Sins of the Father


by Pat Storm



This story has been sitting on the shelf in scratch form for over two years (okay, in my word documents).  I finally found the inspiration to get around to polishing it up and sending it on to Barb T for beta reading to finally share it with the rest of you.  I want to thank Barb for all the time she put into helping me put the spit and shine on this project and Cheryl G for a few ideas to expand some paragraphs making them more descriptive and poignant.  Thank ya, kindly ladies, much obliged.  Now I hope some of ya enjoy the fruits of my imagination and words put to paper (okay, computer).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Prologue.


The man entered the darkened hotel room.  Going to the table near the bed where a young man was fast asleep, he lit the oil lamp before shaking the boy awake.  "Wake up.  Hey, wake up.

The young, dark haired youth rolled over, blinking the sleep from his deep blue eyes as they focused on the older man sitting on the edge of the bed.  "What?  What is it Uncle Jake?  I didn't hear ya come in."

"Yeah, ya better learn ta sleep real light, you'll live a lot longer, boy. ‘N what did I tell ya ‘bout callin’ me Uncle Jake?”  An edge of anger entered into his voice.  “Anyway, I just got back from the saloon. I talked ta some folks there 'n what we found out in Denver was right. He's here in Laramie, just like they said," the older man grinned.

"Ya mean we finally found 'im? The younger man asked eagerly. "Where is he?"

"Well, I ain't got all that information yet.  He's livin' on a ranch out here, somewhere south of town. I didn't wanna ask too many questions so that it gits back to him too soon that we're here 'n lookin' fer 'im. I ain't ready fer him ta know yet.”

"So, we gonna ambush 'im?" the dark haired boy asked as he sat up, excitement spreading across his grinning face.

"I got better ideas in mind." Jake said, standing up to pace the floor, his hand to his sparsely, bearded chin as he thought.  "I hear he's got his self a family of sorts. I think we'll have ourselves some fun first. He deserves ta suffer fer what happened to yer ma.  I got me some ideas.  When I learn more, then we'll let ‘im know we're here 'n lookin' fer 'im ‘n we'll let 'm stew in his own juices fer a while. He knows who I am ‘n that should be enough ta git 'im worried about his little family's welfare. An’ you, you’ll be a big su’prise fer ‘im.” The older man grinned, his grey eyes lighting up with anticipation.

Getting up from the bed, the boy went to the older man and excitedly asked, "So when do I git to meet 'lm, Unk…, I mean Jake?  Ya think he's as fast as they say?  Ya think I'm faster? Ya said you'd let me kill 'im, remember?"

"All in good time, Billy, all in good time. Let's git us some shut eye.  Maybe tomorrow I'll know enough to put the fear in our friend."  Vile laughter erupted from Jake’s lips, touching off a howl of delighted laughter from the younger man.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Jess Harper, partner in the Sherman Ranch and Overland Stage Relay Station, was working in the barn preparing a fresh team of horses to relieve the weary animals pulling the stage on its relay stop on its run to Cheyenne.  His partner, Slim Sherman, and owner of the ranch, was busy replacing the corral fence’s closing latch that had become worn over its many years of use.  It was an easy job and one that he could easily do himself while awaiting the arrival of the morning stage.  Jess almost always elected to take charge over the horses, both readying them and caring for them during their rest period before their next appointed excursion.  Next to Slim and their oddly collected little family, horses were always considered Jess’ best friends.  He had an uncanny knack with them that many others only wished they’d possessed.

 

 

Slim was astraddle the top rail of the corral and almost finished with reattaching the latching mechanism when he heard the familiar sound of the stage coming up the rise, heading toward the ranch gate and yard.  He looked in the direction of the rattling of wood, canvas and leather that held the coach together, to see a cloud of dust rising and knew the stage would soon appear over the ridge engulfed in all that dust, looking a bit like an apparition as it came into the Sherman staging yard.  Taking off his hat, he raked his fingers through his blonde hair to pull away any stray locks from teasing his eyes, replacing it on his head before jumping down from his perch.  He laid his tools down and just as he straightened up again he could see the stage was driving in in its usual reckless fashion.  Mose had made a habit and game of trying to stop the wild stage team on a dime in the Sherman yard, coming in at top speed, chickens protesting and scattering in every direction.  He’d then stop the lead horse right in front of Slim or Jess, who were usually there right on time to greet him.  Today it was no different.

 

 

Slim stepped away from the fence, in case the seasoned driver was off his pull a little, so he wouldn’t crash through or need to climb the fence if he needed to move away quickly.  Catching Mose’s attention, he waved to the older driver who waved back and continued to drive the horses in his breakneck manner.  The only time Slim ever saw Mose slow down when approaching the ranch gate was when there were ladies aboard or someone from the stage line.  Apparently neither was on board today.  The stage driver came in full hell bent for election raising a cloud of dust the whole distance as far as the eye could see.   As predictable, he stopped just inches from where Slim was standing and waiting for him.  Jess usually played the more deadly game of standing in front of where the horses were expected to stop.  Slim didn’t want to try that game of chicken and often chastised Jess’ recklessness, only to be rebuffed with a laugh from his fearless but foolish partner.  

 

 

“Mose, one of these days you’re going to have the wrong lead horse that doesn’t know how to play the game.  Then we’ll both be looking for new jobs or meeting at the pearly gates.”  Slim said with a smile, brushing some of the raised and settling dust off his clothes with his hat.  “And what if some of that leather just happens to snap, or a pin breaks…”

 

 

“Yeah, but one of these days,” Mose interrupted, “I might be lucky enough t’ git me one of them chickens ‘n Miss Daisy kin make me up a good meal of fried chicken when I pass through in the evenin’.”  The older man grinned as he jumped down from the driver’s box.  “B’sides, I trust ya fellas t’ keep the gear in good shape.  If I didn’t, I’d quit this line ‘n find me a bunch I could trust.”  Mose said, patting Slim’s shoulder as he walked past him to help him unhitch the horses. 

 

 

From the barn, Jess came toward the two men leading the fresh horses already harnessed and ready to replace to tired team.

 

 

“You know, Mose, if you hit any of those chickens I doubt there will be anything left worth considering for supper.”  Slim chided at the older man, examining a pin on the tracer near him.

 

 

“What’s this?  Chicken for supper?”  Jess asked, as he approached the two men, after only hearing part of the conversation.  “It ain’t even Sunday yet.  You know chicken’s Daisy’s favorite for special ‘n Sunday dinner only.  Ya think she’ll make some dumplins, too?  Is it your birthday or somethin’, Mose?”

 

 

“Sorry Jess, no chicken and dumplings today. Mose was hoping he could get a middle of the week chicken meal made just for him if he hit one of our chickens on his ride in.”  Slim said as he started undoing the rigging on one of the spent, sweaty team horses.   Mose jumped in to help Slim as Jess rechecked the harnesses on the fresh horses, making sure nothing had come loose. 

 

Once the exhausted team was freed, Jess took those animals handing over the fresh horses to Slim and Mose.  He then led the tired horses to the long hitching rail near the barn where he would relieve them of their harnesses, give them each a good brushing, check their shoes and look them over for any injuries or other problems before putting them in the corral to spend the day eating and drinking before being put back to work on their next scheduled run.

 

 

He wandered back to the other two men, helping them finish hitching the fresh team, double-checked all the links, then helped Mose climb back up on the driver’s seat.  “What, no passengers?”  Jess asked as he glanced at the house, expecting that passengers had gone in for a cup of coffee while the team was being changed.

 

 

“Nope, not t’day.  Almost seems like a waste t’ make the run, but I’ll have a full coach on the way back.   See y’all later.”  Mose replied.   As he was about to slap the reins to get the stage moving he stopped to say, “Oh, almost fergot.  Jess, I got a message for ya.”

 

 

“Yeah.  About what?”  Asking his question, Jess had to squint one eyed as he looked up at the older man in the driver’s seat.  The sun was just over the driver’s shoulder and blinding him.  Already Jess felt that this was a bad omen.

 

 

“Some fella in town’s lookin’ fer ya, wantin’ t’ settle a debt er somethin’, ” The stage driver grinned with his response, believing he was delivering good news to the younger man.

 

 

Jess’ ears perked up.  The sound of any kind of debt was never welcome to him.  Debts often meant trouble in his life.  “Did he say who he was ‘n what kinda debt?”

 

 

“I didn’t see ‘im.  Ralph at the saloon told me last night.  I think he said the man’s name was Jackson?”

 

 

“Jackson?”  Jess questioned with a slight edge to his voice.

 

 

“Yeah.  Jeb, Jake, Jacob, somethin’ like that.  I reckoned he owed ya some money er somethin’.”

 

 

“Yeah, reckon you’re right, Mose.  Thanks for the message.  I’ll haveta go look ‘im up.”  Jess said.

 

 

“Oh yeah, almost fergot.”  Mose continued,  “I wish I seen the boy.  They said he had a youngin’ with him that looked a lot like you!”

 

 

“Me?  Did ya get a name?” Jess asked, bewilderment perceptible in his voice.

 

 

“Nope.  Don’t think anyone mentioned a name.  Said he was in his late teens early twenties if that helps?  Know ‘im?  Relative, maybe?”

 

 

 

“Nope, too young to be any kin of mine that I know of.  Kinda curious though, ‘specially if Jackson’s involved.”  Then as if a light lit up in Jess’ face, he had an idea who the boy might be.  It felt like someone punched him in the stomach, but he tried to hide it from the others as he smiled and waved goodbye to Mose.  But there was no humor behind his smile. 

 

 

 Mose reined the horses out of the yard and Jess turned to go back to the horses needing his care. 

 

 

 Jess’s silence triggered a premonition in Slim causing him to stop Jess and turn him around to face him.  “Jess, I know the kind of debts you’ve accumulated in your younger years.  Is this one of them?”

 

 

Unable to look Slim square in the eye Jess said,  “Maybe.  If it’s who I think it is I ain’t wantin’ to see this debt paid.”

 

 

Slim put a hand on his partner’s shoulder, hoping Jess would continue to tell him what kind of trouble he might be up against.  “You need help, Pard?”

 

 

“This is one of those things you don’t wanna get involved in, Slim.  Knowin’ Jackson, it might be too late already.  You could be part of his plan in paying his debt.  I hope not.”  Slim recognized how bitter Jess’ tone had become.  “Come ‘n help me with the horses.  I’ll tell ya what I know about Jackson.”  Jess said as he pulled away from his friend’s hand, heading toward the horses.  Some of the bitterness had drained away from the words, but Slim wasn’t looking forward to hearing about Jess’ newest meeting up with an old acquaintance, especially one that raised such ire in his partner’s mood.

 

 

The two men went to the waiting horses and started to remove their harnesses in silence.  Slim knew better than to press Jess for anything until he was ready to speak.  He sensed that Jess wanted to talk but he needed time to gather his thoughts so he could tell Slim the whole story rather than blurting out bits and pieces to confuse things. Slim remained patient, helping with the gear, putting it away, then started to brush one of the horses quietly waiting for Jess to tell him what had him so upset.  He glanced often at his partner to be sure that he was okay.  The serious expression on Jess’ face worried Slim, yet he chose to not push his friend, continuing to wait patiently. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2 

 

 

When he’d finished hanging up the last of the gear, Jess picked up a brush bringing it out of the barn to where one of the horses was tied to the long rail post beside the sorrel that Slim was working on.  First he checked the bay's feet then ran his hand along the animal’s legs before starting to run the brush over the horse’s shoulder and withers.

 

 

“I reckon I should begin back before any of this started.” Jess said as he ran the brush along the bay’s shoulder once again, this time slightly bending to whisk some mud off the horse’s side.

 

 

“That might make it easier to understand, I reckon,” Slim agreed.  He stopped brushing for a second or two to study his partner’s face.  He’d seen worry on Jess’ face before, but somehow this time the worry seemed to age his partner.  Deep lines were etched in his face.  Remembering that he was supposed to be brushing the horse, Slim started currying the animal once again but his eyes never left his partner’s face.

 

“The Jackson’s lived on a patch of land not far from our farm.”  Jess began again.  “I never knew most of ‘em, they didn’t get along with my folks.  I never knew the story or reasons they didn’t get along.  When you’re a kid ya don’t really give much thought to what your folks’ business is all about.  I remember when I was about five or so Mr. Jackson ‘n his son Jake were at our place threatenin’ my pa with guns, but nothin’ come of it ‘n I never heard anything else until much later.  Not ‘til after the war.”

 

 

“You mean this is all over a family feud?  And this Jackson is still carrying a grudge?” Slim’s brush, in hand, stood in mid air in his astonishment.

 

 

“Yeah.  He has a twisted mind ‘n I’m afraid he’s got this kid travelin’ with ‘im thinkin’ just like ‘im.”  Jess said, switching sides of the horse he was brushing.  Slim’s working action had practically stopped but he continued currying slowly, anxious to hear more of Jess’ story.

 

 

“After the war I went back to Texas lookin’ for Francie.  I never found her or got any good information for findin’ her.  I reckoned the best places to search for her after checkin’ the farms was to head to town ‘n, see if I could get anything from someone in the saloons, the sheriff’s office, anywhere someone might know somethin’.  Nobody knew anything or didn’t want to know anything, ‘n I sure didn’t get a warm welcome from the folks there, either. It was like they were hidin’ somethin’ or actin’ like Francie never existed.

 

“At the saloon I met a young Mexican girl, Rosalita.  Nice gal, really.  She thought she could help me. She knew a lot of the people in town ‘n she was gonna try ‘n help me find out what she could about Francie.  She felt sorry for me, since I was broke, ‘n she offered that I could stay in her room at the hotel until I got some leads.”

 

 

“That was kind of quick.  Did she often keep young men in her room?”  Slim’s eyebrows raised as he asked.

 

 

“No, nothin’ like that.”  Jess responded, showing a little irritation at the question.  “Slim, she was just bein’ kind ‘n I had a feelin’ she knew more than she was lettin’ on ‘n I sure wasn’t gonna pass up any good leads.  She confirmed what I’d already found out that Francie married one of the Brady boys.  Now I just needed to find out what direction to go lookin’ for ‘em.  Rosa promised to help.  She knew ‘n was trusted by a lot of the men in town.  She wanted me to lay low while she tried to get me the information since I told her about my not so welcome questions.  So I spent most of my time in her room at the hotel.”

 

 

“And nothing happened between the two of you?”  Slim quietly asked.  He wondered if Jess and this girl had been sweethearts, and if so, what was her connection with Jackson?

 

 

“Not that the thought never crossed my mind.”  Jess smiled thoughtfully, yet sadness swallowed much of what was left of the smile when he spoke, again.   “She was a real sweet gal, Slim, ‘n I don’t think she was that kind of a girl.  She worked at the saloon just to make a livin’.  She didn’t have any side jobs that involved entertainin’ men that I knew about or that she hinted about.  She never brought one to her room while I was stayin’ there ‘n she never made any moves on me.   I needed her so I never made any moves on her, no matter how hard that was to avoid.”  Jess said with a smile, this time directed at his partner, knowing Slim understood exactly what he meant.

 

 

“Apparently she talked to the wrong man one day.  Jake.  Jacob Jackson.  She had no idea about the family feelin’s there, but Jackson was more than thrilled to find out I was in town.  He told her he had a lot of information about the Brady’s ‘n would be willin’ to meet with me in her room that night.  After work he followed her home.  I didn’t know he was gonna be with her.  I was sittin’ in a chair playin’ with some cards, not wearin’ my gun when they walked in.  It was hangin’ on the wall near the door.  I had no idea who Jackson was but was happy to find out that somebody might be able to help me finally find Francie.  He said he just remembered he had some paperwork that might help in his saddlebag ‘n said he’d be right back. 

 

“He went downstairs to his horse ‘n came back up to the room ‘n caught Rosalita huggin’ me ‘n me huggin’ her back.  We were both so happy that she finally found someone who could help me.  He walked into the room without knockin’.  He must’ve thought there was more goin’ on than was but he never said anything, just smiled at us like everything was okay.  Rosa introduced him as Jake.  I never knew he was Jake Jackson until the whole thing was over.

 

 

“Behind his back he had the rope off his saddle ‘n with his other hand he pulled his six shooter ‘n held it on us.  He was standin’ near the wall where my gun was hangin’.  I never had a chance to get to it.  He threw the rope at me ‘n told me to tie up Rosa ‘n use my bandana to gag her.  He kept the distance between us so I wasn’t able to try ‘n do anything to get us outta there.  I tied Rosa like he told me ‘n put the gag in her mouth.  He made me step back ‘n used his knife to cut the extra rope then pushed me back to sit in the chair.  When he walked over to me I tried to rush him.  He musta hit me with his gun ‘cause everything went black.” Jess winced, remembering it as if it were happening right at that moment.  Leaning against the horse Jess put his face in his sleeve using it to mop the sweat that was beading on his forehead.

 

 

“I think he was carrying this feud a little too far.”  Slim interjected during the pause as Jess finished wiping his face on his sleeve.  ”Why did he get Rosa involved?  He could have just met you without getting the girl involved.”  Slim said as he untied the horse from the rail, leading the animal to the corral and turning him loose.   Jess had finished his horse and followed after Slim, letting the bay horse run free as well.  Slim closed the gate, putting his hand on his friend’s shoulder giving him a friendly, supportive squeeze as the two men walked back to finish grooming the remaining two horses and for Jess to continue his story.

 

 

After both men checked the horse’s hooves, Jess recommenced telling his story.  “Like I told ya, Jackson has a twisted mind.  Ya see his real beef wasn’t with me it was with my pa.   And it was my pa who hurt him through his sister so he was gonna get even with my pa by hurtin’ me, not by killin’ me, but makin’ me suffer in his crazy mind. My Pa was dead; I was the only one left that he could get at.  He really didn’t know where Francie was.  I’m glad now that she was lost so he couldn’t hurt her.”  Slim listened intently, feeling the strong emotions his friend was expressing.

 

 

“When he saw Rosa ‘n me huggin’ he thought there was somethin’ more there than there really was.  An’ what better way to hurt me than to hurt or kill someone I loved since my pa hurt someone he loved.” A rough sigh escaped Jess’ trembling lips with his last word.

 

 

“Okay, now I’m getting confused.  Who did your pa hurt?”  Slim asked, again lightly brushing his horse. 

 

 

Jess stopped currying, leaned over the back of the animal and said, “Jackson claimed my pa got his sister in a family way ‘n she died in child birth.  If it weren’t for my pa his sister would still be alive.  He was gonna see that I paid for what my pa did ‘n he was gonna make sure he hurt anyone I loved. That was how his sick mind worked, Slim.  An’ I don’t think anything’s changed since then if he’s here lookin’ for me again.”

 

 

After a short silence, Jess continued, “He waited until I came to.  I found myself tied to the chair.  That’s when he raped Rosa.  Both of us were gagged ‘n couldn’t yell for help.  I had to sit ‘n watch her struggle against him, unable to do anything but try ‘n get loose of the ropes, but all they did was cut tighter into my wrists.  When he finished with her he slapped her ‘n called her a dirty Mexican whore.  Then…he stabbed her.”  Fierce sorrow and pain spread over the young man’s face as he relived the horror and terror of that night.  With great difficulty he then said, “Then he cut out her heart.  Just like she was nothin’, Slim.  He cut out her heart.”  Once he recovered, Jess said,  “He told me that I wanted it so bad he was givin’ it to me.   He threw her heart in my face ‘n laughed the most evil laugh I ever heard.  I hear it in my nightmares even now. “  The agony of reliving the episode was clearly evident as his voice cracked several times as he told his partner about that harrowing night.

 

 

“Rosalita was dead on the bed ‘n I was tied to the chair, her blood on my face ‘n her heart in my lap.  I tried to get loose to go after ’im, but I was tied too tight. He left the room, laughing that laugh.  I’ll never forget that sound. If I ever meet the devil himself, I’m sure he’ll have that same disgusting laugh.

 

“I made a lot of noise with the chair ‘n finally got someone’s attention ‘n we were finally found.   All I knew was that the man’s name was Jake ‘n after the description I gave the sheriff ‘n the deputy they believed it was Jacob Jackson that had did this to Rosa ‘n me.  They knew he was half crazy since his sister died ‘n after his pa died he swore over his father’s grave he’d take vengeance out on those who’d done the family wrong.  It was only Jacob ‘n his nephew left in the family.  When the posse rode out to their farm they were both gone.  Jacob became a wanted man ‘n I never heard any more about him until they caught him.” 

 

 Slim remained speechless.  He never imagined that this ever happened to his friend since he never spoke of it.  But then Jess never spoke much about his past.  The man was still very much of a mystery to the tall rancher, only bits and pieces ever coming to the surface from time to time over the years.

 

 

“I went back to testify after they caught him, but I had to leave town on a cattle drive before the trial was over.  Later I heard he lied about loosin’ his head catchin’ me with his girlfriend.  I was out of town when they sentenced him.  I woulda thought they’d hang ‘im, looks like they didn’t.  But then Rosa was only a Mexican in the eyes of those town folk.”  The sadness returned to Jess’ eyes as he stared off into the distance.  “I reckon I’ll never understand how some folks think.  I know she was well liked…How could they?”  Silence overtook the pair as they continued their chore of grooming the horses, taking much longer than usual to finish the job. 

 

Before Slim could speak, Jess again spoke again.  “I reckon he’s still holdin’ that grudge ‘n somehow stumbled on me.  An’now it sounds like he’s got his nephew thinkin’ the same way he does.”

 

 

“So you think he’s here to kill you?”  Slim inquired now leaning over the back of the bay horse he’d been brushing, catching his partner’s eye, his own concern quite evident.

 

 

 

Looking Slim squarely in the eye, Jess spoke again, “No, I think he’s got more hurtin’ on his mind.  An’ now I’m afraid if he finds out about Mike, Daisy ‘n you, you’re all in danger of his twisted game.  Slim, he’s mean ‘n he‘s crazy.  He’s gotta still be wanted for somethin’.  I’m sure Rosalita isn’t the only one he’s killed.  Maybe they sent him to jail rather than hangin’ him ‘n he escaped.  She was Mexican ‘n in Texas she probably wasn’t worth a hangin’, dependin’ on how the town was run.  You know how things are.  Maybe he was in jail ‘n served his time ‘n was let go.  Who knows but I hoped I’d never run across his mean trail ever again.  But now it looks like somehow he found me ‘n now he’s got his nephew backin’ him up.”

 

 

“So, what are you going to do?”  Slim asked untying the horse then walking him to the corral. 

 

 

Following his partner Jess did the same, leading his horse only a step or two behind the taller man.  “I sure don’t wanna show my face in town right now, especially with any of you.  Do ya reckon ya could ride to town ‘n see if Mort has any posters on ‘im or find out if they have anything they can take ‘im in on?”

 

 

“Sure.  I could go to town and pick up some of the things Daisy’s been asking me to get.  I was putting it off until next week but it sounds like a real good time for me to take a trip to town and find out what I can.  Jacob Jackson, eh?”

 

 

“Yeah.”  Jess said as he latched the gate and the two men started toward the house.

 

 

“What about the boy’s name?” Slim asked.

 

 

“I don’t know.  I don’t think I ever knew the kid’s name, even when Jake killed Rosa.  He always referred to him as his sister’s baby.  By then he had to be grown some, not a baby anymore.  But I never got a name.  I don’t think it was big on my mind at the time.”

 

 

“I reckon, not.”  Slim agreed, as he clutched his partner’s shoulder, stopping at the bottom steps of the porch.  “Tell you what.  You get the buckboard ready.   I’ll go get the list from Daisy and head for town.  If nothing else Mort can be made aware of any trouble brewing.”

 

 

“Don’t talk to anyone but Mort. We don’t want Jackson to link your name to mine.  It might be too late already, but hopefully he won’t see or run into ya.  Be careful.  If he’s still wanted it’ll be something we can let Mort handle.  If not I think I brought a whole mess of trouble on all of us this time.”  Jess said with a seriously concerned look on his face.  “I sure am sorry, Slim,” he said as he turned away.

 

 

Jess headed for the barn to hitch up the wagon while Slim watched him leave, an overwhelming sense of pity for his friend engulfing his emotions.  When his partner was out of sight, he turned to the house to look for Daisy.  He was at a loss for words after the tale he’d been told.  Disbelief for what he’d heard still stirred his mind but he knew his friend and partner was not one to spin tall tales.  Believing every word, he was befuddled just the same.  He believed that the law would always prevail, but there were more and more times when he saw that the way the law handled things, not everything always seemed to be fair or even right in his eyes.  He hated his doubts about all the things he’d always strongly believed in.  But since Jess came into his life, Slim was seeing so much more inequity in life and that not everything was black or white.  It was those gray areas that disturbed him far more than he ever wanted to admit. 

 

 

Slim entered the house, his mind still spinning but tried to act as if nothing was going on out of the usual.  “Daisy?  You in here?” 

 

 

“Yes, Dear.  Here in the kitchen.  Anything I can get for you?”  The kindly older lady came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron, wearing a warm smile.

 

 

“Just your list.  I decided I have to go to town today after all.  I can pick up those things you need.”

 

 

“Oh, that would be wonderful.  I wanted to make pie for dinner tonight but I’m almost out of flour and sugar.  There are a few other things I’m low on, too.  You’ll need to take the wagon.”

 

 

“I already have Jess getting it ready.  I know when you give me a list there’s always more than I can carry home in my pockets.”  He gave her a smile, hugging her shoulders.

 

 

She reached in her pocket, pulled out her list and a pencil.  “Now wait, let me look around the kitchen before you leave in case I need to add anything. “  While Daisy was busy in the kitchen, Slim went to his bedroom to clean up before leaving for town.  When he finished Daisy was waiting patiently by the door with her list.  He could see it had grown considerably since she’d taken it to the kitchen.  ‘If you stay late enough you can bring Mike home with you and he won’t have to come back on the stage.”

 

 

“Already thought of that, Daisy.”  Slim said as he folded the list, putting it in his shirt pocket.  “I have a few things to take care of so I can wait for school to be out before I leave.  I’ll stop by the school and tell Mike to meet me at Mort’s office.”

 

 

“Um, Slim.”

 

 

“Yes, Daisy.”

 

 

“I think you should add a haircut to your list.  Both you and Mike.”

 

 

Slim took off his hat and ran his hand though his thick blonde hair and had to agree.  It would be a good day for them both to visit the barber.  Mike was starting to look a little shaggy, Slim thought.  Good, this can save them a trip later and keep Mike from fussing with Daisy threatening him with her scissors.  None of these being his reason to go to town but all of them making the trip well worthwhile.

 

 

When he walked outside Jess was already holding the wagon and horses ready for Slim to leave.  “Can you think of anything we need around the ranch or barn?”  Slim asked as he climbed up on to the seat, taking hold of the reins.

 

 

‘We could use more fencin’ wire.  The spool won’t last much longer ‘n I think there’s a bunch of rails going bad up in the pasture near the north end of the woods.  We’ll probably need to get to that pretty soon.  We might need that pasture sooner than we thought if we don’t get some rain soon.”

 

 

“Okay, I’ll get the wire but the rails can wait until we can cut some.  We can use the wire for a quick fix if we need to..  Anything else?”

 

 

“Nope.  Just be careful., Pard  An’ don’t go anywhere that someone might point you out as being connected with me.”

 

 

“That’s a pretty hard order, Pard.  Almost if anyone in town sees me alone, they ask about you.”

 

 

“Then don’t walk around town.  Really, Slim, Jackson is dangerous ‘n the less he learns about any of us the better.  Get back soon.  Don’t make me come lookin for ya.”

 

 

“Sorry, Pard.  Daisy already gave me orders.  Mike and I need to get haircuts and I’m to bring Mike home with me.”

 

 

Jess’ face dropped.  Now he felt Mike’s life could be in danger as well if any connections were made of Slim with Jess and now Mike with Slim.  He wanted to ask Slim to change all his plans but he knew that Slim was going to be careful.  He hoped that the associations would never get back to Jackson or his nephew.  It was all going to eat away at him until they were all back safely at the ranch.  Jackson had already proved that just suspicion of a relationship was enough to make him react irrationally. 

 

 

“Remember to be extra careful who you talk to.  If they bring up my name in any way try to change the subject, you never know who might be listening.  I don’t know what to tell Mike about any of this but he best be told to not talk to anyone about me.  With luck Mort will be able to take care of this long before anything happens.  Good luck, Pard.”

 

 

“Ya know, Pard, you worry too much.  Maybe this Jackson just wants to apologize for what he did, but I’ll be careful who I talk to and make sure no one’s around.  I’ll have time to think about what to tell Mike on the drive to town.  So stop worrying.” Slim said.

 

 

“I think we both know better than that.  Just stay outta his way.”  He waved as Slim slapped the reins, the horses and wagon jerking ahead as they trotted out of the yard.  Slim turned to wave to Jess and saw Daisy waving from the porch.

 

 

Jess went back toward the barn his mind racing in so many directions he almost didn’t hear Daisy call to him. “Coffee, Jess?  Just made it.”

 

 

He continued walking to the barn shaking his head no and shouted, “Maybe later.  Thanks, Daisy.”  Daisy wasn’t prepared for that response.  She turned, going back into the house wondering what might be wrong.  Jess was not one to refuse a chance to have a nice cup of freshly made coffee, she thought.

 

 

In the barn Jess pulled his revolver, checking it to make sure it was fully loaded.  He knew it was but it was a nervous habit he had whenever the tension in the air could be felt.  Going to both his and Slim’s saddles he checked their rifles to be sure both were ready in case they were needed.  Once satisfied that everything was ready there he went to the house and took down the gun cleaning toolbox off the shelf, setting it on the table.  “Daisy?  Is that offer for coffee still good?”  He called to her, hearing her working in the kitchen.

 

 

“Of course, Jess.  I’ll be right there.”  Jess removed his gun from his holster, unloaded it and opened the gun kit.  When Daisy arrived with the cup and coffee pot she took in that Jess was cleaning his revolver, his forehead deeply furrowed as if he were in deep thought.  This seemed a little strange to her.  Usually gun cleaning was an evening sit around and relax chore that her two young men did while chatting about the day past or things to be done the next day.  To see Jess sitting at the table alone during the day cleaning his gun didn’t seem right to her.  “Is something wrong?” She asked.

 

 

“Of course not.”  Jess said trying to avoid telling her anything.

 

 

“You and Slim just cleaned your guns the other night.  Jess Harper, I know you too well.  You’re expecting trouble, aren’t you?”  Daisy sat down across the table from the young man, hoping to find out what was troubling him.

 

 

“There could be.  Nothin’ for you to worry about, right now, Daisy.  You know me.  If I get nervous I gotta take care of somethin’, my gun, my horse, maybe even help with the laundry.  I just felt like a cup of coffee ‘n to clean my gun.   It helps me think.  Slim’s in town checkin’ out a rumor.  Nothin’ to worry about until we know ourselves.  Let us worry about it first.  If you need to worry we’ll let you know, okay?”  Jess said sternly, afterwards feeling a little guilty.  He looked up and tried to give Daisy a sweet smile that she didn’t buy, even if it was on sale.

 

 

“Jess, you know I can handle anything.  You can tell me.”  She said as she leaned across the table, putting her hand on Jess’ gun holding hand.

 

 

“Nothing to tell ya, not yet.  Just a bunch of words rattlin’ around that could mean nothin’ or somethin’.  For now, it’s nothin’.  Besides, if it’s somethin’ I want Slim here with me to tell you about it.  Okay?”  Daisy could see a mix of pain and confusion in her adopted son’s deep blue eyes.

 

 

“Jess Harper, sometimes you make me so angry.”  Daisy said as she walked around to his side of the table and hugging him from behind before going back to her kitchen.  Jess’ sad eyes followed her as she left the room.  He was sorry for the confrontation and not sure if he’d handled it right, but glad that it was over, at least for now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3 

 

 

 

Slim drove the wagon directly to the schoolhouse.  He entered the surprisingly quiet one room school almost unnoticed, as the students were busy with their studies facing away from the door toward the front of the room.  The young, pretty teacher, sensing the intrusion immediately looked up at him from her desk since it faced the children and the door.  She stood up but before approaching the handsome, tall man still standing at the back of the room by the door, she asked her class to take out their spelling books and turn to page twenty one, instructing them to review the words while she went to see what their visitor needed.  Everyone turned around to see Slim standing at the door with his hat in his hands nervously turning it in his fingers.  Mike and a few others waved to him.  Slim smiled and nodded his head in return recognition in their direction.

 

 

“May I help you, sir?”  The petite, red haired schoolteacher asked.

 

 

“Hi, Miss Ross.”  Slim said, his voice wavering a little in his nervousness.  He hadn’t met the schoolteacher yet and didn’t expect her breathless beauty.  “I’m Slim Sherman. Mike Williams is my ward.  I just wanted him to know I was in town and he needn’t go to wait for the stage to take him home.”

 

 

“Would you like to speak to him?”  She asked turning to motion to Mike to come join them.

 

 

“Oh.  Okay.”  Slim said, not really feeling he needed to repeat it to Mike as well but reckoned the teacher was more comfortable to have instructions given to the boy directly from Slim than from herself.  Mike walked to the back of the room sporting a big grin.  Slim stooped down to be eye to eye with the young tow headed boy.  “Hey, Tiger.  I’m going to be in town for a while and thought I’d give you a ride home tonight instead of that old bumpy ride on the stage.  What do you think?”

 

 

“Yeah, sounds great.”  Mike said still smiling from ear to ear.

 

 

“Okay.  After school, walk over to Mort’s office.  I’m headed over that way right now so if I’m not there when you get there just wait.   Mort will be expecting you and for me to pick you up there.   Daisy wants us to get a haircut before we go home, too, so we can go do that before we leave town.”

 

 

“Aw, Slim.  My hair’s just fine.”  The smile was now gone,  “Why do I haveta get it cut again?”  The painful look on Mike’s face told how much he disliked the idea.

 

 

“Because I said so and because Daisy said so.  Do you want her chasing you around with a pair of scissors?  I know I don’t.”  Rustling Mike’s blonde mop Slim physically turned Mike around to head back to his desk.  As he put on his hat Slim thanked the young schoolteacher, tipping his hat he turned to the door and left.  Leaning against the closed door the blonde rancher smiled to himself before he headed to the wagon.  His thoughts now on how sweet the young schoolmarm smelled and how her red hair shinned in the glint of sun that came in through the schoolhouse windows.  He’d heard she was pretty and wondered what took him so long to come to town to meet her. 

 

 

Inside, Mike was excitedly telling his close desk neighbors about his good luck in being able to ride home with his big brother.  Miss Ross quickly put a stop to all the excitement by reminding the class that they were supposed to be reviewing their spelling words to be prepared for an upcoming test, provoking a loud moan that filled the classroom.

 

 

Slim climbed up on to the seat of the buckboard and drove the few doors down to the Sheriff’s office where he tied his team to the hitching post before going inside.   Mort was pouring a cup of coffee and turned to see Slim as he entered the office.  “Coffee, Slim?”  He asked, raising his cup toward his friend.

 

 

“”Have I ever turned you down, Mort?”  Slim said as he settled down into a chair across the desk from where Mort would sit, his long legs stretched out in front of him.  Mort brought both cups to the desk, handed Slim one then sat down blowing into his own cup to cool the hot liquid.  “Thanks, Mort.”  The rancher said as he found himself unconsciously blowing into his own cup anticipating that the coffee was very hot.

 

 

“Is this a friendly visit or business?”  Mort asked as he crossed his feet putting them up on the desk, leaning back in his chair.

 

 

“Business.”  Slim responded.  “How up are you on your wanted posters?

 

 

“Jess in trouble again?”  Mort smiled as he put his feet back on the floor, reaching in a drawer for his pile of wanted posters.  “Just got some new ones in yesterday. Haven’t really looked over ‘em much yet.   Reckon I would have spotted one with Jess on it, though.”  Looking up he saw the serious look on the rancher’s face. 

 

 

“Most likely this one isn’t new, an old one.  Do you know anything about a Jake or Jacob Jackson from down around Texas way?  Wanted for murder of a Mexican girl?  Maybe escaped from jail?  For that matter, wanted for anything?

 

 

“Don’t sound familiar.  What does he look like?”  Mort asked as he sat up straight in his chair to start pouring over the pile of posters in front of him.

 

 

“Don’t rightly know.  Jess would know but that’s why I’m here.  There could be some trouble if this is the Jackson he knows. He doesn’t want to run into him until he knows for sure if it’s him and what he might be up to.”

 

 

“Jess not looking for trouble?  Isn’t that a little strange?”  Mort teased again, still not provoking a smile from the serious young man sitting across from him.

 

 

“Nope, this one sounds serious.  A real mean fell and not out to hurt Jess physically.  Most likely wanting to hurt anyone he cares about from what Jess tells me. “

 

 

“That’s an odd twist.” Mort said looking up from his pile of posters, not liking the brooding look on Slim’s face. 

 

 

“You have no idea,.  I don’t want to go into it right now, Mort, but if we find out he’s wanted, here in town and you can arrest him so Jess doesn’t have to get involved, all the better.”

 

 

Pushing a pile of papers towards Slim Mort said, “Here, you go through that pile.  I’ll go through this one.  You think he could be wanted for anything else?”

 

 

“Wouldn’t surprise me at all from what Jess tells me.”

 

 

Both men went through their respective piles but couldn’t find anything with the name Jackson on it.   Not knowing what the man looked like they couldn’t match a poster picture if Jackson was using an alias where he might be wanted.

 

 

“Would it be a problem if I took these back to the ranch for Jess to go through?”  Slim requested.

 

 

“Ummm, not supposed to do that.”  Mort said, looking his friend in the eye with regret.  “I might need ‘em here at any time.”  A thought came to the sheriff and his face lit up.   “Tell ya what.  I can take them with me where I want.  I’ll ride out to the ranch with ‘em tonight and we can go over them with Jess and he can tell me more of what this I all about.”

 

 

“Thanks, Mort.  That would be great.  Oh, and I am picking Mike up after school.  I told him to meet me here.  Just in case I don’t get back before he gets here could you sit on him until I get back?”

 

 

“Sure, if nothing happens between then and now I should be here.”  Mort smiled,,  “Don’t worry.  If I’m not here I’ll have someone sit on him.  Hell, I’ll lock him up in a cell if I have to, might be a good lesson.”  The older man said, smiling at the blond man.

 

 

Finally breaking a smile Slim responded, “I don’t think that will be necessary, Sheriff.  If you’re not here he knows to wait for me.  I plan to be back in plenty of time.  I have a list of things to get from the mercantile and down at the livery.  How about I buy you lunch?”

 

 

“I’d appreciate it any other time, Slim, but promised the wife I‘d get home today to help her move the piano at noon time, so she’ll have a meal fixed for me.  Of course, you could come by to help me move the piano.  I’d share my vittles with you.”

 

 

“Sorry, Mort.  I think you’re on your own with that one.  The last piano I tried to help move, well, that piano ain’t around no more.”  Slim grasped Mort’s arm in a friendly warm squeeze as he stood up..  “But thanks for the coffee.  I better get things started to be ready to go home when Mike gets out of school.  Oh, Jess suggests not mentioning anyone’s name in connection with him.  If this Jackson thinks he can hurt someone close to Jess, well just about anyone could be in some kind of danger.”

 

 

“You say this fella might still be wanted in Texas?”  Mort asked as he stood up.

 

 

“Yeah.  Possible”

 

 

“I’ll telegraph the Texas Ranger’s office and see what I can find out.  I’ll let you know later.  Do you know around when this happened?”

 

 

“I’d guess late 65, early to mid 66, maybe?  A Mexican girl called Rosa or Rosalita, Jackson was identified as the murderer by Jess. Got him some jail time.  Probably part of his vendetta.”

 

 

“I’ll see what I can come up with, Slim”

 

 

“Thanks, Mort.  Anything will help." Slim said extending his hand as both men shook hands.

 


 Slim left the office and climbed up into his wagon, heading for the general store.  He hitched his horses to the rail in front of the store, lined up with two other wagons, and went inside.  Standing in a line he was behind two other people holding their lists in their hands.   Mr. Hall, from the bank, was standing in front of Slim and he turned when he saw the young rancher enter, greeting him with a handshake.  Being a quiet man he turned back around continuing to hold his place silently in line.  Slim smiled to himself thinking how different so many people could be, glad he was behind a quiet man not some chatty old woman trying to find a match for her unmarried daughter, niece or some friend’s child. 

 

 

The woman at the counter had a huge pile of supplies and the storekeeper was adding up her bill.  It looked like the merchant was alone in the store so he’d have to help her get her supplies out to her wagon himself.  Slim hoped she was done ordering or this could be a long wait.  He didn’t expect Mr. Hall to have a long list since Hall was a widower and lived alone.  It would surprise Slim if it took more than a few minutes to fill his order and he could carry it all out on his own.  Knowing his own list would be a wagon full he pitied anyone who might come in behind him and the wait they might have unless Lester had some help in the store.

 

 

While waiting in line Slim glanced out the window recognizing almost everyone who passed by.  Any strangers that he noticed he wondered if any of them could have been Jackson or his nephew.  He remembered folks had mentioned that the boy resembled Jess, but he pondered on how often some people see a resemblance in a person that others may never see. Knowing the two men had to be about twenty years apart in age, he was looking for any strangers together that could meet that description.

 

 

As he predicted, Mr. Hall only needed a few personal supplies, taking little time for his order to be filled and on his way, saying goodbye to Lester and Slim, once again extending his hand in friendship and respect.

 

 

“Slim.  I know this won’t be an easy order.  Never is.”  Lester smiled taking the list from Slim’s hands.  About to turn away to start searching for the items on the list, Slim reached out his hand putting it on Lester’s wrist to stop him a moment.

 

 

“Les? Have you seen any strangers in town?   One, a younger man, late teens early twenties, with a man, probably in his late thirties or so?  Maybe asking about Jess?”

 

 

“Yeah, the older man?  Mean lookin’ fella?” Lester turned to face the rancher. 

 

 

“Did you talk to him or tell him anything?”  Slim’s face dropped with his question.

 

 

“No, never talked to him.  Just seen him around town from time to time, out in front of the store talkin’ to folks.  I didn’t like the looks of the fella ‘n thought it best to keep outta anything that might be goin’ on between him ‘n the younger fella.”

 

 

“Good thought, Les. Keep it that way.  You saw the younger one, too, then. They might be trouble if the older man is who we think he is.  If either of them asks, you don’t know where Jess lives or stays.  Keep everything vague.   Do you have any idea who he may have questioned or where the two are staying?”

 

 

“Probably just about everyone.  I heard the older one talkin’ to folks here out front of the store but I was too busy to listen to everything they said.  I don’t think he mentioned where he was stayin’ ‘n I didn’t ask.  I didn’t care ‘n like I said, I didn’t like his looks so I kept out of it.  Kept m’self busy.  He never came into the store that I know of.  If he did, I never noticed.”

 

 

“Do you think anyone told him anything?”

 

 

“Sorry, Slim, like I said I was real busy.  With Dorothy away takin’ care of her mother I’m tryin’ real hard to run this place by m’self.  I’ve been thinkin’ about hirin’ someone to give me a hand, but haven’t found the time to do that.”

 

 

“Put a sign on the door or in the window.  I bet you could find someone wanting to earn a little pocket money.”  Slim suggested.

 

 

“That sounds like a dern good idea, Slim.  I might just do that if I ever stop gettin’ folks like you comin’ in here with these huge orders.”  Les poked Slim with his elbow to let him know he was just teasing at him.  “Let me git some of these sacks in your wagon ‘n then we kin take care of the little stuff at the counter.  Oh, the wire, ya might need to get that down at the livery.  I’m fresh outta it. I have to git down there ‘n git some for the store myself.”

 

 

“Okay, thanks, Les.  I have to head that way later anyway.”  Slim said as he picked up a paper bag and started dropping various penny candies into it while waiting for the storekeeper to return.  When Lester came back into the store Slim handed him the bag, “I’ll take these, too.  Mike should enjoy some of these on the way home.  But don’t tell Daisy, she’ll say I was spoiling his supper.”  Both men laughed, Lester holding a finger to his lips like it was a big secret.

 

“Boys never loose their appetites no matter what the women folk say,” Les said with a wink. “And how is Mrs. Cooper?”  Lester asked as he took up his pencil and a piece of paper to total up Slim’s order.

 

 

“Oh, she’s keeping us all on our toes as usual.  I’ll tell her you asked about her.”  Lester looked up to smile and nod at Slim then went back to work adding up the bill.

 

 

Lester had just finished when a young man walked into the store.  Slim turned to see who it was and his knees almost buckled.   The boy was the spitting image of Jess.  His hair was a little straighter and longer, and he was maybe five or six years younger than Jess.  Slim quickly turned to Lester and motioned over his shoulder whispering, “Not a word.  Trouble behind me.”

 

 

Lester caught on and said, “That will be twenty eight dollars and twenty two cents, sir.”

