feel her trembling, and he silently cursed himself for what he was doing…what he hoped he wouldn’t have to do. He offered a wordless prayer that she would eventually forgive him. “Please, Daisy,” he said softly.

It was another long minute before she finally gripped the rifle, and he listened intently as she cracked the door slightly and fired. The bullet kicked up dust at the horse’s feet and he danced and jittered sideways then settled as Tyler gripped his sides. The man didn’t blink.

Jess made his voice as deep and threatening as he could. “You’re trespassing, Johnston. Get off this ranch or the next one is for keeps,” he called through the door.

Tyler’s voice was cool and…amused. Jess felt his blood chill. “That ain’t very friendly, Harper. We’re just here for some tradin’.”

“There’s nothing you got that we want,” Jess snapped, fighting back the fear.

“You sure about that?” Tyler nodded to the side and his brothers rode out from behind the barn, a bruised and battered Slim between them. Daisy gasped and stiffened.

“What is it?” Jess whispered urgently.

She swallowed hard, trying to keep her voice calm. “They’ve got Slim.”

Jess felt the air leave his lungs in a sudden sharp breath and his fists clenched. He knew his bluff had been called.

“What do you say now, Harper?” Tyler called, a feral smile twisting his mouth. “Don’t you think that’s an even trade? Him for you?”

From the yard he heard Slim’s urgent voice. “Don’t do it, Jess!” his partner called out loudly. “You stay…” The voice broke off suddenly. Daisy bit her lip as she saw Reese swing his rifle barrel at Slim’s head; the tall man swayed at the blow but managed to stay in the saddle.

Jess’s face was bleak as he pulled himself upright. Even through the bandages, Daisy could read his thoughts clearly and she clung tightly to his arm. “Jess—you can’t go out there,” she pleaded.

“I don’t have much choice now, do I?” Jess asked grimly. He took a deep breath and tried a smile. “Don’t worry—they won’t hurt any of you once they have me. I’m all they’re after.” He hoped that was true. The thought of going outside and facing his enemies—helpless—made his gut twist, but he knew he was out of options. But…he paused for a moment. Maybe he could pull off one last bluff….

“I won’t go out all wrapped up like a Christmas present,” he said flatly, tugging at the bandages covering his eyes. Daisy’s hand reached out instinctively, then stopped, and she watched in anguished silence as he removed the protective wrappings and squinted painfully into the light.

“Jess?” she whispered.

There was a long minute of silence as Jess blinked and somehow managed to suppress the urge to dig his knuckles into his eyes. He looked around the room slowly and tried a faint smile. “I’m all right,” he said quietly. “Things are a little blurry, but I’ll be fine.”

With a deep breath, he pushed open the front door and stepped out onto the porch. Daisy lingered in the doorway, the rifle dangling, forgotten, in her hand.

The late afternoon sun hit Jess’s face and he almost staggered at the pain that knifed through his eyes, but he forced himself to walk calmly to the edge of the porch and faced the sounds of the horses. “Turn him loose,” he said quietly.

“You come here,” Tyler demanded. He studied the man in front of him, in stockinged feet and shirt buttoned haphazardly, showing patches of white bandage underneath. The sunburned face was swollen and blistered, and his hands were heavily wrapped. Tyler smirked. “I swear, you’re a hard one to kill, Harper. But this time we got you.”

Jess felt his way to the edge of the porch and stepped off carefully, holding on to the railing as long as he could. The yard was silent, all eyes on him as he shuffled forward. He could see only a white glare and some large indistinct shapes, but pride kept his head high as he walked forward, ignoring the pain in his still-mending feet. Intent on the sounds of the horses that guided his way, he was unaware of the silence that greeted his steps.

Slim held his breath at the sight of Jess awkwardly feeling his way across the yard. He felt a surge of pride at his friend’s courage as the injured man raised his head and moved steadily, his set face stubbornly refusing to show any pain or fear.

In growing confusion, the three brothers watched Jess shuffle across the yard. Slim could see when realization hit each of them: Abel stared, horror-stricken, a puzzled frown creased Reese’s face, and Tyler’s eyes reflected an unsettled mixture of anger, revulsion, and what might even be…pity.

Jess stopped when he reached the first large blurry object that he figured must be one of the horses and put out a tentative hand to stroke the warm hide, then raised his chin. “All right, you got me,” he said curtly. He turned blank eyes to the side. “Slim?”

