Second Chance


by Patricia Henry





PROLOGUE

The silver dollar rolled half way across the table. The coin twirled before it fell flat.

"You in or out?"

The haze of the cigar smoke hung like a cloud in the saloon. A swamper moped the floor, leaving wet trails of soapy water. Still the smell of stale whiskey and beer lingered.

On Saturday, it was always a standing room crowd. But today, the place seemed almost like a ghost town. Occasionally a sound was heard from the second level, but so far only one of the saloon girls had appeared. She leaned against the bar, swatting flies off the free food, which consisted of hard boiled eggs and beef sandwiches.

The bartender wore a bored expression as he wiped glasses with a dirty towel. He had served beer to the only two customers in the room. But unlike Saturday night when the buyers seemed to have an endless desire for liquor, only one of the cowboys had bought a second round while the other had nursed his drink, sipping only a few times during the last hour.

Jess Harper studied the cards so hard that his face crinkled.

The dealer grinned. "Mighty sweet pot, ainít it?"

"Should be. Has most of my money in it."

Jess didnít notice the saloon girl approach the table, for his blue eyes were locked on his cards. The dealer slid his arm around her waist. Squeezing hard, he pressed her to his body. For a second her face recoiled at his scent of body odor; but very quickly she hid her expression.

"You still playing cards? I thought you wanted to spend some time with me." She smiled at the dealer. Her hand stroked his chest. His shirt was damp from sweat and spilled beer.

"Easy, darling. Well Jess? As you can see, I ainít got all night."

Jessí eyes slid from his cards to the two bills on the table in front of him.

"Iím ou..."

The saloon girl gave a nod. The jerk of her head was so small that only Jess noticed.

"Iím in." Jess threw a bill into the pot. "And I raise you a dollar." Jess laid his last dollar in the center of the table.

The saloon girl glanced at the dealer. Surprise was etched on his tan face. "I think youíre bluffing."

"Cost you a dollar to find out."

"Curly, I ainít got all night," the girl said.

"I know, honey. But thatís a mighty big pot Iím looking at. Got most of my money in it." Curly now studied his own cards. His fingers tapped on the deck of cards.

"Well you best have twenty dollars on you!" She pulled away from his embrace. "I ainít going upstairs for less."

"You calling or folding?" Jess asked.

"I say youíre bluffing." Curly tossed a silver dollar on top of the pile of money. "What you got?"

Jess showed his cards. "And you?"

Curly threw his cards on the table. "Nothing that will beat you."

Jess picked up the cards that Curly had tossed. Jessí brows shot up with surprise. "You bid that much on a pair of fours?"

"I done told you, I figured you were bluffing," Curly snarled. "Your luckís been lousy all night. ďĎSides I was sure you were going to fold."

Jess raked the money towards him. He put the silver dollars in his pocket then fingered the bills. "I ainít had this much in awhile."

"Guess that doubles your weekís salary." Curly looked longingly at the money. "Well honey, I still got enough for you and me to have some fun." As he stood, Curly drank the last of his whiskey in one gulp. He set the glass on the table then wiped his sleeve across his mouth. Unlike Jess, he was not clean shaven, and bits of egg clung to his beard.

Jess asked, "Curly, now that youíre not working at the stable, you going to stay in Laramie?"

"Why? You want give me the chance to win my money back?" Curly pulled the girl into a tight embrace. "I might be stayiní around for awhile. I think I got a job lined up."

"Well if things donít work out, I might have something for you." It was an invitation that Jess would later regret offering in front of the saloon girl.

"Working out at the relay station?"

"Now that the mining company is using the Overland, weíre getting more and more stages coming through all the time. I might could talk Slim into hiring you on for a spell. At least long enough for you to earn some good money."

"Good money?" Curly laughed. "You donít even earn a dollar a day working for Sherman."

"Lot of opportunity for earning more. Thatís why I stay on."

"If the other job donít pan out, Iíll look you up."

Jess said, "You be sure to do that. I think you and me could work real well together."

Curly shook his head with disbelief etched on his face. "Sure thought youíd fold. Oh well, come on, honey." As Curly staggered towards the staircase that lead to the second floor, the saloon girl glanced back over her shoulder at Jess.

Jess didnít notice. He was too busy counting his money.



CHAPTER ONE

Medicine Bow, Wyoming

Shiloh Ranch



"You look like a cowhand!"

The young girl had just left the barn and the smell of horse and saddle soap saturated her clothes like a heavy perfume. "Now daddy, you donít expect me to wear a dress when Iím..." Betsy Garth shaded her eyes. She tilted her head which caused her ponytail to swing as she peered over her fatherís shoulder. "Looks like weíre about to have company."

Judge Garth turned towards the rider. "Wonder who that can be?"

As the rider drew nearer, Betsyís face paled. "Oh my gosh!" She glanced down at her dirty, stained clothes. "Oh my gosh!" she repeated before turning and running towards the house.

"Betsy!" Judge Garth looked taken back by his daughterís behavior. "Whatís wrong?"

Betsy never answered as she ran into the house. Judge Garth turned and waited patiently as the rider drew near to the hitching post.

"Morning Judge," Slim Sherman greeted as he dismounted.

"Slim! Why itís good to see you!" Judge Garth walked quickly to the cowboy and offered his hand in greeting. "You know those horses you sold me last year are some of the best breeding stock I own. So what brings you to Medicine Bow? Or are you just passing through?"

"Iím here on business. Need to talk to you."

Judge Garth lost his smile as he suddenly noticed the serious expression on the young cowboyís face. "Well then come inside." The older man led the younger cowboy towards the main house.

Slim glanced at this building as he would have stared at a beautiful woman. This home had never failed to impress him. This structure had always stood out among the other buildings and seemed to have a character all of its own. The house was two story with a balcony and wide porch. Painted white, it always appeared to Slim to gleam of cleanliness. A trait that his small ranch often seemed to lack due to the daily stages stirring up dust.

Stepping through the front door, Slim couldnít help but admire what he saw. From the furnishings to the way the house was laid out, Slim envied every detail and every square inch. He secretly hoped one day to own a place as grand as this house.

"Why Slim, how very nice that you could visit us," Betsy greeted. She had changed from jeans and a work shirt to her Sunday best. Standing on the staircase that led the second floor, the fifteen year old was the very picture of poise. "Father, isnít it nice that Slim is visiting us?"

"Why yes it is, daughter," Judge Garth said, mocking her formality.

Slim removed his hat as soon as he saw the young girl. "You know, Betsy, you get prettier every time I see you."

"So do you." Her face turned beet red. "I mean..."

Slim and the Judge both tried to hide their amusement as they quickly bent their heads, staring at the rugged staircase.

Betsy swayed on her feet with nervousness as she motioned towards one of the downstairs rooms. "Would you like to go into the parlor? I can make some lemonade and..."

"Thanks, but I got some business to talk over with the Judge," Slim said.

By the way Slim was glancing at him, Judge Garth could tell that the cowboy was anxious to talk.

"But you are staying for lunch?" Betsy pleaded.

"Maybe."

"Of course youíre staying," Judge Garth said with a smile towards Betsy. "Come on, Slim, we can talk better in my study."

Slim followed the Judge to a large room that was filled with bookshelves. Half the wall was a fireplace.

"Have a seat. Whiskey?" The bottle was filled with Bourbon. Slim knew that from past visits.

Slim shook his head no.

Judge Garth sat down behind a massive desk. "Now what business do you want to discuss? You got more horses to sell to me?"

Slim swallowed hard. He sat on the edge of the cane chair. For several seconds, he said nothing, but only looked unsure as if he couldnít find the words to say.

The Judge said nothing; but only sat quietly, watching and waiting.

Suddenly with the force of a dam breaking, the words poured out of Slim, "Judge, I need a lawyer." His eyes pleaded.

A look of concern formed on the Judgeís face. "What kind of trouble are you having?"

"Not me. Itís my ranch hand, Jess Harper."

"Oh, Harper." The tone relayed more than the words of how the Judge felt about Jess Harper.

A look of puzzlement spread across Slimís face. "You know him?"

"No. But I read in the newspaper about him being charged with murder."

"He didnít do it," Slim assured quickly.

The judge studied the young cowboy. He had never seen Slim look so worried. "You seem awful sure. Why donít you tell me about it?"

Betsy barged through the door, carrying two mugs and a silver coffee pot. "Daddy, I thought you and Slim might like some coffee." She set the tray on the corner of the desk, then stood with a huge smile on her face. Her eyes never left Slimís face.

"Betsy, thank you." The judge added, with a warning in his voice, "Honey, Slim and I need to talk alone."

"Oh," her voice showed her disappointment. But just as soon, she spoke with bubbly happiness, "Well Iíll see you at lunch." Betsy started backing towards the door as she continued to smile at Slim. It was only when she bumped into an umbrella stand..."Oh, darn!...I mean...Oh!" she mumbled as she moved away from Slim.

The judgeís eyebrows rose and he looked down quickly to hide his grin. But Slim never cracked a smile. He only looked with concern at Betsy. "Are you all right?"

"Oh...yes." The young girl nodded. "Well...Iíll leave you both alone." Again she nodded. "Well..." Her eyes again locked on Slimís face as she smiled at him.

"Well?" Judge Garth echoed.

"Well...yes. Iíll be going now. See you at lunch." Her smile broadened at Slim. Glancing at her father, she saw his scowl. She turned and made a hasty retreat from the room.

As the door shut, Judge Garth said, "You better tell me quickly. No telling how long sheíll stay away."

This time Slim didnít hesitate in talking. He spoke nonstop for almost thirty minutes.

The judge listened, never interrupting. Sometimes he looked at Slim; other times he looked down at his desk, deep in thought. Finally Slim grew quiet. He waited but the judge said nothing. He only remained thoughtful.

"Well, Judge?" Slim finally asked. He leaned so far forward that Judge Garth was frightened the cowboy would tip the chair.

"Whoís prosecuting?" Judge Garth asked

"Bob Frank."

"Heís a good prosecutor. Usually wins."

"Judge, Iíve been everywhere I can think of trying to hire a lawyer. But everyone turned me down."

"Trouble with most defense lawyers, theyíre scared to take on a case where public opinion is so strong. If they get the client off, theyíre afraid theyíll be as hated as much as the client. What you need is a good criminal lawyer thatís not afraid of public opinion. Now the best I know is Jerod Barkley out of Stockton. I can send a telegram. Heíd come as a personal favor to me."

"That wonít do, Judge!" Slim argued. "By the time he gets to Laramie, the trial will be over."

"Over! When is it scheduled to start?"

"Next week."

"Next week!" Judge Garthís voice rose so loud that Slim cringed.

"The circuit Judge only comes through once a month. And the prosecutor says heís ready. Says itís an open and shut case."

"Well I can get a continuance until Jarrod can get to Laramie..."

"Judge, the only thing thatís keeping a mob from storming the jail and hanging Jess is knowing that the trial is about to start. You get a continuance and Mort ainít going to be able to hold a mob back from hanging Jess."

"How many deputies has he got?"

"Canít find one man to sign on."

A look of alarm flashed across Judge Garthís face. "Mort is up against the entire town? Surely there are men in Laramie..."

"The townís about ready to burst wide open. Ainít many men willing to go against their neighbors and friends. I wanted to be deputized but Mort said under the circumstances he couldnít deputize me."

"So Mortís on his own?"

"Right now. And so is Jess. Unless I can find him a lawyer. Judge, Iím asking you to take the case."

Judge Garth shook his head no.

"You scared of public opinion too?"

Judge Garthís face hardened so much that Slim swallowed hard. "You know me better than that!"

"I thought I did. But you saying no..."

"Itís not that! It wouldnít be fair to Harper if I took the case. Do you know how long itís been since Iíve been in a courtroom?"

"But you still can practice law, right?"

"In Wyoming, yes."

"Then itís legal for you to represent Jess."

Judge Garthís voice rose with irritation, "Whether I can practice or not, is not the point. I havenít been in a courtroom in years. That alone would prevent me from giving Harper the best defense."

Slim neared the older man. "Judge, thereís no one left for me to ask. Without you, heís got no defense."

Judge Garth chewed on his lip as the tips of his fingers drummed the desk.

"Heís innocent, Judge. If you donít defend Jess, then an innocent man is going to hang. Youíre my last hope, Judge."

"Slim..." Judge Garth bit back as his words as he saw Slimís face. In all the years he had known the young man, he had never seen Slim look scared. Judge Garth took a deep breath before he said, "I know youíre the kind of man whoís loyal to his friends. But from what you told me, you donít have any proof that Harper is innocent. Slim, maybe Harper did murder..."

"I got Jessí word. And thatís all the proof I need." Slim stood up straight. His backbone looked as if an iron bar was pressing against it. His face was molded into a mask of assurance.

Judge Garth stood and began pacing. Slim bit back his words but his face showed his impatience. Finally Judge Garth turned and looked at Slim. "All right, Iíll defend Harper."

Slim uttered a huge sigh of relief. "Thank you. Uh Judge, I canít pay you. But Iíll give you the best two broodmares that I own. You saw them the last time you visited. The ones I bought in Denver."

"If I remember correctly, you paid a huge sum for them hoping to build up your stock."

"Yes sir. I got the papers on them and...."

"Slim, your father and I were good friends for many years. Matt would have helped me out if I was in trouble. Iím doing for you what he would have done for me. Thereíll be no fee."

Slim looked taken back. "Judge, I donít know what to say except Thank you."

"No thanks needed between friends. Now, I need to get packed. Iíll ride back with you. With the trial starting so soon, I think we should leave right away."

Judge Garth walked out of the study with Slim trailing behind him. He left the house and moved to the porch. His glaze caught one of his ranch hands leading a horse towards the stable.

"Trampas!"

Seeing the Judge wave, the blonde cowboy tied the horse to a hitching post and climbed the stairs to the ranch house, taking two steps at a time. Trampas was tall and had an easy going look about him. "You want to see me, Judge?" He nodded a greeting at Slim.

"I want you to get your things packed. We may be gone for a while."

"Weíre taking a trip?"

The judge nodded.

A grin burst out on Trampasí face. "Where to? San Francisco? Or how about St. Louis? I hear thatís a good town to visit. Where we going, Judge?"

"Laramie," the judge answered.

Trampasí smile faded in a flash. "Laramie? Laramie, Wyoming?"

Again the judge nodded.

Trampas said, "Why Laramie ainít as big as Medicine Bow. And it ainít that far away. Iíve been to Laramie. Iíve already seen it."

"And youíll see it again. Now get your things packed. And saddle two horses..."

"You going away, Judge?" Steve Hill left the house. Like Trampas, he wore clothes for herding cattle. But unlike Trampas, he was brunette. "Betsy sure is spruced up. I thought she wanted to go riding. But she looks like sheís ready for a Saturday dance. Sheís so fancied up."

Trampas took a whiff. "Wished it was Saturday."

Steve quickly smelled his shirt sleeve as he frowned hard at Trampas.

The Judge said, "I want to leave within an hour."

"In an hour," Trampas mumbled with a frown.

"Something wrong?" the Judge roared.

"Oh no, sir! Iíll be packed...in one hour." Again Trampas sounded less than enthused.

Steve, though, sounded very excited as he tried to bargain, "You know, Judge, I ainít been on a trip in a long time. And last time you took Trampas so it only seems fair to me that you..."

"...take Steve instead of me," Trampas cut in with a large nod. "And we both know youíre a fair man. Donít we, Steve?"

Steve nodded. "The fairest! Everyone in Wyoming says that."

"Do they now?" The judge glowered at both of them.

"Sure do, Judge! Judge Garth is fair. Thatís what they all say." Trampas said.

"So what do you say, Judge? Should I go saddle my horse?" Steve asked.

Judge Garth raised his eyebrow. He looked from one cowboyís pleading face to the other ranch handís begging expression. "You know, Steve, having you on this trip might not be a bad idea."

"Judge, I couldnít agree with you more," Trampas said with a wide smile. As Judge Garthís glare touched his face, Trampas swayed nervously under his scrutiny.

Judge Garth gave a quick nod. "All right, Steve. You can go on this trip."

Both ranch hands smiled.

"Where we going?" Steve asked with enthusiasm.

Trampas slapped Steve on the back. "Laramie."

It was as if a balloon had been picked with a pin. All eagerness drained from Steveís face. "Laramie?" Steve repeated. "Laramie, Wyoming?"

"Thatís the place!" Trampas said with a wide grin. "Now you best go get packed, boy. The Judge is anxious to leave. And you donít want to keep the boss man here waiting."

Steve asked with disappointment sounding in every word, "Laramie, Judge? Weíre going to Laramie?"

"Now you have a good trip. Youíll have to tell me all about it when you get back. Iím sure youíll find something to do there." Trampasí soft chuckle was heard by all.

"But Judge... " Steve said. "Iíve been to Laramie. Thereís nothing to do there. Why they only got one saloon and..."

"Steve, Iíll go saddle your horse. Itís the least I can do for a friend," Trampas offered.

"A friend!" Steve turned with fury and stared hard at the blonde cowboy. "You knew all along it was Laramie! Why..." He took a step towards Trampas. Judge Garthís words stopped his advance.

"Youíre both going," Judge Garth said.

"What!" Trampas cried out as the two ranch hands turned quickly to face the older man. Trampas argued, "But Judge, Steve here can do the work of two men..three men. And with the ranch short on hands, I probably should stay right here and..."

"The sheriff can use some deputies."

"Deputies!" Steve said. "You mean we got to work while weíre there?"

"You said thereís nothing to do in Laramie," Judge Garth replied. "You might as well work. Keep you from getting bored."

Trampas scowled. "I donít mind being bored, Judge."

"I want you both packed and ready to leave in an hour. And donít keep me waiting! When I say Iím leaving in an hour, I mean it!"

"Youíre leaving? What about lunch?" Betsy moved quickly to stand beside her father. "Daddy, Iím sure Slim is hungry. And Iíve got the cook fixing all of Slimís favorites." She turned towards Slim. "I remembered last time you were here that you were particularly fond of ham and roasted potatoes and..."

"Sounds awful good, Betsy, but I got to get back. Iím sorry to disappoint you." Slim said. "Maybe another time."

Betsy couldnít hide her hurt. "Daddy, youíre going too?"

"Afraid so, honey."

"Weíre all going," Trampas mumbled, not hiding his disappointment.

The Judge said, "Honey, why donít you fix us some sandwiches to take along?"

"Where are you going?" Betsy asked.

"Laramie," both Steve and Trampas replied at the same time, a frown plastered on each face.

"Laramie!" Betsy cried out with excitement. Her smile was in direct opposite of Trampasí and Steveís frowns. "Oh Daddy, can I go too? Thereís a dress maker there who is suppose to be the best in all of Wyoming! Why do you know Mrs. Watson now has all her dresses made there? And you promised me a new dress for my birthday. And itís only a month away." She faced Slim. "Slim, I hope youíll come to my party. Itís going to be awful nice." Just as quickly, she turned back towards her father. "Oh daddy, please let me go!"

Judge Garth stammered as he said, "Well...Iíd like to...but Iím going for business and..."

"I wouldnít be any trouble. Really, I wouldnít be, daddy. And you said I could pick any present that I wanted for my birthday besides the horse youíre giving me. Well I pick a dress sewed by this seamstress. And you did promise me a new dress. So youíre only having to give me one present instead of two....Please, daddy!"

"Betsy, I know what I promised..." the judge started to explain.

"Judge, you always say a man is only as good as his word," Trampas cut in.

The Judge glared at his ranch hand. Trampas lost his smile as his eyes dodged the stare.

"Trampas is right," Betsy said. "A promise is a promise. And Daddy, you did promise."

"And you wouldnít want people to say Judge Garth breaks his promises," Trampas added.

Again Judge Garthís glare struck Trampasí face. Trampas moved restlessly under the Judgeís gaze.

"Please, daddy!" Betsy pleaded.

The Judge glanced at Slim with uncertainty. "Well I guess Betsy could stay at the hotel..."

"Judge, I was planning on you staying with me Ďcause the hotels are full with the trial coming up. Why I heard thereís some rooms with three to four men bunking instead of the usual two," Slim explained.

Judge Garth said, "Betsy, Iím sorry but since the hotel is full..."

"Couldnít I stay at Slimís too?" Betsy looked from her father to Slim. "Iíll take a bedroll."

"Bedroll!" Judge Garth yelled out. "My daughter will not be sleeping on a..."

Slim interrupted, "Betsy can sleep in Jonesyís room and Jonesy can bunk on Jessí bed. Judge, youíll take mine. Iíll sleep on the bedroll."

"Slim, youíd do that for me?" Betsyís eyes opened wide with admiration.

"Well...uh..." Slim stammered. "Judge, sheíd be well taken care of. Jonesy would see to that."

Seeing her fatherís hesitation, Betsy took hold of the Judgeís hands. "Please, Daddy!"

"It wouldnít be much fun," Judge Garth warned. "You couldnít go into town much. And thereís not much for a young lady to do at a stage stop."

"I would love to see Jonesy again. He promised to teach me to cook."

"Well there you go, Judge. The last time I ate Betsyís cooking..." Trampas began. But seeing the looks on both the Judge and Betsyís faces, the cowboy mumbled, "Well I guess Iíve eaten worse."

"Daddy, I promise. I wonít be any trouble. Iíll do what you and Jonesy say. I promise! Why you wonít even know Iím there. Iíll be that quiet."

A smile tugged at Judge Garthís lips. "Just to see that might be worth taking you along."

"You mean I can go?" Betsyís eyebrows rose up with a question.

The judge gave a slow nod.

Betsyís face broke out into a huge grin. "Thank you, Daddy. Thank you, Slim! Oh weíre going to Laramie!"

Steve and Trampas exchanged a look of despair.

"I want to leave in an hour!" The judge pointed his finger with warning, "And young lady, if youíre not ready..."

Betsy took off running towards the house before all the words were out of the Judgeís mouth. "Oh Iíll be ready!"

"And donít forget the sandwiches!" Judge Garth called out.

"I wonít!" Betsy promised before disappearing into the house.

The Judge turned and eyed both cowboys with a stern look. "Well, what are you two waiting for?"

"Oh, yes sir, Judge!" Steve said as Trampas answered, "Weíre going now, Judge." They began to back away. "One hour!" Trampas promised. "Yes sir, weíll be ready."

"One hour," Steve held up one finger. "You can count on us, Judge." Steve and Trampas suddenly tripped over each otherís feet. For a split second their bodies were tangled as they each grabbed hold of each other to stop from falling. As they again stood steadily on their feet, Trampas called out, "Yes, sir, you can count on us, Judge."

"And hitch up the buggy!" The judge called out as the cowboys headed towards the bunkhouse. "And tell The Virginian that I want to see him right away."

"Yes sir!" Trampas called back over his shoulder.

"Laramie?" Steve said angrily as they entered the bunkhouse. "Last trip the Judge made he went all the way to Denver. Now thatís a town to visit. But Laramie!" Steve tossed his mug and razor into his bedroll. "You could have told me!"

"Well thatís what you get for listening in on a conversation." Trampas checked his rifle. He added extra ammunition to his saddle bags.

"Trampas, you tricked me!" Steve imitated Trampas as he said, "Oh Judge, youíre a fair man. And itís only fair I stay and let Steve go. Ha!"

"You asked to go and I only tried to help you." Trampas began rolling up his bedroll. "You should be thanking me for being a good friend."

"Friend!" Steve mocked. "Why Iíd sooner trust a coyote!"

Trampas tied the bedroll and picked it up. "Itís a sad thing when friends no longer trust friends. Yes sir, itís sad. See if I do you another favor."

"A favor! You just wanted me to go instead of you!"

Trampas tried to look shocked at the words but his expression only angered Steve more.

Steve said, "And Iíll tell you whatís sad. Me going to Laramie. Thatís whatís sad. What am I going to do in Laramie?"

"I hear they got a stage coach that comes in once or twice day. Maybe you could watch it come in and out of town. That is when youíre not counting the birds flying over. You do know how to count donít you?"

Picking up his bedroll, Steve turned with fury. "Itís not bad enough we have to go; but we got to work as deputies. Whereís the fun in that? Iíd rather be baby sitting a cow than...

"Where do you two think youíre going?" the dark hair man asked with a slight southern accent. He stood in the doorway of the bunkhouse, glaring at both Trampas and Steve.

"Laramie," Steve replied.

"Laramie!" The man pushed back his hat. "Whatís in Laramie?"

"Nothing," Trampas mumbled. "Absolutely nothing."

"It wasnít our idea!" Steve defended. "We wanted to go to Denver...Iíd have even settled for Cheyenne. At least itís got two saloons."

"But no! Weíre going to Laramie," Trampas finished.

The Virginian eyed both men as if they were crazy. "I need you both here for the roundup. So put your bedrolls up and..."

"Boss man, youíll have to be the one to tell the Judge weíre not going. Not me!" Trampas said. "The Judge is in no mood to be argued with. Not this time."

"The Judge is sending you to Laramie?" the foreman asked. "He knows we leave in three weeks to drive the steers to Abilene."

"Abilene," Trampas sighed with contentment. "Now thatís a town to visit. Sure hope we donít miss going."

"You donít think we will, do you?" Steve asked. "ĎCause Iíd rather babysit a steer than be stuck in Laramie babysitting some no good prisoner."

"Never can tell with the Judge," Trampas replied. "Of course if you a mind to ask him about how long..."

"Iíll do just that, Trampas," Steveís voice dripped with sarcasm.

"I donít know whatís going on..." the foreman began.

"Well Ďspect the judge is going to tell you all about it Ďcause he told me to tell you that he wanted to see you right away." Trampas picked up his bedroll. "Said to tell The Virginian as soon as I saw him..."

"Well why didnít you say so!" The Virginian stormed out of the bunkhouse and headed towards the main house. Before he entered, he used his hat to slap the dust from his clothes. He knocked on the front door. But when no one answered, he entered the house with a familiarity of one who lived there. He found the Judge in the study, packing several law books.



CHAPTER TWO

"We should be gone for at least a week, maybe two. Doubt the trial will go on longer than that." Judge Garth handed the foreman a glass of whiskey.

The Virginian drank the liquor in one swallow. As he set the glass down on the desk, he asked, "You think youíll need more men? Sounds like the sheriff has his hands full."

"Thatís why Iím taking Trampas and Steve along. If we run into any trouble that we canít handle, Iíll wire you. I know Iím taking your two best men and youíre already short getting the cattle rounded up. But it canít be helped. Matt Sherman was too good a friend for me to turn Slim down."

"Weíll manage," The Virginian assured. "You know I met this fellow Harper a few months back."

The judge stopped packing to look at his foreman. "You did?"

The Virginian nodded. "In a poker game. Must have been right before he hired on at Slimís. He passed through Medicine Bow."

"What did you think of him?" The judge leaned on his desk.

The Virginianís brows rose with concern. "I caught him trying to draw a king off the bottom of the deck."

The judge sighed. "I wouldnít be defending Harper if it wasnít for Slim. Heís convinced that Harper is innocent."

"You sound doubtful." The Virginian added, "And from what I read in the newspaper..."

"I think the whole territory must have Harper convicted."

"You might be walking into a hornetís nest, Judge. Ainít going to be an easy case to win. Not with feelings running the way they are in Laramie."

Judge Garth nodded. "Iíve told Slim as much. From what heís told me, I donít even know what kind of defense I can offer."

A smile tugged at the foremanís face. "Knowing you, youíll think of something."

Judge Garth shot his foreman a quick look. "I wish I could be as sure; but Iím not."

The Virginian pressed his lips together as if holding back the words before he said, "Judge, Ďspect you should know that this Harper, well... heís got a temper."

"Bad huh?"

"I caught him red handed cheating in cards. When I called him on it, Harper tried to draw on me."

Judge Garthís frown deepened. "From what I hear, heís fast."

The Virginian half smiled. "Maybe. But before I accused, I made sure I held the upper hand."

"Oh?"

"Harper was halfway to drawing when he heard the hammer of my gun being pulled back. You see, Judge, I had a gun under the table pointed right at him. So he never quite got his gun out of the holster. I figured any time you go against a gunslinger like Harper, you best have the upper hand."

The judge laughed loudly. "Smart move."

The Virginian laughed as he remembered the look on Jess Harperís face. But soon his laughter died. "Judge, what I donít understand is that Slimís always been a straight shooter. So why is he so sure about Harper being innocent. Heís got to know that the boyís nothing more than a gunslinger. Probably sold his gun to the highest bidder more than once."

"That puzzles me too." The Judge picked up a law book. "Especially when Slim told me all the evidence against Harper. But I know Slim. And that boy wouldnít put up a fight if he wasnít sure that Harper was innocent."

"Well Judge, youíve always said that a leopard canít change his spots." A look of amusement shone from the Virginianís eyes. "Maybe Harper has Slim hoodwinked."

The judge tossed a third law book into a brief case. "Somethingís got Slim convinced that this Harper is worth saving."

"Well from playing cards with him..."

"I remember another cowboy that use to deal off the bottom of the deck. And now, Iím taking him with me to help keep Harper safe."

A grin formed across The Virginianís face. "Trampas."

"There was a time that most folks would have naturally thought Trampas was guilty."

The Virginian smiled. "When we play cards, I still watch when he deals."

Judge Garth burst out laughing. "Well letís hope Iím wrong and that a leopard can change his spots."

"Letís hope so, Judge. Letís hope so. But just in case, Iíd keep Trampas and Steve close by so youíll be sure to have the upper hand no matter what trouble comes your way."



CHAPTER THREE

Seeing the door start to open, Sheriff Mort Corey jumped up from his chair and pointed the shotgun.

But seeing who his visitors were, Sheriff Corey lowered the gun very quickly.

"Judge Garth! Sure didnít expect to see you here." Mort offered his hand.

Judge Garth shook the extended hand with the joy of greeting an old friend. "Been awhile. How have you been?"

"Good! And yourself?"

"Oh, I canít complain."

"Everything going good at Shiloh then?"

"Good enough."

"Good to hear that!" Mort eyed Slim. "Judge, I guess youíre here to see Jess."

Judge Garth only nodded.

"Donít look too peaceful outside does it?" Mort said.

"We stopped at the ranch on the way into town and Jonesy told us that you had some trouble earlier today while he was visiting Jess," Slim said.

"Nothing I couldnít handle," Mort said. "Tempers seem to be running short these days."

Judge Garth took off his coat and hung it on the back of a chair. "Iíve faced mobs before. The court is where justice should be decided. Not out on some street with a hangmanís noose."

"I agree, Judge," Mort said. "But this town is ready to blow wide open. I just hope I can keep a lid on it until the trial is over."

"I sure wish youíd reconsider and let me be a deputy," Slim said as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

"Sorry, Slim," Mort said with a shake of the head. "Even though Iím short handed, I think that would be like adding wood to the fire."

"Well Iíve brought you some help." The Judge nodded towards Steve and Trampas. "Theyíre my ranch hands and theyíve served as deputies in Medicine Bow. You just tell them what you need done and theyíll do it."

Steve gave a nod of greeting to Mort as they shook hands. Mort turned towards the other ranch hand. "Trampas!"

A slow grin formed on Trampasí face. "Sheriff."

"You know each other?" Slim asked.

"Trampas spent a week in my jail a few years ago," Mort explained. "Trampas, I warn you if you try busting the saloon..."

"Not me, Sheriff!" Trampas held up his hand as if promising. "This time Iím here to keep the law, not break it." His smile broadened.

Mort though looked doubtful. "I guess I got no choice." Mort looked at Judge Garth. "Iíll admit, I can use the help. Ainít been getting much sleep. My wife is so worried that I sent her to visit her sister for a couple of days. Say, Ryker still sheriff in Medicine Bow?"

Judge nodded.

"ĎSpect he keeps them cowboys in line on a Saturday night."

"Does he," Trampas mumbled. "Not that I would know," he added as he saw Mort again look concern.

Judge Garth glanced at the cell. The cowboy had not moved. He sat in the corner of the cot, his hands draped over his knees. "I know itís late, Mort. But Iíd like to talk to my client."

"I plan to be up all night keeping watch. So you take as much time as you want. Jess, you got company." Mort slid his cup across the bars making a loud clanking sound but Jess never moved.

Trampas and Steve exchanged a look of surprise. Slim moved to the cell. "Jess, the Judge wants to talk to you."

Jess barely lifted his head to look at his visitors.

Judge Garth moved to the cell. He stared at the prisoner a long time before saying, "Iím Judge Garth."

"Heís going to be your lawyer," Slim announced.

Jessí eyes narrowed as he studied the older man. "How much is Slim paying you?"

"I told you not to worry!" Slim snapped.

"And I donít want you spending your money!" Jess shot back with anger. "This town already has me convicted. I ainít got a chance. So you donít need to be wasting what money you got..."

"You giving up?" The Judge asked.

Jess smiled with no humor. "You think Iím going to get a fair trial? This whole town thinks Iím nothing more than a hired gun."

"Are you?" Judge Garth asked.

Jessí expression turned deadly. "No."

"But you have sold your gun?"

"A few times," Jess admitted.

"You wanted?" Judge Garth questioned.

"Not that I know of," Jess said.

"But youíve been in trouble with the law before this?"

"Iíve had my share."

"I expect more than your share."

Jess snapped, "I thought you were here to defend me. Not convict me. Slim, this is some lawyer you hired."

Slim said quickly, "Jess, this is Judge Garth. He was one of the best lawyers in Wyoming."

"Was?" Jess repeated, eyeing Slim with questions.

"I told Slim that I havenít been in a courtroom in awhile," Judge Garth acknowledged.

"Whatís awhile?" Jess asked.

Judge Garth said, "If youíd prefer another lawyer..."

"He wouldnít!" Slim said as he eyed Jess with a warning. "The Judge is doing this as a personal favor to me."

Jess glanced quickly from Slim to Judge Garth. "Thanks," he mumbled so softly that Judge Garth wasnít sure if he had heard him or not.

"If Iím going to defend you, I need you to be honest with me." Judge Garth slid a chair near the cell. He sat down wearily in the chair.

"Coffee, Judge?" Mort offered, holding up the scarred tin pot.

"Thanks, Mort. Now..." Judge Garth turned towards Jess. "...what kind of trouble have you been in?"

Jessí stare slid off of the judgeís face. "I served time in jail." He added quickly, "But I got my papers."

"I see." Judge Garth glanced with confusion at Slim. "Slim is awful sure that youíre innocent of the charge of murder."

"I am." Jess gave a nod of assurance.

Mort handed the Judge a cup of steaming coffee. "Boys? Help yourself, just made a pot before you came in."

Trampas and Steve eagerly headed for the stove.

The Judge took a long sip before saying, "Iíve heard Slimís story about why youíre in here. Now I want you to tell me why."

Slim moved a chair close to Garthís, then sat down cross legged.

"I donít know where to begin." Jess glanced at Slim.

"We had some trouble," Slim began.

"Trouble? What kind of trouble?" Judge Garthís eyes locked on Jess, studying him intensely.

Jess stirred restlessly under the stare.

"I already told you," Slim said.

"I want to hear it from Harper. So what kind of trouble did you and Slim have?"

Jess sighed. "It was about three months after I signed on at Slimís."

"Where had you been before then?" Judge Garth asked.