 

 

“Why I think I have just enough right here,” Slim said reaching in his pocket, keeping his back to the young man.  “Here you go.”  He handed Lester some bills.  Lester made change and Slim threw the small sack of sugar over his shoulder, walking past the stranger keeping the sack between his face and that of the stranger.  When he got to his wagon he stood silently in awe as he visualized the boy he’d just seen.  He needed another look to believe what he saw.  Climbing up on the wagon he pulled his hat down just enough that he could see from under it, but hide his features some as he waited for the boy to leave the store.

 

 

The dark haired, young man came out of the store carrying a small sack of something.  Slim got a good look at him as he walked by on the boardwalk.  No wonder everyone commented on how much he resembled Jess.  A quick look in the dark, he could mistake this boy for Jess himself.  The boy carried his gun low on his hip, had the same brooding good looks, and his walk was almost identical to Jess’.   Slim was feeling very uncomfortable, almost sick to his stomach. 

 

 

Once he recovered sufficiently, Slim turned the wagon toward the livery.  Luckily the boy walked off toward the hotel while the livery was in the other direction.  At the livery Slim hopped down from the wagon and went inside to get his wire and talk to the blacksmith.  Seeing the boy going toward the hotel he had a good idea where Jackson and his nephew were now residing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

  

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 

 

“Hey, Slim.  How ya doin’?”  Wes, the blacksmith, greeted him with his hand extended to give the rancher an enthusiastic welcoming handshake.

 

 

“Hi, Wes.  I need some wire for fixing fences.  What do you have on hand?”

 

 

“It’s all over there.”  Wes flicked his finger over his shoulder pointing to an alcove off to the side of the livery main aisle as he continued working on a piece of decorative stair railing.   Find what gauge you want.  If I have more than one spool of it you kin have as much you need.  I’m waitin’ on an order that might take another week, so I don’t want to short myself.  Sorry, Slim”   

 

 

Slim nodded that he understood then walked into the darkened corner to check the various gauges, feeling them for flexibility and strength to help him make his decision.  There were 4 spools in the size he preferred so he picked up one and balanced it on his shoulder, going back to the front of the building.  “You have 4 of these.  I reckon you won’t miss this one?”  Slim said sitting the spool on the ground before Wesley.   “Nice piece of handy work you’re working on there, Wes.”

 

 

“You like it?  Makin’ it for my in-laws.  They just put up a new porch and the wife thought some fancy railings goin’ up the steps would make a nice anniversary present.  I sure hope they like it.”

 

 

“I’m sure they will.  You really do such creative work.  It’s a shame you have to waste your time nailing on horseshoes when you could be doing this kind of work, instead.”

 

 

“Horseshoein’ pays the bills, Slim.”  Wes laughed.  “We’d starve if I went into this line of work.”

 

 

“Yeah, out here I reckon, but I bet they’d love you back east.”

 

 

“Could be, but we kinda like it here.  Anything else you need today?”

 

 

“Maybe a few raw shoes in the usual sizes.  I hate it when I run out with one foot to go.  Just make it four of each size.  Next time I’ll pick up any extras I might need.  I forgot to check on what I have on hand.”

 

 

“You got it.”  Wesley said pulling some shoes from a rope along the wall and bringing them back to where Slim was waiting.  “Anything else?”

 

 

“Nope.  That should do it.  How much?”

 

 

“Oh, call it an even twelve, Slim.”  The lanky farrier said while wiping his neck with his neckerchief.

 

 

“Wes?  Have there been any strangers around here asking about Jess?”

 

 

“Yeah, a couple of gun men were here.  They looked like they were up to no good.  Said I heard of him but didn’t know him.  I hoped they’d leave town, but I saw both of ‘em at the café when I came by there this mornin’, so they’re still here in town.”

 

 

“Yeah, I think I saw one of them this morning, myself.”  Slim said looking out at the open street.  “From what I hear keeping quiet could save a lot of lives.  Hopefully they’ll leave town soon before there’s any trouble.  I already talked to Mort about them.  He’s looking to see if he can find any reason to arrest them or make them move on.”

 

 

“Well they won’t git anything from me.”  Slim handed Wes the twelve dollars.  “Thanks.  See ya when ya hit town again.”

 

 

“Sure will.  Tell Emma I said hi.”  Slim lifted up the roll of wire to the back of the wagon then went back for his stack of horse shoes placing them in a wooden box.  “Is it okay if I leave the wagon here for a few minutes?  I want to go over to the saloon and see if Tom knows anything about those strangers.”

 

 

“Sure.  They’re fine where they stand.”

 

 

“Thanks, Wes.”  Slim patted the horses as he passed by them on his way to the tavern.

.

 

“Morning, Tom.”  Slim said as he entered through the swinging, batwing doors. The large room was empty, only the barkeeper was working behind the long wooden bar.  It was early and the saloon wasn’t technically open yet.  It was time for sweeping  and clean up from the night before.

 

 

 

“Hi, Mr. Sherman.  I’m sorry, we ain’t open yet.”

 

 

“I know.  I just had a couple of questions for you before you got busy.”

 

 

“Sure, what kin I help ya with?” Tom asked, glad to stop sweeping and lean on the broom handle.

 

 

“Were there any strangers in here the last couple of days asking after Jess?”

 

 

“Oh yeah, they were here.  Looked like the older one was up to no good.  The other one, he looked familiar but couldn’t quite place him.”  Tom recalled, now leaning the broom against the wall and reaching to get Slim a beer as well as one for himself. 

 

 

“Did you tell them anything?”

 

 

“No.”  Tom said, as he placed the beer stein in front of Slim who nodded his thanks.  He took a long swallow then continued, “We were real busy last night, it was card night and I was jumpin’ all over the place.  But those two were talkin’ to a lot of the others in here.  I don’t know about what but they spent a long time here.  Didn’t spend much, just spent a lot of time talkin’.”

 

 

“Thanks, Tom.  That helps.  Did you notice if they spent any extra time with anyone in particular or did they just circulate?”

 

 

“I can’t say.  I was real busy.  I can’t even say if the older fella talked to any of the girls.  The younger fella had Darla sittin’ on his lap when I served him his beer but I don’t think he was a big spender either so Darla probably didn’t stay long ‘n moved on.”

 

 

“If they do come in and ask you about Jess tell them you know of him but not where he lives, okay?  We think they may be here to stir up some trouble and we want to try and make them just move on.  Keep your ears open.  If you hear anything that I might need to know, tell Mort.  Mort is checking on the backgrounds of those two, right now.  One’s a known killer.” 

 

“Tom nodded as he picked up his mug to down the rest of his brew.  “I’ll be sure to pass the word to the girls to keep quiet, too.”

 

 

“Thanks, Tom.  See you later,” Slim said as he left the tavern. Glancing up and down the street he noticed how busy it was with people out and about doing their various chores for the day.  School would be out soon so some mothers were strolling toward the schoolhouse to escort their children home.  He looked up and down the street again before walking back to his wagon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious pair but neither was within his sight.  Climbing on board the wagon, he turned the horses to head back to the sheriff’s office to visit more with Mort and wait for Mike. 

 

 

When Slim entered Mort’s office he discovered that it was empty.  On the stove he found the coffee hot, so poured himself a cup and sat down to wait.  He was about finished his coffee when Mort came in carrying a piece of paper.

 

 

“Mort.”  Slim said, sitting up straighter in his chair.  “Hear anything yet?”

 

 

“Yeap.  Looks like bad news.”  Mort said sitting down at his desk and handing Slim the message from the telegraph office.  “It looks like this Jackson fella got caught, served time for killing the girl and was set free.”

 

 

“What?”  Slim exclaimed as he stood up, bumping the desk with his knee causing him to wince.

 

 

“According to that, they let him loose less than a year ago.  Did Jess testify at his trial?”

 

 

“Yeah, but he had to leave town before it was over.  He didn’t hear what happened until later.   It sounded like it was a pure case of murder from what Jess told me and he assumed Jackson would be hanged.  I don’t believe this.”

 

 

“Straight from the Rangers themselves.  I asked about riding partners or others he’s been known to travel with.  Nothing.”

 

 

“Damn, then there’s nothing we can do about him.”

 

 

“Nope.  He’s a free man and we can’t run him out of town legally.  I could ask him to move on but I think I’d be wasting my time.” 

 

 

Just then the door opened.  “Hi Slim, Hi Sheriff,” the smiling boy said as he bounced in and plopped down in the chair Slim was still standing next to.

 

 

Slim stood dumbfounded looking at Mort.  He was totally speechless and with Mike there, any further conversation would have been difficult anyway.  “Thanks, Mort.  I’ll let Jess know.  We’ll have to see how we can handle it from here,”  Slim finally said once he found his voice, again.

 

 

“Handle what?”  Mike said looking up at Slim with large questioning eyes.

 

 

“Not now Mike.  I have some things to talk over with Jess before talking to anyone else, okay?”

 

 

“Is Jess in trouble again?” Mike asked, wrinkling his nose at the question.

 

 

“Mike, not now.” Slim said, more harshly than he wanted or expected.

 

 

“I know.  Grown up talk.”  Mike said as he lightly kicked the desk to show his frustration.

 

 

“You tell Jess to be careful and to remember Jackson has a right to be here, no matter what.”  Mort said, standing up to shake hands with Slim.  “Good luck.  This doesn’t sound like it is going to be easy.  I’ll keep my eyes and ears open.” 

 

 

“Thanks, Mort.  I was hoping there was something you could do but I understand completely.  Now telling Jess is going to be the hard part.  I’ll stop by in a few days and give you an update about what we’ll be doing at our end.  Come on Mike, let’s head for home.”  Slim put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.  Mike jumped up out of the chair, heading straight for the door with Slim right behind him, as he yelled a goodbye back to the sheriff. 

 

 

Climbing up into the wagon Mike could tell by looking at Slim that this was not a good time to start asking any questions.  He knew Slim could be sharp with him if he had things on his mind and worried about something.  He had that look and it was a good time for a child to be seen and not heard as Mike had often been told.

 

 

They drove to the barbershop and each took their turn in the barber’s chair leaving with handsome, neat new haircuts.  Slim avoided any discussion about Jess.  He tried to keep the conversation on ranching or any topic that would keep anything personal from being discussed since people were coming and going from the shop while they were there and he couldn’t keep his eye on the door to know who might be coming in.

 

 

The ride home was rather quiet.  Slim tried some light conversation, “How was school?”

 

 

 A sullen “okay” was Mike’s only response. 

 

 

More silence passed.  “Didn’t you learn anything new in school?”  Slim tried again.

 

 

“Naw.  Mostly doin’ spellin’ n arithmetic.   We did git to play with a cat during recess, though.  I don’t know where he came from but he liked us and let us all pet him.  I wanted to take him home but Miss Ross said he probably belonged to someone in town and was just out roamin’ and visitin’.  I looked for him on my way to the sheriff’s office but couldn’t find him.”

 

 

“Miss Ross was probably right, he probably does belong to someone in town and if you took him away you’d probably make somebody very sad.”  Slim felt a little better with the small talk but he still couldn’t take his mind off the two men in town.  Especially the one he could have mistaken for Jess so easily.

 

 

“Yeah, I reckon.  I just worried he might not have someone to take care of him.”

 

 

Slim rumpled the boy’s freshly trimmed hair.  “Hey, I just remembered.”  Slim reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out the little bag of penny candies.  “I got these for you.  You can have a few now but don’t tell Daisy.  She’ll be after us both for spoiling your supper.  It’s all yours, make it last.  I don’t know when we’ll get to town again to get you more.”

 

 

“Wow.  Thanks Slim.”  Mike said as he looked into the bag.  “And the kinds I like.  I won’t tell Daisy on ya.  You want one?”  Mike offered the bag in Slim’s direction.

 

 

“Nope, bought it for you.  And you better hide it from Jess.  You know that sweet tooth of his, he’ll eat it all up on you.”  Mike giggled nodding his head to agree.

 

 

The ride home was still on the quiet side but the tension between the two felt a little lighter.   Mike could tell there was still something not right in the air so he continued to follow his best instinct and not question Slim about what might be wrong.   ‘Grown ups,’ he thought,’ so full of secrets.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5 

As the wagon pulled into the yard, Mike quickly hid the bag of candy, tucking it inside his jacket and down the sleeve.  He’d have to hide it from Jess and Daisy, as Slim warned him, rationing it to make it last.  It was thrilling to the youngster to have his little secret to share with his adopted big brother, even if it were discovered it wouldn’t matter much anyway, but it sure was fun to have a secret.

Slim drove the team to the house, tying the horses to the rail next to the porch.  Hopping off the wagon, Mike ran around to the rear to help Slim unload the groceries and other items they’d brought back with them from town.  Jess came out from the barn wandering over to where Mike was struggling with a large sack of flour. 

 “Hey, Tiger, let me handle that one.”  Jess offered as he relieved the young boy of his burden.  “Grab those baskets of apples.  I got a notion we’re gonna be eatin’ some apple pie real soon.”   Jess added, his smile meeting the tow headed boy’s own grin as he nodded in eager agreement.

As Jess carried the sack into the house, Slim was coming back out the door to get more items from the buckboard.  They both stopped and looked into each other’s eyes.  Jess could see that the news Slim had wasn’t good.  The pause and nonverbal exchange was fleeting, going unnoticed by the young Mike as he ran past them happily carrying the baskets of apples into the house.  All three young men continued to unload the wagon and place the goods where Daisy directed until it was empty of the articles for the house.  All that remained was the shoes and wire that needed to be unloaded in the barn when the wagon and horses were put away. 

 “Mike, you help Daisy put things away while I help Jess with the wagon and horses,” Slim said to Mike with a wink.  Mike read the wink as confirmation of their little secret.

“Okay.  I will.  And boy am I starvin’.  I hope supper will be done real soon.”  Mike responded in an exaggerated actor’s way as he returned the wink to Slim with a conspiratorial smile. Going to his room on the pretense of putting his schoolbooks away, he found a good hiding place for his sweet treasures.

Jess was already out the door, taking the horses and wagon toward the barn when Slim came out on the porch.  He stood silently watching his partner lead the animals away, then sighed, not knowing how to put the words together to tell Jess what he’d learned in town about Jackson.  As the wagon disappeared through the barn doors, Slim walked down the steps.  Taking off his hat, as his long strides moved him closer to the barn, he raked his fingers through his blond hair unconsciously hoping that the action might stimulate his brain to putting everything in order to tell his best friend the bad news.

Jess was unhitching the horses when Slim joined him and proceeded to help him with the chore.  Neither said a word, just continued their work in silence.  Jess was intent in his work, almost like he was trying to avoid the exchange.  Slim kept glancing at his partner for a sign, not wanting to be the first to speak.  They both knew what the conversation was going to be about.  Slim didn’t want to have to tell Jess and Jess could tell by the look Slim was carrying on his face that he most likely didn’t want to hear what Slim found out and had to say. 

They led the horses to their respective stalls, both picking up a brush and individually commencing to brush the horses, still in silence.  Each sneaked looks at the other but never once did their eyes meet, Slim afraid that Jess could read the pain that was reflected in his eyes, and Jess, already knowing he wouldn’t like what he found there. 

When they were finished with the horses, both walked to the wagon and pushed it to the corner where it was kept when not in use.   The silence was only broken by the sound of the wheels turning first on the gravel then on the wooden barn floor.  Once it was parked, Jess climbed up into the seat and looked down at Slim.  There were questions in his eyes and visible anguish on his face, but there was still nothing but silence.  Slim climbed up into the wagon taking the seat next to his best friend.  They both knew it was time to talk, no matter what the news.  Jess had to know and they had to come together with some kind of plan.   

Jess tuned his head to look at his partner, trying to read the rancher’s profile as Slim stared straight ahead at the bare wall, his jaw clenching and unclenching, still having trouble looking his partner in the eye.  Knowing what little he could see wasn’t promising, Jess finally broke the silence, “Not good news, I take it,” his voice deeper than usual and much calmer than Slim expected.

After what seemed like an eternity of loquacity, “Nope, not at all.”  Slim finally responded, shaking his head, then slightly hanging it, searching his hands for answers.

“Mort can’t help us ‘n I can’t just go shoot ’im, right?”  Jess asked, still in a calm tone that frightened Slim.  He knew Jess’ hot head and this was not like him, at all.  Not what he expected, that was for sure.  He knew how serious Jess was about the whole matter and for him to be speaking in such a calm and quiet manner; it was too much out of character. 

“Couldn’t have said it any better myself.”  Slim shook his head again.

“Damn.  How?  Why?” Jess almost shouted, unable to believe what he heard.

Now Slim felt a little better, Jess was being Jess after all, confused at whether he liked the calm Jess or the now angered and familiar Jess, not realizing that what he’d experienced was the calm before the storm.

“Calm down, Jess,” Slim said quietly, turning to face the dark haired, younger man, his concern quite evident but needing to keep Jess rational, “and I’ll tell you what I know.  We have to keep it down.  They’ll hear us at the house.”

“I reckon I’m as calm as I’m gonna be as long as I know Jackson’s still out there ‘n still tryin’ to pay back his debts,” he said, spitting out the last word, “‘n I’m any part of it.   An’ now you tell me there’s nothin’ I can do about it?”  Jess was trying to keep himself under control, trying to keep his voice down, but Slim could see the rage growing.  Now he was sure, he liked the calmer yet puzzling Jess. 

“I didn’t say that, Jess.”  The taller man put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder giving him a confident squeeze, though he had no real confidence in how to handle their situation.  He knew that a calm Jess would be more able to handle things in a better and more suitable law abiding fashion.  He needed to calm his partner into rational thinking.  “I just said that Mort can’t help us and, well, Mort checked into it. Jackson served his time and was released a few months ago.”

“And naturally he came straight here lookin’ for me.”  Venom was now dripping from Jess’ speech but he kept his voice low.

“I doubt that.”  Slim responded, releasing his partner’s shoulder from his grip.  “I reckon he might’ve more stumbled on you, but now he’s asking questions.”

“Yeah, and that’s what’s worryin’ me,” Jess stood up, jumped down from the wagon and leaned on the wheel looking up at his partner.  “An’ I bet I know just the kind of questions he’s been askin’.

“Do you know how he got off with such a light sentence, Slim?  Even after my testimony about what happened?  He lied enough to get the charges reduced.  He claimed that him ‘n Rosalita were lovers ‘n he caught us together ‘n went crazy ‘n that was why he killed her.”  Jess said, the fury continuing to grow as he spoke.  

“He said we fought ‘n he subdued me ‘n tied me in a chair ‘n was gonna kill me too when he came back to his right mind.  An’ that stupid jury believed ‘im, Slim, even after I told them exactly what happened.  But, ya see, she was Mexican.  That made a big difference.  She was nothin’ more than trash to those men on the jury.  She was a cheap saloon girl who was cheatin’ on her lover.  Not a hangin’ offense as far as they were concerned.”  Some regret showed through the anger he continued to express.  “She wasn’t like that.  He lied.  How they couldn’t see through his lies….”  His voice trailed off, his head dropping that his chin almost touched his chest.  It took a moment for him to recover.

“So now,” Jess continued, his voice level raising as he spoke, “he’s out ‘n ready to try messin’ with me again.  Well, it ain’t gonna happen, Sliim.  I’ll sleep with my gun if I have to.   I’ll never be without it as long as he’s around.  He won’t ever catch me unable to defend myself or anyone else he decides to kill or torture,”

“Jess, quiet down.  They’ll hear you at the house.  Now you don’t know for sure….” Slim interjected.

“Oh, I know.  I know for sure, Pard.  He won’t be happy until he destroys me but first he’s gonna have his fun with me ‘n make me watch those I care about suffer or die.  Nope, I’ll shoot the bastard on sight.”

“You better be sure it’s a fair fight, Jess,” Slim warned. “You might not be so lucky to not get hanged for killing Jackson.”

“You know me Slim.”  Jess looked up at his best friend still seated in the wagon.  His blue eyes narrowed and Slim could tell he was still seething, but a strange, bitter calmness came over him.  “I’m angry now ‘n sayin’ things I don’t always mean but when it comes down to it, it’ll be fair fight, alright, and only one of us is gonna walk away.  One way or another this is gonna end right here ‘n now.”

“Are you ready to listen to more?”  Slim asked as he climbed down from the wagon and put his hand on his partner’s shoulde once again.

“More?  Could there be more?”  A look of astonishment came over the young man’s face as he responded, a touch of a ragged laugh in his voice.

“He didn’t come to town alone.  I have an idea the man with him is your brother.”

“My brother?  I don’t ----” Jess said incredulously, his voice trailing off as he digested what his partner had just told him. “Impossible.,”  he finally said when he found his voice, again.

“I saw him Jess.  He looks a lot like you.  His hair’s a little different and his eyes are a little different but he’s about your size and even walks like you.  I have no doubts.  In dim light I could have mistaken him for you, myself.”

“Oh great.   And I wonder whose side he’s on?   Was he wearin’ a gun?”  Slim caught a glimpse of Jess’ eyes as they narrowed once again before he turned away. The troubled young man was trying to gain control over his temper as well as hide his pain and torment from his friend. 

After a slight pause to choose the best wording, Slim continued, “Yeah, and wearing it the same way you did, Jess, the day you rode in here.  I’m sure he’s been well schooled.”  Slim turned Jess around to look at him, forcing his partner to look him straight in the eye.  He could tell how uncomfortable Jess was as he tried to not make direct eye contact with him.  The tenseness Slim could feel in the young man’s body spoke volumes.  “You’re not in this alone, remember, Pard.  We just need to be cautious.  He has to make the first move…”

“And it’ll be his last, so help me.”  Jess interrupted almost hissing it through his clenched teeth.

“Look, Jess, I don’t want to worry Daisy or Mike but I also want to be sure about what to expect before exposing them to any danger.”

“And how are ya gonna do that?”  Jess asked with sarcasm showing through the venom once again apparent in his voice.

“We might be reading more into this than is real.” Slim responded, trying to show some hope in his voice but it wasn’t believable to either man.

“He said he was here to repay a debt, Slim.  I know what that means.  If he’s askin’ about me ‘n payin’ me back, it’s the same thing like what happened in Texas.  He wants to get back at my pa through me.  He saw his sister die ‘n he wants someone to pay for it.  My pa’s not here ‘n in his sick mind he thinks he can erase the past by destroyin’ me ‘n anyone I care about.  Mark my words, he’s not here to pay a friendly visit or give me a pile of money to say he’s sorry for what he did to Rosa.”  Jess turned and walked away to where his horse was stalled.  He took down his bridle, went into the stall, putting the headgear on his horse.

Slim soon followed after him and leaned against the outside of stall, his arms crossed against his chest.  “And where do you think you’re going?”

“Where do you think?”  Jess said, the built up anger very evident in his voice.  He led his horse to where his saddle stood and did a quick brushing of Traveler’s back before throwing on the saddle blanket and saddle.   In his anger he pulled up too tightly on the cinch.  Catching himself he loosened it immediately, sorry that he’d taken his anger out on his horse.  His cheeks showed the blush of embarrassment for his actions, but the color went unnoticed by his friend.  “I’m gonna go see if I can end this once ‘n for all tonight.”

The younger man led his horse out from the barn. The taller man’s long strides overtook Jess in the yard, stepping out in front of him causing him to stop in his tracks.  “Want me to go with you?” Slim asked, already knowing the answer.

“No.  He if sees you with me you’ll be his first target.”

“I don’t have to ride in with you or be with you, just nearby.  Just in case.”  Slim suggested unable to hide his concern.

“My problem.  Stay out of it, Slim.”  The dark haired cowboy said as he tried to step around his partner.

Putting his hand out on his friend’s chest to stop him, Slim continued, “From what you tell me, it’s our problem, Jess.”  Slim tossed back, with emphasis on our.  “Don’t you think you should sleep on it before you go heading for town?  It might not be what you think.”

“That’s what I’m gonna find out tonight.  I don’t plan on startin’ any trouble but I’ll finish any that Jackson might wanna start.   You stay on guard here.  If he knows I live here, he might show up while I’m gone.”  Before Slim could speak, Jess continued.  “Don’t let ‘im take ya by surprise.  Keep Daisy ‘n Mike in the house any way you can.  Tell ‘em what you want. I’ll be back as soon as I can.  It might take more than a day, so don’t come lookin’ for me.”  Again, Slim tried to speak, but Jess never gave him a chance, “You need to stay here for Daisy ‘n Mike.  An’ keep Mike home from school tomorrow if I’m not home before the stage comes for ‘im.  Please, Slim, no arguments.  I gotta do this ‘n I need you to help me from here.”   Rather than speaking, Slim nodded that he understood, not that he really did, but felt he needed to support Jess’ decision, right or wrong.  And if Jess was right, he needed to stay at the ranch to ensure Mike and Daisy’s safety.

Jess mounted his horse to leave but Slim took hold of the reins a moment looking up at the man who had become such an important part of his life.  Fear of never seeing him again crossed his mind.  His blue eyes expressed the sadness that poured out from his heart.  Fear was replaced by anger, in the younger man’s eyes.  He looked very confident in what he was about to do. The silent exchange between the two men was enough.  Slim released the reins and Jess rode out through the yard toward town. Despair washed over Slim as he watched the man he grew to love as a brother, disappear over the rise.  He could only hope that all the worry was for naught, but knowing his partner wasn’t one to overreact, he feared the worst still hoping for the best and that his best friend would return to the ranch unscathed. 

Once Jess was out of sight, his stomach in knots, Slim slowly walked back toward the house.  A piece of wood was in his path.  Out of frustration he kicked it as hard as he could and it bounced off the side of the house making a loud crash that he never noticed.  It only took a moment for the door to fly open as Daisy stepped out on the porch.  “What on earth was that?”  She asked.

“What?”  Slim questioned, almost like coming out of a trance.

“Why, something hit the house.  It sounded like someone threw a rock at the house.”  The elderly lady’s questioning eyes showed concern.

“Sorry, Daisy.  I didn’t notice anything.  Maybe a branch fell off the tree and hit the house.”  He lied, not wanting to let Daisy know he that was upset enough to kick a piece of wood into the house.  He hadn’t meant for it to hit anything.  It was just there and he needed to kick something.  Jess was gone.  He was worried that he may never see him again and felt guilty for not going with him.  He nearly turned to go saddle his horse and follow after him when Daisy called to him.

“Well, come on in.  I have fresh coffee made.  Where’s Jess?”

“He had to go to town.  He might be back tonight if he finishes his business early.  He said not to hold supper.”  The rancher said, as he thought better to following Jess.  He turned back around and headed up the steps following Daisy into the house.

“Oh.  Alright, I’ll put some aside in case he comes home hungry.”  Daisy headed for the kitchen to continue preparing dinner.

Slim didn’t see Mike so he went to the youngster’s bedroom door, opening it to find the boy lying on his stomach on his bed, doing his homework.  “How’s it going, Tiger?”

“Shhhh.  I hid our secret.  You want to know where?” Mike asked in a whisper as he sat up on his bed.

“Nope.  It’s all yours to do as you see fit.  If you feel like sharing it, well, that’s fine with me but I’m leaving that up to you.”  Slim smiled down at the boy, then sat down next to him putting his arm over the boy’s shoulder.

“How would you like to take a day or two off from school?  Would that upset you?”

“No.  Not really.  Why?”  Suspicion and disbelief already showing in the boy’s response

“Not sure right now.  Jess is looking into something and I might need you here to help me out while he’s gone.”

Jess had been gone many times and Slim had never asked Mike to stay home from school to help him.  Mike gave Slim a bit of a puzzled look.

The look had not passed by Slim, so he had to think fast, trying to be convincing before responding, “Yeah, you’re growing up a lot and I’m thinking I might need more of your help around here when Jess is off doing other chores for a few days at a time.  It won’t be often, but I have a few things I need help with and Jess just had to get things done in town.”

“Is it a lady?”  Mike grinned.

“Wish it was, Mike.”  Slim said, not able to stifle a smile.  “No, it’s a little more complicated than that, but until he finds out more we don’t know how long it might take him to get his business done.”

“Okay.”  The smiling boy said, going back to writing in his notebook now situated in his lap.  Slim stood up, smiled down at the boy and left the room, closing the door behind him.    He leaned against the door, his thoughts off riding to town with his best friend and hoping that all would go well and Jess would soon be back home safe and sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 6  

The ride to town did nothing to relieve the anger Jess was feeling.  He may have been calmer and his knuckles not clinched as tightly as they had been but he was still as taut as a piano wire.  He fantasized running into Jackson on the road with no one around so he could call him out and kill him.  With no witnesses, he didn’t care if it was a fair fight or not, though he knew it would always be a fair fight if it was under his control.  It was bred too much into his nature.  He wanted the man dead, sure, before he could reap any more sorrow on anyone, but he knew in his heart that he had to do it right.  He had no more luck than meeting a few carriages coming back home from a church meeting.  He tipped his hat, not stopping to talk with anyone in the carriages, continuing on his way to complete his mission.

When he got to town he rode straight to the saloon reckoning it would be one of Jackson’s favorite hangouts.  Drunken people were often found to have very loose lips and Jackson would want to be sure to take on any advantage he could garner.  Tying his horse to the rail beside several other horses, the sullen cowboy gave Traveler a pat on the shoulder, stepped up on the boardwalk and took the few steps to the saloon’s wide batwing doors.  Before stepping into the large barroom he took a quick glance over the crowd but didn’t see Jackson amongst the people drinking or playing cards at the tables.  The three at the bar were all men he knew from around town.  Walking in and past the bar, Jess called to the barkeeper to bring him a beer as he headed for the farthest table from the door where he could sit with his back to the wall and watch anyone who entered the building.

Tom brought him his beer.  “Thanks, Tom.  I hear someone’s been lookin’ for me.”

“Yeah, and askin’ a lot of questions, I hear.  I didn’t really git to talk to him, but him and his friend was talkin’ to everyone in here the other night. I told Slim about them when he was in here, earlier.”  Tom responded, sounding a little apologetic.

“Anyone in particular?”  Jess asked as he took hold of his mug of beer.

“Sorry, Jess. Like I told Slim, I didn’t take much notice.  I was pretty busy.  We had quite a crowd that night.  There was a town hall meetin’ and everyone came in here after, along with the usuals.  Then there was a number of card games going on, too, they called it a tournament or somethin’.  It was a big crowd.  I didn’t know if I was comin’ or goin’ most of the night.”

“Does the older man come in here often?”  Jess asked the barkeeper as he sipped his drink.

“I think he just come to town a couple a days ago and he’s been in here the last two nights.   He has a young fella with him, too.  They both made me feel a little uneasy.  No offense, Jess, but they both kinda carried their guns like gun fighters.”

“None taken, Tom. Then you didn’t talk to them that first night either?”  Jess questioned as he set down his drink to reach in his pocket.

“No.  Bella was takin’ care of the front.  I was puttin’ up stock in the back most the night.  It was quiet kinda in here and I knew about the meetin’ so I wanted to be sure I was ready for all them fellas after the meetin’, and then there was them card players.”

“Did he talk to Bella?”

“Not sure, Jess.  She never mentioned him or anything.  You’d have to talk to her.  She should be in to help out in an hour or so.”

“I’ll do that, thanks, Tom. Tom, if he comes in now don’t let on that we’ve been talkin’.  Just let him find me himself.  I want to measure him up before I talk to him.”  Jess said, taking another sip of his beer.  “If you see my mug low, bring me another one.”  Jess handed Tom some coins.  “An’, Tom, if the younger one comes in, can ya point him out to me?”

“Okay, Jess.  Is there gonna be trouble?”  Tom asked, worry starting to spread across his face.  “Should I go get Mort?”

“I don’t plan on no trouble, it’s all up to Mr. Jackson ‘n his friend.  I’ll try to keep any trouble away from here  if I can.  I won’t be the one to start anything you can count on that, Tom.  I can’t say what Jackson has in mind.  Just stay outta the way.  It might be a good idea for ya to have your scattergun handy.”  Tom shook his head in understanding and returned to the bar area to check first for his shotgun then nervously started polishing some glassware, nearly dropping the first glass he picked up, catching it just in time to keep it from crashing against the bar.

Jess’ eyes followed the bartender back to behind the bar where he saw him reach underneath to the shelf below, apparently checking to make sure his shotgun was there.   If anything, he hoped that if Tom was prepared for trouble that he could stop it before Jackson had a chance to force Jess into anything.  Once comfortable that Tom had his back, Jess continued to sip at his beer while keeping his eyes on the door.

A few more towns’ folk came into the saloon either sitting at a table or joining others at the bar.  Bella arrived but claimed she’d never talked to the man.  He only ordered some whiskey and went to talk with other customers and had no idea what they talked about.  She had her hands full enough, she said, just serving drinks to the patrons that night.  Jess thanked her for her time and she returned to help Tom behind the bar.  The bartender spoke to her in a low tone.  Jess surmised that Tom was filling her in about the possibility of trouble.  She didn’t stay long after their conversation.  Either she left on her own accord or Tom sent her home for her safety.

Nursing that one beer for nearly an hour, Tom finally brought Jess a fresh one.  “Maybe he ain’t gonna show tonight.”  Tom said hopefully. 

“You know the town folk.  If they saw me come to town and he asks ‘em, they’ll tell ‘im where I am.   Thanks for the beer.  Get back to your shotgun.  I feel better with you watchin’ my back.”  Jess said, giving the barkeep a sad smile.  Tom nodded and headed back behind the bar, stationing himself where he had previously checked on his shotgun.

Jess took his first sip of the fresh, cold beer when he saw Jackson walk through the door.  Jake didn’t immediately see Jess and he walked to the bar to order a whiskey, telling Tom to leave the bottle.  When his glass and bottle arrived he poured some of the whiskey into his glass, took it in hand and turned to lean back on the bar to take a long look around the room.  It was dark enough that he didn’t spot Jess from where he was standing.  Jess was able to look him over and knew it was Jackson; there was no mistake about it.  Suppressing the urge to pull his gun and snuff the life out of the walking trash, he remained seated and outwardly calm. The anger was beginning to build just seeing the man again.  That night, so long ago came rushing back so clear in his mind, but he held on, remaining in his seat as his breathing began to quicken.  It was taking all he could muster to not stand up and call the man out.

A few minutes later, the younger man Jess had been told about joined Jackson.  This had to be the one that Slim referred to as possibly being Jess’ brother.  Where the two stood, the light was favorable for Jess to get a good look at the boy when he too turned around to look over the barroom, leaning against the bar in the same fashion as the older man while drinking a beer.  They were talking but Jess couldn’t make out what they were saying.  Both burst out laughing then turned to order another beer for the boy and Jake poured himself another generous serving from the whiskey bottle.  Tom brought the younger man his beer and the pair picked up their drinks carrying them to a table where they sat down.

Apparently they still hadn’t spotted Jess.  They were seated so they could watch the door and see anyone who might enter or leave.  The younger man looked around the room again, this time spotting Jess sitting at the back. He leaned over to Jackson, pointing in Jess’ direction none too discretely.  Jackson turned around, looked in Jess’ direction then nodded his head yes, to the younger man.  A few more words were spoken between the two then Jackson stood up turning to face Jess.  The boy remained sitting at the table but Jess could see that he’d positioned himself so he had a clear shot at where Jess was seated.  Jackson slowly walked to Jess’s table, a snide grin on his face, keeping the way open for the dark haired boy to keep his eye on Jess and making him a perfect target if he made a wrong move.  He looked dead serious and almost anxious for a reason to draw his gun, his blue eyes never leaving Jess’ for a moment.  The sign of a true gun fighter, Jess thought. The eyes tell it all.

“Harper.”  Jackson sneered.

“Jake.”  Jess responded, holding back his anger as he turned his attention from the young gunman to the man approaching him.  “I heard you were here lookin’ for me.”

“Oh, ‘n look, ya let me find ya.”  Jackson found his comment so very funny he nearly doubled over laughing.  The younger man shifted in his seat as a grin spread across his face.  He was enjoying the exchange and watching their quarry squirm.

“What do ya want, Jackson?”  Jess asked, trying to keep an eye on both men, his hand twitching over the handle of his revolver under the cover of the table.

“Well, I reckon we have some unfinished business, don’tcha remember, boy?” Jackson’s grin resembled that of a skull and the glint in his eye reflected his insanity.

“Didn’t ya do enough, Jake?  Ya deserved to hang for what ya did.”  Jess replied, his ire rising despite his determination to control it. “Ya should consider yourself lucky ‘n your vendetta over.”

“Oh, Jess., not quite. You’re still alive ‘n have a family I hear.”  A cruel smile spread across the older man’s face, the sarcasm all too apparent. “My sister’s still dead.”  The older man snarled, venom dripping from his words. “Someone’s gotta pay for that, remember, Harper?”

“Wasn’t Rosa’s life enough for ya?”  Jess stood up hoping for the opportunity to draw against the worm slime.    Anticipating Jess’ action, Jackson pulled open his jacket to reveal that he wasn’t carrying a weapon.  He laughed heartily when he saw the disappointment spread across Jess’ face.  Jess quickly turned his attention to the younger man.  The young gunman just continued to sit at his table with a smirk on his face, drinking his beer.  He showed no indication that he was intending to pull his six-shooter but it was entirely obvious that he was at the ready should he be called upon to draw his gun.

“What’s the matter, Jess?  Disappointed?”  Jackson chuckled. “Ya wanted to kill me?  Nope, it ain’t gonna be that easy.  I have a few things ta do before I’m ready ta watch ya die.  ‘N you will, ya know.  Ya can’t take on both me ‘n Bill together.  I reckon Bill’s dern near as fast as you, if not more.  He comes from the same stock, ya know.”  Jackson laughed, spitting at the floor just missing Jess’ boot.  “’N he had a good teacher.  Me!”  Aw, Jess.  The last thing I wanna do is ta kill ya, but it’s still on m’ list.”  His last comment caused him to cackle like a hen and drew a smile from the boy who he’d referred to as Bill. 

Jackson half-turned, motioning for the younger man to come join them.  The boy got up with a non-humorous grin on his face and walked to where the two men stood, keeping his hand near the butt of his gun.

“Jess, I reckon it’s time fer ya to meet yer brother.”  The shocked look on Jess’ face only provoked Jake to burst out laughing the hateful laugh that Jess remembered from that fateful night back in Texas.  Jess was aware that Bill might be his brother from what Slim told him, but to hear the words spoken by Jackson, he was unable to control his reaction.  He hated the amusement he was providing to the pair.  Once Jake caught his breath he continued, “He hates ya as much as me.  If it weren’t for yer pa he wouldn’t be an orphan. But then, if it weren’t for yer pa………,” Jackson’s let the sentence drop as he put his arm over Bill’s shoulder. “I purtty much had ta raise ‘im on my own.  Then when I had ta go to jail, he vowed ta take revenge on the man who put me there. You.”

“You put yourself in jail, Jake.  Ya had no call to kill that girl.” Jess countered.

Jess could see Tom had his shotgun in his hand holding it down so the few customers that had entered the place couldn’t see it and wouldn’t panic.  If he needed to threaten with the gun he would, but Tom prayed he that wouldn’t have to use it.  Some of the customers were absorbed in the drama that was taking place in front of them.  A few of the less galiant quickly fled when the confrontation began. Jess was hoping someone had the presence of mind to go fetch Mort.

Suddenly the young man held his hand out to shake hands with Jess.  “Jess?  My name’s Billy, remember it.  But then, you ain’t gonna live long enough ta fergit it.”  The boy laughed.  Jess had started to offer his hand until the boy made his threat.  Once again Jake found the whole exchange hysterical. 

“Come on Bill.”  Jackson drawled, after catching his breath.  “Let’s let ole Jess here stew in his own juices for a while.  We’re here, Jess, ‘n we ain’t leavin’ ‘til I’m done with ya. I know where to find ya.  ‘N it might not be tonight, tomarra er next year, but I will tell you one thing, it ain’t gonna be easy.  For You.”  Jackson shouted the last two words causing both men to burst into laughter as they turned their backs on him to walk away.  Jess was close to pulling his gun to shut the two jackasses up but he remained as calm as he could, remaining tense enough that he would be able to draw quickly if called upon to do so.  He could see how ironic it would be for Jackson to allow Billy to be the one to kill his own brother.  To Jess it didn’t make any kind of sense but he knew that crazy people didn’t think like normal people.

Both men returned to their table to finish their drinks.  Jess sat back down to take another sip of his own but it left a bad taste in his mouth.  He wiped his lips on the sleeve of his jacket, not taking his eyes off the two men who were threatening his new life. He watched as they jovially talked while drinking, calling out for refills as if the scene just moments before had never happened.  Jess noticed that Jackson had switched from hard whiskey to ordering beer. 

Tom glanced at Jess before getting the drinks for the two men, Jess nodded, so Tom filled two mugs and took them to the table where Jackson was slapping Billy on the back, laughing so hard there were tears in his eyes.  Jess noted that the boy’s laughter tended to be humorless, making him think that the Jackson boy might be even more dangerous than Jake. 

Jess sat studying the two for a while longer.  He didn’t know what to expect if he left.  Would they follow him?  He feared they might follow him back to the ranch.  But then, that is what he would expect them to do and they knew that, so they wouldn’t.  He knew they didn’t want him to be prepared when they made their move.  They said they knew where to find him.  Was that a bluff?  Would they follow him discretely to find out where he was living if they didn’t already know?  Would they wait to lie in ambush for when an attack was least expected?  Did he dare to go back to the ranch and put the others in danger or were they already in danger and needed him there to help protect them?  A storm was brewing in his mind. The questions, like lightening were taking their toll, striking the deepest depth of his emotions and thoughts.  

After watching the two men order another round of drinks, Jess waited until the alcohol was set down on their table and Tom was safely back behind the bar near the shotgun before he stood up.  Slowly, deliberately and quietly Jess walked toward the door.  He could hear the two roaring with laughter behind his back but he refused to stop or turn around.  Steadfastly he walked out the door to his horse. 

He debated with himself about going back home or staying in town.  Regardless of what he chose his family was in danger, Jackson made that quite clear. Opting for heading home, Jess reckoned he’d have more control over the situation if he was there with his family should the evil pair decide to head out to the ranch.  He also needed to tell Slim that Jackson was probably aware of where he was living and that there were people there considered to be his family, thanks to the talkative town’s people.  It was evident that Jake had in mind to destroy them before finally killing him.  It weighed heavily on Jess’ mind and the thought of what Jackson might have planned for his loved ones was unbearable.  Knowing that the man was ruthlessly cruel and not averse to doing anything, Jess knew all too well, the more grisly the better Jackson would like it. 

Mounting his horse, the dark haired cowboy rode slowly away from town.  He kept an eye and an ear on the road behind him.  Darkness had already settled and the shadows along the trail had him extremely jumpy, imagining one of the gunmen behind almost every tree or large rock.  He rationally knew that wasn’t Jackson’s way but he still couldn’t shake the feeling of being followed or watched

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 7

 

When Jess arrived home Slim was sitting on the porch in his rocker, his rifle resting across his lap.  He quickly stood up sighing with relief that his friend appeared to still be in one piece.  

 

His mind on other things, Jess didn’t notice his partner keeping watch over the house so he rode straight to the barn and was unsaddling his horse when Slim entered the building, rifle in his hand.  Startled, Jess’ hand, lightening fast dropped to the butt of his revolver as he spun around.  His mind cleared quickly as he realized it was only his partner holding his arms in the air, anxious to hear what had transpired in town.  He sheepishly lowered and holstered his gun. “Sorry, Pard.”

 

“No harm. You okay?”  Slim asked as he lowered his arms, the timber of his voice showing how much he was concerned his heartbeat still escalated due to the quick reflexes of his friend and facing his gun.

 

“Yeah, for now.  Next time don’t sneak up on me like that, Pard.   At least let me know it’s you.”  Jess warned, his tenseness still very obvious.

 

“Sorry, Jess, I didn’t mean to startle you.  I reckon we’re all a little on edge and I wasn’t thinking.”  Slim responded, putting his hand protectively on his friend’s shoulder. “Did you see them?”

 

“Yeap, even talked to em.”  Jess said, as he acknowledged his partner’s touch by putting his hand over Slim’s hand, still resting on his shoulder.

 

“And?”  Slim asked anxiously, his blue eyes searching the blue eyes of the younger man, in the dimly lit barn.

 

Turning away to finish unsaddling his horse, the younger man continued, “They know about all of us.  He made threats.”  After a slight pause as he put his saddle on the rack, Jess recommenced, “As he put it, my family’s gonna suffer for what my pa did to his sister, then he’s gonna kill me.”  Jess turned to look at the tall man who had become closer to him than a brother.  “Slim, you have no idea how much I wanted to kill that bastard right then ‘n there.  He was smart though.  He came to talk ‘n throw his threats unarmed.  He made it real clear that he was there just to taunt me.   And Billy, well he was carryin’ a gun.  I didn’t know which one to watch.  Both are real cocky ‘n I think they’re both crazy.  I know Jake Jackson is ‘n Billy Jacksonis takin’ right after ‘im.  Jake claims Billy’s a fast gun.  I don’t know, Pard, ‘n don’t really wanna find out.”  Jess put his horse in his stall, already settled with bedding, fresh hay and a bucket of water that Slim had already prepared for him.