Slim had to swallow twice before he could speak. “Right here, Jess,” he said.

“You all right?”

Slim felt a catch in his chest. “I’m fine. Are you?”

His friend smiled sourly. “You bet.” He turned his clouded eyes back towards the horse and angled them upwards. “He’s no part of this—and neither are the woman or the boy. This is between me and your family.”

“That’s so,” Tyler said sullenly. He gestured and his brothers turned Slim loose, watching the rancher warily as he dismounted and moved alongside Jess to rest his hand lightly on his friend’s shoulder.

Jess didn’t look away, but his shoulders relaxed infinitesimally. “Slim?” he said.

The tall man glared coldly at the three men. “Yeah.”

“Get out of here,” Jess commanded. “This is none of your concern.”

There was no way in hell he was going to leave. Slim dropped his hand but stayed resolutely at Jess’s side, staring at the brothers challengingly.

With an expression that hinted at nausea, Abel moved up alongside his oldest brother. “Ty…let’s get out of here,” he said.

Tyler tightened his lips. “Not till we finish what we started.”

“Ain’t we done enough?” Abel glanced at Jess squinting painfully into the sunlight. “He’s blind, Ty,” he whispered. “I ain’t shooting down no blind man.”

“He wasn’t blind when he gunned Zeke. Or have you forgotten that?” Tyler snapped.

Abel looked down. “No, I ain’t forgot. But that was a long time ago.”

“I didn’t want to kill your brother,” Jess said quietly. With his family safe, the strength that had carried him so far left him in a rush and exhaustion swept over him. He fought to keep his legs and voice steady. “He called me out. I didn’t want to fight him, but he was bound and determined to show off in front of his friends.” He sighed. “I tried to warn him off,” he said wearily. “But when I turned my back, he drew on me.” He blinked heavily. The brightness before him was dimming, and there was a humming in his ears that was growing louder; he knew he couldn’t hold on much longer, and he fought to keep his weakness from showing in front of these men. “I’m sorry it had to happen. He was young, and he might have grown out of his meanness. I’m just sorry he didn’t get the chance.”

“And you’re the reason he didn’t!” Tyler spat.

Jess lowered his eyes. “Maybe,” he said. “It don’t matter any more.” He looked up again. “I’m tired of blood feuds. Let’s end this one, here and now.”

“Here and now,” Tyler said with satisfaction. He swung off his horse and walked a few steps to stand clear. Jess, head tilted to listen, turned towards the sound of footsteps and inched away from his partner.

Abel moved his horse to block his brother, staring down at him in horror. “Ty…you can’t kill him in cold blood.”

“I sure can. And so should you.”

Abel twisted to look at Jess. “Zeke was a good boy,” he said, half-pleading, “but he was a mite sudden.” He turned back to face his brother squarely. “You know that, Ty. He always had a real bad temper. He wouldn’t take being made to look foolish. He could’ve tried to backshoot Harper if he was mad enough.”

Tyler pushed Abel’s horse out of the way angrily. “That don’t make no difference! Our brother’s dead and this man killed him.” He turned frigid eyes on the dark-haired man before him. “He’s been tried and found guilty, and I’m about to pass sentence.” He pulled his revolver from its holster.

Slim jumped in front of his friend. “This is murder!” he said tightly, looking from one brother to the next, praying he’d see some spark of reason. Reese lifted his rifle slowly and pointed it at the angry man; Slim ignored it. “Pure, cold-blooded murder, and I’ll see to it that you hang,” he finished bitterly.

“This is justice,” Tyler said coldly, holding his gun loosely. “An eye for an eye. That’s all that matters.”

Slim clenched his jaw so tightly the muscles in his cheek twitched and jumped. “Then you’d better kill me too, because I swear I’ll hunt you down if it takes the rest of my life!” he ground out.

“Stay out of this, Slim!” Jess shot back angrily. Anger and fear for his friend gave him a sudden burst of energy, and he pushed Slim out of the way and turned to face the blurry figure in front of him. “You think you got to shoot me, then go ahead. But let it end here. I don’t want any more killings. I don’t want any of my friends hurt on my account.”

He could feel Slim tense, and he cut him off sharply. “Don’t you understand, Slim? It don’t matter. If I’m dead, it don’t matter to me any more who did it or why. I won’t be keepin’ score.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a brief moment, feeling weariness wash over him. When he spoke again, his voice was very quiet. “I done some things in my time that maybe I shouldn’t have. Just count this as the reckoning.”