"Mostly drifting. I thought my luck had changed when Slim hired me on. But I guess bad luck follows me around."

"Or you make your own kind of luck," the Judge said.

Jessí head snapped up as he glared at Judge Garth. But the older man didnít look intimated.

Jessí voice was deadly as he warned, "Mister.."

Both Trampas and Steve stopped drinking as they faced the man in the cell. Each wore their own deadly expression as they moved to stand close to the Judge.

"Easy, boys," Mort cooed as he slid two chairs close to the stove. "Why donít you boys ease over to the stove. Fire can sure warm you on a cold night like this."

Steve and Trampas didnít move until the Judge gave a short nod. As the two cowboys moved slowly to the chairs, Trampas glanced over his shoulder at Jess. He didnít try to hide the disgust from his face.

Judge Garth never noticed for he kept his eyes glued to Jessí face. He watched every movement, every expression as if trying to size up this man. "Iím your lawyer and I want the truth about everything. This town is ready to hang you. Why?"

"Thatís easy to answer," Jess shot back. "Iím a stranger, who has a past."

"Has to be more than that," Judge Garth replied. "To get this whole town pointing the finger of guilt at you."

"Iíve been accused plenty of times...in a lot of different towns," Jess explained. "Just Ďcause I wear a gun..."

"So you are a gunslinger," Judge Garth accused.

"No!"

Judge Garth said in a low whisper, "If you want me to defend you, then youíll tell me the truth. About everything."

Jess glanced at Slim, who gave an encouraging nod. Jess said, "All right, Iíve used my gun. Iíve never kept that secret from anyone. But this time..."

"You did what?" Judge Garth demanded.

"Thatís exactly what Slim asked me the day I beat Curly Sawyer at poker. I guess thatís where it all started with a poker game."



CHAPTER FOUR

"You did what?" Slimís fork jabbed with each word spoken. He paid no attention to his food as he stared at Jess.

Jess swallowed his food, then used his own fork to spear a huge chunk of meat. "Slim, thatís why I was late."

"Jess is right." A third man at the table gave a nod of approval. He was older and wore a dish cloth over his belt that hung from his waist to his knees. It was covered with grease and flour.

"Jonesy, donít you get in the middle of this," Slim warned. "Jess, what gave you the right to tell the Hadley to order me a plow..."

Jess chewed, then swallowed. "Slim, the blacksmith ainít going to fix the plow. Iíve taken that plow into Laramie three times this week and he finally told me today not to bring back. Said he canít fix it."

"Slim, I remember when your Pa bought that plow." Jonesy leaned back in his chair. "It already had some wear on it."

"I know we need a new one!" Slim growled. "But plows donít come cheap! You know I donít have that kind of money. Maybe a neighbor would have loan me the use of his..."

Jess cut Slim off in mid sentence, "Not until his plowing was done. Whereís that leave you? Late in doing the plowing. Late in getting crops planted and late cutting down hay. Hay which weíre going to need this winter to keep the cattle from starving to death."

"Well tell me this way, Diamond Jim Brady, where am I going get the money to pay for a new plow?" Slim put down his fork. He no longer had an appetite. "Hadley is gong to expect his money when that plow comes in. He ainít going let me do payments. Not Hadley!"

"Once we get those broncs broke, weíll have enough money," Jess said between chewing. "By the way I saw Curly in town. He said he might could help out. Heíd let us know."

"Oh now Iím paying for a plow and another ranch hand."

As Jess poured gravy over his mashed potatoes, he said, "The way I figured. Curly can take over my chores. Thatíll give me time to break Ďem broncs. What with changing the stage horses and ranch chores, that donít give me much time to tame Ďem horses. Curly will stay on just long enough for me to get them broncs ready to sell." Jess bit into the slice of bread.

"Seems to me you got this all planned out." Slim leaned back in his chair and glared at Jess.

Jess nodded. He used his bread to sop up the gravy.

"I think Jess has a good idea," Andy said. The fourteen year old mimicked Jess in the amount he ate and how he ate. "And you said I was part owner of this outfit."

Slim gave a slow nod. "Well his plan might just work at that. That is if we could get them horses broke and sold before the plow comes in. How long we got to get them horses broke?"

"Plow should be here in a month."

"A month!" Slim cried out.

"Slim, I can break them horses by then. If you hire Curly, I can do it even quicker," Jess promised.

"Looks like I ainít got a choice," Slim said, "since youíve gone ahead an ordered that plow. All right, weíll do it your way, Jess."

Andy shot Jess a quick smile.

Slim added, "Iíll ride in and see if the bank will loan me enough to put a deposit down on a plow. I reckon Hadley wants a deposit. How long has he given us to get one to him?"

Jess spoke with his mouth full, "Already taken care of that. I put a deposit down on the plow this morning. You donít have to pay Ďtil Hadley gets one in from St. Louis. That leaves money to pay Curly. Done talked to him. Heís so down on his luck that I reckon heíll work for mere pennies."

Slimís expression changed from anger to shock. "You put down a deposit? How much?"

"Twenty dollars."

Jonesy uttered a low whistle. Andy quit eating and looked at Jess. Though all eyes were now on Jess, he didnít notice but continued eating.

Slimís eyes narrowed. "Whereíd you get that kind of money?"

Jess grinned. "From you."

"From me?"

"You paid me my wages this morning, remember?" Jess scooped mash potatoes into his spoon with a chunk of bread.

"I remember I didnít pay you no twenty dollars," Slim replied. "Whereíd you get that much money?"

The suspicious tone of Slimís voice caused Jess looked up from his plate. He stopped eating and swallowed. "Slim, donít look at me that way. I didnít steal it." Jess glanced from Slim to Andy to Jonesy. He put down his spoon. "Honest! I won that money in a poker game." "You bet your wages in a poker game!" Jonesyís frown was so big that all looked at the older man.

"Well itís my money to do with what I want," Jess argued. "ĎSides I won!"

"By playing fair?" Slim asked.

"I donít cheat!" Jess snarled. "How many times I got to tell you that?"

"Slim knows that," Andy said quickly. "Donít you, Slim?"

"Now donít go getting your temper up at Slim. Jess, you got to admit, when you first got here, you were awful quick in teaching Andy how to draw an inside straight from the bottom of the deck," Jonesy said.

Andy glanced from Jonesyís accusing face to Jessí angry expression.

"Jess is good at playing poker," Andy defended.

"Well if you won fair and square..." Jonesy began.

The saloon girlís nod flashed through Jessí memory. He quickly lowered his head and began eating.

Jonesyís eyes narrowed with speculation.

Jess said in between bites, "I told you those days were over. And I meant it! I beat Curly in poker. Thatís how I know Curly will work here cheap. And we can use his help too!"

"I should have known!" Jonesy said. "Curly ainít got no more sense than you do when it comes to spending money. I bet you both bet your entire pay too."

"I thought you werenít a betting man," Jess answered with a smile.

Andy grinned but seeing Jonesyís face redden, his smile disappeared.

"Only on sure things," Jonesy replied. "And itís a sure bet that money donít stay in your pocket long. Betting your whole pay check! Guess you reckon there wonít be a rainy day come along."

"I won didnít I?" Jess argued back. He grabbed for the bowl of potatoes.

"Jess, I canít let you spend your money on plow for this place," Slim said.

"Slim, it was pure pleasure putting down that deposit," Jess replied. "Just knowing that now I can avoid the aggravation of having to take a plow into town to get it fixed. This week alone I hauled it to Laramie three times. Last week twice. ĎSides without that plow I know all that Jonesy will be serving come fall will be beans. Donít think my stomach could tolerate that."

"Oh I donít know. You seem to enjoy eating whatever we serve," Jonesy said.

Jess stopped the fork in mid motion to his mouth.

Slimís words distracted Jess back to eating. "Sounds like youíre staying on."

Jess chewed the meat several times before he replied, "I got to admit that Iím losing the itch to drift more and more each day."

Andy grinned. "Then youíre staying on?"

"Now I ainít making any promises," Jess said quickly. "But reckon I ainít in a hurry to leave."

He winked at Andy.

Slim sighed. "Still Jess, thatís your money. And the plow will be mine."

"Weíll say itís a loan, if that eases your mind."

Slim nodded. "All right, Iíll make that deal with you. But I wonít rest until I pay you back, every cent."

"Iíll tell you what, if it makes you feel any better, Iíll charge you interest."

A grin burst out on Slimís rugged face. "No, Iíll live with my misery. As it is, itíll take me awhile to pay you back. Iíll add a little bit to your weekly salary until Iím caught up. So I reckon your drifting days are over for awhile."

"I reckon I can tolerate that," Jess said.

"I told you that youíd like ranching in Wyoming."

"Ainít quite got use to the cold mornings."

"Come Spring, itíll be warm as a womanís body."

"Nothingís that warm!" Jess said with a laugh.

Jonesy frowned more seeing Andy joining in the laughter.

But Slim and Jessí laughter died quickly as the door swung open with a hard slam.

"Well I should have known that you boys would be in here having yourself a grand old time while Iím outside in the cold with horses that need changing."

"Mose, weíll be right out." Slim grabbed his coat.

Standing, Jess chugged the last of his coffee. He wiped his sleeve across his mouth.

"Say, Jess, the sheriff been out this way yet?" Mose asked.

Jessí body tensed so hard that the veins stood out on his neck. "Any reason he should?"

"Medicine Bow stage got held up," Mose informed.

"What!" Slim said.

"When did it happen, Mose?" Excitement was etched on Andyís face.

"Got robbed just a few miles outside of Laramie."

ĎWhy does the sheriff want to see Jess?" Slim asked.

Jessí face puckered into a mask of worry.

"ĎCause Jess left town shortly before the stage got hit," Mose said. "Jess, the sheriff thinks you might have seen someone suspicious on the road."

Jess put on his jacket. "Nope. I didnít come across anyone, only a rabbit or two." He started for the door.

Mose reached for a piece of biscuit. "Funny about that robbery." He bit into the biscuit.

"Oh?" Jonesy asked as Jess turned in the doorway to listen.

"Well the sheriff figures whoever did it had to know that the stage was carrying the mining shipment. Ainít many know which stage has that pay roll. Only stop that stage makes is here so word ainít got out along the line." Mose grabbed for another biscuit.

"Word gets out," Slim said. "Canít keep something like that quiet. The robber get it all?"

"Sure did!" Mose said. "Reckon Mort is getting a posse up as we speak."

"Wonít do any good," Jess said.

"Oh and why not?" Mose lifted his chin as if to challenge the young cowboy.

"Because whoever did it is probably long gone. I know I would be," Jess said.

"Oh? Youíve had experience in robbing stages, have you?" Moseís words were like a punch to Jessí body. Jess looked away and walked out of the house.

"Now whatís got into him?" Mose asked. "I was just funniní."

Slim slapped Mose on the back. "Guess he ainít got your sense of humor, Mose."

"Well if you two donít get going on changing them horses and quit jawiní with me, Iím just liable to lose my sense of humor!"

Slim laughed. "All right. Get some coffee to go with those biscuits youíre chewing. Jonesy made plenty, but I see you got no passengers this run."

"Nope. Just mail."

"Still you careful. Riding without a guard, someone may think that youíre easy pickins."

"Me? Why I keep that shotgun by my foot just in case some polecat tries to get ornery with me."

"Mose, Iíd hate to be the polecat who tried," Slim said before he left the cabin.



CHAPTER FIVE

Slim checked his pocket watch for the third time. Once more he glanced at the top of the hill. Nothing. He grimaced. He had a long list of chores to do, starting with checking on the cows in the south pasture. Suddenly on the horizon the stage appeared but Slim didnít breathe a sigh of relief. Instead he continued to search, his eyes frequently glancing towards the hill and along the horizon.

As the stage descended down the hill towards the Sherman Relay Station, Slimís temper rose. The stage was half way down the slope when a rider appeared at the top of the hill. This cowboy spurred his horse and raced after the stage. For several minutes, he rode in the dust of the stage. Within a few yards of the relay station, the riderís horse pulled even, then suddenly with a burst of speed raced past the stage, leading the stage coach into the yard of the relay station. Jess Harper arrived just seconds before the stage did.

"Now donít look at me like that," Jess greeted as he dismounted in one swift movement before his horse had even come to a full stop. "I made it here in time." He tied his horse to the hitching rail.

Slim asked, "What delayed you this time?"

Jess turned and faced the tall cowboy. "Had to fix the fence in the north range."

Slim looked taken back. "I repaired that fence two days ago."

"Slim, maybe you should have kept Curly on longer. What with me still breaking broncs and trying to do the ranch chores..."

"We sold enough horses to pay for the plow. I told you that we donít have to be in such a hurry to break them others."

"But we made top dollar! And thereís some other things this place could use."

"I know Ďcause you keep pointing them out to me every time weíre in the general store. You got the storekeeper thinking weíre planning on spending big bucks. Why every time I walk in there, Hadleyís pestering me with questions of when Iím placing my order for all the things youíve pointed out to me in the catalogue."

"We could buy what we need if we sold more horses. So if you hire Curly back..."

Slimís response was interrupted as the stage driver called out, "We got hit!" Mose climbed down from the seat as if grateful to touch ground.

Slim hurried to the driver. "Again! Anyone hurt?"

"Got no passengers on this run. Just the payroll money." Mose took several deep breaths.

"Thatís the third time in a month," Slim observed.

"Beats me, how he always knows when weíre hauling money," Mose said. "I donít even know until the sheriff loads it on the stage."

"Be a hard secret to keep," Slim said. "What with the stage line letting all the relay stations know."

Mose spat the words, "Why so many people have to know..."

Slim said in a calm voice, "The stage company figures if a stage donít get here, weíll go looking."

"Youíd go looking anyway," Mort argued.

"Guess some of them relay stations wouldnít."

The stage guard joined the men. "I couldnít get a shot off. He was on us before we knew it. Reckon Iíll hear from the stage superintendent about this."

"Werenít your fault," Mose comforted.

"I just hope it donít cost me my job." Gene Timrod looked worried. He was only nineteen and this was the best job he had ever had. "What with Sarah having a baby..."

"Youíre not the only guard whoís been surprised," Slim said. "Where did it happen?"

"About five miles back."

"That close! Jess, thatís near where you were fixing the fence."

Gene said quickly, "Jess, I donít suppose you saw anything? Maybe that hombre rode past you when he left us."

"Sorry. All I saw all morning was birds flying over," Jess responded. "Did you get a good look at him?"

Both the driver and guard shook their heads as Mose said, "Nope. Nary a one. Had his face covered with a bandana and his hat pulled low. He could have been my own brother for all I know. But it was the same fellow that hit us last time. Same walk. Same low whisper. Wore a blue bandana, like the one you got on Jess."

"Those are as common as..."

"Oh I know that!" Mose snapped. "Reckon the robber does too. Sure wish I could have seen his face!"

"Still there was something familiar about this fellow," Gene said. "Been nagging at me ever since the holdup."

"You think you know him?" Jess asked. "You just said that you didnít get a good look at him."

Gene said, "Didnít. Still there was something about him. Something familiar. Iíll think on it and itíll come to me in time."

"Well I hope it comes soon," Slim said. "Overland canít afford to keep getting held up. Come on inside and get some hot coffee. Thereís food too."

"Donít suppose Jonesy would let us have a drink of whiskey?" Mose asked, his face crinkled with hope. "I sure could use one about now."

Slim grinned. "Maybe we can convince him itís for medical purposes. You do look awful shaken."

"Aw, Iím all right."

Slim noticed that Moseís hands were slightly shaking.

Mose added, "Just donít like a gun pointed at me, thatís all."

"Donít suppose you boys have seen Curly?" Jess asked.

"Curly? What you want with him?" Gene asked. "Unless youíre looking to get into a card game.

That seems to be his only ambition lately."

"Jess, I already told you that Iím not going to hire Curly back on. Now leave it be!" Slim snapped.

Mose said quickly, "Come on, Gene, I feel like my belly is touching my ribs Iím so hungry."

Slim started for the stage.

"Slim, Iíll change the horses by myself," Jess offered. "You go on in and keep them company."

Slimís eyebrow raised with surprise. "Ainít never seen you so ambitious."

"Just earning my keep thatís all." Jess gave a quick smile before he turned and headed towards the horses.

Slim glanced at the corral. The breaking of the broncs had been going slower than expected. He had hoped to have all the horses broken by now. But over half were still milling around in the corral. He took a quick inventory of the place.

Jess was right about the place needing improvements. The barn needed white washing. There were shingles that needed replaced on the house. His eyes caught everything that needed to be repaired. It was long list. With a sigh, he turned and entered the house.

"If that temper of yours gets any shorter, we might as well nickname you dynamite." Jonesy said as he poured Slim a cup of hot coffee. He used the dirty towel that served as an apron as a pot holder.

"More, Mose?"

As Mose nodded, Slim asked, "Meaning?"

"Mose here tells me that you came down hard on Jess."

"Oh he did?" Slim glanced at Mose, who dodged his stare.

Jonesy continued, "...just Ďcause Jess wants to get this place fixed up. And this ranch could use some fixiní."

"Donít you start in on me, Jonesy. We ainít got the money though to hear Jess talk getting money wonít be a problem." Slim would later hear those words come back to haunt him in the courtroom.

"Reckon this is the first place in a long time that the boy felt like it was his home," Jonesy countered.

"So only natural he wants to take good care of the place."

Slim once more sighed. He stood up.

"Where you going?" Jonesy asked. "You ainít touched your coffee."

"Reckon instead of drinking coffee," Slim replied, "Iíll go eat some crow."

"Crow?" Mose echoed with a chuckle.

"ĎSpect Jess could use some help with the horses," Slim explained. "It goes easier when weíre working together."



CHAPTER SIX

Judge Garth had not once looked away from Jess as he told his story.

"Where you late each time a stage was robbed?"

"Seemed that way," Jess said.

"Why? Why were you late?"

Jess shrugged. "Lot of different reasons. Cows got out Ďcause a fence was down. Took me longer to leads cows to a pasture Ďcause a tree was down over the road. Gate hanging off a hinge. Normal ranch activities."

"Donít mean anything, Judge," Slim argued. "You know what itís like on a ranch. Something always needing fixiní."

Judge Garth spoke as if he was arguing a case. "But the prosecutor will make it sound like Jess was delayed because he was robbing the stages, especially when all the robberies happened near your place, and near where Jess was working."

"I ainít that dumb!" Jess argued. "You think Iíd rob a stage close to where I was working?"

"You know I heard of a sheriff," Trampas said, "who robbed the bank in the next town. Did it four times before they figured out who the robber was. ĎSpect that lawman thought no one would think a sheriff was dumb enough to rob the neighboring town." It wasnít Jessí stare that stopped Trampas from speaking. It was the Judgeís glare. Trampas bent his head, looking down at his rifle.

"Being near where a robbery happens isnít enough evidence to hang a man," Judge Garth assured. "So tell me what else happened?"

Jess replied, "For a couple of weeks nothing. As soon as we paid off the plow, things quieted. Werenít no robberies. Stages came and went without a problem."

"Didnít last long," Slim said. "How long would you say it lasted, Jess? A couple of weeks?"

"It happened the same week that I bought a hat and boots."

Trampas whistled. "The stage gets robbed and you buy boots and a hat the same week Quite a coincidence."

"Youíre quite a big mouth, ainít you?" Jess said

. Trampas stood up so quickly that the chair slid.

"Trampas!"

Judge Garthís warning made the cowboy sit back down. Judge Garth turned back to Jess. "So the week you buy expensive items, the next robbery happens. Did you buy before or after the robbery occurred?"

"After," Jess mumbled.

"Judge, I know how that looks," Slim began. "The stage superintendent noticed too."



CHAPTER SEVEN

"Well Iíll be! I never thought Iíd see the day!" Jonesy checked his watch. "Ten minutes early."

Jess hurried to the yard and drew a straight line in the dirt with his boot. He held out his arm so the driver could see the spot as the stage pulled into the yard. But the stage went five feet past the line before the driver could stop the team of horses.

"You owe me a dime," Jess greeted.

Mose wrapped the reins around the brake. "The lead horse has been acting up. Next time Iíll stop right on it. Double or nothing?"

Jess laughed. "You got yourself a bet!"

Slim grinned as he opened the stage door. The man who stepped out of the stage wore a business suit that spoke of wealth. He was older than Slim, but only by a few years. A few strands of gray was seen in his coal black hair.

Slim held out his hand. "Paul! I didnít expect to see you."

With a smile, Paul shook Slimís hand. "Slim! Itís always good to see you."

"Well I should have known why the stage was on time." Jonesy stepped down from the porch and shook hands with Paul.

"Howdy, Jonesy," Paul greeted warmly. "You still baking biscuits?"

"Just took some out of the oven. Figured weíd have passengers and theyíd be hungry."

"Just me today, Jonesy. But I guarantee you that Iíll eat my fill and then some."

"Then I better get them out on the table." Jonesy hurried inside the house.

"Jess, take care of the stage, Iíll be inside," Slim ordered before hustling Paul inside the house.

Curiosity was etched on Jessí tan face. "Whoís that?"

"That there is the superintendent of the stage line," Mose informed. "Paul Jennings."

"So that explains why the stage was on time," Jess said.

"Now you listen here! I get no complaints from my passengers. Except it takes a might long time for the relays to the change the horses. Especially one relay in particular."

"Aw, Iím working."

"More chewing the fat than working."

"And who am I talking to?" Jess asked with an edge in his voice. He unhitched one of the horses.

Mose turned and started towards the house.

"Well ainít you going to help me?" Jess asked.

Mose spun on his heels. "You asking me to help change the stage horses?"

"Well Slimís inside, so he canít," Jess argued. "Takes longer when only one of us is doing it.

And with the superintendent on board, I thought youíd be in a hurry to get going."

"Maybe I should ask Mr. Jennings about getting paid double, since Iím doing your job and mine."

"Well if youíre goiní be that way, then go on inside," Jess responded. "But if youíre late getting into Laramie, donít you go blaming me and Slim. ĎCause weíll have to tell that stage superintendent that while he was talking to Slim, his driver wouldnít lift a finger to help Ďcause he was too busy wanting to socialize."

"Now you listen here! Mr. Jennings is a fair man!"

"Mose, Iím just saying that you donít want to be late getting into Laramie do you?" Jess pushed his hat back on his forehead as he smiled at the old man. "Not with the stage superintendent riding with you. Well he just might blame the driver, thinking he needs a younger man to drive them horses."

Moseís face reddened with anger. "Oh shucks!" Mose moved back towards the horses.

Jess didnít hear the rest of what Mose said. But as he led the lead horse towards the corral, Jess laughed out loud imagining what Mose was saying.



CHAPTER EIGHT

Inside the house, Jonesy placed a plate of hot biscuits and preserves in front of Paul. Paul spread the biscuit thick with the strawberry jam. He took a bite and moaned with pleasure. "My wife would be envious."

"How is Laura?" Slim asked as Jonesy set a cup of steaming coffee in front of Paul

"Getting our daughter ready to go back east. Mary is going to boarding school next month."

"They sure grow up quick, donít they?" Jonesy said.

"Well I think sheís a little young. Weíve got a good school in Cheyenne. But I ainít got the heart not to give in to her." Paul swallowed the last bite of biscuit then licked his fingers.

"You know Iíve been thinking about sending Andy off to school. How much would a good one cost?" Slim asked.

"I think buying a ranch would cost less," Paul said with a chuckle.

Slim let out a slow whistle. "That much huh?"

"Well you know Laura. Everything has to be the best for our little girl."

"Well you give them both our regards," Slim said. "Been a long time since Iíve seen her."

"Iíll do that," Paul promised before reaching for another biscuit.

Jonesy placed a coffee pot on the table. "So how far you going up the line?" Jonesy sat down across from Paul.

"Just to Laramie." Paulís smile turned sober. "Slim, Iím concerned about the rash of robberies weíve had lately."

Slim nodded. "Five holdups in less than a month."

Paul eyes dropped from Slimís face. "You know all the robberies have happened near Laramie."

Again Slim nodded. "Usually within five to ten miles of our place. Jess and I look but the tracks just die out. Hard to figure where that robber could be hiding."

"This man Jess Harper that you hired...."

"I should have introduced you," Slim apologized. "Paul, youíll like him. Heís a hard worker and..."

"I already know a lot about him," Paul interrupted. "I hear heís quick with a gun."

Slim drank a long sip of coffee before he replied, "Heís faster than most."

Jonesy spoke right up, "He also works harder than most. Heís the best ranch hand that Slim has ever hired....with the exception of me."

Slim laughed before adding, "Jess has been a mighty big help to me and to the stage line."

Paul said slowly, "Thatís good to hear but I did some checking. Heís been in trouble with the law...several times. And these robberies started shortly after he hired on here."

Slimís face turned to stone. He slammed his coffee cup down hard on the table. "You accusing Jess?"

"No, not exactly. But Slim, you got to admit the timing is something to wonder about."

Though the cabin was warm, Slimís voice was so cold that Jonesy felt the chill. "There ainít no proof that Jess robbed those stages. I know him. He wouldnít."

Paul gave a slow nod. "All right, Slim. I guess I canít accuse a man without proof. But I hope you understand that the stage line canít afford to lose business. Already the mining company is talking about getting their money transported a different way. They told me right out if the Overland canít get their money to Laramie safely then theyíll use other means to get it to Laramie. And Iím also getting pressure from the bank to stop these robberies. Theyíll worried the mining company will stop using the Laramie Bank."

"Whoís to say this hombre wouldnít hold them up if they started delivering to a different town and using their own wagons?" Slim questioned.

"You and I know that. But try convincing a banker and a mining president. Canít blame the bank or the mining company for threatening to stop using us. Not with all the robberies weíve had. But if they quit using the Overland, well Slim, Iím not sure the stage line could exist without their business."

"Itís that serious?" Slimís forehead puckered with worry.

"Five holdups in less than one month. And no clue to whoís doing it."

"Still I never thought the miners would stop using the stage line. Weíve been transporting their money ever since this stage line opened. What about more guards during those runs?"

"Itís being discussed. But guards cost money especially if we use them on every run. And if we keep cutting our profits, then weíre going to have to close down some of the relay stations. That wonít be good for business either."

"For either one of us," Slim agreed.

"What I canít figure out is how itís known when weíre having a special run. Itís got to be someone connected with the stage line."

Jonesy sat up straight. "Youíre thinking itís one of the employees of the Overland Stage Company?"

Paul nodded. "I hate to say it but it sure points that way. Slim, I know you said that this fellow Harper has been working hard. But I think it would be wise to let him go. Even if he isnít involved, it doesnít look good for a man with the past that Harper has to be working for the stage line."

Jonesy glanced quickly at Slim.

Slim voice was hard, "Jess works for me, not the stage line."

"Slim, I know that but still..."

"And I hire who I want to work on my ranch. If the stage line disagrees then the company should get another ranch to be a relay station. I run my own outfit. Always have; always will."

"Now hold on, Slim!" Paul offered a smile. "Youíre a good man and you run one of the best relay stations on the run. I donít want to lose you. I couldnít get anyone better in this area."

"If I stay, then Jess stays. Itís that simple."

Paul sighed. "All right. I wonít insist. But promise me that youíll at least keep an eye on Harper. Thatís not asking too much is it?"

Slim started to speak; but Jonesy cut in. "I keep an eye on both of them. You donít know the trouble they would get into without me watching them."

Paul laughed. "I think I do. I remember when I was their age. Thatís when I was a cowboy working any spread that would give me work. I tell you some of those cow towns were rough."

"I didnít know you started off as a cowboy," Jonesy said.

Paul looked sheepish as he said, "I donít talk much about them days because of Laura. She likes to think Iím like her Pa. Educated and refined. But Iím still rough on the edges. Too much time in the saddle not to be. I miss those days. I was working the range right up until the day I hired on as a driver with the Overland. Then I married Laura. Well her father wasnít going to let me stay on as a driver. That wouldnít be good enough for his daughter. He insisted that I join him in managing the stage line. But he made sure I knew every aspect of the stage business. I think her old man worked me in every job the stage line had to offer."

"I know you had some pretty big shoes to fill when he died," Slim said. "But youíve done a good job, Paul, thatís for sure."

"Iím not as good a business man as he was," Paul admitted. "But Iím good enough to know that I donít want to loose the Sherman Ranch as a relay station. ĎSides I wouldnít hear the end of it from Laura if I let you go."

Slim drank from his coffee cup, hiding his expression.

As Jess and Mose finished hitching the last horse to the stage, Paul and Slim left the house.

"We leaving now?" Mose asked.

Paul replied, "Donít see why not. I want to get into Laramie and get a room before all the rooms are taken. Last time I had to bunk with a fellow on his way to California. And I donít think he had bathed since he left Boston. And his snoring kept me up most of the night."

Mose frowned at Jess. "Jonesy have apple pie this run?"

"Biscuits and jam," Slim stated.

"Jonesy sure bakes the best biscuits on the run," Mose said.

"Sure does," Paul agreed. "Heís cooks the best on the line. Now letís get going."

"Yes sir," Mose replied, then began climbing to the stage seat.

As Slim opened the stage door, he asked, "How long you planning on staying in Laramie?"

"As long as it takes to find whoís robbing the stage. Iím going to post a reward." Paul glanced quickly at Jess then back to Slim. "You just remember to keep a look out for anyone acting suspicious." He held out his hand. "Iím counting on you, Slim."

Slim grasped his hand with friendliness. "Jess and I will both keep an eye out."

Paulís glare slid to Jess. For a second he lost his smile, as he studied the young cowboy. He turned back to Slim. "Always good seeing you, Slim." He climbed into the stage.

Slim shut the door and took a step back. "Iíll stop by when Iím in town and weíll a drink."

"Look forward to it," Paul said with his head stuck out the window. He hit the side of the door with his hand. "Letís go, Mose!"

Mose glanced down at Jess. "Next time you do your own work without me. Jonesyís biscuits are the best around these parts! And I donít take kindly missing out on eating Ďem."

Jess grinned. "Reckon Iíll go have me one of Ďem biscuits." "You young..." Mose slapped the reins, screaming "yah!" at the horses. The animals took off in a run, spraying dust.

Jess turned as the dirt flew. As he brushed the dust off his clothes, he complained, "You think the devil was chasing him!"

Slim grinned. "When you got the stage superintendent riding, you best drive like the devil is."

Jess asked, "Iíve been here three months and never seen the superintendent come through. Whatís he doing in Laramie?"

Slim replied, "Business. Seems the mine might not be using us any more."

"How come?"

"All these robberies weíve been having. Paulís worried that he might have to shut down some relay stations."

Jess suddenly frowned. "Would yours be one of them?"

"I donít know. Weíre the last one into Laramie. He just might."

"Well has he got any idea who might be robbing the stage line?"

"Nope. But I reckon posting a reward will bring the wolves out to catch the robber."

Jess mounted his horse.

"Where are you riding off to?"

"You donít pay me to sit around. Iím heading back to the north range. I left a cow fixing to foal out there. I aim to be sure the coyotes donít get her calf. Donít reckon Iíll get back in time to work with them horses. Sure wish youíd reconsider about Curly."

"I think we need to wait to see if the stage does cut back on relay stations. Without that extra money, we might be hurting to pay the bills," Slim confessed. "By the way, how bad was the fence?"

"Five cows got out."

"You get them all?"

Jess nodded. "Took me awhile, though."

"You think someone cut it?"

"Didnít look like it."

"Jess, I fixed that fence two days ago. Donít make sense to me that it needs repair so soon. Been a lot of repairs going on lately. Some I didnít figure on like that fence. Jess, you keep a watch out, what with the stage being robbed and...."

"Whoeverís robbing the stage line is probably long gone. I know I would be. Especially with money burning in my pocket. Iíd be heading towards some big town to spend it."

"If Paul is right, whoís doing the robbing is staying around these parts. Makes me think itís someone that lives around here. Remember what Gene said. The robber seemed familiar. Got to be someone familiar with the layout of the land and the stage line."

"That narrows it down donít it?"

"Hate to think itís someone we know and might even work with."

Jess blurted out, "That superintendent didnít seem to take a shine to me."

Slim shrugged. "Heís a good man, Jess. This stage line could have gone under when Mr. Jackson died; but Paul kept the stages running. Heís thought highly of by everyone who works for the Overland. Ainít never heard a bad word spoken about him. I think youíll agree once you get to know him. Give him a chance. Youíll like him once you know him."

"Iím sure Iíll like him," Jess said without conviction. "Iíll take a look when Iím out there. See if I can find any tracks."

"If you do, you come get me. You donít know what kind of hornetís nest youíd be riding into. Itíd be better if we both go."

"Iíll be all right," Jess assured. "So donít go mother henning me like you do with Andy."

Slim watched as Jess rode away from the ranch. Even after Jess was out of sight, Slim continued to glance at the road.

"Somethingís weighing on your mind?" Jonesy stepped off the porch and neared Slim. "You look bothered."

"No more than usual."

"You sure about that?"

"Jonesy, I know when you got something on your mind. Why donít you just say your peace?"

"Iím just thinking that it sure seems funny that every time the stage is robbed, Jess is late getting home."

"Now thatís a notion."

"What? That Jess could be the robber?"

"No. You thinking." Slim laughed then turned and walked towards the barn.



CHAPTER NINE

A cloud of dust rose from the ground like a volcano spouting. Within seconds, the stage came barreling over the hill.

Jonesy tilted his head as he watched. "Stage is coming in awful fast, ainít it?"

"Too fast!" Slim ran to his horse. Grabbing the saddle horn, Slim jumped on the horseís back.

Turning the steed towards the stage, Slim pushed his boots into the stirrups then spurred his sorrel. The horse bucked then took off at a gallop. Slimís hat flew off as the horse raced towards the stage. Within seconds, Slim had caught up to the stage. Slim turned the animal with a hard pull on the reins. Dust flew up as the horse did a sharp 180 degree turn. Slim slapped the reins against the horseís rump. Slimís horse ran after the stage. Soon the horse was running along side the coach.

Slim leaned out of his saddle as far as he could, grabbing for the lead horseís bridle. Twice his fingers just barely touched the leather straps. The third attempt he was able to get a firm hold. He pulled back as hard as he could while trying to keep his horse from spurting away. Slimís body was jerked hard as the lead horse squealed while dodging the other stage horses.

On the stage seat, Mose pulled so hard on the reins that veins stood out on his arms. The carriage of the stage bounced, then tilted so only two wheels were touching the ground. The stage leaned from right to left and back to right. With wheels squeaking and the horses squealing, the stage finally came to a skidding halt in the yard of the relay station. As Mose pulled back on the brake, he yelled, "We got hit."

Slim dismounted in one fluid movement then climbed quickly up to the seat.

Blood poured through Moseís fingers as he pressed his hand hard against his shoulder.

"How bad is it?" Slim asked.

"Donít bother with me! Itís Gene who needs your help." Mose nodded towards the unconscious guard who was half sprawled on the seat.

Slim climbed across Mose and studied Geneís chest. The stage guardís shirt was so bloody that it was hard to see where the wound was.

"How is he?" Jonesy asked anxiously as he rounded the side of the stage where Gene laid.

"Jonesy, heís in bad shape. If I slide him, think you can hold him until I get him down?"