 

“Billy?  Is that the boy’s name?  His nephew?”  Slim questioned, not wanting to ask if Jess thought he could be his half brother.

 

“Yeah, he introduced himself.” Jess chuckled, “Then he threatened my life.”  Taking a few steps away from the taller man, he headed for the barn door.

 

Looking after the younger man, amazed at how calm he appeared after what must have been an appalling encounter, Slim asked, “What do you have in mind?”

 

Stopping before he reached the door, Jess turned around shaking his head as he began to speak.  “I can’t come up with anything.  I thought about it on the ride home.  I thought it might be time for me to move on ‘n hope he’d follow me but I have a notion he’d come here ‘n make it known to me that he was holdin’ you or Mike or Daisy or all of ya, knowin’ I’d come back ‘n he’d do what ever he has planned anyway.

 

Once again stepping forward to stand beside his partner, Slim asked, “If you did leave and he came here and you didn’t come back, what would be the use for him to stay here or do anything?”

 

Looking his friend square in the eye, “Slim, he’s crazy.  He’d torture then kill you all just for the fun of it.  An’j from what I’ve seen, he wouldn’t make it easy on any of ya ‘n he’d take great pleasure in his work.  The kid,” Jess shook his head, “I don’t know.  He didn’t say enough for me to get a good feel for him.  Now that they know about the ranch ‘n Mike ‘n Daisy we’ll have to keep a close watch over ‘em or send ‘em away.  Far away.”  A spark of hope suddenly crossed Jess’ face.  “That’s it!  What if we get them ready for the next stage to Cheyenne ‘n send them back east ‘til this is all over?”

 

“It might work.”  Slim responded, clearly giving Jess’ idea reasonable thought.  “If they take the stage not going through town and by the time it comes back through, and anyone asks about them, they could be well on their way on the next leg of their trip.  No one needs to know where they’re going, except us.”

 

“Then, again, dependin’ how intent Jake is in includin’ them in his scheme, he might go after ‘em ‘n make us come to him. I reckon it wouldn’t be real hard to figure out which stage they were on ‘n where they were goin’.  He’d know if they didn’t go through Laramie that they went on to Cheyenne ‘n probably on the train goin’ east.  It would take him time but I’m sure he has plenty of that to go ‘n follow after ‘em.  He’s crazy enough to do it.  Slim, I don’t know what to do.  It ain’t gonna be over ‘til Jackson is dead ‘n probably his nephew, too.”

 

“Your brother.”  Slim reminded his partner, causing Jess to cringe and turn away to hide the confused frown that appeared on his face.

 

“I just can’t think of ‘im that way, Slim.  This all is too different. Hell, I can’t even think straight, too much runnin’ through my mind all at once.  All I wanna do is draw a bead on Jake Jackson’s forehead with my rifle.”  Slim didn’t let it slip by him that Jess didn’t mention anything about Billy.

 

“I think I know you better than that, Jess.  Come on let’s get some coffee.  Daisy saved some supper back for you.”  Slim said, trying to lighten the mood a little, throwing his arm over the younger man’s broad shoulders as he ushered him toward the house.

 

“I’m not very hungry, Slim.” Jess said pulling away, turning back toward the barn.  “Let me finish up with Traveler ‘n blow out the lantern.  I’ll be right in.”  The older man knew that the horse was fine for the night but sensed that his friend needed some alone time to think things through.  Walking away, Jess threw a thought over his shoulder, “I’m thinkin’ we better get started at shutterin’ the house, especially for the night.  I’ll be in in a few minutes.” 

 

Slim looked after his sullen partner as he returned to the barn feeling at a total loss for words.  Going to the house he realized he was as confused as his partner in what they had to do.  There didn’t seem to be any pat answers for the situation they were finding themselves, but for now he had to let Daisy know Jess was back so she could heat up his supper.  Even if he said he wasn’t hungry, Slim knew Jess could always eat no matter how worried he might be. 

 

How were they going to explain the situation to Mike? Telling him that he was going to have to stay home from school was going to prove difficult.  He’d thought he had his story built but with Jess back now his story no longer held water.  Luckily Mike was already in bed and that matter could wait for a while.  But Daisy, what were they going to tell her?   ‘I reckon we’ll just have to tell her the truth.’  Slim thought as he started up the stairs to the house.  He looked back toward the dimly lit barn before he opened the door sure that his decision to let Jess alone for a while was the right thing to do, at least for now.

 

Rather than emptying the rifle as he normally did, this time he only checked that the chamber was empty before carrying it into the house. Standing it in a corner to be close at hand, not putting it in its usual place on the rack indicated to everyone in the household that the weapon was still loaded for some reason.  Daisy came out from her bedroom carrying her needlework about to sit down to do some embroidery on a set of linens she wanted to finish in time for Christmas to send to her niece back east.  “Oh, Slim.  I didn’t hear you come in.”

 

“Jess just got back.  I reckon he’s hungry.  I told him you saved him some supper.”

 

“Oh, good.  I’ll go heat it up for him right now.  It shouldn’t take long.  I’ll get you both some coffee so you can join him at the table.  I’m sure you two have a lot to talk about,” she stated as she glided back to the kitchen to get some cups and the coffee pot. Slim thanked her as he walked to glance out the window in the direction of the barn.  The lantern was still lit. 

 

The elderly housekeeper came back into the room setting down two cups, leaving the coffee pot to sit on a potholder on the table then hurried back to the kitchen to heat up a plate for Jess.  “Did he finish his business in town,” she asked cheerfully on her way back to the kitchen.

 

“We’ll talk about it later.”  Slim said as she disappeared around the corner.  Leaving the window, Slim went to the table and poured himself a cup and sat down at the table.  It wasn’t long before Jess came through the door.  Slim stood up and poured some coffee in the other cup, taking it to Jess who was hanging up his hat but hadn’t removed his gun belt as customary.  The dark haired cowboy mumbled his thanks while taking the hot cup from the tall rancher.  Slim glanced in the direction of the kitchen to see if Daisy was near.

 

“I haven’t said anything to Daisy yet.  I don’t want to frighten her but she needs to know how critical this situation might be.”  Slim whispered.

 

“I reckon neither of us is thinkin’ too clear.  Maybe Daisy will have some ideas.  She’s a real smart lady.   I think we best tell her everything ‘n see if she might have some ideas,” Jess whispered, turning quickly at the sound of Daisy entering the room carrying a plate full of food and setting it down on the table.

 

“There you go, dear.  I saved the best parts for you.”  She smiled not yet aware that something was wrong, but after looking at her adopted sons she recognized the extreme anxiety showing on their faces.  “What’s wrong?  Is everything alright?” her voice suddenly solemn, no longer cheerful.  Her eyes searched the eyes of both young men, her ready smile now gone.  She knew immediately that something was dreadfully wrong.

 

“Daisy, we gotta talk.”  Jess began, “I think I got us in deep trouble.  Slim ‘n me can’t come up with any answers.  Maybe you might have some ideas.”  Jess continued as he carried his cup to the table and sat down in front of his plate.  He started picking at his food.  ‘So unlike Jess.’ Daisy thought as he sat down at the table, concern written all over her face, trying to make eye contact with the younger man.  Slim came to the table, poured himself more coffee and sat down next to Daisy.  Putting his arm around her shoulders he pulled her close to him.  Appreciating the hug, she wiggled free just the same.  She didn’t need hugs right now.  She needed to know what was going on.  She needed to know what kind of trouble Jess was talking about.

 

The silence was so thick it could have been cut with a knife.  Daisy looked back and forth between her boys waiting for one of them to speak.  Jess continued to pick at his food moving it around on his plate, not looking up at either of the others sitting at the table.  The blond rancher sipped slowly at his cup looking in Jess’ direction waiting for the dark haired man to tell Daisy his story.

 

“Have you noticed? I’m sitting here.”  Daisy broke the quiet, sounding a bit indignant, but still no one spoke. “I’m waiting to hear what kind of trouble we have.  I can’t give you any ideas if I don’t know what is going on.  Someone, please tell me,” she insisted, the tone of her voice commanding.

 

Jess looked up at his partner hoping he’d speak first.  Slim was looking to Jess to tell the story since he knew it all first hand.  Jess was reluctant to tell Daisy the whole gory story about Rosalita, trying to think of a delicate way to tell the housekeeper what happened yet let her know it was a purposely-orchestrated murder by Jackson.  He didn’t want to scare her with what might be expected of this man but not telling everything could make the whole story too sterile and seem less important.  He looked at Slim again and said, “Think I should tell ‘er everything?  You know, Rosalita ‘n everything?”

 

“Yes, you should tell me everything, including Rosalita.  Who is Rosalita?  No, wait.  Start at the beginning.”  Daisy said, calmly, looking at the dark haired young man, pity and sadness already showing in her eyes.  She knew Jess had had a rough beginning, and it sounded like she was going to learn more about her adopted son’s past, a part that wasn’t going to be pleasant.

 

Jess shoved his food around a little more then started to tell Daisy his story.  He could see the horror spread across her face as he described what happened to Rosalita and how the man lied himself from being hanged.  Before he finished speaking, Jess told Daisy about what had happened in town just a few hours before.

 

“And you say his nephew is your half brother?”  Daisy said incredulously.

 

“Daisy, he looks a lot like Jess.  I have no doubt that they’re brothers, that’s what’s making all this so much harder.”  Slim interjected, covering Daisy’s hand with his own.

 

Jess raked his hair with his hands and said, “Daisy, I don’t know if I can think of ‘im that way.  I have no problem facin’ Jackson if I have to, but if Billy is my brother,” he paused, trying to find the right words, “I just don’t know how I’ll react if it should come to me havin’ to face ‘im in a gunfight.  He made it damned clear that he hates me as much as his uncle ‘n wants to see me ‘n my family suffer ‘n then wants to watch me die.  How can a brother feel that way, Daisy?”  The pain showed in Jess’ eyes as he looked to his adopted mother for answers.  His voice had cracked several times while telling his brutal story.  It was transparent that his emotions were so mixed up, pain, anger, confusion, even some fear surfacing, yet he continued to remain amazingly, outwardly calm.  Slim turned his cup around and around on the table, speechless and feeling the same mix of emotions along with his best friend, admiring him for remaining calm while telling Daisy everything.

 

“Lot’s of brothers had to make that kind of decision during the war, Dear.  When the war was over and those who survived were reunited they had to pull their families back together.”

 

“And some didn’t, Daisy. Some didn’t.”  Jess said sadly.

 

“Alright, I’ll give you that. War doesn’t determine who’s right, only who’s left. I know the war did horrible things and they’re still going on but this is not a war.  This is something totally different. Maybe if you could talk to the boy alone.”

 

Jess stood up, pushing the plate to the center of the table and walked away, pacing the floor deep in thought.  Slim and Daisy watched him, still seated at the table, knowing that he was intensely pondering something. Whether it was from something Daisy had said or if he’d come to some revelation, they had to wait to find out once he stopped and was ready to talk again.

 

Daisy looked at Slim with pleading eyes.  Slim shook his head.  It was best they both left Jess alone when he was seriously in thought.  Daisy picked up the plate and quietly took it to the kitchen.  She sadly glanced back at Jess before she disappeared around the corner.  Slim poured more coffee into the two cups taking one cup to offer to his friend.  Jess looked up, accepted the cup, took a swallow, but said nothing.  He continued to pace taking a sip of coffee from time to time.  Slim walked to the fireplace and leaned on the mantle slowly drinking his coffee while he watched his partner wear a hole in the floor. 

 

Jess finally wandered to the leather couch, set his cup down on the nearby table and sat down, sinking back deep into the settee like he wanted to disappear.  He then leaned forward covering his eyes for a minute with the palms of his hands, then sat up straight for a moment before slumping back in the chair again before he spoke.  “I reckon I gotta go to town again in the mornin’.”

 

“Not alone.”  Slim countered.

 

“Yeah, alone.  You have to stay here to protect Mike ‘n Daisy in case that madman gets past me.  I gotta give this more thought, but I reckon I’m gonna have to force Jake’s hand.  I just hope I can go up against them one at a time.  I’m sure I don’t wanna try to take them on both at once, that’d probably be suicide.  I gotta try to get them apart somehow.  I can’t let that madman keep us pinned down ‘n afraid to move.  An’ I ain’t about to let ‘im touch anyone here on the ranch.  I’m gonna have to take care of things in town.”

 

“Jess, you know you don’t have to do this alone.”  Slim stepped forward to stand over his friend, still seated on the couch but now sitting up straight. 

 

“Yeah, I do.”  Jess sounded resigned to his fate.  “We can’t leave Mike and Daisy alone or even to send them out of town. You have to keep ‘em safe.  I have to do this myself, Slim.  It’s my fight.  My problem.”

 

“Our problem and don’t forget it.  You’re right, we can’t leave them here alone but we could get some men to go to town with you or come out here and I could go to town with you.”

 

A dark laugh burst from Jess’ lips.  “For what, Slim?  To baby-sit me so I don’t get in trouble? “ ire rising as the calmness began to dissolve.  “Besides anyone that shows any sign of bein’ my friend will be a target for Jackson too, can’t you see that?  Look what he did to Rosa.  There was nothin’ there for him to take anything out on her.  No, we’re not gonna involve anyone more than we have to.  Mort knows the situation, I’m sure he’s keepin’ an eye on ‘em ‘n he’ll be close by if I need ‘im.  Besides, he wants to make sure I don’t do anything foolish ‘n end up facin’ a murder charge.   He mighta taken on some extra deputies, by now.”

 

“That reminds me, Jess.  Mort stopped by with some posters that he wanted you to look at while you were gone.  It might be a good idea for you to go look at them.  Maybe Jake used another name and he’s wanted somewhere and there’s a poster out on him.  Slim said. “He said he took on a couple of extra deputies, too.  You know he’s there if you need him.  Just be sure you keep everything fair, Jess, this isn’t worth watching you hang for killing Jackson without cause.”  Slim told him.

 

 

 “Glad to hear he has extra deputies, but it doesn’t sound like they’ll be able to do any more than stand around to watch what happens.  It’ll happen fast, faster than anything they can stop.  I’m goin’ to bed ‘n try to get some sleep.  I’ll head for town after the mornin’ stage.

 

“Goodnight, Daisy.”  Jess called to Daisy who was still working in the kitchen.  She came around to the door and asked, “Do you boys have a plan?”

 

“Yeah, sorta.”  Jess said as he headed for his bedroom. 

 

“I’ll be in shortly, Jess.  I want to take a walk around and outside the barn before I go to bed.”

 

“Want me to come with you?  Oh yeah, the shutters.” Jess said, stopping at the bedroom door.

 

 “No.  You go to bed. I’ll get the shutters when I come back in.  I’ll take my trusty rifle with me to check on things.   If you hear any shooting, though, Pard, I sure would appreciate a little help.”  Slim gave his friend a faint smile, receiving a nod and a vague smile in return from his partner.

 

 “Oh, Slim, don’t say that, not even fooling around.  This is very serious.  Be careful.”  Daisy said as she picked up the cups and coffee pot from the table.  “Goodnight, Jess.  Be careful tomorrow.”  She quickly bit her lip as she realized she’d let it slip out; she didn’t want the boys to know she’d been eavesdropping on their discussion.  She quickly turned back to the kitchen hoping that no one realized she knew as much as she did.  ‘If only I could handle a gun and go shoot those two myself, I wouldn’t care if I had to stand up for murder.  If it protected my family it would be worth it.’  She thought to herself

 

 Slim quietly went to the barn, looking around for anything that looked out of place.  The animals weren’t acting nervous, just munching away on their feed so there was no reason to think anyone was in the barn.  He then wandered around the outside of the house, looking out into the fields for any movement.  Luckily the nearly full moon had risen and lit up the surrounding area, but some of the shadows it created were a bit unnerving.  Seeing nothing to draw his attention, he headed back to the front of the house and up the porch steps, taking one more look around the front yard before entering the house.

 

 Once inside he shuttered the windows and latched the doors.  He then slipped softly into the bedroom that he shared with his partner.  It appeared that Jess was already asleep, at least he didn’t acknowledge Slim’s entering the room, and good to his word his gun was nestled on the pillow next to his head, his hand resting lightly over the butt of the revolver.  At first Slim smiled thinking that he was over doing it a little, but after giving it a little more thought he went back out to where his holster and six gun hung, bringing his rig into the room and hanging it on his bedpost.  It couldn’t hurt to keep it close at hand at least for now.  Remembering the rifle that was against the outer room wall, he left to bring it into the room as well, placing it on the floor between the two beds

 

 

 

 

Chapter 8

Jess slept fitfully.  His tossing and turning kept Slim awake as well but Slim figured he wouldn’t have slept much anyway.  He was sure Daisy hadn’t gotten much sleep either.   Most of the time the night never seemed long enough to recharge body and soul, but one never realizes how long the night can be unless they’ve spent the time trying to let their tired bodies relax into a restful sleep but their troubled minds won’t allow for much rest.  Such was the night spent at the Sherman ranch. Only Mike slept peacefully that night.

Jess woke earlier than he’d planned or wanted, still exhausted from the previous day’s tribulations.  It was still dark.  His mind was spinning on what he had ahead of him for the day.  Not knowing what to expect made it more difficult but then he philosophized that no day could be perfectly planned.  Everyday was full of unplanned little surprises but this day held the horrible foreboding of blood or death changing lives forever.

As the room lightened around the cracks around the shutters, he rolled over to see his partner looking at him through his ice blue eyes.  Slim had been lying still watching his friend fighting the demons of the day to come feeling completely helpless.  Regardless of the road he decided to travel, he feared that he could loose a loved one to a madman with a senseless vendetta.

“How long you bin awake?”  Jess asked, his voice full of the gravel that came with morning.

“Most the night like you.  Did you come up with anything new?  I mean, how to handle this without bloodshed?”

“No.  I reckon I have to draw Jake out alone ‘n try to take him before he hurts anyone.  I think I’ll stop by ‘n tell Mort I’m there ‘n to be ready for trouble.  If it comes down to a gunfight he needs to stay clear ‘n let it happen.  If he stops it this whole thing could drag on longer ‘n a lotta people could get hurt.  I think he’ll see it my way.”

“You know Mort, its all law and order.  No bending the rules.”  Slim reminded him.

“If it’s a fair fight there’ll be no rules bent, at least not by me.  It’s the kid I worry about.  If I’m drawn to a fight with Jackson ‘n the kid gets behind me,” he paused searching for the right words, but nothing seemed to work, except what was on his mind, “at least it’ll be over ‘n I’ll take Jackson with me.”

“Jess. Don’t talk like that, especially around Daisy.”

“No worry. As far as she’ll know I’m goin’ to town to try ‘n talk things out.  I don’t think she fully understands that there’s no talkin’ to that man.”

“You be careful, my friend.  I’ve grown accustomed to having you around here and sure would miss that ugly face of yours,” Slim said, trying to lighten the mood.

“I plan to be back, Pard.”  Jess smiled, tossing back his covers to get up and dressed.  Slim continued to lie on his side watching his partner for a few minutes as he dressed, hoping this wouldn’t be the last morning to see his partner getting out of bed to go do morning chores.  Throwing back his own blankets he got up and started to dress for the day ahead of them.  Both men left the bedroom in a solemn mood. 

Daisy’s bedroom door came open.  She was startled and astonished that the two men were awake before her.  “Good morning, boys. You’re sure up early. I hope you slept well.”  She said trying to show a brave smile.

“Good enough, I reckon.”  Jess said, stretching then rubbing the sleep from his eyes. 

Shortly after Daisy headed for the kitchen they could hear the rattle of pots and pans as she prepared their breakfast.  Slim went around un-shuttering the windows at the front of the house, deciding to leave the back of the house shut up tight when he was home alone without Jess. 

Jess walked out on the porch, carrying Slim’s rifle, taking a quick look around the ranch house, barn and beyond to the pastures and fields.  Nothing appeared to be amiss.   Going to the back of the house, he looked for any trampled grass around the small backyard and saw no signs of anyone having been there.  Satisfied that the house was secure he headed for the barn.  All was quiet except for the morning animal sounds to indicate that they all wanted to be fed.  That would have to wait this morning until after they’d had their breakfast and both men could tend to the barn together.  It was best to not work alone if at all possible during times such as this when danger could be lurking nearby.

Heading back into the house, Jess could smell the bacon frying. Mike was up and sleepily setting the table. Slim had already told him that he was going to have a day off from school because Jess had to go back to town to finish his business.  He was glad that his story from yesterday was still going to hold up.  He knew that Mike wasn’t stupid, but he hoped he’d continue believing it long enough to keep him from becoming frightened for Jess’ safety. With any luck, maybe this would be all over today and life could go back to normal the rancher hoped, but he had little faith in his dream.  Things didn’t usually happen as one wished.  Slim had learned that lesson often over the years ago.

“Smells good, Daisy.”  Jess said as he took off his hat, hanging it on the hook next to the door.  “Things look okay out there, Slim.”

“Okay?”  Mike caught the insinuation and had to know what the grown ups were trying to hide from him. “Why, what happened?”

Thinking quickly, “Yeah Tiger, didn’t ya hear it rainin’ last night?  If came up quick ‘n left fast.  Went out to check to make sure we didn’t have a tornado touch down durin’ the night.”  Jess said, looking at Slim for support. “The wind kicked up quite a bit.  I can’t believe it didn’t wake you up.”

“Yeah, Mike.  You must have slept right through it. I even got up and shuttered all the windows.”  Slim threw in for good measure.

“Why didn’t we run for the cellar?”  Mike asked with some suspicion, now wide eyed.

“It came up too fast and was gone just as quick.  Since everything was-was okay here in the house and the barn was still standing, we-we decided to let it go until morning to check it out,” Slim said stuttering a little, unaccustomed to telling a lie, even a little white one.

“Nope.  Didn’t hear a thing.”  Mike said buying their story.  Luckily Daisy heard enough of the story, electing to not bother to comment either way.  Mike wasn’t asking so she decided to let the whole thing drop.  They were used to storms popping up at unusual times so it was an easy explanation for Mike to believe.

Jess and Slim sat down joining Mike who had already seated himself after finishing setting the table.  Daisy brought in their breakfast and a strained conversation, about absolutely nothing, was passed around to keep anything from slipping out for Mike to pick up on. 

When they finished the meal Slim asked Mike to help Daisy clean up then tend to the chickens and other small critters while he and Jess took care of the animals in the barn.  Slim wanted some time to talk privately to Jess before he left for town.  The two men stood up from the meal, Jess already had his gun on his hip.  Slim went to the hook where his holster was usually hung and remembered he’d left it on his bedpost.  Going to the bedroom, he strapped it on in the room so Mike wouldn’t notice him carrying the gun out of the bedroom.  He hoped Mike would assume he just missed seeing Slim take it off the hook.  It was part of the natural morning regiment for the men to put on their gun belts, Slim hoped there would be no need for any explanations. Apparently Mike never noticed, Slim sighed with relief not having to have to make up another story to keep Mike from knowing anything about what was going on yet.  He hoped the boy would never learn any of the dirty details.

Jess was already out the door heading for the barn when Slim stepped out on the porch, “Hey, what’s your hurry?”

Jess stopped, turned around and waited for Slim to catch up with him so they could walk to the barn together.  “Are you sure you have this figured out right?  You don’t want me along?”

“I thought we had that settled last night, Slim.”  Jess snapped with a sharp edge of anger in his voice.  He just wanted it all over with not to talk about it any more.

“Okay. Calm down. I just wanted to make sure nothing’s changed since last night.”  After a slight pause, Slim put his hand on Jess’ shoulder, “If you don’t come home tonight, for any reason could you please at least send word back that everything is okay?  Mose or Frank should be coming through with a stage in this direction.  You know the schedule.  Get word to one of them.  Okay?”

“Agreed.”  Jess acquiesced, knowing that his partner would be anxious for him.

The two men worked without exchanging any further words, Jess intense in his work, Slim glancing at him from time to time.  He wanted to be near in case his friend needed to talk, but he also knew that you didn’t push Jess.  When he was ready he was ready, not before. 

It was getting close to time for the first stage to arrive. Slim proceeded to pull down the harnesses from the wall to hook up the fresh team in waiting for its arrival.  Jess strode out to the corral to catch the team, bringing each horse in one at a time.  He checked their feet, did a quick brush over then handed them over to Slim.   Once they were all rigged the two men lead the horses out from the barn, tying them to the corral fence to wait for the stage to materialize.

Mike came out from the chicken coop carrying the day’s eggs.  He stopped to wave to the two men before he flew up the stairs to take the basket into the house.  Both men waved back, trying to keep things as natural as they could.  How Slim was going to handle keeping Mike in the house when the other stages arrived was something that hadn’t crossed his mind yet.  Sure, he could use his help.  Mike was getting quite adept at hooking up a team, getting a lot of practice with the buckboard whenever he was called upon to help, but Slim didn’t want him to become a target of some sniper off in the field or up in the rocks.

“I thought you weren’t gonna allow Mike outside anymore,” Jess said. 

“Yeah, I haven’t figured on what to tell him yet.  I thought with both of us here he could still do a few chores close to the house.  I’ll do something about it after you’re gone.  I agree we need to keep him inside until we know where we stand.  I’m sure Daisy can find him plenty to keep him busy inside.” 

“I reckon” Jess responded leaving Mike to Slim to determine what was best.  He didn’t feel he was thinking straight enough to handle any decisions dealing with the youngster.

“You want me to hang around ‘n help with the stage or should I go now?”  Jess asked as they wandered back toward the barn.

“I really don’t want you to go at all,” Slim said, “but I know you have to.  I’ll leave it up to you.”

“I’ll go saddle my horse.  If the stage gets here before I’m ready I’ll stay ‘n give ya a hand.”  With bridle in hand Jess went into the stall putting the headstall on his horse then led Traveler out to give him a good brushing, not just the customary brushing of the area where the blanket and saddle sat.  He went down his legs with the brush then softly brushed Traveler’s face.  He checked each hoof using, a hoof pick to clean out what little barn accumulation was packed against the hoof.  Slim could tell, he was stalling for time, not at all anxious to leave the ranch.  Once saddled and cinched he patted his buddy on the neck, leading him out from the barn and tying him to the post next to the house.

As cheerfully as he could, he went into the house to say goodbye to Daisy and Mike, trying to make it sound like it was just business in town that needed to be taken care of.  The anguish Daisy was experiencing was quite visible.  Jess hoped Mike wouldn’t notice.  She went to the dark haired man, giving him a hug, “You be careful, now,” she whispered in his ear.  Jess leaned down to kiss her on the forehead.

“You know me.  I always try to be careful.  I hope I can finish this up ‘n be home in time for supper.” He responded, softly.  As he approached Mike, he wanted to pick him up to give him a bear hug but that was a bit out of his character so he gave him the customary tussle to his blonde mop of hair,  “You be good ‘n mind Daisy, okay?  Anything you want me to bring back for you from town?”

“Ummm,” thinking a moment, “Nope.  Nothin’ I kin think of.”  Mike smiled.

“See you later, Daisy.”  Jess said giving her another hug.

‘I hope so, Jess, I hope so.’  She thought as she sadly watched him open the door to leave.

When he stepped down off the porch Slim was standing next to Traveler petting him on the neck.  “The stage isn’t here, yet.  I reckon you’re heading out?”

“It should be here any time.  I can wait if you want.”  Jess said. He didn’t really want to leave anymore than Slim wanted him to go. It was just a matter of a few minutes if he waited to help with the stage, a few more moments in time to spend with his best friend, perhaps his last.  “Yeah, I’ll wait ‘n give ya a hand.”  Jess said with a smile punching his partner playfully in the shoulder.  “Hey, don’t look so grim.  I plan on comin’ back, ya know.  Or is that the problem?  Maybe you don’t want me back?”

“Jess, this is serious.”  Slim didn’t see any humor in Jess’ comment.

“I know, I know. But don’t have me dead ‘n buried before I leave. I told ya I’ll be back.” 

Just then the rattle of the stage coming up the hill toward the yard was heard cueing both men to get the fresh team ready for the change over. 

Mose drove into the yard in his same fashion scattering chickens in every direction.  Luckily they all escaped with their lives once again.  “No chicken supper for Mose,” Jess said as he started to unhitch one side of the team while Slim and Mose worked on the other side. 

 “There’s coffee at the house if you have a mind to it, Mose.”  Slim said.

“Miss Daisy in there?”  Mose asked hopefully.

“Sure is and Mike is staying home to help out today.  Go on in and have a cup.  Jess and I can finish up here.”

“Much obliged,” Mose said as he started toward the house, slapping at his clothes brushing off some of the road dust.  As he got to the door Daisy opened it carrying one of the throw rugs about to shake it out.  “Here, Miss Daisy.  Let me do that fer ya.”  Mose offered with a big grin.

“Why thank you Mose.”  She gratefully smiled, looking past the driver to see that Jess hadn’t left yet.  “I suppose you’d like a cup of coffee?  I have some fresh baked cookies, too.”

“Oh, yes., thank ya ma’am.  You know, yer the best baker in all of Wyomin’,” his smile blossomed even more.   He took the rag rug away from the porch and gave it a good shake pleased to see the dust fly then took it into the house.  Daisy already had a plate of cookies and a cup of coffee poured when he came through the door carrying the rug looking for a place to put it.

Taking it from him she said, “Thank you Mose.  I’m sure you were able to give it a much better shake than I ever could.   The cookies and coffee are there on the table for you.”

“Thank ya, ma’am,” he said, blushing as he removed his hat, went to the table and sat down to enjoy his treat hoping that Daisy might join him.

Outdoors, Slim had finished his side of the team and went to help Jess finish his side.  They both double-checked the rigging finishing in time to see Mose coming back from the house.

“Mind if I ride along with ya?”  Jess asked when Mose met the boys at the coach.

“Yer headin’ fer town?  Sure.  Wanna ride shotgun?  I kin bring ya back later?”

“Naw.  I might need my horse, but thanks anyway.  I’ll just ride beside ya ‘n keep ya company.  How come no passengers, again?”

“Blasted train’s takin’ a lot of our business away.  The runs keep gittin’ shorter ‘n further apart.  It won’t be long before we won’t have long drives ‘n no need for relay teams er stopovers.  The whole world’s goin’ to hell in a hand basket I reckon.  Progress they call it.  I call it a bunch of hooey.”

“Me too, Mose.”  Slim said as he wistfully watched Jess walk to his horse and mount up. 

Riding to where Slim was standing near the coach Jess said, “See ya later, Pard.”

“Yeah.  You be careful,” Slim said, catching his partners’ eyes with his own.

“You, too.”  Jess’s voice, deeply rich as he spoke then reached down to touch his partner’s shoulder.  “I’ll be back as soon as I can.  Watch out for the coyotes, Pard.”  Jess smiled while giving his pal a reassuring squeeze before he turned his horse to follow after the stage. 

As the stage and his friend disappeared over the ridge, Slim watched until the dust settled before turning to go back to the house, knowing that it was going to be a long day.  The wait for news from town was going to be agonizing.  He could only hope that all would go well and his partner would soon return.

 

 

Chapter 9

 

“Nice to have the company.”  Mose shouted to Jess over the clatter of the coach and the horse’s hooves striking the hard packed ground.

“Yeah, I thought so, too.”  Jess shouted back.

“Hey did that fella ever find ya that owed ya somethin’?”  Mose shouted.

“Yeah.  I’m meetin’ with him today.”

“A lot of money?”

“Not exactly.  Kinda complicated, Mose.  I’ll tell ya about it when we can sit down ‘n have a beer together.”  As predicted that ended the questions from Mose about the present situation.

 The chatter became lighter as they rode toward town.  Talk about the new dance hall girl, the Bronson’s new twins, a cattle drive passing through that had a problem when the cattle scattered, running amok through Cheyenne that gave Mose a good chuckle from watching and enjoyed telling the tale even more.

Jess tried to keep his mind off what waited for him in town by keeping his attention on the small talk with Mose as best he could.  When they arrived in town Jess was both relieved and tense.  Relieved that the small talk was over but the tension that was building during the twelve mile ride made him almost want to explode, ‘and the day is just beginning,’ he thought to himself.

 

When they arrived in town, Mose drove the coach straight for the stage depot.  Jess detoured to the sheriff’s office.  When he entered he found the building empty except for a drunk sleeping it off in one of the cells.  Since it was still early he reckoned Mort might be at the café so he strolled across the street, finding Mort sitting at one of the tables.   He wandered to the table where Mort was absorbed in reading a newspaper.  The sheriff jumped when Jess said, “Mornin’, Mort.”

 

 

“Damn good way to get yourself shot, Harper.”  Mort said with a grim look that spread into a warm smile.  “What are you doing in town again?”

 

“Business.”

 

“Business?” Mort responded, suspicion evident in the tone of his voice.

 

“Yeah.  Same business.  I came to ask ya to keep watch on what happens today.  I don’t want anyone sayin’ that any gunplay wasn’t fair.” Jess stated almost apologetically.

 

Standing up, throwing his napkin down on the table, Mort stepped close to the younger man to look him straight in the face.  “Jess, there’ll be no gunplay in my town!”  He accented the statement with a rap of his fist on the table beside him.

 

“I’m not plannin’ on it, Mort, but it could happen.  I’m here to try to make some peace ‘n put an end to all this in any way I can.  If it ends up in a gunfight it won’t be my doin’.   I want you to know that ‘n to be ready.”

 

“Jess, I’ll lock you up before I let you start shootin’ up my town.”  Jess could tell how dead serious the sheriff was in his responses.

 

“Like I said, I’m not here to start trouble, just tryin’ to put an end to it all.  If anyone should be locked up it should be Jackson.”  Jess’ anger was starting to flair.  “He’s the one that was throwin’ all kinds of threats at me at the saloon yesterday.  Tom can vouch for that.  He had his scattergun close in reach.  Go ask ‘im.  They were the ones lookin’ for a fight.”

 

“I believe you, Jess.  Just be careful.  I don’t want to see anyone hurt or killed.  Keep it peaceful, will ya?  I’ll see if Earl and Ben can give me a hand to watch those two for the day.”

 

“Thanks Mort.  Mind if I join ya for some coffee?”

 

“Oh, sorry Jess.  Where were my manners?”

 

“They never got a chance, I kinda snuck up on ya.” Jess said with a grin, sitting down and motioning to the waitress for coffee.

 

“What do you have in mind, Jess?  And remember it’s me you’re talking to.”  Mort reminded him before sitting back down at the table, his serious concern had never leaving his demeanor.

 

“I wanna try ‘n talk it out with ‘im.  Maybe if I can get him alone he won’t be showin’ off how tough he is to the kid.  Mort, if it comes down to a showdown I’ll try to take it outta town.  You might want to send one of the boys after us to bring back the body.  I reckon I’d bring ’im back but he’d leave me for the buzzards, I’m sure.”

 

A shocked look crossed Mort’s face at Jess’ last statement, but he tried to continue being professional. “Okay.  I’ll get someone on him even if I have to take the job myself.  Just don’t make me sorry I trusted you, Jess.”

 

“I’ll certainly try, Mort.  I’m not lookin’ forward to anything but endin’ this one way or another.  I prefer no bloodshed but I can’t promise anything.  I’ve seen Jake Jackson’s work. As for the boy, I have no idea what to expect of him.”

 

“The boy,” Mort started, “I seen him.  What’s his story?  When I first looked at him I thought it was you.”

 

The waitress brought Jess his coffee.  He took a couple of quick sips at it then put it down to tell Mort what he knew about the younger man traveling with Jackson.  When he noticed Mort looking toward the door, he turned around to see who caught the sheriff’s attention. It was Billy and he was alone.  Both men froze waiting to see if Jackson would soon follow.  The boy sat down and ordered breakfast never taking notice of who was in the café, staring out he window at the towns people walking by on the boardwalk.  Jess finished his coffee and sat chewing on his bottom lip for a minute or two trying to decide his next move.  He slowly got up, “Thanks, Mort, for the coffee.  I have a little business to tend to, I think.”

 

“Careful, Jess.” Mort made the statement sound almost like a threat.

 

“Yeah.”  Jess responded as he turned to slowly saunter to the table where Billy was sitting.  “Anyone sittin’ here?”  He asked sternly.  Bill looked up surprised to see Jess.

 

“If you’re lookin’ fer Uncle Jake, he had some things ta tend to; I think he said in Cheyenne.  He left me here by m’self.  What can I do ya fer?” The condescending way the boy spoke made Jess want to take him out to the woodshed and give him a good stropping.  Allowing that thought to evaporate, he decided to take advantage of the opportunity of having the boy alone so they could talk.  He hoped the boy would be more rational without Jake around to provoke his bravado.

 

“Just as well, I reckon you’re the one I really wanted to talk to.” Jess said.  Billy motioned for him to sit down.  The waitress brought Jess another cup of coffee.  He looked up at her, nodding his thanks. 

 

“So, what d’ya want to talk ta me about?” Cockiness was all over the dark haired boy’s statement as he leaned back throwing his arm over the back of his chair. 

 

“This whole mess, you, me ‘n your uncle are in.”

 

“Its yer mess, brother.”  Billy hissed as he leaned his face in close to Jess, speaking through clenched teeth,  “My uncle has some good plans fer yer family; startin’ with the ol’ lady.  He reckons it’d be fun skinnin’’ ‘er alive.”  Billy laughed.  “And the kid….”

 

“Why?”  Jess interrupted as he stood up almost tipping over the table, spilling some coffee from both of their cups.  Mort readied himself to move in to settle any argument that would ensue.  “Why do ya both think ya have to get even with me?  Why does he want to hurt my friends?” 

 

“Cause your pa killed my ma.” The boy returned, some of the cockiness removed from his speech.  His smile had disappeared as a flash of fear crossed his expression.  He could tell he was dealing with someone to be reckoned with, maybe even respected for standing up for what he believed.  But he refused to back down, trying hard to show his fearlessness.

 

“Think about it Billy.  Okay, what my pa mighta done was wrong, but I wasn’t there.”

 

“Our pa.”  Billy reminded him, sarcasm now replacing the cockiness, a smirk returning to his face.

 

“Okay, our pa.”  Jess accentuated our, “Billy, he didn’t kill your ma, you did.  She died givin’ you life.” As calm as Jess tried to stay, he couldn’t help but spell out the point he was trying to make.

 

Billy stood up quickly, Jess was sure he was going for his gun but he didn’t.  He just stood staring at Jess, speechless.  When the words came to him he finally said, “That’s a lie.  If my ma didn’t git pregnant she wouldn’ta died!”

 

“I’m sorry, Billy, but think about it.  She didn’t die from what my...our pa did, she died givin’ you life.  No one’s to blame for that.  It happens.  It happens to cattle ‘n horses ‘n people.”

 

“No.  You’re wrong.  It’s a lie. I won’t listen ta ya.  I can’t…” Billy turned rushing out the door, his hands waving in the air, leaving most of his breakfast untouched.  Jess watched his actions totally puzzled, it wasn’t the reaction he ever would have anticipated.

 

Mort got up from his table and walked to where Jess was still sitting staring at the door.  He didn’t know what to expect.  Would Billy come back firing on Jess in a rage?  Would he be waiting for him outside to shoot him down as he left the café?   “That was quite an exchange and reaction.”  Mort finally, said.  “Do you think you might have struck a cord?”

 

“Not sure. I hope I didn’t destroy any chances I had to change the boy’s mind about followin’ his uncle in his plans.  Till now that boy only acted cocky, now he’s really angry.  He might not wait to get the word from Jackson to put a bullet through me now, especially with Jackson bein’ outta town.  That reminds me, I better get back to the ranch in case Slim needs help.  Maybe that’s where Jackson headed.

 

Grabbing Mort’s sleeve Jess had to ask, “Mort, did you hear any of the conversation?  What he said about what Jackson had planned for Daisy?”

 

“Heard enough of it.  I’ll go with you, Jess,” the sheriff said, putting his hand on the young man’s shoulder.  “I’ve got to hand it to you, Jess, you handled that pretty well.  I really thought that boy was going to draw on you.”

 

“Yeah, me too, Mort.  But if you watched him, he never put his hand near his gun.  He was real nervous talkin’ to me alone.  I almost expected him to piss his pants or start cryin’.  An’ his hands wavin’ all around like that when he left, now I really wonder if he’s as crazy as Jake.”

 

The two men strolled to the door together, Mort stopping Jess by putting his hand on his wrist, “Let me go out first, Jess.  If he’s looking to fire on you, I can at least make sure he’s not out there lying in ambush for you.”

 

“Thanks, Mort.  I’m right behind ya.”

 

“No you’re not.  Wait here until I give you a sign.”  Mort said, reinforcing the sentiment by giving the younger man a slight shove backward.

 

Mort opened the door and stood in the doorway looking up and down the street, searching each dark corner or alcove where someone might be concealed.   Not seeing Billy in sight he signaled Jess that it was all clear.  Both headed toward Mort’s office, each watching his side of the street for any sign of ambush.  Once in the office, both breathed a sigh of relief as Mort closed the door.  The look that passed between the two men told all that was needed to know.   

 

 “Charlie.  Hey, Charlie.  You awake yet?”  Mort called to the loudly snoring drunk asleep in one of the cells.

 

“He don’t sound awake to me.”  Jess commented as he leaned on the corner of the sheriff’s desk.

 

“I want him awake so I can send him home before we leave.  Hey, Charlie, wake up.  Jess, go get him a cup of coffee.”  Jess went to the ever-warming coffee pot that sat on top of the potbelly stove, poured a mug of the thickening liquid and took it to Mort.  “Charlie.  Hey, I have a nice cup of coffee here for you.  Wake up.”  Charlie started to stir mumbling and grumbled trying to pull the blanket over his head.  Mort opened the cell door, grabbed the blanket pulling it off the partially sober man.  “Here,” the sheriff pushed the mug into the toothless old man’s shaking hands as he sat up, “Drink it.  I have to send you home or you’ll be here until I get back late tonight.  Do you want that?”

 

“Huh?  Oh, Sheriff.  What am I doin’ here?  Where’s Maggie?  Oh, sheriff I got me a real bad headache.”  The old man grumbled.

 

“Maggie’s probably at home waiting for you to get there.  I’m surprised she hasn’t come down here to see if you were here.”

 

“Aw, dagnabit.  I bet I’m in trouble again.” Charlie whinned.

 

“Yeah, Charlie.  I bet you are, too.” Mort responded, showing some sympathy.  He knew the hell Charlie was going to pay when Maggie got him home.

 

Charlie got up, bent his back backwards then stretched some before he grabbed for his pounding head.  Taking a gulp of the coffee he made a sour face.  “Ain’t ya got anything better than this?”

 

“No, Charlie.  That’s all I serve here.  Now go home.”

 

Charlie wobbled toward the door looking Jess up and down as he staggered passed him.  Jess smiled, shaking his head, prepared to catch the man if he fell over but Charlie made it to the door almost loosing his balance when he turned to quickly to ask about his hat.  Mort informed him that he had no hat when he was brought to the jail.  It seemed to satisfy Charlie that he must have misplaced it elsewhere.  He’d have to try to remember where he left it.  He’d catch the devil from his wife for loosing another one.

 

Opening the door he groaned when the bright light of the day hit him in the eyes.  First squeezing his eyes shut tightly he then held up his hand to shadow his eyes. 

 

“Charlie.  Here’s your hat.  I think it might help.”  Mort said handing Charlie an old hat that had been hanging on the wall for a year or more, nobody ever claiming it.

 

“Yeah.  Yeah.  Thanks Mort.  Sure is a bright one out there.”  Charlie said putting on the hat that dropped to the bridge of his nose, obviously much too large for him.  Again he headed out the door this time closing it behind him.  Once he’d shut the door both Jess and Mort couldn’t hold back their laughter.

 

“He’s getting to be a regular around here.  I don’t even think Maggie worries about him anymore.  She used to wander down here looking for him., not anymore.  I reckon she knows he’s safe and sound and she doesn’t have to listen to his groans and moans when he’s hung over.  Too bad I had to send him home to her before he slept it off.”  Mort had to stifle another chuckle.

 

Tossing a rifle to Jess, Mort said, “Here load this for me.  I’ll go out back and saddle my horse and meet you out front.  Use the rifle if you need it.  I’ll take it from you on the way out of town,”

 

“You got it.”  Jess replied, starting to load the rifle while tossing more shells into his shirt pocket.  When he spotted Mort coming around the building he ambled out the door to survey the street, taking hold of Traveler’s reins with one hand as he took special note of any places where someone could be hiding. 

 

“Let’s ride out through the back alley.”  Mort suggested.  “I don’t want that youngster shooting at you and hitting any innocent bystanders.  There’s too many people on the street now.”