Slim’s voice was hushed. “You’ve done nothing to deserve this. Nothing bad enough to die for.”

Jess tightened his mouth and raised his chin stubbornly. The yard was silent. Tyler’s gun wavered slightly then steadied again.

Abel leaned forward. “Ty…” There was no response. Abel turned to his other brother, face pleading. “Reese?”

Reese blinked and loosened his grip on his rifle. “Ty…maybe Abel’s right.”

Tyler looked up, startled. “You backing out on me, too?” He straightened his shoulders. “Well, it don’t matter. I promised Pa I’d watch out for the family. This is my job.” He studied Jess one last time. “You got anything else to say?”

Jess lifted his head proudly, then dropped his eyes. “Just…not in front of the house,” he said. “I don’t want Mike or Daisy watching.”

Tyler blinked, startled, then nodded. “Fine,” he said shortly. Jess walked stiffly towards the barn with Tyler following warily, gun trained on Jess’s back as if expecting the man to make a run for it. The others stayed in place, unwilling to witness what they knew was coming. Slim took one shaky step forward then stopped, fists clenched helplessly, watching as the two moved away.

The loud crack of the gunshot echoed in the stillness. Slim and Abel both jerked as if hit, but it was Tyler who fell, bowled over into the dust, gun dropping from his lax hand.

Reese swung his rifle instantly in the direction of the shot, only to see…

…a small, sweet-faced, white-haired woman in a blue gingham dress and white apron standing on the porch of the house, holding a rifle in a shaking hand.

Abel hadn’t waited to see who had fired the shot; he was already off his horse and running towards the fallen man. Reese, with one long disbelieving look at Daisy, jammed his rifle back into the scabbard and jumped off his horse to join his brothers.

Daisy stepped off the porch and stumbled dazedly across the yard. Jess stood in place, twisting towards the sound of the shot and blinking, desperately trying to clear his vision enough to see what was going on. “Slim? Slim! What happened?” he called thickly.

Slim saw the distraught look on Daisy’s face as she walked blindly towards the fallen man, and he intercepted her, gently pulling the rifle from her unresisting hands. Jess fell silent, listening intently and trying to make sense of the sounds around him. Daisy pushed past both of them without a glance, concentrating on the man on the ground.

Slim moved next to his partner and touched his shoulder lightly. “Tyler’s been shot,” he whispered, watching as Daisy reached the Johnstons. Jess started, then slumped, guessing at what had been left unsaid. He had heard the direction of the shot and knew who must have done it, and it tore at his heart.

Daisy could see the bright red blood soaking the wounded man’s shoulder, and, oddly enough, the sight calmed her—it forced her mind away from the horror of her own actions and focused it on something familiar…how to deal with a gunshot wound. She could feel her mind beginning to work again as she took a deep breath and pushed Reese out of the way. “Let me see,” she said softly, kneeling down beside the injured man. Abel stood to let her get closer. The men looked lost, waiting for her to give them directions.

She examined Tyler quickly. Peeling away the blood-soaked shirt, she pulled off his bandanna, wadded it against the wound and grabbed Reese’s hand, pressing it tightly against his brother’s shoulder. “Hold this.” He balked, and she pushed the hand down firmly. “Press hard.”

She noticed Jess still standing shakily in the center of the yard with Slim half-supporting him. “Slim—get Jess back to bed,” she ordered. Without waiting to see if he obeyed, she turned back to Tyler, checking the makeshift bandage briefly, then looked up and caught Abel’s eye. “Let’s get him inside,” she commanded. Abel knelt awkwardly next to her as she directed the two brothers to pick up the unconscious man. As they struggled to their feet, she pulled herself up and marched towards the house, a forlorn parade trailing behind her: Abel and Reese carrying their brother and Slim, the forgotten rifle still in his hand, shepherding Jess in the rear.

Once inside, Daisy took charge with fierce determination. Slim watched in awe as she ordered Abel and Reese to put Tyler on the couch beneath the window while she headed for her medical kit in the back room. They obeyed her wordlessly.

Jess wobbled, and Slim eased him down into his rocking chair by the fireplace. Jess batted away his helping hands distractedly. “I’m all right,” he grumbled.