"Donít you worry none about me. Iíll do my part," Jonesy snapped.

As gentle as he could, Slim began easing Gene down from the stage. "Thatís it, Jonesy," Slim encouraged. "You got him?"

Gene was so heavy that Jonesy couldnít speak. He could only nod.

Slim scurried down and grabbed Geneís shoulders from Jonesyís hold. He slid him down further. Jonesy took hold of Geneís legs and the men slowly began walking towards the house. Jonesy struggled to carry Gene. Twice Jonesy slipped, once almost to his knees, but each time the old man managed not to drop the stage guard.

Wincing with each movement, Mose climbed down from the stage, using one hand to steady his descent. "Whereís Jess? We could sure use his help."

"He should have been back by now! Heís late again!" Slim tightened his hold as Jonesy once more slipped.

As if on cue, Jess galloped into the yard. He swung off his horse as the horse skidded to a stop. Jess quickly grabbed the wounded man from Jonesyís clutches and helped to carry the guard into the house. Mose trailed behind with drips of blood outlining his path.

Jonesy barked orders as he moved towards Andyís room. "Put him in here. Slim get some water boiling. Jess tear up a sheet, I got a clean one hanging on the line outback." Jonesy pulled back the guardís shirt. Blood had started to clog, turning from bright red to dark brown.

"How is he? Heís got a wife and a kid on the way," Mose said, peering over Jonesyís shoulder.

"Mose, you better sit down. You looked peeked yourself," Jonesy slid a cane chair towards Mose. The driver collapsed into the chair.

"What happen this time?" Jonesy studied the bullet hole.

"He was on us before we knew it."

"Did Gene draw against him?" Jonesy began prodding to see if he could find the bullet.

"Nope."

Geneís moans grew loud.

"He all right?" Mose asked quickly.

"The bulletís in deep." Jonesy studied the wound. "Heís gut shot."

Mose spit the words out, "That no account varmint shot him for spite! He had no call to shoot him. Gene was cooperating."

"Here Jonesy." Jess entered the room and handed the old man strips of torn up sheet.

"Whereís that water?" Jonesy turned towards Jess, eyeing him with anger.

"Slimís getting it. It takes awhile to get it to boil," Jess growled back.

"Here help me get his shirt off." Jonesy pulled back a small piece of the shirt. The rest was soaked with blood and seemed embedded in the manís body. "Iím trying but I canít lift him high enough..."

"Youíre going to have to cut it off, Jonesy." Jess pulled out a knife from his boot. He wiped it against his shirt, then handed it to Jonesy. He moved so he was standing across the bed from the old man. "Iíll ease him up."

It wasnít an easy job. Gene was a big man and Jonesyís strength often wavered. As they cut the last of the shirt away, Slim appeared with a bowl of steaming water. "I started another pot." Slim placed the bowl on the night table. He moved to Mose and started tending to the wound. "What happened Mose?"

Mose couldnít stop a moan. "Was a tree across the road. Had no choice but to stop. Couldnít go around. Ouch! Thatís my skin youíre pulling!"

"You got so much blood, I canít tell whatís skin and whatís shirt." Slim pulled as gently as he could the last of Moseís shirt. Blood poured out of the wound and ran down Moseís chest. Mose paled more.

"You all right?" Slim asked quickly.

Mose could only nod.

"Jess, held this cloth against the wound while I cut him some bandages," Slim ordered.

"Jess, I need that lantern held near Geneís wound so I can see!" Jonesy ordered.

"Well I canít be two places at one time!" Jess glanced from one wounded man to the other.

"Help Slim!" Jonesy snapped. "Iíll get by."

Jess moved to Mose and pushed hard. "How you feeling, Mose?" Concern was etched on the young cowboyís face.

The old man smiled. "Donít you worry none about me. Iíll make it all right." He let out another moan, this time softer.

"Slim, will you hurry up with them bandages!" Jess yelled.

Slim moved close to Mose. "Pull him forward." Slim began wrapping a cloth around Moseís body.

"Howís that Mose? Should stop the bleeding some," Slim said.

Mose nodded as he leaned back in the chair. "Howís Gene?"

Slim glanced at Jonesy. Jonesy had worry written all across his face.

"Mose, this time did you get a good look at him?" Jess asked.

"All I know it was the same fellow thatís been robbing the stage. Never got a good look at his face. Same as before. Wore a bandana. Hardly said a word either. I wouldnít know him if he walked in here. All I saw was him pointing that gun of his."

"Whyíd he shoot Gene?" Slim watched Jonesy poke in wound, trying to get the bullet out. Geneís moans were getting louder with each pry.

"Jess...Slim, I need you to hold him down," Jonesy said.

Jess grabbed Geneís legs while Slim pushed down on Geneís shoulders.

Mose continued with his story, "I got down to see if I could move the tree. I should have known something was wrong as soon as I saw it across the road. The next thing I knew, that polecat had shot Gene in the shoulder to get him to drop his gun. Gene dropped it all right. So werenít no call for him to shoot Gene again. Worse kind of coyote I ever saw. I tell you, boys, I thought I was a goner this time."

"Slim, hand me that bottle." Jonesy pointed.

Slim picked up the whiskey bottle from the small table and handed it to Jonesy. Jonesy took a long swig then poured some over the wound. He then dipped a cloth into the pan of water and began wiping away the blood.

"He ainít moving too much now," Jess observed.

"You wouldnít either if you had a bullet buried deep in your gut," Jonesy said. "I got the one out of his shoulder. But the one in his gut..." He shook his head with sorrow.

"Geneís going to be all right, ainít he?" Mose tried to peer over Jessí shoulder to see.

"Mose sit back down before you fall down," Jess ordered. He helped Mose back to the chair. Then Jess hurried back to again hold Geneís legs.

"I think I got the bleeding stopped...or at least slowed down a might," Jonesy replied. "You can let go of him. He ainít going to fight. Heís too weak."

Slim turned towards Mose to ask a question. It was then that Slim noticed that Moseís hands were shaking. "Jonesy, hand me that whiskey."

Jonesy hesitated.

"Jonesy!"

Jonesy passed the whiskey bottle to Slim. He took a long swig before handing it to Mose.

"Drink up. Itíll steady your nerves," Slim said.

"My nerves are all right!" Mose argued before chugging a long swallow. His tongue darted across his lips. "Thanks, Slim. You know, I still donít understand why he shot Gene."

Slim was thoughtful before speaking, "Maybe Gene did recognize him."

"Or the robber thought Gene knew him," Jonesy added. "That would make sense why Gene was shot."

"Well there was something nagging him about that robber. Talked about it all during the drive. Gene was sure he knew him but he couldnít place what it was that was giving him that feeling. He even talked to the stage superintendent about it.," Mose said.

"But thatís all he said?" Jess asked quickly. "He never mentioned a name?"

Mose shook his head. "Gene shot in the gut like he is. Not many survive that kind of wound. How is he, Jonesy? He is going to make it, ainít he?"

"I canít get the bullet out." With his hand pressed against his back, Jonesy stood up straight with a moan. "Iíve done all I can do."

"Your back?" Slim asked.

Jonesy growled, "Donít go worrying over me! You got to fret over somebody, you fret over him!"

"But heís got to make it. Heís got a child on the way." Moseís eyes pleaded for an answer.

"Bulletís in too deep for me to even try. He needs a doctor and fast."

"Iíll go!" Jess was out the door and mounting his horse before any one could respond.



CHAPTER TEN

Jess held his hand up in greeting as the stage came to a stop. "Howís the arm?" Jess asked as he steadied Moseís climb down from the stage seat.

"Only feel a tinge every now and then." Mose rubbed his shoulder. "Itíll take more than a bullet to stop me."

Laughing, Jess opened the stage door. "Thereís food inside," he said to the passengers.

As the passengers made their way to the house, Jess said to the stage guard, "Morning Frankie. You doing double duty? You drove the stage into Laramie this morning."

"These robberies got everyone so spooked that the stage is having a hard time keeping guards on. Reckon Mr. Jennings might ask you and Slim to take a turn."

"Itís come down to that, huh?"

Frankie nodded.

Inside the cabin, Jonesy was hurrying. "We ainít had this many passengers in a spell." Two women and three men sat around the table.

"Must have heard that youíre baking today, Jonesy," Slim said as he put plates on the table.

Jonesy added jam and butter, then began pouring coffee. "Thanks, Slim, I can take it from here."

"Iíll go help Jess."

Frankie stood in the doorway. Slim neared him and whispered, "All go well this morn."

"The payroll made it in...."

Mose interrupted the menís conversation as he coughed loudly to make the men step aside so he could get through the doorway. He took the last chair at the table.

Jonesy barely looked at the guard as he added another plate to the table. "Frankie, bring that chair in front of the fireplace over....Maíam, you donít mind sliding over a bit do you?"

The stage guard lifted the jacket off the chair. "Where you want me to put this, Jonesy?" As Frankieís voice trailed off, Jonesy said over his shoulder. "Just some mending. Put it on floor."

Frankie touched the material as if he had never seen cloth. He put his finger through the hole in the sleeve. "Jonesy, looks like this came real close."

Jonesy grinned. "I said the same thing. Jess sure is one lucky hombre."

"What happened?"

"Someone shot at him this morning."

Frankie again studied the hole. "Jess see who..."

"Naw. Slim figures it was some hunter who shouldnít have been on our property. Jess was mighty sore about it all. Canít say I blame him? An inch over and I would have been doctoring."

"Frankie, you better quit jawiní. These biscuits are almost gone," Mose said.

Frankie carried the chair to the end of the table. He glanced at Moseís plate. "Hope you saved me one."

Mose nodded as he chewed. He covered three biscuits with more jam.

Slim opened the door to the house. "Horses are ready."

Frankie stood, still chewing the last of his biscuit. "Best food on the run, Jonesy."

Mose licked his fingers. "You can say that again! Reckon I can take a few of these in case I get hungry on the road?"

"You ate six biscuits," Frankie said.

"Aw, whoís counting?"

Frankie laughed. "Come on, you old coyote! Letís get going."

Jess helped Mose climb up to the stage wagon. As Frankie walked by, Jess said, "Hope you donít have any trouble on the run."

Frankie said nothing. He didnít even look at Jess. As he sat down in the stage seat, he picked up his shotgun. He held it tightly to his body as if expecting trouble before they rode out.

"Well see you boys, tomorrow," Mose said. "Tell Jonesy, I wouldnít mind having some more of them biscuits."

"Weíll pass the word along," Slim said with a grin. "You boys be careful!"

"Careful is my middle name," Frankie said.

Jess laughed then said, "See you on the Medicine Bow run,Mose...Frankie."

Frankie replied, "See you, Slim!"

As Mose slapped the reins of the horses, Jessí smile disappeared.

Mose waited until they were a few miles down the road before he said, "You didnít seem neighborly to Jess."

Frankie frowned. "Jonesy was mending his jacket."

The old manís face crinkled with confusion. "So?"

"It had a bullet hole from where someone had shot at him today."

"Jess never mentioned..."

"Didnít figure he would."

Mose glanced out of the corner of his eye at the guard. "Frankie, if youíre trying to tell me something. Just say it plainly. Iím too old to be guessing."

"I done told you that today on the run to Laramie, I shot at that robber. Scared him off!"

"Whatís that got to do with Jess?"

"Maybe nothing. Or maybe..."

"Now wait a minute!" Moseís gentle voice turned gruff. "You saying Jess tried to rob that stage?"

"You been hearing the talk same as me."

"And thatís all it is. Talk!"

"Donít it make you wonder hearing Jess was shot at on the same day I shoot at the stage robber?"

ĎNope! Lot of polecats wandering Ďround these days."

"And Iím beginning to think one of them polecats is Jess Harper."

Mose bit back his words. He drove several miles before he said, "Take a lot more than one bullet hole to convince me that boyís a stage robber."

"Mose, youíre just too trusting," Frankie criticized.

"No, I ainít! You give me the proof and Iíll hang my own brother for robbing a stage. But without proof, I ainít going to accuse a friend."

"You consider Jess a friend? He ainít been at Slimís long enough to..."

"All the same I think of him as a friend." Mose glanced at Frankie. "Seems to me that heís always been friendly to you too."

"Being friendly and being a friend are two different things, Mose. You should know that."

Frankieís eyes darted from one side of the road to the other. He grasp the shotgun even tighter. "All I know is from now on when the stage is close to the Sherman Relay Station, Iím going to keep a real good lookout."

"I thought that was your job no matter where the stage was at."

Frankie glanced with anger at Mose. "And Iím going to let Mr. Jennings know about that jacket with the bullet hole."

Mose shook his head. "You do that and youíre going to be adding to the gossip thatís already going around about Jess. You going to make it awful hard for that boy to live near Laramie."

"Sometimes thereís truth in gossip."

"More often not."

"Then why do you gossip so much?"

Moseís eyebrows shot up with anger. "Why I never..."

Frankie grinned at Mose. "Why Mose, I get most of my information from you."

Moseís reply was only to slap the reins harder against the horses, making them spurt into a gallop.



CHAPTER ELEVEN

Seeing the stage come down the hill, Jess stopped loading hay into the barn. He waved a greeting as the stage pulled into the yard.

"Howdy, Mose...Frankie! Good trip?"

Mose nodded but Frankie didnít reply. He didnít even nod.

"No passengers today, Jess," Mose said as Jess started for the coach door.

Jess turned and walked towards the lead horse. Frankie climbed down from the stage seat. He always left the shotgun in the stage seat. This time, he carried it with him as he headed towards the house. As Jess unhitched the horse, he glanced as Frankie walked past him. "Everything go all right this trip?"

Frankie said nothing but only kept walking, entering the house..

Jess turned with a question on his face. "I say something wrong?"

"Oh donít mind him!" Mose said. "Heís been a might touchy since Gene died."

"Werenít my fault the doctor wasnít in. I found him as quick as I could," Jess defended.

Mose glanced at the ground.

Jessí eyes narrowed with speculation. "Something you ainít telling me, Mose."

Slim walked out of the house and headed towards Mose and Jess.

"You best get those horses changed," Slim greeted. "Frankieís awful anxious about leaving. Even Jonesyís pie ainít tempting him to stay."

"Iíll get started on Ďem horses just as soon as Mose explains why Frankie gave me such a cold shoulder."

Slim turned towards Mose. "Something wrong, Mose? Something we should know about?"

"Aw, you know how people talk."

"People? Or someone?" Jess questioned. His face darkened with anger. "If Frankieís got something to say, he can say it to my face." He turned towards the house.

"Donít go blaming Frankie. Itís Mr. Jennings thatís been doing most of the talking," Mose informed.

Jess spun on his heels. "The stage superintendent? Whatís he been saying?"

"Sometimes when we only got one run, Mr. Jennings will buy us a drink. And naturally them robberies come up. And..." The tip of Moseís boot kicked at the dirt.

"And what, Mose?" Jess asked.

"Tell us, Mose," Slim encouraged.

"Well..ainít nothing to fret about. You know how people like to talk. Most of it donít mean nothing at all."

"Must be something, if Frankie ainít talking to me," Jess argued.

"Itís just that...well, Mr. Jennings asked some of us if we thought you might be the one robbing the stages."

Jessí face blackened with rage.

"He what?" Slim asked.

"I reckon some of the drivers and guards are a might upset hearing that Mr. Jennings thinks it might be you, Jess," Mose explained.

"I guess that means I better watch my back," Jess said.

"ĎSpect you better," Mose agreed. "Gene was well liked."

Worry was heard in every word that Jess spoke, "Looks like Iím convicted and tried."

Slim said in a calm voice, "Now donít be so quick to think..."

"You saw how Frankie acted. Slim, how are you going run a relay station with every driver and guard believing that Iím responsible for the holdups?"

"Now you wait a minute, boy!" Moseís temper now rose. "You still got some friends here."

"Name one!" Jess challenged.

"Me!" Mose said.

"Mose, you saying you donít think I robbed them stages?"

"What Iím saying is that whoeverís robbing the stages is a mighty smart fellow to get away with all them holdups. So I know the robber canít be you, Jess."

Jess started to say thanks, then suddenly pressed his lips together hard.

Slim couldnít hide his smile. "I got the same notion as Mose."

"Mose, we best be going." Frankie stood in the doorway.

"Horses ainít been changed yet," Mose said.

"Theyíve rested long enough." Frankie headed for the stage.

Jess quickly blocked the guardís path. "I hear you think Iíve been robbing the stages."

"Jess!" Slim cried out.

"Jess, I donít want no fight with you," Frankie said as his hold tightened on the shotgun. The guard started to walk around Jess. But Jess again blocked his way to the stage.

"Jess, let it be," Slim ordered. He touched Jess on the sleeve.

"That temper of yours is going to get you in trouble one day," Frankie warned.

Mose shook his head with sorrow then climbed up to the stage seat.

"Leave it be, Jess," Slim said. "A manís got a right to think what he wants, even if it is a foolish thought."

Jess stepped aside so Frankie could walk to the stage.

Jess hurried to the well and drew a bucket of water. He held the bucket to each horseís mouth and all eagerly sipped. As he stepped back, Mose picked up the reins.

"See you on your next run, Mose," Slim said.

"Sure thing, Slim!" Mose said. "Jess, you take care."

Frankieís eyes darted to Jess. Jessí cheek ticked as he stared back at Frankie.

"You give Jennings a message from me," Jess ordered.

"Jess!" Slim warned.

"You tell him to be mighty careful about what he says. Unless he wants to tangle with me."

"You threatening him, Jess?" Frankie shot back. "We all know how good you are with a gun."

"Thatís not a threat. Thatís a promise!" Jess said. "Iíll shut him up if I have to."

"Iíll tell him," Frankie promised. "But that ainít going to stop people from wondering if youíve been robbing the stages."

Without warning, Jess started forward towards Frankie.

"Yah!" Mose slapped the reins so hard that the two back horses kicked before they all took off in a gallop.

The spray of dust caused Jess to turn away as the stage galloped out of the yard.

"Frankieís right. That temper is going to get you in trouble one day," Slim warned.



CHAPTER TWELVE

Judge Garth had said nothing, but had listened quietly to all Jess had to say. But now he spoke up,

interrupting the young cowboy. "So you threaten to kill Jennings?"

Jess defended, "I didnít say anything about killing..."

"Youíre good with a gun. You said youíd shut him up. The jury will think that you meant to kill Jennings."

Jess looked down at the ground. "I was angry."

"Losing your temper might just get you hung." Judge Garth held out his cup. "Mort, you mind?"

The sheriff quickly filled up the Judgeís mug.

"You know how gossip can be," Jess defended. "He was turning the town against me."

"Yes, I do. But that doesnít mean you threaten...well the damage has been done. Iím sure the prosecutor will bring that threat up in court. Shows there was bad blood between you and Jennings."

Judge Garth drank then put the cup on the floor.

Slim said quickly, "Judge, Iíve never understood why Paul would try to stir up trouble. Heís always been a law and order type of man. Heís refused to ride with vigilantes."

"Mort, did Paul ever ask you to arrest Jess?" Judge Garth glanced at the sheriff.

Mort shook his head. "Never talked to me about it. Though I will admit, I knew about the gossip going around town that Jess was involved in the robberies. Just never knew who was responsible for starting the rumor. What I know about Jennings, doesnít sound like something heíd do."

Judge Garth said, "Without proof, I suspect that Paul was trying to make it uncomfortable for Jess to stay on at your place, Slim. Probably thought the robberies would stop if Jess left Laramie. At least thatís what I would reason if I was the prosecutor."

"Jess wanted to leave, but I wouldnít let him," Slim added.

Judge Garth frowned. "And that hurts our case more. Jess wanting to leave. Looks like heís trying to get away."

Jessí temper lit. "I was trying to save the relay station. Jennings could have stopped the stage line from using Slimís place as a relay station. Slim needs that money to keep his ranch going. He even threatened to do just that if Slim kept me on."

Judge Garth said, "You donít strike me as noble. And the jury wonít buy that either."

Jess snarled, "Mister, I donít like what youíre implying."

Judge Garthís temper now lit. "And you wonít like what the prosecutor will imply either. Donít underestimate what will be brought up when that trial opens. But youíre going to have to keep that temper of yours in check."

Jess looked as if he had been punched.

Trampasí head titled with understanding. "Iím betting that boy has robbed a stage before. Am I right, Harper?"

Jessí stare slid from the Judge to Trampas.

Slim snapped his fingers with understanding. "I couldnít figure Paul out before, but now... Thatís why Paul Jennings was so sure that Jess had robbed the stage line." his voice dropped off as Judge Garth glared at him.

"Is that true?" Judge Garthís stare now bore down on Jess.

Jess pressed his lips together.

"Tell me the truth!" Judge Garth ordered. "I told you that I canít defend you unless you do!"

"Judge, you know Jess served time. I told you that," Slim argued.

"But you didnít tell me what for," Judge Garth countered.

"I thought you wouldnít take the case if you knew...Sorry, Judge," Slim apologized.

"So you robbed a stage." Judge Garth said, instead of asking.

"Yes, itís true! I was seventeen! One stage...I got caught. I served my time. I got the papers if you want to see them." Jess pulled papers from his pocket.

Judge Garth read the papers then sighed. He handed them back to Jess.

"I paid for that crime!" Jess snapped.

"I know that," Judge Garth said. "But still itís going to affect the jury..."

"Whereís all this justice I keep hearing about?" Jess cried out. "I thought a man is innocent until proven guilty."

"Got to be innocent first..." Trampas began.

Jessí eyes locked with Trampas. "Too bad you ainít in this cell saying that."

Trampas took a step forward. "Reckon that could be arranged."

Jess moved to the bars.

"Trampas!" Judge Garthís one word stopped his ranch hand in his tracks.

"Judge, if Iím going to risk my neck against a mob. Iíd sure like to know that heís innocent," Trampas said. "Donít seem right us getting shot at if heís guilty."

Jessí grip tightened on the cell bars.

Judge Garthís yell seemed to fill the entire room. "Justice canít be decided by an angry mob!

This boy has a right to a trial. Itís in a courtroom that innocence or guilt will be decided. Not on the streets by an angry mob." Judge Garth looked at Jess. He studied him so hard that his eyes narrowed.

"If my own lawyer thinks Iím guilty..." Jess began.

"I wouldnít be here if I did," Judge Garth cut in. "To tell the truth, I havenít decided."

"But Judge, all the evidence is pointing towards Harper," Steve argued. "I agree with Trampas. I donít like sticking my neck out for someone like..."

"Judge, you know weíll fight for you," Trampas said. "But from what Harper how told us..."

"And I suppose you havenít found yourself in the same position. Unless Iím mistake thereís some things in your past that you hope would be forgotten."

Guilt raced across Trampasí face.

"But Judge, this is different!" Steve argued.

"Why? Because you know Trampas and you donít know Jess. If Trampas was sitting in that jail instead of Harper, would you believe Trampas if he told you that he was innocent and the same evidence was against him?" Judge Garth asked.

"Itís not the same!" Steve argued.

"Why not?" Judge Garth demanded. "Because Trampas didnít hire his gun out," Steve said. "Harper is nothing more than a gunslinger." "Thatís not true!" Slim said. "He might have started off as a wild kid. ĎCause he had to. His family was murdered, so Jess has been on his own since he was fifteen. You know how hard...."

Trampas nodded. "Yeah, I know how hard that is. Only I was older when my Pa died. Still I was a kid. And I had no family. Just a long list of the times I had been put in jail." Trampas slowly moved to the window. He rested his foot on the chair as he cradled his gun.

"Steve, at least listen to his story before you decide his guilt," Judge Garth said.

Steve moved to the other window. "Sure, Judge." But his voice showed that he had already decided that Jess was guilty.

"Could Paul have known about you robbing a stage?" Judge Garth asked.

Jess shrugged. "Probably still some old wanted posters floating around. Thatís why I carry my papers with me."

"He knew," Slim admitted.

"Yet Paul never said anything to the law," Judge Garth said.

"Mean anything, Judge?" Mort asked.

Judge Garth said, "Maybe...maybe not." He looked at Jess. "So you found out there was rumor circulating about you robbing the stage and it appeared to be started by the stage superintendent. What happen next?"

"I talked to Paul about the rumor," Slim answered.



CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Slim made no attempt to hide his anger. "People are saying that Jess robbed the stages."

"Slim, I canít help what people think." Paulís voice was calm as he sat at his desk.

"You can if youíre stirring the fire or maybe you lit that fire. Why, Paul?"

"Slim, you canít say for sure itís not Harper."

Slimís face redden with anger. "I know itís not Jess!"

Paul leaned back in his chair. "Your loyalty is admirable. But the truth is that these robberies started shortly after Harper went to work for you. And when they occur, itís near where heís working."

Slim frowned. "Doesnít mean..."

"Frankie saw the bullet hole in Jessí jacket."

"Someone shot at Jess that morning!"

"Someone no one saw but Harper. And on the same day, the same morning that Frankie shot at the robber. Slim, I know Harper is your ranch hand...."

"And my friend!"

"Maybe heís not as good a friend as you think. You wouldnít be the first who was taken in by...."

Slim placed his hands on the desk and leaned forward. "I know Jess. He wouldnít rob any of the stages."

"No?" Paul slid a paper towards Slim. "Go on! Read it! I told you I did some checking. Thereís a wanted poster on Harper for robbery. He robbed a stage, Slim."

Slim didnít touch the paper. "I already know about that poster. Jess told me everything when he hired on. He served his time. At the time, he was just a kid..."

"Heís still a kid. A kid whoís been in trouble with the law on and off more times than you want to admit. A kid that doesnít have much money but can buy a plow, which donít come cheap."

"He only put down a deposit."

"You canít afford a deposit but your ranch hand can!"

Slim looked as if he had been punched.

"Sorry, Slim, but I did some checking up on you too at the bank."

"You think Iím involved?"

"No." Paul added, "But I canít say the same about your ranch hand. Slim, I donít think youíll seeing clearly when it comes to Harper."

Slimís cheeks blotted with anger. "Thereís no proof that Jess did these robberies. And unless Iím mistaken a man is innocent until proven guilty. Yet youíre convincing all of Laramie Jess is guilty without any proof."

"Iím just asking questions, thatís all," Paul defended. "I canít help if people think..."

"You know what kind of trouble your questions are bringing to Jess...and to me! Half the drivers wonít talk to him. Heís treated by this town like an outcast. And with all that kind of talk, and the high reward youíre offering, my place is going to be flooded with men looking to bring that robber in. And theyíre going to go right for Jess."

Paulís eyes narrowed. "As far as Iím concerned Harper is a good suspect. All the evidence points towards him and no one else!"

"Thereís no evidence!" Slim argued back. "Only a bunch of men gossiping like old women whoís got nothing better to do."

"Maybe thereís not any cold, hard evidence-Yet! But Slim, you got to admit, everything points towards Harper as robbing the stages."

"Iím telling you now, if someone gets killed at my place nosing around, Iím holding you personally responsible."

Paul bit back his words. He hesitated before speaking, "Slim, I admire friendship. I consider you a friend. But friend or no friend, I canít let this stage line go under. A lot of people stand to lose everything they own if this stage line quits running...including yourself. You need the relay to supplement your income. You forgetting that? Without the relay station, I doubt you could keep your ranch going. You willing to back Harper, knowing that? You willing to bet everything you own because of your friendship with Harper?"

Slim stood up. He looked as if an iron rod had been pressed against his back. "Iím standing with Jess on this. And no threats are going to make me change my mind."

Paul shook his head, looking defeated. "I guess you should know that the mining company is hiring a Pinkerton Detective to look into the robberies. Backing Harper might cause you more trouble than you can handle. Take my advice, Slim, get rid of Harper. Fire him. You donít need him! You and Jonesy did all right before he hired on."

"I already told you that I hire who I want. And no one tells me who to hire or who to fire."

Paul said calmly, "All Iím asking is that you think on it."

"I donít need to," Slim said spitting out each word as if the taste was bitter. "You got my answer. And itís not going to change. Jess Harper works for me. And heís staying on.."

"Iím sorry to hear that," Paul replied.

"If you want to release me from my contract with the stage line..."

"If and when, Iíll let you know," Paul answered. His voice was steel cold.

Slim couldnít hide his relief.

"Slim, youíre sticking your neck out a long ways for Harper. I just hope you know what youíre doing."

Determination was etched on Slimís tan face. "I know."

Paul stood and offered his hand. "Weíre still friends, arenít we, Slim? Laura would never forgive me if we werenít."

"Sure. Weíre still friends." But Slim didnít look friendly as he shook the superintendentís hand.



CHAPTER FOURTEEN

As Slim walked down the boardwalk, he replayed Paulís conversation. Lost in thought, he almost ran into the cowboy who stepped into his path. Slim halted just inches from the intruder. He didnít recognize him.

"Sorry friend." Slim started around the cowboy.

"You Slim Sherman?" The cowboy again stepped in Slimís way, blocking him from walking down the boardwalk..

"Thatís right, Iím Sherman. You want something?"

The cowboy pushed back his hat. "I got me an idea..."

"Oh?"

"Well I know Harper is stealing the stage money but whatís got me wondering is are you in on it too? Why else would you have a saddle tramp like Harper working for you?"

Slimís face redden so much that he looked sun burnt. "You calling me a thief?"

"Iím just wondering if it your idea or Harperís to rob the stages? My moneyís on you."

Slim hit the cowboy so hard that he fell backwards, hitting the boardwalk. It took a few seconds for the cowboy to get back on his feet. But standing, the cowboy suddenly started for Slim.

Jess sat in the saloon, sipping his beer. He was aware that all eyes were on him. He glanced out the window. He was startled to see Slim hit a cowboy. He wasnít sure if he should join in the fray since the cowboy was slow to get back on his feet. But when Jess saw a second cowboy come out of the alley and start for Slim, Jess sprang to his feet. He raced out of the saloon and crossed the street, dodging a buckboard.

By the time Jess reached the boardwalk, one cowboy had Slimís arms pinned behind his back while the other was punching him in the stomach. Jess grabbed the shoulder of the puncher and jerked him away from Slim. Turning the cowboy so he could see his face, Jess struck him once...twice...three times. At the same time, Slim pulled the cowboy who was holding him, over his head. The cowboy slammed into the ground. He drew his gun but Slim kicked it away.

Slim grabbed the cowboyís shirt and lifted him. He hit him two times before blood appeared on the cowboyís face. Slim pulled his arm back ready to strike a third time; but the cowboy was already out cold. He let go of the shirt, and the cowboy sank to the ground.

At the same time, the cowboy, who Jess was fighting, fell to the ground then crawled a few feet away from Jess. He managed to get to his feet. He leaned against the hitching post, his hand pressed against his ribs. He slowly walked away, with each step breathing hard, as if having a difficult time catching his breath.

"Thanks." Slim tried to slow down his own breathing.

"So what were we fighting about?" Jess watched the cowboy walking away. His hand resting on the butt of his gun.

Slim leaned against the hitching post. He took off his hat and wiped his arm across his sweat stained face. "He claimed I was robbing the stage so I could get money to improve my ranch."

"Iím figuring he claimed that I was helping you." Jess glanced with anger but the cowboy was out of sight and the other one was still out cold.

"Guess he didnít think I was smart enough to do it by myself." Slim tried to smile but his grin wavered.

"Slim, I know what theyíre saying. What the whole town is saying. This is just the start."

"I know."

"It ainít helping that Iíve been in trouble with the law."

Slim studied Jessí rugged face. "If you think Iím believing any of the gossip that youíre responsible for these robberies..."

"It donít matter what you think!" Jessí temper lit. "Not when the whole town is whispering about me."

"Didnít think you cared what others thought."

"I donít care about me. I care about..." Jess lowered his head. "Maybe I should ride out. I said when you hired me on that it might not work out."

"I thought you liked working at the ranch."

"I do."

"If youíre thinking it would be easier on me if you left..."

Jessí glaze slowly make its way to Slimís face. "You got to admit...."

"What I admit is no one, not even you, tells me who works at my place."

"You ready to take on the whole town?"

Slim nodded. "I donít think itíll come to that. I still got friends in Laramie. And you do too."

"Slim, you donít know whatís it like. I do. Before I signed on, I would walk down a street and people would cross just to avoid me. No decent person would even talk to me. Slim, thatís why I should leave. I donít want you..."

"And you think your leaving is going to convince people in this town that Iím as pure as snow."

"I wonít go that far." A smile tugged at Jessí lips.

"No, Jess. Until we find out who is behind these robberies, you ainít going no where. ĎCause if you do, suspicion is going to hang over me and it wonít ever go away."

"What if we donít find out whoís been doing the robberies?" Jess challenged.

"The truth will come out in time. Always does."

"Maybe. Maybe not. I know when folks get their mind set on something..."

"Theyíll see theyíre wrong once the robber is caught. And Iím going to love watching the entire town eat crow. Come on, Iíll buy you a drink."

They made their way to the saloon. As soon as they entered, the customers grew quiet. Jess glanced with a told you so look before he headed towards the bar. Slim nodded at a couple of the men that he knew but none returned his greeting. He joined Jess at the counter.

"Quiet, ainít it?" Jess studied the customers.

"Whiskey!" Slim called out to the bartender.

The bartender didnít look their way. He just kept wiping a glass at the other end of the bar.

Jess turned so he was facing the bartender. "You planning on bringing us a drink?"

The bartender saw Jessí hand drop to rest on his gun. He slammed the glass down on the bar. He grabbed a bottle and put it in front of Jess. He then put two glasses down. "Thatíll be five dollars."

"Five dollars?" Jess asked.

"Price has gone up," the bartender answered. "From what I hear you can afford it."

Slim grabbed Jessí hand before Jess could draw his gun. "Easy, Jess."

The bartender swallowed hard as his eyes traveled back and forth between the two men.

"Weíll pay what you charge everyone else. And not a cent more." Slim dug in his pocket then tossed the coin on the bar. Its sound echoed throughout the quiet room.

The bartender picked up the coin then bit down on it.

"Why you..." Jess started to jump across the bar, heading towards the bartender.

As the bartender took a step back, Slimís hand snaked out and pushed against Jessí chest.

The bartender said, "Iím just checking to be sure itís good. Wouldnít want you to steal from me..."

Slim grabbed the bartender by the collar and drugged him halfway across the bar. "Iíve had me a day. You donít want to add to it."

The bartender said, "I donít want no trouble."

Slim pushed him away.

The bartender straightened his clothes before moving away to the other end of the bar. He reached under the counter and withdrew a shotgun. Before he could point it, Jess drew his gun with lighting speed; Slim followed suit.

"Put that shotgun on the counter and back away. Now!" Jess ordered.

The bartender followed Jessí orders. He held his hands high in the air. "Donít shoot!"

"You go near that shotgun while Iím in here and Iíll kill you," Jess warned.

The bartender glanced down at the shotgun then looked up at Jess and nodded.

As the bartender backed further from the shotgun, Slim holstered his gun. Jess waited a few more seconds before he put his gun back in his holster. Slim poured Jess then himself a drink. Slim swallowed the amount in the glass in one gulp. He poured more whiskey into his glass. Jess only nursed his drink. He kept his eyes on the bartender, though he frequently glanced in the mirror at the other men in the saloon.