 

“Good idea.”  Jess said, following Mort back around to the back of the building.  Both men mounted up, then Mort put out his hand for the rifle from Jess.  After handing the sheriff the weapon, Jess pulled his own rifle from its scabbard.   Vigilantly the two men headed out of town keeping watch for any possible traps.

 

Once they were well out of town they put their rifles in their sheaths, picking up the pace as they headed for the ranch.  They met the stage on its way into Laramie, asking the driver how things were at the ranch, he responded, “Runnin’ like clockwork.  Wondered where you were, Jess.  Trouble in town, Mort?”

 

“No.  Jess was in town and invited me out for supper.  The wife’s visiting with her sister so thought I’d take him up on it.”

 

“Well enjoy yer supper.  I gotta get these passengers to Laramie.  Mose will be waitin’ for me so he kin head back out.   I’ll see ya later, Sheriff, Jess.”  Slapping the reins the driver pressed the horses back to pulling the stage back on its way to town.

 

“Gee, Mort, you’re gettin’ almost as good at thinkin’ up excuses as me.”  A smile that reached Jess’ eyes appeared.  Mort was glad to see it; Jess had been way too somber since he’d had his morning coffee at the café with him.

 

“No sense giving him anything to gossip about and get the town all in an uproar.   Besides, I reckon we’ll be at the ranch right before supper and Daisy would invite me anyway.”

 

Jess laughed.  “You can be sure of that.  I’m just glad to hear that it’s quiet at the ranch, at least it was when the stage left.”

 

“We’ll be there soon.  I haven’t heard any shooting or anything.  I bet it’s a picture of peace and tranquillity.”  A genuine smile of warmth and confidence was passed to the younger man.  Mort sincerely hoped that all was well at the ranch.

 

“Tran, tran, tranquillity?  Ain’t we getting’ a little fancy with them words, Mort?” Jess teased.

 

“They fit.  Come on, I thought you were in a hurry.”  The two took off in a slow lope only slowing their horses to a walk when they reached the half-mile mark for the ranch to

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 10 

When they arrived at the ranch it was exactly the way Mort described it, a picture of peace and tranquillity, horses grazing in a pasture, cattle bellowing in another and a few horses milling around in the corral near the house.  Chickens were roaming all over the yard, scratching as they searched for bugs to peck themselves a treat.  They scattered slowly protesting their disturbance as the two men rode into the yard.  Slim quickly came out on the porch to greet the two riders.

“Jess. You’re back early.”  The relief was indisputable both in his voice and expression. “And Mort, it’s sure nice to see you.”  Slim descended the steps offering his hand to the sheriff who had become a very close friend to the family over the years. 

“Yeah, Slim, I dragged your friend here home to keep him outta trouble.”  Mort teased.

“Was there trouble?”  Slim asked as a frown materialized, his eyes quickly examining his partner for any signs of blood or bullet holes.

“Not the kind you would’ve thought, Slim.  Jess handled things really amiably.” Mort responded.

“There you go again, them big words, again, Mort.”  Jess began but was quickly interrupted by his partner’s jubilant question.

“You mean it’s all over?”  Slim queried, genuine hope shining in his eyes

“Not by a long shot, Pard.”  Jess replied, watching the hope drain from the ranchers blue eyes.  “I might’ve made things worse.  But nobody got shot.”  Jess said as he dismounted from his horse.  “Give me your horse, Mort.  I’ll unsaddle him ‘n let him run in the corral to get somethin’ to eat ‘n drink.”

Mort dismounted, handing the reins to Jess.  “Thanks.  Feels good to be back on my feet again.  I think I’m starting to get too old for these long rides,” he stated to both men with a grimace, putting his hands to the small of his back as he orchestrated some gyrations to make his back relax and feel better.  He went into a sermon telling Slim, about how you have to take good care of your back or you’ll pay for being careless when you get older.

Jess led the horses off toward the barn, tying them outside he unsaddled them, rubbed them both down a little then led them to the corral to turn them loose with the other four horses that were at play.  Traveler immediately rolled in the dirt then stood up shaking the loose dust from his back. 

When Jess rejoined the other two men, Slim couldn’t stand not knowing what had happened any longer. Tired of waiting for someone to tell him, he interrupted Mort’s speech, “So?”  Slim burst out; getting a startled look from the sheriff as he was cut off in mid sentence.   The tall rancher didn’t care who told him what happened he just wanted to know what transpired in town.

“Where’s Mike and Daisy?”  Jess asked in a low voice.

“In the house.”  Looking over his shoulder it came to Slim what Jess was getting at.

“Let’s talk in the barn.”  Jess suggested, pulling his partner by the arm to lead him away from the house.  He wasn’t sure how much he wanted to share with Daisy and he was positive that he didn’t want Mike to know anything yet.

Pulling away Slim said, “Let me tell Daisy that you’re back and that Mort is staying for supper.  I’ll be right there.”

As promised he wasn’t gone long before Slim was rushing out to the barn.

“Okay.” Slim said, the impatience showing in his voice. “Daisy will keep Mike busy in the house.  We can talk.  I promised her we’d fill her in after Mike went to bed.  Now talk!”

Jess glanced at Mort; the sheriff was looking to the younger man to begin.  When he didn’t the older man made a motion to him to go on and tell the story. Jess reiterated what had happened at the café. Mort backed him up telling Slim he was there and saw the whole thing.

“So we decided we’d better get back here just in case this is where Jake had his business.  Mort offered to come along just in case there was an ambush or if we needed help here at the ranch.”

“That’s it?  You almost made your little brother cry?  You dared to blame him for his mother’s death?  Oh, Jess. How do you think that made the boy feel?”  Slim looked crushed that his partner could be so brutal.

Defending himself, Jess added, “I’m hopin’ it made ‘im think, Slim.  Made him think about all the stuff Jake’s been puttin’ in his head. I don’t think Billy ever gave thought that his mother died at his birth, not at the time pa did what he did with his ma.  I gotta admit, I didn’t get the reaction I expected.  I really thought he’d draw on me when he blew up but he didn’t.  He ran out of the café leavin’ his breakfast sittin’ where it was on the table.  Mort looked out on the street to see if he was waitin’ to cut me down when I came out but he wasn’t nowhere in sight. We went back to Mort’s office ‘n decided we’d better come out here to make sure Jackson wasn’t here causin’ any trouble.  Now I wonder where he did go ‘n what he’s up to.  That’s my biggest worry right now.  Billy said somethin’ about Jackson bein’ in Cheyenne but I don’t really believe him.  An’ from what the kid said it sounds like they wanna get at Daisy first.  We’ll have to watch her real close.”

“Where do you think he is and what do you think he’s doing?”  Slim asked.

“I have no idea, Pard.  I sure wish I did.  I got Billy pissed off at me before I could try’ ‘n get anymore outta  ‘im.  At least he’s not here, not yet.  Gettin’ Billy all riled up I almost expect trouble tonight, if not from Jackson then from Billy. Somehow though, I don’t see Billy doin’ anything on his own.  I think he needs that push ‘n back up from his uncle.  Don’t get me wrong, I think Billy’s dangerous, too.  But I think a lot of his bite’s from the hold Jake’s got over ‘im.”

Mulling over everything Jess had told him Slim finally asked, “So any idea what we do now?  Mort?  You have anything?”

“I reckon, just what we did last night.  Sit tight ‘n wait to see if somethin’ happens ‘n be ready for anything.  I told ya yesterday, I ain’t givin’ up sleepin’ with my forty-five until Jake ‘n his nephew are gone one way or another.  Even then, I might not feel comfortable sleepin’ without it if Jackson is still alive ‘n on the loose.”

“So we live in fear until this is all over or for the rest of our lives whichever happens first?”  Slim was appalled that the situation looked so bleak, but he wasn’t quite ready to give in.  He never gave up that easily.  He knew there had to be a way to get the family through this. The alternative was not acceptable. “I won’t allow that to happen,” he said with determination.

“I told ya when you took me on I had a pocket full of troubles.  Looks like one of ‘em just happened to escape.”  Jess said trying to lighten the mood but it didn’t change Slim’s expression.  It had the younger man wondering if Slim was now truly sorry that he had taken him in.

“And you, Mort?  What are you planning to do?” Slim asked, open to any proposals.

“Well for now I reckon we first have a good supper here. Then I’ll head back to town, in case there’s trouble there.  I hate to say it Slim, but you boys are on your own for now.  Until Jackson or his nephew steps over the line there’s not much I can do.  I'll talk to Tom, though.  Maybe he might’ve heard enough that I could use to make them sleep in the jail a few nights. That should give you folks a few good nights sleep.   Right now, the threats, well that would be your word against theirs.  If Tom can back you up I’ll see what I can do.  Trouble is free speech and all, they have to act on those threats before I can legally do anything about them.  I’m sorry, but you can bet the minute I can pin something on either of them, they’ll be warming one of the cots in my jail.”

“Thanks, Mort.  We’ll just keep our eyes and ears open.  I’ll send word to you by stage if we have something we need to get to you. You can do the same.  Come on in, let’s have some coffee.”  Slim started toward the house, Mort following after him.

“I’m gonna put the saddles in the barn ‘n bring the rifles in the house.  I’ll feel better if we can get to ‘em in a hurry.”   Before the other men could turn around Jess was well on his way to the barn.  Mort and Slim continued on to the house while Jess picked up the saddles and blankets, hauling them into the barn.  While there he took a quick look around deciding to have Traveler’s stall ready for when he put him away for the night.  It was easier working with some daylight than trying to work under lantern light.  Finishing with the stall he pulled both rifles off the saddles and took them with him to the house.

In the house, Mort and Slim seated at the table drinking coffee.  Hearing the door, Daisy hurried from the kitchen to greet Jess, throwing her arms around him. “I’m so happy you’re home.  Your cup is on the table.  I’ll go get the coffee pot.  Mort is staying for supper so I have to get back to work in the kitchen.”  She hugged him again before dashing off for the coffee pot.  Jess sat down, joining the men at the table.  Coming from the kitchen carrying the coffee pot, Daisy poured Jess some coffee then left the pot to sit on the table before returning to the kitchen to peel some extra potatoes to stretch dinner for their unexpected guest.

Mike came out from his bedroom carrying his latest orphan, a tiny raccoon wrapped in a small blanket that he was nursing with a baby bottle.  Normally Slim would have reminded him, ‘no critters in the house.’ but held his tongue.  He didn’t want Mike outside unless he or Jess was with him.  “Where you going?”  Slim asked.

“To put her out in her pen until it’s time to feed her again.”

“Why don’t you put her in that box over there and keep her in your room for a few days.  I think it’s a little too cool out there for such a little one.  Keep her in your room until she puts on a little more weight.”  Slim advised the young boy.

Mike was flabbergasted at the suggestion but wasn’t about to question it.  He went to the box that Slim pointed out, put the baby raccoon and blanket in it then picked it up and carried it back into his bedroom.  It was a little puzzling for him but he had no intention to rock the boat .  He closed the door behind him taking the young animal out to rock her, pleased with being able to have her nearby until Slim forced him to put her out in a pen.

The three men quietly talked over what had transpired during the past two days, careful to keep their voices low so Mike wouldn’t overhear them.  None of them could come up with a solution.  It was decided that they’d have to wait it out to see what materialized as a result of Jess’ latest altercation.

When supper was ready, Daisy called Mike from his room, told him to wash up in the kitchen and then set the table.  The men left the table to make room for Mike to do his job.  They gathered on the porch to wait for their call to supper, not to sit chatting, more to scrutinize the barn, corral, fields and pastures for anything that didn’t belong there.

When Daisy had the food on the table she called the men folk in to eat.  At dinner they kept their conversation to small talk, town gossip and such.  Mike was still oblivious that there was anything brewing other than coffee at the Sherman ranch. They surely didn’t want Jackson or Billy’s names to come up in any of the exchange.  The conversation eventually turned toward Mike, how he was doing in school and about the new colt that he was raising up.  Loving the undivided attention of all the adults he gave everyone an update of all his orphans and injured creatures.  The meal passed with pleasant conversation but the tension was still in the air, none of the adults were as relaxed as they pretended to be.   

With the meal over the men went back outside.  Mort and Jess went to retrieve their horses. Traveler was put in his stall while Slim helped Mort saddle up to get ready for his journey back to town.  Jess disappeared then reappeared carrying Mort’s rifle.  “Don’t forget this. You never know when you might need it.”  The dark haired man said as he handed it to the sheriff.  After putting the rifle in its scabbard Mort climbed into the saddle.

Mike and Daisy stood on the porch so the sheriff reined his horse there to say goodbye, “Thank you, Mrs. Cooper, for the wonderful meal.  Until my wife gets back home I reckon I’ll be living on beans.  See you in town, Mike.  Take care of that new baby, okay?”

“You know you’re welcome anytime, Mort.”  Daisy said with a sweet smile while Mike eagerly nodded his head in response about the raccoon.

Turning his horse back toward the barn where the two ranchers stood, Jess stepped forward, “Careful goin’ back to town, Mort,” he said, offering his hand.  “An’ thanks for comin’ back with me.  I’m glad we didn’t ride into any trouble.”

“Me to, Jess. I have to say you were real entertaining in the café, though.  I’m sure glad I didn’t miss that.”

“I’m glad it was so entertainin’ for you. I sure didn’t see it that way. See ya later, Mort.” Jess said, smiling up at the sheriff as he stepped back from the horse.

“Yeah, thanks again Mort for watching out for Jess. I hope you can get something from Tom to use to lock those two up.”  Slim said reaching out his hand to Mort.

“I’ll see what I can do. You two be real cautious now.  If I hear anything I’ll send you word.  Have a good night.”  Turning his horse toward the road the sheriff headed back to town.

Jess and Slim returned to the house and started securing things for the night. When finished, Slim picked his rifle as he left to go check the barn, making sure the animals were settled for the night then he made the rounds to check the area for anything that looked out of place. Upon re-entering the house he found Jess sitting at the table with a rag and some gun oil working at cleaning his revolver.  “Give me yours. I’ll clean it up for ya.” Jess said his hand outstretched.

Slim pulled his .45 handing it to Jess. The man at the table holstered his own gun before starting to work on the blond haired man’s six-shooter.  He didn’t do a compete take down on either gun since they were well kept at all times but he wanted to be sure they were in good working condition should they need them.

Daisy joined the men as they sat at the table, commenting about Jess cleaning their guns again getting no more reaction than a shrugging of Jess; shoulders.  “May I now ask what happened?  You came back so quickly.  I can tell it’s not over but what happened?  I heard you all whispering here at the table but my hearing isn’t what it use to be.  And even if it was I doubt I could have made out what you were saying.”

“Nothin’ much to tell, Daisy.” Jess said not looking up from his work. “Jake wasn’t in town.  Mort ‘n I got worried he might’ve come out here so we came back as soon as we could.

The elderly woman looked at the young man she had learned to love as one of her own, studying him.  She could tell there was more to the tale, knowing all too well how to scrutinize her boys.  “  Hmmm, so not much?  So what did happen?  I know there’s more to the story. Come on, out with it.”

“Like I said nothin’ much to tell. Jackson was gone. I ran into his nephew ‘n we had a little talk.  He got upset ‘n left the café.  Nothin’ else.”

“You boys sure had a lot more than that to talk about.  What are you keeping from me?  Why did he get upset?  What did you say to him?”

“Really, Daisy.”  Jess laughed, amused by her interrogation tactics,  “That’s all that happened.   We were just talkin’ about what we might have to do next.  We didn’t come up with anything yet.”

“That’s all I got out of them, too, Daisy.  It seems like if Jackson isn’t around the boy doesn’t have much of a backbone.  That’s all I got from it.  So don’t worry.  We’re still working on getting them arrested or run out of town.” 

Daisy continued to sit at the table looking from one face to the other trying to peruse if there really was more she needed to know or if this was indeed all that happened.  Finally she stood up and curtly said, “Alright, then I guess if there’s nothing else I need to know I’ll go clean my kitchen and go to bed.  And yes, my window shutter is still locked so you need not check it.  Good night.”  The boys were amused at the way she sashayed away from the table to disappear into the kitchen truly miffed and feeling left out. Jess started to chuckle, causing Slim to give his partners busy hand a shove barely stifling his own burst of laughter. 

The boys could tell that Daisy felt she hadn’t been told the whole story and was more than a little annoyed, but all in all she had been told everything, well almost everything.  Nothing did happen. The small details weren’t worth fretting her.  Jess pointing out that Billy killed his mother in childbirth would have shocked Daisy that he could say such a hurtful thing.  It was best to let it rest.  And the overt threat against her as stated by Billy, well that was definitely something they did not want to share with her. 

While Daisy fussed around the house the two men went to sit on the porch.  Both had their rifles as well as their six guns with them.  If Mike asked, they’d say they saw a coyote near the chicken coop and that they were watching for him., but they didn’t need to use their story.  When Mike peeked out the door to say good night he was holding his little orphan, never noticing the rifles, his eyes remained almost constantly on the small animal.  The men wished him a good night.  “And Mike, that raccoon sleeps in the box not your bed.”  Slim reminded him.

“Uh huh.”  Mike agreed as he went back into the house and off to bed.

“Looks like we can use the coyote story some other time.”  Jess grinned leaning back in his rocker.  “Should we take turns on watch or try ‘n get some sleep at the same time tonight?  What do you think?”

“I was thinking the same thing. It’s pretty quiet. The house is secure. I think we should both give it a try to get some shuteye.  Neither of us got much last night and I expect we probably won’t again tonight.  I think we need to catch what sleep we can.  In fact, I think we should turn in now, early, just in case we need to be up during the night for any reason, like coyotes in the chicken coop.”

“I’m with you, Pard. I’m beat,” Jess eagerly responded, standing up to head for the door, Slim was right behind him.  They double-checked the door locks and all the shutters, except Daisy’s, before heading for the bedroom.

Once again Jess settled into bed to sleep with his gun on his pillow his hand covering the butt.  Slim had to smile. He wasn’t quite ready to sleep with his gun but he did hang his rig on the bedpost like Jess, but he left his gun to rest in the holster.

 

The house was quiet and surprisingly everyone was asleep not long after their heads hit their pillows. Exhaustion had taken its toll

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 11

 

Before dawn there was a clatter and crash on the front porch. Jess was immediately standing with his gun in hand.  Slim grabbed for his gun as he scrambled out of bed to stand shoulder to shoulder with his partner.  They stood listening but heard nothing more until a horse galloped away from the front of the house.  Jess slowly opened the bedroom door poking his head out to see if anyone had broken into the house.  It was so dark with the shuttered windows very little was visible in the outer room.  Hugging the wall with his back he tiptoed into the larger, open room.  A weak knock was heard at the door. Immediately his thoughts wandered to what kind of trick Jackson might be up to.

 

Slim hugged the wall going in the opposite direction from his partner, both holding their revolvers high ready to fire on anything that moved.  Slim whispered, “Daisy, Mike, is that you?  You better answer” dead serious in his question.  There was no response; the room was quiet, nothing moving except for the two ranchers as they crept slowly along the wall. When Slim reached the table he felt for some matches, lighting one while ducking down as he reached for the lamp. Jess stepped beside a cabinet, shielded on two sides while lamp was lit. Once the dim light filled the room they could see that they were alone.

Again the weak knock at the front door was heard. It was really odd since the knocking was only about knee high, if that high.  Slim motioned for Jess to check on Daisy while he looked in on Mike. Quietly peeking into the bedrooms they discovered that both were sound asleep. Jess glimpsed into the kitchen but it was too dark to see.  Reaching for the lamp he knew was kept near the stove, he ducked down behind a cupboard, lighting it.  A quick sweep of the room proved that it, too, was empty. As far as they could tell only those who belonged ithere were in the house.

The rap at the door came again, this time accompanied by a moan.  “It sound’s like someone’s hurt.” Slim whispered.

“Could be a trick.” Jess countered moving toward the door cocking his revolver. If it wasn’t so dark Jess thought of going out the back door and around the house while Slim opened the front door, but the heavy cloud cover made it much to dark to see if anyone was hiding outside waiting to shoot anyone they saw moving near the house.

The moan came again the thump on the door now became more like a scratching of fingernails.  “Who’s there?” Slim finally called out but didn’t get a clear answer, “I said who is it?”  Again he got a muffled reply and a light tap to the door.

Jess took one of the rifles that had been placed in a corner, stepping back about ten paces from the door. “Blow out the lamp then open the door ‘n stand back,” he whispered as he chambered the rifle.  After almost extinguishing the lamp, Slim reached across to the lock-latch, his back to the wall.  In one quick motion he unlatched the door quickly then gave it a shove, opening it wide, waiting before moving to look so he didn’t block the way in case Jess fired the rifle.  When Jess didn’t fire he peeked around the corner of the door jam, his own gun now cocked, not knowing what to expect.

The moon peeked out from behind the clouds just long enough for them to observe a man, badly bleeding, lying on the porch.  “Who is it?” Jess croaked, still pointing the rifle in the direction of the door. Slim ducked down to take a quick survey of the yard from around the doorway in case there was anybody waiting for someone to step out to help the wounded man. The yard was dark and still but the full moon thoughtfully peeped through the clouds one more time to give him enough light to be reasonably sure there was no one else nearby. 

“Jess, I think he’s alone. Go out on the porch and cover me while I drag him in the house. Be careful, I can’t see in the deep shadows real good.” 

Jess walked cautiously to the door, stepping to the corner cover of the wall so he wasn’t backlit by the light coming from the kitchen. He looked out at the yard from his vantage point and said, “Okay, Pard, it looks clear. Drop him if any lead starts flyin’ ‘n get outta the way.”

Stepping past and over the injured man, Jess stood guard at the top of the stairs while Slim pulled the bleeding man inside. Once Slim cleared the door with the man Jess quickly jumped back through the opening, closing and locking the door before relighting the lantern.  Once he could see Slim performed a quick triage, finding that the man had a bad bullet wound to his leg just above his knee.  Some bone fragments were protruding from the gaping hole in the man’s bloody trouser leg.  Still face down, Slim gently rolled the man over to see who it was.  Both ranchers gasped in disbelief when they saw his face.  It was Billy Jackson.

Jess quickly swung around with the rifle raised rushing to one of the shuttered windows opening one side so he could get a view of the yard, expecting to see Jake Jackson waiting for someone to open the door again.  The dawn was finally breaking and the clouds were burning off, but the barn and yard were still in shadows.  Remaining at the window he glanced back at his partner working over the injured man.

“He’s hurt bad, Jess.”  Slim said as he looked at the wound, cutting away some of the blood soaked material.  “He’s lost a lot of blood, but it looks like the bullet went straight through.  Looks like it did a lot of damage to the bone maybe his knee, too.”

Billy’s eyes fluttered and his lips moved but it was hard to understand anything he muttered in his weakened state. 

“Yeah, well it could still be a set up.  I wouldn’t trust that Jackson wouldn’t shoot the kid to just get in here.”

“He needs a doctor. Get me some towels. I need to stop the bleeding.”

“Get Daisy.  She’ll have to do ‘til we can figure out what’s goin’ on.” 

Flashing a distasteful look at his partner for countering his order, Slim got up, going to Daisy’s bedroom door and knocked lightly.  Getting no response he rapped a little harder.  “Yes?” came the sleepy voice from within.  “Jess?  Slim?”

“It’s me, Slim.  We need some help out here. There’s an injured man out here bleeding pretty bad.”

“Oh my,” the door swung open and Daisy rushed out, pulling her housecoat around her almost knocking Slim over in her hurry.  “Who is it?” 

“We think its Billy Jackson.”  Slim responded in almost a whisper.

“Who?  Oh.  Oh, oh my!” she said as the name suddenly registered breaking through her clouded mind.  With the revelation she was fully awake now, nothing but questions in her eyes as she looked at both of her boys.  One concerned about the wounded man on the floor, the other at the window with a rifle.  She ran to the closet and brought out some towels and blankets.  “Slim, could you go heat up some water in a pan, please?  Then you can tell me what happened. How he got here.”

“Sure, Daisy.” The blond man hastened to the kitchen to stoke the stove.  While the water was heating he put some coffee on to brew, as well.  It looked like they had a long day ahead of them and coffee would help get them all get started.

Daisy wrapped the young man in blankets, afraid that shock would set. Once she felt that he was as warm and comfortable as she could make him she examined the wound, applying a tourniquet to slow the bleeding.

“Slim, when you’re done with the water I think we need a fire in here. He’s lost a lot of blood and we have to keep him warm. I need help to turn him on his side so I can get a good look at the wound from both sides and treat it.” 

The water was still heating so Slim gathered some firewood taking it in to the fireplace.  It wasn’t long before the kindling caught logs and there was a warm glow in the room even if the heat wasn’t evident yet. Once the logs were burning he helped the family nurse to roll the boy on his side as she’d asked.  By the time he returned to the kitchen the water was in a rolling boil.  As soon as he brought the pan of hot water into the room Daisy gave him more orders, “Get my sewing kit, Dear.  I need tweezers to clean out some of this shattered bone.  I think they’re in my sewing kit.”

“Your sewing kit is here on the table. I used the scissors to cut his pants leg away.”  Slim said as he handed her the basket.  She opened it, searched through and found the tweezers.  Immediately she dropped them in the hot water along with the blood stained scissors.  Selecting some sewing needles she put them in the water as well.  With a towel she dabbed at the wound to get a better look at the actual damage.   “This boy really needs a doctor but I’ll do what I can until you can get him here.”

“What?” Jess said, not turning from the window. “We ain’t goin’ nowhere until it’s light out. We don’t know if Jackson/s waitin’ out there or not.  Probably sent the kid in here to flush us out.”

“Oh, my. Do you think he’d do that?” Daisy looked up from her work, unable to fathom that someone could be so cruel.

“I have no doubt,” Jess growled.

“How could…” she trailed off recalling what Jess had already told her about the man.  “Is this the boy you talked to yesterday?”

“Yeah, that’s him but he was in fine shape when I left.  Mort can testify to that.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply…”

“No. I know you didn’t.  Sorry, Daisy, I reckon I’m a bit jumpy.  I just wanted to make it clear that Jackson will do anything to get at someone, ‘n that there’s probably a good example.  He musta thought the kid bein’ my half brother was enough to use him to get to me ‘n the rest of ya.  I ain’t about to let that happen. Nobody leaves here until it’s light out,” Jess ordered.

“Alright Jess, I guess I’ll have to agree to wait.  I’ll do what I can for him until someone can ride to fetch the doctor.”  Daisy busied herself picking bits of bone from the wound, sopping up blood when there was the need, since a tourniquet had stifled much of the bleeding.   When she thought she had the bone cleared from the wound she used the batting Slim brought her from the bedroom to pack the wound before relieving the tourniquet.   The batting went from white to patches of pink and red but didn’t soak completely through.  “I think I may have the bleeding nearly stopped, at least slowed.  We don’t dare move him; just keep him warm until the doctor gets here. If we try to move him, I’m sure the bleeding will start again.”

Slim took the blood stained water to the kitchen tossing it out the back door.  After a quick sweeping glance of the back yard he grabbed some cups from the cupboard and poured them each a cup of hot coffee.  He carried one to Daisy, seated on the floor fussing over the injured man and one to Jess, still glued to the window keeping watch for anything that moved at the front of the house. It was finally getting light enough that the dark haired man could perceive more of their surroundings, the previous deep shadows finally revealing that no one was lurking there. He accepted the cup of coffee from his friend with a nod and a grateful smile. 

 Looking over his partner’s shoulder, Slim glanced out into the yard, glad to see daylight quickly approaching, burning off the cloud cover, promising a brilliant day. The roosters were out and about crowing their joy to welcome the morning sun as some of the early rising hens pecked the ground for left over grain or any insects they could find. 

The boy moaned and Daisy tried to soothe him, telling him that he was safe and was going to be fine.   “Slim. I could use some water to cool his face now if you don’t mind.” 

“Sure, Daisy.”  The tall man said kindly, setting down his coffee to go back to the kitchen to pump some cold water into the pan he’d recently emptied.  Opening one shutter of the kitchen window he looked out but seeing nothing he returned to the greater room to hand Daisy the pan.

“Thank you.”  She said as she dipped a cloth in the water applying it first to the boy’s forehead then brushed it across his face and cheeks.  His eyes fluttered again and another moan escaped from his lips.  “It’s okay.  We’re taking care of you Billy.  The doctor will be here soon,” she assured him as she wiped his face a little more. His eyes opened and he stared up at her

“Jess?”  Billy whispered in a dry raspy voice.

“He’s here,” she said, smiling down at the boy, offering him a sip of water that he accepted eagerly. ”Jess, I think he wants to see you.”

“Can’t right now, Daisy.” Jess responded bitterly.

“I’ll watch the yard.  Give me the rifle.”  Slim said sternly as he took the rifle from Jess’ hands pushing him in the direction of his wounded sibling. 

Jess’ eyes flashed with anger, he wasn’t pleased with Slim forcing him to go to Billy. As he stood next to Daisy, the boy looked up at him, a slight smile coming to his lips.

“I thought so. Just what he wanted, he’s in here. Jake has his foot in the door, just like I thought.”

The boy feebly shook his head and tried to speak. Daisy put her head down closer to his lips.

“No…set…up.”  Billy whispered.  Daisy repeated what the boy said.

“Yeah. Like I’m gonna believe the likes of him?”  Jess said walking back toward the window.

“I said I’d watch. You help Daisy.”  Slim said glaring at Jess, defying him to not listen to his order. Jess’ eyes narrowed as he tried to stare him down but detected that Slim wasn’t going to give in. Turning away with his fists clenched, he walked back to Daisy and the injured man.

Billy looked up at Jess and Daisy with pleading eyes.  He had more to say but was much too weak to utter another word.

“You rest now, Billy. One of the boys will go for the doctor shortly.  I think I have the bleeding stopped.  I’ll go make you some broth. It should help bring some of your strength back.  Would you like more water?”  She asked the boy.  He weakly nodded his head, resting on her lap.  She then turned to speak to her adopted son standing nearby but his attention everywhere but on the scene in front of him. ”Jess?”

“Yeah,” Jess answered not hiding his displeasure.

“You keep his face cool while I go make some broth.  I’ll bring in some more water. You can help him get some down. It should help.”

“I’d rather make the broth.”  Jess spat out at her

“Jess!”  Slim shouted, putting Jess back in line.

 “Sorry, Daisy. I’ll take over.”  Jess helped the elderly lady to her feet and she quickly headed for the kitchen. It wasn’t long before the rattle of pots and pans could be heard.  In addition to the broth, she commenced to start making them their breakfast.

Jess sat down on the floor next to his half brother.  He dipped the cloth in the pan and gently wiped the boy’s face and forehead.  Slim watched from his post at the window and was satisfied that Jess was back under control.  “It’s getting light out.  Do you want to ride for Doc Riley or do you want me to go?”  Slim thought it was time to let Jess feel he had a little control over the situation again.

“I think I should go.”  Jess volunteered, quickly

“Why’s that?”

“If he wants to get at me through you, there’s no reason to dangle you in front of ‘im ‘n make it easy.  He doesn’t want me dead yet.  I have a better chance to get to town ‘n back.  I can ride shotgun for the doc, make sure he gets here.  If he tries to stop us ‘n I need to face ‘im, it’ll be all over.  If he dies, it’s over, unless the kid is ready to carry on the grudge.  If he kills me it’ll be all over for you.  His only interest in you is to get at me ‘n make my life miserable.  Either way it’s over for you. So, I say I go.”

“You don’t want to stay here with your brother?”  Slim asked, already knowing the answer as he watched Jess cringe.

“I told ya. I’m your best chance of gettin’ the doc back here.” Jess wasn’t in the mood to discuss relationships or how he felt about this particular one.

“Okay. I agree, Pard. I just wanted to be sure you wanted to go. I’ll go out and take a look around. If I need help, you’ll hear it.”  Slim said, levering the rifle before heading warily out the door. 

Everything looked typical in the yard.  He examined the hoof prints from the horse that brought Billy to the house during the early morning hours.  It was a single horse and the trail of blood spoke that Billy fell trying to get off his horse before he crawled up on to the now blood stained porch.  Slim reckoned that something must have spooked the horse that he ran off.  There was no sign of any other riders. 

Glancing into the barn nothing was out of place or looked abnormal.  The horses nickered as usual when someone entered the barn, awaiting their breakfast.  Going to the horse’s stalls, he patted Alamo’s neck then stroked Traveler’s neck.  “Looks like you’re going out for a ride this morning.  I’ll be back to get you ready in a few minutes.  No work for you today, Alamo.  Enjoy the rest.  When this is all over we’ll have a lot of work to make up.” He tossed some hay into the stalls before poking around, searching the barn, just in case.

Leaving the barn with care, he scanned the area for anyone hiding in the yard or corral.  Before he felt confident to go back into the house he circled its perimeter, again looking for any trampled grass indicating that someone had been snooping about.  Finding nothing to raise any suspicion he walked back to the front porch, surveying the yard once again before reaching for the door latch.

Jess was swabbing the unconscious boy’s face when the tall rancher re-entered the house.  “Everything looks clear out there. I can’t figure it.  Why would Billy come here?  I could only find tracks for one horse.  He came here after he was shot.  I can see where he fell from his horse and dragged himself up on the porch. Why didn’t he head for town and his uncle?  And who in the heck shot him?  It just doesn’t add up.”

“Has any of this added up since it started?  It didn’t add up back in Texas when Jake killed Rosa. They need to lock ‘im up ‘n throw away the key or no one’s safe.  I want to know why Billy was this close to the ranch to begin with when he got shot.”

“I agree. Too many unanswered questions.  I reckon we have to wait until Billy can tell us what happened.  We’ll get through this, Pard.  I’ll go saddle your horse.  Go get your boots on.”  Jess had left his bed so quickly when they were awakened so abruptly he didn’t bother with his boots.  Slim had grabbed his as he exited the room finding time to put them on while he was standing guard at the window.

Jess looked down at his sleeping patient.  Wiping his face once more he then dipped and wrung out the cloth leaving it on the boy’s forehead, before going to his room to finish dressing for the ride to town.

Slim stood at the window until Jess came back out from the bedroom.  “Here, you watch while I go saddle you up.” he said holding the rifle out to his friend.

“Slim, I can do that.  You keep watch.  If you see anything give me a warnin’ shot.”

“Will do. Jess, be careful and get back as soon as you can.”

 “I will.”  Opening the door he turned to look back at the pale boy lying on the floor near the fireplace.  “I hope we make it back in time,” Jess said as he walked out the door carrying his rifle, cautiously making his way to the barn. Traveler nickered as he entered. Handing his horse his customary morning lump of sugar, Traveler crunched happily looking for another while Jess saddled him. 

When he reached the barn door he looked at the window where Slim was stationed.  Receiving the all clear he walked his horse out the door and mounted up.  Before leaving the yard, he turned to wave to his partner.  Slim waved back hoping he’d see his best friend again.  These past few days it was hard to tell if either of them would be alive the next day.

 

 

Chapter 12  

Jess warmed up his mount then set off in an easy lope, watching both sides of the road for possible ambush.  If it were a set up Jackson would be watching for someone to go for the doctor. There was no evidence of Jackson waiting or watching the road. If he was, he was probably disappointed that it was Jess who was on the road.  “Probably ruining his day.”  Jess chuckled a not so humorous laugh. He reached town in good time riding straight to Mort’s office first. 

“Jess. Three days in a row in town.  That has to be a new record for you.” The sheriff said as he looked up from writing in a ledger book.

“Probably, Mort. I gotta get the doc out to the ranch but thought I better let you know what’s been goin’ on.”

“Who’s hurt?”  Mort asked anxiously, standing up quickly from behind his desk.

“Mort, you’d never guess.”

“Then don’t make me, Jess,”  the older man said, clearly concerned as he stepped around to the front of his desk.

“Walk with me down to the doc’s office ‘n I’ll tell you all about it.”

Jess untied his horse leading him as he and Mort cautiously strolled to the doctor’s house, the younger man relating his story from the moment they were awakened until he left the ranch. “We think that crazy bastard shot Billy ‘n sent him to the ranch to get someone inside, but he hurt the kid more than he thought.  Daisy stopped the bleedin’ but it’s pretty bad ‘n he needs a doctor real bad.”

“Jess, would he do that?”  Mort lost step in his astonishment.  Catching up he said, “I don’t get it.”

“None of us do but that’s all we can think of to find Billy wounded on our porch.  He wanted to get someone inside ‘n knew we wouldn’t turn away an injured man.  Billy bein’ my half brother, how could we turn him away.  We ain’t like Jackson ‘n he knows it.  By the way, Mort, have you seen Jackson in town since yesterday?”

“No.  But I did see Billy heading out alone not long after I got back.  A few minutes later and I would have missed him.  He was headed out toward Cheyenne.”

“That’s where he said Jackson was when we talked yesterday.  I can’t figure it out.  None of this makes sense.  I wonder what Cheyenne has to do with all this.  You still haven’t seen Jackson?”

“Nope. I checked the hotel last night and again this morning. He still has a room but they haven’t seen him lately. They mentioned Billy was in and out a few times yesterday until he left last night. They said they didn’t see him come back.”

As they reached the doctors house Mort said, “Take care, Jess, I better get back to the office. This might be what we need to bring Jackson in, attempted murder.  Hopefully you can get the boy to talk and tell you what happened.”

“It was a leg shot, Mort, not a kill shot.  Loss of blood’s where the kid got himself into trouble.  I’ll try to keep ya up on what’s happening’.  You know you’re always welcome at the ranch for supper, if you’ve a mind to.  We’d be happy to have you ‘n an extra gun could come in right handy.”  Jess put his hand to the sheriff’s shoulder.  “Really, Mort, if you do wanna stop out ‘n question Billy, maybe you can get enough outta him to arrest Jackson.”

“You might have something there, Jess.  I’ll check with the doc when he comes back to see if he thinks the boy is well enough to talk.”

“Good idea, thanks, Mort.”  Jess climbed the steps to the doctor’s porch while Mort turned back to his office. 

 Jess knocked at the door.  The doctor’s wife opened the door a few moments later. “Mr. Harper, good morning.”

“Mornin’ Ma’am.  Is the doc available?”  Jess asked, taking off his hat “He just finished breakfast and is getting ready to ride out to the Bradley farm to look in on John’s broken arm.”

“Oh, good,” Jess said, removing his hat before entering the house. “We need him to stop by the ranch, but first.  We have a wounded man out there.  He’s lost a lot of blood but he was still alive when I left. Daisy stopped the bleedin’. I hope he won’t be wastin’ the trip, but if the doc has to go to the Bradley place, at least we’re not far out of the way,” he apologized.

“I’ll tell him you’re here and try to rush him. This sounds like an emergency.  Do you want to take a seat or ride back to the ranch right away?  He’ll need to get his buggy ready before he can leave.”

“I’ can hitch up his rig while he finishes gettin’ ready. I want to ride back with him, anyway.” Jess said, turning his hat nervously in his hand.

“Very well, I’m sure he would enjoy the company, Mr. Harper.  I don’t think you should have any trouble finding anything in the barn.  Charles usually keeps things in tidy order.”

“I’m sure I’ll do fine.  Thank you, Ma’am.”  Jess said, putting on his hat as he walked out the door heading behind the house to the barn.  Everything was laid out and easy to find.  It only took him a few minutes to hook up the doctor’s carriage, though the horse tried to bite him twice.  By the time he was finished the doctor was coming out the back door carrying his medical bag.

“Good morning, Jess.”  Dr. Canfield greeted him cheerfully.  “The wife says you have an injured man back at your ranch?”

“Yeah, bad leg wound. He bled out pretty bad before he reached the house.  Daisy stopped the bleedin’, but he looks mighty pale ‘n lost a lot of blood.  I hope he’s still alive when we get there.”

“Then we better get going, don’t you think?”  The doctor said, climbing up into his buggy. Jess went to the front of the house to retrieve his horse. 

 Riding along beside the carriage, the doctor asked him, “Who’s injured?” 

“A boy who hasn’t been in town long. I think his name is Billy Jackson.”

“Oh, not someone from around here, then.”

“No, I think he’s from Texas.” Jess responded not comfortable with the line of questioning.

“Oh. Isn’t that where you came from, originally?”  Doc Canfield asked.

“Yeah, but that was a long time ago.”

“Ah, Jess.  You’re still a young man. It was not all so long ago. Wait until you reach my age then it might really be a long time ago.”  The older man chuckled to himself.

“Sometimes I feel older than you, Doc.  It depends on what I’ve been doin’.” Jess said with a congenial smile.

“I know full well what you mean. The wife has me helping her in her garden from time to time.  All that bending over and pulling on what she tells me are weeds makes my back ache for days.”  Doc Canfield said as he tapped his horse with the buggy whip to get him trotting along a little faster.

“With me it’s fallin’ off horse’s we’re breakin’ for the army.  Some of ‘em can be pretty ornery.”

 “Ouch. I gave up riding horses long ago. I won’t go anywhere without this old buggy.”

As they reached the outskirts of town Jess started watching the locale around them, looking for any likely places for an ambush.  A few times the doctor made a comment or asked a question but Jess’ mind was preoccupied studying the landscape for danger. He had to apologize asking the doctor to repeat himself a few times. Finally he said, “I’m sorry, Doc. My mind is on the boy. I ain’t thinkin’ real straight ‘n I reckon I’m only half listenin’.”

“That’s okay, son. The wife says I chatter too much, anyway.  I just love to talk. I talk to myself, sometimes.  At least then I know I’m having an intelligent conversation with someone who understands me.”  He laughed, Jess followed suit not really hearing everything the doctor had said to genuinely share the laugh.  He was just trying to be polite.

They passed several other buggies and wagons traveling toward town.  Most waved or called out a greeting to the doctor who greeted each of them cheerfully in return.  Jess was relieved he didn’t need to keep the doctor from stopping to chat.  At least Dr. Canfield realized his visit to the ranch was critical. 

Once they were about a mile from the ranch, Jess was tempted to lope on ahead but had second thoughts that Jackson might be waiting to pick off the doc as they rode into the ranch.  He was also concerned about Slim having to change the relay horses alone. He’d be exposed to almost anything when he was busy getting horses ready or grooming them after their run.  If only he could catch Jackson unaware and draw a bead on him with his rifle as he sat in ambush outside of the ranch.  He wouldn’t give it a heartbeat of a thought to pull the trigger.  He’d had enough, there would be no more talking. 

He was lost in his thoughts when the doctor called to him, “Jess?”

“Oh, sorry. I was someplace else again, I’m afraid.  What did ya say?”

“Will you be able to put the injured man up for a while to allow him to heal?”

Jess hadn’t even thought of having Billy staying at the ranch, wounded or not.  “I… I reckon we can put ‘im up.  I’m sure Slim can arrange somethin’.”   He didn’t want to commit himself, but he knew Slim wouldn’t allow Billy to be moved if it would endanger his life. Jess felt a little ashamed of himself, he would have moved Billy out to the middle of the pasture if it were up to him. 

As they approached the ridge and everything looked clear Jess said, “I’m gonna ride ahead ‘n let ‘em know you’re almost to the ranch. I’ll see ya in a few minutes.  Walk on in, I’ll take care of your horse ‘n buggy. I should have my horse put up by the time you get there.”

“Alright, Jess., I’ll see you in a few minutes.”  Jess tipped his hat, and moved out, ahead of the buggy trying to clear his head of all the thoughts that were running through his mind.  He didn’t feel good about himself, but felt justified.  He hoped everyone lived through this, except Jackson.  None of this would be over until they were shovelling dirt over Jake and he wanted to be the one throwing the first shovel full on the man’s casket. Then and only then would he know it was truly over, but then, there was Billy…, he didn’t know what to think about the kid. And if the boy survived, he reckoned he’d have to deal with those thoughts later. Right now, Billy wasn’t a threat.

Riding into the yard he met Slim carrying his rifle from the barn heading for the house. When he saw Jess Slim stopped, waiting for him.  “Where’s the doc?” he asked as Jess caught up with him.

“Right behind me. He was talkin’ my ear off. I couldn’t think anymore. I left him just over the rise.  He’ll be here in a minute. I told him to go straight in the house ‘n I‘d take care of his carriage.  How is Mike takin’ all this?”

“He doesn’t know very much, but he sure noticed Billy’s likeness to you.  We haven’t told him any more than we found him wounded on the porch during the night. I was waiting for you to come up with a good story. You’re better at it than me.”

“Yeah, thanks.  I gotta put Traveler up ‘n be ready when the doc gets here to take his buggy. I’ll let you talk to ‘im, I’m talked out.”  Jess led Traveler to the barn and readied his horse to put him in his stall.  Before he was finished he heard the buggy pulling up to the front of the barn. He put Traveler in his stall and rushed out to take hold of the carriage horse by the reins. Once again the horse tried to bite him.  Slim helped the man climb out from the buggy while Jess held the carriage steady, glaring at the horse, being careful to not get bitten again. The blond rancher escorted the elderly doctor into the house.