“Sure you are,” Slim retorted, sidling over to get a clear view of the Johnstons. Mike, wide-eyed and quiet, hovered near his bedroom door as if afraid of being noticed.

The room was humming with tension but the only one moving was Daisy, bustling between stove and couch, intent on her work. Abel and Reese hovered over her until she shooed them out of her light; they moved unwillingly and stood at a safe distance, leaning against the wall and watching tensely. The room was silent except for the small sounds of clinking instruments, boiling water and Tyler’s harsh breathing.

They all heard the sounds of galloping hoofbeats approaching. The men snapped to attention, but it was Mike who ran to the window to look out. “It’s Sheriff Corey!” he announced.

Abel and Reese stiffened and their hands went automatically to their sidearms; Slim raised his rifle warningly. “Hold it!” he called.

Time stopped as the three men stared at each other, weapons poised.

Daisy looked around the room and snorted inelegantly. “Hasn’t there been enough shooting already?” she snapped as she returned to her patient. The men dropped their hands sheepishly as Mike opened the door.

Mort Corey didn’t know what to expect, and he came in with gun drawn and ready for anything… well, almost anything. Four saddled horses were wandering loose around the yard, and his lawman’s instinct was screaming of danger, but as far as he could tell, everything seemed to be in order—or at least, calm.

He studied the room carefully, recognizing the two Johnston brothers loitering in the back, trying their hardest to look innocent while Daisy worked busily on the third who was lying on the couch. Jess, pale and shaky, was in his rocking chair, sitting stiffly and gripping the arms with an unexpected ferocity, and Slim, face shadowed with bruises, was standing protectively behind him, holding a rifle loosely in his arms.

Mort released his pent-up breath and slipped his gun back into its holster.

“Hello, Mort,” Slim said easily.

The older man nodded warily. “Slim. Looks like you had yourself some party.”

Slim shrugged, ostentatiously casual. “Nothing much.”

Mort shot him a measuring glance, then turned to Jess. “Good to see you up and around, Jess.” He looked around the room again and met Abel’s eyes. “Boys.” He nodded briefly. “I heard a gunshot when I was riding up.”

He could feel the tension in the room ratchet up a notch, but Abel looked at him evenly. “My brother was cleaning his gun and it went off…accidentally.”

Mort turned to Slim, eyebrows raised. “That so?”

Slim shrugged, and Daisy nodded without looking up from her work.

The sheriff gave Abel a hard stare, then looked at the room in general. “And Jess fell off a mountain accidentally. And you,” he turned to Slim, examining the battered face carefully, “I suppose you ran into a bedpost in the dark?”

Slim gave him a ghost of a smile. “That’s right, Mort.”

Mort waited to see if there would be more, then shook his head. Whatever the problem had been, it seemed to be under control. He decided to drop his own little bombshell and see if anyone ducked.

“I just got word from Abilene about some brothers who were lookin’ for you, Jess. Seems you had a run-in with their brother a few years back. I thought you might need some help.” There never was such a group of innocent-looking faces. Mort snorted. “Looks like you *all* could use some.” He shook his head in mock-disgust. “I’ve never seen such an accident-prone bunch.” He turned to the door, then stopped to survey the room. “You sure you’re all right?”

Slim smiled—a real smile this time, and the sheriff relaxed. “We’re fine, Mort. Believe me.”

The older man blew out a hard breath and shook his head again. “I’ve never known you to lie, Slim,” he said flatly. “I hope someday you might explain just what in tarnation is going on here.” He opened the door, then hesitated. “I’ll send the doc out,” he announced to the room. “Looks like you all could use him.”

As the door closed behind him, there was a noticeable easing of tension and a collective sigh of relief. Daisy barely noticed him leave; she pushed the bowl of water away and reached for her bandages.

Jess tilted his head in her direction. “Daisy? How is he?”

She smiled at the two men standing anxiously behind her, sharing her own feeling of relief. “He’ll be fine,” she said. “The bullet missed the bone, and I got it out with no trouble.” They dropped their heads and relaxed.

Jess sat stiffly upright. His voice was icy as he turned to fa¬ce the others. “Is it ended?”

There was a long pause while Abel and Reese exchanged glances, then Abel nodded slowly. “It’s ended.”

Jess nodded towards the couch. “What about him?”

“For him too,” Abel said shortly.

Jess snorted his mistrust. “He seems mighty hard to convince.”