Mort Corey entered the saloon. He had a shotgun nestled in his arm. He moved to the bar. "Slim."

"Mort!" Slim grinned.

Jess looked uncomfortable. He gave a curt nod.

"How about a drink?" Slim asked. He called out to the bartender, "We need another glass..."

"No thanks, Slim."

"Sheriff, I want them out of my bar! Theyíre bad for business!" the bartender said.

Jess turned and faced the bartender. A look of alarm flashed across the bartenderís face.

Mortís eyes slid from the bartender to Jess. He noticed that Jessí hand rested on the butt of his gun. "Slim, I think it might be a good idea if you and Jess headed back to the ranch."

Slimís smile faded. "Why?"

"We got a right to have a drink. We ainít done nothing wrong." Jessí hand raised slightly so that his hand was hovering near his gun. He was ready to draw. Several men left the saloon, while others backed further away.

Mort tightened his hold on the shotgun. "Slim, Iím asking as a friend. Go home."

Jess turned his body so he was now facing Mort. "Seems to me if youíre a friend of Slimís, youíd be having a drink with us, instead of asking us to leave."

"Jess!" Slim got between the two men. "Mort, all we want is a drink. Weíre not looking to make trouble."

Mortís eyes moved from Slim to Jess. "Slim, that wanted poster has got a lot of strangers in town. Thatís a big reward. Just walking out of here you may find trouble staring you in the face. I donít want any gunfights. I figure if we all three walk out of here together, there wonít be any reason to have one."

"Sheriff, I ainít never run away a day in my life!" Jess said. "I not looking to start up with anyone. But if someone wants to begin..." His glance included everyone in the saloon.

Mort held the shotgun as if ready to sling the weapon to his shoulder and fire. "Slim, I donít like asking this. But I want you and Jess to go home. Just until things die down. Gene was well liked. And now with the reward posted.,. well, why face trouble if you donít have to? I donít want to bury another friend."

Slim glanced around the saloon. He saw the angry looks directed at him and Jess. "Come on, Jess."

"You going to let him run us out of town?" Jess didnít move as his hand gripped the butt of his gun. .

"We ainít running. And Mortís asking, not telling."

"But..."

"Mortís right. If trouble comes, I donít it to hit at the ranch without us being there."

"Thanks, Slim," Mort said.

Slimís eyes darkened. "I donít like being asked to leave...even by a friend." He turned and walked out.

Jess didnít follow. Instead Jess picked up his glass and sipped the liquor. For a long moment his eyes locked with Mortís and they waged a battle. But finally Jess gulped the rest of his drink then slammed the glass on the bar. He headed for the door.



CHAPTER FIFTEEN

The smell of sugar cookies filled the house. As Jonesy removed the cookie sheet from the oven, he took a whiff. "Now this ought to get everyone smiling again," he said aloud to himself. He started putting the cookies on a plate. As the front door open, Jonesy called out, "Andy, youíre just in time. I need someone to taste these cookies and..."

"Not hungry, Jonesy." Andyís bedroom door shut.

"Now thereís something I ainít never seen," Jonesy said, still talking to himself. "That boy not wanting to eat, especially cookies."

Jonesy hurried to Andyís room. Andy was in the process of changing shirts. He didnít turn to face Jonesy as the old man entered the bedroom.

"Jonesy, Ďfraid I tore my shirt."

Jonesy couldnít see the boyís face. But he knew something was wrong by Andyís voice. It slightly shook as if he had been spooked.

"Donít know how many more times I can mend it. Say, you feeling all right?"

Andy reached into the drawer and took out another shirt. "Sure." "Ainít never seen you turn down cookies?"

"Ainít hungry, thatís all."

"If you ainít hungry and youíre turning down cookies, then you must be sick."

Jonesy waited but Andy didnít say a word. He just kept buttoning his shirt.

"Iím going get my ointment. Iíll have you feeling better in..."

"No Jonesy! I donít need..."

"Now, donít you argue! If youíre sick..."

Andy turned and faced the older man. "I ainít sick."

Jonesy frowned so big that Andyís eyes dropped off of Jonesyís face. "Thatís some shiner. What happened?"

Andyís eye was almost swollen. The skin had already turned shades of red, black, and purple. "Jonesy, I got nothing to say about it." Andyís body tensed as if daring Jonesy to argue with him.

"Well I guarantee that Slim is going to have a lot to say when he gets home. You know how he feels about fighting."

Andy said in a rush of words, "I donít care. It couldnít be helped. And Iíd do it again in a heartbeat!"

"Good luck, convincing Slim of that."

Andy stared defiantly at Jonesy.

Jonesy asked, "You sure you donít want to tell me about it?"

Andy shook his head no.

"Well I better get a steak to put on that eye before it swells completely shut." Jonesy started for the door, but stopped. He turned in the doorway. "Did you win?"

Despite a swollen lip, Andy grinned. "Letís just say that Brent Dinkins looks worse than me."

"Brent? Why heís your best friend!"

"Not any more! Heís got no right to accuse Jess..." Andy pressed his lips together.

"Oh! So thatís what the fight was about."

"Jonesy, I donít understand. Jess has worked hard. So why are so many people down on him?"

Jonesy moved to the bed. He moaned slightly from an aching back as he sat on the bed. "I reckon they just want to blame someone for the stage robberies."

"But why Jess?"

"Maybe because heís still a stranger to most of the town. Heís only been here a few months."

"Well he ainít a stranger to Frankie and them other drivers."

"No, heís not. But still...well you know how people like to talk. Guess what theyíll saying about Jess ainít too good. I figure Brent must have said something awful bad about Jess to get you to fight your best friend."

Andy nodded. "But Jess is my friend too. And I know he wouldnít rob no stage."

"Any stage," Jonesy corrected. The old man was thoughtful before saying, "Andy, Iím guessing a lot more might be said about Jess. By a lot more people. You canít fight them all."

"Well I just canít listen to..."

"I know itís hard. I donít like listening to the gossip either. ĎSpect Jess doesnít either. To know people are down on you would be a hard on a person."

Andyís forehead wrinkled with worry. "You donít think Jess will leave do you?"

"I donít know. Iím thinking it might get hard for him to stay around Laramie. What with all the talk."

"But thatís not fair! Jess wouldnít rob a stage. And this is his home..."

"You think real highly of Jess, donít you?"

Andy nodded. "Why Jonesy, heís like family. Be like you leaving."

Jonesy smiled. "Jess donít strike me as the kind whoíd run away from trouble. And thereís going be a lot of trouble when Slim gets home and sees that eye of yours."

Andy grinned. "Then maybe I better have me a cookie. Slim might just try to send me to bed without any supper."

"Iíll get a steak and a cookie for you," Jonesy said with a smile.



CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Andy and Slim squared off during supper.

"You fought today!" Andy argued.

"Itís not the same!" Slim defended.

"Why not?"

"Because I got jumped."

"From what you say, you were ready to fight in the saloon."

"Still not the same thing."

"Why not?" Andy asked.

"Because itís just not," Slim argued.

Jess jumped into the fray, "Andy, fighting ainít going to convince anyone that Iím innocent. I reckon Brent still thinks Iím guilty even if you did win the fight."

Andy nodded. "I reckon. But at least heíll be careful what he says...least when Iím around."

Jess tried again to reason with the young boy. "Andy, I appreciate you standing up for me, but from now on I can fight my own battles."

"So no more fighting," Slim added. "I donít care what anyone says."

Andy hunched over his food, trying to eat with a swollen lip.

"ĎSpect that means you and Jess wonít be fighting either," Jonesy said.

"Jonesy, someone took a swing at us!" Slim shouted.

"ĎSpect thereíll be more fighting and then I have more doctoring to do. When am I going to have time to cook and clean when Iím having to patch all of you up?" Jonesy asked.

Slim glanced with frustration at Jonesy before he answered, "Well weíll try to not to get hurt if someone takes a swing at us."

"I donít know what youíre so riled about," Jess said.

"From what you told me happen in the saloon..." Jonesy began.

"Jonesy, if you had heard that bartender," Slim cut in. "I grabbed him because..."

"Seems to me Andyís more like you than you both think," Jonesy said. "Yet you faulting Andy for what you did in town."

Slim was speechless. Andy looked at Slim with a challenge on his face. "Jonesyís right!"

Jess laughed. "Jonesyís got you there, Slim."

A slow smile spread across Slimís face. "All right. I guess Brent might have had it coming. But next time you do what the Good Book says. You turn the other cheek. You understand me?"

"Iíll sure try," Andy said then winced as he chewed some meat.

"Andy, you listen to Slim," Jonesy said. "Donít you go fighting every time someone says a bad word about Slim or Jess Ďcause with Slim and Jess, thereíll probably be a lot of bad words spoken before youíll be fully grown."

Jess and Slim exchanged looks of disbelief. Andy, though, laughed then winced. .



CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

As the stage pulled in the yard, Jess didnít even attempt to offer a greeting to the driver and guard. Unless it was Mose, Jess just quietly did his work. As he opened the stage door, his sourness changed to happiness.

"Well hello." Jessí smile was inviting. He offered his hand to help the woman down from the stage. "Thereís coffee inside and biscuits and..."

She looked around. "Is Slim here?"

"You know, Slim?"

"Laura!" Slim called out as he stepped out of the house onto the porch.

She turned with a huge smile on her face.

Slim hurried to the woman. "This is a wonderful surprise!" Slim hugged her.

"Well if I want to see Paul, I have to come to Laramie." She laughed.

"Come on inside." Slim offered his arm and she took hold of it.

"I was told by Paul that I need to get Jonesyís recipe for biscuits."

Slim laughed as he escorted her to inside the house.

> CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Laura hugged Jonesy as if they were related. "Itís been too long," she said.

"I remember when you would ride through here with your father."

She laughed. "My father always said it was because of Slim that I insisted on riding with him. But in truth, it was your biscuits."

Jonesy moved towards the kitchen. "Well let me get you some."

"Look at you now!" Slim stood back from her. His eyes roved from her face to down her body and back. "Who would believe that you were ever a tomboy? Youíve turned into a beautiful...Ē

"...old married woman!" Laura laughed but too soon her face became sober. "Slim, how bad is it?í

"If youíre referring to the stage robberies..."

"Iíve heard the gossip! I assume that was Jess Harper in the yard."

Slim nodded.

"I saw how he wore his gun. Thatís not like you, Slim, to be friends with a gunslinger."

"Laura, Jess is no..."

"From what I hear heís been in a lot of trouble including robbing stages."

"What else are the gossips saying?" Slim crossed his arms over his chest and waited.

"Slim Sherman, donít you lecture me!" she warned. "From what I hear, right now you need all the friends that you can get." She neared him. She squeezed his arm. "And I am your friend."

"I know." He patted her hand. "Weíve been friends a long time. Thatís not likely to change."

"Slim, you canít ignore the gossip."

"Want to bet?"

"Oh Slim, you can be so...."

Slimís eyebrow rose with a question.

"Stubborn," she said then laughed. "But thatís the charm of you, I guess."

"Way I remember we were always butting heads," Slim said.

"It wasnít always a disagreement," she purred as she drew closer. "There was a time..."

Jonesy set a platter of biscuits down on the table, making a loud clatter as the plate touched the table.

Slim took a quick step back from Laura.

Jonesy said, "Best eat them before they get cold."

Slim pulled out a chair for Laura to sit, then sat down next to her.

She moaned with pleasure as she bit into the biscuit. "Paul was right. These are Heaven!"

With a smile, Jonesy poured her some coffee.

She took a sip. "And the coffee is..." She paused, then said, "...strong. Very strong."

Slim laughed. "If you canít float a horse shoe in Jonesyís coffee, then he thinks itís too weak."

"Make that two horse shoes," Jonesy said as he sat at the table.

"Slim, how can I help you get out of this mess?" Concern was etched on Lauraís face.

"Just stay my friend."

She took hold of his hand. Her soft hand outlined his calluses. "Always. That will never change."

Slim squeezed her hand before gently pulling his hand away from hers. "How long will you be in Laramie?"

"Just a short visit. I leave in two weeks to go back with East."

"Thatís right. Paul told me all about boarding school."

"Boston. Can you believe I have a child that old? Promise me that youíll ride into Laramie and see me before I leave! I may not be back in Wyoming for several weeks. Itíll take that long to get Mary settled."

"I promise."

"And you..." She turned towards Jonesy. "...please promise me that youíll give me your biscuit recipe."

"Some things a fellow just canít promise," Jonesy replied.



CHAPTER NINETEEN

"Mind if I join you?"

With the tip of his boot, Jess slid the chair from under the table.

Curly Sawyer sat down. He glanced around the saloon. "Iíve seen coyotes get a friendly greeting as theyíre stealing chickens."

Jess shrugged.

"Jess, for what itís worth, I donít think youíve been robbing the stages."

"Thanks."

"Say, let me buy you a drink." Curly motioned to the bartender. He sent a saloon girl to the table. "Honey, how about two beers for me and my friend."

"Curly, Iíd be careful who you call a friend," she mumbled. It was the same saloon girl who had once eyed Jess with interest.

Curly laughed as she walked away. "Donít mind her. So whereís Slim?"

"Over at the bank. Paying the mortgage."

"Then you got time to play a few hands of cards."

"Curly...I ainít got much money."

"I do! Tell you what. Iíll take your note. Your good for it."

"I ainít owing anyone." Jess dug into his pocket. He pulled out two dollars. "This is as much as I got Ďtil pay day."

"Enough to play a hand." Curly smiled. "Come on. One hand."

"Oh all right."

Curly pulled the cards from his pocket. "Five card stud?"

Jess nodded.

Curly dealt the cards. "You know Jess, I ainít forgetting how you helped me years ago."

"Years ago? What are you talking about?"

"I didnít think you remembered."

Jess eyed Curly. "Remember what?"

"Sheriff Sam Colton. And his jail. I was fifteen years old. First time I stole, I got caught. You were in for stage robbery."

Jessí eyes flew to Curlyís face. "You were in jail with me?"

"Sure was. I was a scared kid. You talked to me. Kept me calm. Ainít something Iíd forget."

Curly sighed. "Well looks like you won another hand."

By the time Slim entered the saloon, Jess had two hundred dollars sitting in front of him. Slim gave a slow whistle. "Thatís a mighty big pot."

Curly threw down his cards. "Jess is a mighty good player. Jess, you beat me again. Well thatís all for me. You done cleaned me out."

Jess picked up the money. "Curly, if you need some money..."

"Keep it. You won fair and square. I ainít worried." Curly smiled.

"You sound like money grows on trees."

Curly laughed. "Wouldnít it be dandy if it did? Then no one would be robbing stages. Sure hate that trouble is on you, Jess. Maybe that two hundred will help ease your pain." Curly glanced over his shoulder at the saloon girl. He held up a twenty dollar bill. "And I got enough to ease my pain." He headed towards the saloon girl.

Jess finally smiled as he watched Curly and the saloon girl walk up the stairs. But Slim wasnít smiling.

"You won all that off, Curly?"

Jess nodded.

"Whereíd he get that much money?"

Jessí smile disappeared. "You thinking this is stage money?í

"I donít know, Jess. But I do know that Curly hasnít had a high paying job since heís been in Laramie."



CHAPTER TWENTY

Before the stage horses had come to complete stop, Mose was yelling as loud as he could, "Slim, you hear the news?"

"What news is that?" Slim asked as he grabbed hold of the reins of the lead horse, helping Mose to stop the horses. He began unhitching the lead horse.

Jess stepped down from the porch. "Whatís wrong, Mose? Horses get away from you?"

"You wonít ever see the day I canít handle horses!" Mose wrapped the reins around the brake then climbed down from the stage. "Why I got half a mind not to tell you."

"Tell us what?" Standing in the doorway, Jonesy wiped his hands on the makeshift apron.

Moseís nose twitched. "Say is that apple pie that I smell?"

"Tell us what!" Jess snarled.

Mose grinned. "They found out whoís been robbing the stages."

"What!" Slim stopped in his tracks. He spun on his heels and looked at the driver. " Who?"

Mose laughed. "You ainít going to believe it! You just ainít..."

"Well not if you donít tell me, I wonít! Mose, tell me who!" Slim towered over the older man.

"Now calm down. Iím going to." Mose grinned, "Boy, howdy, you ainít going to believe..."

"Mose!" Jess growled.

"Curly, thatís who." Mose looked from Jess to Slim, waiting for the news to hit them.

"Curly?" Slim glanced quickly at Jess. Both men wore the same expression of disbelief. "You sure...."

"Yes sir! He robbed the Medicine Bow stage about four hours ago. Dog gonest thing too. One of them passengers, a young fellow traveling to Nevada, letís see, I think they said his name was Matt, no..." Mose took off his hat and scratched his head. "What was his name?"

"It donít matter..."

"Joe! Thatís it!" Mose slapped his hat against his thigh. "Joe Cartwright. Had a betsy stuck in his boot. Curly never thought to check the passengersí boots. Only the guardís. Well it was the darnedest thing. Curly had the passengers standing by the stage. Werenít interested in their money, just what the stage was hauling."

"How would he know that was a bank run?" Slim asked. "Paul was letting less and less people know.

And Curly ainít working for the stage line..."

"And one of the passengers, " Mose continued as if he had not been interrupted, "this Cartwright fellow waits until Curly starts heading back in the trees. Well Cartwright gets the women into the stage and then slick as a whistle pulls out his gun and fires."

"So they got Curly?" Jonesy asked.

"Not exactly."

Jess frowned. "Mose you just said..."

"I know what I just said! But you werenít listening! Donít know why I try to explain..."

"Why try harder!" Jess snapped back. "What happened?"

"Well," Mose continued, "this fellow Cartwright took a shot at Curly. Didnít say he hit him." Mose glanced at Jess, daring him to say different. "But Curly took to running and when he did his hat fell off and his bandana slipped. Driver and guard seen him as clear as Iím seeing you."

"With your eye sight that ainít much comfort," Jess mumbled.

Moseís eyes narrowed. "Why I can see a bug fifty feet away on a leaf..."

"Now," Jonesy cut in, "maybe things will get back to normal around here."

"Like taking a long time to get them horses changed," Mose said. "Youíd think those horses would be changed by now. But no, youíre standing here jawiní and..."

"Weíve been listening to you!" Jess snapped back.

"Where is Curly now?" Slim asked.

"How should I know?" Mose asked. "But if I was him, Iíd be halfway to Mexico, looking over my shoulder the whole time."

"Mort getting up a posse?" Slim questioned.

"Donít you know it! Must have been twenty men signed up when I left Laramie. Ainít seen that many men eager to ride in years. Reckon half is bounty hunters hoping to break away to get the reward the stage line is offering. Mort is going to have his hands full keeping them in line. ĎCourse I doubt if Curly gets caught."

"You think Curly will get away?" Jess asked.

"Sure do! Curly already had a good two hours start. Donít suppose theyíll catch him. Curly knows these roads better than most. Heíll get clean away to Mexico, and live the high life on what he stole. Most men would have been happy with one payroll. With all those payrolls that Curly stole, you know heís going be living it up. With that kind of head start, Curly will make it to Mexico, all right. You mark my words on that. Say, Jonesy, any chance I can get me a piece of that pie? Looks like I got plenty of time to eat as slow as these fellows are in changing the horses."

"Sure, Mose. Come on in."

As the two men entered the house, Jess neared Slim. "What do you think?"

"Canít figure how Curly would know about which stages carried mining money."

"All that matters to me is that folks around these parts will quit thinking the robberís me."

"Jess, I donít think weíre out of the woods yet."

"Why would you say that?"

Slim took off his hat and wiped his arm across his forehead. He glanced up at the sun. "It ainít yet noon and..."

"Slim., why would you think that?"

Slim put his hat back on his head. "First Curly worked here for a couple of weeks."

"So?"

"So that ties us to Curly."

"And it was my idea for you to hire Curly."

"Donít figure that Curly would know about all those shipments. And he never could hold onto a dollar. How many times did he ask me for an advance on his salary when he broke them broncs for us. Donít figure Jess, that Curly would keep robbing those stages and not be spending a large amount of money."

"Mose was right. That first robbery would have been enough for most men to light out to Mexico."

"But not Curly," Slim said. "He stayed around Laramie. Most often in the saloon."

"He was awful fond of that saloon girl."

"Could have kept him around Laramie. But still donít explain how Curly knew about all those shipments. Had to get that information from someone connected to the stage line."

"Which points the finger right back at me."

"At us. Weíre in this together, remember? You ainít riding this trail alone."

"I bet that saloon girl that Curlyís been keeping company with knows something."

"Maybe. When Mort gets back..."

"That could be too late. If Curly did tell her something, then she might just think itís healthier to leave town."

"If Mort catches up with Curly, heíll talk. The truth will come out. Youíll see."

"And if Mort donít? What if Curly gets away? How long before you think the suspicion is back on me? If we figured Curly had help with the robberies then others are bound to have the same thought."

"Then we keep watching our step until Curly is caught."

The stage wasnít out of sight before Jess started to saddle his horse.

"Maybe I should come with you," Slim said.

"Wonít take two of us to talk to her." Jess placed the saddle on the sorrelís back. He pulled hard on the girth.

Before Jess could swing into the saddle, a rider galloped down the hillside. The rider urged the horse to run faster, spurring the animal.

"Well looks whoís coming." Jess didnít attempt to hide the contempt in his voice.

"Easy, Jess. Letís hear what he has to say." Slim walked into the yard, meeting the rider. "Howdy."

The horse was lathered with sweat as Paul Jennings dismounted from his horse.

"Hello, Slim!" Paul offered his hand, but his eyes were on Jess. "Harper."

"You trying to ruin a good horse?" Jess greeted.

"Trying to catch up with the posse. Thought Iíd get a change of horse here."

"Sure. Why the rush to catch up with Mort?" Slim asked as he began unsaddling the horse. "I hear heís already got a pretty big posse."

"I want to be there when they capture Curly."

"If Mort captures him," Jess countered.

"You think heíll get away?" Paul asked anxiously.

Jess shrugged. "Hear Curlyís got at least a two hour head start."

"How come you didnít join the posse in town?" Slim asked.

Paul said, "I was just riding in when they were heading out. Didnít find out who they were after until I got to the hotel. Or I would have joined up with them right then."

Slim wiped the sweaty horse with his bandana then lead him to the water trough. "Well Mort ainít been through here."

"Wouldnít if he thought Curly was heading to Mexico," Jess added, his eyes locked on Paul.

Paul said, "You think thatís where Curlyís heading?"

"Or Canada," Slim said. "Either way, Mort probably already sent telegrams. Heís got a ranger friend down in Laredo thatíll keep a look out. And been friends a long time with a Marshal named Craddock in Bordertown. Most likely thatís where Curly would try to get into Canada."

"Still thereís other routes to get into Mexico or Canada," Paul argued.

Slim nodded. "But none as easy or as fast as those routes. Which ever way Curly travels, heís bound to leave a trail. Heís in too big a hurry not to. And Mort will find it. I Ďspect Mort has every lawman from here to the border keeping an eye peeled."

"Still a chance that Curly could get away." Paul studied the landscape as if hoping to see Curly ride by.

"He wonít." Slim assured. "Not with Mort after him."

Paul glanced warily at Jess. He held out his hand. "I owe you an apology. Iím awful sorry for doubting Slim when he said you werenít involved."

Jess glanced down at the outstretched hand. "No telling how many of them posters are in the back pockets of bounty hunters, who ainít yet got the word." Jessí stare was hard.

Paulís hand dropped to his side. "Iíll get those posters taken down right away. You got my word on that."

"Thatís real comforting," Jess said with his tone implying just the opposite.

Jessí body stiffened so tense that Slim moved close to Jess.

"Jess, you think you can help me saddle his horse?" Slim asked.

Jess said, "Since when do you need help saddling a horse?"

"Since I smelled a fresh baked biscuits in the house." Slim grinned. He nudged Paulís shoulder.

"What do you say, Paul? You donít want to turn down Jonesyís biscuits."

Jess threw the saddle over his shoulder and headed for the horse.

"Heís still sore, ainít he?" Paul said.

"Wouldnít you be?" Slim asked.

Paul argued, "You got to admit a lot of that evidence pointed right at Harper. And with his background, a lot of people made the same mistake I did in thinking that Harper was involved."

"And a lot of them are going to have to eat crow now. And itíll serve them right. Teach Ďem not to be so quick to jump the gun."

Paul nodded. "And Iíll be first to take a mouth full."

Slim grinned. "Reckon the others will too once Curly is caught and we know everything."

"What do you mean? What else is there to know?"

"For one thing, how Curly knew so much about the shipments. It donít make sense that Curly would know about the shipments with him not working for the Overland.."

Paul asked, "You think he had a partner?"

"He had to get his information from someone. Stands to reason donít it? That someone who worked for the Overland was giving Curly information about which stages carried the payrolls."

"Someone like Jess?"

Slimís face hardened. "Now look Paul, you walked down that road before..."

"I know! I know! And this time Iím not going to point a finger until I know for sure. I learned my lesson."

"Iím glad to hear that. Jess is just as anxious as anyone for Curly to be caught."

"Still if Curly does get away, we wouldnít find out who Curlyís partner is. That person would get off scot free."

"Maybe not. Curly has friends who might know something."

"Friends? I always thought Curly was a loner."

"Jess says Curly was partial to one of the saloon girls. You knew how men like to talk to Ďem. More than likely Curly bragged to her about the holdups...or at least talk to her about who he was working with."

"Saloon girl, you say? I expect Mort should know about her so he can question..."

"Well when you join up with the posse, you can tell him."

"With Curly running, maybe she could leave town before Mort gets back..."

"Jess wonít let that happen. Heís determined to prove heís innocent."

Jess lead the horse to the two men, then offered Paul the reins. "Heís a good horse. Donít ride him into the ground."

"I wonít," Paul said with a smile. He mounted the horse like a seasoned rider. "See you, boys."

Slim smiled but Jess only gave a sharp nod.

As soon as Paul was out of sight, Jess mounted his hose like a born athlete.

Slim grabbed his reins before Jess could ride off. "You stay out of trouble. Youíre like a cocked gun around Paul. So you take it easy when talking to that saloon girl. It ainít been proved yet that sheís tied up to Curly." Slim let go of the reins.

"Curly was always one for bragging. Iím betting my money that she knows whoís tied up to Curly in these robberies."

"Jess!"

But Jess was already riding away from the ranch. Slim started for his horse but seeing the dust in the distance, he knew the stage was early. He stopped and waited impatiently for the stage to arrive.



CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

As Jess entered the saloon, several men nodded greetings. He gave a slight nod, remembering how he had been slighted by the same men. Word had traveled fast about Curly.

"Morning, Jess," the bartender greeted. "Beer? Itís on the house."

Jess was tempted to ask about the bartenderís sudden friendliness. But instead bit back his words. "That girl that Curlyís been around....you know the redhead?"

"Lynn?"

"I want to talk to her."

"Why?"

Jessí frown caused the bartender to add, "Ainít down yet. Girls donít usually come down until the afternoon."

Jess started for the stairs.

"I told you that Lynn ainít ready for business..."

Jess stopped on the stairway. "Iím just needing to talk."

"Canít it wait?"

Jess turned and hurried up the stairs. He knocked on the first door. The girl who opened the door had on a sheer robe. She smiled broadly and posed her body so her robe opened displaying the corset that she wore.. "Why Jess! Itís good to see you..."

"Which room is Lynnís?"

"That old cow! Youíd have more fun with me." She reached out and touched his chest. "Why donít you come on inside. I know itís early. But for you..."

Jess gently touched her hand. "Maybe later. I got to see Lynn. Itís important!"

The girl sighed. "Two doors down. On the right. You can probably hear her snoring..."

Jess was walking towards the room before the girl had finished giving directions.

"Good to see you too, Jess!" she called out, leaning in the doorway, watching him walk down the hall. As she closed the door, she heard Jess knocking on Lynnís door. In the court room, she would testify that Jess was only there for a few minutes.

The bartender would testify that Jess had come down from the upstairs, looking upset. He had seen Lynn follow Jess and stop at the top of the stairs. "Jess, you can trust me!" she had called out after him. "I donít want you to be angry at me! You know you can trust me!"

Two hours later, the bartender had sent one of the girls up to get Lynn. She was late again to work. The girlís scream had alerted everyone that something was wrong. Lynn lay in a pool of her own blood, her throat slashed.

Judge Garth looked at Mort. "Why didnít you arrest Jess for the murder?"

"Not enough evidence," Mort replied. "She was alive when Jess left. The bartender can testify to that. Of course, Jess could have sneaked around and come up the back stairs. Thatís how some people figured."

"I didnít kill her!" Jess argued. "When I left she was alive. And I didnít go back. I rode back to the ranch."

"What did you two talk about?" Judge Garth demanded.

"She didnít tell me much. Just that Curly had more money than he should have."

"Probably the stage money," Judge Garth agreed. "Did she say how Curly got his money?"

"He only told her that he was working for a fellow."

"Doing what?"

"She never asked. She said with Curly it was best not to ask."

"But you think she knew."

Jess nodded. "But she wasnít going to tell me. Even when I threaten her?"

"You threaten a woman?" Steve asked with an edge in his voice.

"I wasnít going to hurt her," Jess said.

"Well someone did," Trampas said. He stared at Jess with a look of accusation.

"I wouldnít hurt a woman!" Jess snarled. "I donít care what she did."

Judge Garth leaned back in the straight chair. "You know how this looks? You silenced Curlyís girlfriend because she knew that you were Curlyís partner."

"I didnít kill her!" Jess said. "And I wasnít his partner."

Trampas soft snicker was heard across the room.

Jess snarled, "You got something to say, then say it!"

"Youíre doing just dandy digging your own grave. You donít need my help," Trampas replied.

"Mister, if I wasnít in this cell..."

"Got a quick temper too. That girl get you mad?" Trampas asked.

Jessí lips pressed angrily together.

"Judge, I donít cotton to risking my life protecting a woman killer," Steve said. "It makes sense him killing her..."

"We judge a person on evidence, not on your ability to reason!" Judge Garth yelled so loud that it appeared the rafters shook. He sighed before adding, "All right, if you donít want to serve as a deputy to protect Harper, you donít have to."

"Thanks, Judge!" Trampas handed Mort his badge. "Never did cotton to wearing one of those."

"I guess weíll be heading back to Shiloh," Steve said as he unpinned his badge from his shirt. "You ainít staying in town for the trial, are you, Judge?"

"Of course Iím staying!"

"But..."Trampas glanced out the window. "...this town could bust wide open any time. Thereís men gathered on the street now."

"Judge, three men canít go up against a mob. Must be twenty men standing out there on the street. The only guns you got are Mortís and Slimís," Steve added.

"If we need to face a mob, weíll have three guns."

Trampas counted out loud as he pointed at Mort then Slim.

"And mine, Trampas," Judge Garth added.

"You going go up against twenty men?" Trampas asked. "Why thatís just plain..." He stopped seeing Judge Garth raise his brow. "Sheriff, Iíll take that badge back."

Steve pinned his badge back on his shirt.

"You staying?" Judge Garth asked.

"Iím staying," Trampas asked. "But not for him!" He pointed at Jess.

"Thank you, Trampas," Judge Garth said. "And you too, Steve."

Trampas replied with a half smile as Steve gave a quick nod.

Judge Garth turned towards Jess. Jess had bolted off the cot and was holding onto the cell bars as if holding onto life itself. Jessí eyes were watching Steve and Trampasí every movement.

Judge Garth said, "All right, Jess. Tell me the rest of what happened."

"Nothing much happened for a few days. The posse came back to town. We all figured that Curly had gotten away. But just when I got to feeling that maybe things had returned to normal, more thunder came down on me, much more than I ever expected."



CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

The noise was barely louder than a whisper. Yet Jess heard it. He glanced around but the barn was dark. Only a beam of light shone through the door, illuminating a slender line down the center aisle.

Another creak. Jess forced himself to keep his head towards the horse that he was feeding. But his eyes roved the length of the barn. He suddenly felt more than heard a sound that didnít belong as the hairs on his neck stood up. He peeked upwards, his head barely moving. He saw a few strands of hay fall to the floor.

The intruder was in the loft, almost directly overhead. Jess put the bucket down then moved casually towards the outside of the barn. Suddenly he ducked behind a stall.

"All right, show yourself," Jess demanded.

But no one appeared. A few more strands of hay fell.

Jess tried again, "Whoeverís in here, I know youíre in the loft right over the last stall."

The words were barely out of Jessí mouth when he heard feet run across the loft. Jess quickly drew his gun. He pointed upwards.

"Iím only going ask you once more. Show yourself. Iím packing iron and-"

**************************** Inside the cabin, the fire burned brightly. The day had been windy, causing the temperature to feel colder than it actually was.

Andy moved closer to the fire, holding his hands out towards the heat. "It sure is taking Jess a long time in the barn."

Slim replied, "Knowing Jess he wonít take any longer than he has to. He likes this fire too much."

"And he knows Iíve got a pot of coffee on the stove," Jonesy added with a laugh.

But Slim didnít even smile. He only leaned further back in his chair. He had his feet as close to the fire as he could get.

"Slim, you seem lost in thought tonight," Jonesy observed.

Slim smiled sheepishly, "Just wondering where Curly is. Sure thought Mort would have caught up to him. But itís been two weeks. Curly is long gone from Laramie, probably left the territory."

"You know what I think." Andy smiled seeing both men looking at him. "I think he probably took the hoot owl trail to Mexico."

"And what do you know about the hoot owl trail?" Jonesy asked.

"Jess told me all about it," Andy said.

Jonesy didnít hide his disapproval. "Oh he did, did he?"

Andy continued, "If I was an outlaw, thatís what Iíd do. Yes sir, Iíd ride the hoot owl trail all the way to Mexico."

"Well Iíd hate to be on the run," Slim said. "Being hunted, not trusting anyone because they might turn you in. You saw how miserable Jess was when people around here thought he was the robber."

Sitting on the rug, Andy turned away from the fire so he could face Slim. "I bet a lot of those people are feeling down right ashamed about the way they treated Jess."

Slim sighed. "Well I guess they just forgot that everyone deserves a second chance."

Jonesyís face reddened, partly from sitting so close to the fire and partly from anger. "Maybe I can understand them thinking Jess was involved because of his past. But you, Slim? They should know better. Donít know how you can be so understanding. If it was me, Iíd...well Iíd...."

"Youíd what?" Slim asked.

"Yeah, Jonesy, what would you do?" Andy asked.

"Iíd...."

All three heads turned sharply as the sound of first one, then two bullets being fired.

"Stay here!" Slim yelled out as he grabbed his gun.



CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

It was close to noon when Jess and Slim drove the buckboard down the main street of Laramie. A blanket was draped over what Jess was hauling. By the time Jess and Slim arrived at the sheriffís office, a crowd had gathered. And everyone in the crowd knew what the cargo was.

Without a word, Mort stepped off the boardwalk and moved to the back of the wagon. He lifted the blanket. Already flies were swarming over the remains. "You boys better come in and tell me about it."

Whispers were heard loudly as Jess and Slim followed Mort into the sheriffís office. As Mort closed the door, the sunlight left the room, leaving only a lantern to illuminate the room. It cast an eery yellow glow. The smell of oil was pungent.