 Not wanting to go into the house yet, Jess found things in the barn to keep him busy.  Occasionally he wandered to glance out the door, keeping watch over the open fields, looking for dust indicating riders heading toward the ranch or any tall grass moving to a different rhythm against the slight breeze.

 

 

Chapter 13

Inside the house Daisy graciously greeted Dr. Canfield, leading him immediately to the boy laying on the floor bundled in blankets and being warmed by the roaring fire from the fireplace. The doctor took off his coat then bent down to take the pulse of the unconscious boy. He could see right away what Jess meant about the boy’s pale color, his skin was almost translucent. Pulling his stethoscope from his bag, he unwrapped Billy’s blanket from around him to listen to his heartbeat. This was the first real glimpse he had of the boys face. Recognizing the resemblance to the man he’d left outside, he was taken aback for a second giving Daisy and Slim a puzzled look but said nothing.

He pulled the batting away from the wound after wetting it for easy removal. Examining the wound he determined that it looked clean and the bleeding had indeed stopped. The boy was lucky that an artery hadn’t been severed or he probably would have bled to death long before he reached the ranch. The entry wound was from the front, being the cleaner smaller hole. The most destruction was done from the exit of the bullet through the rear of his leg where some bone had been shattered.  Dr. Canfield complimented Daisy on her excellent care removing the splinters from the injury as well as her skill at bringing the bleeding under control. Her time served as a nurse during the war had taught her many things, treating wounds such as Billy’s on many occasions. The doctor determined that it would be a matter of time before they’d know whether the boy’s knee was affected but he was sure with proper care the young man would survive, retaining at the least a limp for the rest of his life. Before bandaging the leg, he took a final look at the more damaged side of the leg, spotting a tiny piece of splintered bone.

“Could I have a lamp over here? I think I see a couple more bone splinters here that need to be removed.  I need more light.”

Slim lit a lamp, bringing it to hold over where the doctor was working. 

“I did my best to pick out what splinters I could,” Daisy offered.  “I was more concerned with getting the bleeding to stop.”

“And you did an excellent job, Mrs. Cooper. Yes, the bleeding needed to be stopped.  If he was still bleeding I probably wouldn’t be able to see them either, they’re very small.”  He proceeded to pick at the bone chips causing some fresh bleeding from his probing. Once finished he bandaged the leg, after repacking the extremely injured area with more batting.

“What do you think, Doc?”  Slim asked.

“If we can keep him warm and alive over night he might make it. It really isn’t a serious wound, it’s the blood loss that concerns me.  Now I have a question.”

“Sure, Doc,” Slim responded.

“Who is this lad?  And I don’t want to hear you don’t know.  If it were darker in here I would have thought it was Jess lying there.”

“We’re not real sure. From what we can gather he might be Jess’ half brother.”

“Strange. Jess never mentioned that in our conversation. Why is he here? Where did he come from?”

“We don’t have those answers yet. We hope he’ll be able to tell us more if he comes around. Jess talked to him in town the other day. The boy claimed to be Jess’ half brother. Jess doesn’t want to believe it and it’s a long story why.  I think we all agree he looks a lot like Jess.”

“Slim?” A weak little voice came from behind the partially closed door of one of the bedrooms.

“Yes, Mike.”

“Kin I come out yet?”

“Hello Mike,” Dr. Canfield called to him, even though he couldn’t see him behind the door.

“Not right now, Mike. The doctor is trying to help Billy. It’ll be a little while yet.” Slim told him, in a gentle tone.

“Kin I go outside with Jess, then?”

“Mike, please, one thing at a time. Just play with your raccoon or do some homework,” Slim responded, a little edge to his voice this time, his patience running thin.

“It’s too dark in here with the shutters closed. I can’t do my homework,” Mike whined, determined to get out of his room and not miss any more of the doings in the ranch house.

“Okay. Bring your books out here and sit at the table.”  It took Mike a few minutes to gather his things before he tiptoed out of his room. He very carefully and quietly set his books down on the table. As he pulled out a chair, he pursed his lips together due the sound it made scraping against the wooden floor. Once seated he positioned himself so he could watch all the activity going on around the stranger, the one who looked like Jess. He had trouble keeping his eyes on his work and from straying to look at the wounded man. Wanting to ask where Jess was, he remained quiet instead of asking, knowing he’d be sent back to his room if he made his presence too obvious by speaking. It was better that the grownups forgot he was in the room. Maybe he could overhear what was said and find out what was really going on. He could tell that Slim was already on his last nerve and he surely didn’t want to be the one to press it.

Waking up that morning to find the wounded man being cared for by Daisy and a less than usual breakfast offering on the table was confusing enough. He couldn’t believe he’d slept through most of the excitement.  When he saw the man’s face, he first thought it was Jess lying there and he became extremely upset but was quickly assured by Daisy that it wasn’t Jess.

Most of his questions were either ignored or went unanswered as Daisy continued to fuss over the wounded man and Slim stood watch at the window with a rifle in his hands. He asked where Jess was and was told that he’d gone to town to fetch the doctor. At least he got one of his questions answered but asking why Slim was at guard at the window was never acknowledged, a quick change of the subject deflected the reason and a morning of Mike do this, Mike do that and Mike go to your room began.  He wasn’t even pushed to do his morning chores. Something big was going on and the grownups didn’t want him to know. Oh, how he longed to grow up so he wouldn’t be treated like a child anymore and people might tell him when there was something wrong so he could help, not sit in his room with nothing to do.

“I made him some broth and he took some earlier. He comes in and out from time to time.” Daisy mentioned to the doctor.

“That’s good, Mrs. Cooper. If he comes around again give him all he’ll take.  And water, lots of water. He’s feverish but it doesn’t seem to be terribly high. I see you’ve been using a cloth to keep his face cool.  Keep that up.  Right now fever is the least of his worries. He needs to build up some blood.  Broth and water will help. He’ll get stronger as his blood builds and he should spend more time this side of the dream world.” Dr. Canfield instructed as he packed up his medical tools.

The door opened as Jess walked in. He stationed himself near the window where he could watch the yard.  He didn’t say a word only glancing back into the room to where everyone was gathered around Billy, not noticing Mike sitting wide eyed at the table.

“I think we can move him to the couch, now. I repacked the wound. As long as he doesn’t start bleeding again I think we’ve done all we can do for now.  Jess, could you help us get this lad to the couch?”  Doc Canfield asked.

“Sure,” he said, without enthusiasm. He joined the others and waited for them to choose which part of the boy’s body they were going to lift. Jess drew carrying him by the shoulders.”

“Be careful with his head.”  Daisy said, fussing around behind Jess. The three men were able to get Billy laid out on the couch. Daisy went to work right away tucking blankets over him trying to help settle him in so he would be comfortable, tucking a throw pillow under his neck.

“Wait, Mrs. Cooper. I have to make sure his leg didn’t start bleeding again.”

“Oh, of course. I’m sorry. I’m just so worried he’ll get cold. I’ll go heat up the broth. He might wake up now that you’ve moved him.” 

“Keep the broth warm. Someone may want to sit up with him all night and every time he comes around, force some on him. Water, too. That’s very important.”  Canfield further instructed.

“We will,” Daisy said as she headed for the kitchen. Putting the soup on to heat she also put a fresh pot of coffee on to brew calling out to the men, “I’m making fresh coffee if anyone is interested.”

“No thanks, Mrs. Cooper. I have to head over to the Bradley’s place I’m running later than I expected today.  I told them I’d be there before noon. Slim.  Jess.”  He said nodding to each of them.  “You know where to find me if you need me. I reckon I’ll be at the Bradley’s for less than an hour, so if you need me come look there first. I think the lad will sleep the rest of the day and all night. Here, let me leave some laudanum if he needs it. Mrs. Cooper knows how much and how often. She’s taken care of you boys often enough.”  He chuckled.

“I’ll pull your buggy around for you.”  Jess volunteered as he made it quickly to the door before anyone had a chance to stop him. 

“Thanks, Doc, for coming out,” Slim said extending his hand to shake hands goodbye. He opened the door for the doctor and walked out on the porch with him. They watched as Jess led the horse and buggy to the porch, the horse trying to take sideways nips at him every few steps but no one seemed to notice except Jess as he grumbled under his breath.

“What is it with Jess? He’s acting so strange and if that boy is his brother he acts like he doesn’t care.” The doctor whispered to Slim.

“A long story. I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as I know more, okay. We’re working on Jess. Maybe he’s just shocked to find out he has a brother he never knew about. I don’t know yet. You’ll be one of the first to know.” Slim whispered back.

“Here you go, Doc. I think I’ll let you ride this one alone.”  Jess said.  “I reckon Slim’s found a ton of work for me to catch up on while I was gone.”

“Thanks, Jess. Take good care of that lad, both of you. He’s no where near out of the woods yet.”  Dr. Canfield said as he climbed into his carriage. Slim and Jess watched him drive out of the yard

“Well Pard. How about a cup of coffee?”  Slim asked.

“Sounds good to me.”  They entered the house where the aroma of fresh coffee hung in the air. They both went to the kitchen to catch Daisy already pouring them each a cup of the steaming hot liquid. 

“What did Dr. Canfield say to you after I left the room?” she asked Slim. 

“Just to give him as much broth and water as he’ll take. He left a bottle of laudanum on the mantle, if he needs it. He said you knew how much.”  Slim responded provoking a smile from Daisy. Yes, she knew how much laudanum was necessary to quiet a patient or help ease the pain of an injury. 

Jess took his cup into the greater room once again posting himself at the window to watch the yard, rifle close at hand. 

Mike continued to sit quietly at the table. He was done with his homework but rather than be sent to his room for being in the way he tried to become part of the furniture so he wouldn’t miss anything. Keeping a book open in front of him, on the premise of still working he turned to look at Jess who was standing with his elbow on the windowsill sipping from his cup.  The rifle was against the wall just a foot or so away from him.  Mike was concerned, really wanting to know what was happening but he knew if he asked he’d surely be sent to his room.  Observation and keeping his ears open he hoped might answer some of his questions.  Glancing at Billy, Mike decided he had to speak up.  “Jess. I think he just moved.”

Jess looked at Billy, then back to Mike, startled that Mike was even in the room. “Naw, I don’t think so.”

Knowing he could get away with more with Jess, Mike thought he’d press his luck. “Who is he an’ what happened to him?”

“Just someone comin’ from or goin’ to town ‘n got hurt on the road.  Musta been shot near the ranch ‘n wandered in here.” Jess responded.

“Oh.”  Mike replied not satisfied with his big brother’s response but he was afraid to ask why the young man looked so much like Jess. That question might send him straight to his room, so he held back hoping to overhear something to explain all the strangeness going on.

Slim wandered into the room carrying his cup, walking to stand next to Jess.  “See anything?”

“Nope. Nothin’ but chickens.”

“Oh, I didn’t feed the chickens today.”  Mike said almost falling as he stood up quickly from his chair ready to run out the door.

“They’re fed. I did it while I was waiting for the stage.”  Slim assured the tow-headed youngster, then passed a pained look at Jess before returning his attention to the boy.   “Mike, I think we need to talk. Let’s go to your room.”

“Okay.”  Mike picked up his books, happily carrying them with him to his room. Maybe now he was going to find out what secrets the adults were keeping from him he thought. Slim followed him into the room closing the door behind them.  He went to the window, opened the shutters and looked out. Not seeing anything he left them open and sat down on the bed next to Mike.

“Mike, there’s been a lot going on around here that you don’t know about yet.  I reckon you need to know some of it since you might be caught up in this, too.   There’s a very bad man out there that wants to hurt Jess and everyone he loves, including Daisy, me, and you.  We found out about it and that’s why we’ve kept you home from school and keeping you inside. That’s why the windows are all shuttered.  We’re doing our best to protect you and Daisy and the whole ranch. We think the bad man shot Billy.  We’re not sure why yet.  We have to wait until Billy can tell us what happened. I’m sorry if I’ve been a little short with you. My head is going in circles and trying to keep you from worrying has made me a little on edge.  I reckon you’re really old enough to know when things are wrong and we all need to be careful. Do you see why I’ve been making you stay in your room?”

Mike shook his head yes, slowly.  “Why would someone want to hurt Jess?”

“He’s blaming Jess for something that happened a long time ago that Jess had nothing to do with. Since he can’t get even with the man he blames for his trouble he wants to make Jess pay for what he thinks Jess’ father might have done.”

“That’s silly. If Jess didn’t do it why would he want to hurt Jess?” Mike asked totally puzzled with the gravity of the situation.

“He’s a sick man, Mike. Sick in the head.  His mind doesn’t work right.” Slim told him.

Mike contemplated the thought then asked.  “Why does that man out there look like Jess?”

“He could be a brother Jess never knew he had.”

“Huh?  How…?.”

“I’ll try to explain that to you sometime when we have more time to talk.”  Slim said, relieved that he had a good excuse at the moment to not have to explain the facts of life to the youngster.  “Right now we have too much going on.  If you hear any shooting I want you to hug the floor and crawl behind or under something. I hope it doesn’t come to that but I want you to be safe.  Do you understand?”

“Sorta.”  Mike paused giving thought to his next question.  “But why does Jess hate his brother?”

“I don’t think he hates him., Mike.”  Slim was at a loss how to handle the question. “He’s just in shock to find out about him and angry at the man who shot him. You know Jess, when he’s angry with someone he’s short with everyone. We’ll talk about all this later.”

“He doesn’t even talk to him or ask about him.”  Mike had observed in the short time he was allowed in the outer room.

“Really, Mike, we can discuss this later. There’s a lot I don’t understand myself.  Once this is all settled, we’ll tell you the whole story. Just keep yourself in the house and away from any of the open windows.  I’m going to shutter your window again now.  If you hear anything behind the house, be sure to tell one of us. I have to go help Jess and Billy, now.”

Mike rolled over from a sitting up to a lying position on the bed watching Slim leave the room. He was more confused now than ever.   “Grown ups.  I don’t think I’ll ever understand ‘em, even when I git big,” he said to the little raccoon peeking over the side of the box next to the bed.

Jess glanced at Slim when he came out from Mike’s room but didn’t say anything.  Slim asked, “Has he moved or anything?”  Motioning toward where Billy lay.

“Not that I seen. But I ain’t been exactly watchin’ ‘im. I reckon he’s not much of a threat right now. I sure hope Doc Canfield didn’t run into any trouble after his visit. I really wonder where Jackson is. Mort said he hasn’t seen ‘im now in a few days ‘n when I talked to Billy he said his uncle was in Cheyenne. I reckon as long as he’s there we’re safe here for a while. That is if it’s the truth.”

“Want me to stand watch?” Slim offered.

“I was thinkin’ we should go ‘n get the horses ready early. The stage is due soon ‘n the less fussin’ we have to do ‘n the sooner they’re outta here the better.”

“Good point. Hand me my rifle.”  Jess handed Slim his rifle and both men went outside to get some of the chores done.

Daisy was busy in the kitchen keeping the broth hot but also checking her patient frequently, keeping his face moist, hoping to keep his fever down.  Occasionally his eyes flickered or opened but they weren’t seeing anything in this world. Daisy could tell the man was not truly conscious but if he would swallow she was sure to spoon some broth down his throat. 

She felt badly for Mike, going to his room to see if there was anything he wanted or anything she could bring him to do or eat. He told her no and that he and Slim had a little talk about what was happening.  “You’ll hide, too, if they start shootin’ won’t ya?” he asked.

“I reckon I will, unless they need my help.  I used to be a pretty good shot with a rifle when I was younger.”  She smiled trying to assure the boy that they would all come out of this without a scratch.

“Oh, Aunt Daisy,” he said, not believing her story about being a good shot with a rifle.

“I was, Mike. My father taught me how to shoot a long time ago. I don’t think you ever forget. I plan to stay out of the way but if I need to help them, I will.”

“What about me?” he asked. Thinking for a moment Daisy sat down on the bed next to the worried youngster putting her arm around him.

“You can do your best job staying out of the way and making sure you don’t get hurt. You do as Slim said and everything should be fine.” Standing up she was about to leave the room when Mike continued.

“Aunt Daisy?”

“Yes, Mike.” She turned to look at him again, a reassuring smile on her kindly face.

“Who is that man and why doesn’t Jess like him.”

At a loss for words, at first, she finally found some, “You told me Slim told you what he knows. I don’t know any more than Slim, Dear. It’s hard to guess what Jess is thinking. I know he’s acting angry, but it’s probably anger for the man who shot Billy, not Billy.

“Is he really Jess’ brother?” The boy continued to press.

“Maybe. Maybe we’ll find out soon. I think Billy’s getting a little stronger. Maybe he’ll be able to talk to us pretty soon.”

“I told Jess I thought I saw him move but Jess didn’t go check. He said he was busy.” Mike told her.

“You think Billy moved?” Daisy showed some excitement over the observation.

“Yeah. Sorta lifted up his hand a little.”

“That’s good information to have, Mike, thanks for sharing it. I’ll have to make sure he’s comfortable. Would you like some hot chocolate?”

“Yeah!” The youngster responded enthusiastically with a big toothy grin.

 

“Okay, I’ll be back in a few minutes. I might have some cookies in the jar, too.”  She smiled at him as she left the room closing the door behind her.

Immediately she went to check on Billy.  She couldn’t tell if he’d moved or not. She felt him for fever then wiped down his face, tucking the blankets around his neck to be sure he wouldn’t catch a chill.  Before she left his side he moaned a little and his eyes flickered open. This time he appeared to be looking directly at her but it was hard to tell. He closed them again letting out a long breath before sleep overtook him, his breathing once again becoming very shallow. 

Remembering Mike, she went to the kitchen, put some milk on the stove to make the hot chocolate she’d promised him. While it was heating she put some cookies on a plate. Once the milk was heated she prepared the treat taking it to his room.  Mike lit up, aglow with a brilliant smile forgetting about all the present tension.  “Thanks, Aunt Daisy.”

“You are very welcome, Dear. Here, let’s turn up your lamp a little more. You need more light than this. How is your little friend doing?” she asked, knowing she’d been too busy to give the youngster the attention he craved and needed.

“She’s a handful already. It’s gettin’ harder to make her stay in the box. She got out ‘n climbed up on the bed with me. But, Aunt Daisy,” he turned sad eyes in her direction, “please don’t tell Slim. He’ll make me put her outside.”

“Well, that will be our little secret. I think she needs to stay in here a little longer, too. She really is so cute. Have you thought of a name for her yet?”

“Not yet but I was thinkin’ of Chipper,” he smiled.

“Why that sounds like a fine name for her.  She sure is chipper. Look, Mike, I think she likes her name.”  They watched as the little creature tried to get out of the box by catching a hold of the corner of the blanket hanging off the bed to climb up on the bed then straight into Mike’s lap.

“I think she’s hungry again,” Mike said, reaching for the baby bottle sitting on the dresser next to the bed. The little animal eagerly started sucking on it making little mewing sounds, thoroughly enjoying the meal.

“I’ll call you when it’s time to eat. It’ll be a while, yet.  Be sure you wash up, well.” Daisy left Mike’s room then picking up her needlework from the table, she sat in a chair near the window where she could keep an eye on the sleeping Billy, watching for any signs of improvement or if he moved as reported by Mike. If he had moved, she felt that it was a good sign that he was going in the right direction with his recovery. Humming softly to herself as she rocked and stitched, she glanced at Billy from time to time but nothing had changed. Nothing moved except for the rhythmic raising and lowering of the blanket as he continued to breathe.

 

 

 

Chapter 14 

Slim and Jess took turns doing the chores while the other stood guard or did something minor so not to not pull his attention from watching the fields around the house and barn. The stage came and left without incident. Mose reported that Mort wanted them to know that he still hadn’t seen hide-nor-hair of Jackson.

 

Grooming the horses after Mose had left, the boys discussed more of the possibilities regarding Jackson, his no longer being in Laramie and the situation they were saddled with having Bill at the ranch.  “Maybe he’s afraid he killed the kid,” Jess suggested, “’n the law’s lookin’ for ‘im.”

 “That would be good luck for us. It might be worth spreading the word that Billy died.  Maybe that would make him take off if he thinks the law's looking for him,” Slim responded.

“Could work but for how long? If he finds out different he could show up when we’re not ready for 'im. He’s like a rattlesnake ya never know where he is or when he’ll strike. An’ keepin’ that boy here, I don’t know what to think about that.”

“You know, Jess, we’re assuming Bill was shot by Jackson. We don’t know for sure. He could’ve been shot leaving or coming back to town. A hold up, who knows? Jackson might not even know anything about him being shot or being here. And how will he react if he finds out?”

“You're right, Pard. I reckon until we know the story there’s a lot of questions we can’t begin to answer.  How is Mike takin’ this?” Jess asked.

“Hard. He has a lot of questions, most of them I can’t answer. Jess, when Mike’s around, please pay some attention to Billy. Mike noticed the likeness and I’m sure he believes he is your brother. He asked me why you hate him.”

“What did you tell him?”  Jess asked, a little bitterness entering into the tone of his voice.

“I put it off as a long story that we'd tell him about later.”

“Did you tell him who Billy is?” the dark haired man asked with some caution.

“Not really but I think he knows or feels more than we suspect. Just don’t let him see you treating Billy like he’s nothing, no matter how you feel. Mike has no family but us. He’ll never understand you acting the way you do toward your half brother.  He’s going to find out more and more as things develop.  Show a little compassion, okay?”

“Yeah. I’ll try. Looks like we have things pretty well set for the day.  Nothin’ to do until the next stage, I reckon.” Jess said, trying to leave the subject of Billy behind.

“Oh, there’s plenty to do, it’s just that we’re pinned down so we can’t do it. We might have to start taking some risks. We can’t have our cattle and horses running loose all over the territory.”

“I could go for some coffee.  How about you, Pard.”  Jess said hopefully, glancing toward the house.

“Yeah, I reckon we can do that.  I wonder how Billy is doing?  I’m sure Daisy is keeping a good watch over him. He couldn’t have a better nurse.”

“I reckon.” Jess agreed with some trepidation. 

Entering the house, they found Daisy leaning over Billy trying to force some beef broth into him. “How’s he doing Daisy?”  Slim asked as he stood next to her. 

Jess took his post at the window not showing any concern for his brother. "I'll be back in in a minute. One of the horses is pullin’ loose."  Jess reported, glad to have a reason to leave the house, hoping to return when they were done fussing over Billy and ready to talk about coffee again.

Daisy and Slim acknowledged him but quickly returned their attention to the injured young man. “I’m not sure, Slim, I think I'm seeing something behind his eyes when he opens them now. He’s been taking in quite a bit of the broth. I think I’ll thicken it a little.”  Daisy said as she continued to spoon the warm elixir into the injured boy.

Billy opened his eyes and it was obvious he was focusing on Slim.  He tried to speak but only a weak squeak came out of his mouth.  Even that small effort left him exhausted. “Billy, can you understand me?  Blink once if you do.”  Billy purposefully blinked once.  “I think we might have him back a little.”  Slim said to Daisy.  “Let’s see if we can find out what happened.”

Daisy stopped feeding Billy, going to the kitchen to make a thicker soup, adding some mashed vegetables to the meat stock. 

Slim continued to question Billy.  “I’m going to ask you some yes and no questions.  Blink once for yes, twice for no. Can you understand that?”  One blink.  “Good. Do you know where you are?”  One blink.  “Do you know how you got here?”  One blink.  Do you know who shot you?”  One blink.  “Was it Jackson?”  One blink.  “Damn, I figured that.  Was it a way to get you in here so he had a way to get at us?”  Two blinks.  “Then why did he shoot you?  Sorry, I have to ask that in a different way.  Did he shoot you on purpose?”  One blink.  “Was it so he could set us up?”  Two blinks.  Billy’s mouth tried to make words but no sound came from him.  Slim could tell the young man wanted to tell him what had happened but couldn’t.  He didn't want to tire the boy but he wanted answers to why he was there at the ranch.

Poking his head back in through the door Jess said, “I’m gonna go out 'n take another look around. I’ll fire if I need help.”  Jess swiftly closed the door before Slim could respond.

Jess first went to the barn and looked about, checking every nook and cranny. Satisfied that nothing was amiss, he took a stroll around the outside of the barn examining the fields and rock formations for any sign of someone lurking.  In the distance the grass moved.  Raising his weapon he continued to watch the movement until a lone wolf appeared, only on the hunt for a fat rabbit for his dinner.  Smiling to himself he thought, ‘Jess, you’re way too jumpy,’ as he lowered the rifle and continued to watch the wolf hunt for a minute or two until it disappeared behind some rocks.

He then examined the corral and behind the house, scrutinizing the land as far as he could see in all directions. There was nothing to indicate that anyone was anywhere near the ranch house surroundings.  It was very curious that Jackson hadn’t come around.  He had his agent inside.  Where was he?  Jess wondered  

 

 

 Roaming around at the back of the house and behind the smokehouse he heard a rider coming down the road toward the front yard. Taking cover behind the shed he raised his rife in case it was Jackson. When the rider entered the yard he knew it wasn’t Jackson but didn’t immediately recognize who it was. When he did, he lowered his gun stepping out to meet the rider. “Carl.”  Jess said as he greeted the man who reined his horse to where the dark haired rancher stood.

“Hi Jess. Mort asked me to ride out and give you ‘n Slim a message.”

“I hope it’s good news.”

“I don’t know. Just deliverin’ what he told me.  Mort said to tell you that Jackson hasn’t been seen in town 'n he got word from Cheyenne that he was there.”

 “Did he say when Jackson was seen, ‘n when did he get the message?” Jess asked with arrant interest.

 “He got the message just before he sent me out here. Mort says that he thinks Jackson might be layin’ low until he finds out what happened to his nephew.   Sorry, Jess, that’s all I know.  I hope it’s good news.”

 “I reckon it depends.” wrinkles furrowed the younger man's forehead.

 “Do you want me to take anything back to Mort?"  Carl asked.

 “Yeah. Tell him the kid is still alive ‘n to let the doc know. Tell him we’ll send anything new by stage. Thank him for the message it helps to know where Jackson is holin’ up. Thanks, Carl, for ridin’ all the way out here.”

 Carl laughed.  “T’weren’t nothin’. Glad to get away from the wife 'n kids for a while. I reckon I better get back ‘n give Becca a break from the kids.”  

“Thanks again, Carl. Much obliged. We owe ya, Be careful on the ride back home, 'n our regards to Becca."  Jess said.

 “Not a worry. I was in town, anyway, Mort needed to take on some extra deputies.  Kin always use a little extra money. Like I said, it gives me more time from havin’ kids climbin’ all over me. Got another excuse to not go right home, I reckon." the older man smiled, "I'll get your messages to Mort before I head for home. You take care, Jess. I hope everythin’ works out okay for ya all.”

“Me, to, Carl, me, to.”  Carl rode off as Jess watched him disappear over the hill. He didn’t want to go back into the house yet but figured he'd better give Slim the news.  As he approached the house he saw Slim standing on the porch. He wasn’t sure how much Slim overheard or how long he'd been standing there. Jess took a quick look around the area then ambled up onto the porch. “Did you catch any of that?” he asked Slim

 “A little. Give it all to me.” Slim's eyes narrowed, not sure of the news.

“Mort checked on Jackson 'n found out he is in Cheyenne, at least he was there when he got the message back. Not really much more than that. I reckon it gives us a little breathin’ room but not much.  Cheyenne’s not that far away. He could be out there,” he motioned toward the front of the ranch, “by now for all we know. It  does sound like he mighta made a mistake in shooin’ the kid ‘n he’s layin’ low to find out if Billy died.”

“Could be.” Slim agreed, glancing out over the fields, as they spoke.

“I’m thinkin’ it wouldn’t hurt to let him think he did kill the kid, then he might not be so quick to comin’ back.  Only problem is we’re ready for him, now.  If he comes back when we’re off our guard he could have his way with us. I've been givin' it some thought.   I reckon if he’s gone for now, it might be best for me to move on. If I’m not here and long gone he’d have no reason to come after ya, unless, ya keep the kid here. It sound’s like he’s done usin’ ’im. I’m leavin’ that call to you  I ain’t stickin’ around if it’s gonna cause Jake to come back here after you.”  Jess said matter-of-factly, showing that he had already made up his mind.

 “Jess, let’s get past this before you think about leaving. Things won’t be the same around here without you.”

“Slim, if it works out, you've got Billy. Everyone says how much he looks like me, ‘n from my little talk with him, he’s probably got the same attitude 'n pocket full of troubles as me.  Maybe less in his pocket, for that matter.  With me gone, you’d be safe from Jackson, is all I’m sayin’.”

“Jess, none of that makes sense.  You’re not thinking straight.  I can’t see you running away from this and Jackson. I know you too well.  You’ll stay here and see it through.  Besides, what if Jackson starts blaming Billy for his sister’s death, he’d be back.  We need you here.”

“Maybe." He thought for a few seconds before continuing, "Depends, Slim. I got a lotta thinkin’ to do. I gotta do what’s best for all of us.  What you do here is up to you.”

“Then, if it’s up to me, you’ll stay.” Slim commanded.

 “You know what I mean. I didn’t come here to lay my trouble on you and I ain’t gonna let anyone here die or be hurt ‘cause of me. I told you that before.”

 “Yeah, and you’re still here and so are we.”  Slim’s voice was showing some anger as he raised his voice. “We’re a family and we help each other. We stand up for each other. If the tables were turned you wouldn’t leave me here to face Jackson alone. Jess, you’re family and you belong here. Your problems are our problems. Now I don’t want to hear any more of that kind of talk from you. We’ll get through this. And as far as Billy goes, we’re only trying to pull him through this until he's well enough to leave. What happens later will be a whole new matter. You have to stop trying to think so far ahead. We have to live now, in the present, and you're a big part of that present and I don’t want it any other way. Now get in the house.  We’ll take care of the stage together when it gets here and we’ll handle anything else that comes along together, when it happens. Do you understand me?”

Jess hung his head. He knew Slim held a high regard for him, but not that he was willing to it risk all on his behalf. He was totally humbled and speechless. Slowly he followed Slim into the house, the wind knocked completely out of his sails.  Once inside, Jess grabbed Slim by the sleeve before they were in much farther than the door.  “Thanks, Slim. You know I ain’t never wanted to be no trouble, that’s all. I’m glad you want me to stay and proud to be your partner.”  He then smiled.  “An’ what you said about stayin’ here to back you if the tables were turned, yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry I didn’t think you felt the same.”

“It’s okay, Pard. That’s over and done. Just,” Slim poked Jess in the chest with his index finger with each word, “don’t ever forget it!”  Putting his arm over his partner’s shoulder Slim guided his partner into the kitchen. “I don’t ever want to have to say all that again. Got it?  Now let’s have some coffee and a piece of that fresh pie I smell.”

“Yeah, I got it,” he said humbly then sniffed at the air, “Mmmmm, pie smells just baked 'n good n hot. Hey Daisy, do we have some fresh heavy cream to put over it?” Jess said with enthusiasm.

“Why Jess, that sounds like an excellent idea.”  Daisy said, turning away from the water pump to proceed quickly out to the butter house. 

“I’ll get Mike to come have some with us. Poor kid’s been locked in his room all day.”  Going to Mike’s room, Jess opened the door.  “Hey, Tiger, Daisy just baked a fresh apple pie 'n we're gonna have some now while it's hot. Ya think ya'd like some?"

“I could smell it in here. I was hopin’ we could have some while it was still hot.”  Mike smiled, jumping up off the bed where he'd been reclining, reading a book.

“You got it, Tiger.”  Jess grabbed the boy and threw him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes carrying the giggling youngster out of the bedroom to the kitchen before setting him down. 

Slim stood at the back door watching out for Daisy in case anything were amiss, but he felt pretty confident that with Jackson sighted in Cheyenne, they were safe, at least for now.

Daisy brought in some thick cream along with a pitcher of milk, cut the pie and put it on the plates that Mike had taken down from the cupboard. Slim got out some cups, and hooked them on his fingers, picked up the coffee pot and carried them to the table.  “Mike, grab that cream.  We’re going to put some over the pie,” he told Mike, as he was turning the corner.

“Wow, that sounds great,” the blond boy said, hardly containing his enthusiasm.

“Jess’ idea.” Slim pointed over his shoulder toward Jess who was un-shuttering the window in the kitchen.

“I reckon we kin loosen’ up a little, for a few hours,” Jess said, walking to the table, dry-scrubbing his hands together and licking his lips when he saw the hot apple pie with cream poured over it waiting for him.  “And what a way to celebrate.”

They all sat down to enjoy their pie and coffee, Mike his glass of milk. Daisy glanced to the couch and the sleeping boy. She wished to herself that he could join them and that he would soon be well enough to do so. But he was showing only a few signs of improvement since they found him. At least he was awake some of the time but still so very weak. She would continue to pray for him.

Finished with their treat Daisy cleared the table. Slim stood up and said, “Well, Mike, I reckon you can go outside for a while, until it starts to get dark. Go take care of the chickens.  I think they’re fine,” he glanced at Jess, “but I’m sure they'd like a visit from you. Oh, and take the basket. I think they have some eggs waiting for you to gather.”

“Okay. Does this mean everything is okay, again?”

“For a while. We need to hear more about the bad man I told you about but we have good word he’s in Cheyenne right now.” Slim assured him.

Mike shot up from the table with dimples about to jump from his cheeks as he ran to the kitchen for the egg basket, first stopping to take a quick glance at Billy. In a flash he left the kitchen and was out the door headed for the chicken coop, intending to spend time at the cages of his other little creatures once he had the eggs safely in the house.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 15  

Mike was having a grand time outdoors with his animals.  Jess was on the porch with his rifle keeping an eye on the yard, making sure he could see Mike at all times.

Inside, Billy started to moan and move a little bit.  Daisy put down the plates she was clearing from the table to rush to his side.  “Billy?  Are you all right?  Are you comfortable?  Want some broth?  I’ll be right back.  Slim. Oh, Slim.”  Slim was in his bedroom shaving, he dashed out to see what Daisy wanted, half his face covered with lathered soap.  Using the towel he had over his shoulder, he wiped his face.

“Daisy?” He queried, since she was nowhere to be seen.

Poking her head around the corner from the kitchen, Daisy replied, “Slim. Billy’s awake again.  I’m going to heat up the soup.  He was stirring and might be uncomfortable.  He might need your help.  I’ll be right there.”

Slim went to the couch where he saw that Billy was looking directly at him; there was a little sparkle back to his eyes.  “You need anything?  Want me to set you up more or something?”  Blink your eyes once for yes, twice for no.”  Billy blinked his eyes deliberately once.  “Okay.  Hold on.”  Going to the door he opened it, asking Jess to come into the house.

“I need help moving Billy.”

“Why?” Jess asked, not taking his eyes off Mike or scouring the countryside.

“He was moving. He says he’s uncomfortable.”

“He’s awake and talkin’?” Jess was astonished that the kid had recovered so quickly.

“No. He’s awake but still too weak to talk. I asked him and he blinked once. That’s how we’re communicating right now. “Slim told him.

Calling Mike to wait on the porch Jess went into the house.  Standing next to Slim, he looked down at his half brother just as Slim spoke, “Billy, we’re going to move you so that you’re sitting up more.  Jess, you watch out for his leg while I try to prop him up.  I don’t want us to bump it or let it fall.  Wait, get that chair over there to put his foot on.”

Jess went to the table bringing back a chair, propping Billy’s bad leg on the seat. Slim lifted the young man while Jess kept his leg steady on the chair.  “How’s that Billy?  Any better or do you want to be up more?”  One blink.  Again the two men helped Billy into a more sitting up position, Slim propping some pillows behind and around him.

Daisy came around the corner carrying a bowl and a spoon.  “Oh my, what are you boys doing to him?” she scolded.

Slim quickly replied, “I asked him if he wanted to sit up, he said yes so we’re trying to get him comfortable.  How’s that Billy?”  One blink.  “See?”

Billy lifted his hand but feebly let it drop.  He was still very weak but it looked like he was reaching out for Jess.  Slim could see the discomfort in his partner’s eyes since they both realized the gesture. Billy’s lips moved again but being very dry he could barely part them. “Billy, the tall blond began, “I have to ask you one more time.  Did Jake Jackson shoot you on purpose?”  One blink.  Jess saw it, too. Looking at Jess, Slim said,  “Okay, you saw what he said, too.  That’s the second time he said that Jackson shot him on purpose.  We have to get that to Mort.  It should be enough for Mort to arrest Jake for attempted murder.”

“Here, let me give him some broth.  He looks awfully dry.”  Daisy said pushing herself between the two ranchers.  They both stepped aside to let her get closer to Billy, sitting on the edge of the settee.   At first he shook his head no, trying to speak again, but relented when Daisy spooned some broth into his mouth.  “See, dear. You were hungry after all. Would you like a little bread in your broth?”  Billy blinked once.  “There.  See, you’re getting stronger all the time. Jess could you bring me some bread.  I have some cut on a plate next to the stove.  Slim could you bring me a chair?”

Jess nodded his head yes, heading for the kitchen as he was asked.  He thought, ‘So Billy wants to talk to us now, I wonder what kinda lies he has to tell us.’

After getting a chair for Daisy and helping her shift from the couch to the chair, Slim met Jess in the kitchen before returning with the bread.  “He was reaching out to you, Jess. You saw it.”

“I’d didn’t see any such thing.  He just lifted up his hand.  It could have meant anything. He probably wished he had a gun in it.”

“Jess, stop it. Give the boy a chance.”

“You’re gonna give him the benefit of the doubt?” Jess said sarcastically.

“I did you. Was I wrong?”  The question knocked Jess backwards, but rather than respond, he remained silent. Hurt showed in his eyes that Slim would throw his past at him at a time like this.  “Besides he’s no threat to us right now.”

“Just be careful where you lay down your gun,”  Jess said, once he recovered from the emotional slap in the face, “or a knife.  Remember their plans for Daisy.”

“Jess, you sure are a hard nut to crack.”  Slim said, loosing patience with his partner.

“You didn’t talk to him, Slim,” Jess reminded his friend, anger escalating in his voice.  “I did. That kid is so full of hate he’ll strike the minute he gets the chance.  If he hurts Mike or Daisy, I’m layin’ it on your head. I warned ya.”  Jess started to walk away but turned back around, “But I ain’t goin’ no where.  Someone’s gotta stay here to protect you, whether you want me here or not.  Oh yeah, you ordered me that I couldn’t leave, I nearly forgot.” After a short pause, he more calmly said, “I’m sorry Slim but his whole thing has me so confused, I reckon I’m not thinkin’ before I say somethin’, I didn’t mean to be hurtful.”

“Neither did I, Pard.  So, will you give him a chance?” Slim asked hopefully.

“I’m tryin’. I’m tryin’ real hard, Sim, but if he steps out of line once, I can’t say what I might do.  You better remember that and give ‘im that message for me.  An’ when he’s up and around he best stay clear of me, Daisy and Mike. He’s all yours.”

“Some chance your giving him Jess. Imagine if that was the chance I gave you?  Let’s just take this one day at a time. I hear the stage, come on, we got work to do.”  Slim said, not giving his partner a chance to argue as he headed for the door.  Jess followed behind him, dropping off the plate of bread with Daisy as he walked by not missing a step.

The two men walked out the door, Slim ordered Mike to go inside. They proceeded to change the relay team, knowing their jobs well all was going smoothly, giving Slim time to think. He was baffled from the recent discussions he’d had with Jess.  His friend’s mixed emotions had him puzzled, first wanting to leave then saying he had to stay to protect them.  He wasn’t sure which one was really the ticking time bomb, Jess or Bill.  One minute Jess sounded like he wanted to help his brother, the next he was looking for an excuse to kill him.  Slim hoped neither exploded and that things would work out, hating the state they were all in, not only the situation presented by Jackson, but the circumstance of having Billy in the house and Jess being worked up all the time.

As the stage driver climbed back up onto the stage, Slim asked, “Mose. Did Mort have any messages for me?” Slim

“No. He said if you asked, ta tell ya he had nothin’ new. You have anythin’ to pass on to him?”

“Nope, nothing new here, either.  Mose, you’re headed for Cheyenne this run, right? “The tall rancher asked.  Mose nodded his head, yes.  “And we’ll see you on your return trip tonight, right?”

“Yeap.”  Mose replied.

“Could you stop in and see Marshal Watson in Cheyenne?  Ask him if he has any news on Jackson.  He’ll know who you mean, he’s telegraphed Mort about him. I’d like to know if Jackson’s still there and what he’s doing.  Ask him to telegraph Mort that Billy said it was Jackson who shot him. Between the two of them they might be able to put Jake behind bars.  When you get back to Laramie could you check to make sure Mort got the message?  If not, tell him what Bill told us, okay?”

“You got it, Slim. In fact, I’ll mosey around a little ‘n see what I kin find out. I got a two-hour lay over ‘n will be down to the saloon. I’ll keep my eyes ‘n ears open.”

“Mose, don’t be too obvious.  No need to get yourself in trouble or wrapped up in any of this. Oh, not a word about Billy if anyone asks.  No one has seen him since he rode out of town. Only Mort and Marshal Watson need to know anything. Okay?” Slim cautioned the older man.

“I’ll be real careful, Slim.  I ain’t never heared of no Billy.”  Mose smiled, ‘I’ll let ya know what I find out on the trip back through,” he then slapped the reins directing the horses on toward Cheyenne. 

Jess returned from the barn after putting the horse’s equipment away.  “Mose was here longer than I expected?  Was he flirtin’ with Daisy, again?”

“No.  He’s going to check in with the marshal in Cheyenne for me to see if there’s anything new on Jackson.  I asked him to have the marshal telegraph Mort that Billy said that it was Jackson who shot him.  Maybe between the two of them one of them can nab him and put him in jail to hold him over until Billy can testify.”

“If they put him behind bars it couldn’t be any too soon.”

 “Yeah, we’d all sleep a little easier.” Slim smiled.

 “Until the kid’s up and around.” Jess said.

 “Jess!” the smile now gone from Slim’s , replaced by a furrowed brow.

 “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. I know. I reckon I best keep my feelin’s to myself. But watch your back, Pard. I’m dead serious. It’s those little rattlers that hold the most venom, ya know,” Jess said, turning his back to return to the barn.

Slim stood shaking his head.  How was he ever going to get though to Jess. He started to follow after him but decided to let Jess cool down on his own.  ‘Some chance you’re giving that boy, Pard,’ he thought as he watched Jess walk away. ‘I wish sure I could help you sort it out.’

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16

When Slim re-entered the house Daisy was still spooning soup into Billy. “His second bowl, Slim.  And he ate quite a bit of bread in the broth, as well.  He doesn’t feel feverish any longer, either,” she said cheerfully.

“That is good news, Daisy,” Slim said as he looked down at the reclining boy, noticing that he had more color to his face.  “I think you’re going to make it through all this, Bill. Keep resting.”

With a scratchy voice Billy said, “Talk to Jess?”

“No, I don’t think you’re up to talking to anyone yet. Maybe tomorrow. Jess is busy in the barn doing some chores that we haven’t gotten to in a couple of days.”

“He’s right.”  Billy forced out in little more than a raspy whisper.

This got Slim’s attention.  “Right about what?” A hint of anxious suspicion coming to his voice, “That this is a setup?”

Billy shook his head no, then said, in a very halting manner, “About… my uncle…..  Crazy……  Jess…… made me….. see.”

“Okay. Get more rest. We’ll talk with Jess tomorrow. Maybe you can tell us more then.”

“You up to some apple pie yet, Billy?” Daisy tempted.

Billy smiled weakly and shook his head yes. “Kin try…. ma’am”

“I’ll go get it Billy. I’ll be right back,” Daisy said, patting his knee on his good leg before scurrying off to the kitchen.

Slim pulled up another chair next to the one Daisy had been using and sat down. Billy tried to talk some more but Slim put his hand on his chest, not letting him.  “You’re going to wear yourself out and make yourself worse again. Just rest and eat for now. We’ll talk tomorrow if you’re up to it, okay?”  The boy nodded, conceding.  “Water?”  Slim asked.

“Not now.” Billy responded his voice a little less gravely.

“I can tell you’re one of them hard headed Harpers. You’re as stubborn as your brother about listening to anyone. Now quiet,” Slim ordered. Billy’s smile was as charming as his brother’s as he shook his head in agreement. Daisy came around the corner with a plate of pie and a fork for Slim as well as for Billy.  “Thanks, Daisy. How did you know?”

“I’m doing some mind reading these days.” She smiled at him as she sat down to start feeding Bill.  “There’s coffee heating now, if you want some too, if you don’t mind watching it.”

The tall blond took a fork full of apple pie, beaming his enjoyment, but quickly his delight turned to a look off concern,  “Daisy, I sure wish you could tell me exactly what’s going on in Jess’ head.” Distracted by Jess’ recent behavior, Slim blurted out his concern forgetting that Billy was there and conscious.