Abel glared. “We can convince him.” He sighed, looking suddenly tired and much younger. “He’s a good man, Harper. He just felt bad about letting our Pa down. Y’see, he promised to look out for Zeke.”

Jess lowered his eyes, feeling weariness sweeping over him again. “Yeah.” His face pinched suddenly and he swayed; Slim reached out to steady him and Daisy looked up from her work.

“I thought I told you to get back to bed!” she said, aiming for anger but not quite hiding the worry. Jess waved her away, trying to argue, but she ignored him, turning to the other man. “Slim—take him in and hogtie him if you have to.”

With a bemused look, Slim half-lifted Jess from the chair and guided him, still protesting, into the bedroom.

Abel watched them go with a look of half-hidden amusement. “Ma’am,” he turned back to Daisy, “We do appreciate what you…what you’re doing for Tyler there.”

Daisy continued her bandaging without looking up. Her voice was detached and he felt a sudden pang of remorse for what they had put her through. “Mr. Johnston, I’ve never shot at a living thing before in my life. I didn’t like the feeling.” She tucked the edge of the bandage under neatly and patted it carefully into place. “I have enough to worry about already; I don’t need your brother’s death on my conscience too.” Wiping her hands deliberately, she sat up straight and looked at him levelly. “Besides, as Jess said—let’s put an end to blood feuds. Death serves no purpose at all.”

The young man was suddenly unable to look her in the face, and he lowered his eyes to the floor. “That Harper—he wasn’t what I was expecting,” he admitted.

Daisy smiled suddenly, joyously. “No—he surprises me sometimes too.” She looked at him compassionately. “He’s a good man, Mr. Johnston. I’m very glad you didn’t kill him.”

Abel still couldn’t meet her eyes. “No thanks to me, ma’am—but I’m glad too.”

The moment was broken by Mike, who edged over to stare at the unconscious Tyler. “Is he all right, Aunt Daisy?”

For the first time in days, Daisy felt she could answer with confidence, and she smiled. “He will be.” Her smile encompassed the whole house and all its occupants.

She patted the bandages lightly and looked up at the others. “He should probably rest here for a day or two. It might take some time, but he should be as good as new, as long as you keep the wound clean and he doesn’t lose any more blood.”

Reese shuffled his feet uncomfortably. “I don’t guess he’ll be wantin’ to hang around here. But thank you for the offer. Soon as he’s up to it, we’ll be off.”

Daisy nodded and stood wearily, stretching her back and feeling finally at peace. “There’s coffee on the stove. I’d better go check on my other patients.”

* * * * * *

The bedroom was warm and dark, the coolness of the early evening not yet penetrating the shuttered windows. Slim was once again seated in the chair by the bed watching his friend who had slumped back onto his pillows, eyes closed.

“Everything all right?” Slim asked. He could feel that something in Daisy had changed, eased, and he smiled in relief.

Daisy took Slim’s face in her hand and examined it closely, clucking at the bruises. “You’re going to have some beauties,” she said admiringly. “Why don’t you go get washed up while I read Jess the riot act?”

Slim jumped to his feet. “He’s all yours,” he said, bounding out the door.

Daisy eased herself down in the chair and watched as Jess opened his eyes and blinked rapidly. She could see as vision slowly returned and his eyes focused.

“Now didn’t I tell you everything would be fine?” she chided him softly. She dipped a cloth into the basin beside the bed and leaned over to gently bathe his face. He closed his eyes under her ministrations and smiled tiredly, feeling her soothing presence and the calmness at her center. However bad the storm had been, it was over now.

“The doctor will be here soon to wrap you up and tie you down if he has to,” she said firmly. “You’re still not ready to take on the world…” she paused and her voice softened, “…but you will be.” Her hand, still holding the damp cloth, stopped and she cupped his cheek gently.

He leaned into her hand. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, eyes hidden under the long lashes. “Sorry you had to…”

She broke in before he could voice what she knew would be guilt. It was, after all, her choice, and whatever regrets she had, she would live with them. Because it was worth it. *He* was worth it.

“I guess I’m just an old mother bear defending her cubs…” She smiled and stroked his hair, tenderly pushing it off his face. “You’re very dear to me, Jess,” she whispered. “You and Slim and Mike.”

Jess closed his eyes and, with a deep sigh, faded into sleep. Daisy sat watching him for a moment, then leaned over to drop a gentle kiss on his forehead.

Jess smiled.



July 2009




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