"Weíve been looking high and low for Curly. Whereíd you find him?" Mort asked as he sat down at his desk.

"Hiding in our barn," Slim explained.

Mortís eyebrows shot upwards. "I thought sure heíd be long gone from around these parts. What happen?"

Jess replied, "He was in our barn and shot at me. I found this near him." Jess tossed the bank bag to Mort.

"I donít suppose you found any money when you found this?"

"We looked but..." Slim shook his head.. "We searched every square inch of my place. Even had Jonesy out there looking. But we didnít find anything but the empty bag."

Mort glanced down at the bank bag. His stare was intense as if the bag could tell him the answers that he wanted to know. "Slim, I guess you better let the stage supervisor know."

Slim nodded. "Iíll let Paul know."

Mort said, "When you get ready to head towards home, come by here. Iíll ride with you."

"Why?" Jess asked with an edge in his voice.

"I want to look in your barn. If you found this bag there; seems the money should be there too."

"You saying we got it?" Jessí body tensed.

"Simmer down, Jess," Mort ordered. "I got no doubt you searched and found nothing. But Judge Hayes will have my hide if I donít look too."

"Come on, Jess. We got a plow to pick up," Slim said, grabbing Jessí arm and pulling him towards the door.



CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

For the last two days when Slim rode into the yard the first thing he noticed was the shiny plow that was still in the wagon. But today was different. His eyes went straight to Jonesy, who stood on the small front porch. Slim knew something was wrong the minute he and Jess rode into the yard.

"You got visitors," Jonesy greeted. "Mortís inside and..."

"Something wrong, Jonesy?" Slim asked as he and Jess dismounted from their horses.

"Somethingís wrong all right. Thereís a railroad detective inside. Name of Wayne Dresel. He says heís been hired by the mining company to investigate the stage robberies. And he wants to talk to both of you. about Jess killing Curly in the barn a few days ago."

As the men entered the house, Mort greeted, "We expected you back sooner."

"A couple of fences needed fixing. And we stopped to look at some breeding stock over at Fred Mitchellís."

"I see you bought yourselves a new plow," the stranger said.

"Picked it up a couple of days ago, " Slim replied.

"Plows donít come cheap," the stranger said.

Slimís eyes coolly appraised the man standing near the sheriff.

Mort nodded towards a man wearing a suit. "This here is Mr..."

"Dresel, I know," Slim cut in. "Jonesy told us." He held out his hand but Dresel ignored the greeting.

Dresel eyed first Slim then scrutinized Jess. "Are you Harper, the one who killed Curly?"

Jess gave a short nod.

"And you were also the one who found the bank bag, right Harper?"

Jess once more nodded.

"But no money," Dresel said.

"Thatís right," Jess answered with an edge in his voice.

"Seems funny to me that there would be a bag but no money in it," Dresel replied. "Unless Curly hid the money in your barn. And if he did, seems to me that you would have found it."

"Now you listen here..." Jess began as he started towards Dresel.

"Jess!" Slimís arm snaked out stopping Jess from moving forward. Slimís voice remained cordial, "Mr. Dresel, we figured the same thing that Curly hid the money. We searched the barn top to bottom but we didnít find any of the payroll. Mort looked too. All of us came up empty. None of us found any money."

"Iíve already told him that, Slim," Mort replied.

Jessí eyes darkened.

Dreselís stare didnít waver from Jess as he asked, "Why do you think Curly came here two weeks after robbing the stage? Instead of hightailing it out of the territory?"

"I donít know," Jess replied.

"Donít you?" Dresel replied.

"Dresel," Mort warned under his breath.

"Mister, you got something to say, then spit it out," Jess said.

Dresel replied, "Seems to me that a man who robbed a stage would hide the money where he knew itíd be safe. Seems likely that Curly had someone helping him. Someone feeding him information about which stage to rob."

Jess couldnít help but glance at Slim. Both had already figured this out. Dresel noticed the look that passed between Jess and Slim. Dresel continued, "I donít think Curly acted alone. He had to have a partner. But Iím thinking that his partner double crossed him. So it stands to reason if Curly came here then..."

"Now you hold on!" Slim interrupted. "Who says he came here to see Jess?"

"Or maybe to see you?" Dresel asked, turning quickly to glare at Slim. "For all I know, maybe to see both of you. That money could sure buy a lot of things to improve this place. Like a plow. Whereíd you get the money to buy that plow? A plow donít come cheap."

Slim started to reply but Jess cut him off by saying, "None of your business."

"First a plow...now looking at breeding stock. Donít know how you boys are paying cash for..."

Jess started forward so fast that Dresel was startled.

Slim quickly stepped in front of Jess. "You know us, Mort. You know we would never..."

"Now donít get your temper up," Mort pacified. "Dresel here is just doing his job. Slim, I told Dresel that you wouldnít mind if he took a look around your barn."

"I mind," Jess said.

"You got something to hide?" Dresel challenged.

"Mister, I donít like being accused," Jess said as his hand dropped to the butt of his gun.

"Jess!" Slim whispered; the sharpness of his voice sounding louder than his words. "We got nothing to hide. Mr. Dresel, if you want to take a look around, help yourself. You wonít find anything. Like I said Jess and I combed the barn from top to bottom and we never found nothing but an empty bank bag."

"Still Iíd like to take a look myself," Dresel said, already heading out of the house.



CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

It took over an hour for Dresel to search from one end of the barn to the other. "Well if the moneyís here, I canít find it."

Jess leaned against the stall, a smile of satisfaction on his face. Slim stood near Mort. He watched Dreselís every movement like a fox watching his prey. At last Dresel joined the other men who stood in the entrance of the barn.

"You say he was up there in the loft?" Dresel asked Jess.

Jess only nodded.

"And when you shot him, he fell here?"

Again Jess nodded.

"From up there, he could have shot you as soon as you stood in the doorway. Wonder why he waited until you were in the barn, so the shadows hid you."

"I donít know."

"You sure about that?"

Jess stood up straight as if an iron bar was braced along his back. "Mister..." His hand hovered over his gun.

"Easy, Jess," Slim said. "Dresel is just asking questions."

"Sounds more like accusations than questions," Jess replied.

Mort said, "Dresel, if youíre finished..."

"Iím not. How good a friend were you of Curlyís?" Dresel asked.

"Not much of a friend," Jess replied.

"You got him the job here."

Slimís eyes raced to Jessí face. Jessí expression was molded into a mask of anger. He had seen this look before on Jessí face. He knew Jess was close to drawing his gun.

"I do the hiring," Slim said quickly. "Not Jess."

Dresel never looked at Slim. His glare stayed glued on Jess. "The bartender said you won some money from Curly in a poker game. That true?"

Jess nodded.

"You use any of that money to pay for the plow?"

"I won that money fair and square," Jess defended.

"Thatís not what I asked you," Dresel said.

Hot anger bounced off of Jessí body. "I paid the deposit. So what if I did?"

"Two men, one a hired hand, the other working odd jobs, playing for high stakes. Bartender said werenít the first time. Said the other night there was at least two hundred dollars in a pot that you and Curly were playing for."

"So?" Jess challenged.

"So, thatís a lot of money for you two to have. Iím guessing you donít get paid much from Sherman here."

Jess said nothing.

"How long have you known Curly?"

Jessí eyes wavered for a second. "Met him in Laramie."

"You served jail time together, didnít you?"

Jess didnít like the expression that he saw on Slimís face. "I donítí remember."

Dresel smiled without humor. "I did some checking. You served jail time for robbing..."

Jess pushed himself off the stall wall as if he had touched fire. He neared Dresel before Slim could stop him. "I donít know what youíre implying, Mister, but Iíd be mighty careful of what youíre saying about me."

Mort said quickly, "Dresel, you wanted to look in Slimís barn. Well youíve looked. Slim..Jess, weíll be leaving now." Mort turned his back and started for the horses. "Come along, Dresel," he called over his shoulder. "I think weíve worn out our welcome."

Dreselís eyes bore into Jessí harden face. "Be seeing you, Harper. Hope youíre not planning on leaving town soon."

Jessí stare never faltered.

Dresel turned and joined Mort at the hitching post. Slim and Jess followed. Both kept their stares glued to Dresel. It was as if they saw nothing else but this man. After Dresel mounted his horse, he said, "I want you boys to know. Iím not leaving Laramie until I find that bank money. And

Harper, Iíll make you a sure bet .that Curlyís partner is going to jail."

Jess started towards him; again Slim stopped him. "Leave it be, Jess."

As Mort and Dresel rode over the hill, anger was still seen on Jessí face.

"Forget him," Slim advised. "I suspect thatís the last weíll hear from Dresel."

"Donít count on it, Slim. He didnít believe us. He thinks we got the money."

"Donít matter what he thinks. Heís searched and found nothing. Heís got no proof we took that money. And heís got no more reason to come around here or to cause us any more trouble."

"I got a feeling that Dreselís got a way of stirring up trouble when there ainít none. Iíve known men like Dresel. He ainít done with us. And that is a sure bet."



CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

Leaning against the hitching post in front of the sheriffís office, Mort Corey watched as Jess and Slim rode down the street of the Laramie. He raised his hand signaling for them to join him.

"Morning, Mort ," Slim greeted.

"Mort," Jess echoed.

Mort nodded a greeting. "Jess, I just thought you should know. Dreselís still in town."

"I already know that," Jess replied as he leaned forward in his saddle. "Slim and I seen him watching us do the branding."

Mort replied, "Jess, Dresel let it be known that he thinks youíre hoarding the money the stage lost. Dreselís over in the saloon right now."

"Stirring up trouble, I bet," Jess said.

"Thatís why I would appreciate it if you boys turned around and rode back to the ranch."

Jess glanced over his shoulder at the saloon. "Slim, the ride in got me mighty thirsty. I think Iíll get me a beer."

"Jess," Mort warned. "I donít want any trouble. Why donít you two get a beer another day? Iíll even buy next time youíre in town."

"Sorry but I got a powerful thirst right now," Jess said as he turned his horse. He crossed the road and dismounted in front of the saloon. Before he entered the saloon doors, Slim was at his side.



CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN

From the street you could hear menís voices in the saloon. They were loud and boisterous. But the minute Jess and Slim stepped into the saloon; the noise stopped. Jess and Slim moved to the bar. Men moved away, giving Jess and Slim plenty of space, until they appeared separated from everyone. At the other end of the bar, the bartender continued to wipe glasses as if he didnít have new customers.

"Beer," Slim called out.

The bartender kept wiping the glasses. He never even glanced at Slim.

Jess snapped his head at the bartender. "Canít you hear?" Jess turned towards the bartender, his hand moving to hover over his gun. "We want a beer."

The bartender hesitated then threw his cloth on the counter. He moved to them. The expression on his face was anything but friendly. He poured then slammed the glasses down on the counter.

Jess jumped back to avoid the spray of beer. "What the-"

Slim poured his beer out on the floor. "Now why donít you serve us another one. This time being more careful."

The bartender bit back his words. He poured two more glasses of beer and set them down on the bar as if they were eggs that he was scared of breaking.

"Thanks," Slim mumbled before gulping the liquor.

Jess drank the entire glass. He had his back turned to the patrons in the bar but he kept his eyes on the mirror. His hand rested on the butt of his gun.

"Can I buy you boys a drink?" Dresel stood behind Slim and Jess.

"I donít drink with coyotes," Jess said, keeping his back to Dresel.

Dresel glanced around the saloon. "Iíd say the people in here are treating you like you were coyotes."

Jess put his beer down on the bar. He turned and said, "You want to say that again?"

"Harper, Iím just saying it donít appear that you two have many friends in Laramie."

"I wonder why that is," Jess challenged. His legs parted.

"Jess, you can fight me. But you canít fight an entire town. Laramie is going to be a lonesome place for you boys until that moneyís found. You sure you ainít got no idea where it might be?"

"Iíve already told you that I donít know where it is," Jess snarled.

"Well maybe youíll come across it," Dresel said with a smile. "Even Mr. Jennings thinks youíll find it...with the right kind of incentive."

"And you figure by buying everyone drinks and telling them that we stole the money is the right kind of incentive?" Jess asked.

"Mr. Jennings is paying for the drinks. Why donít you ask him?"

Slim said, "You got it all wrong, Dresel. Paul apologized for suspecting Jess as the robber."

"Your stage boss changed his mind," Dresel answered. "Donít take much to reason that Curly didnít act alone. Had to have a partner who worked for the Overland. Jess seems a likely candidate if you ask me."

"Well youíre dead wrong," Jess said.

"Maybe...but until I come across someone else who fits that bill, Iím keeping an eye on you," Dresel warned. "If you got the money, youíll want to get it sometime. And when you do, Iíll be right there."

"Dresel, Jess saw you watching us do the branding," Slim said between sips. "I donít want you on my property."

"You got something to hide?"

Slim now turned with anger towards Dresel. "You show up one more time on my property, it ainít going be Jess youíll be tangling with. Itíll be me." Slim finished his beer in one swallow then said, "Come on, Jess. The smell in this place is turning my stomach."

As Jess moved forward, his shoulder sharply nudged Dresel to step back. Jess followed Slim to the outside of the bar. As soon as the swinging doors closed, menís voices and piano music was heard.

As Slim and Jess stepped out in the sunshine, Mort was standing on the board walk.

"The townís not too friendly is it?" Mort said.

"Not with Dresel buying drinks for everyone," Slim said.

Mort replied, "Look boys, Iím asking you to keep away from Laramie for a week or so. Just long enough for Dresel to tire..."

Jessí frown was almost as big as Slimís glare.

Slim said, "Iíll come to Laramie any time I want to."

Mort sighed with impatience. "I would expect that answer from Jess; but Slim, I thought you had a cooler head."

"If youíre asking us to turn tail and hide," Jess began.

"Jess, I know you ainít scared of no one," Mort said with a smile. "Just like I know that you donít have the stage money. Any fool should know that. And Iím figuring Dresel for one of the biggest fools Iíve met. Now Dresel is trying to stir up things. Without you around, heíll tire of this pretty quick. All Iím asking is to keep out of Laramie and close to home just until all this simmers down."

Slimís jaw relaxed. "All right, Mort, weíll stay away but just for a week or two. But before I head out, Iím stopping off at the stage office. I want to make sure itís Dresel and not Paul Jennings whoís stirring up trouble." Slim stormed down the board walk towards the office of the Great Overland Stage Company.



CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT

Slim opened the door to the stage office as if rushing in from a down pour. But he stopped in the doorway as he saw the anger on Lauraís face. Her temper matched his own. Slim was taken back by the look of fury on her delicate face.

"How could you!" Laura screamed.

"Laura, you have to understand..." Paul began.

"Youíre a fool!" She turned away from her husband. Her face was red with anger.

"Laura?" Slim looked puzzled as she walked right past him. As the door slammed shut, he glanced back at Paul for answers.

"Iím sorry you had to see that." Paul sat down in the chair. His fingers brushed through his thick hair.

Slim said, "Laura always was high strung. Though I canít say Iíve ever seen her that angry."

"Iím sorry that you had to witness that, Slim." Paul took several deep breaths as he tried to calm his nerves.

"Knowing Laura, she is as quick to cool down as she is to get her temper lit. Iíve been on the receiving end of that temper before; so I know."

"You know her well, donít you?" Paul studied Slim.

Slim smiled. "I should. I watched her grow up."

"Sometimes I wonder," Paul admitted.

"Wonder?"

"If she is grown up. Sheís always wants, never pleased with what she has."

Slimís brows rose with surprise. "Well her father did have a tendency to spoil her. I guess with her mother dying so young..."

"And Iím not any better," Paul confessed. "In that way, Iím just like her father. I want her to have everything she wants. And I spoil our daughter too." Paul suddenly frowned. "Slim, Iím afraid I forgot my manners. Have a seat."

Slim sat in the leather chair. Since Paulís arrival the office had changed from cheap chairs and a scarred desk to expensive chairs and desk.

"Would you like a drink? Got some whiskey..."

"No thanks," Slim said.

"Well I think I can use one." Paul opened a drawer and pulled out a bottle. He poured until the glass almost full. "I always heard a woman could drive a man to drink." He chuckled then took a huge swallow. Paulís demeanor suddenly changed. Whatever he was thinking was now hidden behind a blank expression. "Always good to see you, Slim. Is this a social call or did you come here on business?"

"Business," Slim said in a sharp voice.

"Oh...well what can I do for you?"

"Dresel says youíre backing him by paying for the drinks heís using to buy peopleís distrust of Jess. I want you to stop."

Paul drew in his breath and let it out slowly. "Afraid I canít do that. I need to have that stolen money recovered. Dresel is the hunt dog that will find that money."

"Heís sniffing the wrong tree, Paul. A few days ago you thought Jess was innocent."

Paul said. "Then you convinced me that Harper just might be involved in the robberies."

"Me?" Slimís mouth opened with shock.

"You explained how Curly would have had a partner."

"But I never said Jess."

"Didnít have to. We both know that someone who works for the stage line helped Curly with those robberies. Slim, the evidence points directly at your friend, Harper. Youíre just too good a friend of his to see that."

"You got it all figured out donít you?" Slim said.

"The facts speak for themselves. Jess got Curly the job at your place. You would have known when the shipments were going out. Which means Harper would have known, am I right?"

Slim didnít answer but he couldnít hide from his expression that Jess knew about the shipments.

"Curly had a chance to leave this territory. But he shows up in your barn and Jess kills him. And then thereís the empty bank bag. Come on, Slim, why would Curly have an empty bank bag?. Ten to one says Jess got the money and hid it. Curly and he probably fought over dividing the money up. So Jess killed him, thinking heíd get away with it since Curly was a wanted man. You canít deny the facts of whatís happened." Paul leaned back in his chair. "Your loyalty to a friend is admirable. But youíre going to have to face facts and see Harper for what he is. A cold blooded killer."

"Well hereís one fact you might not know. I ainít going to let no one railroad Jess, not even you, Paul." Slim studied the stage superintendent as if seeing him for the first time. "I donít understand. Youíve always been a fair man. Slow to make accusations. But the minute you arrived in Laramie, you couldnít get the suspicion out fast enough about Jess."

Paul squirmed in his chair. "Iíve explained why I think Jess Harper is guilty. What more do you want?"

"The truth."

Paulís chin lifted. "Iím going to forget you said that because you and I have been friends a long time."

"I keep telling myself that. But I canít figure why you were so dead set to convict Jess."

Paulís tongue snaked across his lips. "Iím not going to bankrupt this stage line..."

Slim cut in, "What I think is the more people look at Jess; the less likely they are to look at anyone else."

Paulís hands grasped the arms of the chair. "I donít like your accusation."

"Didnít figure you would." Slim stood.

Paul didnít move. He just glared at Slim.

"Truth has a way of coming out, Paul. So you go ahead and buy all the drinks you want. But this ainít over, not by a long shot!"

"I donít know what youíre implying but..."

"Iíve thought long and hard on all thatís happened. Things donít add up. I had hoped for Lauraís sake they would." Slimís eyes bore into Paul.

"Slim, youíre walking a fine line between our friendship and you losing the relay station. Youíve turned a blind eye on all of this. You keep the same path and youíre going to find yourself an outsider in Laramie. And I donít have to tell you if you quit running the relay station..."

Slimís voice rose in anger, "Donít threaten me! I may work for the stage line but I wonít be run roughshod. Not by you or anyone."

Paul said, "Well we see where we both stand on this. I donít like us being on opposite sides. I had hoped youíd come to see Harper for what he is."

"I know what kind of man Jess is. Itís you Iím starting to wonder about."

"Slim!"

Without a word, Slim turned and left the room.



CHAPTER TWENTY NINE

The rider urged the horse to run faster. As the horse raced into the yard of the relay station, Jess watched with fear. He moved to help the rider stop the horse; but the rider skillfully maneuvered the horse to halt. The horse, though, pranced from being held too tight with the reins.

"Donít you know better than to ride a horse like that?" Jess said as he helped Laura down from the nervous animal. As soon as she stepped on the ground, she moved away from Jess as if he were a stink that offended her.

"Whereís Slim?í she demanded.

"Still in town, I guess."

She hugged herself as if she was freezing.

"You want some coffee? You look..."

"One thousand dollars."

"What?" Confusion marred Jessí face. "What are you talking about?"

She hissed the words at Jess. "Iíll pay you one thousand dollars to ride out right now and not come back."

Shock registered on Jessí handsome face.

"All right. Two thousand. Think Jess what that money could buy you. Your own spread. Youíd be your own boss. You wouldnít have to answer to anyone."

Jess grabbed her shoulders so hard that she cried out. "Why do you want to get rid of me?"

She jerked away from his grasp and stepped back, putting distance between them. "Why would you want to stay? I thought Slim was your friend."

"He is!"

"If you leave, then things will go back to normal. Slim wonít be ostracized by the town. If you stay, heís going to be ruined. Run out of this territory..."

"If I ride out, Iím branded a robber and maybe a killer for the rest of my life!"

She shouted back at him, "Was your reputation so clean before you came here?"

Jessí tan face paled.

"Thatís what I thought," she said. "Youíre use to hearing the gossip about you. But Slim isnít." She neared him. Her eyes pleaded. "Slim canít live peacefully in Laramie as long as youíre here. And itís not just Slim. Thereís Andy and Jonesy to think of. The rumors arenít going to go away unless you leave. Leaving Laramie would put a stop to them. If Slim is your friend, then leave. Donít destroy Slim, because the longer you stay the more Slim has to lose. You want him to lose this place? People believe the rumors, so how long do you think my husband is going to allow Slim to run the relay station? Without that income, Slim loses the ranch. This ranch is all he has."

Jess looked down at the ground. He was thinking hard.

"You say youíre Slimís friend. Prove it! Leave now! Please, Jess! If you saddle up now, you could be gone before Slim gets back."

"Not say goodbye after all Slimís done for me..."

"Why chance it? Slim will try to talk you out of staying. But if you just leave...oh Jess, itís the only way to stop the rumors! And to stop Dresel. And to make sure that Slim keeps working the relay station. You would have drifted on in time. Surely you didnít think the Sherman Ranch would become your permanent home."

Jess couldnít hide the belief that this was his home.

Laura drew even nearer, " And if you go now, then Slim wonít get involved in a gunfight. Slimís not as fast as you are with a gun. You stay and thereís sure to be a gunfight, maybe several. Do you want Slim killed? Or Andy killed? Or Jonesy?"

"No," Jess said in a soft voice.

The sound of the horse caught both their attention. Slim glanced from one to the other as he dismounted from the horse. "Laura, what are you doing here?"

Laura raced to Slim and buried her body into his. Her shoulders shook as she cried.

Slim hugged her to his body. "Laura, whatís wrong? Why are you here?"

"I had to see you!" She looked up at him. Tears ran down her face. "Can we talk? Please!"

"Sure." He glanced with confusion at Jess.

"Jess, please!" she said turned back to Slim, burying her face in his shoulder.

Without a word, Jess entered the house. Slim led Laura to the chair on the porch. "You want some water? Or coffee?"

"I just want you." She reached out and took hold of his hand.

Slim squeezed her hand then moved to the porch rail. He nestled on the wood bar. "Now tell me what was so urgent that you rode out here to see me? Is this because of your fight with Paul? The way you left his office..."

She shook her head hard. "Slim, Iím so worried."

"Worried?" Slim tried to read her face but he couldnít.

Her hands grasped tightly then relaxed. "About you, of course. And Paul. And this business of the stages being robbed. What will happen if they donít find the money? Do you think eventually people will forget? And the town will calm down?"

"I honestly donít know."

"Iím hoping in time...oh Slim, I donít want you to be hurt!"

He smiled. "I can take care of myself."

"Can you?" She moved so she was sitting next to him. "Iíve spent so many hours here on this ranch before I married. I got my first kiss out behind that barn, do you remember?"

"A fellowís not likely to forget that," Slim mumbled.

"Oh I donít know. Iím sure thereís been lots of women since you and me..."

"Well I wouldnít say lots." Slim gave a small smile.

"Do you ever think what it would have been like if we had married like my father hoped?"

Slim looked down at the ground. "Laura, that was a long time ago."

"But you did love me?" Her eyes pleaded.

"You know I did," he admitted.

"Donít you ever wonder how it would have been if we had married?"

"Laura, I couldnít have given you what Paul has given you. You wouldnít have been happy living on this ranch. Look at this place. Can you tell me that you wouldnít have wanted more?"

She reached out and took hold of his hands. "I sometimes think of us."

He pulled back, forcing her to let go of his hands. "You shouldnít."

For a second she stared at him. Puzzlement was etched on her face as she tried to read his expression. Suddenly her eyes softened and her lips parted.

Slim was taken back as her lips touched his. She pressed her body into his. He reacted by kissing her back. He pulled her tighter to him. But just as quickly he pushed her away. "This isnít right." He moved away from her but the small porch only allowed for a separation of several feet of space.

"Youíre always so moral about right and wrong," she said with anger.

"Laura, how much do you know about the business of the stage line?"

His question caught her off guard. "Some."

"Paul seems bent on proving that Jess is the robber."

Laura stood tall. "Maybe Jess is."

"No."

"How much do you know about Jess? A drifter. Nothing more than a saddle tramp."

"You sound like Paul."

"You should listen to Paul. It would be best if Jess just left. Then all of this trouble would be over...í

Slim asked, "Why did you come out here to see me?"

Laura said, "There was a time you would have welcomed me."

"Youíre married!"

Laura stepped off the porch. By the time she had her foot in the stirrup, Slim was at her side helping her to mount the horse. "I donít want you to lose your ranch."

"I wonít."

"Slim...My husband is an influential man. He doesnít want to hurt you. But our friendship will only go so far. Donít back Jess. If you donít, then all of us should be all right. But if you do, well...there could only be misery."

Slimís head lifted slightly with determination. "I told Paul and Iíll tell you. Jess is innocent and I aim to prove just that."

"You donít have Paulís resources. So Paul may just prove that Jess is guilty. And where does that leave you? Backing the wrong side. Maybe even losing your ranch. You have to think of Andy."

She started to turn the horse but Slim grabbed the reins. "What do you know about the robberies?"

"Nothing!"

"Laura, is Paul involved?"

"No! Why would you think...." She spurred her horse causing Slim to jump back to avoid being trampled. She then turned her horse with a hard jerk of the reins.

Slim watched as she rode away.

Jonesy joined Slim in the yard. "You better get in here. Jess is packing. And he ainít listening to a word Iím saying. Maybe you can talk some sense into him."

Slim found Jess folding up his bedroll. "You taking a trip?"

"Iím leaving."

"Just like that."

"Yeah, just like that."

As Jess started for the door, Slim grabbed his arm. "Why? You owe me that much."

Jess looked torn. "I owe you much more than that. Not many would have given me a chance to work like you done. When people look at me usually they only see my gun."

"Jess, Iím not asking you to ride out."

"I have to. What she said made sense. Iím no good..."

"Laura said that?"

Jess nodded. "Offered me two thousand to leave."

Slim said, "Oh. So thatís why youíre leaving. For the money."

Anger scorched Jessí tan face. "You know me better than that! I ainít taking her money. But sheís right! If I leave then maybe the accusations against you will die down. And you can ride into Laramie without watching your back."

"Thatís foolish talk and you know it!" Slim argued.

"Slim..."

"Jess, I threw out bait. Hoping I was wrong."

Jess frowned. "Whatís fishing got to do with..."

"I caught Curlyís partner. Now I just got to prove it. But if you ride out now, then all Iím left with is nothing but a cloud of guilt over me the rest of my life! You got to stay on!"



CHAPTER THIRTY

Judge Garth puffed on the cigar. Rings of smoke floated in the air. "So you think Paul Jennings robbed his own stage line? That idea will be hard to prove. Robbing his own stages would only make the stage line go under."

"Not if he needed money only for a short time," Slim explained. "Say to pay for boarding school and a trip to Boston for Laura and his daughter."

"With Mr. Jenningsí reputation, be hard to convince a jury of that," Trampas said. "Canít say I buy your idea either, Slim. Jennings is too good a man to steal from his own company. No, my moneyís on Harper there."

Jessí eyes narrowed with anger. "Youíve been riding me ever since you walked in here. Why donít you and me get this settled once and for all."

Trampas took off his gun belt. "With pleasure."

Judge Garthís hand hit the side of the chair startling Trampas and Jess. "Slimís right. Jennings could be guilty. Slim, when does the next stage go out?"

"Tomorrow morn." Slim replied.

"Mose driving?"

"I can check."

"If so, I want to see Mose before he leaves."

"You got an idea, Judge?" Slim asked.

"Maybe. Trampas, have a cup of coffee while Jess tells us what happened next."

Trampas eyed Jess with anger before moving to the pot belly stove. His gun belt hung over his arm.

"Now Jess, think. Think very clearly of what happen the night that Paul Jennings came to the ranch," Judge Garth instructed. "I donít want you to miss any detail."

Jess said, "Well thereís not much to tell. It was late. All of us had gone to bed except Slim..."

Slim added. "I was in town at the Cattlemanís Association meeting. It had gone longer than normal."

"Why?" Judge Garth asked quickly. "You never said why."

"Usually we have a couple of drinks afterwards. But that night we had a round before we started Made us start the meeting late." Slim suddenly stopped talking. "Now that you mention it, Paul Jennings bought that first round."

"Paul Jennings!" Judge Garth sat up straight in the chair. "Paul was at the meeting. Why? Heís not a rancher."

"He told me that he dropped by to mend fences. Wanted to buy me a drink and at the same time brought a round for the other ranchers," Slim explained.

The judge nodded. "So Paul saw you that night. Did you always go to those meetings?"

"Not always. Tried to get to most of them."

"I see," Judge Garth replied. "Anything else happen while Paul was there?"

"No except Laura was with him," Slim said. "She stayed away from the bar. Sitting at a table. They didnít stay long."

"Do you know where they were heading?"

"Sure do. Paul was telling us that Laura had been wanting to ride out, get some exercise."

"But she rode out to your place earlier that afternoon."

"Didnít think about that at the time. Does seem kind of strange, donít it?" Slim said.

Judge Garth turned to Mort with excitement on his face. "Mort, did you question her about that ride?"

Mort nodded. "Said that she and Paul often took a ride in the evening for exercise."

"What time were they at your meeting?" Judge Garth now looked at Slim.

"Around six, I guess."

"Still light, but not for long," Judge Garth reasoned.

"I got to wondering about that too, Judge," Mort said. "I usually saw them ride out around three. But that day, they left later. When I mentioned it to Mrs. Jennings, she said her and Mr. Jennings had a fight that day. And they decided to patch things up by having a picnic supper near the lake. You know out near the canyon."

"Thatís on the way to Slimís," Judge Garth said. "Was the moon bright that night?"

"I donít know," Mort said.

Judge Garth glanced at Slim. Slim shrugged.

"It was," Jess confirmed. "I remember because I saw the horses from the doorway."

"What happen that night?" Judge Garth stood and moved to the cell bars. "Tell me everything.

Every little detail that you remember."

"Well...it was past midnight. I couldnít sleep. I was the last one to go to bed," Jess explained. "Around ten, the horsesí neighing made me think someone was out there."

"You sure it was ten? Not nine? Not eleven?" Judge Garth questioned as if he was in court. "Think carefully."

"Iím sure," Jess said with confidence.

"And what happen when you heard the horsesí neighing?" Judge Garth asked.

Jess said, "I grabbed my gun and went outside to take a look. I thought it might be Dresel noising around. Though I hadnít seen him in a few days. Still..."

"Did you see anyone?" Judge Garth asked.

"No."

"Was it too dark?"

"No. The moon was out so I could see all the way to the corral. But I didnít see anybody," Jess said.

"Did you go to the corral?"

"Not at first."

"What do you mean?" Judge Garth kept his eyes glued to Jessí face.

Jess said thoughtfully as he tried to remember every detail of what had happened. "I started back in the house. The horses were calm so I turned to go back inside but then the horses began moving in the corral."

"Moving?"

"Running, like they were spooked. I looked again but still didnít see anything."

"What happened then?" Judge Garthís stare was intense but Jess didnít notice. He was too absorbed n remembering.

"I thought I better go calm the horses. So I made my way to the corral."



CHAPTER THIRTY ONE

"Easy boy," Jess cooed to the chestnut horse. "Now whatís got you so upset?" He hoped it wasnít coyotes. Or worse, Dresel come a calling.

Even though Jess was alert, the bullet took him by surprise. The bullet came so close to his arm that for a moment he thought he had been shot. He knelt quickly while firing into the darkness. He waited but there was nothing. No return fire. No sound at all but the horses whining loudly.

As lights came on in the house, Jess slowly made his way in the direction that the bullet had been fired. What he saw caused him to gasp. He grasped his gun even tighter as he looked in all directions. His first instinct was to flee. Head out of Wyoming as fast as he could. But he couldnít leave Slim to face this.

"You fired

only once?" Judge Garth asked. "Only one shot," Jess confirmed.

"What did Jonesy or Andy hear?" Judge Garth turned towards the sheriff.

"One shot. But they admitted they were asleep," Mort said. "So another shot could have been fired. Had to been. Paul had two bullets in him."

"Well then heís lying," Trampas said, nodding at Jess.

"I ainít lying! I fired one bullet!" Jess cried out.

Judge Garth was so deep in thought that he frowned. He sat back down in his chair. "One bullet fired. But two bullets in the body. You didnít see any other gun fire?"

"I didnít see or hear any one else shooting," Jess admitted.

"Then what happen?" Judge Garth asked.

"Then all hell broke loose," Jess said.

"Iím surprise that you didnít ride out," Trampas said.

Jess said nothing. But Slim did answer, "Jess wouldnít turn his back on us."

Judge Garth said, "Jess tell me what happen next. And donít leave out anything. Itís important that I know exactly what happen from the minute that you found Paul Jennings dead."



CHAPTER THIRTY TWO

Jess had waited for Slim to arrive home before traveling to Laramie. Jonesy had insisted. As the two cowboys turned their horses towards Laramie, Jess lead another horse behind them. The sun was not yet up. But still a crowd formed as the two men entered the sheriffís office.

Within minutes, the door to the sheriffís office burst open.

"Is it true?" Laura stood in the doorway. She looked as if she had dressed hurriedly.

All of the men stood, removing their hats.

"Is it true? Is my husband dead?"

Mort nodded. "I was going to come over to the hotel to tell you."

Slim said, "Laura, Iím so sorry..."

"You killed him!" She moved close to Jess.

"No maíam!" Jess said quickly.

Laura screamed each word, "You shot him in the back! The entire town is talking about it! He didnít have a chance."

Jess tried to explain, "I got fired at and..."

"Liar!" Her slap left a red mark on Jessí face. Jess stood there looking helpless.

"Laura!" Slim began.

"And you? You said you were our friend! You could have fired him! I begged you to fire him before there was gun play. Jess would have left and Paul would still be alive but you talked him out of leaving, didnít you? Youíre just as much a murderer as your friend Jess Harper."

Slim took a step away from her, looking away.

"Sheriff, what do you intend to do about this?" Laura faced Mort with so much anger that the sheriff looked taken back. "I know youíre friends with both..."

"Now you wait a minute!" Mort cried out. "Iíll do my job!"