 “Why’s that, Slim?” The gentle lady asked, forking the last bite of pie into the injured boy.

“He doesn’t seem to know how he feels. He’s angry all the time, won’t talk, or if he does, well, there’s no reasoning with him. I hope he can get himself together and soon. I’ve always thought I could figure him out, but this time I just don’t know what to expect next.”  Slim responded, his concern genuinely registering in both his voice and on his face.

“Oh. He’s just real confused, Dear.  We’ll talk about it later.”  Daisy said, not wanting to discuss the matter openly in front of Billy.  “We need to let Bill get some rest.  Right Bill?”

“Pie?”  Billy asked, it was evident he wanted more, unaware that Slim’s concerns about Jess had anything to do with him.

“Yes, there’s plenty more, but you better take it easy. I think that was enough for now. We don’t want you getting sick, do we?  You sleep now.”  Daisy said as she got up accepting the empty plate from Slim and taking the dishes to the kitchen.

Slim stood up looking down at the recovering youngster, “Yes, you be sure and rest up for tomorrow. Maybe we can get some things settled. Sleep well,” he said as he reached down to lightly touch the boy’s shoulder.

“Night,” tumbled from Billy’s lips. Slim frowned at him for the word, but then threw him a smile to assure him that all was well with him. Billy smiled, reading exactly what Slim was communicating.  ‘Yep, another Jess, alright, has to have the last word.’  Slim thought to himself as he wandered into the kitchen for some of the coffee Daisy told him was brewing

Pouring a cup, he told Daisy, “I’m going out to the barn to help Jess in a minute. If Mike wants to come outdoors it should be okay. Tell him to make sure he checks in with us first so we can watch out for him.”

“He’s in feeding his raccoon right now. I’ll tell him if he comes out. He’s actually been reading a book, Slim. I really want to encourage him to continue. It’s been so difficult to get him to sit down and do some reading. Cooped up here in the house has given him an incentive to give reading a try. Apparently he likes pirates.”  Daisy told Slim with a smile of delight.

“Yeah, that’s good,” the tall man agreed. “Not the pirates, but wanting to read,” he interjected.  “I’ll be back in a little later.”  He gave her a hug before departing, still wanting to discuss Jess’ attitude with her but decided that the work in the barn was a priority, at least for the moment. They could talk later he hoped.

Placing his hat on his head he stepped out on the porch taking a look around the visible panorama of the ranch. The coolness of the air was refreshing as a breeze was whipping up from the north.  Not a sign of anyone, not even Jess. When he entered the barn, he heard Jess talking to someone. Eavesdropping, he realized that his partner was brushing his horse, carrying on his conversation with Traveler. Continuing to listen, he was curious to hear what Jess might be saying to his horse. If it had anything to do about Billy it might give him some insight to what was going on in Jess’ head. Instead he was telling the horse that they would be bringing in some fresh green hay for him shortly. Slim wished he’d been there at the beginning, sure that Jess spilled out his heart to his horse. It seemed that Jess could share his thoughts a lot easier to his horse than to anyone, including Slim. But then, Jess never had to fear reprisal from his horse for speaking his mind. A safe outlet, the blond man thought, but not very enlightening for Slim.  “Need help?”  Slim asked, making his presence known. 

Jess spun around like lightening, his gun in his hand.

“Whoa there Pard.  It’s just me.” The rancher’s heart hastened as he put his hands up at waist level.

“Not a good time to be sneakin’ around, Slim. I told ya to warn me!” Jess scolded. 

“I wasn’t sneaking. If you weren’t so involved in your conversation with Traveler you would’ve heard me.”

“How long you been standin’ there?” the dark haired man questioned.

“Just came in. I wanted to tell you that Billy is starting to talk, just a few words, but he’s getting stronger.”

Jess stopped brushing his horse, staring straight ahead as if in a trance for a few seconds.

“I think we need to talk with him tomorrow. Both of us.” Slim said in a tone that would tolerate no argument.

Jess came out of his trance and restarted brushing his horse. “Yeah. Okay.”  Slim could tell Jess wasn’t pleased, but at least he agreed without a debate.

“I wonder what Mose might have to report to us tonight on his way back from Cheyenne. I hope that telegraph got through to Mort. Maybe we’ll have news that Jackson is in jail where he belongs.” Slim reminded him.

“Maybe.” Jess said showing little enthusiasm.

“Don’t get so excited, Pard.”  The taller man said, puzzled by his partners lack of zeal.

“I will once I know he’s behind bars.” The younger man responded, matter-of-factly.

“That’s it?”  Slim probed, knowing Jess had more to say.

“Yeah, for now that’s it. You know all the rest. I ain’t gonna go over it all again, unless you’re lookin’ for a fistfight.”  Jess said, glancing at his partner with a sour look.

“Nope. I’m just fine.” Slim said, holding his hand in front of him, showing he had no intentions to getting involved in any kind of fight.  “I just wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything still stuck in your craw.” 

“It’s still stuck. You rammed it down my craw. Let’s leave it at that.” Jess’ brushing motion picked up more vigor as he spoke.

“You got it, Pard.”  Slim let the conversation pass him by. He was done pushing Jess to see if he’d explode. Jess was holding his control pretty well, so he decided to drop the matter for the time being.  

“When this is all over, I think we need to take a couple of days off to go fishing, what do you think?”  Slim asked, trying to change the subject, to lighten the mood and supply a little hope. He could tell his partner was still deeply troubled from their conversations, sure the present vagueness referred to Bill staying at the ranch. That was enough perception, for now. He’d deal with it more after they’ve had their talk with Bill. Maybe then Jess would be more willing to discuss things and empty his craw.

“Yeah, I reckon.” Jess responded, bitterness still evident in his voice. “When it’s over.”

“I’m going behind the house. I noticed the kitchen shutter looked a little loose. I think I’ll tighten it up. I sure could use some help.”  It was more a feeble request than a need, both men knowing that tightening it to be a chore that could be handled by one person alone.

“I’ll be there when I’m done here.” The younger man responded, sounding much calmer. Jess was glad to know his partner wasn’t angered by what he’d said and was still wanting his company.

“Bring another hammer. I’ll get the rest of the tools when I see what we need. I think there’s a hammer over there on that ledge.”

“Okay,” Jess said as he continued to stubbornly brush his horse.  Slim was about to ask him if he planned to brush all the hair off his horse, but he knew this was a form of therapy for Jess, so he let him be. Gathering a few tools, Slim then dropped into the house to tell Daisy that he was going to be working on the shutter, so she’d be aware of what the banging was going on outside the kitchen window. She shushed him, pointing toward Billy, who was lightly snoring.

 “I think he’ll sleep through it. If not, it shouldn’t take us long,” he whispered, as he left through the back door to see what he needed to repair the outer window panel.

Examining the shutter he found that one of the hinges was loose, which would have been an easy repair, but the board beneath it was starting to rot.  The board would need replacing so the hinge would hold tightly.  It was a bigger job than he’d expected, the one shutter needed to come down for the repairs, the other was still sturdy, he noted with relief.

Back at the barn he told Jess the bad news, while he searched through a pile of scrap lumber they kept in an empty stall for its repair value.  Finding one he thought suitable, he pulled it from the pile, knowing it was longer than he needed.  ‘Better to have to cut it than it not be long enough,’ he thought.  Holding it up, he showed it to Jess who was leading his horse back to his stall.  “I think I’ll fit. A bit long but we can cut it.  Right thickness, looks like. I reckon it’ll do, but until the wood is all the same color, we’ll never get any rest from Daisy.”

“So, we don’t tell her. If she doesn’t see it, maybe it’ll take some time before we have to paint all the shutters to match again.” Jess volunteered cracking a devious smile.   “I’ll fetch the measuring tape and a pencil.  I think I left both in the box over there by the grain bin.  I used them when I fixed the mouse hole on the bin last week.”

“I’ll bring the board and get the saw. Meet you behind the house.”

“I’ll be right there.” Jess said, as he headed for the box sitting on the shelf over the grain bin.

A few minutes later both men were busy pulling the shutter down. As it turned out, the wood was farther gone than Slim thought.  It would have only taken a strong arm to pull the hinged panel away from the house.  They had it down from the side of the house in no time.  “I reckon I better check the rest of them while you get started.  If this one’s bad, there could be more.”  Slim remarked, none to happy with what he’d found, hoping that if there were more repairs that they had enough lumber on hand to fix them.

Jess measured and marked the board after measuring the one that needed replacement.  He placed the uncut board against the shutter to make sure they lined up then picked up the saw.  He had nothing to rest the board on for cutting so he headed back to the barn for some sawhorses.  As luck would have it, Slim came around the house to see Jess carrying one under each arm.  “Hey, let me give you a hand with that.”

“Thanks, Pard. Nothing solid enough back there to saw on.” Jess said, handing one of the horses over to the taller man.

“Yeah, I should’ve thought of that. The rest of the shutters look fine. One has a hinge that could use tightening, but the wood looks good. We can fix it after we finish with the one on the kitchen.”

“Which one is loose?” Jess questioned.

“The one on Mike’s room.”

“Yeah, we wanna be sure to check that one real close.” Jess replied. “We don’t want that animal anywhere near Mike. Wish we could do more.”

Behind the house they set up the sawhorses and Jess sawed the piece if wood.  Slim removed the hinges from the old rotted board to ready it for the replacement piece.  When Jess finished sawing, he handed the board to Slim to complete the actual replacement.  “I’ll go look at Mike’s shutter. If we need a new board, I’ll go hunt one down.” Jess said, already moving in the direction of Mike’s bedroom window.

“I don’t think it will, but go ahead and check it to be sure. We have the time and more lumber to fix it.  I saw at least two more boards like this in the pile. We might as well do it now if it needs it. You’re right, we don’t want anyone getting into his room too easily.”  Slim called after his friend.

“Mike and Daisy’s rooms need strong shutters, especially now. Any doubt and I’ll replace them myself, if I have to.” Jess sternly declared.

Slim didn’t like the manner in which Jess spoke about fixing the shutters himself. Usually they teased about these things, but this time it didn’t quite sound like teasing to him. Rather than make something of it, he let it pass. They already had enough tension to deal with for now. He knew he’d leaned on Jess quite hard earlier and he held his control. No need to push any further. If Jess was just letting off more steam, it was better to let it go. They needed to keep their wits about them.

Jess made the rounds rechecking all the other shutters for himself. He felt a little guilty about how he’d responded to Slim.  He didn’t mean to imply that Slim didn’t care if the shutters weren’t properly repaired or tight, nor that he wouldn’t help if they needed to be fixed. 

“Get it together, Jess”, he said to himself under his breath, stopping at Daisy’s room first.  As Slim had noted it looked solid and tight with no movement or signs of rot. Next he moved on to Mikes bedroom shutter, giving it a sharp tug at the corner.  The hinges were a little loose, so it rattled and banged from his effort. Inside he heard Mike yell as he ran from his room.  “Jess, Slim, Aunt Daisy, someone’s tryin’ to break into my room!” 

‘Damn.’  Jess thought.  He yelled through the shutters, “No, it’s me Mike.”  But it was too late, Mike never heard him.

“Daisy grabbed the panicking youngster around the waist to stop him, “Shhh. You’ll wake Billy. No one is trying to break in, that’s just Slim and Jess fixing the loose shutters.”  She glanced at Billy who was wakened by the youngster’s hysteria. “I’m sorry, Billy, she apologized.  “Everything’s all right, just a misunderstanding.  Would you like something to eat or some water?”

“Water.”  Billy responded with his raspy voice.  Mike was awed that the silent man was finally speaking. Daisy poured the young man some water, holding it for him to sip. Mike had tagged along after her and was standing by her side his curiousity peaked.

“Hi, Billy. My name’s Mike.”  Mike said, grinning at the young man.  “So happy to see yer feelin’ better.  We bin real worried about ya.”

Just then the front door flew open as Jess rushed into the house.  “Mike. Didn’t you hear me?  It was only me.”  He said, winded from his dash around the house. You did the right thing, though. I thought Slim told you we were workin’ on securin’ the house.”

“Naw, but Aunt Daisy just told me. Billy’s awake ‘n he kin talk now.” Mike told him, the terrifying event all but forgotten.

“That’s good Mike. I gotta go finish workin’ on your shutter. I just wanted to make sure everyone was alright,” he apologized, relieved to find that Mike was perfectly calm. Knowing that everything was all right, he left the house quickly.

First he walked around to the rear of the house to tell Slim what had happened. Slim got a chuckle out of it. “Funny, he didn’t get frightened when I rattled the shutter.”

“Well I reckon I gave it a harder yank than you, probably made more noise than you did” Jess said, defending himself.

“I got that impression when you walked away from here that you might.” Slim replied, unable to stifle a smile.

Jess sheepishly dropped his eyes from Slims. “Yeah. I kinda got outta line, again, didn’t I, I’m sorry, Slim.  I ……..”

“I’m tense, to.”  Slim interrupted. “Let’s make a deal, Pard. We won’t take any thing said all that personally. I’m sure I’ve been out of line myself on a few occasions. Deal?”

“Deal.” Jess said, once again lifting his eyes to meet Slim’s. The tall man was offering his hand, a broad smile on his face. Jess gratefully took his partners hand in a bonding handshake.

Unable to suppress a grin, imagining the episode that went on in the house, Jess said, “I reckon Mike scared the bejesus outta Daisy and Billy, but Daisy got everything back under control.  Billy’s awake, again, ‘n I reckon Daisy’s fillin’ him up with anything she can get down him.” Jess chuckled, having been in the same position in the past, he knew how attentive and pushy Daisy could be when trying to nurse someone back to health.

They finished the shutters, cleaned up the tools and put everything away. “That took longer than I expected.”  Slim commented as they walked from the barn toward the house looking to have a cup of coffee as a reward for their hard work. “It’ll be time to eat soon, then time for Mose to come through with the stage, again.  I hope he has some good news for us.”

“Yeah, me too. I wish town was closer. I’d be tempted to ride in to find out what Mort knows.”

“I reckon if there was anything important to report, he’d send someone out to tell us. It sounds like he took on some extra deputies since he sent Carl out before.” Slim assured him.

Jess followed Slim into the house. Daisy was in the kitchen preparing dinner while Mike sat with Billy.  “You’re not making him talk, are you Mike? He’s supposed to be resting.”

“Nope, just keeping him company. I been tellin’ him about the book I bin readin’. Did ya know he can’t read?”  Mike exclaimed incredulously.

Putting his hand on Mike’s shoulder, Slim said, “Well, Mike, not everyone is as lucky as you are to get an education. Maybe when Bill is feeling better, and if he wants to, you can teach him to read.”

“Wow. That would be great, wouldn’t it, Billy?”  Mike exclaimed.

“I’d like that.”  Billy said smiling at Mike, his voice sounding much stronger than earlier.

“I told you, no talking. Save it for tomorrow. We’ll have a long talk then.  You, me and Jess.”  Slim reminded the youth.

Billy brightened up to the news. Slim could tell Billy was anxious to include Jess in their meeting. He also knew how Jess felt about it and could only imagine the reaction Jess had listening to the present conversation, but he wasn’t about to turn around to see for himself. This was difficult enough for all of them.  “You rest now, Bill. Mike, you go read in your room, let Bill get some sleep before super.”

“Okay.” Mike replied brightly, skipping off to his room, closing the door behind him. He re-opened the door, poking his head out. “Hey, it’s dark in here. I think I need more oil for my lamp, it went out. Can’t read in the dark, ya know. Aunt Daisy said it would hurt m’ eyes.”

“I’ll go get it for you, Tiger.”  Jess said, thankful to have a reason to escape the house for a few minutes, still avoiding as much contact with his brother as he could.

 

 

Chapter 17

After dinner was over, Jess and Slim went out to get the team ready for the evening stage. They were anxious for Mose to get there with what news he might have from Cheyenne.  Daisy had made some fresh pies earlier and instructed them that if Mose had time, to send him in for pie and coffee along with any passengers in the coach. She said she had plenty for everyone. Billy was getting stronger by the minute and she didn’t think any visitors would tire him during the short period of time they’d be there. It might even perk him up to see some new people, she thought. 

While the team awaited the arrival of the stage, Slim and Jess busied themselves in the barn with the evening chores. Once again they started carrying their rifles with them and using caution as they worked, not allowing themselves to become absorbed enough in their job to be unwary about what was going on around them.  They had no idea how long ago Jackson was last seen in Cheyenne. Since the stage was coming from Cheyenne, even if Mose saw Jake with his own eyes, Jackson would have enough time to ride to the ranch before the stage arrived if he avoided the roads, coming through the countryside. 

The two men finished their various chores and decided to await the stage sitting on the porch, taking turns at occasional walks around the perimeter of the house and keeping close watch over the open fields. It turned out to be almost relaxing to be able to sit silently in each other’s company, enjoy the cooling of the evening and just wait for that last stage of the day to arrive. Once changed out and the horses settled they’d be able to go in the house for the rest of the evening. 

“What do you think about tonight?”  Slim finally broke the silence.

“What about it?”

“Take turns sleeping?” The taller man queried.

“I reckon that’ll depend on what Mose can tell us when he gets here. If Jackson’s in jail we can both get some shut eye.”  Jess grimly grinned.  “No news, I reckon we loose some sleep tonight.”

“That’s what I’ve been thinking. That stage should be here pretty soon,” Slim said, settling his head back to rest it on the back of the rocker.

“Too bad we can’t leave the horses in the corral for the nigh,” Jess ruminated.  “But then, if Jackson is in jail, maybe we can. I’ll go check the water trough and fill it. If they can stay out, we can toss hay out after the stage leaves.”

“That sounds good to me, Pard. I know they prefer the freedom of the corral, but sure I don’t want to see any of them get shot should it come to any gunfire, though.”

Jess left to check on the trough. He pumped some fresh water into it then took a walk around behind the barn, looking deep into the fields. When he got back to the porch Slim said, “The stage is a little late, about ten minutes, now.  I hope there isn’t any trouble.”

Ain’t like Mose to be off schedule.  Maybe he’s got a lot of passengers or one was runnin’ late.” Jess replied

“I hope that’s all it is.” His hopes were revived when they heard the clatter of the approaching stage on the other side of the rise approaching the ranch from the main road.  Mose brought the team in on an easy note not causing a panic to the few remaining chickens still pecking around before heading for the coop, giving them plenty of time to move out of the way. Both men could tell at the pace of the team, there were passengers.  Slim called into the house to let Daisy know before walking out to meet the stage. Usually Jess would be getting the horses from the post, but this time he was anxious to hear what Mose had to reveal so he stood next to Slim waiting for the coach to stop.

Mose, being his cruel teasing self, said nothing when he pulled up on the horses, only yelling “Whoa” as they came to a stop, then, “Got passengers.”

“We noticed, Mose. Do you have any news?”  Slim anxiously asked.

“Oh, that. Yeah I do.”

“Well?” Jess said impatiently.

Mose climbed down from the box and strolled grimly to where the two men stood before breaking out in a huge grin. “They got ‘im!”

“Jackson? They got Jackson?” Jess asked, not able to believe what he heard. “Where?”

“The marshal sent off the message to Mort like you asked me to have him do. He got Mort’s message back to arrest ‘im. When he saw Jackson go walkin’ by on his way to the saloon he arrested ‘im.”  Mose glowed, thrilled to be the bearer of such good news.

“Daisy has coffee and pie in the house for everyone. Let’s help the passengers out of the coach and go in and celebrate.” Slim said with a broad smile that lit up his blue eyes.

“But what about the team?  I’m runnin’ a little late, already.” Mose responded.

“Well, then, I reckon you don’t have time for pie,” Slim teased.

“I didn’t say that.” Mose laughed, going back to the stage to tell the passengers they were about to have some of the best pie this side of the Mississippi. Slim helped down one of the ladies, Mose the other. The gentleman aboard stepped down by himself.

“I can get the team ready, if you want. I’ll have my pie later,” Jess offered.

“I was just funnin’ ya,” Mose said. “I kin make up those few minutes on the way into Laramie with the fresh team. Let’s go git that pie.” Mose took up the lead, heading for the front door at a much faster pace than the rest, the passengers following after him.  Slim stayed behind shaking his head watching him with great amusement. ‘I hope I’m that spry when I reach his age,’’ Slim thought to himself.

“Looks like we get some sleep tonight, Pard.” Jess said to his partner as they followed the passengers into the house.

“Looks like.” Slim agreed, glad to feel the strain of the past few days lighten.

Daisy counted heads as the people passed through the door. “Please, everyone have a seat at the table.  I’ll be right out with pie and coffee.” Mose was the first at the table and sat down. The gentleman passenger held the chairs for each lady to be seated before he sat down, himself. Mose felt a little uncomfortable having forgotten his manners but he got over it when Daisy emerged in from the kitchen carrying several cups and the pot of coffee. 

The two ranchers entered the house, each taking a place standing, Slim by the fireplace, Jess leaning against the gun cabinet. Daisy poured coffee for all her guests, and then took a cup to each of her boys. She noticed that Billy was moving but didn’t think he was quite up to coffee yet. She looked closer, but his eyes were still closed, just stirring in his sleep, the visitors hadn’t disturbed him.  ‘The boy sleep like a log,’ she thought.

Going back to the kitchen, Daisy returned with a pie sitting on a pile of plates, which she placed on the table. She cut the pie and placed each piece on a plate, passing them around to her guests, then took Jess and Slim each a slice. She carefully made sure there was enough left so Billy could have some when he woke up. There was some small talk amongst the passengers and Daisy. She was curious where they were from and where they were going. When everyone was finished she offered more coffee. Only Mose wanted more but since the passengers appeared to be impatient he declined. Slim and Jess went out to get the teams switched while Mose herded his passengers back out to the coach after everyone had thanked Daisy for her delicious pie and wonderful coffee. The younger men almost had the team changed out by the time the passengers were settled back in the coach. Mose performed his normal double check of all the rigging before he climbed up to his seat for the drive to Laramie. “Well, sleep well tonight, boys. I couldn’t wait to git here to tell ya the good news.”

“Then why were you almost fifteen minutes late?”  Slim teased.

“Well, I reckon I got to thinkin’ on it, ‘n the longer ya waited the more grateful you’d be.” Mose teased back. “If I git good coffee ‘n pie every time I ‘ve got good news fer ya, I’ll be sure to bring ya all I kin find, even if I gotta make some up.”  he laughed. Slim gave him the signal they were done with the team, so Mose waved, turned the stage around to head out of the yard for the twelve mile journey to town and a good night’s sleep for himself and his passengers.

“I can’t believe he didn’t say anything about Jackson to Daisy,” Jess said.

“I reckon he didn’t know how much to say, how much she knew, and then with Billy in the room, I figure he was just being real careful,” Slim said, thoughtfully. “Great news isn’t it?”

”It’ll be better news if they can keep him. I just worry they’ll say it wasn’t a kill shot ‘n he’ll lie sayin’ it was an accident or somethin’ ‘n the kid’ll back ‘im, up ‘n they’ll turn him loose again. The wrong jury ‘n the right story, Slim, he could walk, ‘n we’ll be right back where we were. He seems to be able to convince a jury of his innocence.” 

Jess had Slim wondering now, too. Whose side would Billy take when it came down to a trial and putting his uncle in jeopardy?  And what if Jackson was found not guilty?  He was starting to have some doubts, himself, about how wise they were to have Billy at the house. But what else could he do? If they’d moved him, Bill might have died and Slim would have been responsible. With further thought Slim decided he’d done the right thing, the best thing for their present situation.

“So. Let’s go tell Daisy,” Jess said, showing some enthusiasm, the first Slim had seen in days.

“Go ahead, be my guest, Pard. I’m sure she’ll be real happy to hear about it,” Slim said, slapping Jess on the back as he followed him to the house. 

Daisy was feeding Billy and Mike was at the table enjoying his pie and milk when they entered the ranch house. When Jess saw Daisy with Billy he appeared to loose some of his spirit, stopping in his tracks. Slim gave him a shove.  “Well. Tell her.”

“Tell me what?”  Daisy said, turning away from Billy with a hopeful smile.

“Mose told us that the marshal in Cheyenne picked up Jackson for attempted murder and he’s holdin’ ‘im there.” Jess told her in a bland tone.

Daisy stood up, almost dropping the dish with the pie as she reached out for Jess, throwing her arms around him with a hug of jubilation. “Why didn’t he tell us?”

“He did.”  Slim added. “We think he might have been a little reluctant to mention it here, not knowing how much we may have told you.”

“He thinks we have secrets?” Daisy asked, showing that she was a little miffed to think anyone had any idea that her family held secrets from one another.

“He was just being cautious. Nothing to get yourself worked up over.” Slim chuckled at her reaction.

She sat back down, turning her attention back to Billy, offering him another forkful of pie, “Did you hear that, Billy? He’s in jail. You’re safe, now. Now we can concentrate on getting you well so you can tell the sheriff what happened and there can be a trial.”

Billy nodded with a smile, while he chewed the pie in his mouth.

“Well, with that off our minds for now, I reckon we can get some chores done around here. I’ll go put the team in the corral and get them some hay,” Jess said, heading for the door.

“It’ll be dark, soon, Jess. Take care of the horses and call it a day. We can use some time to unwind. It’s been like a volcano ready to erupt around here for too long. I’ll unload the rifles and put them up, awhile. It’ll feel good to not be carrying one around everywhere we go.”

“Okay, Pard. I’ll be back in a few minutes. It won’t take long to finish ‘em up.” Jess left, again happy to flee having to interact with the now wide-awake Billy.

Finished with the horses, Jess still didn’t want to go back in the house. It was a pleasant evening, too nice to be indoors now that they didn’t have to worry about a crazy man sneaking up on them in the dark. He opened the door and called to Slim. “I’m gonna sit on the porch for a while. It’s too nice out to be cooped up in the house like we’ve been. I’m gonna relax out here for a while if no one minds. Just so you know everything’s okay.” He closed the door, taking a seat on his favorite rocker and putting his feet up on the porch railing. Leaning back, he enjoyed the brilliant colors of the western sunset. There was barely a whisper of wind now. Only the sounds of the ranch and nature surrounded him. As he was finally able to relax, all the tension drained from him and he fell asleep in the chair.

After a couple of hours Slim wondered why Jess hadn’t come in yet. Wandering out on the porch he was surprised to see his partner sound asleep. He stood watching his friend’s steady breathing, finally at peace, and debated with himself if he should wake him or not. After some thought, he reckoned they’d both sleep more soundly in their beds, so he elected to wake him.  “Hey. Hey, Pard,” Slim gently nudged his friend, but the reaction he got was a rapidly awakened Jess with a fully cocked gun in his hand standing just inches before him.

His heart beating a mile a minute, Jess looked sheepishly at Slim. “Sorry, Pard. You shouldn’t sneak up on me like that, I told ya that.”

“Yeah, that’s twice you’ve pointed that thing at me now. I’m kinda getting tired of it, Jess,” Slim said, unable to hide his anger. You’re wound up tighter than my pa’s watch. Put it away and come on in,” he said a little more kindly, “let’s get some shut eye.”

Jess holstered his gun and followed Slim into the house. The tall blond walked into the bedroom, Jess was right behind him.  “You going to hang that out on the peg?” Slim asked, pointing at Jess’ gun.

“I told ya, until this whole thing is over, I’m sleepin’ with my gun close by. I got my reasons,” Jess responded, not about to back down.

“Yeah, I reckon you do.”  Slim was too tired to go over any of it again. ’ It’s a loosing battle.  He won’t give in until he’s proven wrong, so why try.’  Slim thought.  Time would tell which of them was going to be right about Billy. Slim hoped he was, not to say I told you so, but because he was genuinely beginning to like Bill. He saw a lot of Jess in him, not only in the facial and body resemblance. In his small interactions with the boy, he could see so many of Jess’ mannerisms. Both of them were Harper’s there was no doubt in his mind about it. He’d heard rumors about Irish tempers and willfulness and the Harper boys were giving credence to what he’d been told.

 

 

 

Chapter 18

The night went quickly, everyone slept soundly for the first time in days. The sun was up well over the horizon before Daisy woke and started cooking breakfast. It was the smell of the bacon frying that woke Slim. Jess was still lightly snoring in his bed, probably the first real rest he’d had since the whole affair started. Slim, not wanting Jess’ gun pointed at him for a third time in so many days, got up from his bed quietly, dressing in silence. Once he was dressed and ready to exit the room, he picked up his boots with one hand and his pillow with the other.  After opening the door he threw his pillow at Jess, ducking quickly through the doorway, closing the door hasltily behind him. He didn’t stick around to see how accurate he was, but from the grumbling going on from inside the bedroom he reckoned he made a direct hit, and was glad to not hear any gunfire. Smiling, pleased with himself, he sat down, pulling on his boots before checking on Billy. 

“Mornin.” Billy greeted him. His voice was still weak but not raspy, almost back to normal Slim suspected, another resemblance to Jess that he quickly recognized. Billy set himself up on the couch. Slim reached out to help him, but Bill waved him away. When he tried to move his injured leg, though, he was willing to have Slim help him prop it up on the chair beside the settee. “Much obliged.”

“How do you feel today, Bill?” Slim asked.

“Not ready to go out dancin’ yet, but other than Miss Daisy, I ain’t seen any pretty gals around here I’d want to dance with, anyway.”

Slim smiled at the boy and thought, ‘Just about what I would’ve expected Jess to say under the same circumstances.’

Jess came grumbling out of the bedroom, dressed, but his shirt wasn’t buttoned or tucked in yet, hair messed up and he was carrying his boots. He’d already strapped on his gun belt though, Slim noticed.

“Too early for you, Pard?”

“If your pillow doesn’t quit attackin’ me it’ll have a big hole in it ‘n loose all its feathers. I don’t reckon you’d appreciate the stuffin’s knocked outta it.” Jess said as he stood buttoning his shirt then tucked it in.

“Must have been a bad dream.” Slim remarked. “You sleep with the chickens last night?  You oughta do something with your hair or you might scare someone.”

Smoothing his hair, trying to ignore his partner, Jess said, “Coffee. I need coffee.”  In his stocking feet he wandered to the kitchen, grabbed a cup and took it to the stove to pour himself some coffee, “Mornin’, Daisy.”

“Good morning, Dear. Did you sleep well?”

“I was doin’ fine until I was attacked by Slim’s pillow.” Jess replied in a voice loud enough to be heard by his partner.

Daisy laughed. It was a common incident around there. Slim knew better than to startle his partner in the morning.  “Hungry?” she asked.

“Do you haveta ask?” Jess said as he put his arm around her waist to hug her to him.

“My, you’re in a good mood this morning,” she commented, pleased to see him smiling for a change.

“A good night’s sleep and a good cup of coffee to wake up to, the smell of bacon in the air, that would put any man in a good mood, even me,” he teased, raising his cup.

“Well, I wish you a lot of that kind of morning, Dear. I’ll try to keep up my part of the tradition to keep you in good spirits, if that helps.  The sleeping part is up to you.” She smiled as she forked the bacon to turn it over in the frying pan. “Do you want to wake Mike to go bring in some eggs?  I’ll need them in a few minutes.”

“Sure.” Jess left the kitchen carrying his cup, going to Mike’s bedroom door and opened it. “Hey, Mike.”

Mike rolled over, rubbing his eyes. “Huh?”

“Daisy wants you to get up ‘n get some eggs. You gonna sleep the day away?”

“No. Ooops.” As he pulled back the covers the baby raccoon hit the floor. “Please don’t tell Slim. She was cold and crying last night.”

“Our secret, Tiger. But you better go do what Daisy said. We all know she’s the real boss around here.” Mike giggled in response, picking up the raccoon and tucking her in the box as he picked up his clothes. Jess left him alone to get dressed, closing the door behind him. “He’ll be right out, Daisy.” he called to her from the table where he set down his cup, pulling out a chair to sit down and pull on his boots. Slim sat quietly talking to Bill. Once Jess had his boots on he ambled to the kitchen for more coffee. He was obviously trying to avoid talking to Billy, or Slim, while he was with Billy. He remained in the kitchen looking out the open back door at the field behind the house. “Another nice day, Daisy. Looks like we might get a chance to catch up on some of the work around here.”

Slim entered the kitchen. “Oh no you don’t. You’re not sneaking out the back door. You know what we have to do today.”

Jess turned around, sipping at his coffee, trying to look as innocent as he could.  “I wasn’t goin’ nowhere. Just enjoyin’ the mornin’ before we have to go to work.”

Slim gave him a small frown. He knew that Jess was aware what the frown was about. No need to exchange any words. “How’s breakfast coming, Daisy?” he asked.

“As soon as Mike brings in the eggs and they’re cooked, we can eat.”

“I’m here.” Mike said as he zipped by snatching up the egg basket as he ran out the back door. “I’ll be right back.”

“Jess. Can I talk to you a minute?” Slim asked, pulling Jess aside.

“Sure. What do you need, Pard?”

“We need to talk about Billy. Maybe outside so he doesn’t hear us.” Slim said in almost a whisper.

“You’re the boss.” Jess said, no longer as cheerful as he’d been a few moments ago.

“Don’t be long. Breakfast is almost done.” Daisy reminded them.

“It should only be a minute.”  Slim promised.

Jess walked through the door just as Mike rounded the corner to bring the morning eggs into the house. Slim stepped aside to let him in before he walked out the door, closing it behind him.

“I wanted to remind you. We’re having our talk with Bill today.” Slim said.

“I didn’t forget.” Jess said, distinctly uncomfortable to be cornered with the prospect.

“I’ll expect you to be nice, no matter what Bill says.  We’re both going to sit there and listen and remain calm. I don’t know what he’s going to tell us, but it might be something we can use against Jackson to keep him right where he is. If you blow up, it might make him stop talking and not tell us something important.”

“Yeah, I got it, Slim. All I can do is say I’ll try.”

Slim poked Jess in the chest. “YOU try real hard.” Slim said softly, but through gritted teeth.

“Can I ask questions?”

“Carefully. If I try to change the subject, follow my lead. Don’t go off on something that might not be important. Stay calm, real calm, and follow my lead.”

The door opened and Mike poked out his head. “Aunt Daisy said breakfast is on the table ‘n come ‘n eat it or she’ll feed it to Buttons.”

Slim put his hand on his partner’s shoulder and followed him back into the house, hoping they were prepared for anything they would learn from Billy. 

They all finished breakfast, including Billy, with Daisy’s assistance. She was pleased that Bill ate everything she’d put on his plate, eagerly trying to feed himself, no longer really needing her assistance but not wanting to hurt her feelings. 

“We better get out there and ready for the morning stage.” Slim said to Jess. Then he turned to Billy. “We’ll be in to talk to you after the stage leaves, okay?”

“Yeap. I reckon I’m up ta it. Thank ya Miss Daisy. Best breakfast I had in a long time,” the boy said. It was hard to believe he’d been so close to death only a few days before. His color was back and his eyes were sparkling clear and all sign of fever was gone.

“You are very welcome, Billy. I’m so glad to see you eating on your own. You’ll be up and around in no time. And thank you for the compliment for the breakfast.”  She smiled at him as she picked up the dishes from the table to take them to the kitchen. He was glad she noticed that he was capable of feeding himself. He was very uncomfortable being fed like a baby.

The two men put on their hats, leaving to prepare the relay team for their morning run. Since they’d all slept in later than usual, they’d just finished getting the horses harnessed when they heard the stage coming over the hill. Mose had nothing new from town or about Jackson. The passengers declined the offer for coffee and the men saw the stage off without ceremony.  “Well, Pard.  Are you ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.” Jess said, in better humor than Slim expected.

“Remember our little talk.” The tall blond reminded him.

“How can I forget. I was in fear for my life. You have a pretty sharp finger there, Pard.” Jess teased as he headed for the house, Slim following close behind him, just in case he decided to rabbit. 

“And the gun belt comes off when we go into the house, Jess.  I don’t want Billy to feel intimidated in any way.”

“You’re the boss.” Jess agreed, much to Slim’s surprise.

The two men entered the house and Jess did just as Slim requested, hanging his gun belt on the peg along with his hat. Daisy had already put two chairs by Billy as she cleaned up after breakfast. Coming in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, she said, “I think I’ll work on my needlework in my room while you gentlemen talk.”

“Thanks, Daisy.” Slim appreciated her recognizing the importance of the parley with Billy. He’d fill her in later when they were finished. Slim went to one of the chairs and sat down. Jess walked over, turned his chair around, sitting on it backwards, his chin on his arms, which were crossed, resting on top of the chair back.

Slim started. “Okay, Bill, we’re here for you to tell us what happened and why you’re here. We want you to start at the beginning and we might stop you to ask questions.  We need to get to the bottom of this and find out where we all stand.”

“I reckon I kin tell ya everything. There ain’t much ta tell, though.  My uncle was away in jail fer a long time, but he tried ta poison my mind b’fore he went away, ‘n again since he come back. I’m afraid I was believin’ ‘im until I talked ta you, Jess. Ya made me angry, but ya made me think. It changed m’ whole way of lookin’ at what happened. I thought about it long ‘n hard. Hurtin’ other folks ta git back at someone else wasn’t right. Then I went ta meet with Uncle Jake ta ask him about it ‘n if’n he might be wrong. We had a big fight over it ‘n when I was gittin’ on my horse he shot me, just as I was puttin’ m’ leg over the saddle. I took off. I knowed he’d look for me in town, so I come here.”

“Why in hell would you come here?” Jess asked, not convinced by the boy’s story.

“Jess, please,” Slim said. “Bill, I reckon that’s a good spot to start. Why did you come here?”

“I could tell Jess was a good person, just how he talked ta me. He tried ta talk me outta doin’ somethin’ wrong ‘n that m’ uncle was wrong, ‘n with Uncle Jake prob’ly comin’ after me to do lord knows what, I didn’t wanna run into ‘im, so I come here.”

“It makes some sense to me, considering that Jackson is crazy. I’m amazed he hasn’t infected you as well,” Slim said. He could tell Jess was chomping at the bit to say something, but since he was holding it in, Slim thought he must be holding on to something that Slim wouldn’t approve of him saying. Knowing Jess’ judgment, which seemed to be a bit clouded the past few days, he thought it would be better to hear Jess out, but not in front of Billy. It might be important and he could rephrase Jess’ question so it wouldn’t be intimidating.

“Excuse us a minute, Billy. I think Jess and I need to talk this over a little, okay?”

“I reckon. Could I have some water a while?” Billy asked.

“Sure,” Slim poured a fresh glass from the pitcher on the table and handed it to Bill. “Here you go.”

“Umm, outside?” Jess suggested.

“Sure. We can talk while we fix those loose boards on the barn. We’ll be back in a few minutes. You rest. I’m sure there will be more questions.”

Jess made sure he had his gun belt as he headed out the door, throwing it over his shoulder. Slim was right behind him. Once in the barn Jess quickly stopped and turned around, Slim almost walked into him.  “You bought that story?” he asked, bitterly, as he strapped on his belt and holster.

“Yes. If someone was out to kill you, wouldn’t you head for safer ground?” Slim asked, trying to ignore the fact that Jess was so obsessed to having his gun with him, even with Jackson safely behind bars.

“Oh, not just that. Didn’t it sound a little rehearsed to ya?  ‘He poisoned my mind’?  Didn’t that sound like makin’ it short so ya don’t stumble on details when tellin’ your story?”

Slim smiled at him. “Yeah, it would take a master like you to recognize that, I reckon.”  Jess continued to look at him silently with pleading eyes. “Okay. Let’s go talk and get some questions together now that we know his story. I’m giving you permission to ask questions, but keep them relative to what we’re trying to find out. No accusations and no getting off track. If I tell you to stop, stop!  We’ll come back out and talk some more if we need to.”

“Sounds fair,” Jess said, heading into the barn.

“Where are you going?”

“To fix those boards.”

“That was an excuse, Jess. It sure looks like I’m getting as convincing as you about telling stories.” Slim smiled at him as Jess wandered back toward the barn door. “I just wanted to be out here in case you started shouting.”

Jess looked a little stunned. “I’m calm. I really am, but I was a little upset that you swallowed that story hook, line ‘n sinker.”

“Okay, to ease your mind, I didn’t. But I could tell we had enough to talk about and you were about to bust your britches.” Slim couldn’t suffocate his smile. “Thanks for keeping yourself under control, Pard. We have to get him talking and make him think we believe him. Once he’s talking we can trip him up if there is anything inconsistent. Believe me, this works. I learned it from interrogating prisoners during the war. Once they feel you believe them they elaborate on their stories. That’s where you find the inconsistencies. Go ahead and ask him questions, but make him believe you trust what he’s saying. We’ll discuss it after.”

Jess finally smiled. “Glad to know that, Pard. Especially since you bought all my stories, I figured you were an easy pigeon.” He laughed, slapping Slim on the shoulder.

“Jess, I know you better than you know yourself.  Now let’s get back in the house and get this done.”  As they went back to the house, Slim felt the air was a little lighter now that Jess’ understood what he was trying to do.

When they returned to the house, Billy was sitting up on the couch with his eyes closed, but he quickly opened them when he heard the door open.

“Well, we agree that is quite a story, but we want to know more. Why don’t we go back to when you were a child? Who else lived with you when you were born?” Slim asked, restarting the interrogation.

“My Gram ‘n Gramps, Aunt Linda ‘n Uncle Jacob. He always liked Uncle Jake, better.” Billy replied, moving himself into a more comfortable position.

“And what happened to your Aunt Linda? Didn’t she help take care of you?” Slim continued.

“She did when I was little, but she got married ‘n moved away when I was about seven. Then Gramps got sick, so Gram spent most of ‘er time takin’ care of ‘im. Uncle Jake started ta spend more time with me, then. Huntin’ n fishin’. I reckon I musta asked a lotta questions about m’ ma ‘n pa. I don’t ever remember any of ‘em talkin’ about m’ pa, just Ma. They all loved ‘er. I had a picture of ‘er ‘n she was right pretty. When I’d ask about m’ pa they’d tell me he was dead. He died before I was born.”

“So when did Jake start telling you about your father and blaming him for your mother’s death?” Slim continued questioning, as Jess listened intently, looking for anything to catch the boy in a lie.

“I don’t recollect. It seems like I always knew that. Maybe even Gram ‘n Gramps told me the same thing. But when me ‘n Uncle Jake went away ta hunt or anything else he’d tell me how mean m’ pa was to m’ ma ‘n why it was his fault my dear Mama died, she such ‘n angel ‘n all.”

“Jess, your pa was still alive when Billy was about eight, right?” Slim asked.

“I reckon. I musta been about thirteen, then. It had to be a few years before the fire.”  Jess responded.

“Our pa was still alive? He died in a fire? Why did Uncle Jake lie to me?” Billy sat up a little straighter, genuinely surprised and interested to hear more. Looking at his brother, he was hoping for more information about the father he never knew.

“I reckon he felt that it was best that you never met your father.” Slim answered for Jess.

“We lived close enough. I don’t remember my family ever havin’ anything to do with the Jackson’s. Pa called most of the neighbors poor white trash. I reckon we all were, but he always felt a little above the rest. I don’t reckon many of the neighbors liked him much. When Ma took us to church sometimes, a lot of the neighbors would talk to her there. Pa never came with us. Lookin’ back, whenever we went to town, if Pa was with us, Ma hardly ever talked to anyone.” Jess recalled.

“That could explain a lot, Jess.” Slim said.  “If your pa wasn’t well known or well liked and he got Bill’s mother in a family way, it wouldn’t put him in good stead with anyone, especially with the Jackson’s. And with Jake’s imagination, telling a young boy that his father killed his mother, it adds up that as a boy he’d believe it.”

“I reckon.” Jess had to agree. “Pa wasn’t the most pleasant sharecropper on the Panhandle.”

“What else, Bill,” Slim asked, prodding the boy to tell them more about his life.

“Uncle Jake hadda take a job as a wrangler drivin’ herds here ‘n there.”  Bill continued. “He come home pretty often. One time while he was gone, Gramps died. It was me ‘n Gram alone, unless Uncle Jake come home.  He’d take me huntin’ again ‘n tried to be like m’ pa. But kept sayin’ that he was wantin’ ta make someone pay fer what m’ real pa did to my ma.”

“Did he ever say anything like that before he started leaving home?” Slim asked.

“I don’t recollect. But when he’d come home, it was like it was the only thing he had on his mind. That was when I first heard my pa’s name was Harper. It meant nothin’ ta me at the time, never wondered why it wasn’t m’ name since the rest of the family was Jackson’s. Uncle Jake was gone mosta the time. Gram got sick ‘n I was old enough ta help ‘er, but Aunt Linda come to stay with us a lotta the time. Uncle Clay had to stay at their farm ta keep things goin’ ‘n my cousins were there to help ‘im. 