"I demand justice!"

"And justice will be served," Mort assured. "Iím just now getting Jessí story."

"I bet thatís some story that heís telling." Laura headed for the door. "Jess Harper, you wonít get away with this! I swear you wonít!"

"Mrs. Jennings!" Mort called out.

Hearing Mortís voice, Laura stopped. She slowly turned and faced the sheriff. "I expect you to do your duty."

"Maíam, I have some questions for you." Mort pulled out a chair. "Please maíam, take a seat."

Laura stood rooted in the doorway. "You should be asking him, not me!"

"Please maíam." Mort waited.

Lauraís face flushed with anger but she walked and took a seat. "What do you want to know, Sheriff?"

"Why was your husband out at Slimís place so late?"

"Youíre going to let Jess off, arenít you? Youíre going to let him get away with murder!"

"Iím trying to find out what happen," Mort said.

"When that poor girl was killed you did nothing. Now Jess Harper has killed another person..."

"Maíam..." Mortís voice was soft but stern. "Why was Mr. Jennings at Slimís so late?"

"Paul and I take a ride most evenings," she explained. Her hands shook. She stared at Jess with so much hate that Jess looked away.

"Were you also at Slimís place last night?"

Her eyes darted towards Mortís. They were wide opened. "No! We rode a few miles outside of Laramie, in the direction of Slimís place. We stopped near Baxterís Canyon by the lake and ate supper. Nothing fancy. Just some cold chicken. Paul talked about the robberies. That was all he had been talking about for weeks. He was sure that Jess had been in on it. He decided he wanted to look around Slimís place to see if he could find where Jess had hid the money. .He didnít think he would be welcomed by Jess or even Slim to look. He knew Slim would be at the Cattlemanís Association Meeting. He figured Jess and the others would be asleep. So Paul decided that night time would be the best time to go to Slimís to see if he could find the money."

Mort studied her. "But Mr. Jennings knew that I already looked and found nothing."

"Well you are friends with Slim and Jess." The accusation hung in the air.

Mortís face hardened. "Dreselís not. He also searched and found no trace of the money."

"All I know is Paul wanted to look himself. I was worried about him going. I know how good Jess is with a gun. But Paul insisted.. He assured me that even if caught looking since he wasnít wearing a gun Jess couldnít call him into a gunfight and kill him. I guess he never figured that Jess would back shoot him like only a coward would do."

Jessí body straightened so much that it looked like it would snap.

"Paul wasnít worried about letting you ride back alone to town in the dark?" Slim questioned.

"No because he gave me his gun. You know how good I can ride and shoot, if I need to. I was safe enough."

Mort nodded. "All right, maíam. Thatís all the questions, for now."

"For now?" She stood with indignation. "Sheriff, I expect you to do your duty and arrest Jess Harper for the murder of my husband. Itís bad enough that heís gotten away with Curlyís murder and the murder of that poor saloon girl. But he will not get away with murdering my husband. Either you do your duty or Iíll find someone who will make sure that Jess pays for his crimes."

"Mrs. Jennings, I know youíre upset," Mort said, "but if youíre threatening to hire some gunslinger..."

"Like Mr. Harper is?"

Jess looked as if he had been hit.

As she stood, she continued, "Sheriff, I am not without influence. Will you do your duty or will you be swayed by your friendship with Slim and Jess?" With her hands on her hips, she faced Mort. Her toe patted the floor in steady beats. "He should be sitting in jail. Why isnít he?"

"Mrs. Jennings, I can assure you that no matter who Iím friends with, Iíll wonít be swayed. And that includes by you."

Her head tilted with more indignation.

"I only got Jessí word on what happen there last night," Mort said. "There was no other witnesses..."

"I warn you, sheriff. If you let Jess go..." Her eyes narrowed. She left the way she had entered, with anger. She left in such a hurry, walking so fast, that she appeared to be running..

"Mort, thereís no witnesses. You got to take Jessí word," Slim said.

"Iíd feel easier about it if Jennings hadnít been shot in the back. You say Jonesy and Andy were sleeping?"

"I thought it might be a coyote," Jess said. "I went to look."

"You having trouble with coyotes?" Mort asked. "Havenít heard any of the other ranchers having trouble?"

It was the same question that the prosecutor asked Slim during the trial.



CHAPTER THIRTY THREE

The courtroom was packed. So many people in Laramie wanted to see the trial that some stood along the walls. The crowd flowed out into the street. The judge banged the gravel as if he had a personal hatred against everyone in the courtroom.

"Mort, you get everyoneís guns?"

"Yes, your honor," Mort answered. He stood at the back of the courtroom, cradling a shotgun. Trampas stood on one side of the courtroom with a rifle while Steve stood on the opposite side. Steve held his rifle as if expecting to fire at any moment.

John Hayes had served under Judge "Hangman" Parker in Indian Territory before he became a judge in Wyoming. He was wiry and tough as nails. He slammed a colt 45 on the desk in front of him. "Donít think I wonít shoot and Iím warning you boys that when I do itís to kill." His stare seemed to touch everyone in the courtroom. "Is the prosecution ready to present its case."

The prosecutor wore a suit that looked expensive with a freshly pressed handkerchief in his pocket. "Yes sir, your honor." He stood up and faced the jury. "I plan to prove without a doubt that Jess Harper willfully killed Paul Jennings. He shot him in the back not once but twice. And I hope you will agree that only a coward would do such a low down act as that."

Judge Garth grabbed Jessí arm to keep him seated. "I told you to watch that temper. If you donít, youíll hang for sure."

Jessí eyes glared at the prosecutor.

"Henry?" The trial Judge turned to face Judge Garth. "You got anything to tell this jury?"

Judge Garth stood up. He walked to the where the twelve men were seated. "All I ask is that you hear the evidence before you decide. This boyís life depends on you being fair." His eyes roved from juror to juror. "Jess Harper is innocent. And we intend to prove just that."

The courtroom erupted. Judge Hayes hit the gavel so hard that it dented the desk. "Iím warning everyone here. The next interruption and Iíll close those doors and have no one but the jury inside here."

A voice from the back yelled, "You canít..."

"Like hell I canít!" He nodded at the prosecutor. "Get on with it."

For three days the prosecutor laid out his case. It was exactly as Judge Garth had expected. The prosecutor had paraded witness after witness, each giving testimony that was damaging to Jess Harper. Despite the rumors and gossip that had circulated Laramie for months, the jury often reacted to each bit of evidence as if it was new news. Judge Garth hadnít been able to protest much. The facts were true. So he had sat silently, watching the jury, while trying to keep Jess calm.



CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR

Judge Garth leaned back in his chair yet his eyes were alert to every movement.

"Sheriff, the murder of Lynn Felton, wasnít Jess Harper a suspect?"

Judge Garth shot out of his chair. "Mr. Harper is not on trial for the murder of Lynn Felton."

"Maybe he should be!" a cowboy yelled as he stood up. Trampas nudged the man with his rifle and the man sat back down.

"No more outbursts!" the trial judge said. "The next person goes to jail. Sustain."

"What!" Judge Garth shouted.

"Itís relevant, Henry," the trial judge said.

"Itís only asked to point more suspicion at my client," Judge Garth argued.

"And maybe rightly so," the trial judge replied. "Now sit down."

Judge Garthís eyes locked with the trial judgeís before he sat.

"Did you question Jess Harper about the murder of Lynn Felton?" the prosecution asked.

"I did." Mort nodded.

"And what did say?"

"He didnít kill her."

There was a small amount of laughter.

"I mean," the prosecutor said quickly, "did Mr. Harper have an alibi at the time of Ms. Feltonís death?"

"Jess said he was riding back to the ranch...that is if we figured the time of death right."

"And she died only a few hours after she and Mr. Harper exchanged words at the saloon?"

"Easy, Jess," Judge Garth cooed as Jess started to speak.

Mort replied, "Yes."

"Did anyone see Mr. Harper on the Laramie Road during the time Ms. Felton was murdered?"

"No. None that I know of."

"But there was one rider on the Laramie road, was there not?"

Mort bit his lip. "Yes sir."

"And he didnít see Jess."

"Said he didnít."

"Who was that rider?"

Mort hesitated before saying, "Paul Jennings."

The answer had the same reaction as a shot fired.

"He lied!" Jess shouted.

"Sit down!"

Judge Garth pulled on Jessí sleeve.

"But he lied, Judge!" Jess said to Henry Garth.

"Sit down!" Judge Garth replied.

Jess sat back down. His look was deadly as he watched the proceedings.

"So Jess Harper could have wanted Paul Jennings dead in order to hide the fact that he had killed Lynn Felton?"

"Your honor!" Judge Garth slammed his fist on the table and stood. "There is no proof..."

"Goes to motive!" the prosecutor argued. "Jess Harper knew the sheriff was still looking into the murder of Lynn Felton."

"It has not been proven that Jess Harper had anything to do with that murder. The prosecutor is presenting evidence that the defense canít cross examine because Paul Jennings is dead."

"My point exactly!" the prosecutor argued back. "Jess Harper killed him so that Paul Jennings couldnít testify against him."

"How do we know that Paul Jennings was even on that road?" Judge Garth fired back. "Pure hear say!"

"You calling the sheriff a liar?" the prosecutor asked.

Mortís eyebrows raised.

"No!" Judge Garth replied. "But I do question the accuracy of Paul Jenningsís statement to the sheriff. And not being able to cross examine Mr. Jennings-"

"Because heís dead!" the prosecutor hissed back.

"Gentlemen!" the trial judge said. "I see both points. And I think youíve made these points not only to me but to everyone in this courtroom. So move on with the questioning." Judge Garth sat down as the prosecutor continued, "Sheriff, Jess Harper brought the body of Paul Jennings into town, did he not?"

"He and Slim Sherman brought him in."

"And where was Mr. Jennings shot?"

"In the back."

Jess angrily stood up. "Iím not a back shooter. I fired at who was firing at me! And I fired my gun one time!"

"Sit down, Mr. Harper. Youíll have your turn."

"But heís making it sound like..."

"Sit down!" the judge snapped. "Judge Garth, I expect you to keep your client in tact or..."

"I apologized, your honor." Judge Garthís look caused Jess to sit. "Donít get up again! Not unless you want hung."

Mort glanced worriedly at Jess. But Jess only nodded.

"Mort, if he gets up again, gag him!" Judge Hayes ordered.

"Your honor!" Judge Garth stood. "You canít possibly..."

"Oh but I will. In my courtroom, I demand silence. Do you understand, Mr. Harper?"

Jess fumed as his eyes narrowed with anger. Judge Garth nudged Jessí shoulder.

"Yes sir," Jess mumbled.



CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE

The jail was unusually quiet. The four men silently drank steaming coffee. Steve and Mort stood near the stove. Judge Garth sat in a hard back chair. And Jess leaned against the bars.

Trampus rushed through the door, the wind blowing across the room like an unwelcome visitor.

He moved to the stove. "Iíll say one thing. Itís much colder here than in Medicine Bow."

"Here." Mort handed the cowboy a cup of coffee."This should help.

Trampus took a sip then choked. "Whatís in here?"

Slim grinned. "Mort makes it so thick that a horse shoe could float on it."

"The only way good coffee should taste," Mort defended.

"You must have got the recipe from Jonesy," Trampas mumbled before taking another sip.

"Well did you get an answer?" Judge Garth asked, sounding impatient.

"Oh.,yes, sir, Judge! As soon as it came in, I came right back here." Trampas began searching his pockets.

"Well?" Judge Garthís voice was loud.

"I got it somewhere, Judge. Now where did I put it?" Trampas started checking every pocket. He smiled sheepishly. "Itís here, Judge."

"Trampas," Judge Garth warned.

"Oh here it is, Judge." Trampus pulled the telegram from his pocket and held it up for all to see.

Judge Garth grabbed the telegram from the cowboyís hand then began reading the Western Union message.

"Good news, Judge?" Steve asked.

"It wasnít Paul Jenningsís idea to hire Dresel."

"We knew that," Trampas said. "I could have saved you the money you spent sending the telegram."

Judge Garthís frown was so big that Trampas swallowed hard.

"Whatís that mean?" Steve asked. "ĎCause Trampas is right, we knew that."

"Says right here that Paul Jennings recommended a detective not be hired. It would be a waste of money."

"I still donít understand," Trampas said before swallowing the rest of his coffee.

Slim said with excitement etched on his face, "It means that Paul didnít want the robberies investigated."

"Or that he already knew that Jess was guilty and felt that a detective would be a waste of money," Mort said.

Judge Garth nodded. "The prosecutor could argue that."

"But Judge," Slim offered his own argument, "canít that telegram help convince a jury that Paul could have been involved and didnít want anyone poking around to find out the truth?"

Judge Garth nodded. "I could argue that point as well as the prosecutor could argue what Mort just said that Paul thought the real robber was already known."

"What I donít understand is, why would he lie about seeing Jess on the road and why didnít Jess see him?" Trampas said.

Judge Garth said, "He could have followed Jess out of town for a ways...or maybe Paul wasnít on the road. Maybe he was in the woods or in the rocks, meeting someone. And he saw Jess ride by."

"Meeting someone?" Steve mocked. "Why would he have to hide to meet...."

"Curly!í Trampas cried out. "Thatís what you think, isnít it, Judge?" He grinned at Steve. "I just put two and two together and came up with..."

"An idea that canít be proved," Judge Garth said. "Itís always bothered me that Paul went looking for the posse. I think he was trying to find Curly to help him get away."

"And you think he found Curly instead of the posse?" Steve asked. "But Judge, if thatís true, then why would he put up wanted posters to find the robber..."

Mort said quickly, "Maybe he had to. People would wonder if the stage line didnít offer a reward. Especially with so many robberies."

Jess began to pace as if he was a caged animal. "Well he sure got people to thinking I was robbing those stages."

"Took the suspicion off Curly," Judge Garth explained. "But without proof itís just conjuncture."

"Seems to me that Jess is still the most likely one to kill Jennings." Jessí head jerked towards Trampas as the cowboy added, "No one else had a reason to see Jennings dead, except Curly. And he was already dead. So that just leaves Jess."

"You make a good argument, Trampas," Judge Garth complemented.

Trampas grinned. "Maybe I should have been a lawyer."

"Well Iím glad youíre not on the jury," Jess said.

"But thatís what the jury will think unless we can find out who has the stolen money," Judge Garth said.

Slim entered the jail. "Looks like snow. Judge, I got the buggy out front. You ready to ride to the ranch?"

Judge Garth nodded. He glanced at Jess. "Jess..." Judge Garth began slowly.

"You donít have to say it. I know we ainít got much of a case."

Judge Garth reached through the cell bars and patted Jess on the shoulder. "I was going to say donít give up yet."



CHAPTER THIRTY SIX

"Well the lightís still burning. Thought everyone would be asleep by now," Slim said.

Judge Garth dismounted. Pain traveled along his back. He wasnít use to riding as much as he had been doing since arriving in Laramie. Each day to Laramie and each night to the Sherman Ranch.

Judge Garth said, "See you bright and early in the morning."

"Judge?"

Judge Garth turned.

"It ainít going well is it?"

Judge Garth gave a short toss of his head. "I wonít lie to you. Iím worried about tomorrow.

Iím sure the prosecutor will call Laura Jennings to the stand. Heís saved her for last because sheíll make the biggest impression on the jury."

"Andy should be in bed by now. But if he should wake up and ask..."

"Iíll tell him itís not decided until the jury comes back in with a verdict. Slim, you should remember that too."

Slim gave a small smile. "See you in the morning."

"Try to get a good nightís sleep. Dawn will be in a few hours." Judge Garth entered the house The smell of fresh baked bread still lingered. The fire in the fireplace was now warm ashes.

"What are you doing still up?"

Betsy Garth sat in a chair that had been pulled close to the fireplace. She was snuggled in a blanket. . "I havenít seen much of you since we got here. You leave early in the morning and come home late at night."

"I know, honey. I told you that this trip wouldnít be much fun for a young girl."

"Oh! But Iím having a wonderful time with Jonesy! Why he even told me his secret for making biscuits. He puts a half cup of whiskey in the batter."

"He does what!" Judge Garth laughed. "That old cougar! I should have known. Medicinal purposes, my eye! Ha!"

"Sh! Youíll wake up the others. I bet you havenít eaten. Jonesy said I could keep the stove fired up until you came home. Come on, daddy, sit." Betsy grabbed his hand and led him to the table. "Iíll get you a plate of food. Jonesy cooked stew. Itís delicious!"

Judge Garth ate as if starved.

"Daddy, the trial isnít going good, is it?"

Judgeís chewing slowed. He swallowed then wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin. "No."

"But I know youíll find a way to convince the jury that Jess is innocent."

"I wish I was convinced as you are. I look at the faces of the jury. They made up their minds before the trial even began."

"Thatís not fair!" Betsy cried out.

"Oh I canít blame them. Three murders with Jess the prime suspect in each. The evidence seems to indicate Jess is the murderer."

"Do you think Jess is guilty?"

He looked at her innocent face. He compared that innocence to the street savvy face of Jess. When Jess was Betsyís age, he had already seen too much evil. But Judge Garth had done everything in his might to spare his daughter from seeing the evil that men could do. "Oh a lawyer should always believe his client is innocent."

"What can I do to help?" She looked eager to help him.

Judge Garth leaned back in the chair. "You already have. This is the first good meal Iíve had in...I donít know when."

"But I want to help! Please let me!"

"Betsy, youíre so young." He reached out and took hold of her hands. "Youíre too young to be worrying about a court room trial."

"You still think of me as a child. But Iím a young woman."

"Thatís right. Youíll be fifteen next month. Howís that dress coming along?"

"I canít wait for you to see it! All of my other dresses have ribbons and bows. But not this one! It has lace. And the sleeves are off the shoulders. Oh Daddy, Mrs. Perkins is a wonderful seamstress."

"She should be for the money she charges."

Betsy leaned forward. "Guess what Mrs. Perkins told me!"

"I can hardly wait to find out," Judge Garth answered with amusement.

"That Mrs. Jennings ordered three dresses last week. That would be a small fortune!"

"I guess sheís not too concerned with money," Judge Garth said.

"Must not be. Because Mrs. Perkins told me that when she went to Mrs. Jenningsí hotel room, she had four dresses in her closest. Thatís seven dresses! Have you ever heard of anyone having so many dresses? And I bet she has more dresses at home." Betsy gave a sharp nod which caused her ponytail to swing.

Judge Garth smiled. "And I bet not one of those dresses is as pretty as the one that Mrs. Perkins sews for you."

Betsyís face lit with joy. "I canít wait to show you. I pick it up tomorrow..." Worry flashed across Judge Garthís face. "Honey, I donít think you should be in town tomorrow. The trial is probably going to end. I donít have much of a defense to present. I have to decide whether to put Jess on the stand. I doubt if the jury will be out long. Iíll go by and get the dress..."

"But you canít! Not until I try it on to make sure that the fitting is correct. Oh daddy, please! If something is wrong, you know I canít sew...at least not well. And if I take it to Medicine Bow well Mrs. Smith will probably get upset working on a dress that Mrs. Perkins sewed for me and..."

With a chuckle, Judge Garth held up his hand. "All right. I wouldnít want Mrs. Smith to get upset. But young lady, I want you to go only to the seamstress and then come straight home as soon as you pick up the dress. I better not find you peeking into the courthouse."

"I promise!" Betsy suddenly looked worried. "Daddy, is it really that bad in town?"

Judge Garth gave a nod. "Iím afraid that boy is going to hang. I donít want it to be by a mob. Thatís why I donít want you in town long."

Betsyís eyes watered. "Andy thinks the world of Jess. So does Jonesy."

"I know, honey. Iím doing all I can do to prove his innocence. I feel like thereís something Iím missing. But Iíve gone over and over what heís told me and what the witnesses have testified. Well...I have one last chance tomorrow when I cross examine Mrs. Jennings. Itís her testimony Iím most concerned about. It will be the most damaging because the jury will feel sorry for her lost."

"But sheís leaving tomorrow!"

"Leaving! Why would you think..."

"On the noon stage. She told me that she had too if her daughter was going to get to Boston in time to start school."

"Well...I doubt her testimony will last long. Iím not even sure what I can ask her. I donít have any evidence that can dispute her testimony."

"I wish I could help."

"I wish you could too. But young girls shouldnít worry about grown up matters. So I want you to promise me that you wonít give it another thought. Now off to bed. Itís way past your bedtime."

"How about you? Youíre not going to stay up are you? You havenít been getting much sleep."

"Iím afraid I still have some work to do before tomorrow."

"All right," she said as if it wasnít all right. "Thereís a pot of coffee on the stove if you need some." She started for the bedroom.

"Betsy..."

She turned. "Yes, daddy."

"Promise me that you wonít grow up too soon."

Betsy rushed to her father and gave him a hug.



CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN

By sunrise, Judge Garth and Slim were back in Laramie, sitting in Mortís office. Trampas and Steve lingered near the pot belly stove. Yet despite the large fire in the pot belly stove, the men could feel the cold weather inside the jail. Even the steaming coffee didnít seem to warm these men.

Looking out the window, Steve set down his cup and grabbed his rifle. "Judge, I sure donít like what Iím seeing out there."

Trampas peered out the other window. "Looks like theyíre planning for a necktie party before the gallows are built."

"I was worried some of those boys wouldnít wait for the trial to end," Mort said as he pulled open the drawer of his desk. He opened a box of ammunition and loaded his gun. "Steve." He threw the young cowboy a box of shells. "Trampas." He threw another box to the other cowboy.

The door burst open and both Steve and Trampas turned with their rifles pointed and ready to fire. Mortís hand dropped to his gun and Slim crouched in a firing position.

"Howdy, boys." The Virginian stood in the doorway. "Iíve seen friendlier looks on hungry wolves." He slapped his hat against his clothes to rid himself of the dust. He then entered the room and headed quickly to the warmth of the pot belly stove. "Morning, Judge."

"What are you doing here?" Judge Garth asked.

"I bet I know, Judge," Steve said. "The Virginian couldnít handle the ranch without our help."

"Thatís right, boy!" Trampas said with a smile. "Probably came here to ask our expert advice."

"Sure I did, Trampas. You being the hard worker that you are." The Virginian half smiled then walked back across the room, carrying his rifle. He pulled from his pocket three telegrams and handed them to Judge Garth. "These came in last night. Figured Iíd deliver them in person. Mose said Laramie is about ready to explode. Still canít understand why you told Mose to tell me to send them out from Medicine Bow. I thought Laramie had a telegraph office."

"It does," the Judge mumbled as he glanced down at the first telegram. "With an operator who Iíd bet likes to talk. And if I get the answer I think Iím going to get, I want the question I ask in court to be a surprise to the witness so an answer canít be prepared before hand."

Though both Trampas and Steve watched out the window, they frequently glanced over their shoulders at the Judge.

As the Judge read the second telegram, he asked, "Whoís running the outfit while youíre away?"

"I left Beldon in charge. He can handle the roundup until I get back."

"Beldon?" Trampas mocked. "Judge, maybe I should ride back and make sure you still got some cattle left. I wouldnít want anything to go amiss at the ranch."

"Amiss?" Steve asked. "Whereíd you get a word like?"

"From Molly," Trampas said proudly. "It means..."

"I know what it means," Steve growled. "Just wondering why youíd be using it."

"ĎCause Iím educated and refined," Trampas said with a smile.

"As much as a billy goat," Steve added.

The Virginian laughed then glanced at Jess in the cell.

Judge Garth nodded to himself as he read the third telegrams.

"Good news, Judge?" Slim asked.

Judge Garth said, "Just as I figured. It wasnít just the stage line that was in trouble. Mr. and Mrs. Jennings ran up quite a debt. Three loans with three different banks. All for a substantial amount."

"So Paul needed money?" Slim asked. "Well thatís a motive for robbery!" He grinned. "Right, Judge?"

"All this proves is that Jennings needed money," Judge Garth replied. "It doesnít prove that Paul robbed his own stage line to get it."

The Virginianís brows shot up with surprise at hearing the accusation. "You think Jennings robbed his own stage line?"

Judge Garth replied, "A good argument could be made about just that."

"Then Judge, that can be your defense, canít it?" Slim asked.

"I need proof before I can present that argument!" Judge Garth pulled out his pocket watch. "Thirty minutes until weíre back in court. Laura Jennings is the prosecutorís last witness. And I still donít know who Iím going to call for a defense."

"How about me?" Slim asked.

"And what will you testify to?" Judge Garth replied sharply. "That Jess was always late arriving at the relay station when the stages were robbed. That Jess would have known when the payrolls were shipped on the stages. That he served time for a robbing a stage."

Slim hung his head.

Judge Garth put his hand on Slimís shoulder. "If I can make Laura admit on the stand that Paul could have had a gun when he went to Slimís, then I can argue that Jess shot in self defense."

"Even if you convince the jury that Paul had gun that night, how are you going to explain that Paul was shot in the back?" Mort asked. "Two times?"

Judge Garth said, "The key to winning this case is to find out who has the money. These jurors are already convinced that Jess robbed the stage. We find the person who has the money, then the prosecutionís argument that Jess killed Paul because of the bank money would come apart like a house built out of cards."

"That person could be long gone, Judge," Steve said.

Jess bit his lip to hold back his words; but he couldnít stop a look of alarm flashing across his face.

The Virginian walked to the cell. "You remember me?"

Jess nodded.

"You know each other?" Slim asked.

"Weíve met," The Virginian said. "Had a friendly poker game once."

Jess turned away from the Virginianís stare.

"So what are you going to do for a defense?" Slim asked.

"Weíre missing something." Judge Garth began to pace.

"Judge, what about that detective?" Steve asked. "He must have found out something, poking around the way he did."

Slim shook his head. "The only poking Dresel did was at our place."

"I already questioned him on the witness stand," Judge Garth snapped. "He admitted all he saw Jess doing was working and..." He stopped.

"He kept telling everyone in town that Jess stole the money. And he watched us like hawks," Slim added. "He must have got awful tired watching us like he did and just seeing us doing ranching chores. I tried to chase him off but each time... Judge, you all right?"

"When was the last time you saw Dresel at your place?" Judge Garth asked.

"Maybe a week or two before Paul was killed," Slim said, then glanced at Jess.

Jess confirmed, "Couldnít have been more than that."

"Still he could have been at your place watching and you wouldnít have seen him," Judge Garth reasoned.

"I reckon," Jess acknowledged as Slim nodded.

"Judge, you think Dresel saw what happen?" Steve asked.

"No. But...." Judge Garth pressed down hard on his lips. He stared down at the floor. "Dresel still in town?" Judge Garth suddenly asked.

Mort nodded. "As far as I know. I could check..."

Judge Garth cut in, "If heís still in town, I suppose heíll be in court like everyone else. Still wouldnít be a bad idea for you to go by the boarding house to see..."

"Judge," Mort interrupted, "Dresel moved out of the boarding house awhile back. Heís been staying in the hotel."

"When?" Judge Garth asked.

"When?" Mort repeated.

"Yes, when did Dresel move out of the boarding house?"

"I donít know...a week ago, maybe two," Mort replied. "Why? Is it important?"

Judge Garth gave a slow nod. "Might be."

"What are you thinking, Judge?" Slim asked.

Everyone was staring at Judge Garth. He hesitated before saying, "Just a hunch. But Jess, you said that Dresel said heíd hound you until he found the money."

Jess nodded. "He made that threat."

"So why did he quit watching your place?" Judge Garth glanced from man to man.

All looked puzzled but Slim who smiled. "Because he found the money."

Judge Garth nodded. "Maybe."

"I didnít steal it!" Jess snarled. "So he couldnít found it at Slimís place."

"Not at the ranch, Jess," Slim clarified. "Dresel could have discovered that Paul Jennings had the money."

For the first time Jessí face shone with hope. "Then if you put him on the stand..."

"Hold it!" Judge Garth said. "I need proof. Putting Dresel on the stand wonít help. Heíll just deny it."

"How you going to prove it?" Slim asked.

"I havenít quit figured that out," Judge Garth admitted.

"Well youíve got exactly..." Mort pulled out his pocket watch. "...afraid itís time we get over to the courthouse." Mort opened his desk door. He took out a deputy badge and tossed it to The Virginian.

"I better make this official. Will you uphold the law?"

The Virginian nodded.

Mort grabbed the keys off the peg and opened the cell door. Jess held out his hands so Mort cuffed him. Mort stepped aside so Jess could lead the way. Instead Jess turned towards Judge Garth. "You said last night not to give up. But I want to know the truth. Have I got a chance?"

Judge Garth studied the young man with an intense stare. "It doesnít look good. Even if Dresel does know that Paul was guilty of robbing the stages, itís going to be near impossible to get him to admit it." Judge Garthís stare didnít dodge Jessí glare. He was amazed at the young cowboyís courage. Jess never flinched but just stood there, absorbing the news.

"But Jess still has a chance, right?" Slim asked.

"Until the jury comes back in with a verdict, he has a chance," Judge Garth acknowledged.

"I think the deck was stacked against me when this trial began," Jess said.

"Maybe. But you canít blame the town of Laramie because Paul Jennings was a very well liked, respected business man," Judge Garth tried to explain.

"And I got a past that most men would be ashamed of," Jess said. "Tell me, Judge, whose side are you on? Maybe you want me lynched like the rest of the town. Tell me, can I trust you? Are you really trying to defend me or are you like the rest of Laramie and want me to hang?"

Trampas moved so fast to stand beside Jess that all were startled. "You ought to be thanking your lucky stars that Judge Garth is defending the likes of you," Trampas snarled.

"You think youíre so much better than me donít you! Well why donít you prove it?" Jess growled back. Despite the handcuffs, Jessí hands were balled into fists.

Trampas began unbuckling his gun belt. "Mort, unlock those cuffs. Iím going to teach this boy some manners."

"Save a piece of his hide for me!" Steve said.

"Trampas!" The Virginian said softly but his warning was heard clearly by all. "This isnít the time."

"Heís been asking for it ever since we arrived," Trampas argued.

"Maybe. But not now," The Virginian ordered, still in a whisper. "Now get back to the window. We donít want them boys out there paying us a visit without us knowing about it."

Trampas glanced at Jess. "Another time."

Jess gave a short nod. "When ever you want."

Trampas headed back to stand guard by the window.

Mort glanced with relief at The Virginian. The Virginian glanced at Jess. "Heís good in a fight."

"Soís Jess," Slim answered.

"Well I for one donít want to see it proved by either of them," Judge Garth said. "We got enough people out in the street whoíd like to fight us without fighting among ourselves. Mortís right, chances are this trial will be over today. If youíre looking for a fight, its mostly likely youíll find one when the jury comes back in. If the jury does come back guilty, some of those men out there are not going to want to wait to carry out the sentence." Judge Garth glanced at Jess.

Jess stood quietly. "Slim, if something does happen, you give Andy my things. But not my gun. Tell him to take good care of my horse."

Slim put his hand on Jessí shoulder. "I ainít giving up. Donít you."

Mort nudged Jess forward as he said, "All right, boys. Letís get going. And letís hope by nightfall that Laramie is still this peaceful."

"You call whatís happening out there peaceful?" Steve asked as he watched out the window.

"Compared to what might happen, this is the calm before the storm," Mort said.

Trampas added, "Laramie is like a keg of powder just waiting to be lit."

"And Iím the fuse," Jess added before leaving the sheriffís office.



CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT

Judge Garth and Laura Jennings entered the courtroom at the same time.

"Laura." Judge Garth stepped aside so she could enter ahead of him.

"Henry, I donít know how you can defend the man who murdered Paul!" she snarled.

"In my opinion, Jessí guilt hasnít been proven," Judge Garth answered.

"Maybe not by you...or Slim Sherman. But I doubt thereís anyone else in Laramie who doesnít believe that Jess Harper is a murderer!"

"Weíll let a jury decide based on the evidence..." Judge Garth assured.

"Youíre a smart lawyer, Henry. You might be able to sway a jury to let Jess go. I beg you to step down and let someone else defend Jess Harper! Weíve known each other a long time. You were a good friend of my fatherís. Please Henry, take yourself off this case and let someone else defend that murderer."

"Iím sorry but I canít do that."

Her face turned icy cold. "When this is over, I guarantee there will be people who will not do business with Shiloh Ranch. Henry, Iíll ruin you! Iím not without influence. Youíll be sorry that you tried to help Jess Harper win his freedom, when you should have been helping to hang him!"

"I would think that you would want a jury to decide..."

"What I want is Jess Harper to hang from the highest tree. If I knew I could get away with it, I would kill him myself." She turned and stormed down the aisle. She took a seat behind the prosecution table.

Judge Garth didnít move. A line of men started forming behind Henry Garth.

"Judge?" The Virginian said.

Judge Garth still didnít move but stayed rooted in the same spot.

"Judge, you all right?" The Virginian questioned.

Henry Garth didnít respond.

"Judge?" The Virginian lightly touched his bossís sleeve. "Are you all right?" the foreman said louder.

"What?...Oh." Judge Garth made his way down the aisle. As he sat down, he looked over at Laura Jennings.

"Something wrong?" Jess whispered.

Judge Garth said nothing but only glanced down at the table. He was so deep in thought that he didnít notice Laura Jennings taking the witness stand. Nor did Judge Garth hear the trial judge say, "Henry, you ready to start your cross examination?"

Judge Garth sat at the defense table. He didnít reply. He just sat with his hands pressed together, appearing to stare at nothing.

"Henry?"

Jess elbowed Judge Garth.

"Henry! Are you all right?"

"Yes...Just thinking."

"Well if you can break away from your thoughts, you can begin your cross examination of the witness."

Judge Garth moved cautiously towards Laura Jennings as if she was a wild animal waiting to be tamed. "Mrs. Jennings, did your husband ever talk to you about his finances?"

Laura eyed Judge Garth as if he was the murderer. "No."

It was not the answer that Judge Garth wanted to hear. He chewed on his lip before trying another approach. "You live on one of the largest ranches in Wyoming."

She said nothing.

"And when in Laramie, your husband always stayed in the most expensive room at the hotel did he not?"

"I donít know the cost of the hotel room." Her eyes bore into his as if he was responsible for her husbandís death.

"Your honor, at this time, I wish to excuse Mrs. Jennings in order to call to the stand Mr. Gadsden to testify to the roomís cost. Iíll then want to recall Mrs. Jennings back to the stand."

The prosecutor stood. "In order not to have this trial go on any longer than need be, the prosecution is willing to concede that the Jennings did occupy the most expensive hotel room while staying in Laramie."

"So noted," the trial judge said. "Continue Henry."

Judge Garth said, "Mrs. Jennings, youíve already testified that your husband was the superintendent of the Overland Stage Company. And that means, does it not, that he was in charge of the stage companyís finances?"

"Yes."

"Your husband was worried that the stage line company would go under, was he not?"

"He was," Laura replied.

"Because of the stage robberies that had been taking place during the last several weeks?"

"Thatís right." She glanced with intense anger at Jess.

Jess stirred restlessly under her scrutiny. Slim touched Jessí shoulder with brotherly affection.

"Do you know how much was stolen?" Judge Garth asked.

"No."

"I checked with both the bank and the mining company." Judge Garth grabbed a paper that lay on the defense table. "Your honor, at this time I want to submit these sworn depositions into evidence. One is from the owner of the mining company. The other is from the bank president of the Laramie Bank. The statements show that the amount stolen was fifteen thousand dollars." Henry handed the papers to the prosecutor before handing the sheets to the trial judge.

Judge Garth pulled from his pocket three telegrams. "Your honor, I also want to offer at this time three telegrams into evidence. They are from several banks, two in Cheyenne, and one in Denver, stating that Paul Jennings had loans totaling over six thousand dollars. And for prior to the first stage robbery he was overdue on all of his loan payments."

Laura glanced quickly at the trial judge. "I donít understand."

"Further these telegrams state that Mr. Jennings began paying back these loans a few days after the first robbery. And within weeks he had paid back all of the loans." Judge Garth handed the prosecutor the telegrams.

The prosecutor read the telegrams then gave a quick nod. Judge Garth then handed the telegrams to Judge Hayes.

"Mrs. Jennings," Judge Garth began as he neared the witness chair, "surely you were aware that your husband took out several large loans."

"No!" She shook her head. "Paul never said a word."

"Iíve looked at the account books of the stage line. There were a lot of with drawls but no money coming in." Garth handed the trial judge several accounting books. "I wish to put these books in evidence at this time." He turned towards to the prosecutor.

The prosecutor held up his hand. "Iíve already examined the books. I have no objection, your honor."

"All right, Henry," the trial judge said.

"Having taken over the stage line after your husbandís death, you must have looked through these books," Judge Garth said to the witness.

"Paul was not the best bookkeeper," Laura defended. "He wasnít proud that he only had a third grade education. He was a cowboy before he started working for the stage company. Why he could barely read. So of course the books were not the best kept."

As mumbles broke out among the crowd, Judge Hayes hit his gravel hard against the desk. "Continue, Henry."

Judge Garth drew closer to the witness chair. "You knew that the stage line was losing money, did you not?"

"Yes. Paul was very worried about the stage line going under."

"My daughter informed me that you ordered three dresses from the seamstress since you arrived in Laramie?"

Several of the women in the courtroom uttered a gasp of shock.

Judge Garth asked, "Is this one of the dresses?"

Confusion marred Lauraís features. "Why yes."

"Itís a very beautiful dress. Looks to be the finest lace and if Iím not mistaken the cloth is silk."

"Why yes it is."

"Mrs. Jennings, your husbandís company was on the verge of going under; yet that didnít affect your lifestyle. New dresses. Not gingham or cotton but silk. Staying in the most expensive room in the hotel for days. And youíre leaving for Boston in a few days to enroll your daughter in a private boarding school. Even though the stage line was losing money, and despite all your personal expenses, Paul Jennings began paying off these loans and had them paid off within a few weeks. Where did your husband get the money to repay the loans and continue paying your personal expenses? Not from the stage line. It was, as you said, about to go under."

"Your honor!" Laura cried out. "How can you allow this man to denounce the way my husband lived his life! He was a good man. My husband helped many people."

People throughout the courtroom, including some on the jury, nodded.

Laura continued, "Is my husband to be reprimanded because he was a generous man to both his family and to the town of Laramie?"

The roar from the crowd showed that they agreed that Paul Jennings was a man to be admired. Mortís hold on his shotgun tightened while Trampas and Steve each kept their fingers on the triggers of their rifles. The Virginian glanced from man to man, ready to fire his rifle.

"I said no comments and I meant no comments!" the trial judge hollered. "And as for you, Mrs. Jennings, answer Henryís question. Where did your husband get the money to pay back those loans and to pay your personal expenses?"

"I donít know," Laura said. "As I said before, we didnít discuss finances. Paul took care of our bills."

"But you must have wondered," Judge Garth said.

Her eyes met his and for a few seconds they battled. She suddenly dropped her glare from Henry Garthís face.

"No, I never did," she mumbled.

"Mrs. Jennings, who started the stage line that your husband supervised?"

"My father."

"You sound very proud of that accomplishment."

"I am! My father worked very hard to make the stage company successful."

Judge Garth offered a nod as if he agreed to her fatherís accomplishment. "If the stage line had gone under, how would you have felt about your husbandís leadership?"

"I...I..." It was not a question that Laura had planned to answer. "I suppose I would have been...." She searched for the word.

"Disappointed....angry....embarrassed?" Judge Garth offered suggestions.

"It wouldnít have been Paulís fault!" she defended. "It would have been Jess Harperís..."

Judge Garthís fist slammed down on the railing in front of Laura. "Answer the question!"

"I am!" she shouted back at him.

Again a roar arose from the crowd. Several men objected to Judge Garthís brow beating the witness.

The Virginian used his rifle to nudge one man to sit back down. Trampasí sharp nod made another man sit. Steve put his hand on the shoulder of another man, who slowly sat back down, all the while glaring at Judge Garth.

"Something your father worked so hard for," Judge Garth said above the crowdís noise. Immediately silence was heard as Judge Garth finished, "something that your father gave most of his life to, for you to see it destroyed, for you to see the business to fail, well...wouldnít that have devastated you?"

Lauraís chin lifted slightly. "Iím stronger than that!"

Judge Garth nodded in agreement. "Strong and an accomplished woman. Youíre a lady yet you can ride and shoot like a man, better than most men, can you not?"

Lauraís eyes opened wide with confusion. "I know how to ride and shoot, yes."

"Do you own a gun?"

"Yes," she stammered.

"Where is that gun now?"

Laura shook her head with confusion. "At the ranch."

"Ah." Judge Garth looked as if he expected that answer. "Did your husband own a gun?"

"Yes."

"A forty five?"

"He owned several guns."

"But he carried a forty five on him, did he not?"

"Iím not sure..."

"Several of the stage drivers have seen your husband carry a forty five under his jacket. Mose is standing over there. Should I put him on the stand to testify..."

"Yes," she said softly, then added in a louder voice, "my husband frequently carried a forty five for protection."

"Thatís same type of gun that Jess Harper owns. The same type of gun that killed your husband."

"Yes." Again she glanced over at Jess. This time his eyes met her stare.

"The night your husband rode to Slim Shermanís, did he have a gun with him?"

"No."

"No? He frequently carried a gun for protection. Yet he didnít carry a gun that night."

"Thatís right."

"How can you be sure?"

"I packed the saddlebags with food. There was no gun."

"But he usually carried a gun under his jacket," Judge Garth argued.

"There was no gun," Laura said with so much confidence that several men on the jury nodded.

"Your husband was worried about Jess Harper being a stage robber. He went to Slim Shermanís ranch where Jess Harper lived. He went late at night. And you want us to believe that he didnít go armed?"

"Yes."

"Come now! Why would your husband travel on the Laramie Road without a gun? How would he protect you, if need be?"

"He had no gun!"

"But yet he traveled to Slim Shermanís ranch knowing full well that Jess Harper is fast with a gun and would have weapons at the ranch?"

"Paul believed if he went unarmed then there would be no reason for gun play."

Judge Garth knew what he wanted to ask but was unsure how to ask the question. For several seconds he stared at Laura as he tried to form his words. Finally he said in a soft voice, so soft that several people leaned forward to hear better. "Mrs. Jennings...Laura, on the day your husband was killed..."

She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief.

"You and your husband had a fight."

Laura paused before saying, "I would call it a disagreement not a fight."

"Did you not storm out of your husbandís office in a rage of anger?"

She stared with defiance at Judge Garth.

"If I have to, Iíll put Slim Sherman on the stand to testify that you left your husbandís office as angry as heís ever seen you."

"Everyone knows that Slim Sherman is Jess Harperís friend. So I wouldnít believe a thing that he says."

As mumbles of agreement echoed throughout the court room, Slimís body tensed like a too tight string ready to pop.

Judge Garth frowned, showing his displeasure. He continued quickly, "Where did you go after you left your husbandís office?"

Lauraís face paled.

"Mrs. Jennings, I asked you where you went...."

"I rode out of Laramie. I often ride when I need to think."

"And what were you thinking about?" Judge Garth said quickly as if pouncing on her.

"The fight..."

A small smile touched Henry Garthís lips.

Laura corrected herself, "...the disagreement that I had with my husband."

"What was the fight about?"

Laura looked at Judge Garth. Her hands twisted her handkerchief. "I donít remember." Her voice showed that she was close to crying.

"But you do remember riding to Slim Shermanís ranch and speaking to Jess Harper and Slim Sherman?"

"Yes."

"And do you remember offering Jess Harper two thousand dollars to leave Laramie?"

The gasp from the on lookers was so loud that Judge Garth did not hear her reply. "Please repeat your answer."

"Yes, I do."

"Why? Why did you offer Jess two thousand dollars to leave Laramie?"

"If he had left, my husband would be alive!"

The courtroom erupted into angry shouts. Several men stood and screamed, "Weíve heard enough! Hang Harper!"

As Judge Garthís ranch hands posed ready to fire their weapons, Mort fired his shotgun. Immediately the noise quieted.

"If I have to clear this courtroom..." the trial judge began.

"We ainít leaving!" one man shouted. "We have a right to see that justice is served."

The trial judge pulled a gun from under his robe. He pointed the weapon at the man. "This is the only kind of justice that youíll get if you donít sit down."

The man sat quickly.

Judge Garth said, "Again I ask your honor to consider moving this trial to..."

"It stays in Laramie!" the trial judge said. "The crime happened here. And it will be judged here. Weíve come this far, and weíre going to see it to the end. Now, Henry, continue your line of questioning."

Judge Garth looked at Laura. "Why did you offer Jess Harper two thousand dollars to leave Laramie?"

"Laramie would be better off if that saddle tramp was gone..."

The trial judge started to speak.

"Answer the question!" Judge Garth ordered before the trial judge could reprimand her. "Why did you want Jess to leave Laramie?"

"To save Slim!" Laura replied. "For all I knew he was involved too. And Slim is a dear friend of mine."

Judge Garth looked taken back. "And was that your only reason?"

"What other reason would I have had?"

"If Jess Harper left town, then he would have taken the suspicion with him. No one else would be a suspect."

Laura Jennings did not hide her disgust. "Everyone knows that Jess Harper is guilty of robbing the stages and killing my husband. He deserves to die!"

Several cries of "Hang Harper" was heard.

Judge Garth turned to spot the callers but could not identify them for the crowd too large. Again the ranch hands helped to silence the crowd in the courtroom. Trampas glanced with concern at The Virginian, who nodded back at him.

"The night your husband was killed..."

"By Jess Harper," she finished.

"That hasnít been proven!" Judge Garth snarled. "Why did your husband ride out to Slimís?"

"He wanted to search the barn."

"Search the barn? What did he expect to find? The sheriff had searched it. Wayne Dresel had searched it."

"I didnít want him to go. But Paul was determined to search the barn himself. He felt sure that Jess Harper had hidden the money near the ranch. And what better place than a barn that had already been searched several times."

Judge Garth studied the woman for a long second. "Why that night? It would have been late when your husband arrived at the Sherman Relay Station."

Laura gave a small smile of triumph. "Slim was at the Cattlemenís Association Meeting. And Paul thought the others would be asleep. So he could search the barn without anyone knowing. And maybe Paul did find the money because Jess Harper shot my husband in the back! The coward"

As Jess stood up angrily, saying "I ainít no back shooter!" The courtroom erupted. Trampas pressed his lips together with a worried expression as his grip tightened on his rifle. Steveís body tensed so much that he looked as if an iron bar had been pressed against his spine. Mortís eyes darted from man to man, looking for a weapon. And The Virginian took several steps closer to Judge Garth so he could offer better protection for his boss. Slim moved so his body shielded Jess from the crowd.

Judge Garth saw the accusing looks on the faces of the jurors. "Sit down!" he shouted to Jess.

Jessí reply was a look of anger. Judge Garth never flinched but said again, "I said to sit down."

Jess sat.

It took several seconds for the ranch hands and sheriff to calm the crowd.

Judge Garthís frown was so large that his expression drew attention. "Did you ride with your husband that night to the Sherman Relay Station?"

Lauraís eyes opened wide before she glanced down at her handkerchief. "No. I rode back to Laramie?"

"By yourself?"

"Yes. Of course."

"And you saw no one the road that night?"

"No one." For a second, a brief second, she glanced in the direction of the prosecutor. Judge Garthís eyes followed her stare. He searched quickly, looking at everyone who sat near the prosecutorís table. He immediately recognized Wayne Dresel.

"You didnít see Wayne Dresel on the road to Laramie?"

She hesitated before speaking, "No."

Judge Garth again glanced at Dresel. "I ask you one more time. Did you see Wayne Dresel on the road to Laramie?"

"No, I did not!"

"What time did you and your husband part company?"

"Around six oíclock. It was still light."

"You headed back to town? You rode no where else."

"Yes."

"And you saw no one as you rode back to Laramie?"

"Yes!" she shouted. "How many times are you going to ask me the same question?"

Judge Garth turned to glance again at Wayne Dresel but he had left the courtroom. He looked at Laura Jennings. He studied the woman. She twisted her handkerchief so tight that he wondered if the wrinkles could ever be ironed out of the material. "I ask you again what was the fight about that you and husband had the day he was killed?"

"I donít remember!"

"You donít remember? You remember the time you rode back to Laramie. You remember every detail of that night. Yet you canít remember the fight that had you so furious that you stormed out of his office?"

"Thatís right!"

"But you do remember being angry?"

"Yes."

"So angry at your husband that you wanted to hurt him?"

She looked as if she had been slapped. Her head jarred backwards; her body tightened. "No! I would never hurt Paul."

"Are you sure?"

"Never!"

"Youíre a crack shot. You testified to that. Are you sure on the trail that you and he didnít continue the fight..."

"No!"

"And you lost your temper and picked up a gun..."

"There was no gun!"

"And fired at your husband?"

"Henry!" the trial judge cried out as several men stood up, screaming, "Sheís a lady!"

The Virginian glanced warily at the crowd. He eased closer to Judge Garth as he cradled his rifle, readying to point and fire at a momentís notice.

"One moment, your honor." Judge Garth neared Slim and whispered.

Slimís face paled. "Judge, youíre wrong!"

"I have to be sure," Judge Garth replied. "Before I question her about Dresel, I have to be sure."

Slim then turned and left the courtroom.



CHAPTER THIRTY NINE

Betsy Garth glanced over one shoulder; then the other. She turned and faced the full length mirror. A slow smile spread across her face as she gave a short nod of approval.

But Paula Perkinsís face wasnít smiling. "I donít know, Betsy. Are you sure the hem..."

Betsy laughed with joy. "Itís as straight as if the hem held a ruler. And the buttons. They are so dainty."

"Are you sure you like the lace on the sleeves?"

"Oh Mrs. Perkins, if itís possible to love a dress, I surely love this one."

The frown didnít disappear from Mrs. Perkinsís face. "Turn around again. I want to be sure everything is fine. What with Mrs. Jennings order, I was rushing."

"Itís perfect!" Betsy again studied herself in the mirror.

Mrs. Perkins finally smiled. "You do look beautiful, dear. Youíll be the prettiest woman at your birthday party. Why Betsy, whatí wrong? Arenít you pleased with the dress?"

"Itís not that. Itís just that I wish Daddy would think of me as a woman. Iím nearly fifteen years old! But he still treats me as if I was his little girl."

Mrs. Perkins smiled with understanding. "I suspect he always will think of you as his little girl. Now, do you like the dress the way it is? Or should I make some changes?"

"Mrs. Perkins, what everyone says about you is true."

"And what does everyone say?" The older woman put her hands on her hips.

"That youíll the best seamstress in Wyoming." Betsy hugged the older woman as if she was a favorite relative. "The dress is perfect. I wouldnít change a thing! I know you didnít have much notice..."

"No need to apologize, Betsy. Not when I just finished an order for Mrs. Jennings, who only gave me

two weeks to sew three dresses. I never had any customer order so many dresses."

Betsyís face twisted into a large frown. "Seems funny with her husband just being killed..."

"I had a woman once order a red dress to wear to her husbandís funeral. Said she was going to celebrate."

Betsy grinned.

"I think the way men drink if theyíre sad, Mrs. Jennings must buy things to keep herself happy.

So she bought the dresses."

The man clearing his throat caused both Betsy and Mrs. Perkins to turn.

"Jonesy, look! Isnít it pretty?" Betsy twirled.

"So this is what a seamstress shop looks like," Andy said, glancing around, until his eyes rested on the corset displayed. "Now why in tarnation would a woman wear..."

Using his elbow, Jonesy hit Andy hard in the shoulder.

"Ouch!í Andy rubbed his shoulder.

"Weíre here to take Miss Betsy home," Jonesy said. "But seeing as youíre both still working on the dress, weíll wait outside."

"You said you were tried of waiting," Andy said. "You said..."

Another elbow to the ribs. "Ouch!"

Jonesy smiled. "You take all the time you need, Miss Betsy."

"Oh Jonesy, Iím sorry. I guess Iíve been in here longer than I meant to be."

"It was all my fault, Jonesy," Mrs. Perkins apologized. "What do you think, Mr. Jonesy? Does the hem look straight to you? And do you like the lace at the sleeves?"

Jonesy started to speak but Andy moved forward, stopping Jonesy from replying. The young boy walked around Betsy. He tilted his head first to the right then to the left. "I think the dress looks good. Real good. Hem is straight. And the lace...real nice."

"And the buttons? Do you like the color?"

Andy started to peer at the buttons, but Jonesy pulled him back. Jonesy then drew his head close to one of the buttons. "Awful pretty. Yes maíam. Just what I would have chosen."

"I respect your opinion, Mr. Jonesy...and yours too, Andy." Mrs. Perkins winked at Betsy who held back her laughter.

"Jonesy, it wonít take me but a minute to change. Mrs. Perkins, Iíve never own a prettier dress. Thank you." She again hugged the older woman before moving behind the dressing screen.

"Is the trial starting back up?"

"Sure is," Andy said. "You should see the crowd. Canít fit them all in the courtroom."

"Oh dear!" Mrs. Perkins wailed. "I hope I can get inside the courtroom. I havenít missed a day of testimony. Itís not looking too good for your ranch hand is it?"

"Afraid not," Jonesy said.

"That prosecutor is very good. Makes a good argument about Mr. Harper being guilty."

"Jess didnít kill Mr. Jennings!" Andy cried out. "Jess ainít no back shooter!"

"Andy!" Jonesy said sharply. "You watch your manners!"

Mrs. Perkinsís voice was gentle as she said, "Andy, I know Jess works at your place but..."

"Heís innocent!" Andy dodged Jonesyís elbow.

"I guess we better wait outside." Jonesy pushed Andy towards the doorway. As Betsy flung the dress over the screen, Mrs. Perkins grabbed it and wrapped it up. Within minutes Betsy emerged dressed in her every day dress. "Mrs. Perkins, daddy will come by later to pay."

Mrs. Perkins handed her a wrapped box. "Hereís your dress. I hope your party is wonderful!"

"Oh it will be!" Betsy assured. But she wasnít smiling.

"Betsy, you are happy with the dress?"

Betsy nodded. "Itís just..."

"Itís the trial isnít it? I know your father is the defending Mr. Harper."

"I heard what you said. You think heís guilty, donít you?"

"Yes." Mrs. Perkins nodded her head. "Everyone Iíve spoken to believes Mr. Harper should hang."

"Seems to me that Jess Harper doesnít have a chance when everyone already has an opinion."

"Iím sure the trial will be fair. Now donít worry your pretty head about such. You should just be concentrating on your party and all the boys who will line up to dance with you. Youíre too young to worry about anything else."

"You and Daddy. You would think Iím still a child."

Mrs. Perkins smiled. "I wouldnít be in such a hurry to grow up."

Standing on the street, Andy glanced longingly at the courtroom. "Couldnít we just have a peek, Jonesy? Wouldnít take long? And Iíd sure like to know how the trial is going."

"And when Slim found out that you had been to the courthouse, heíd have my hide then yours."

"Jess must feel mighty lonely. Might help if we were in there."

The look on Jonesyís face said he agreed with Andyís words. "Andy, I promised Slim. ĎSides thereís Betsy to think about. Now we both promised the Judge that weíd take good care of Betsy. Jess wouldnít want you going back on your word to Judge Garth."

"No, I guess not," Andy said. He stared at the courthouse. "Sure wish I knew what was going on in there?"

"I Ďspect Judge Garth is proving to all of them that Jess is innocent. Be a lot of people in this town whoís going to have to eat crow when all this is over."

"I donít know, Jonesy. Judge Garth sure looked worried when he left this morning."

"Well all I know is if anyone can prove Jess innocent, itís Judge Garth." Though his voice sounded confident, a look of concern passed over Jonesyís face.



CHAPTER FORTY

Judge Garth had the same look of concern on his face as he studied the witness.

"Your honor, how many times is Judge Garth going to ask the same question? Itís been answered not once but several times by the witness." The prosecutor swayed slightly on the balls of his feet.

The trial judge nodded. "Sure seems like youíve run out of questions to ask, Henry. You done with t his witness?"

Judge Garth glanced at the courtroom door. "Just a few more questions."

"Well make sure they ainít been asked before. Iím tired of hearing the same answers too!" The trial judge leaned back in his chair, his arms resting on his stomach.

Judge Garth glanced again at the back of the courtroom before facing the witness. "Mrs. Jennings...."

Judge Garth stopped in mid sentence as he saw Slim enter the courtroom.

Slim shook his head no.

Jess saw the exchange. As Slim slipped into the chair behind Jess, Jess asked, "What was that about."

"Judge had me search Lauraís bags."

"For what?"

"The money. I knew she wouldnít steal money, especially from the stage line. To her, itís like a shrine to her father."

"Has to be Dresel."

Slim glanced over his shoulder. Wayne Dresel was sitting near the back. "Heís a shunk, all right.

Iíd be my life on that!"

Judge Garth hesitated before asking, "Mrs. Jennings...Laura, did you have any conversations with Wayne Dresel?"

She glanced at Wayne Dresel. "No, not really."

"But itís my understanding that he paid you a visit after your husband died. He testified in this court..."

"Oh yes. A lot of people have visited. I do remember now that Mr. Dresel did come by to pay his regards."

Judge Garth again hesitated. "I have a telegram in which the mining company says that your husband did not want to hire Wayne Dresel. That Paul advised against a detective investigating the robberies." He handed the telegram to the prosecutor then to the trial judge. "Laura, why did your husband..."

"I donít know!" she snapped. "I was not part of the business of the running the stage line."

Judge Garth look taken back. "If youíll allow me to ask the question before you answer."

She looked down at her lap. Her hands twisted the handkerchief.

"Laura, did your husband ever mention any conversation that he had with Wayne Dresel?"

"No."

"He said nothing at all about Wayne Dresel? Even in passing?"

"I said no!" Again her voice was sharp.

"Wayne Dresel reported to your husband did he not?"

"My husband and to the mining company."

"So your husband did tell you that?"

Lauraís eyes widen. "Yes, he mentioned that."

"But you just testified that your husband never spoke of Wayne Dresel."

Laura stammered, "Well...Paul...my husband just mentioned that one day. Thatís all. He said nothing more."

Judge Garth drew closer. "Are you sure? Paul made no other comment about Mr. Dresel?"

"Iím positive." She sifted in the chair.

"Did you see Wayne Dresel the night that your husband was killed?"

"Your honor!" The prosecutor stood up. "Wayne Dresel is not on trial. The Judge had every opportunity to question Mr. Dresel during his cross examination of him. This is just a fishing expedition to try to put the blame on someone else other than Jess Harper for killing Paul Jennings. Itís no more than trying to make the jury confused..."

"Your honor," Judge Garth jumped into the fray, "that is not true! Iím simply trying to find out if anyone else was on the road that night. Mr. Dresel has testified that he frequently was at Slimís ranch, spying on the family. So I was wondering if Mrs. Jennings saw him that night..."

"I did not!" Laura said.

"Well I think sheís answered your question, Henry. So no need to rule on this, is it, Bob? Henry, you got any more questions?" Judge Hayes leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.

Judge Garth turned back to Laura. "Are you sure that you saw no one? You didnít hear a horse walking or..."

"I saw or heard no one," Laura stared with anger at Judge Garth. "And I have excellent sight and hearing."

Garth closed his eyes for a brief second. "No more questions."

Jess watched Laura walk down the aisle. Her head held high. Judge Garth followed a few steps behind her. He sat down at the defense table.

"The prosecution is finished, your honor." The prosecutor looked at Judge Garth.

"Henry, you ready to call your witness?" the trial judge asked.

"What are you going to do?" Jess asked. "Call Dresel to the stand?"

Judge Garth whispered. "I played my ace card and lost."

Slimís hand edged to the gun that he had hidden under his shirt. Sitting behind Jess, he was positioned to put himself between Jess and the crowd of men that were growing more restless each moment.

"Henry? Are you ready to call your witnesses?"

"I call Wayne Dresel back to the stand."



CHAPTER FORTY ONE

Wayne Dresel waited for Laura to cross in front of him before he stepped into the aisle. Laura kept walking until she reached the back of the courtroom. She turned and listened to the testimony.

"Mr. Dresel, you testified that you make reports to Paul Jennings about the robberies?"

Dresel nodded. "Once a week. More if I found something."

"What did you find?"

"Well...like I already testified. Common sense seemed to point towards Harper there are the one who was Curlyís partner. But I never could find any evidence to tie Harper to Curly. But I know he was Curlyís partner."

"You know, do you?"

"He killed Curly, had the bank bag, bought expensive items, always missing from the ranch during a hold up..."

"But it was proven that Curly held up the stage, not Jess Harper."

"Still..." Dresel frowned. "I know he was part of it. That moneyís out at Shermanís Ranch, I know it."

"Even after you searched and the sheriff searched and..."

"Your honor, weíve covered all this," the prosecutor protested.

"Henry, heís right," the trial judge said. "Unless you got new information to bring forward."

"I do!" Judge Garth eyed Dresel with contempt. "Do you remember having a confrontation with Jess Harper and Slim Sherman in the saloon?"

Dresel grinned. "Harper has a bad temper. Shermanís ainít much better. I remember. I tried to buy them a drink and Harper almost drew his gun on me."

"During that time, you made a threat did you not?"

"A threat? I donít remember..."

"Did you not, Mr. Dresel, tell Jess Harper that you would hound him until you found the money?"

"Oh..." Again Dresel grinned. "Might have not used those words. But I did tell him that I wouldnít stop looking until I found the money."

"But did, did you not?"

"Did what?"

"Quit looking for the money?"

Dresel frowned. "I donít know what you mean?"

"Mr. Dresel, let me put this very plainly. You quit spying on the Sherman Ranch a couple of weeks before Paul Jennings was killed. Why?"

"Why?"

"Yes, why? You said you would keep watching Jess until you found that money. Yet all of a sudden, you just quit. Why?"

Dresel sifted his weight. "Well...I had been at it for awhile. I just said them words to frighten Harper to turning in that money. The mining company wasnít going to keep paying me the rest of my life to watch Harper."

"But youíre still in the employment of the mining company, are you not?"

"Well...yes, I reckon I am. So?"

"So? Wasnít your job to find the money? And you just testified you thought Jess Harper had the money hidden at Slim Shermanís relay station. So why did you quit spying on the relay station?"

"Sherman told me heíd have me arrested..."

"Come now, Mr. Dresel!" Judge Garth ridiculed. "That didnít stop you. You continued for days watching Jess and Slim at Slimís place. Why did you stop?"

Dresel chewed on his lip. "Well...I reckon that I just figured that...if I stopped, then Harper there might get to thinking that it was safe to get the money. And he would spend some and Iíd catch him that way. Sure wasnít working me watching them. Thought if I gave Harper enough rope, heíd hang himself." He grinned. "Looks like thatís whatís going happen. That boy is going hang."

As several cheers sounded, Judge Garth turned looking. He looked back at Dresel. "Isnít the truth that you found the money? That Paul Jennings..."

"Your honor!" The prosecutor rose to his feet.

Laura screamed out, "How dare you accuse my husband..."

The courtroom erupted into chaos. Several men started towards Jess. Slim put his body between the men and Jess.

The gun shot stopped everyone. "I meant what I said!" the trial judge shouted. "Iíll shoot anyone who tries to take the law into his own hands in my courtroom."

Everyone sat. Trampas and Steve both sighed with relief. The Virginian had drew near to the Judge. Now he moved back to his original position close to the defense table.

"Any more questions?" the trial judge asked.

"No more questions," Judge Garth said.

"Then call your next witness," the trial judge ordered.

As Judge Garth debated who to call, Wayne Dresel held the court room door open for Laura Jennings to leave the court house.



CHAPTER FORTY TWO

As Betsy joined Jonesy and Andy by the buckboard, her attention was drawn to the boardwalk across the street. "Trial must be almost over. Thereís Mrs. Jennings leaving." The young girl put on her gloves as all three watched Laura walk down the board walk towards the stage. "Daddy said she might be the last witness to testify. And..." Betsy drew in her breath with a sharp gasp.

"Miss Betsy, is something wrong?" Jonesy asked.

Betsy glanced at Jonesy with panic on her face. "No...yes...I mean...Jonesy, I have to talk to my father right away."

"But Miss Betsy, heís in the court room. I canít get him out! Maybe I can help you...." Jonesy stammered.

Betsyís voice rose in pitch. "Please, Jonesy! Please get him! Right now! Please! I have to see Daddy! It canít wait!"

Jonesy saw the anxiety on the young girlís face.

"Are you sick? Maybe you better sit down."

"Oh Jonesy! I need to see Daddy! Please!"

"All right, Miss Betsy! Andy, you stay here with Betsy. Iíll go get the Judge. Now donít you fret, Miss Betsy. Iíll get the Judge right away. You two stay put. Andy, you watch after Betsy until I get back." Jonesy ran as fast as he could. He almost got run down by a buckboard as he raced across the street.

Betsy started for the stage.

"Where you going?" Andy demanded as he stepped in front of her, stopping her from leaving.

"I need to talk to Mose."

"Jonesy said you were to stay right here and I was to watch you and..."

"If youíre going to watch me, then you better come along," Betsy said as she stepped around him and started across the dusty street.

"Betsy! Get back here! Oh...girls!" Andy hurried after her, dodging horse manure that dotted the street.

"Morning, Mose," Betsy greeted.

Mose stopped loading the luggage on top of the stage. "Why Miss Betsy! How are you? Andy. Say boy, are you all right? You look a might peeked."

Andy glanced at Betsy. "Iím fine. Just trying to keep up with her, thatís all."

"Mose, I need a favor." Betsy smiled at the stage driver.

"A favor?" Mose and Andy asked at the same time.

"What kind of favor do you need from Mose?" Andy asked as if he was adult and Betsy was the child.

Once more she ignored the young boy. "Please, Mose."

Mose joined Betsy on the board walk. "Well Iím always ready to do a favor for a pretty lady."

Andy snickered. Once more he endured an elbow to his ribs. This time from Mose. Betsy moved close to Mose and whispered in his ear.

"Miss Betsy, I canít..."

"Please!" she begged. "It wouldnít be for long."

"But what youíre asking could cost me my job and..."

"It might help Jess," she said.

"Help Jess?" Andy drew close to Mose. "I donít know what she wants but if it helps Jess, you got to Mose."

Mose glanced from Andyís begging face to Betsyís pleading face. "Oh all right! Iíll delay the stage. But only for ten minutes! Not a minute longer!"

"Thatís all the time weíll need," Betsy said as she glanced at the courthouse.

Mose touched the brim of his hat and nodded as Laura Jennings approached the stage. "Morniní Mrs. Jennings."

"I hope the stage is running on schedule. I canít wait to leave Laramie!" She started to enter the stage.

Mose said quickly, "Uh maíam, weíre going to be a few minutes late in leaving."

"Why?" Laura demanded.

Mose glanced with uncertainty at Betsy. "Well...one of the horses is acting up Going to have to change it out."

Laura glanced at all four horses. "They look calm to me."

"Yes maíam. I suppose they do. But if that horse ainít changed out and gets to acting up again, then...well we could be stuck out on the trial. Might be hours before they discovered that the stage was late and then..."

"Well why are you standing here, wasting time! Change that horse out," Laura ordered.

As Mose began to unharness the horse, he winked at Betsy.



CHAPTER FORTY THREE

It took several minutes for Jonesy to ease his way through the crowd that overflowed from the courthouse. Once inside the courtroom he began easing his way towards Judge Garth. No one paid any attention to Jonesy, except the people he nudged to get through the crowd.

Finally Jonesy was able to walk down the aisle without any interference. As he came to the table where Jess sat, he nodded at Jess. Jonesy tried to get Judge Garthís attention by coughing but Henry Garth never even gave the old man a glance. Judge Garth was only concentrating on the blacksmith, who now sat in the witness chair.

"How long did Curly work for you?" Judge Garth asked.

"A few months," the blacksmith replied.

The cough was louder.

"Was Curly ever working in the stable when Paul Jennings would rent a horse?"

"Sure was. He used to saddle the horses for Mr. Jennings. Mr. Jennings always gave him a nickel just for doing that."

The cough was even louder.

"So Paul Jennings knew Curly Sawyer?"

"I guess you could say that."

"And..."

Again a loud cough.

"Jonesy, you need water?" the trial judge yelled out.

"No! Just need to talk to Judge Garth for a second." Jonesy awkwardly held his derby hat in his hand.

"Talk to Judge Garth! You think this is a social? Heís busy right now!" Judge Hayes snapped.

"I know that. But this is important."

"And this trial isnít?"

Jonesy took a step forward. "If this wasnít important, I wouldnít be interrupting."

"Well now," the trial judge replied, "whatís so all fired important that you have to interrupt this trial?"

"I bet heís just trying to delay it so his friend wonít get hung," a voice called out.

Judge Garth moved quickly to Jonesy. "You canít interrupt..."

"Betsy needs to talk to you. And she says it canít wait!"

"What!" Alarm flashed across Judge Garthís face.

"Betsy sent me to get you. Canít wait for the trial to break. Sheís outside on the boardwalk. I think she might be sick."

Judge Garth turned. "Your honor, may I have a five minute recess?"

"Henry, you have a witness on the stand."

"He ainít going no where!" Jonesy said. "Are you Buck?"

"Reckon not, Jonesy. I donít mind waiting to be questioned, Judge."

Judge Hayes barked, "Five minute recess."

Judge Garth quickly followed Jonesy outside.

Inside Judge Hayes ordered in a loud voice, "Mort, Iím going to get a drink in the saloon. I donít want no one leaving this courtroom. Uh...Bart reckon you better come with me." The bartender followed the trial judge out the side door.

Judge Garth and Jonesy crossed the street to the seamstressís shop.

"Where is she?"

"Judge, I left her right here with Andy. Maybe she went inside."

Judge tried to open the door of the seamstress shop but it was locked. "The shopís closed. Sign says at the courtroom."

"Judge, I donít know where Betsy could have gone." Jonesy scratched his head. "You reckon she went to the doctorís office? She seemed awful peeked. Sure wish I had my ointment with me. That would have fixed her right up."

"Well where is the doctorís office? Letís go check."

Jonesy suddenly pointed. "Donít need to! There she is! Talking to Mrs. Jennings."