“When Uncle Jake was away one of them times, we got word that he was on trial fer murder. My Aunt Linda ‘n Gram would talk about it ‘n I overheard ‘em sometimes sayin’ somethin’ ‘bout them no good Harpers. It didn’t make no sense, m’ pa was a Harper ‘n he was dead ‘n now my Uncle Jake was in trouble ‘n liable to die ‘cause of one of them Harpers. I reckon that was you, Jess?”

“Yeah, I reckon. It must have been when he killed Rosalita ‘n went to prison.” Jess said, before the young man continued.

‘While he was in prison, Gram died ‘n I was left alone. I went ta live with Aunt Linda, but me ‘n her kids was always fightin’. They called me names ‘n treated me real bad. I ran away a few times, but the law always found me ‘n made me go back.

“When Uncle Jake came back, I was so happy. He was always good to me, when he didn’t beat me fer bein’ bad.  He wanted ta take me with ‘im ta work as a wrangler, too. Aunt Linda didn’t want me ta go, but I did. I was tired of bein’ beat up by her boys. I wanted ta go somewhere where no one knew who I was.

“While out ridin’ the range with Uncle Jake I learned how to use a gun. Uncle Jake was pretty good, but some of the other drovers was better. They all taught me new things. Uncle Jake said I was probably as good, if’n not better than you, Jess. He told me about how he was in love with a girl ‘n he caught her with ya ‘n he killed ‘er first, but got caught before he could kill ya.”

“Yeah, that was the story he told in court to get him off with a light sentence.”  Jess said.  “Billy, he didn’t even know that girl and she was just my friend. He found out who I was ‘n decided he’d kill her to hurt me, getting back for what he believed my pa did to your ma. Your Uncle is a madman. He shoulda hung for what he did to Rosa. He used her to find me ’n to get even for his sister, as he put it.” 

“I didn’t know, Jess.” Bill responded.  “All I know is what he told me about ya. He made me hate ya so much ‘n want to kill ya on sight, m’self. But he said he had better plans for ya. He said in the end he’d let me kill ya, but real slow. He had lotsa different ideas how he was gonna carry out his plans. I reckon I didn’t believe him cause it always seemed a little crazy to me. But I loved my Uncle Jake for takin’ care of me ‘n takin’ me away from Aunt Linda’s farm ‘n m’ hurtful cousins. I can’t believe what he had planned for that sweet Miss Daisy, ‘n ta think I mighta watched ‘im do it.”  Billy hung his head, wiping a tear from his eye.

“So you rode with this man and his delusions since you left home?”  Slim asked. “And he told you lies about Jess and how he planned to get even with him? How did you find, Jess?”

“Yeah. Well, we fell in luck when we took a herd through Denver. Jake, he wanted me to call him that now since I was all growed up ‘n shouldn’t need to call him Uncle anymore. He really got upset, sometimes, when I fergot, especially in saloons. I knowed how nasty ‘n mean he could be. He broke my jaw fer callin’ him Uncle in Missouri, once.”

“You couldn’t tell he was crazy ‘n just usin’ ya?” Jess asked.  Billy’s story was more unbelievable than his own, he thought.  “He made ya believe ya hated me, even though ya never met me?”

“How did he get lucky in Denver, Bill?” Slim asked, wanting the boy to continue.

“He got in a card game with some men who knew Jess. I don’t rightly know how it come up. I wasn’t there. But when Uncle Jake come back to our room, we were headin’ out fer Laramie to take revenge fer what the Harpers did to him ‘n his family. When we got here he started askin’ questions about ya. He knowed if ya heard he was in town, you’d come lookin’ for ‘im. He wanted to make sure I always had m’ gun with me. He was gonna let me kill the son of the man who killed my ma. I never ever thought that that meant we was brothers.” Billy hung his head unable to hide the shame.

“And that’s when you both found me in town?” Jess asked.

“Yeah, but, by then we knowed all about ya. Where ya lived, who was on the ranch with ya ‘n anythin’ else Jake could use against ya,.  When someone told him ya was seen in town, he got real excited ‘n went out lookin’ fer ya, but he didn’t find ya, so he met me at the saloon,” Billy continued.

“And you went along with all of this?” Jess asked with uncanny calmness remaining in his voice. He partially believed the boy’s account, starting to feel sorry for him and the life he was forced to lead at such a young age, though he was still suspicious. There was still something not ringing true, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Maybe it was his imagination, or the fact that he didn’t want to believe in the boy, he hadn’t made up his mind yet. All in all, the boy was spinning quite a tangible tale.

“I reckon he had me as crazy as him.” Bill responded.” It sounded like the right thing ta do, somehow. I was wishin’ ya would’ve drawed on ‘im in the saloon. I was so itchin’ ta kill ya. But, ya know, if’n I had, I bet Uncle Jake woulda whooped me good. He had big plans fer ya all ‘n he wanted ta have his fun, before he let me kill ya.” The dark haired boy said.

“If ya hadn’t come ta town when Jake wasn’t there ‘n talked ta me, I think my head woulda been still thinkin’ everythin’ was all the Harper’s fault. When ya told me what really happened ta Ma, I couldn’t believe it. I just didn’t know what ta say er do. It made too much sense. As a kid, I didn’t really understand, but now that I’m growed ‘n know such things, ya made me think. Ya was right, Jess. So glad ya made me see how wrong Uncle Jake was ‘n me, too. Uncle Jake was in Cheyenne ‘n I couldn’t wait fer ‘im ta git back b‘fore askin’ ‘im, so I headed out ta Cheyenne ‘n run into him just outside town. We d’cided to set up camp ‘n spend the night. When we sat down ta eat, I asked ‘im about what ya said. He went wild. If ya’d bin there, I think he woulda shot ya hisself.” Billy said directly to Jess before continuing.

“Not bein’ a kid anymore, we had a big fight over what he’d bin tellin’ me all them years. He was wild already that I talked ta ya, but since I was askin’ questions about it all, he went crazy. I figured I’d better git outta there. I knew what he was like when he was angry, ‘n he’d been drinkin’ too, makin’ ‘im even meaner. I ran ta my horse ‘n when I was mountin’ up, he shot me. Lucky he’d bin drinkin’ ‘n only hit me in m’ leg. But it was bleedin’ bad. I hid in some bushes when I heard a rider comin’ up behind me. I saw it was ‘im ‘n reckoned he was out lookin’ fer me, thinkin’ I’d head back to Laramie. I circled out ‘n come here, instead. I reckoned he wouldn’t think I’d come here.”  Billy finished his story.

“So why didn’t he come back to Laramie? He went back to Cheyenne, instead?”  Jess asked, showing some suspicion.

“I don’t know. Are ya sure he didn’t sneak back ta town ta see if I was in my room?” Bill asked.

“If he did, he snuk in the back way. No one at the hotel saw ‘im. They saw you leave, that was the last any of ‘em saw any of ya.” Jess said.

“Maybe he didn’t know how bad he hit me. Maybe he was out lookin’ fer me instead ‘n just went back ta Cheyenne. I don’t know.”

“Yeah, Jess, remember we’re talking about a crazy man, here. Maybe Jackson wanted to be sure Billy was dead, not looking for him to help him. If Jake didn’t find him, maybe he hoped Bill was dead but afraid someone might have found him before he died and Bill told them who shot him. I think Jackson was laying low, but also trying to stay visible enough that Bill could find him if he was still alive,” Slim theorized.

“Slim? I could use some coffee, how about you?” Jess said, standing up.

“Sure, thanks Jess. How about it Billy? Do you think you’re up to a cup of coffee?” Slim asked.

“Oh, ya bet. I’m always ready fer coffee.” Billy smiled.

“I mean, I could use a little help gettin’ that coffee, Slim.” Jess said, trying to stare Slim into looking his way. 

Slim turned to face his partner, catching the signal that Jess was throwing with his head tipping toward the kitchen, that he needed to talk to him.  “Oh. Oh, yeah. I think Daisy’s out doing laundry or something. I’ll give you a hand to make it. We’ll be right back, Billy.” Slim said, patting Billy on his good leg before leaving to join Jess in the kitchen.

“No, you all gotta talk again. I know. Go ‘head, but the coffee’d be great.” Billy said showing that he was brighter than they wanted to give him credit for, just under educated. Maybe he wasn’t totally under the spell of his Uncle after all. 

“She’s not doin’ laundry, she’s doin’ needlework in her room.  Ya still need practice when you’re makin’ excuses.”  Jess said between his gritted teeth as he led the way into the kitchen, picking up the coffee pot and tossing the old coffee out the back door. He then pumped fresh water into the pot and set it on the stove to brew. Slim had already gotten out the coffee and ground some fresh beans in the grinder.

“Oh, yeah.  I forgot.”  Slim said. So what’s up?” Slim asked.

“I can poke a few holes though his story, how about you?”

“No, I didn’t catch anything. He sounded like he told us everything that happened. Pretty grim, huh?”

“You don’t think Jackson hasn’t been coolin’ his heels in Cheyenne waitin’ for Billy to get better before he decided to move in? That he wanted Billy on the inside?” Jess asked, not really believing it himself just needing reassurance from Slim that he wasn’t reading anything into the boy’s story.

“But how would he know how hurt Billy was and when to move in on us? And why would Billy tell us enough to get Jake put in jail?  I think you’re wrong, Jess. I think his story rings true.” Slim said.

“I don’t know. I just have a bad feelin’ about this, Slim.” Jess still had his doubts.

“Well Jackson is in jail and can’t do anything to us right now.”

“But Billy’s here. Maybe that was part of the plan,” Jess countered.

“To put Jackson in jail? I don’t think so, Jess. If Jake wanted time to play with his prey he’d want to be here to play, not leave it up to Bill. I have to disagree. I believe the boy. He just had bad guidance as a youngster and has grown up enough the past few days to realize the stories he’d been told didn’t make sense. I just wonder how long he had doubts about what his uncle told him. I think it just took your push to make him realize that Jake’s thinking wasn’t right and gave him a reason to ask his uncle for the truth. When he uncle went crazy he realized exactly what had been going on but by then he had a bullet in his leg and no where to go but here.”

“You can believe what ya want. I still don’t trust him,” Jess responded.

“He’s not going to be getting up and around too quickly, Jess, so let’s give it time. I see a lot of you in him and I gave you a chance, let’s give him a chance, too, okay?”

“You’re, the boss.” Jess responded, the pat answer he’d always given when he wasn’t in agreement.

“Jess, I know you always say that when you don’t agree with me and don’t want an argument. I know you’re not done yet, but I’d appreciate you letting it rest for now unless you can come up with something concrete.”

 “I sure hope you’re right, about ‘im, Pard. Wanna get the cups?”

Jess picked up the coffee pot tipping it to pour into the three cups Slim had set on the counter. He picked up his own, letting Slim take his and Billy’’s in to him. As far as Jess was concerned he was done talking to Billy for now. He had a lot to think about, wanting to do so alone he left through the back door, going around to the front of the house to the porch.  Reclining in his rocker, he mulled things over, drinking his coffee slowly as he reconstructed the boy’s tale in his mind, looking for anything that he could take to Slim that didn’t add up. If the story were true, he really felt bad for the life the boy was forced to live, but that little bit of doubt still raged in his mind, unable to totally trust in the boy he could no longer deny was his bother.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 19

The usual chores and repairs were on the agenda for the day. Jess offered to ride the fence lines to check for anything that needed repair. Slim looked over the horses to see if any blacksmithing was necessary. It was good to be back in the old routine. Not that a change isn’t welcome from time to time, but this one they could have done without.

Jess took full advantage of his outing. It felt so good to be riding and enjoying the scenery rather than looking over his shoulder and behind every rock and tree for someone lying in ambush. Getting away from having to keep watch over everyone back at the ranch had lifted a great weight off his shoulders, even if Billy was still there. He gave a lot of thought to what Billy had divulged as well as what Slim told him he’d gotten from their conversation. He was more open to talking to the boy now that he‘d been forced to sit and converse with him, vowing to try to be more cordial toward him. Sometimes you had to give a man enough rope before he would hang himself, he thought. In his heart, he hoped that he was wrong and Billy would be no trouble, get better and move on. His biggest fear was that the family was starting to take a liking to the boy. Slim was comparing him to Billy, and probably what bothered him the most was that he saw a lot of himself in the young man as well. He had no doubt they were brothers, but that didn’t change his distrust in him. Not yet.

Riding the line he found very few problems, there were a few places where wire had slumped, but he was prepared to make a quick fix on them. Luckily, none of the wooden fences needed any attention. The weather had been good and had been kind to the fencing. Once the weather got bad there would be far more work to do with the fences and everything else at the ranch. Bad weather was never sympathetic.

He saw a small rafter of turkeys and thought turkey for dinner would be a great way to celebrate Jake’s arrest and confinement. Almost done with the fences, he could take it back to the ranch for cleaning shortly. Pulling his rifle from the scabbard, he took aim and one large tom dropped. The others ran for the wooded area, but one was plenty. Examining the bird, he saw that it was a clean neck-shot; none of the meat would be bruised.  It was a young tom turkey with plenty of meat on him from picking through the fields all summer. Tying the bird to his saddle, he completed his rounds.

When he got back to the ranch, Slim was still working at the forge. Jess rode to where his partner was working and held up his prize, getting a huge smile from Slim. He then rode to the house, tied his horse to the rail and took the bird inside.

“Oh, my, Jess. Such a lovely bird and you got it here in time for me to make it for supper, too. What a treat,” Daisy declared.

“There was a bunch of ‘em out in the east pasture. I could already taste him before I pulled out my rifle. I’ll keep watch at that end of the ranch, maybe we can enjoy turkey more often,” he smiled. It had gotten to be habit to try to ignore and avoid Billy. Now that Billy could talk, it made that option a lot more difficult.

“Great shot.”  Billy said with as much enthusiasm he could muster, still in his weakened condition.

Jess relented, going to the couch to talk to him. “How ya doin, kid’?  We tire ya out with all the questions?” Jess asked, trying hard to be congenial.

“Leg hurts. M’ back is howlin’, it’s tired of layin’ almost in the same position all the time. I can’t wait ‘til I kin git up, even if it’s just ta stand up ‘n give it a stretch.”

“Yeah. I bet.” Jess responded, thinking that he hoped it would take the boy a long time to stand up. He liked him right the way he was, still on his back and not walking or getting any ideas about any of the guns that might be within his reach.

“Jess. Could ya sit a spell?” Bill asked, his pleading eyes searching his brother’s eyes.

“I got a lotta work to catch up on after your uncle kept us from gettin’ anything done around here,” discomfort evident in his voice, but it went unnoticed by the younger man.

“Oh. I understand. Maybe tonight? I wanna know more about our pa.” Billy said, bringing pain to Jess’ heart with his memories.

“Billy, believe me, you don’t. He could be a mean, nasty man at times. He believed beatin’ his kids was the best way to make ‘em do what he said. When Ma got sick, he’d beat us for helpin’ her, because she wasn’t keepin’ up her share of the work. I think that should tell you a lot about him.”

“Do I have more brothers and sisters?” Billy pushed on.

Jess sat down. Sighing, he said, “I had four brothers ‘n sisters. Only three of us kids survived the fire that Ma ‘n Pa died in. I had a brother left but I don’t know what happened to ‘im, last I heard he went off to the war. He could be alive somewhere or mighta died in the war, I don’t know.

But we do have Francie.” Jess’ face brightened as he spoke fondly of his sister. “She was my closest sister and friend. We were so close in age it was hard to remember which of us was older.  She took care of most of us after Ma took sick.  She escaped with us the night of the fire. Now she’s married ‘n livin’ out in California with ‘er husband. She coulda made us uncles by now. I don’t keep close contact with ‘er,’ he said, unable to hide the regret, “but I ‘ld reckon a letter would come about somethin’ that important.” Jess smiled. “An’ then,” Jess continued, “there’s a sprinklin’ of some of Ma’s kin down in the Panhandle yet. If they hadn’t taken us in, I don’t know where we would’ve gone after the fire. Sorry, you wanted to hear about Pa, not me.”

 “No, I was wonderin’ about ya, too. All I knowed was what Jake told me, ‘n now it seems like they was all lies.” Bill said, still wanting to know more.

“Yeah, I can imagine what he mighta told ya. Let’s just say, only believe half of it. I really gotta go help Slim. He probably wonders what happened to me. Besides, my horse needs some tendin’ to.”

“Horses, that reminds me, Jess, what happened to my horse? I know I made it ta the house with ‘im. I don’t recollect if anyone took care of ‘im.” Billy perked up when he mentioned his horse.

“Naw, he ran off. I could check in town ‘n see if he ever showed up there. Any way to describe your saddle ‘n what the horse looked like?”

“Oh, he’s just an ol’ roan, but I really liked ‘im. The saddle was for ropin, nothin’ fancy. I did carve my initials in one of the flaps in my saddlebags, inside, if that helps.”

“Not many roans around here, blue or strawberry?”

“Blue,” Billy replied. “We kept our horses at the livery. I reckon someone there should recognize him.”

“When I’m in town I’ll check around. Now get some rest or Slim’ll have my hide.  I gotta go get somethin’ done, even if it is wrong.”

Billy laughed. “Thanks, Jess. I really needed ta know.”

“We’ll talk later.” Jess stood up and left the house. 

From the kitchen, Daisy had been standing silently around the corner listening to the exchange. She had to smile to herself that Jess was finally coming around. She waited a few minutes then started to make a clatter in the kitchen. Carrying a fresh pitcher of water, she took it to the table and set it down. “Hungry?” she asked.

“I kin wait ‘til the rest eat, again. I’m really fine, ma’am. That turkey oughta be real good, tonight.”

“Yes, it will. In order for it to be done for supper, I better get it started right away. It’s pretty big and will need to cook for several hours. How about water?  Do you want some?” she asked.

“Miss Daisy. If you put the pitcher here,” he pointed at the table next to the settee, “I kin git my own ‘n not bother ya so much.”

“It’s no bother, but I can see you want to start doing for yourself, some. You’re just like your brother. He’s hard to keep down when he’s hurt or sick, too. Here you go, Billy.” Daisy placed the pitcher on the table next to the couch, close enough to where Billy could reach it easily. “If you run out let me know. You still need lots of fluids to help build up your blood. We don’t want you to faint when we finally get you up on your feet, do we?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“Just call me if you need anything. I’ll be working in the kitchen for most of the day now. And rest, dear. Sleep if you can,” Daisy reminded him.

“Yes, Ma’am. ‘N thank ya , you’ve bin more ‘n kind ‘n I’m much obliged.”

“Well, I’ll be obliged if you just get better. Now, I have to go cook. When you’re better we’ll sit you up so you can help me in the kitchen, how does that sound?” 

“Oh, I’d like that. I like ta keep busy. I’m sure tired of just layin’ here doin’ nothin’. Bill said, the boredom evident, even in his weakness. When she left the room Billy poured himself another glass of water and quickly downed it.  “You know, Miss Daisy?”

“What Dear?” she asked, peeking around the corner from the kitchen.

“I like coffee, too. That’s like drinkin’ water, right?” the dark haired youngster asked.

“Oh, Billy, you are so like your brother. I think some coffee would be fine. You may have some when the boys come in for some, how’s that?  But I think the water is probably better for you.”

“Thank ya, Ma’am.” The boy said as Daisy went back to her work in the kitchen. 

 Jess put his horse away and went to get the gear together for the next stage. Slim wiped some sweat from his brow with is sleeve and asked, “Is it that time, already?”

“Not long. Reckon I’d get this done before I get started on somethin’ else. You need help there?”

“No, I’m almost done. When I finish, I’ll give you a hand,” Slim said, as he pounded on the shoe he’d been shaping.

Jess took a set of harnesses out to the corral and started rigging one of the horses up in the enclosure rather than taking him to the barn. Once one horse was set, he went back to the barn for the next rig. It took longer this way, but he had the time and was enjoying being outdoors so much. He was almost finished when Slim strolled to the corral with the last of the gear. “Need some help?”

“Nope. Just hand me that, I can finish it, almost done.” Jess took the last of the equipment from Slim and finished harnessing the last horse.

 Slim stood on a fence rail watching him, wondering what he’d ever done without his best friend. Even with all his stubbornness and the way he attracted trouble, he couldn’t imagine ever being without him. All the silly talk about leaving when Jackson was still a danger, Slim hoped he’d never have to relive anything like that ever again. He was closer to this man than he was to his own brother. Sure he missed Andy, but they’d never made the connection that he and Jess had made. Maybe it was the age difference. Jess was much closer to him in age than Andy was.

With the horses set and tied to the fence Slim said.  “How about we get some coffee. Maybe there’s some biscuits left from breakfast, too.”

“Sounds good to me,” Jess said, climbing over the fence to join his partner. Side by side they headed for the house. 

Slim noticed a change in Jess; he seemed much more like his old self. He didn’t know what was making the difference in his partner, but he was relieved, just the same, to see it. Opening the door, the aroma of turkey cooking was absolute heaven to the two young ranchers. It almost smelled festive. Billy acknowledged their presence, both men paused a moment to say hello before they headed for the kitchen.  “Is it okay if we make some coffee while you do your cooking?” Slim asked.

“No, no need, it’s already made and hot, just get the cups. Bring three, please.” Daisy said, as she put down the vegetables she was preparing, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Your havin’ coffee with us, Daisy? I thought breakfast was the only time ya ever drank it.” Jess said looking surprised.

“No, Billy asked to have some when you boys came in and I promised he could have some. So, would one of you please take a cup in to him?”

“Here Jess, take this in to him.” Slim said as he handed Jess a cup. “I’ll bring ours in.” The dark haired cowboy reluctantly took it, but decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to ask why he was chosen to take the coffee to Billy. He knew Slim was going to force him to be friendly with Billy, no matter what. 

He went to where Billy sat with his leg propped up a chair, handing him the teacup.  “Here, Daisy said you wanted this.”

“Oh, yeah. Thanks, Jess.” Billy sat up a little straighter, taking the cup carefully trying not to spill any. Slim brought in the other two cups, handing one to Jess.  “Kin ya two sit ‘n talk with me some more?  If’n yer not too busy, that is.”  Billy said apologetically, not really wanting to be a bother.

“Sure. Jess, drag over another chair. It looks like Billy would like a little company.” 

Jess set down his cup on the table, carried a chair to set it down next to Slim, then went back to get his coffee before joining the others. Daisy kept a chair by Billy at all times, even though she no longer had to hand feed him. She often liked to sit with him, but her real motive was that the chair being there might encourage the others to sit with him as well. She was pleased with herself that it seemed to work when she saw Jess sitting with him earlier.

“I miss Mike since ‘e went back ta school,” Billy said.  “He asked me ta take care of his little raccoon while he’s gone. Daisy brought ‘er out ta me. Cutest thing. I ain’t never held a live one b’fore, ‘n never one so small. I don’t know how we use ta hunt ‘em, now. But I reckon all babies are cute. I sure hope that little one gits ta live ta a ripe old age ‘n no one kills ‘er.”

“We hope so, too, Billy, but Mike knows we can’t make pets out of every little orphan he finds. We only keep the ones that can’t make it on their own. When you’re up and around he’ll have to show you his little menagerie in the yard. Heck, he even has some of the chickens named and we don’t dare have any of them for supper.”  Slim said, causing a chuckle to escape Billy.

“Jess, thanks again for tellin’ me about our Pa.” Billy said, turning his attention to Jess alone.

Slim looked surprised as he glanced at Jess “I didn’t know you two had a little chat,”

“Chat?” surprised at the word, “ Yeah, I reckon we did, “ Jess said his face vying between a smile and keeping from forming a one. Outside they heard a one-horse buggy coming into the yard, toward the house. Jess was closest to the door so he went to see who their visitor might be.  “It’s Doc Canfield,” he announced to the others before he went out on the porch to greet him. 

The doctor climbed down from his buggy, then reached for his bag from the back. “Hello, Jess. How’s our patient?” 

“Doin’ much better, Doc. I think you’ll be surprised.” The doctor climbed the stairs and the two men shook hands. Jess stepped aside to let the doctor pass through the door, following him into the house.

Slim was already standing and waiting to greet the doctor, “Glad to see you Doc. Take a look, Billy‘s doing really well, but he tells us he’s not up to dancing yet.”

Doctor Canfield chuckled.  “Well, let’s have a look. Mmmm, smells great in here, what is that wonderful Daisy cooking up for you today?”

“Jess shot a turkey this morning. She’s making it for supper tonight.” Slim said.

“Sounds good,” the doctor responded.

“Your welcome to stay, there’ll be plenty.” Slim said extending an invitation.

“No, can’t, but thanks. I have a lot of rounds to make and the wife is expecting me home for supper or I’d gladly take you up on it. It sure smells good. I hope you all enjoy it, including Billy here. It looks like he’s up to some solid food now.”

“Daisy thought so, too. She’s already been giving him some solids.”

“Yeah, Doc, n she’s a real good cook, too.”  Billy added with a smile.

Just then they heard the stage pulling into the ranch yard.  “Looks like we have to go. Your patient’s all yours. We’ll be back after we change the team. There might be some passengers. Will it be a problem if we send them in for coffee?” Slim asked.

“No. I can wait to check his leg until after they leave. Right now I can take his vitals then we can sit and talk. Your color looks a lot better today, Bill.”

Jess was already out the door, Slim was close behind him. “Hey, Mose. Any passengers?”  Slim called to him from the porch.

“Yeap. Some ladies ‘n their kids.”  Mose responded.

Slim wandered to the coach while Jess went to the corral for the horses. “Howdy, ladies. You’re welcome to come in for coffee, some milk for the children, if you like.”

The ladies exchanged a few words between them, then one said.  “No we think we’d like to move on as soon as possible. It’s been a long ride and the children are getting pretty tired. Rebecca is asleep and I’d hate to wake her. We’ll stay put. Thank you, anyway.”

“How about some water. I could bring that to you.” Slim offered.

Again the ladies conversed with each other and with the children who were awake.  “No. We’re just fine. Thank you. Mary brought some canteens for the children. We should be fine until our next stop. Much obliged.”

Slim tipped his hat then went forward to help Mose unhook the rigging, working on opposite sides of the coach. Jess patiently stood by holding the readied team.

“Anything new in town, Mose?”  Slim asked from his side of the coach.

“Oh, yeah. Almost fergot ta tell ya.”  Mose stood up to look at Slim over the backs of the horses. “They’re movin’ Jackson ta Laramie in a couple a days, as soon as the territorial marshals git ta town to move ‘im.”

“Do you think they’ll be bringing him by stage?” Slim asked, hoping to hear they would have him transported in the tumbleweed wagon for more security.

“Don’t know. Mort caught me on the way outta town ‘n told me. He thought you’d want to know.”

“Yeah, we would. Doc Canfield’s here, now. We can ask him how soon Billy can travel. If they’re moving Jackson, they must be expecting the circuit judge to be here, soon. They’ll need Billy to testify.”  Slim said, bending back down to finish unhooking the horses. When Mose and Slim finished with the spent animals, Jess took them away while Slim and Mose hooked up the fresh team. Once unharnessed, Jess let the weary horses loose in the corral where they trotted straight to the fresh hay awaiting them.  “Sorry your passengers don’t want to come in, Mose. I reckon you don’t get any coffee this round.” Slim said, smiling at the coach driver.

“That’s fine. I find as I git older, more coffee means more stops along the way.” He then whispered, “‘n with ladies on board, I can’t really stop along the way, if ya know what I mean.” All three men couldn’t contain their amusement. “Climbing up to his seat, Mose said, “See ya boys on the return trip. I’ll see what I kin find out fer ya in Cheyenne.”

“Thanks, Mose.” Slim said, stepping back, away from the coach as Mose turned the team around then waved to the two men watching him as he drove out of the yard. They returned the wave then headed back to the house.

Re-entering, they found the doctor was almost done with his examination of Billy. Daisy had joined the doctor to help him carefully check the boy’s leg and change the bandages.  “We’ll be done here in a few minutes,” Dr. Canfield said looking up as the young men came into the room.  “It’s healing nicely. I wish I’d brought a crutch for him. I think he could use some exercise, moving about a little, but no weight on that leg yet, though. I’ll bring one around the next time I’m out this way. You’re a tough young lad, I never expected you to have healed this quickly. Mrs, Cooper must be more a miracle worker than a nurse,” He caused Daisy to blush and wave away his compliment.

“Don’t bother, Doc.”  Slim said. We have some crutches out in the barn. We tend to use them around here from time to time,” he said glancing at Jess.

“What are ya lookin’ at me for? You use ‘em, too!”  Jess protested.

“Yeah, but we won’t go into that now. Anything else we can do to help him get back on his feet?”  Slim asked.

“What’s the hurry, Slim?” Daisy asked.

“They’re moving Jackson to town for the trial shortly. We need to know how soon Billy will be able to travel, they need his testimony.”

“Oh, my.” Daisy responded, looking to the doctor for advice.

“I don’t think he’s quite ready for any kind of riding, no wagon and especially not by horse for some time. I suggest that we wait to see how he holds together when we get him on his feet. I’ll be out to check on him in a few days and we can decide then. I’ll talk to Mort to see how long we can put off the traveling, too. Maybe the judge won’t be coming as soon as expected if he’s held up with too many trials along the way, you just never know. I’ve seen times when his schedule gets thrown off by a week or more. The more healing time Bill has, the better.”

“Mose is checking on things from the Cheyenne end. Let’s hope things work out well for all of us. We need to keep Jackson in jail for every ones safety,” Slim commented.

None of them noticed that Jess had slipped quietly out the door, but they noticed when he came back into the house carrying some crutches with him.  “Will these do?”  he asked.

“Why, yes, Jess. Slim, help me get the boy on his feet and we can adjust the crutches for him right now.” The two men helped Billy to stand while Daisy minded how his injured leg was moved.  Once they had Billy standing, Jess handed one of the crutches over to the doctor. Doc Canfield placed the crutch under the young man’s arm. “Okay, now put some weight on it and on your good leg. No weight on your bad leg, remember.”  Bill did as instructed.  “Looks just right. No adjustments necessary.”  He seemed a little surprised.  “Who used them last?” 

Slim just smiled, again glancing at Jess. 

“I reckon I did,” Jess confessed.

“You two boys must be about the same height, then.” The doctor said, not seeming too surprised.  “Well, take good care of our patient, here. You may want to use both crutches for a while, Bill, until you regain your balance. With a little practice you may then want to try getting around with just one. Just keep your weight off the bad leg and be sure to not bump it on anything. If the wound opens up, it’s back to the couch for you. Daisy, you’ll know what to do, but let me know so I can come out and take a look. It’s healing well, but it’s hard to tell how deeply it is healed. If it’s not as deeply healed as I think, we’ll know soon enough. Here, now that you’re up, let me look at those bandages.” He examined them but saw no blood or oozing and was happy with the progress. “When you’re sitting, I want that leg to still be up. The only time it should be near the floor is when you’re using the crutches. Understand?”

Billy nodded his head that he understood.

“And no steps. If you want to sit on the porch, make sure someone helps you over the threshold. You might want to enjoy some of this fine weather while we have it. Fresh air should do you some good. Just be very careful.  Well, I best be on my way. You’re looking fine to me, lad,” the doctor, said as he packed up his bag to leave. “I’ll see you in a few days.”

Slim walked Canfield to the porch, then to the buggy, helping the elderly doctor to climb up into the seat. “Oh, Slim. I’m not that old yet,” Dr. Canfield stated.

“I’d hate to see you trip, here.” Slim smiled and watched as the doctor turned his buggy around to leave.  Both men waved as the doctor left the yard.  

Slim went back into the house, motioning Jess to come over to him. “Before I thank you, what came over you to bring in those crutches?”  Slim asked in a lowered voice.

“I reckon the sooner he’s on his feet, the sooner he can testify and get Jackson locked away for good,” Jess whispered.

“I should have known it wasn’t the humanitarian in you.” Slim said, not real pleased with the response.

“The what?” Jess asked.

“Never mind, but thanks, anyway, for finding them and bringing them in. Look at Bill, how happy he looks. Just those few minutes on his feet and I swear he has more color in his face now than before the doc got here.”

“Wait.” Jess said, still puzzled, but Slim knew what the question would be and wasn’t about to explain to Jess what he was implying. He was teasing, anyway. He reckoned he got away with that one, but was still confused over the mixed messages Jess was sending.  On one hand he was doing something kind for Billy, yet always seeming to havie an ulterior motive.  Did he really mean what he was saying, or was he just afraid to show that his opinion of Bill was finally changing.

Daisy was fussing with pulling the furniture around out of Bill’s way to give him some walking room when Slim joined her to replace the chairs at the table, leaving one by the couch for Billy to put his foot on once he returned to the settee.

 

 

 

Chapter 20  

A few days later Slim was working at replacing some shoes on one of the relay horses. He had three of the right size but needed one more to complete the job. The old shoes he’d just pulled were too worn to reuse. He called out to his partner, who was oiling harnesses in the barn.  “Hey, Pard.”

From the barn, “Yeah?” Jess responded.

“Could you check to see if we have another number two in the box?  I need one more.” Slim shouted.

Coming out of the barn, Jess brought out three shoes, none in the size needed. “This is all that was left in the box. Look’s like we’ve used up quite a few the last few days.”

“What do you say, Jess, are you up for a ride to town to get us some more? I thought I’d brought back enough the last time, reckon I misjudged it.”  Slim said. “We can hold this horse over until the next change, the others are all set. I’ll handle the next stage and get these shoes put on while you’re gone.”

“Sure. I’ll go saddle up. Let me know what all you need. Anything else? Maybe I should take the wagon?”

“No, not unless Daisy needs something. Go check with her first, okay?”

“Yeap.” Jess went to the house and poked his head in the door. Daisy was sitting in a chair doing some embroidery work while visiting with Billy. “Either of ya need anything from town? I gotta go pick up some new shoes.”

“No, not me, dear. I think we have a full pantry for now. Billy, do you need anything?”

“Not that I kin think of, but thanks fer askin’.”

“Then I’ll be gone and back as soon as I can. Slim’s workin’ at the forge if you need him. If you think of somethin’ before I leave, just give a holler.”  Jess headed to the barn to saddle his horse.  Once saddled, he stopped to ask Slim what sizes and how many shoes to bring back with him.

Slim handed him a piece of paper with his short list. “Here, all written down so you don’t forget. Do you have enough money on you?”

“Thanks, Pard. You know this ole brain can’t remember anything,” he said, folding the paper and putting it in his shirt pocket, then checking to see how much money he had on him.  “Looks like this should handle it,” he said, pulling out a few bills.

“Good, then get out of here. Have a safe ride and no dawdling. I need those shoes today.”

“You’re the boss.” Jess smiled, touched his hat and rode off.

On the trip he met a few neighbors, shared a little small talk and accepted well wishes to everyone back at the ranch. Anxious to hear any new information, he immediately rode to the sheriff’s office to see if Mort had anything new about Jackson’s move. The sheriff was just putting on a fresh pot of coffee when Jess opened the door.  “I must have known you were coming, Jess.  I just put on some coffee. Have a seat.”

“I really can’t stay long, Mort, I promised to get back as soon as I could but I reckon a cup of coffee will do me right ‘n won’t take long.” Jess smiled his pleasure, never turning down fresh coffee. “I didn’t stop for coffee, though. We wanted to know if you heard any more about them moving Jackson and how.”

“As far as I know they’re waiting for a couple more territory marshals to arrive with the tumbleweed wagon. They don’t want to take any chances with him. He’s been a real handful for them in Cheyenne from what I can understand. No one will go in his cell with him unless someone stands outside with a gun on him or they cuff him to the bars.”

“Just so they hang on tight to ‘im.” Jess spoke his thought aloud. 

“My thoughts, to,” Mort said, sitting down to wait for the coffee to brew.

“Any word on the circuit judge, yet?”

“I reckon he’ll be here a couple of days after they deliver Jackson. I haven’t heard about anything to hold him up. I ‘m hoping they have the wagon ready to take him away as soon as the trial’s over. I’m not looking forward to him staying here,” the older man said. The aroma of coffee started to drift through the air, making Jess unconsciously sit up in his chair in anticipation. “Few more minutes, Jess,” Mort said reading Jess’ body language.

“Huh?” Jess asked, not sure what Mort was referring to since they had been discussing Jackson and his stay.

“Coffee,” Mort said with a smile.

“Oh, yeah. Smells good.” Jess said, a little self-consciously, unaware that he’d been so obvious.

Mort rose to get the mugs, setting them on the desk in preparation. Lifting the lid of the pot, he looked in, deciding that it was done. Taking it to the desk, he poured them each a small amount in their cups. He picked up his cup, taking a sip then said.  “Sorry, Jess, but I like mine a little stronger. I’m gonna let the pot brew a little longer.”

“It’s fine, Mort, but I’ll go along with you ‘n wait a little longer,” Jess said tasting his, thinking that it was a little weak as well. After a few more minutes of brewing and more small talk between the men, the coffee was finally finished to Mort’s satisfaction.

Both men savored their coffee. “Oh.” Mort said, reaching in his drawer pulling out a piece of paper. “Keep an eye out for this desperado. He’s been seen in Denver and might be heading towards Canada. He killed some rancher’s daughter for turning down his proposal for marriage.”

“The way I see it, he woulda been in trouble either way,” Jess said, as he reached for the poster, taking a look at the image. “Ya have a spare? I’ll take it back ‘n show it to Slim if ya do. Haven’t seen any strangers, lately, but I’ll keep a watch out for him.”

“Yeah, take that one. I have more. Have to post some around town. If I get anything new on Jackson for you, I’ll send it with the stage,” Mort promised.

“Thanks, Mort.”  Jess said folding the paper and putting in his jacket pocket while heading for the door. “See ya later, Mort. Thanks for the coffee.”

“Anytime, Jess.” 

Leading his horse to the livery stable, Jess tied Traveler outside before going into the boarding facility. “Hi, Clint. Slim sent me in for some stock shoes. Here’s his list.” He handed the list to the big man wearing the farrier’s apron who was part owner of the livery.

“Sure, Jess. Be right back.”

“Hey, Clint?”

The large man stopped, turning around to face the shorter man. “Yeah?”

“Have you seen a rider-less horse come in town, or someone maybe brought him here looking for the owner? Saddled. Blue roan. Saddlebags with initials carved on the inside flap?” Jess questioned.

“Yeah. Wes found him roamin’ around back behind the stables a week er so ago. Looked a lot like the one we was boardin’ fer a young fella stayin’ here in town, but ain’t no one’s come to claim  ‘im. The saddle looks like someone got hurt real bad, lotsa blood stains on it, looks like. Tweren’t sure if anybody’d claim ‘im er not. He’s over there in the last stall. You know who he belongs to?”

“Yeah. I think I do. Where’s his gear so I can check for the initials?”

“Hangin’ over there.”  Clint pointed toward a wall where the saddle was hanging by a stirrup on a sturdy nail. “I’ll be back in a minute.” Clint left to go in the storage area while Jess looked over the saddle and saddlebags. Sure enough, there were Billy’s initials just where he said they’d be.  The saddle was badly stained just as Clint had recounted, it looked like dried blood covering the right jockey, fender and stirrup.

In the stall, Jess examined the animal, an aged blue roan, just as the boy had described. He was wearing a Texas brand that Jess recognized, as well, funny that the boy never mentioned it. It had to be the right horse, he thought.

As the blacksmith returned, carrying a burlap sack with him he asked, “He the one yer lookin’ fer?”

“Looks like,” Jess said. “How much for me to take ‘im home with me?”

“Oh, a week’s board, I reckon. I don’t recall when Wes brought him here, but he ain’t been no bother, easy keeper, too. Didn’t eat much.”

“Add it to the bill. I’ll go saddle ‘im up awhile,” Jess pulled the headstall down from where it was looped over the saddle horn, taking it back to where the horse was stalled. He talked calmly to the animal that appeared to be very gentle, put the bridle on him and lead him to the front of the barn to saddle him up.

“Nice, gentle horse. A little long on the tooth, though,” Clint commented.

“Yeah, but the owner’ll be right happy to get ‘im back. He sounded really fond of the ole fella. I reckon I know how he feels, I’d be missin’ Trav if something ever happened to ‘im,” Jess said, taking the saddle down from the nail on the wall and throwing it over the back of the roan, tightening it enough to be sure it stayed in place for the ride home.

The horse now ready to go, Clint presented Jess with the bill and a heavy sack of shoes. The dark haired rancher paid the bill and stuffed the shoes and sack, distributing them evenly in his and Billy’s saddlebags to lighten and even the loads for the horses. “Thanks, Clint, ‘n thank Wes for takin’ in the roan. If I owe ya more, be sure to let me know. I know the kid would be disappointed if he’d lost his horse for good. No time, now, but next time, I owe ya a drink down at the saloon. Remind me.”

“Okay, Jess. I’ll take ya up on that,” Clint said cheerfully, picking up his hammer, turning to set back to work.

Jess hopped up into his saddle, took hold of the reins to the roan and headed out of town. Leading the horse back with him would slow him down some, but he reckoned Slim would understand and forgive him.

Once again he met neighbors on the road. Some asked about the horse he was leading. He lied rather than tell them the long story, saying that he bought the horse for Mike to ride, since it was old and gentle. After he’d told this lie a few times he regretted it, hoping that someone seeing Billy riding the horse later might not think that he was a horse thief. He’d have to correct what he’d said later when he had more time. He made note of whom he’d told the story to so he could set it straight later. Thinking to himself how often Slim told him how much easier it was to always tell the truth, then you didn’t need to remember anything you’ve made up later and tell more lies to correct things. Again he realized that Slim was so right, yet he continued to find himself taking shortcuts that often involved inventing a fabrication. He reckoned that it had been a part of his life for so long; it was going to be hard to change. Promising himself several times over the past couple of years that he’d really try, he knew it wasn’t easy. Old habits were the hardest to break.

When Jess rode into the yard, Slim was sitting on the porch waiting for him and he didn’t look happy. Nor did he look interested in the old horse Jess had trailing behind him.

“I sent you to town to buy shoes, not a whole horse!” Slim came down from the porch wearing a frown to meet his partner.

“But, Pard. I just couldn’t resist this magnificent piece of horseflesh. The price was right, ‘n I just hadda have ‘im. I hope you’ll forgive me ‘n understand why I took so long,” Jess said, still seated in his saddle, looking back to admire the new horse. “And look, you can even count his ribs, you know for sure he has all of them, too. I counted ‘em, ‘n yeap, they’re all there.”

Slim walked around looking at the horse, pulling back its lips and said, “I hope you didn’t pay much for him. Did you really take a good look at this animal? His legs are all spavined, and look, he’s even pigeon toed! What did you do, stop at the saloon and get drunk, or did you win him in a bad poker game?” Slim asked as he continued to look for faults on the aged horse.

Totally enjoying his partner’s little rant but unable to hold back any longer, Jess said, “Nope, you paid for ‘im. He’s on the bill.” Grinning, he handed Slim the smitty’s bill.

“What?” he said, opening up the folded paper Jess had handed him to see the horse listed on the bill labeled as blue roan.

“Well, Pard, ya better get real use to seein’ him around here. He’s gonna be here for a little while, anyway.” Jess grinned at his partner, as he threw his leg over Traveler’s neck and jumped down from his own mount

“A little while? And you expect us to be able to sell this nag, or is it that you expect him to drop dead real soon?” Slim continued, still outraged that it appeared he had a horse that was of little use to him.

“Now Slim, I thought you said that we were supposed to be nice to Billy,” Jess said.

“We’re not talking about Billy now, we’re talking about,,,,” Slim stopped in mid sentence, finally realizing what was happening he looked back at his partner, the frown gone, more puzzlement showing now.

Seeing that Slim finally caught on, Jess fessed up, “Yeap, it’s Billy’s horse. I promised ‘im the next time I was in town I’d see if he showed up ‘n he did. An’ that’s his board for the week. Don’t worry. I paid that part of the bill. Just had to see your reaction to this fine Texas horse. Sorry to get you all riled, Pard.” Jess chuckled.

Slim patted the old horse on the neck, his frown turned to a smile. “You did this? When did he tell you about his horse.”

“Oh a while back, I just ain’t had reason to go to town to lookin’ for him. You haven’t been to town either or I woulda asked you to look for him.” Jess replied. “Wes found ‘im down by the livery ‘n held him hopin’ someone would claim ‘im ‘n pay the bill.”

Slim took hold of the reins to the old roan horse and took him to the barn to unsaddle him, then turned him out into the corral. Jess followed after his partner, leading his own horse, a satisfied grin on his face, as he took care of Traveler in his usual post-riding manner then put him away in his stall. When he came out from the barn he saw Slim leaning on the fence looking over the rail at the roan.

“You’re in love already, I can tell.” Jess said as he stepped over to stand next to his partner. “I felt the same way when I first laid eyes on the old timer.”  Jess teased.

“Jess. You amaze me at the strangest times.” The tall blond said, putting his arm over the shorter man’s shoulder.