Judge Garth frowned so hard that Jonesy looked alarmed. The Judge crossed the street as if he was in a race. Jonesy followed closely behind him.

"Young lady, this better be important,." Judge Garth greeted.

"Your daughterís been telling me all about her party. And the dress she just bought. We both agree that Mrs. Perkinsís work is perfection."

Judge Garth took hold of Betsyís elbow. "If youíll excuse us." He lead his daughter several feet away. "If you got me out of court to talk about a dress."

"I did, Daddy!" Betsy nodded her head. "Wait until you see the dress I purchased."

"Betsy..." Judge Garthís voice warned.

Andy neared Jonesy. "I sure wish we could have had that talk because the more Iím around women, the more I donít understand women!"



CHAPTER FORTY FOUR

True to his word, the court was back in session in five minutes.

"Well get on with it, Henry," Judge Hayes ordered.

"You honor, Iím through questioning this witness." The blacksmith looked around as if he didnít understand.

"Guess you can leave," Judge Hayes said. "Any more witnesses, Henry?"

" I wish to call back to the stand Laura Jennings."

"She just testified," the trial judge argued.

"I know that Harold. But I have one more question to ask her."

"Must be some question," Judge Hayes said. "Oh all right."

"Sheís not in the courtroom, your honor," Mort pointed out.

"Well where is she?" Judge Hayes demanded.

Judge Garth said, "Mrs. Jennings is getting on the stage. How about sending Mort to get her?"

"Henry..."

"After I ask that one question, Iíll close my defense," Henry promised.

The spectators were stunned. Jess Harper started to stand to protest but Slim gently put his hand on Jessí shoulder and nudged him to sit back down. Trampas and Steve cradled their rifles closer to their bodies as they became even more alert. Mort chewed on his lip as he watched everyone.

"If itíll end this trial, then Iím all for it. Mort, go get Mrs. Jennings and bring her back here."

Judge Garth motioned to The Virginian. "I want you to find Wayne Dresel and get him back in the courtroom. I know he left Laramie while Laura was on the stand."

The Virginian frowned. "Judge, if this trial ends, you might just need my gun."

"Iíll be all right. Iíve got a gun hidden in my boot. You just find Wayne Dresel."

"All right, Judge." As the Virginian headed out of the courtroom, he neared Trampas and whispered, "You keep an eye on the Judge. If this trial ends, I want to be sure the Judge donít get hurt."

As The Virginian left the courtroom, Laura and Mort entered. Her face was red from anger.

"Your honor I have a stage to catch," she protested. "I have to be back to Denver in time to take my daughter to boarding school. If I miss that stage..."

"The stage will wait on you," the trial judge said. "You own the company! I see Mose standing in the back. Heíll wait on you. So Mrs. Jennings, take the witness stand."

As Laura Jennings sat down in the witness chair, her cheeks were puffed out with ire.

"Youíre still under oath," the judge said.

She nodded.

"Mrs. Jennings..." Judge Garth stopped. He glanced at Jess. He knew he had one last chance to win this trial.

Jess gave a small nod of confidence towards the Judge.

Judge Garth turned towards Laura. "I just have one question,"

She nodded.

"You bought three dresses from Mrs. Perkins. What makes Mrs. Perkins a good seamstress?"

It was a question that no one suspected.

"Henry, you said you had one question to ask Mrs. Jennings," the trial judge snapped.

"And thatís my question," Judge Garth stated.

The trial judge ordered Judge Garth to approach the bench. "Have you lost your mind? What has dresses got to do with..."

"Please Harold. Give me some leeway. Itís just one question. You promised me that."

"All right. But it seems to me that youíre hanging your own client." The trial judge said loudly, "Mrs. Jennings answer the question, please."

Laura glanced with uncertainty at the Judge. "Well...sheís a wonderful sewer. The length is always right, the lace nicely stitched, the hem is straight..."

"Ah," Judge Garth said with a smile. "Thatís what my daughter told me. She even showed me the dress that she just bought from Mrs. Perkins. It didnít come cheap. And you bought three of these dresses. So you must think very highly of Mrs. Perkinsís work."

"Your honor, I fail to see why his daughterís dress is relevant," the prosecutor said. "Judge Garth is just wasting this courtís time..."

"But it is relevant!" Henry Garth bellowed. "Mrs. Jennings, please stand."

"What!" Laura glanced with confusion at Judge Garth.

"Please stand," Judge Garth repeated.

Laura looked at the trial judge. He shrugged. "Why not?"

She stood.

"You testified earlier that this is one of the dresses that you bought from Mrs. Perkins."

Again she glanced at the trial judge, who only shrugged. "Thatís right. This is one of the dresses that Mrs. Perkins sewed for me."

"Canít be," Judge Garth argued.

"But it is! Thereís Mrs. Perkins." Laura pointed to the woman sitting on the back row. "Ask her!"

Mrs. Perkins nodded. "Mrs. Jennings is right. I sewed that dress."

Judge Garth said, "Mrs. Jennings, will you turn for us so we can see the entire dress?"

Again Laura Jennings glanced with confusion at the trial judge.

"Turn." Judge Hayes motioned with his hand.

Judge Garth said, "If Mrs. Perkins sewed this dress for you then you should get your money back. Youíve been taken."

Mrs. Perkins stood up. "Sir..."

"Look at the dress!" Henry argued. "The hem is not straight. Itís crooked. You just said that Mrs. Perkins always hems in a straight line."

The prosecutor now stood. "Your honor what has a hem got to do with Jess Harper murdering Paul Jennings?"

"Everything!" Judge Garth said before the trial judge could speak. "My daughter wanted to come to Laramie to buy a dress because Mrs. Perkinsí sewing is meticulous. Yet the hem on this dress is not straight. Itís crooked. Iím sure you paid top dollar for this dress. I know Betsyís dress is expensive. Mrs. Jennings, why would you pay top dollar for this type of work?"

Mrs. Perkins argued. "I do good work. And that hem was straight when I sold that dress to Mrs. Jennings."

"But itís not straight now," Judge Garth argued. "We can all see that."

Not a sound was heard in the courtroom. Everyoneís attention was on Judge Garth and the hem of the dress.

"My dress..." Laura stopped speaking. She sat down as if she was weary. She hung her head. She spoke so softly that many leaned forward to hear her words. "Slim Sherman once told me that my father spoiled me. He was right. I grew up with everything I wanted. Pretty dresses...the best school ...even the man I wanted to marry, despite my fatherís objections." She looked up at Judge Garth. "You have a very smart daughter. Iím assuming all her questions a few minutes ago about my opinion of Mrs. Perkinsís sewing was because of this hem."

"You assume correctly," Judge Garth answered.

Trampas glanced at Steve, who shrugged with confusion. But Slim was grinning. Jess looked from Slim to the Judge with questions on his face. Judge Garth neared the witness chair. He took hold of her hands. "I know this isnít easy for you. But the truth must be told. Here and now. A manís life hangs in the balance. You donít want that on your conscious, do you?"

She gave a short shake of her head.

"Who was Curlyís partner?"

She took a deep breath before blurting out, "Jess Harper never robbed the stage coaches. My husband was Curlyís partner."

The noise in the courtroom was so loud that some put their hands over their ears. It took several minutes for the trial judge, Mort, Steve, and Trampas to gain control.

Once the room was again silent, Judge Garth reached down and tore open part of the dressís seam. Money fell to the ground. Everyone in the court room reacted with a loud gasp of disbelief.

"Itís the money from the stage robberies, is it not? The money thatís left after your husband paid off the loans?"

Laura cried out, "I was going to use the money for the stage line. If the stage line goes under, so do a lot of ranches around Laramie. I wasnít going to spend this money on myself! I swear!"

But the expressions on the jurorsí faces showed that all disagreed.

"We need to hear the entire truth," Judge Garth said with a gentle tone. "The entire truth, Laura. Thatís all Iím asking for."

Lauraís mouth quivered as she said, "Paul killed Curly and the girl that worked in the saloon."

The trial judge slammed the gavel before the crowd could react. But everyone was so absorbed in wanting to hear what Laura had to say that they remained silent.

Lauraís hands grasped in a tight clutch. "Paul helped Curly to hid in some caves near Laramie. He brought him food and kept him in liquor while the posse quit searching."

"And the bank bag found in Slimís barn?"

Laura frowned. "Paul planned to put more suspicion on Jess so people would think that Jess was Curlyís partner. He was worried because of the railroad detective being hired by the bank. So Paul talked Curly into going to Slimís to hide the bank bag. He told Curly that everyone would think the money was buried at Slimís so they would give up riding a posse and just concentrate on finding the money. That would give Curly time to get out of Laramie and get to Mexico."

"Do you know what happen that night?"

Laura nodded. "Paul was there. He told me. No one was suppose to get killed. They were only suppose to find the bank bag in Slimís barn. But Jess found Curly in the barn. Curly panicked and shot at Jess. My husband saw it all. He was hiding in the shadows. He managed to escape without anyone seeing him."

"And the girl?"

Lauraís eyes filled with tears. "Paul was so scared that the truth would come out. Paul killed her because she was Curlyís girl and Paul was afraid that she knew the truth." Her eyes pleaded. "That girl was nothing more than a prostitute and Curly...well he never amounted to much. But my husband had helped so many in Laramie."

Slim drew in his breath sharply.

"And you would have let a man hang..."

"Jess Harper is nothing more than a saddle tramp that Slim took in.

Jess stared down at the table.

Laura added, "Why heís nothing more than..."

"An innocent man?" Judge Garth interrupted.

"Maybe not so innocent," Laura argued. "Iíve heard all about Jess Harper and his fast gun. Heís been in trouble with the law. Heís no innocent. But My husband had respectability. And my father worked hard to start the stage line. So I had to keep the truth to myself to protect..."

"Two dead men?" Judge Garth finished. He shook his head as if looking at her bothered him. "And when did you find out the truth?"

The silence was louder than the noise had been.

She glanced at Slim. "The day my husband died. The fight that Slim walked in on was because Paul had finally told me the truth. About everything. The robberies, killing that girl. Thatís why I offered Jess Harper money to leave Laramie. Paul was a good man. People trusted him. No one questioned his reputation. But Jess Harper...his reputation was already soiled. Heís killed men before. So what if it was a fair fight? He killed them with his gun. Heís hired his gun out! Heís nothing more than a murderer."

The next words were difficult for Judge Garth to ask, but he did, "You were willing to let Jess Harper die to protect your husbandís reputation?"

"Heís on trial for murder, not for robbing the stages," she defended.

"Are you still saying Jess Harper killed your husband?" Judge Garth got so close that she could feel his breath on her.

"Yes!"

"No!" Judge Garth shouted at her. "I want the entire truth!"

Laura stammered, "I told you..."

No a sound was heard. "You and your husband had the fight. You knew how damaging it would be if the truth came out about your husband. Youíre a crack shot, arenít you, Mrs. Jennings?"

Lauraís eyes swept across the courtroom. Everyoneís stare was on her. "I didnít kill Paul!"

"You were the last one to see him. You rode out with him that night."

"But he rode off to Slimís and I rode to town. I swear thatís the truth!"

"You testified your husband rode to Slimís to look for the stolen money. Why would he do that when he knew...when you both knew that Jess Harper had not robbed those stages?"

Laura nodded. "But thatís what he told me! He said he was riding to Slimís."

"Why? It makes no sense!"

"Paul was going to offer Jess money to leave. He had three thousand dollars on him!"

"There was no money found on your husband?"

"Maybe Jess Harper stole it before he and Slim brought Paul into town."

"Thatís a lie!" Jess shouted out.

"Sit down!" Judge Hayes ordered.

Jess sat down but anger radiated off him like hot coals.

Judge Hayes continued, "And as for you, madam, keep your opinions to yourself. Testify to only what you know, not to what you suspect."

"Yes, your honor," Laura answered meekly.

But Judge Garth knew the damage had been done and by the look on Lauraís face, she knew it too.

Judge Garthís eyes squinted as he studied Laura. "Your husband never came to the Slimís house. I ask you again, did you ride to the relay station with your husband, then shoot him in the back out of anger that he was involved in the robberies?"

"No!"

"Youíve lied before under oath!"

" Iím telling the truth! I swear thatís the truth."

"What is the truth?" Judge Garth was relentless as he moved close to her. "We want to know.

Because that boy could hang for a crime you committed."

"No! I never...." She twisted her body as she glanced from juror to juror. "I never killed Paul! He was my husband! Despite everything I did love him. Truly I did!"

"You killed your husband, didnít you?"

"No!"

"You know what I think happened. I think you were with Paul at Slimís. You waited until Paulís back was to you and then you shot him."

"No!"

"You killed your husband because you were ashamed of what he had done. Because he almost ruined your good name...your fatherís good name and the stage line that your father worked his whole life to build."

"No!" She bent her head. Her hands hid her face as she sobbed.

"Mrs. Jennings, I take no pleasure in this but I want the truth. Who really killed Paul Jennings?"

As Judge Garth asked the question, the court room doors burst open.

"Judge, hereís your answer." The Virginian pushed Dresel forward. "We got lucky. His horse went lame about five miles outside of town. Found this on him." He tossed the money belt to the Judge. "Three thousand dollars."

Lauraís eyes opened wide. "Thatís Paulís money belt. He thought it was silly that I had a money belt monogrammed but I wanted him to have the best..." Her voice trialed off.

"Where did you get this?" Judge Garth asked.

The Virginian roughly pushed against Dreselís shoulder. "Answer the man."

"Itís not what you think." Dreselís face puckered with worry. "All right, Iíll admit I got that money belt off of Jennings."

"He was wearing this when he left me," Laura said.

Dresel held his hand out as if to stop her words. "Itís not what you think."

"Why donít you tell us how you came by this belt?" The Virginian said, "Jennings gave it to me," Dresel explained.

Laura cried out. "Thatís not true! Why would my husband..."

"Because I found out that he was Curlyís partner," Dresel said.

"And you thought youíd cut yourself in?" Judge Garth accused.

"No! I wouldnít have none of that!" Dresel shouted, then added in a rush of words, "I told Jennings that I was going to tell the sheriff. Jennings begged me to wait until he told his wife. I gave him a few days."

"And you just let Jennings walk away?" The prosecutor asked.

"He knew Iíd be watching his every movement," Dresel explained. "Jennings asked me to meet him that night. Said heíd show me where he had the stage money hidden. That weíd dig it up and then I could take him and the money to the sheriffís. He said he figured it go easier if he brought the money with him. But all he wanted to do was buy me off. He offered me three thousand dollars to keep quiet."

"And you took the belt," Trampas said.

"No!" Dresel said. "I turned him down. He was pleading, saying heíd lose his wife and home and all he had worked for. But I held firm. He started crying. A grown man crying!" Dreselís face showed his disgust. "He turned and leaned against his horse. I saw his hand start to slip inside his jacket..."

"And you shot him twice in the back?" Slim finished.

Laura said, "He was wearing a gun!"

"He had a gun!" Dresel said. Dresel saw the looks exchanged among the listeners. "Would it have been better if I had let Jennings shoot me?" Dresel argued. "It was self defense, I tell you! He was planning to kill me!"

"If thatís true, then why did you run?" Judge Garth asked. "Why didnít you go to the sheriff?"

"Two bullets in the back donít look good." Beads of sweat began popping out on Dreselís forehead. "None of you believe me now! But itís the truth!"

"And you were going to let Jess hang for what you did?" Slim asked. Anger molded his face.

"Donít get high and mighty with me, Sherman! There ainít a man in here that wouldnít have done what I did!" Dresel argued. "This town believed Jennings was a saint. And the entire town of Laramie was sure that Harper was Curlyís partner. So I dumped the body at Shermanís place." Dresel turned towards Judge Garth. "The way you were questioning me on the stand. I figured you found me out. But you canít hang an innocent man. And self defense makes me innocent!"

"You were going watch Jess hang and heís innocent," Slim said.

"Iíve worked my whole life for the law. Harper ainít nothing more but a hired gun. Oh he might work for you now, Sherman, as a ranch hand. But how long before he goes back to his old ways?" Dresel said. "That boy is nothing but trouble. ĎSides Iím sure Harper there has committed crimes that he never paid for. So whatís it matter if he hangs in Laramie or another town? Heís bound to come to that end with a past like heís got."

Before anyone could stop him, Slim hit Dresel. The punch was so hard that Dresel fell backwards. Blood poured from Dreselís nose. Dresel eased himself up. He wiped his sleeve across his face. Mrs. Perkins pulled a lacy handkerchief from her sleeve.

"Here..."

Dresel reached for the handkerchief but instead of taking the cloth, he grabbed Mrs. Perkins.

She screamed then gasped as his arm tightened around her neck. The four men with rifles pointed them at Dresel.

He warned, "I can crush her neck before you can shoot. Now Iím not going to hang when it was self defense. Iím telling the truth! Jennings tried to kill me. I had no choice but to shoot him."

"If thatís true, then let her go," Judge Garth advised.

"Oh no! This town had Harper convicted before the trial began. And I can tell that itíll be the same for me." .Dresel looked at Steve. "Hand me your rifle."

Steve glanced at Judge Garth.

Dresel tightened his hold and Mrs. Perkinsí begged. "Please, do as he says!" She began to choke as she tried to say the word Please.

Judge Garth said, "Do as he says, Steve."

Steve tossed the gun to Dresel, who caught the gun with ease. Dresel kept his arm around the womanís neck and her body pressed against his, using her as a shield. "You and you." With his other hand, Dresel pointed the gun at Trampas and Mort. "Unload your guns."

Mort began to unload. But Trampas hesitated.

"Trampas, do what the man says," The Virginian ordered.

"I got a clear shot."

"Not with her in front of him you donít."

Trampas angrily unloaded his rifle.

"Throw the bullets out the door."

Both Mort and Trampas followed orders.

"Now you."

Dresel looked at The Virginian.

The Virginian immediately unloaded his rifle and tossed the bullets out the door.

For a moment, Dreselís glaze left the crowd and moved to the judge. "Your honor," he said with sarcasm, "throw the gun out the window."

Judge Hayes did not move. "You will not order me in my courtroom."

"Better do as he says, Harold," Judge Garth said.

The sound of breaking glass was heard as the gun was thrown out the window.

Slim inched his hand closer to the gun under his shirt. His eyes followed Dreselís every movement as he waited for an opportunity to shoot.

"Sherman! What you got under your shirt?" Dresel turned towards Slim. The rifle was pointed right at Slimís heart.

Slim held his hands above his head. "Nothing! You know we were checked so no weapons would be in the courthouse. So donít get itchy."

Dreselís eyes moved rapidly from person to person. "Iíd hate to hurt this lady. So everyone do what I tell you. Now back up so I can see the door."

"Dresel," Mort said, "Why donít you give yourself up before someone gets hurt. If it was self defense, you donít want to murder..."

"Now youíre willing to listen?" Dresel laughed. The sound wasnít merry but harsh. "If you donít do what I say or try to stop me, this lady is going to die right before your eyes. After all, you can only hang me once."

No one moved.

"I mean it, boys. If you donít do what I say, I will kill her!"

The Virginian and Slim started to move back and the crowd followed. A path was made from Dresel to the door.

"Dresel, you wonít get away with this," The Virginian warned.

"No? Youíre forgetting, I know how outlaws think. Been around enough of them. Even rode the hoot owl trail, once or twice myself just to catch Ďem. Iíll get away all right. You-" He pointed at Steve. "Go saddle three horses."

"Three?" Steve questioned.

Dresel smiled. "Iím taking your boss with me. Judge Garth, I hope youíre a good rider because if you canít keep up..." The warning made the Virginian react.

The Virginian took a step forward. Dresel swung the rifle so he was aiming at the foreman. But The Virginian didnít flinch. "Dresel, if anything happens to the Judge or this lady, Iíll hunt you down if it takes the rest of my life. And no hoot owl trail will hide you from me."

"And he wonít be alone," Trampas said.

"You have my word on that," Steve added.

Dresel swallowed hard. His eyes were in constant motion as he tried to watch everyone in the room. "No one follows me. No need to worry, you do as I say, and the Judge and this lady will be all right. You got my word on that." He looked at Steve and snarled, "Well get going! And make sure the girth is tight. Iíll check before I mount. And if itís notÖ" He tightened his hold so firm that Mrs. Perkins gasped for breath.

Steve hesitated.

"Better do as he says, Steve," The Virginian ordered.

As Steve started to leave, Judge Garth said, "Jonesy, whereís Betsy?"

"Out in the buckboard with Andy," Jonesy said.

"Steve," Judge Garth said, "I want Betsy off the street."

"And Andy too," Slim added.

Steve nodded.

Before Dresel could say a word, Steve left the courtroom.

As everyone waited for his return, the room was quiet. Dreselís forehead was wet with sweat. Perspiration slid down neck, dampening his collar. Everyone kept their eyes on Dresel. Every now and then Dresel would tighten his hold.

"No need hurting her," Judge Garth said. "Weíre doing what you want us to do."

Dresel snarled. "Oh yeah? Whatís taking him so long?"

"I donít know. You want me to go look?" the Virginian asked.

Dresel pointed the gun at the Judge. "One more second and Iíll only need two horses."

"Dresel," The Virginian warned.

"Horses are saddled," Steve said as he entered the courtroom.

"Girths better be tight. If you tried anything with them saddles..."

"Theyíre tight. Iíll mount first if you want me to," Steve said.

"And if you have a gun on you?" Dresel studied Steve as if trying to find a weapon.

Steve held up his hands and turned. "I donít."

Dresel patted down Steve then pushed him away. Steve looked as if he was ready to burst from anger.

"All right, no one move, except you, Judge." Dresel nodded towards Judge Garth. "Letís go."

"Why not just take me?" Judge Garth bargained. "Leave the woman behind. Sheíll only slow you up."

"Nice try, Judge. But she goes along with us. These boys ainít likely to put a woman in danger."

"Then take me instead of the Judge," The Virginian offered.

"Or me," Slim said. "Iíll go without any fuss."

Dresel smiled. "No. You boys just might cause me a problem. I think the Judge here is going to be a lot easier to watch."

"Donít count on it," Judge Garth threatened.

Jess was itching to try to jump Dresel. He glanced at Slim, who shook his head no.

"Get going, Judge!" Dresel nodded towards the door.

Dresel started backing from the crowd. He kept the woman between him and the crowd. Judge Garth followed in their wake. "Anyone comes out of this courtroom, Iíll shoot them both dead. Starting with the Judge here."

If Judge Garth was frightened, he didnít show it.

"You just remember what I said," The Virginian said. "ĎTil the day I die."

Dresel fired the gun. The Virginian grabbed his shoulder. Blood rushed through his fingers.

Steve and Trampas started forward. So did Jess and Slim but Dresel pointed the gun at Mrs. Perkinsís head. She began crying. "You better stop, boys. You donít anybody else getting shot do you?"

All the cowboys stopped in their tracks.

Dresel nodded. "Pays to listen to me."

"Do as he says," Judge Garth ordered. He glanced quickly at The Virginian. He then stared hard at Dresel. "We said weíll do what you want. No need to use that gun."

Dresel kept the gun pointed at the men as he started backing towards the courthouse door. "Get going, Judge. Iím watching you."

Jonesy nodded at Slim. Slim shook his head not understanding. Jonesy gave another nod.

Jess said suddenly, "What about the money? Ainít you taking that with you?"

Dresel stopped. He glanced with confusion at Jess. "Sure. Toss me the belt."

Jess went to the witness stand. He picked up the money belt. He started for Dresel.

"Oh no! You hand it to the woman here. And be real careful in the way you hand it to herÖ"

Out of the corner of his eyes, Jess saw Jonesy give a quick smile. Jess held up one hand. With the other hand, he held out the money belt as he walked towards Dresel.

Trampas frowned. "Wouldnít want him to forget to take the money with him."

Jess kept walking.

"Harper, you be careful now how you hand that belt to the woman."

The tip of the rifle touched Jessí chest. Jess held out the money belt. Mrs. Perkinsí hands shook as she touched the money belt. Jess grabbed her arm and pulled her away while pushing the rifle up. Dresel lost his balance, falling only one step backwards. In a smooth movement, Dresel pointed the rifle at Jess, who immediately turned his body shielding Mrs. Perkins from the rifle.

"Why you..." Dresel started to shoot but suddenly felt to his knees crying out in pain.

Standing over Dresel was Jonesy, who held a rolling pin. Blood from the wound on Dreselís head was smeared on the wood.

Mrs. Perkins ran into the arms of the mayor, sobbing.

Jonesy turned towards the trial Judge. "You said we couldnít have weapons in the courtroom but I figured Jess might need some help as rowdy as some of these boys have been. So I hid my rolling pin under my jacket. Figured it would make a good weapon. I guess I figured right." He wiped the blood on his pantsí leg. "Itís my best rolling pen too. Reckon the court will buy me another one?"

The trial judge shook his head. "Jonesy, you never cease to amaze me."

"It ainít the first time Iíve heard those words," Jonesy admitted. "And I reckon it wonít be the last."

Jess moved to Jonesy. "I wasnít sure what you wanted. I was sure hoping you wanted me to distract him."

"You done good, boy," Jonesy said. "Kept his attention enough so I could circle behind him. Guess he never figured Iíd be the one to cause him trouble."

Jess grinned. "He donít know you like we do."

"Somebody get a doctor," Judge Garth ordered as he tried to tend to The Virginianís wound.

"No need for a doctor," Jonesy said. "Iíll have him fixed right up."

"Iím all right, Judge. Just a nick," The Virginian said. "Iím just glad youíre all right."

The trial judge ordered, "Mort, take Dresel into custody. I guess Iím staying in town for another trial. And Mrs. Jennings, Iím going to ask you to stay in town too. We got some questions that youíll need to answer."

"What about my client?" Judge Garth moved to the bench. "Seeing how Dresel admitted killing Jennings..."

"The prosecution requests that all charges be dropped against Jess Harper," the prosecutor said.

The trial judge looked at Jess. "I reckon Dresel is right that youíve committed crimes that you ainít been charge with."

Jess looked worried.

Judge Garth growled, "Your honor, my client is on trial for..."

"Henry, I know what your client is on trial for. Been sitting here for most of a week listening, be awful stupid of me if I didnít know what this trial was about, especially when Iím the Judge. As for you young man, I donít hold with someone getting away with any crime, even stealing an apple from a vendorís cart. All the same to me. Guilty is guilty."

Jess listened intensely along with the rest of the courtroom.

Judge Hayes said, "But your lawyer is right. Jess Harper, youíll free to go."

Jess closed his eyes with relief.

The trial judge added, "But next time youíre in my courtroom, it better be as a witness and not as a defendant."

Jess gave a short nod.

The trial judge hit the desk hard with gavel. "Courtís adjourned. And the bar better be open. I sure need a drink. Hell, after this, Iíll probably need a bottle. Come on, Henry, Iím buying."

"Just as soon as I check on my foreman." Judge Garth started to turn.

"Judge Garth?" Jess Harper approached the Judge as if unsure. "Slim said you were the best lawyer."

"Jarrod Barkley is. But he wasnít available."

"Judge, Slim was wrong saying you were the best lawyer."

"Oh?"

"Youíre still are the best lawyer in Wyoming. I donít care how long itís been since youíve been in a courtroom. Iíll put my money on you any time," Jess said.

"So will I, Judge," Slim echoed as he slapped Jess on the back.

"Thank you." Jess held out his hand.

Surprise etched on Judge Garthís face. Jess no longer looked guarded. His eyes were no longer suspicious. For the first time, Judge Garth realized how young Jess was. Judge Garth smiled and shook Jessí hand.

"The Virginianís going to be fine. Jonesy already has him bandaged. Will take more than a bullet to keep him down." Trampas slapped Jess on the back. "Knew all along you were innocent."

Jess frowned. "I thought youíd be the one trying the rope."

"Me? Naw. But I will let you buy me a drink...maybe even two drinks." Trampas grinned.

"Did you say drink?" Steve joined the men. "Whoís buying?"

"Jess here."

"Wait..." Jess began but Trampas and Steve were already heading out the door. And he knew heíd find them in the saloon.

Slim laughed. "Well as long as youíre buying, letís go join them."

"I never said I was..." Jess began.

But Slim was already heading out the courthouse door.



CHAPTER FORTY FIVE

Judge Garth walked out onto the porch of the Sherman Relay Station. "Buggy packed?"

Trampas dealt a poker hand to Jess. "Yes sir."

"Whoís winning?" Judge Garth asked The Virginian.

"Depends whoís dealing," The Virginian answered. " You know, Judge, I think you were right. A leopard can change his spots except when heís with another leopard. I ainít never seen so many aces and kings in a deck as in this poker game."

Judge Garth laughed. "Well letís get going. I want to get back home before dark."

"I guess weíre about even." Trampas put his winnings into his pocket. He held out his hand.

"If youíre ever in Medicine Bow, you can buy me a drink."

"I think I already did," Jess said.

Trampas swayed on his feet. "Well..."

Jess laughed. Trampas joined in the laughter.

"I got a feeling you and I could become good friends."

"Only if we donít play poker with each." Trampas grinned.

"And I make sure the bartender knows that I ainít buying you drinks," Jess said with a chuckle.

"Now whereís Betsy? I told her I was ready to leave." Judge Garth asked.

"Right here." Betsy came through the door, carrying a basket of warm biscuits. As Trampas reached to take one, she slapped the cowboyís hand. "This is for later. Weíve got a long trip."

"Later? Come on, Bets. Just one," Trampas pleaded.

As Steve came around the corner carrying his bed roll, he said, "Trampas is right. Just one. So we wonít get hungry on the road." He smiled at her.

"Well...." She looked from one cowboyís pleading face to the other. "Oh all right." She pulled back the cloth. "Just one, now!"

Steve and Trampas each grabbed a biscuit. Their mouths were open ready to bite into the dough when Betsy said, "Besides I want to know how they turned out. Iíve never made Jonesyís recipe before."

Trampas studied the biscuit. "You cooked these? I thought Jonesy did the cooking."

Betsy nodded. "No, I baked these."

"With Jonesyís help?" Steve asked.

"No. Miss Betsy did it all by herself," Jonesy informed as he leaned against the door, his arms crossed over his chest.

"Something wrong?" Andy asked as both men stared at the food.

"Well what are you waiting for? I want to know how the biscuits taste." Betsy tilted her head with anticipation.

Steve and Trampas glanced at each other.

"Well...I think youíre right, Betsy, we should save them for the trip," Trampas put his biscuit back in the basket.

"Judge wants to leave right away. So weíll just wait to eat them later." Steve quickly placed his biscuit back into the basket and drew the cloth over the food.

Betsy drew in her breath. "You donít think I can cook?"

"Well," Trampas said as he eased away from her. "Itís not that we donít think...we know. Weíve tasted your cooking before."

"Oh!" She picked up a biscuit and aimed it at the cowboy.

"Careful!" Trampas said quickly as he mounted his horse. "As heavy as those are, they might just knock me off my horse!"

Jonesy grabbed the biscuit out of Betsyís hand. "Now boys, you donít know what youíre missing. I tell you these biscuits are as light as..." He bit into the biscuit. His eyes watered and his mouth cringed. He chewed once, twice, three times and coughed as he tried to swallow. He then chewed two more times. He held his hand up and raced for the well. He drank several sips from the bucket. He turned and saw all eyes on him. "Ainít tasted any better."

"Last time I saw that kind of look on your face, Jonesy, you had just good a drink full of sour milk...Ouch!" Andy rubbed both his ribs and back of his head, where Slim had elbowed and Jess had whacked him.

Betsy burst out laughing. "I think I better practice some more cooking before I serve any more biscuits."

"Good idea," Trampas smiled. "But if you want we could take them along in case we run out of bullets. Probably do a lot of damage anyway than a bullet to anything we aim at."

She glared at Trampas. "Trampas..."

Trampas offered her a grin. Betsy couldnít resist and laughed.

Slim followed the Judge and Betsy to the buggy. As Slim started to help Betsy into the buggy, she turned towards him. She smiled as her eyes looked hopeful. "I hope you can come to my party, Slim. We can dance!"

"Uh...well..." Seeing Betsyís hopeful look, Slim looked at Judge Garth for advice. But the Judge was trying to hold back his laughter.

"Now youíre not flirting with another man are you?" The Virginian asked as he neared his horse to the buggy. "I thought you were going to marry me."

"I am!" The young girl said. "But Slim sure is handsome, I mean..."

"Come along, Betsy." Judge Garth took hold of Betsyís arm and helped her into the wagon.

Slim said to The Virginian. "Looks like you got your hands full." He nodded at Steve and Trampas.

"Reckon you do too." The Virginian nodded at Jess.

"Best friend I got," Slim answered.

The Virginian grinned. "Feel the same about those two." Slim held the reins of the Appaloosa horse as The Virginian mounted. He handed the reins to The Virginian.

"Howís the wound?"

The Virginian touched his chest. "Be sore for awhile. But Iíll mend." He held out his hand. Slim shook his hand warmly. The Virginian then straightened in his saddle. "Jonesy, you keep these boys in line," The Virginian called out before turning his horse towards the road. "I thought you boys were anxious to get away from Laramie."

"Yes sir, boss man." Trampas replied. "Well boy, what are you waiting for?"

Steve jumped on his horse like a born athlete.

Trampas bragged, "Looks like Iíll get back just in time to take Molly to the dance."



"Donít see how," Steve challenged.

"Should be back in plenty of time. Danceís not Ďtil..."

"Well Trampas, I happen to know that Molly is going with me," Steve explained. "I sent her a telegram days ago asking her to go with me. I figured Iíd be back in time."

Trampas started to reply but The Virginian said, "Well Steve, I hate to disappoint you but Molly is going with me."

"With you? But I sent a telegram and..."

"You talking about this telegram?" The Virginian pulled out a telegram from his pocket. "When I was picking up the Judgeís telegrams, I picked this one up. Guess I forgot to deliver it to Molly."

"Forgot!" Steve hollered.

Trampas nudged Steve. "Guess thatís why heís the boss. He hoodwinked us both."

"Hoodwinked? Where did you come across a word like hoodwinked."

"I keep telling you Iím refined and...."

"No one is going to a dance if we donít get going!" The Judge bellowed.

"Well what are we waiting for?" Trampas asked.

Trampas and Steve spurred their horses and took off galloping. The buggy followed behind with The Virginian riding beside the wagon.

"Good folks," Jonesy mumbled. As Jonesy and Andy entered the house, Slim started to follow. Jess grabbed Slimís arm.

"With all the commotion in the courtroom, I never got to tell you thanks."

Slim grinned. "Well good ranch hands are hard to find. And I got a bunch of work for you and me to catch up on."

"Slim...." Jess said as if the words werenít easy for him to speak, "I ainít had many friends, at least not many that I could count on."

An understanding look molded Slimís face. "If we donít get in the house soon, Iím not going to be so friendly to you."

"Whyís that?" A flash of confusion marred Jessí face.

"ĎCause thereís two pieces of cake left. And Iím thinking Andy has his eye on both pieces."

A slow grin formed on Jessí face. "Well what are we waiting for?"

Both men hurried for the door so quick that it was hard to say who entered the house first. But for the first time in weeks, laughter was heard long into the night.

THE END




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