“A promise is a promise. Besides, that ole pony needed a home. Who else would want ‘im?” Jess said, slightly proud of himself, yet not wanting to accept any misplaced praise for his deed. 

“Come on in. I reckon that last shoe can wait. I think Daisy was baking since you left. Let’s see if we can beg a bite now before supper and some coffee. I’m sure Bill will want to join in to celebrate. I can’t believe you did that for Billy.” Slim said, still showing his amazement. 

Billy was sitting with Mike at the table, both working on Mike’s homework. Billy was very interested to learn and was quick in doing so. He was almost catching up to Mike’s level already in just the few days that Mike had been tutoring him.

Both boys looked up as the two men came into the house. “Yer back.”  Mike rushed to give Jess a hug.

“I wasn’t gone that long, Tiger.” Jess said, lifting the boy in his hug, then setting him back down on the floor.

“But we were wonderin’ where you were. Slim was worried ‘cause you were so late. I was worried, too.”  Mike put his hands on his hips, mocking a frown, “And where were you young man.” They both burst out in laughter, joined by Slim and Billy.

“What’s going on out here?” Daisy asked, coming into the room from the kitchen.

“Do I smell fresh pie?” Slim asked, still smiling from their mirth.

“Yes, but it’s for suppertime,’ she said sternly, not about to give in to any begging,

“Can’t we make an exception?” Slim asked. “I think we have something to celebrate here.”

“Like what?” Daisy said suspiciously, searching all the smiling faces around her.

“Jess found Billy’s horse.” Slim declared.

Billy stood up so fast he knocked over the chair he’d been sitting on. Mike rushed to set the chair back up while Slim reached for Billy to steady him.

“You found Blue?” Billy asked, almost exploding with joy.

“Yeap. He knew right where to go to get three squares ‘n was waitin’ for you to come find him,” Jess replied

Using his crutch, Billy wobbled the few steps to where Jess stood and hugged him. Jess was set aback, not expecting this kind of reaction from the youngster. The boy was sincerely appreciative of Jess remembering to look for his horse and bringing him back to him. “I’ve had that ole horse most m’ life. We bin best friend’s fer as far back as I kin remember. Thank ya, thank ya so much Jess. Now I know how it feels for them rich kids on Christmas mornin’. I’m so happy, ya can’t imagine. Kin I go out ‘n see ‘im?”

“I can bring ‘im to the porch.” Jess volunteered. “Slim, can ya help Billy get out to the porch?”

“I’ll go make some coffee and get the pie ready for when you come back in. I think this does deserve a celebration.” Daisy said, happy to see so many smiles. It had been a long time since she saw everyone in the house smiling at one time. 

Jess went to the corral, walking right up to the old, gentle roan.  Putting a rope around his neck, he led the animal out of the corral and to the porch where Slim had Billy propped against the rail so he could reach out to pet his horse. The boy was grinning from ear to ear, exuding sheer joy that was electric in the air. “Oh, Jess, I don’t know how I kin ever thank ya.”

After only a few moments of thought, Jess replied. “When you’re better you can help me with some of the chores. We’ll call it even, then, okay?”

“You got it. Oh, Blue, I been worried somethin’ horrible happened ta ya. I’m glad ya had the good sense ta go back ta town if ya hadda run away.”  Billy was enjoying his time with his horse, genuinely thrilled to see him safe and sound.

“I’m surprised he ran off. He’s so gentle I woulda thought he’da just stood there when you fell off. Somethin’ musta spooked him,” Jess said.

“I don’t know. I can’t remember. I don’t recollect a lot ‘bout the ride comin’ here. So much of it’s a blur. Reckon I was lucky ta find the place ‘n all.” Billy said, wishing he could snuggle the neck of his old companion.

“I think you’ve had enough excitement for now. Come on Bill, we better get you back in the house and get your leg back up. We need to check those bandages to make sure nothing happened when you stood up so fast.” Slim ordered, good naturedly, hating to make the boy go in the house, but thinking of his health.

“No. No, I’m fine.” Bill said, but then relented. “I reckon yer right, I better go sit down.  Don’t want no set backs, ‘specially since Blue’s back. Thanks, again Jess.” Billy added, as Slim tugged him by his shirtsleeve to urge him back into the house. Jess took the horse to the corral while Slim hustled Billy into the house, seating him with his leg up on a chair, again. Daisy took a quick look at the bandages, relieved that there were no signs of the wound reopening and bleeding after all the excitement. 

All through the celebration Billy sang the praises of his half brother, much to Jess’ embarrassment. He never liked to be the center of attention, even avoiding his own birthday if he could. Now he was almost sorry that he was the one to find the horse, it would have been easier for him to celebrate Slim’s bringing the animal home. But then, he thought, he would have missed all the fun he had trying to convince Slim about the great find the horse was that he’d brought him, the memory bringing a smile to his face in spite of himself.

Slim sat back grinning, wondering if the one little private talk the Harper boys had was what Jess had needed. First finding the crutches for Bill, now bringing back the boy‘s treasured horse. Jess was acting more like the Jess he knew, not the brooding and sulking young man he’d been since he learned that Jackson was in town looking for him. And his distrust in Billy seemed to be waning. His hope was that this could lead to mending the relationship between the two brothers. He couldn’t be happier.

 

The younger Harper was very animated in telling them about the years he’d spent with his horse and how he had become his best friend. Slim looked at Jess, recognizing another brotherly trait between the two, their love for horses, especially their own personal mounts.

Billy was still chattering away when Mike joined in, comparing their love of their animals. Of course Mike had far more to talk about. Billy only had his horse and an old hound he had when he was a kid, but his stories and memories of them seemed to never end as he recounted stories of the past.

“I’m sorry to have to break up this little party, but we have work to finish up. Come on, Jess. I need your help.” Slim got up and walked to the door, Jess close behind him, with more thank yous following after him from Billy. Jess was glad to be leaving the room, almost bumping into his partner when he stopped and turned around at the bottom of the porch steps.

“Thanks, Pard,” Slim said, putting up his hand to stop his friend’s forward motion to keep him from walking into him.

“For what? I told ya, a promise is a promise.” Jess said, not wanting any more fuss about bringing back the horse, ‘Besides,’ he thought, ‘the kid’ll need a mount when he leaves, why not his own,’ but kept it to himself, rather than start another argument with his partner.  Changing the subject, he said, “Ya know, Pard, between ya not warnin’ me when you’re comin’ around when I’m as jumpy as a jack rabbit ‘n this stoppin’ without sayin’ whoa, somebody’s gonna get hurt.”

“Yeah, you told me. Come on. We have that horse to finish shoeing. He’s probably tired of standing around short legged. I’ll get the forge fired up if you bring me the shoes and that sorrel horse.” Agreeing, they walked their separate ways. While Slim finished up the last hoof on the final horse for the day, Jess prepared a team for the evening stage. The horse, sporting his new shoes was now ready to be teamed with his usual yoke.

The stage arrived and both men went out to meet it. Ben was at the reins tonight. “Hey, Ben. We haven’t seen you on this run in a long time. Where’s Mose?” 

“Hi, Slim. Jess. He took my run out the other way tonight. I have business in Laramie so we traded the run.” The burley driver told them.

“Nice to see you,” Slim said before getting to work to change out the horses.

 “Same here. I got no passengers this time so take yer time. Danged railroad’s gonna put us outta business one of these days. It’s the talk of the drivers. We’re all gettin’ mighty worried,” Ben declared, as he helped unhitch the lead horse.

“Naw. I don’t think so, Ben.” Jess said from the other side of the coach. “They can’t lay them tracks everywhere. There’ll always be a need for the short runs. Might not be as excitin’ for ya, I reckon. Could put me ‘n Slim outta business, though. Sure hope cattle prices go up if it happens.”

“I sure hope yer right, Jess, well, not the part of putting you ‘n Slim outta business, though. Ya know what I mean?” Ben said, then suddenly remembering, “Oh, Slim, I gotta message from Mort fer ya. He said you’d know what I mean. “Jess stood up from the other side of the horses to hear clearly what the message might be. “He said to tell ya that they’re movin’ Jackson tonight’. I think that was it, “the old driver said, thinking for a moment. “Yeah, that’s all he said, Jackson was movin’ or was it in the mornin’? I’m sorry Slim, he was yammerin’ so many things at me, I mighta mixed it up, some.”

The news brought both men to attention, but it was Slim who responded. “Yeah, we know what he means. It’s a long story, Ben, we’ll tell you about it sometime.”

“Yeah, no time tonight. I gotta git me ta town. I hear they got a new singer at the saloon, tonight.” Ben smiled.

“Are you sure you didn’t trade with Mose just to see that singer?” Slim teased. 

Ben laughed. “Don’t dare tell ‘im, but yeah. I heared her when I was in Denver. Real pretty lady ‘n sings like a nightingale. I wish I was younger, I’d see if she’d go ta supper with me.” Ben giggled to himself like a young schoolboy.

“So ask her, Ben. If everyone felt like you, the poor gal would probably never get to go out for supper,” Slim said, encouraging the driver with a smile.

“Aw, Slim. I couldn’t, ‘n ol’ codger like me, she’d probably laugh at me, ‘n spoil it all, her bein’ so sweet ‘n all. I just can’t wait to listen to ‘er sing tonight. You boys should come, too.” The smitten coachman was almost blushing.

“Sorry, Ben. We have a few things around here that needs to be taken care of. Enjoy yourself and we won’t tell Mose.” Slim promised. The three of them had the fresh team hooked and ready, so Ben climbed on board and waved as he set off to town. Considering he had no passengers to get somewhere on time, he appeared to be moving pretty fast. Slim shook his head, smiling to himself.

As he turned around he met the grim face of Jess looking after the stage. “Hey. Maybe you need to go to town to hear the nightingale,” Slim said to his brooding partner. “What’s eating you? “

“I don’t like it,” Jess said.

“The nightingale?” Slim asked, still grinning.

“No, that they’re bringing Jackson back, already. The judge ain’t due for three days yet.”

“You’ve been in Mort’s jail a few times. Do you think he can escape that easily for you to worry about him coming here? They held him in jail in Cheyenne and he didn’t get away.” Slim reminded the younger man.

“Yeah, but now he’s a lot closer to the ranch.”

“This doesn’t mean your going to start sleeping with your gun again, does it, Pard?” Slim teased.

“Maybe. I just wish Ben remembered if it was tonight or tomorrow that they were bringing him here,” Jess said as he turned away.  Going to the tired team he started to brush them before he released them into the corral for the night.

“Probably heading out of Cheyenne tonight and he’ll be in Laramie by morning, would be my guess.”

Jess’ only reply was an unenthusiastic, “Probably,” as he continued brushing the first horse. 

Slim shook his head, not sure if he’d ever really understand his partner. As long as Jackson was behind bars, why should Jess be so worried, unless it was that Jake could get a message to Bill that concerned him? Rather than put the idea in his partner’s head, if that wasn’t what troubled him, Slim decided not to ask. Going back to the forge, he made sure the fire was out, wanting to be ready for their call to supper. 

After they’d finished their supper, Slim was asked by Daisy to help her take down some curtains so she could wash them the next day.  Thinking that it would be a good opportunity to give some thought to their situation, Jess went out to sit in his rocker on the porch and enjoy another colorful sunset. 

 

Not long after he was seated, Mike poked his head out the door and asked, “Kin I come out ‘n sit, too?”

 

“Sure, Mike.  It seems like a long time since we’ve spent any time together.  I’ll be glad to have the company.”

 

Mike closed the door behind him and took the rocker next to Jess.  He sat quietly for a few minutes before turning to Jess.  “Jess?”

 

“Yeah, Tiger.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“What don’t you understand? Jess asked turning his head away from the view to look at the puzzled boy.

 

“Ummm, how kin ya have a brother ‘n not know about it? I had a brother, ‘n I knew all about ‘im.”

 

Thrown by the question, Jess sat up a little straighter and was no longer leisurely rocking, thrown by the question, he responded, “Oh, well, a…well, ya see, Mike, a, I reckon I don’t know how to answer that… A, well, a… sometimes things happen that folks don’t get to know about, a, well… A, hey, Tiger, why don’t we talk about this with Slim, maybe when we can find time to go fishin’ sometime.  He might be able to answer this better than me, I’m pretty confused about it, myself.”

 

Looking at Jess, even more puzzled than before Mike said, “Okay.  I guess I’ll haveta ask Slim, then.”

 

Still at a loss for words, and extremely uncomfortable, Jess had to agree, “A, yeah, I reckon Slim might be able to clear this up for both of us.”  He felt guilty laying the facts of life lesson on his partner, but plenty glad to remove it from his own plate. “Don’t ya have school tomorrow? Did ya do your homework?  I bet Daisy’s lookin’ for ya that it’s about bedtime,” Jess quickly tried to change the subject.

 

“Aw Jess.  I was hopin’ she’d fergit I was out here.”

 

“No such luck, Tiger.  I reckon I’m on her side this time ‘n think ya better get yourself to bed.”

 

Mike got up, a little miffed that his allie had turned against him, but said, “Night, Jess.  See ya in the mornin’,” as he sullenly trudged back into the house.

 

‘Now what have ya done, Jess,’ he thought to himself, as he settled back into his rocker to give thought to the newest problem brought about by him being found by Jackson, this time really glad to have backup. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 21

Once again true to his word, Jess took his gun to the bedroom with him for the night. This time though, he left it in the holster hanging it on the bedpost. Slim held his tongue. If it made Jess feel better, he wasn’t going to push it. He felt it was a little irrational, with Jackson behind bars, but it wasn’t worth discussing.  It would all be over soon, he hoped. They’d told Billy at dinner that Jackson was probably in Laramie, if not now, soon. Billy seemed a little uncomfortable, but tried to hide it. Slim asked him if he was ready to testify and Billy assured him that he was. They all hoped that Billy’s leg was healed enough for the coming trip to town. He’d have about three more days to heal before they would need to make the journey. Jackson was the only real case on the docket in Laramie, other than a few minor disputes. The Jackson trial would most likely be first unless the doctor asked for an adjournment to give Billy more time to recover. Hopefully, the judge could wait in town if it was called for, taking care of the smaller matters and wouldn’t be needed to continue on his rounds. Should they have to hold Jake over until the judge made the circuit again, there could be another month or longer to wait. That night Slim was woken often by Jess’ tossing and turning. It didn’t appear either of them was going to get a good night’s sleep until the whole ordeal was over. 

The sun was rising and Daisy was up already rattling things in the kitchen, preparing to fix breakfast. It was light enough in the room for Slim to see that Jess’ gun was no longer in the holster.  “Jess.”  Slim said to him quietly.  “Jess,” a little louder. Jess rolled over quickly, gun in hand, but not cocked or specifically pointing at his partner “It’s morning. Put that thing away. I smell bacon cooking, not the house burning down. Get up. We have to move that herd from the north pasture. They almost have the grass down to the roots. We should’ve done it days ago.”

“Yeah, I’m awake,” Jess responded, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes to hide the shame he felt for his overreaction to being woken by his partner.  “Everything looked okay wheh I rode the fences there a few days ago.”

Buttoning his shirt and tucking it in his jeans, Slim said, “While I was waiting for you yesterday, I rode out there.  They haven’t been rotated in a while and need to be moved.  It shouldn’t take long.  You’re sure the fence looked okay on the southeast pasture?”

“They’re all good, ‘specially after I tightened up a few. “ Jess responded.

“Well, I think we should still take some wire with us and ride the fence again to make sure that it’s still okay. I’m not in the mood to be chasing our herd through the canyon.”

“Me neither Okay.  I’m up.” Jess put his gun in the holster then started dressing as Slim finished getting his own clothes on. They both grabbed their boots, carrying them out with them into the front room. Billy was already sitting at the table talking to Daisy who was busy in the kitchen.

“Mornin’ Jess. Mornin’ Slim.”  Billy said cheerfully to the two older men.

“Morning, Billy. How are you today?” Slim asked, sitting down to pull on his boots.

“I’m feelin’ real good. I can’t wait ‘til the doctor says I kin go outside ‘n visit with Blue.”

“Maybe Jess will bring him around for a visit again, later.” Slim volunteered.

“Will ya, Jess?” Billy asked, his enthusiasm hardly contained.

“Sure, Billy. After we finish up today’s chores,” Jess answered.

Slim got up from the desk’s chair near the wall as Jess then sat down, using the same chair to pull on his boots, following Slim to join Billy at the table. Mike came through the back door carrying the egg basket, depositing it with Daisy before dashing to his bedroom.

“Hey, Tiger, what’s your hurry?” Jess asked.

“Gotta git my books,” Mike said disappearing into his bedroom. A few minutes later he came out of his room carrying his schoolbooks.

“Ya gonna leave one of ‘em home fer me to read while yer in school?”  Billy asked.

“No. I need all of these today. Slim, you got a book that Billy kin read while I’m in school?”  Mike asked.

Slim leaned back in his chair giving it some thought. “Yeah, I probably do. Remind me after breakfast to look on the shelf. Or, see that shelf over there, Bill?”  he pointed to a bookcase, “Look for yourself. See if you can find anything that might interest you.”

Daisy brought in the breakfast plates and they all had a hearty meal, swapping stories as they enjoyed their breakfast. Jess was on the quiet side, but Slim expected it after the news they’d received the day before and the reaction Jess had had to it. ‘What would I do without Jess to do our worrying for us,’ Slim sadly thought. He wished he had a way to cheer his friend, but knowing him as well as he did, until the trouble was past them, his partner would continue to brood and anguish, no matter what.

“We better get out and ready for the stage. We don’t want Mike to be late for school,” Slim said, as he roughed up the hair on the tow-headed youngster.

“Oh, Slim,” Mike said with a grin, as he tried to smooth down his hair some. “I wish Billy could go with me. I bet he’d do real good in school.”

 “Well,” Daisy corrected him, then sorry she had. She tried not to correct him in front of Billy. She didn’t want to embarrass Billy since he was trying so hard to learn. Grammar could come later if he decided to stay with them.

“Well, what, Aunt Daisy?”  Mike asked.

“Never mind, Mike. Just get yourself ready for school,” she said with a sweet smile. 

Jess and Slim went through their usual routine to prepare the horses for the relay change. The stage arrived just about on time and they all saw Mike off to school, Billy and Daisy waving to him from the front porch.

 “Come on, Pard. Let’s go chase us some cattle.”  Slim said to his partner, leading the way to the barn to get their horses.

Billy sat down on one of the rockers on the porch; Daisy helped him to prop his leg up on a chair. It was such a superb day she wanted him to enjoy some of the fine weather on the porch. The fresh air and change of scenery would do him good, she thought to herself. Once she finished fussing over him she left him alone in his thoughts, but could tell that his mind was on his horse as he strained to watch the roan eating from a pile of hay in the corral.

 

Once saddled up the two ranchers rode out the yard, missing Billy waving to them as they rode out of the yard.

When they reached the field, Slim opened the fence for them to ride into the used up pasture. Jess rode ahead to open the fence between the two pastures.  Seeing Jess back on his horse after opening the way, Slim started to move the cattle toward the opening.  Jess rode around the outside of the moving herd, joining his partner to move the orderly herd into the lush grass in the new pasture.  The cattle started grazing happily immediately.  Jess then repaired the fence line he’d taken down to move them through. 

“I’ll ride out that way and come around and meet you along the way.  Close up this pasture and ride the other side, I’ll meet you somewhere along the line.  If you find anything needing fixing, just stop and fix it, I will too, unless it’s something that needs both of us.”

“There shouldn’t be anything. Other than a bear or ‘n elk gettin’ wound up in the fence, it should all be fine. If you find a bear in the fence, leave ‘im be. He can get out on his own, nothin’ worse than tanglin’ with a tangled bear.”  Jess said with a grin.

“Naw. I’ll tell him you’ll be along soon to let him loose. See you in a while, Pard.” Slim rode back through the nearly bare pasture to where a single wire was stretched that had closed off the meadow temporarily while they’d pushed the herd to the other pasture. From his horse he was able to loosen the wire and pull it along with him out of the way, leaving it open for his partner, before he started to ride east to check out the fencing from that point.

Jess finished fixing the wire to hold the herd in their fresh pasture then rode north to fix the opening Slim made to exit the almost grassless field.  Finishing the repair, he started to ride along fence in the opposite direction to meet Slim somewhere along the way. As Jess had reported, the fence was in good shape. They were finished well before noon and headed for home for the noon meal. 

Putting the horses in the barn, Jess heard an unmistakable sound, the sound of a horse cribbing. To his horror when he walked out of the barn, he saw one of the team horses that came in the night before was destroying the top timbers of the corral. He ran, chasing after the horse, waving his arms and yelling at him. Climbing up on one of the rails to examine the fencing, he noted that the horse had to have been cribbing on the fence all night. It was a chewed and splintered mess, sagging and almost giving way in a few places; it had been so badly destroyed. “Slim. I think I found us our next project,” he called to his partner, who was brushing his horse in the barn.

“Now what’s broken?” Slim asked as he came out from the barn.

Jess was already in the corral, putting a halter on the guilty horse. Slim noticed the fence immediately and asked, “Is that the guilty culprit?” 

“Yeap, caught ‘im in the act. Have to look ‘im over. He don’t look bloated, though,” Jess said as he scrutinized the horse’s teeth. “Yeap, like I suspected, he’s been doin’ this a long time. I wonder whose regular team he belongs to; he’s not one of ours. Ya’d think they woulda sent a strap with ‘im or at least a warnin’,” Jess said, as he led the horse out of the corral.  “Looks okay. No signs of colic. I’m sure glad we didn’t have him in the barn last night.”

“That’s debatable,” Slim said. “He might not have destroyed so much wood in a stall. He must’ve started at one end and worked his way around. It looks like he didn’t miss a rail. Some of these need replacing right away, look at this,” Slim said as he pushed on one of the rails and it cracked just by pushing on it with very little pressure. “Do you think he can go out on the afternoon run?”

“He seems to be okay. I think we best watch him, though, until it’s time. We might have to send one of ours out. I sure hate to think of keepin’ this one here much longer,” Jess said, walking the horse in circles around the yard. “We’ll have to tell the driver to keep an eye on ‘im, if we send ‘im out and to be sure he don’t get rotated back into our stock. Need to tell who ever is on the run to make it clear he ain’t one of ours and we don’t want ‘im back.”

Slim nodded in agreement. “It should be Ben on the return. I’ll get some whitewash to mark him so they know which one he is and so we can recognize him the minute he might come back. Where ever he came from, I bet they don’t cotton to him coming back.”

“Good idea.” Jess agreed.

Slim went to the barn and brought out a paint bucket and brush, putting a spot of white wash on the butt of the dark bay horse. “That should do it, until it washes off.”

“A few more spots like that ‘n maybe they can sell him off as an appaloosa,” Jess joked.

“With that head, he might even pass as one.” Slim joked back as he took the bucket and brush back to the barn. Coming back from the barn, Slim looked over the horse, as well.  “Yeah, he seems to be fine. Glad he didn’t up and die on us, at least.”

“Yeah. Reckon it could be worse. I’d send him out with a warnin’ not to send him back,” Jess concurred. “If they wanna use ‘im, send ‘im somewhere where he might be welcome, if they can find such a place.”

“I reckon this can’t wait, we’ll have to get on it right away,” Slim said, pressing his lips, not that they didn’t already have enough work to catch up on, already.

“I reckon. Lucky we still have plenty of those boards left in the barn ‘n never used ‘em to fix the shed roof yet.”

“Yeah. Saves us a trip to town. I almost hate to use them, though. I’d rather cut more rails.” After giving the matter some thought, Slim said.  “I reckon since we have to replace the whole top railing we could use the boards in the barn and get more later for the roof.  The fence needs to be repaired, now, it can’t wait for us to cut new rails. I’ll check with Daisy to see how long until we eat. Maybe we can get started on it right away.”

“What do you reckon we do with him?” Jess called after Slim, still holding the horse’s rope. Slim shrugged his shoulders, not turning around as he continued on toward the house.

 “Come on boy. Let’s see if we can relieve ya of some of your air.” Jess started circling the yard with the horse again.

“It’s almost time to eat.” Slim announced when he came back out from the house. “Let’s get him rigged and tie him to that tree. I don’t think he can reach anything from there,” Slim said, pointing to a tree near the chicken coop.

“Okay. Worth a try, sure pity the tree, though,” Jess said, still walking the horse while Slim went for the equipment.

They harnessed the horse then tied him to the tree that Slim suggested.  Stepping back, they watched him for a few minutes. Since he couldn’t crib, he tried pacing, then started pawing at the ground.  “Yeah, he’s going to dig a hole, I sure don’t want him back here again.  He might be a good team horse, but he’ll destroy the place. He better not come back, I might have to shoot him myself.”  Slim said as he turned to walk toward the house.

Jess went to the horse, petting his face as he scolded, “Now see whatcha done? I think he means it. Now behave until we get back.” Jess caught up with Slim as he climbed up the porch steps, going into the house to wait for lunch.

In the house, Billy sat trying to read one of the books he’d taken from the shelf, but was having some difficulty. Slim went to see what he was reading. “That’s a horse doctor’s book. I don’t think you’re up to reading that kind of thing yet,” Slim suggested.

“No. I’m doin’ okay. I kin work out the words. It’s about horses. I wanna learn,” Billy said, holding the book closer to his body for fear that Slim might take it away.

“Okay, Billy. Be my guest,” he told the boy. ”Daisy is he asking for help?” he asked, as she was setting the table.

“Sometimes, but he is doing really well on his own. I don’t mind helping him when he needs it.” Daisy declared. “Are you boys washed up, yet?”

“No. Forgot. We were working with a problem horse,” Slim responded.

“Not mine, I hope.” Billy looked up quickly from his reading.

“No, Blue is fine. It was one of his companions from over night.” Slim assured him

“Is Blue okay?” Bill asked.

“Yeah, Bill. Don’t worry. We just need to fix some fence. It’s almost a daily occurance around here, one fence or another,” Slim told him, with a sigh, as the two men headed out the door to wash up for the noon meal.

After lunch they both went outside to get the rest of the horses ready for the early afternoon stage. The horse they’d tied to the tree had dug himself a nice shallow moat half way around the tree, exposing some of the tree’s roots.  “I might shoot him before he leaves.” Slim avowed, glancing at the damage to which the horse continued to punish the ranch.

“He’ll be gone, soon. Come on. Let’s get them ready before the stage gets here so we can get rid of ‘im. I’ll fill in the hole, later,” Jess promised.

The relay horses were ready and waiting before the stage arrived. Jess took the destructive horse for another walk while they waited. Soon they heard the rattling of the stage coming up the rise to the ranch. While they changed out the team Slim told the driver about the troublesome horse, instructing him to be sure that the cribber was to never be sent back to their relay station again. They wanted the horses that they owned and provided to the stage line returned, understanding that a substitute is sometimes warranted. The driver agreed to take it up with the stage manager in Cheyenne, noting the white spot to be sure the horse would be properly identified. “I’ll make sure they know about the problem. Sorry it happened ta you fellas,” Ben said. “If I see Mose, I’ll tell ‘im about it, too. He knows the horses ‘n will be sure ta git ya the right horse back ya ya.”

“Thanks, Ben. By the way, how was the nightengale last night? Did you ask her out?” Slim asked.

“Oh, Slim. Ya know I wasn’t about ta do that. But she was wonderful. Sweetest sound I ever heared, ‘n right perty, too. I think you boys should go ‘n see ‘er. She might be willin’ ta go out ta eat with one of ya nice lookin’ fellas,” Ben said, wishing that Lily might take a liking to someone in town and stick around to keep entertaining at the saloon.

“Maybe I’ll send Jess in to see her sometime. I think he could use some female company to sweeten up his disposition.” Slim teased, while Jess mumbled something under his breath. “Did Mort stop you with any messages for us? 

“Nope, there was a hallaballoo goin’ on down by his office. Not sure what, lotsa men with badges all over the place walkin’ around.  Reckon Mort was too busy ta see me pullin’ outta town.” Bidding the ranchers goodbye, Ben drove the coach out of the yard on his way to Cheyenne.

“Sounds like Jake may be in town if there’s a lot of badges walking around,” Slim commented.

“I reckon,” Jess responded. “I hope he doesn’t bite Mort too hard. The man’s downright grizzly mean. They better chain him up in the cell so there’s no chance of that snake gettin’ away.”

“I’m sure Mort will know how to handle him. He’s probably had worse,” Slim said, trying to ease his partner’s mind. “We better get our work done now, while we can. I reckon we’re going to be busy in town soon. I’ll go tell Daisy and Bill the news. I’m sure they’d want to know.”  Slim added.

Jess headed to the barn while Slim went to the house. He was more than a little disturbed by the latest news. Not being able to do much about it, he decided to busy himself to keep his mind off Jake being so close to the ranch now. He knew they had an old cribbing strap around the barn somewhere, thinking he’d look for it just in case that horse came back through, again. Besides, he needed to find the shovel to fill in the hole the wretched horse had dug.  He hoped the animal hadn’t damaged the tree enough for it to die, creating another chore in taking down a dead tree. 

 

 

 Chapter 22

“Jess,” Slim called from the front porch as Jess was walking toward the corral.

“Yeah, Slim,” Jess stopped, turning to face his partner.  “Watcha need?”

“I’m going into town while you start the fence.  Won’t be long, should be back long before dark.  Daisy wants to come along.  It’s been a long time since she’s been out.  She’s made a list of things we need around here and Mike needs new boots.  Can you think of anything we might need?”

“Ummm, give me a few minutes to think,” Jess responded, his mind already taking inventory of things they might need that came to mind.

“Well think while you hitch up the buckboar, will ya, Pard?”  Slim requested.

“Will do.” Jess called back, turning to go back into the barn. He hitched the buckboard horses to the wagon then led them out from the barn to the yard. Tying them to the post next to the porch, he returned to the barn to take a quick inventory. Most of the supplies looked to be in good shape as far as he could perceive. Coming back out from the barn he saw Slim helping Daisy into the wagon. 

“I’m going to treat Daisy and Mike to a meal at the café.”

“Hey, what about me?” Jess asked as he picked up the giggling, wiggling youngster to put him in the back of the wagon.

“I left some stew for you and Billy on the stove. It should stay hot. It’ll thicken nice while it sits.” Daisy told him, a little apologetically.

“Thanks Daisy,” Jess said, not all that impressed and feeling a little left out.

“So, anything for the list?” Slim asked.

“Nothing that comes to mind. I checked the barn ‘n everything looks good for a week or more. Oh, you might want to get a new wire cutter. The one I used this mornin’s wearin’. It might fall apart anytime.”

“Something I can fix?” Slim asked.

“It would be easier ‘n better to get a new one. It would be real tricky to fix ‘n probably not hold.”

“Okay. I’ll pick one up. Have a good day, Jess. The stages should be light, no added specials going through, unless they forgot to warn us.” Slim said.  “Don’t overdo on the fence. I’ll be back to help you.

“I’ll do fine. I’ll have that fence patched before ya get back, I reckon. I’ll see ya when ya get back. Hey, check with Mort for when the circuit judge is comin’.”

“Will do. I think Billy won’t have a problem traveling to town to testify any more. The doc was pretty pleased at how he was healing the last time he checked his leg. I’ll stop by to ask him to stop out again to be sure.”

“It’s all Daisy’s doin’. Her good nursin’ ‘n good meals. How else could he be, he had to get better, he didn’t have much of a choice. “Jess teased, as he squeezed Daisy’s hand.

Slim backed up the team, turning them around in the yard before driving out the gate. He, Mike and Daisy turned to wave at Jess, who waved back before returning to the barn. “Cribbin’ horses. You’d think they didn’t get enough to eat around here,” he muttered to himself. Gathering up the tools he thought he’d need, taking them outside and setting them on the ground next to the corral, he looked at the ragged boards, shaking his head.

‘It’s bad enough what the weather makes us have to fix, but now the horses are against us.  Too bad he didn’t get a bellache; it would’ve served iim right,’ Jess thought to himself in the barn, going through the boards designated for the shed roof, now destined to repair the corral fence. The young rancher had plenty to work with but betted that none of them would be a perfect fit. It’s never that easy.  He measured and was right; he’d be doing a lot of sawing. Finding the sawhorses, Jess took them out into the yard then hunted for the saw. Once everything was gathered for the repairs, he decided he deserved a cup of coffee. Entering the house, he found that Billy was sitting at the table struggling with reading the horse doctor book. The younger man was learning to read quite well, finding that he really enjoyed his new ability.

“I’m makin’ coffee, ya want some?” Jess asked as he walked by Billy toward the kitchen.

“Sure. I never turn down coffee,” Billy said.

“Yeah, I noticed.” Jess said under his breath. He put the pot on to boil and stirred the stew, it smelled heavenly and he couldn’t resist taking a taste. Once the coffee was done he brought two cups to the table, along with the pot and sat down with Billy, pouring them each a cup.

“Thanks Jess. I wish I could help ya out there.”

“Yeah, me too. It would get it done a lot quicker. But I reckon I got the rest of the day. Slim shouldn’t be back ‘til almost dark. Their eatin’ in town,” Jess said.

“Yeah, that’s what Miss Daisy told me. She said she left some stew for us, though.”

“Yeah, she did. Hey, there’s a job for you.” Jess brightened to the idea.

“What’s that?” the boy asked.

“Stir the stew every so often so it don’t stick in the pot. With that crutch you should be able to do that. It would be good practice in getting’ around on it.”

“Oh, I’m doin’ pretty good. Not good enough to tackle the porch steps yet, but it won’t be long. I hope I’ll be able to help change some of the teams when they come through pretty soon.”

“Well, don’t rush it. How’s that leg feelin’?” Jess asked, suspicious of Bill’s eagerness to get outside and active.

“It aches. Can’t put much weight on it yet, hurts m’ knee. But I reckon it’s a long way from m’ heart.”

Finishing their first cups, Jess poured them each another. Billy asked for help reading some of the words in the thick, leather bound book and Jess gave him what assistance he could. When they finished their coffee Jess left the pot for Billy, in case he wanted more, leaving his own cup sitting on the table. He figured he’d be in for more before suppertime.

Back in the barn he chose several long boards, dragging them out to the work area, commencing to work on the fence, first pulling down a few of the splintered rails. He had the first board replaced and was sawing on the second board when he felt a gun in his back. He started to put his hands up, when the man behind him took Jess’ gun from his holster and backed away. “Turn around, slowly,” the man said, holding both guns on Jess. When Jess turned around, he immediately recognized his adversary.

“Jake. How’d you get out?” Jess growled. 

“I waited ta escape so I didn’t have so far ta ride ta come see ya ‘n yer family.”

“Too bad. Ya just missed ‘em. They all went to town. It’s just you ‘n me.”

“N what’ve ya done with m’ boy? I see ‘is horse there in the corral.” Jackson glanced over Jess’ shoulder toward the corral.

“He ain’t your boy, Jake.” Jess cautiously reached behind him grasping a board and brought it around swinging it toward Jackson. Jackson fired on Jess with Jess’ gun, but missed him as Jess rolled out of the way and was back on his feet fast as a cat. Jackson’s gun flew across the yard when the board hit his hand but was lying beyond Jess’ reach. There was no way he could reach it before Jackson killed him.

“Harper. I got no time fer what I’d planned fer ya. So, I reckon I’ll just finish ya here, ‘n now. Ya kin tell me where the boy is, er I kin look fer ‘im after I kill ya. But, remember, I promised ya it would be slow ‘n painful. I hear a belly shot’s the worst.” 

Jess glanced at the gun on the ground. He had a better chance not letting Jackson have his way with him if he dove for the gun. He wasn’t going stand there and let Jackson shoot him without at least trying to get to the gun and take him with him. He was sure he didn’t want the sick son-of-a-bitch to get his hands on Billy again. He’d realized he had hope for the boy now, but if Billy went back with Jackson, what would happen to him? Jess didn’t want to think about it. He had no time to think about it.

“So, Harper. Ya gonna jest stand there ‘n take it. Let me jest shoot ya with yer own gun, no less.” Jackson laughed. “I’ll see ya in hell, Harper.” Jake took aim at Jess.

Over Jackson’s shoulder Jess saw movement. Billy was on the porch leaning on his crutch, holding a rifle to his shoulder.

Jess dove for the gun on the ground. Jackson followed his motion and fired, just missing Jess by inches. Jackson dropped to his knees dropping Jess’ gun before him, before he fell over on his side. Jess quickly crawled over to take the gun from the ground near Jackson in case he was still alive. Standing up, he turned Jackson over on his back with his foot. He’d been shot clean through his heart, there was no doubt he was dead, but Jess stooped down to check for a pulse just the same. “I reckon you’ll have to wait for me a little while longer, Jake.” Jess said lifting his fingers from the dead man’s neck.

Billy had fired a split second before Jackson, just enough time to throw off Jake’s aim and killing him instantly. Jess stood up, staring in the direction of the porch. Billy dropped the rifle, moving like a ghost back into the house.

Jess ran to the house, up the porch steps and into the house, closing the door slowly behind him.  Billy stood slumped over his crutch in front of him. “You okay, Billy?” Jess asked, reaching out to him. Billy had tears in his eyes, but he nodded his head yes; he was okay. “Here, come on, sit down.” Jess lead him to the couch, Billy sank down into the depths of the settee, his head almost hanging in his lap. Jess immediately brought him a chair to put his foot up, helping him raise his leg to the chair.

“Billy.  I. .. I don’t know what to say. Why me?”

“You folks’ve been more family ta me these few days than any of m’ family ever was, ‘specially Uncle Jake. All he taught me was ta hate. I hated ya so much ‘n never knew ya. Yer nothin’ like Uncle Jake said. It was all lies.” Billy wiped away some escaping tears. Jess put his hand on his brother’s shoulder to comfort him. Just then they heard a horse come galloping hard and fast into the yard. Jess drew his gun, running to the door to see who it was. It was Slim.

Slim rode first to the dead man‘s body, then turned the horse toward the house, relieved to see Jess standing in the doorway putting his gun back in his holster.

“What happened?” Slim asked as he dismounted from the lathered horse and ran up the porch steps.

“I was about to ask you the same thing. How did that son-of-a-bitch get outta jail?

“He jumped Mort’s deputy when he brought him his breakfast. I found out about it when I got to town and borrowed a horse to get back here to warn you. I figured he’d be heading this way. We never saw him on the road he had to have come through the fields and woods to avoid anyone seeing him. Mort and the posse are out scouring the woods for him.

“Are you alright? And Billy?” Slim asked with concern.

“Yeah, we’re both fine.” Jess told him.

“How did you…?”

“I didn’t. He had me dead to rights, Slim.” Jess responded, glancing at the dead man. “Billy shot him with my rifle. Jake got the drop on me ‘n was gonna end ‘is game. If it wasn’t for Billy, he woulda killed me. I had no chance to reach my gun.”

Taking both his partner’s forearms in his hands, Slim asked. “How’d he get the drop on you?” 

“I was sawing a board ‘n didn’t hear ‘im. He snuck up behind me ‘n took my gun. I tried to fight ‘im, but he had my gun. I knocked his out of his hand but it landed outta my reach. When I dove for it, Billy shot ‘im. Jackson fired at the same time. Billy’s bullet musta hit Jake just before he pulled the trigger. He just barely missed hittin’ me. I only heard one shot.”

“Where’s Billy?” Slim tried to look past Jess into the house.

“Inside. On the couch.”

Slim moved Jess aside, going past him into the house to where Billy was resting. “Are you okay?” Slim asked the boy, who was obviously in shock.

“Yeah.” Billy responded with no emotion evident in his voice.

“Do you know what you did?” Slim continued.

“Yeah. It was the right thing. I know it was.” A tear rolled down Billy’s cheek.

“I’ll go take care of the horse if you tend to Billy. I’ll be back in after I walk him down ‘n put him in the corral. We don’t wanna return a lame horse.” Jess said as he went back outside, taking hold of the reins of the borrowed horse, leading him to the barn where he unsaddled him then walked him around the yard, staying clear of the dead man. When the horse was cooled he put him in the partially repaired corral and went back into the house. Slim was still sitting with Billy.

Jess went to the table, picked up a chair and carried it to sit beside the two silent men. Breaking the silence, Jess said, “I’m sorry, Billy. I’m so sorry ya had to make that decision.”

Billy shook his head no. Another tear rolled down his cheek. “No, Jess. There was no decision when I saw what was happenin’. I couldn’t do anything different. It was the right thing ta do.” He started to cry, putting his head on Slim’s shoulder. “It was the right thing ta do,” he said once again. Slim put his arm over the boy’s shoulder, comforting him, glancing at Jess.

Jess sat in thought, his head hanging, not knowing what else to say. What could one say to someone who saved your life? Someone who killed somebody who had been like a father to him for someone he’d just met. Someone who mistrusted and treated him badly, Jess’ heart felt shame as well as great pain for the boy, no, for the man who was his brother.

Jess and Slim sat silently, letting the young man finish shedding his tears.

 

 

Epilogue

Two months later Billy was helping Jess change the afternoon relay team. He was up and walking on his own with the aid of a cane. The doctor had cleared him to help around the ranch and even ride his beloved Blue, again. They saw off the stage and went to sit on the porch steps. 

“So you’re really gonna leave us, Bill?” Jess asked.

“Yeah. I gave Slim’s offer a lot of thought. I might be back if things don’t work out.”

“Do ya think she’s still waitin’ for ya?”

“That’s what I need ta find out.” Billy said.

“Couldn’t ya send her a letter to see, first?”  Jess suggested.

“No. I wanna go see her. I want ‘er ta know I really care ‘n I want ‘er ta know I really changed.  I want ‘er ta marry me ‘n know everything’s gonna be alright. She was scared of Uncle Jake.”  Billy said.  “If she says no, I’ll find a herd headon’ this way ‘n come back.”

“When do ya think you’ll leave?”

“I told Slim I was leaving today. I wanted ta say goodbye ta Mike when he gets back from school before I set out.”

“And ya didn’t tell me?” Jess asked, a little hurt to have been kept in the dark. The boy tended to confide more in Slim than he did in his newly found brother.

“You knew I was ponderin’ this.”

“I didn’t think you were serious.” Jess said, tossing a small pebble into the yard that he found on the step beside him.

“Jess, it sounds like ya still have doubts about me.” Billy exclaimed.

Jess had to laugh. “You’ll never let me forget that will ya.”

“Nope. ‘N I’ll never forget what ya did fer me. You ‘n yer wonderful family.  Yer a lucky man, my brother. I’m so glad Uncle Jake didn’t git ta do all the horrible things he said he wanted ta do. I can’t believe I was gonna let ‘im do it. Help him. Jess, I never killed no one b’fore. I don’t know if I coulda done what Uncle Jake wanted me ta do. I had so much hate in me for a man I never knew ‘n the brother I never knew. You made me grow up ‘n see what Uncle Jake was doin’ ‘n how wrong he was. I owe ya a lot, Jess.” Billy reached over Jess’ shoulder, pulling him close in a bit of a hug. “Ya are m’ brother, no matter how hard ya fight it.” Billy teased.

“Billy, I’m no longer fightin’ it. Ya saved my life, I’ll never find the words to say thank you. Yes, you are my brother ‘n I wish ya well.” Jess said, moisture welling in his eyes.

“You found ole Blue fer me, let’s call it even.” Billy said, giving Jess’ shoulder another squeeze. 

“An’ ya better write ‘n write often now that ya know how. An’ when I become an uncle, ya better tell me that, too.” Jess said standing up to look down at Billy.

“’N I promise we’ll all visit Uncle Jess, if he promises to come visit us.” Billy stood up facing his half brother.

The brothers Harper had a good laugh and went into the house. “Daisy, do you have any hot coffee?” The two young men said in unison.

Daisy peeked around the corner, smiling from ear to ear. “Of course, I always have coffee ready for my boys. Where’s Slim?”

The brothers looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. As they sat down at the table, Daisy came around the corner with the cups and coffee pot. Stopping, she stood smiling in the doorway, sealing the scene before her in her mind before approaching the table. Slim came through the door just as she started to pour the coffee.

“I thought I might find you two in here. As much as I hate to say it, Billy I’m glad to see you go. Maybe I’ll get some work out of that poor excuse of a brother of yours.”

“Hey.” Jess said.

Slim chuckled. “So you’re really going to leave us today?”

“Yeah. I thought more about it ‘n finally told Jess I’m leavin’ today. I don’t wanna wait ta see Sally, again ‘n ask ‘er ta be my bride. But I’ll keep in touch.”

“You better.” Slim said as he sat down to join the other two men. “And remember, you’ll have a job waiting here if you need one. If you and your bride decide that Laramie might be a good place to settle, I reckon I could find a patch of land for you to build a house.”

“You mean that?” Billy said, delighted.

“I said it.” Slim said sipping at his coffee. “Though I don’t know if I’ll be able to put up with the both of you Harpers here on the ranch. Sometimes one is too many.” Slim added, lifting his cup to the two brothers with a smile.

End





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